Castle Roland

O'Connell's Grenadiers

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 9

Published: 8 Apr 14

O'Connell's Grenadiers

Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Caleb fired the side thrusters of the fighter, keeping a close eye on the two hostile ships. A bit of a smirk played across his features as he watched the other fighter shred the starboard engine of the Gamma class shuttle. Before it could swing around to take out the other engine Caleb used an academy encrypted aerospace frequency. "Vlad hold off. Don't completely destroy the engines on the Gamma."

Vladimir's voice came back using the same frequency, "Your commander told us to Kay."

"I know, but I have an idea. Hold off for a few minutes. They ain't going nowhere."

"Alright Kay. We'll play this your way."

"It's about time I get to take the lead when we play." Caleb responded with a bit of joking in his voice.

Vladimir responded instantly, "Kay!"

"Hey, we're on a closed channel and this time it is me doing you a favor."

"OK, but this stays on closed channels."

"Wouldn't have it any other way. Point your nose right at the cockpit of the Gamma and follow my lead. It is time we make these bastards sweat a bit."

Vladimir responded with a bit of a growl, "If you have a way to make them even a little uncomfortable, then I am in!"

"Great! Just follow my lead and let me see how many others I can get out of their clutches."

Caleb then switched frequencies, "Dante, the second you get into the yacht, check if you have access to the central computer. If it is working, you should since the docking arm sends readouts to the mainframe on most ships."

Dante responded with some confusion. "Even if it is, what good will it do us?"

"Yuri has all the codes in his dad's case. You can find whatever escape shuttle the other bastards are planning to use and lock it out or at the very least prevent it from launching. My bet is there is an owner's or an officers' shuttle hidden someone aboard and if there is, you have the access codes for it as well."

"We could do all sorts of stuff if we have a connection!"

"Exactly. I was hoping for this when I gave them Andrapov. If not at least we tried, and we didn't kill him, cause if you had, your... the asshole would have been the least of your problems once the Major found out."

Dante took a deep breath, "No way, the Major would never do half of what the asshole does, but your right, you saved my ass from a shit-load of trouble... Thanks."

"You have covered and taken the heat for me often enough; forget it." Caleb continued to fire thrusters looking for trouble.

Once he saw the rest of those he was with get to the other ships he banked around so the nose of the fighter was pointing at the cockpit of the Delta class ferry. He changed back to an open frequency and keyed his radio. When he spoke it was in a voice far more confident then anyone, including his own parents, had heard escape his lips. "Delta ferry this is academy fighter Alpha 2, I have already taken out your port side engine. If you do not release the captives I will take out your starboard engine then spend another few minutes taking out your maneuvering thrusters. It'll take you weeks to get planet-side let alone land on one of the other two marginal worlds further in this system which is probably the only place you can go and try to escape us. Because, rest assured, we will come hunting you for this."

The silence over the radio was the only thing Caleb got for an answer so carefully sighted on one of the forward maneuvering thrusters just to the starboard side of the ferry's bridge and fired a single medium laser from his starboard wing. The ferry shook violently as the beam cut right though the directional cone and left a blackened gouge where it had once been. "Delta ferry, I have a full fuel tank, a fully charged fusion reactor and half a dozen energy weapons. I really can keep this up all day. This is not a request. Release your captives, let them get to one of the two yachts we now control or loose chunks of your ship. For the record we have dealt with Earth Core before, so they all better be free of explosives too. We will be checking."

Caleb paused then sighted on another cone further down, this time on the starboard side. When the ship didn't respond after a few seconds a single beam of a laser from the port side wing of the fighter caused the ferry to shake again while leaving it with less maneuvering capability. "Further delays will cost you more thrusters. I am not in the mood to wait."

Finally a clearly angry, yet fearful woman's voice came over the radio, "If we give you the captives there is nothing stopping you from blasting us!"

Caleb bit on his lip for a second before switching back to the encrypted frequency so he could talk to Vladimir again. "Any idea, sir?"

Vladimir chuckled, "I'll take over, but then I don't owe you anymore, you'll owe me."

Caleb felt his shoulders sag a bit. "OK, fine."

"Oh, come on Kay, I am not mean to you."

"I know. I am just... I want to be the one in charge once."

"I think we can work something out. We can chat on the way planet-side."

Caleb took on a bit of a resigned voice, "OK, but it sure sounds like I just can't win."

Vladimir's tone softened, "Come on my friend, we all owe you and we'll make it up to you. Besides, after this, there isn't a single cadet who will ever see you as weak again. You are a fighter pilot and have fully proved yourself to everyone including yourself."

"Not until I get my wings."

Vlad kind of snorted, "New Brunswick is one of the poorest worlds in the Great Outback Confederation. I bet we can find a way to get them to test you and complete your certification. It will probably mean you have to spend a few days a month actually on the roster, but from what I have heard New Brunswick wont even care you aren't even old enough to shave, as their intro vid says their enlistment age without parental consent is 14. To be honest, you are probably already better than most in their PDF. If I had not just been offered a slot with you, I was going to sign on with them."

Caleb kind of snickered, "Somehow I think Major O'Connell would be a bit freaked out if I managed to get an IPSC cert from a planetary defense force, no matter what world I got it from. Until a few minutes ago no one outside of Dante knew I could even fly one of these."

"Then I will work extra hard on getting him to freak."

Caleb laughed hard, "You manage to get me a shot at full IPSC certs I really will owe you. Until then, though, we need to get these bastards to give us back everyone they stole."

"We may not be able to get everyone, but if they want to get out of this bay in functioning craft, they will give us back all Quaker VII personnel!" Vlad growled before switching to an open frequency.

Vladimir duplicated Caleb's idea. He sighted in on a forward maneuvering cone on the Gamma class shuttle and fired a single medium laser. The result was not as destructive as it had been on the ferry since the shuttle had a bit of armor, but it still left the cone shaped unit with a nasty gouge and shook the whole shuttle. "Gamma Shuttle this academy fighter Alpha one, something tells me your friends in the Delta didn't quite understand the command to release captives was not a request. I don't know how many pieces of your ships you want to leave behind in this bay, but if it was me, I would want to be intact as possible because Alpha two is right, after everything you have done, the Grenadiers and probably the whole of New Brunswick will be coming after you."

A young man's voice, with a heavy Arab accent, came back over the radio almost instantly, "The crew leader of the Delta is equally correct. We release them, you kill us."

"Agreed," Vlad stated without hesitation and a degree of hatred in his voice, "as you deserve no less. However, you will not have a ship left if you and your friends on the other ship do not release anyone even slightly associated with the Quaker VII academy and their family members. Then you release half the others to us and we will stop using your ships for target practice."

The young man's voice came back over the radio, "Commander?"

The woman responded quickly. "I'll agree if we each get to keep one academy cadet, cause if we don't there is still nothing stopping you from considering the rest as collateral damage and blast us anyway. On the other hand, if we each have one of your precious cadets, then there is not much of a chance of you shooting on your friends."

Caleb responded with pure fury. As he shouted into the radio, he upped the ante firing one of his proton blasters. The high powered weapon erupted from his wing destroying the secondary sensor array on the Delta class ferry. "You whore, we are not cold blooded murderers." Even as he continued to roar into the radio a cascade of sparks poured out from a section right over the main bridge window. "You will hand us all our fellow cadets and half the others like you were just told or you will have to figure out how to get safely in system and land without any electronic aids! My next shot will be into your primary sensors!"

"Shit!" the woman howled as sparks danced over the secondary sensor control terminal and started smoking from the overload as the external array literally blew off the top of the ship. "OK already! You want em, you got em! Give us five minutes!"

Vlad responded in a low and very dangerous voice, "You have one minute to start getting them out and a total of three before they are all clear or we both resume trying to upstage each other with our marksmanship. If any harm comes to anyone you let go, you will not make it out of this bay alive."

"Understood!" the woman snarled. "OK, Gamma, get all academy cadets and personal and select half the others and get them off you ship! We may need your sensors as our primaries were already on the fritz! We are doing the same over here."

Vlad quickly switched back to an encrypted channel to speak privately to Caleb, "Nice shot!"

Caleb let out a snort, "Thanks, but this is not over yet. Your God can send me to hell if he wants, but I am going to hunt down every son of a bitch on those two craft and kill them, or at the very least die trying."

"Judging by the tone of voice, she is having very similar thoughts about us."

"Wouldn't have it any other way." Caleb responded while sliding his gloved hand down the barrel of the captured laser rifle he had stuck in the weapon holder on the left side of the cockpit seat. "If she comes to me, all the better. I won't have to waste my own money hunting her."

Vlad snickered, "You realize, until now, you never showed us the full extent of the merc in you. If you had acted a bit more like this back at the academy, I would have never had to chase off those four who were beating on you."

"Yea, well if you hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to use everything you taught me to save your ass."

"Agreed. Something tells me, the God you tend to put down so much, has had a lot to do with much of what has happened. With his help and your drive, I have really seen you change over the last 19 months. Until now, however, I didn't realize just how much. Where you used to be afraid of your own shadow, others now see it and at the very least will take a deep breath."

"I doubt it..." Caleb sighed then managed a light chuckle. "Unless I am in a fighter."

"Well you are at the moment and you have that woman shaking in her boots. So do you think five days of food and water are enough to get us all the way down to the planet?"

Caleb took a deep breath, "We have full fuel tanks so we should be able to do a hard sustained burn to get us up to a speed to where we should be able to make it in three or four at the most, but sitting in this thing for so long is not going to be much fun." He felt his eyes go wide, "The Delta is opening up!"

"I see them... You know, there were two other aerospace cadets on our deck. If they are being handed back to us, we could take all four yachts planet side."

"I'll have Robin and Dante check to see if any of them can fly. If they can, your right, we should empty this bay. But I also know how the Quaker VI RG and EC works. We have to keep all non-cadets locked up, cause I would not put it past them trying to slide in a spy with those they are releasing."

Vlad frowned deeply, "Good call, it never occurred to me."

"You are one of us now, so you need to start thinking like a merc." Caleb responded as he hit a side thruster burn to verify all those exiting the Delta were being left alone.

Less than two minutes later the woman's acid filled voice came over the open radio again. "Alright Academy fighters, Neither one of us have any academy cadets or family members left and you have half the rest from each of our ships. The Gamma kept 9 and we kept 11. You fire on us again and we start shooting them."

Vlad keyed his radio, "We keep our word lady, and I use the term very loosely. Anyway, once the bay is open we will give you 10 minutes to clear the area before we exit and make a burn for New Brunswick Prime. If you want to slow us up, since you are each short a primary engine, just drop off a couple of your captives in life pods with radios so we can make sure they are not just full of explosives or other traps and we will pick them up. That will give you extra time to get lost in the system and give us a few more of your hostages."

"Agreed, but you will pay for this transgression against Earth Core!"

"Sure, whatever." Caleb countered, "Why don't you just shut the hell up cause the only thing you have left to shoot off is your mouth while we both have lasers, electron cannons, and quark blasters plus I have a full score of light missiles and I believe academy one has a half a score of medium missiles and a micro missile 8 pack with a full load of 160 in the magazine."

Aboard the largest yacht, Jessie looked over at Robin with wide eyes as he heard the transmissions back and forth. "Is that really little Caleb?"

Robin let out a sharp pained breath, "It is, but it sure as hell don't sound like him. I hope those aboard the Stallion are hearing this, cause he just ripped an EC broad a new one."

Cody nodded, "Not to mention taking off parts of her ship with almost surgical precision. He really is one of you."

Robin kind of nodded as the truth of the words sunk in. Even though he had already started to get Caleb included as one of the Grenadier older kids, until Cody's words he had not truly felt Caleb should be fully included. A bit of a gleam flashed in his eyes and a note of pride could be heard as he responded. "Yes he is."

Jessie whistled softly, "If he is one of your weakest ones, there is no doubt you all would have been running the academy in a year or two if we had won." He glanced back to a set of twins from the academy who were in the same grade level but different frame force, "You two check everyone as they come aboard. I don't want them to have so much as a fountain pen to use as a weapon."

Robin turned and reached for a laser rifle, "I'll go with them and have them strip to underclothing. No shoes, belts, metal or plastic buttons, nothing. If they ain't wearing underclothing of only cloth, then they come aboard nude and we'll find them something, even if it is towels and robes to wear until we get planet side. EC has micro explosive tech capable of being hidden in almost anything, and we didn't get this far only to have things blowing up on us now."

Cody pushed his stun pistol over to one of the twins while the other one got the captured laser rifle. He then pulled the micro missile pistol and motioned for the two slightly younger boys to head to the air lock. "I'll make sure it happens Robin. You are hurt and need to get some sleep. You look like my little sister could whip you in an even up fight."

A bit of a growl escaped Robin's lips only to get cut off by Jessie. "Come on, Robin, he is right. Besides, if there is a problem what good are you and those ribs going to do for any of us?"

Robin's eyes narrowed. "You realize the last time I fought EC I was full of shrapnel and had just pulled myself from a crash landed life pod with Luna, Jared, Neil and Zane?"

Jessie tenderly patted Robin on his shoulder and nodded, "So I was told by Zane because you refused to tell me why your back is full of scars. On the other hand, you told me yourself one night in our eco-tent that you don't remember what happened after the Blood's Honor frames dropped in to support you and the squad of BH cadets. The one time you really talked about it at all you said you don't even remember much after you detonated the EMP grenade aboard the EC flagship and brought it down.

"As a matter of fact, the only one who could say much was Zane, cause he was the only one in your group who was even half conscious when the Blood's Honor medical team got there. Then all he could really tell me is a cannon or artillery round flipped the crippled tank you were on top of and they were in. All he remembers is hearing an incoming air strike and looking though a hole in the tank. He said he saw a wall of flames erupt between the BH cadet frames and the lead EC Rapier then a pair of Blood's Honor frames ripped the hole he was looking out bigger and got them out. He didn't even see what happened to you. All he knew was some Blood's Honor troops had grabbed you because you helped defend their cadets."

Robin sighed and shook his head in aggravation. "You make it sound so heroic or something. It wasn't nothing more than rage, self preservation, and luck. I only vaguely remember the escape from the EC ship and finding the abandoned New Bravaria Schwarzkopf class heavy tank. We went in looking for food, but didn't find much. When the track got blown off, the crew took almost everything except the weapons and the ammo, but it was still a safe place to hunker down. It was almost two days later before the Blood's Honor cadet squad found us and gave us some food and water. Then all hell broke loose. I know I jumped behind the heavy machinegun and opened up. It was actually kind of interesting to see the top gun chewing into APCs and Rapiers alike.

Cody glanced over, "Dad has always said Brave Humanities made armor and weapons are second to none. Put a Brave Humanities crippled Schwarzkopf against three Zip Tech anything and you have a good chance of the Schwarzkopf winning."

Robin half grunted in agreement. "Well, I know we took out two APC's and at least one Rapier, probably two, and those BH cadets were animals in frames. They decimated the second wave of APC's and Rapiers. But the fact remains, no one seems to have seen what happened to me, not even Gabriel and Joel, the two Blood's Honor cadets I befriended latter. But somehow I got transported to a hospital with a working rejuv chamber and someone pulled some rank to get me shoved into it. It was all just luck."

Jessie forcibly turned Robin to face him. "Robin, luck, fate, or God's will, you are alive and have saved our butts just like you saved lives back on New Bravaria. However, Blood's Honor isn't here to save you this time nor is there a hospital within a few kilometers where we can take you and shove you into a rejuvenation chamber. My friend, let us take the lead. We know the plan and can take care of things from here."

Anger seemed to fade slightly as Robin looked into Jessie's eyes. "OK, fine. But I still need to fly this bastard out of here and set a course for New Brunswick, so I stay on the bridge until I am sure we are safely on our way, and then I say here, even asleep until we are planet side."

Jessie gave Robin a light hug while secretly motioning for Cody to take the twins. "It is my father's yacht. I have spent enough time behind the controls to get her out of a ship bay and set a burn to a planet several days away. Besides there are other aerospace cadets to do the real flying. You can handle the docking or landing if you really want cause there is something I just cannot do, but I am sure the others can."

Robin shook his head lightly, "I stay up until we are safely burning planet side. There is all sorts of debris out there from both the PLC we are in and the SFC we are attached to. Besides, plotting a deep-space trip, which this is since we are over 3 planets out from were we need to go, is not easy. There is gravitational factors from the other planets to worry about and certainly some moons, meteors, asteroids, of other obstacles to handle. I stay at the controls until a safe path is plotted and we are underway."

Jessie kind of threw up his hands in surrender. "Fine, then sit in the command chair and rest until we are ready to get out of here. We will handle the rest."

A slight smile escaped Robin's lips as some humor slipped into his voice. "Yes dad."

A few chuckles escaped the lips of all the kids on the yacht as they started getting ready to depart for what they all hoped was the safety of a world none of them had ever set a foot on.

Cody's father made one more set of rounds through the rooms where the survivors from the Wagon Class PLC were now resting. The fact was there was no need to do so, but after hearing the open communications from the Wagon Class PLC he badly needed to do something, and this was about the only thing he could think of. He continued to nervously monitor the open communications all the while desperately wondering what he was not hearing as he was certain by the long periods of silence, much of what was being said was secondary chatter directly between the four boys.

On the other hand, he could not have more pride for his son and those he was with over there. For everything he was hearing, spoke volumes about all four boys' confidence, heroics and teamwork ability. The problem he was trying to figure out how to deal with was his wife. It was going to be bad enough when she finally found out Cody had been shot at, had engaged, and killed. He also realized he needed to stay away from her, because if she were to hear any of the chatter between those with his oldest boy, she would be a total basket case even before his son got back and he knew it.

He opened yet another door to check on refugees from the Wagon PLC. A few nodded at him as he looked into each room, but most ignored him or glanced up with nervous eyes only to quickly look away when he tired to meet their stares. He closed the last door and locked it with a sigh. A few days ago he was one of those who were now terrified of him, a Quaker VII citizen. Yet the only difference between now and even 20 hours ago was his position as an officer in a merc unit, a good and clearly decent one.

He had heard Cody tell him countless times how badly those of his home world were treating the mercs fighting and dieing for them, but had paid little attention to his boy's words. He figured it was more the fact his son had befriended one of them and was getting a skewed perspective from the view of the friend than the truth. Now, however, he was starting to realize what Cody had told him had at best been the truth and at worst had been far understating the situation. The more he thought about everything he had seen and heard since coming aboard this ship, he was starting to believe both Cody and his friend had been sugar coating just how bad it was for mercs in the academy as well as the others when they had mingled in the general population.

With some disgust, he moved around to check the guard at the door. The young man, a former Quaker VII frame pilot, was the only other Quaker VII veteran he had found among the survivors, a truly sad statement as to the unwillingness of most of the population to support the military or the freedom of their world. He shook his head realizing one of the main reasons his world was no longer free was precisely the attitude of those the Grenadiers had rescued.

The man sadly shook his head when Senior Lieutenant Meschev pointed to the door. Cody's dad punched the door frame hard enough to lightly cut his knuckles before he spoke. "We will give it one last shot, but after your next scheduled check lock the tube down and get to a secure spot. The Major is about to cut us off from them."

The young man nodded. "It's pretty hopeless at this point anyway. Has there been any word on me being offered a slot with them yet?"

"Captain Tanner said he would give you a shot as long as I am comfortable with it, but you come in as a senior private until you prove yourself."

"I could probably sign on with New Brunswick as a sergeant at the very least."

"Probably higher, but where do you think you will go further, as NBPDF or with the Grenadiers?"

"Probably here."

Senior Lieutenant Meschev nodded, "I'd have to agree. Besides, once my unit gets here I'll need a unit of frame jocks. If you decide you don't like the Grenadiers or you can always sign a short term contract for their six month duration in system then decide if you would prefer to stay on with them, me, or New Brunswick."

"Good point. Where do you want me once I lock down the link tube?"

Senior Lieutenant Meschev thought it over for a few minutes before pushing over his sonic stunner. "Take the guard post next to the door. Once we are clear of the debris you will need to patrol this section. If there is any problems radio me and I'll gather up a few of the kids and help you deal with it."

"Those brats are way too young to have to deal with..."

Senior Lieutenant Meschev cut off the young man, "Senior private, most of the kids you just called brats have seen more combat in the last few months than you have seen in your entire 19 years of life."

"But sir..."

Cody's dad turned sharply and stared at the young man. "How many confirmed kill do you have?"

"Seven." The young man stated proudly.

"Really, not too bad. How many outside of a frame?"

"Um, none."

"Well then," Cody's father stated with a hard edge in his voice, "there are at least three Grenadier kids a few rooms away who have more kills outside a frame than you do. In addition there are three others, along with my oldest boy, who have combined for well over a dozen more and they have captured two IPSCs, four yachts, forced an Earth Core Officer and a handful of Quaker Six Royal guards to surrender a number of hostages and rescued hundreds of people off a PLC." He snorted as he watched the young man's eyes grow wide and nervous, "And that is in the last 20 hours. Now as you were saying about the brats in this unit?"

There was a slight gulp as the guy nervously chewed his lip

"Like I said, you come in as a senior private until you prove yourself, because I have news for you. The kids in this unit have done more to show they deserve to be part of this unit than you have." Senior Lieutenant Meschev started to turn away but paused. "Also of some note, senor private, is the very real possibility at least a few of the brats in this unit could kick your teeth in or slice parts of you off with blades before you could get your weapon out of its holster. They work extremely well together and cover for each other, so if you decide to mouth off to one of them, do not come crying to me about what happened to you afterwards."

The young Quaker VII frame pilot gaze turned to the floor, "Maybe I should just take a slot with the New Brunswick Planetary Defense Force."

"Do what you want, but the attitude you are showing is one of the prime reasons we don't have a world to go home to. If more of us would have fought like the brats in this unit we would still be firmly in control of Quaker VII. Keep that in mind if you do decide to go NBPDF, because when the going gets tough, it would feel totally awful to have to say you were part of the military of two worlds that both lost."

Cody's dad turned and started floating away. Still he took one last shot showing the former Quaker VII trooper where he stood. "Until you make your decision though, I expect you to keep an eye on this section and call for help if you need it."

"I will sir." The young man stated with a degree of unease.

Shaking his head in a mixture of sadness and disgust Senior Lieutenant Meschev made one last pass through the locked down section double checking he had indeed locked down all the occupied rooms. Finally he re-entered the section where the dependants of the Grenadiers were and glanced over to Zane who was keeping watch. "How you holding out son?"

"Tired sir, but at least I have had a few extra hours of rest."

Cody's dad lightly ruffled the boy's hair. "I can take over. Get some sleep."

Zane shook his head, "Thanks, sir, but after hearing the radio chatter there is no chance I'll be able to sleep until they are out of the PLC and safely heading planet-side." He paused and looked up at the huge man, "Sir you haven't gotten any rest or sleep at all. Your wife and kids are out cold with the others and Luna is on watch, so we can cover if you want to sac out with them."

Senior Lieutenant Meschev let out a large sigh, "So she doesn't know about the firefight?"

"Your wife?"


"No sir, she finally fell asleep with your daughter almost an hour ago. I think the fear finally gave way to exhaustion. I felt the same way back on New Bravaria once Blood's Honor finally came in and set up a safe base for us. We were all still really scared, but all the terror, seeing so many of our friends and fellow parents ripped to shreds, and hearing the cries of pain from friends and fellow merc unit personnel finally got to be too much. I bet your wife and kids are at that point, feeling like they just got their asses kicked..."

Seeing a bit of a glare, Zane quickly hung his head. "Um, butts kicked. Sorry sir."

Cody's dad gave the boy a very light tap on the back of his head, just enough to smart a bit. "Zane, you are a great kid and to be honest I actually find myself loving you a bit already, but you will end up with more than a couple of bruises if you keep talking like some street trash around me."

Zane glanced up with a tight smile on his lips, "It'll take a few before I get used to it sir. Just please smack me and don't tell my dad until you give me a chance to back off the language around you sir."

Cody's dad burst into laughter, &ddquo;You have a deal son! But I really want to meet your father. He sounds like a heck of a man."

"He is an awesome dad, sir. I am sure you two will get along great, especially if you play poker."

A bit of a wicked smile crossed Senior Lieutenant Meschev lips, "Oh, a real poker game would be awesome!"

Zane rolled his eyes, "Oh, gee, I am going to end up with two dads in this unit!"

With a huge smile, Cody's father pulled Zane into his arms and gave the boy a massive hug. "I'd be happy to have you as a part time son, but you only get me for a few months."

Zane put on a crafty smile, "Unless you want to merge your new unit in with ours and make us a fully combined arms merc unit."

The boy's words caused Senior Lieutenant Meschev eyes to shoot up a bit while he continued to grip the boy. It was an interesting idea at the least and a very good at best. He kissed Zane on the top of the head surprising himself with showing so much affection to a kid he barely knew while being surprised by the fact the youngster had so easily accepted it. "Only time will tell young one, but it may be something I discuss with the Major once I get a better feel for merc life."

Zane didn't try to pull away from the hug, actually treasuring the protective feel of it. Still he looked up with a bit more of a serious look. "You were born to be a merc officer sir."

"You think so?"

"Sir, I have only been alive just over 12 and a half years, but I was born into this unit and have seen hundreds of merc units and officers and befriended probably a thousand merc kids and met many of their parents. You are going to do great no matter what you decide to do, but I really do hope you decide to try to work something out with the Major, cause you are already one of us as is Cody and something tells me your other kids will fit in great too."

Cody's dad gave Zane another hard squeeze before letting go. "It is something I will consider, I really will. And your vote of confidence in me and my kids means a great deal Zane, thank you."

"Your welcome sir, but seriously, you should try to get some rest."

"I know you're right, but do you really think I could rest after hearing what is going on over there? Until an hour ago, I had no idea if Cody even had what it takes to make a combat trooper. Now he has more infantry kills than some of those I plan on being in my mercenary unit."

"If you let him stick with us, he'll have more before he turns sixteen, especially since the Major has offered him a slot and you allowed him to take it."

Cody's father raised an eyebrow, "This is only a six month security contract, how much fighting can there be when all we are going to be doing is sitting around some research complex?"

Zane's eyes lost all their normal humor as he stared straight into Senior Lieutenant Meschev's eyes. "Sir, there is no such thing as an easy merc contract, or we would have not been hired to begin with. Any planet or company who spends the kind of money needed to hire a real merc unit would never do so unless they expect us to be needed. As far back as I can remember, we have never been involved in a combat free contract, and this one reeks of high danger."

A bit more concern entered Senior Lieutenant Meschev's voice "Why would think so?"

"First it is short term with rapid transport, which means they wanted someone fast, no one pays for rapid transport to a safe area and to do so for only six months is silly unless you expect to be hit and hit soon. Second and even more important is the free supplies to get us up to combat strength. Paid for by Q VII or not, no company is going to just hand over a free shipment of parts as a bonus, especially as big as the one we got. So not only did they want us here quickly, they wanted us combat ready when we arrived. Then put the other pieces in place. They pulled some serious strings to allow us to hire from former Q VII military rosters to get us up to full strength.

"Making matters even worse is the fact the base contract is for very low pay, but they are offering high combat pay and full salvage to us as long as their facility remains functioning. I mean, give me a break. They are actually expecting it to get some damage and they only want to pay for the time we are actually fighting. All they really want is it still being able to continue on without being totally destroyed. Unless I totally miss my guess, Jared and Robin were right when they talked it over with us after hearing the contract details. There is a good chance we will be hit within days of landing and we all better be prepared to step in pull our weight while our parents are out in the field getting shot at.

"Then combine all the clues with what just happened to us. They are the ones sending salvage craft up here and gave us an awesome split considering it is their ships doing the salvage, and they are sending out more than one, which means they are totally prepared to tow us all the way in if they have to. They want us down there guarding their precious research project yesterday."

Zane shook his head in some disgust, "Unless I miss my guess, the second we are planet-side we will be flooded with medical personal to get as many of our injured back to active status as fast as possible, and if you really want to place some bets, a good one would be their salvage rigs have medical teams aboard, which is what took them so long to leave New Brunswick Prime. I would also be willing to bet just about everything I own they probably told the planetary government they were going to handle the rescue and snagged all the medical personal the planet was going to send up and added in some of their own.

"Those salvage rigs will bypass the two other ships that blew their docking collars with the dead SFC and will come straight to us, even though much of the resources needed to treat injured on those other two ships was taken off planet and they will arrive to find medical facilities short on doctors and equipment, which is aggravated by the fact New Brunswick is a dirt poor, almost strictly agricultural, world."

Zane dug into his pocket and pulled out a small crumpled wad of Free Planets Association currency and coins and quickly counted it. "As a matter of fact, I'll bet my last 18 and a half credits they will even have some replacement personal aboard those salvage rigs taken directly from PDF reserve units for us if we want to take them and will even offer to pay them out of their own pocket until we are back up to full strength, if not longer."

It took a moment for Cody's father to realize his jaw was hanging open in a mixture of astonishment and the realization he didn't now squat about mercenary contract negotiations. Finally he took a deep breath and closed his huge hand around Zane's much smaller one, so the money was firmly grasped by they boy. "Son, if you happen to be right, I will pay you four to one on your bet and if you are wrong, I'll double it."

Some humor returned to Zane's eyes and face as he happily grinned, "Not that I'm going to argue, sir, but why?"

"Because you just gave me a full class in reading between the lines of a mercenary contract."

A bit of a smirk played over Zane's face, "Gee, sir, any time you want to spend some more of your money, I'll be happy to give you a class on how to be a merc."

Cody's dad smacked his forehead and started laughing again. "You are impossible!"

A truly playful gleam flashed back to Zane's eyes, "You know, my dad says the exact same thing all the time. Actually I am a bit disappointed if I can't get him to say it at least once a day."

Cody's dad snickered as he turned to make his way back to the central area where his wife and younger kids were. "Well I am happy to have filled in for him today."

"So am I sir. Try to get some rest, we have everything covered for the moment."

Dante managed to gain full access to the next to lifeless PLC's central computer only to find he couldn't do much because the damage ship wide was so extensive. Still he was able to pull up detailed plans and quickly found Caleb had been correct, there was indeed an officers' shuttle with an independent docking and launch tube just aft of the bay they were now in. The access to it happened to be though the locked door they had found just off the bravo deck lounge.

For a few minutes he tired to find a way to lock the controls, but finally gave up. After talking things over with Yuri, he decided to do the next best thing, locking the docking clamps and disabling the emergency explosive connection points so it could not launch. Once the computer accepted the command he radioed over to Caleb what he and Yuri had managed to accomplish.

Suddenly Captain Tanner's voice came over the radio, "Dante, what other parts of the ship do you have access to?"

Dante responded, "Um, as far as we can tell, Kay was right. With all the command codes I can get into any part of the computer. The problem is I really don't have a clue what to look for outside of what Kay told me, and some of the stuff I have tired simply will not work because what I try to do is too badly damaged, including trying to lock down both the Delta and Gamma ships in here with us."

Captain Tanner gave a light snort, "I am sure they cut the feeds to the central computer at the base of the docking arms holding their ship in place the second they realized they couldn't gain control just in case someone else did exactly what they were trying to do."

"Well Kay thought it was worth a shot."

"It was." Captain Tanner confirmed. "What the Major and I really want to know is can you blow the main docking collar and do you have any thrusters at all. If you can, there is a chance you can get clear on the debris field before either you open the bay doors or we shoot them off."

"Kay already had me try the doors. I have access, but there is not enough power to open the damned things. You will have to guide me in to find thruster and docking controls though, cause I am really lost with all the subroutines I am looking at."

Captain Tanner let off a long growling breath. "Let me see if I can find someone who can help you. Stand by a moment.

"I really don't think I have much of a choice Captain." Dante giggled. "Trying to get out of here with the bay doors closed would make this a very short trip."

"Alright smartass." Captain Tanner laughed, "Hold on a second one of the new computer kids from Q VII is up here and has an idea."

A younger voice came over the radio, "Does the ship you are on have an encryption capable radio?"


"Well crud. OK, give me a few minutes then. I need to pull up something so I can try to talk you into the proper subroutines."

Yuri poked Dante, "Yes we do."

Dante pointed to the radio and shook his head, "No we don't!"

Yuri held up the academy issued communication unit. "Yes we do and from what I have heard, you are the one kid who can get it to tie into the system."

A huge smile grew on Dante's face as he pulled out a small electronics tool kid. "Kick ass thinking, wing nut!" He then keyed the radio, "Captain, give me five minutes and we will have one!"

The left side of Captain Tanner's mouth turned upward in a half smile half smirk as he grabbed Nathaniel Jorgensen by the shoulder stopping the young man from exiting the bridge. "Hold up. Dante will get you an encrypted link." He then responded to Dante. "You have four."

Dante growled back, "OK, fine, I'll have it done in three!"

The tech looked over to Captain, "How is he going to make an encrypted radio?"

"No clue."

"Even if he has one with him, he would have to know how both work and how to combine them without burning either one out."

Captain Tanner shrugged, "If that is all it will take, then I should have only given him two minutes."

The tech frowned deeply and glanced over at the main clock on the bridge. "There ain't no way!"

Major O'Connell glanced over, "You care to place any bets young man?"

Nathaniel Jorgensen eyed the two highest ranking officers in the unit for a few seconds before shaking his head. "If I had any cash I would, but from your looks I'd probably loose."

"You would have." Captain Tanner stated with total conviction.

Less than two minutes later Dante's voice came over the radio, "OK we now have an encryption link, but I only have half a dozen channels. The easiest one for me to tell you is four plus the number of days until my birthday. Put in a key code of the number of times it took me to finally get a draw out of you in a game of chess and multiply it by my birthday. What else do you need?"

Nathaniel looked at the radio in total disbelief for a second while Captain Tanner dialed in the frequency Dante had given him and calculated and input the key code. Before Nathaniel could even grab the mike, Dante's voice came back over the radio. "Are we hot?"

"Wow!" Nathaniel responded, "We have you. The next thing I need to know is if it is fully tied in so I can remote in to your computer as well?"

"Give me a fucking break!" Dante responded with total aggravation in his voice, "It is fully integrated into the ship. If all I wanted to do was encrypt a stupid radio signal we could have held a conversation through our suits so it was pretty obvious what you wanted!"

Major O'Connell started to say something but was waved off by Captain Tanner. "Cut him a break, he has been up for almost a full day and he doesn't turn twelve for anther two weeks."

Major O'Connell let out a light snarl, "Alright, Captain, but he ever speaks to the bridge like that again he won't have to worry about the Master Sergeant, I'll beat his ass."

Captain Tanner frowned but managed a weak nod. "Somehow, I think he would prefer the worst you could deal out over a mild beating from that bastard." Before more could be said, he pointed over to Nathaniel "It's back in your court now, son."

The young tech nodded and took the mike again. "OK, sorry I just wanted to make sure. You'll need to put in a long code string, preferably not just numbers. The last thing we want is for them to crack the encryption and gain control of the computer. From what I have heard there is still lots of life-pods they could do some serious stuff to. Give us a phrase only something you and someone up here could know then I will remote in and gain full access to the main frame from here."

Dante let out a long breath, "Captain, please don't say it, but type in the one thing I wish I could have and what I would call it. It would be even harder to get if you used my native language."

Captain Tanner ignored the bewildered looks as he went over and quickly changed the keyboard to Russian and typed in three words. "OK, Dante we are set from this side. Everything is lower case except the proper nouns."

"Great, now I have to remember language lessons, thanks sir."

Captain Tanner chuckled, "You're more than welcome."

"See if I ever fix your food station again." Dante countered, but his voice was clearly a joking one.

After almost thirty seconds the terminal next to Captain Tanner lit up with a full readout of the PLC's central computer. Nathaniel's eyes went wide as he double checked he had full access, "Holy crap, he did it!"

Major O'Connell nodded, "We tried to tell you. Now see what you can do. I need to speak to my XO for a few minutes." With a jerk of his head he directed Captain Tanner to join him in his study just off the bridge."

Silence on the bridge was total until both men were in the study and the door slid shut behind them. Nathaniel glanced around noting the rest of the bridge crew was exchanging totally mystified looks. Finally the young tech turned to the operations officer, "Sir am I missing something?"

The tactical officer responded after a few more seconds of silence, "Son, you are too new to the unit to understand we are all a bit shocked by everything we just heard."

"Why?" Nathaniel asked as he started cycling though a diagnostic of the entire ship.

The operations officer let out a light snort, "Because until this happened, everyone in this unit thought Captain Tanner wanted nothing to do with the dependants on this ship and we were all positive he absolutely detested Dante."

"Oh come on, he was the one who gave me a chance at being a tech apprentice simply because Robin and Jared gave me a recommendation. He was also very nice to me when he found out I was an orphan, saying his door would always be open if I needed someone to talk to and introduced me to a few other adults I could go to if I needed anything then had Caleb took me around so most of the kids knew who I was. When I went to ask him a question one night Dante was sacked out in a hammock in the main room..."

"No way!" The navigations officer almost shouted. "The Captain never lets anyone in his quarters!"

Nathaniel quickly zeroed in on the life pod controls and did a sensor sweep though each pod. "Yes he does. He lets lots of kids sleep in his quarters from what I saw." Even as he continued to talk to the bridge crew he made key adjustments to several pods and released internal control to each so they could communicate with each other and ask for help. Almost instantly the security terminal aboard the Grey Stallion lit up as several pods tried to contact anyone they could find on open band communications channels.

The security officer gave Nathaniel a nod, "Nice work son. We are finally hearing from survivors over there."

"The bastards locked out ship to ship communications from the bridge. Robin must have missed it or the controls were destroyed so he couldn't tell. Just opening the pod communications was not enough, although they were at least able to talk to each other if they where still connected to the internal communication grid, which is about 50% functioning.

The tactical officer's were still wide, "So he really let Dante sleep in his quarters?" Even as he asked he moved over to give the security officer a hand dealing the massive incoming chatter that had erupted across the emergency communication bands.

"Uh huh," Nathaniel nodded, "and from the way it looked it happens a lot cause Dante got up and got dressed so I could talk to Captain Tanner alone. He has all sorts of clothing in the bottom of the main dresser in Captain Tanner's quarters. Two to the drawers are labeled with his name, one has Jared's and the last one has someone by the name of Denny, but I have not met Denny yet."

One of the two security men on the bridge snarled, "Because Q VI RG murdered him. I killed the son of a bitch, but if I had known he had killed Denny he would not have died nearly as quickly!"

Nathaniel cringed and lowered his head, "Oh, sorry. I didn't know..."

"We don't talk about Denny much." The ship's navigations officer stated sadly. "We have lost dependants before, but never have we allowed one to be murdered right here in our own ship right under our noses and Denny was one hell of a kid. We all still miss him."

"Yes we do." Captain Tanner stated as he wiped a small tear out of the corner of his eye while floating out of the study followed a few seconds later by a very bemused looking Major O'Connell. Captain Tanner glanced back over to Nathaniel, "What, if anything, can we control son."

The security officer responded, "He finally got us comms to the life pods sir. There are lots more survivors than we thought and they all want to know what to do and when help is coming. More then a few sound like kids trying to contact us."

Captain Tanner pushed off the bulkhead hard and moved rapidly over to the security station. "Give me an open channel so I can talk to all of them!"

The man pushed a pair of buttons and gave a single hard nod.

Captain Tanner grabbed the mike and took a deep breath as he heard numerous cries for help and some outright crying over the radio. "Son of a bitch, I am going to kill me some more Quaker VI and EC assholes before I die!"

He paused for a second to compose himself then glanced down at the security officer. "Record what I am saying so you can loop it on the open emergency channel because we don't want to have to keep repeating ourselves over here."

Once Captain Tanner was certain everything was set he took a long breath and spoke as calmly as he could force himself. "All life pods, this is the Grey Stallion. We are still docked next to you and have taken numerous survivors aboard. However you all need to stay where you are, as most of your ship is now too cold to support life and many areas are exposed to space.

"Right at the moment, we have you locked down for your own safety and the safety of those who we have aboard trying to get to those who didn't manage to make it to life pods. Once we have wrapped up rescue efforts we will attempt to release your clamps so you can make it planet side. You need to change your beacons as you are no longer in the Free Planets Association. You are all in the New Brunswick system, which is part of the Great Outback. To change your transponder beacons so they can get you a proper plot in system type in NBP dash GOC, this stands for New Brunswick Prime, Great Outback Confederation. If you can't get your transponders working, one of our people will talk you though it when we make individual contact.

"At the moment we are in deep space as there was a slight miss-fold, so you all need to conserve food, water, and keep your life support at a low setting. We realize this will make it uncomfortable, but if you end up having to burn for New Brunswick, it will take you a good week to make it and your life support is only good for 8 days maximum with a full pod. Right now we would ask that you send us a single signal and we will get back to each and every one of you, but trying deal with all of you radioing us at once is next to impossible.

"Also, please select one person to be in charge of each of your pods. When we do contact you we would like to know who has been selected so we can keep in touch with whoever is chosen rather then try to randomly talk to different people each time. Leaders, once you are selected, we will want the following information. First your pod number, deck and location of your pod on the ship. You can find this on panel right above the door, normally it is silver, but if the pod you are on is silver in color it could be black or yellow. We will also need a list of names of those in your life pod. Finally we would like you to convey any special circumstances such as malfunctions or people aboard who need special care or medications.

"From what our rescue party has found out, some of you may have found yourselves in pods with only Quaker VII academy cadets. If this is the case, we expect you all to follow command and rank structure. If the highest rank is shared by two cadets, we expect aerospace cadets to take the lead as their knowledge base is more pertinent to the situation at hand, however, if you are both from the same school, then I would expect you to behave as professionally as you have been taught and one of you take command with the other's full support. If you happen to have an instructor with you, then he is to be given the same respect you all gave him or her while you were in the academy.

"We do have some good news to pass on. We currently have two salvage craft making their way up to us from New Brunswick and we are hoping to be able to release your pods so you can start making your way planet-side soon. To do this, however, we will need to break you loose from the Space Fold Craft and get you clear of the debris around the SFC as well, as your pods cannot handle hitting heavy chucks of space craft we have floating out here, so do not panic when you feel the PLC you are on start to move and or spin. We will be back with each pod individually as soon as possible. Grey Stallion out."

Captain Tanner gave the security officer a hard stare, "Any pods who have kids contacting us get priority." He then turned to the Operations officer, "I want you to start getting a list of all survivors and who they are looking for. There is a good chance we have some over here who are looking for loved ones on those pods and the other way around. Any of those our kids have taken in below get priority on finding family as well."

Major O'Connell let out a long breath, "Captain, I want you to help ops and security since you have a great idea of what we want to happen and in what order. He then turned to Nathanial, "So what else can you tell us and what all can we control over there now?"

"Sir," Nathanial responded slowly, "I am no pilot, but I think if the bridge had not been wiped out there is an even up chance they could have limped her planet-side, but I doubt they could have landed her. I have full main engine control, although, she is leaking some fuel from one of her main tanks, and over half her directional thrusters are on primary and several others can pull power from secondary, but only for short bursts. Engineering is in great shape, but it is vacced so there are no survivors down there. All landing thrusters directly opposite of the SFC are off line as are the landing legs. Besides, the computer says there is too much damage to do a reentry as there are no heat shield armor plates on over a quarter of the ship.

"On the other hand, I have cycled though all the life pods. It looks like Robin and Caleb managed to get power to 41 of them and all have survivors aboard. I was able to activate 9 others, and have weak life-signs from 8 them. I also forced a re-route of power and water to all the life pods I could to get them a full charge, but unfortunately I was only able to do so for about two thirds of them. There are 12 I could get no reading on at all and 8 others are breached, all facing the SFC. The docking collar to the SCF is showing less than 20% structural integrity and the one with us in below 50 and slowly falling, there is micro-crack warnings on the section just the other side of the tube and records show it has been getting worse, especially over the last few hours."

"Shit." Major O'Connell snarled as he grabbed a radio, "All the heating and cooling of the hull each time we open that door is degrading the integrity of our link with it."

"Hotel deck, this is the Major, who is on watch down there?"

Zane quickly responded, "Luna is watching the injured and I have watch by the door to the section we put all the survivors in sir. The former frame jock from Q VII is on watch in there and has watch on the door to the Wagon. What can we do for you?"

"Get a hold of him and tell him to give it once last look right now and lock it down. We are getting an instability reading from the link tube. Also have him double lock the Stallion's doors and the airlock as well. If it goes it could do some damage to the hull."

"Already moving sir." Zane almost shouted. "I'll grab Cody's dad and Jared as well, cause I have no idea how much the framer knows about ship ops."

"Good call Zane. Check back in with us once it is secure. Also the second you have everything locked up down there we are going to power up, so let everyone know we are about to break the Wagon loose then pop our own lock with the SCF so it will get pretty loud especially since we will have lots of debris bouncing off us. Finally, everyone needs to be ready for us to do a burn so restrooms should be used now and not used gain until we stabilize speed again."

"Understood sir."

Major O'Connell clicked off the radio and glanced back to Nathaniel one more time. "Anything else?"

The young tech shrugged, "Just statistical data from the damage control station in engineering. About a third of the ship is open to space and about 80% is below freezing with only two area reading above 10 degrees, and one of them is the bay, probably because people keep doing thruster burns in there. Anything directly across from the SFC is pretty much toast and from the way it looks, anyone in any observation decks at the time of the fold is gone as every deck shows observation lounge breaches. Also all maneuvering thrusters on the third of the ship facing the SFC are either on secondary or are offline. I have shunted all the ship controls over to us and created a direct link with the computer so we don't have to go though the yacht any longer. All maneuvering controls are now running on the terminal next to mine in case you want to try to take her out of the debris field."

The major nodded, his voice reflecting how impressed he was. "What about a firing link to pop those bay doors?"

"They have been set and ready for almost thirty minutes sir. All you have to do is make sure Alpha though Delta three turrets are facing where they can hit and you need to use Charlie three for the actual shot. You need to hit the upper starboard coupling and the computer will do the rest."

"Well done Sergeant Jorgensen." Major O'Connell stated as he turned to re-enter his study. "Someone route the firing controls to my study so I can take the shot without distractions. "Captain, you have the bridge. Get us both clear of the debris field then position both craft for me to take the shot. Just before I do, I want you to release all locks on those life-pods just incase our shooting does more damage to our link with the central computer, but warn them not to launch until we give them the go ahead, or we might accidentally hit one. I also want two of our gunners on standby just in case we have a chunk of a ship to shoot out of my way!"

Vladimir listened to the situation before opening up a side channel to Caleb, "This is going to be a bitch; we are going to have to keep moving as the ship does because we are not anchored in here."

Caleb swallowed hard, "Neither is the yacht Robin is on!"

"I know. I just spoke with them and there is no chance he is good enough to pull this off and I know for a fact those form the aerospace side left over there wouldn't stand a chance either, so I am going to attach my grapple to them so I can keep them and me off the walls in here, but that leaves you on your own. I want you to stick to the port side of the bay, I'll take starboard, but I may need some of the middle as well."

"What if I just fire my grapple onto one of the other yachts?"

There was a long pause, "...Or you could just grapple one of the yachts still attached to a docking arm and give me the whole bay."

Caleb chuckled, "Great idea sir, we'll do that."

Inside the cockpit of the other fighter Vlad rolled his eyes and laughed as he maneuvered over the yacht Robin was in and dropped the magnetic grapple lines. Once he was sure they were secure he reeled himself down until the bottom of the fighter was snuggly resting on the top of the fuselage of the larger craft. Still chuckling lightly he radioed over, "OK, give me control of the yacht and keep totally clear of all the controls, but someone needs to be ready to take over incase something goes wrong like I loose grapple or our link gets cut.

"If either happens move to the center of the bay and do your best to keep her there until I can re-establish a link."

Robin responded with a tense sounding voice, "It's all yours academy one... And for the record I will be praying for you to keep full control. And in case you care, this will be the first time since I was born I will be praying to a God for real. Maybe going to church for the last 19 months is a good thing after all."

Jessie playfully nudged Robin, "It might mean more to Him if you had actually stayed awake in a sermon or two."

Robin gritted his teeth as he saw and felt the thrusters' fire, controlled by a kid not even in the ship and who he had not even met face to face yet. "Then maybe you should do some praying too Jess, cause I am not at all embarrassed to say I am officially sacred shitless at the moment."

Vlad responded with a snicker as he saw the bay start to move around him. "Thanks for the vote of confidence Comrade." Knowing the movement he was seeing meant the connection to the SFC had been severed, he hit a light burn, keeping the yacht basically centered in the bay.

Robin's fingers dug deep into the plush captain's chair of the luxury yacht as he once again felt and heard the thrusters fire and noticed the burns were pretty long and the ship itself was picking up a great deal of speed, but was more or less staying in the same spot inside the bay. If anything this only increased his fear, because he knew at this speed, if they slammed into one of the walls or another ship damage would be high, probably catastrophic. The G forces also put extra pressure on his ribs adding pain to the fear he was feeling. Still after everything he had dealt with in his life he was somewhat angry at himself for being so scared, but he just couldn't help it.

Things calmed considerable for several minutes with Vladimir making only slight adjustments, but a sudden hard lurch followed by Robin seeing the main bulkhead in front of him grow dangerously caused his stomach to nearly flip and his left side to explode in pain. He almost blacked out, but hearing those around him gasp, squeal, and in two cases beg God for help helped kept him conscious. Even as he debated if staying awake was a good thing, suddenly the situation calmed again as the port side thrusters spun the ship while a light burst of the main engines sent the ship forward again.

Vlad's voice came back over the Radio, "We just got the all clear from your ship. We are out of the main debris by several kilometers and they have powered down the engines of this PLC and are preparing to lock on and fire. I will have to do another pretty hard burn to keep us inside the bay while it vacs, but it should be very quick as big as those doors are. We will then simply do an occasional light burn to keep us off the walls while we give the two hostile craft time to leave per our agreement." A humor filled tone entered Vlad's voice, "Thank you all for choosing to fly Academy One Air."

Several kids aboard the yacht let out long breaths while a few others cheered. Robin, however keyed the radio, pain and fear both evident in his voice, "Academy One, I don't know if I am going to smack you or kiss you when I finally get to see you face to face, but one way or the other we all owe you big time!"

"Comrade, I will take both if you like."

Robin laughed with so much relief a few tears came to his eyes. Once again he wondered if all the tears were of joy as the laughter sent more sharp pains across his chest, still he could not help himself. Finally he let go of the mike and spoke to no one in general. "The Major is going to love him! There can't be many academy cadets capable of doing what he just did!"

One of the older frame academy cadets released form the Gamma class shuttle shook his head as he finally managed to find his breath again. "I don't think there are too many pilots in the entire galaxy who could do what he just did let alone cadets!"

A few seconds later the main doors to the bay buckled slightly followed but a very load roar. Several items bounced off the hull of the yacht and an alarm sounded letting everyone know the ship was no longer in atmosphere as the doors suddenly exploded outward. A single burn from the front thrusters kept the yacht in the bay while several side burns kept her all but unmoving. Within seconds a pair of puffs from the rear drive stabilized the ship and left everyone on the yacht looking out the main window seeing the outline of the missing doors and nothing but stars beyond. Even as the others watched the two hostile craft blow their connections to the docking arms and leave the bay, Robin's head fell into his hands. He said a quick silent prayer actually believing there might be a God after all for the first time in his life. He then composed himself grabbed the mike again, "Vladimir, you are awesome!"

"You know, Comrade, if you all get t-shirts made that say as much and wear them for a full day, I will consider us even."

Jessie openly laughed, "Vlad, I will pay for them and I'll wear mine once a week for a year so everyone on New Brunswick will see it!"

"Me too!" Robin responded with a huge smile.

Vladimir snickered, "Then I believe we will be even my new friends."

Major O'Connell exited his study and gazed out at the crippled PLC. As he watched, a pair of flames exit the hole he had just created in the side of the massive craft, he turned to the tactical station, "Do everything you can to track those bastards! We ain't done with them yet!"

"Already on it sir, and we have linked with the two salvage craft as well, so if they get beyond our sensor range, which they within a day or so, our employer should be able to pick them up and see where they are going to try to hide. It sounds like they want us to deal with them as badly as we do. Nice shooting by the way."

"Thanks to our new tech is wasn't hard at all. All I had to do was hit one target and his program did the rest. It worked to perfection, too... Speaking of our newest full tech, someone put him down for a bonus, I'll figure out how to pay him later."

He quickly changed the subject. "Let our rapid strike team know we hope to have a mission for them even before we get planet-side. Get back ups ready for any who are injured, because come hellfire or brimstone we are going to dust them and get as many hostages back as possible."

Captain Tanner nodded. "With pleasure sir."

Things calmed slightly as the bridge crew of the Grey Stallion waited several minutes and then watched the fighters and yachts emerge from the open bay. A few seconds latter Captain Tanner signaled the all clear to the life-pods. Many on the bridge sighed in relief as several of the life-pods popped off the sides of the Wagon class PLC. Flames emerging form behind many of the dots in space made it clear they had full power and were starting on their rather long journey to New Brunswick Prime.

All the sudden the tactical officer broke the peaceful silence, "What the hell?"

Captain Tanner glanced over, "Problem Lieutenant?"

The man's frown grew, "I'm not sure sir. The Delta Class Ferry just slowed and I am seeing multiple targets separating from it."

"Did it blow up?"

The tactical officer felt his blood grow cold, "No sir! The other targets just formed up and are angling back toward the life-pods!"

Major O'Connell slammed his hand hard on the command table, "Micro fighters! Patch me in to..."

Suddenly Vladimir's voice came over the radio, "Grey Stallion, we have a launch of seven hostiles from the ferry. Request permission to engage!"

Major O'Connell glanced over to ops, "What is the status of our fighters?"

"Outer doors took damage and with everything else going on it was not on the priority list sir, we cannot launch!"

"Tac, are they really going after the life boats?"

"Looks like it sir."

Major O'Connell closed his eyes and clenched his fists, "Academy fighters you are authorized to engage." He then tuned ops "Open me ship wide communications now!"

The operations officer hit a few buttons and pointed back to the Major, "Go sir."

"All crews brace for hard burn now. We have hostiles going after the escaping life boats. We are now at battle alert and all weapons are now free! We also have four friendly yachts and two fighters out there. We are tagging them as blue on fire control so do not fire on blue targets; I say again, do not fire on blue targets!"

He then spun to look at the navigation station, "Get us there and if a few more pieces fall off this boat then so be it!"

Captain Tanner grabbed the internal communications systems mike. "All damage control parties secure yourselves right where you are, but keep an eye on everything, cause we are going to shake this old girl up a bit! Report any new hull breaches but don't expect us to stop, some of our kids are out there!"

He then pointed back over to tactical, "Give me Robin's frequency now!"

Even as all weapon systems changed from locked down to free and the bridge lights went form normal to a red tinged the tactical officer responded. "Got it! Go Sir."

Captain Tanner shouted as he spoke into the radio "Robin, I want you and the other three yachts to turn back toward us now. If you can contact any life pods have them do the same. Do not stop until we can cover you with our guns and once in our umbrella move your asses to the back side so you are using the Gray Stallion as cover."

"Understood sir, but what about Kay and Vlad?"

The firing of the main drives of the Grey Stallion forced both Major O'Connell and Captain Tanner to hold on to the command table for dear life, but even as they did so Major O'Connell responded, "We are on the way! Tell them to keep those micros off the life-pods for as long as they can."

Vladimir switched over to talk to Caleb, "Stay on my left wing Comrade."

"Already there sir."

"OK, do you think you can handle 120% full burn?"

"I can, but we'll be redlining the engines."

"If we don't those fighters will get to the life-pods before we get to them."

"Shit." Caleb responded, "I guess we punch it then!"

Caleb gritted his teeth as he pushed full power into the main drives. The heavy fighter seemed to come to life under him as it leapt forward. G-forces continued to build as the thrust bar crept up, changing from green, to yellow and finally to red. Even with his heavy E-suit inflating to help him maintain consciousness, he found it increasingly difficult to breath. To fight off the increasing discomfort he focused on Vlad and stayed all but glued to a spot just off and slightly behind the older boy's left wing.

As they maneuvered closer, Caleb activated the missile targeting system and put missiles into the wing launch tubes, but kept them inside the wings so the rapidly closing micro fighters could not get a reading on what he was doing. At the same time, he went active with sensors and turned on the threat ID computer. Within a few seconds the computer sent a display to the small head's up display. "Vlad, I got IDs on the lead six, four are Zip Tech Bobcat class micros, they only have 7 weapon hard point connectors and the biggest weapon they can handle is in the nose and is a three point connection weapon. The computer is only an Alpha Class and according to this the fusion generator on them only gives them 6 kilowatts. So they can't have too much. The other two are Iron Earth made Lynx class and are a hell of a lot more danagerous, eight hard points with a four point connector in the nose, and a seven kilowatt fusion plant."

Vlad responded. "Even the Bobcats could still have a heavy laser, electron cannon or quark blaster in the nose, so don't take them too lightly Comrade, but they are light on armor and poor on maneuverability. We should take them out first as even a Lynx will find it difficult to chew though these Brave Humanities Saber Raptors, but we cannot take on all seven if they get close. I already have a lock on the furthest one to our right, I want you to try to get one on our far left then work on the other Bobcat on the left of their formation. The second you lock, fire, I will follow."

"Understood, but I am still out of range."

"At this speed you won't be for long."

"What about the one holding back?"

Vlad let out a long breath. "It's an Earth Co Bear Claw, a micro fighter in size but not in capability. It might as well be classified as a full fighter and it has some serious armor. We take out as many of the others as we can before we tangle with it. It looks like it is going to see if it can get to one of us at a time and it may have a pair of missiles under the wings on extra hard points, so keep your smart chaff ready."

Less than 10 seconds later Caleb got a chirping sound on his targeting system so he concentrated on the outer left fighter. Within a few seconds he got a steady tone then a moment later the computer give him radar lock as well. With a bit of a growl in his voice he whispered, "Let's see who is going to kill who." He then flipped off the safety and pushed on the missile igniter button for the port side missile tube. The fighter lurched a bit harder than he expected as the missile launch pylon dropped down out of the wing and the powerful engine fired on the missile. He backed a bit away from Vladimir for a few seconds before he managed to pull in tight next to the former aerospace cadet commander again.

Caleb took a long breath and shook his head realizing in the short time he had taken to regain proper position, Vlad had fired one of his missiles as well. Caleb frowned knowing Vlad's larger missile should have caused even more maneuvering problems than his light one, but Vlad's fighter didn't even seem to shake let alone buck hard like Caleb's had done.

Vladimir radioed over, "Comrade, you need to do a slight wing dip at the same moment you fire an attached missile if you want to maintain full control."

"I never did in the simulators!" Caleb complained while focusing his efforts on getting a lock on the next micro fighter in the formation.

"This is not a simulator my friend." Vlad stated calmly as he achieved a quick lock on his next target and let loose another missile, even as the small group of fighters broke formation in a desperate attempt to shake the first two incoming streaks of death.

It took Caleb two seconds longer before he got his lock and fired the starboard side missile.

The moment he did, Vlad snarled, "OK, break now and fire everything you have at whatever you can as we blow past them then bank hard port and I will link up as your wingman. No matter what happens we have to work as a team! They still outnumber us."

"Understood..." Caleb started to respond but found his words cut off as his first missile found the first micro fighter he had shot at and detonated. Moments later there was a puff of flame as the cockpit of the tiny craft separated from the disintegrating fuselage. A moment later Vlad's heavier missile made contact with his target and ripped it apart so violently the pilot never had a chance to eject.

"We are going to have to fly through debris, lock all weapons down as you close on the area where we popped those two." Vladimir command, "But since we are all still closing on each other you should be able to get off shots before you button up!"

"Shit," Caleb muttered, "I forgot about that!"

"No problem, comrade, you learn fast as always and now have one more kill than any academy cadet under the age of 14. Just remember any exposed weapon is not likely to survive a hit with even the smallest chunk of those ships at the speed we are moving, so you have to keep them behind armor until you are all but certain you are clear."

Caleb muttered a string of curses. Partly because he had forgotten one of the most important things needed to do space dog fighting, but mostly because his second missile only clipped the side of his second target. Still it caused the craft to spin violently out of control as it lost one of its stabilizers and a section of its wing.

Vlad's second missile, on the other hand, was right on target all but vaporizing the fighter and its pilot.

The lead two micros opened up with a pair of medium lasers from under their wings and heavy rocket gun shots from the noses. Vlad did a tight bank, avoiding everything while Caleb twisted sideways and got clipped with one medium laser.

Caleb gripped the control stick tightly as he felt the heavy fighter shake slightly from the hit and the heads up display lit up, showing light armor damage to the starboard back fin. On the other hand, Caleb's maneuver meant he didn't have to do much to sight in on the fighter that had just shot at him while Vlad had to bank back to bring his weapons to bear.

Caleb's natural abilities inside an Inner Planetary Superiority Craft came center stage as he did a half spin and fired his quark blasters and electron cannons at the rapidly closing ship. Three of the four powerful beam weapons struck the craft's undercarriage, while the last ripped into the rocket gun mount and detonated the ammunition stored behind it.

Caleb saw the secondary explosions as he continued to close on the doomed fighter. With a gulp he hit his safety button. Instantly all weapons retracted and armored plates snapped over them. At the same time an armored sheath extended out of the fuselage and wrapped around the cockpit while the sensor array retracted and was locked behind yet another series of armored plates. A second and a half later Caleb heard dozens of impacts over the entire hull of the fighter and the Heads-up display flashed very light armor damage to over a score of locations as fragments of the former micro fighter left pock marks over almost every surface of the heavy fighter. Less than a second later the heads-up display flashed an all clear as sensors stopped detecting debris impacts.

Even as many times as he had simulated this back at the Quaker VII Academy, doing it for real was both terrifying and exhilarating. He flipped the safety off feeling one of the most intense adrenaline rushes of his young life. "Awesome!"

Vlad, meanwhile, managed to get off a snap shot with his electron cannons, both of which hit the port wing. This caused the lynx class fighter to veer almost uncontrollably to the left. Vlad rolled hard to get in behind the fighter before its pilot could fully gain control. As soon as he had a decent view of the back of the fighter he let loose with an eight pack of micro missiles without trying to get a lock. Five of them streaked right past the Lynx, but the other three all found the aft end, two doing serious damage to the primary engine while the third took off a hunk of armor and left the starboard wing with a nasty gouge.

At the same time Vlad saw his heads-up display flash a launch warning. He turned his head sharply only to see a jet of fire emerge form under the Bear Claw. "Caleb, Missile!" he shouted as he triggered his micro missile launcher again and added in his quark blasters. The already damaged aft end shredded under the impact of half a dozen more hits. Even as Vlad hit his safety he saw the cockpit pop off the craft and do a hard burn to get it clear as secondary explosions ripped through the entire fuselage.

Before Vlad could get clear of the latest debris field a medium laser burned into his cockpit armored covering and locked it in place preventing him from retracting it. Even as he desperately tried to override the malfunction, he cleared the safety on his sensors and weapons. Using the sensors and the heads-up display he quickly identified where the shot had come from. He growled at the fighter Caleb had damaged with his second missile as he tried to shake the jammed cockpit safety back into the fuselage, without success.

Nervously he made a series of evasive maneuvers while scanning for the missile fired from the Bear Claw. He let out a deep breath as he tracked it heading toward Caleb's fighter. A couple more medium laser hits smacked into his own fighter as he watched the missile close, then at the last second, a cloud blew out of the back of Caleb's fighter.

A moment later the missile connected with the cloud of chaff, but the missile's lock allowed it to ignore the metallic cloud. The instant the micro smart-sensors in the bands of metal realized the missile had not lost lock on the fighter they ignited the whole cloud causing a large explosion, destroying the missile and the chaff as well. The shockwave of the exploding chaff and missile pushed the back end of Cody's fighter upward and caused him to momentarily loose control which allowed the Bear Claw to close rapidly. "Caleb, it is on you, come back towards me maybe we can team up, but I am flying sensors only!"

Another laser hit caused Vlad to bank his own craft in a series of evasive maneuvers while Caleb's voice came over the radio, "He is on my six!"

Suddenly Major O'Connell's voice came over the radio. "Caleb, Vladimir is in no shape to help you. Angel toward the Stallion but keep up the random movements. Judging by what it just fired at you, it looks like it is armed with a pair of heavy rail guns and a heavy laser. The rail guns are at the outer edge of extreme range but the laser in well within moderate range, but you are faster than it is. Pour on the speed son."

"Make her dance Caleb!" Vladimir shouted as he felt yet another laser hit.

Another voice came over the radio. "Vladimir, this is Warrant Officer Osop aboard the Grey Stallion. The fighter you are in is a Brave Humanities Saber Raptor, one of their top line fighters. On the lower left of your seat there is a handle with a round knob, pull it. Just make damned sure you don't pull the ejection lever. What you are looking for is on the left side and has a round knob. The one on the right has a hand grip and is for ejection. If it ain't round don't pull it!"

"Caleb," Vladimir called out with some hope as his display alerted him to heavy armor damage to his aft port side fin, "Is he one of yours?"

"Yea." Caleb stated with a bit of disgust in his voice. "Do it Vlad. He is one of our fighter pilots."

Vladimir reached down and made sure he was gripping the handle with the round knob then pulled up sharply, half expecting the cockpit to separate. A series of load popping sounds cascaded down both sides of his cockpit window then a pair of small thrusters fired sending the armored plate sounding his cockpit out and away from his fighter.

Vlad's eyes hardened as he quickly did a hard roll, "Thank you sir!"

"Your welcome, but you don't have a shield for your cockpit any more, so if you have to fly though debris pull your nose up so everything hits your undercarriage."

"Got it sir!"

"Kick his ass son!" Captain Tanner snarled into the radio.

Vlad pushed down hard on the controls and spun giving himself a shot at the fighter but at a very poor angel. Knowing his fighter was not in the greatest shape he took what he had, chain firing everything. Most of what he fired missed, but three of the eight micro missiles and one of the medium lasers ripped into the already damaged Bobcat blowing off the left wing and destroying all port side maneuvering thrusters.

The right side thrusters were still firing, causing the Bobcat to go into a sharp tight spiral. A satisfied smirk crossed Vlad's lips as he did a high G flip and roll. Well before the hapless Bobcat pilot could even think about what he needed to do his crippled craft had six energy weapons and eight micro missiles locked on.

Vlad's voice was stone cold as he did an open channel broadcast, "Bobcat pilot, eject or die."

Major O'Connell responded, "The hell with him! They were going after life-pods son, fire for effect!"

"Valid point sir." Vlad responded while triggering everything. The former academy cadet commander watched as his handy work ripped the tiny fighter apart, leaving nothing larger than a basketball left of the ship or its former pilot. He then pulled his nose up hard to completely avoid the remnants of the fighter before scanning the area for Caleb. What he saw made his blood run cold.

Caleb was doing everything right, pitching, rolling, and spinning, but even as Vlad hit full thrusters he saw the younger boy's fighter shake violently form a heavy laser hit. "Comrade, be as unpredictable as you were when you tested for your IPSC certification!"

"I'm trying!" Caleb nervously shouted, "I just can't get him off me and I have moderate armor damage to almost every aft surface!"

"You're doing fine, Comrade, the fact you are forcing him to spread out the damage over your entire rear area, actually shows how good you are."

"Then why did I just get hit again!" Caleb shouted in scared frustration as another laser shot lanced into his craft, this time in the port side wing.

Suddenly a woman's voice came over the radio, one Caleb recognized even before she said who she was. "Now who needs to shut up you wining little twerp! You sound like a baby trying to run home to mommy!"

"You ain't got me yet you EC whore!" Caleb fired back, as fear changed to anger at the very sound of her voice. With anger came a renewed confidence in his own abilities, causing the woman to miss for the first time in several shots. This only increased his moral. "Besides, even if you manage to get to me, there is one more of us out here than you and you started with a five ship advantage. So you either suck as a teacher or you're one of the worst commanders this side of Earth Core."

"You may get under the protective arc of your PLC's guns, you whelp," the woman snarled as she missed a second time in as many shots, "But I'll have killed you before you I get into their range! No one insults an Earth Core special ops commander!"

"Then I guess my new name is no one, and there are about 800 people with the exact same name aboard our ship that is going to help me stick my shoe so far up your ass you will have to use foot powder as a breath freshener!"

"You will never get to them!"

Major O'Connell's voice broke into the transmission, "Obviously you don't have a clue who you are dealing with. Why don't we deal with this in a more civilized manor, like landing on one of the marginal worlds further in the system, or on moon 3 of the fifth planet, your choice. We can then meet face to face and beat the crap out of each other, if you win, we'll let you go your own way in your shuttle, if I win then you tell me who ordered this mission and where we can find them before you die."

The woman snarled "No one insults EC or me whoever you are. Once I put this kid in a body bag, maybe we can play!"

"Just like Earth Core to send a want-a-be child murder to do an adult's job." Major O'Connell responded. "For the record, you will die up here."

She fired again, only to see the large fighter barrel roll out of the path. She clenched her fist knowing she didn't have much time before the PLC would be able to fire on her, but a quick computation for the on board computer gave her another minute ten seconds. Another eleven shots at the heavy laser's recycle rate. As she lined up for another shot she knew it would be more than enough.

Locked in a turret on Juliet deck a woman groaned again as her mind hovered on the edge of consciousness, but something had pushed her from totally out to somewhat aware. The why, what, and the how made no difference to her as the pain running through her neck and shoulders was beyond any horror she could imagine. Wondering if she was alive or dead she winced as she tried to put her hand up to her aching head. Well if I am dead, she thought, this is certainly the hell I had to hear so much about back on that damned Quaker VII world. I don't know if being trapped here or back there for eternity would be worse.

She started to roll her neck, only to find the pain was so intense, it caused her to wretch. Gently as she could, she pushed herself back into the fire control chair for the turret and started to black out again. Before she could completely fade out she heard a static filled crackle from her personal communication unit. Confused she glanced around, causing a bit of vertigo and if possible her head to start pounding worse. Closing her eyes she passed it off as her imagination.

Yet once again she heard static filled crackle, this time a near panicked sounding voice could be heard as well, but the words were hard to make out. Still it was a voice she recognized. Speaking aloud, for the first time in over 20 hours, a single word escaped her dry and cracked lips, "Caleb?"

With alarm bells going off in her head, she sat up, stifling a scream of pain as she did so. Her eyes snapped open again as another broken voice came over the radio. "Comrade, be... unpredictable as you ... when you test... your IPSC certifi..."

Caleb's voice came across stronger. "I'm trying, I just can't get him off..."

The woman's eyes grew hard with determination. She activated the turret somewhat surprised to find her weapons control station was free, meaning the ship was at battle stations. Concern caused her to regain consciousness fully. She quickly brought up the sensor HUD, finding it was cracked but still functioning. Several blue dots and a pair of red ones appeared. Knowing standard unit protocol was to mark allied ships without O'Connell Grenadier transponders as blue, she zeroed in on the nearer red dot only to see it fire a laser, striking the starboard wing of the closest blue target.

This time Caleb's voice came across strong as he fully entered the range of her still hidden communicator. "Then why am I still getting hit!."

Her eyes scanned both the HUD and the empty space beyond her turret, as her mind realized this was not a nightmare, nor was she in Hell, she was alive and Caleb was out their getting shot at. Adrenaline suddenly coursed through her veins.

The strange woman's voice mocking Caleb tore away the last of her grogginess. Biting down on her lip hard enough to draw considerable blood allowed her to take some focus away from the pain in her neck. Still as the turret rotated it nearly caused her to bite clean though her lip. Undaunted, she flipped off the range blocker, which would normally prevent her from firing at targets the computer determined were outside of the effective range of the twin quark cannons.

She totally tuned out the rest of the back and forth communications as she carefully sighted on the red dot. As the Head's Up Display put the tiny craft into the sights it put up a flashing warning, trying to tell her the weapons were out of effective range. She ignored this as well, as every gram of her being focused on a single task. An instant before she tapped the triggers her left hand went down to her hand held communicator. "YOU BITCH, GET OFF MY SON'S ASS!"

Before anyone could even think about what had been shouted let alone react to the venomous voice, two dark crimson bolts of quark particles erupted from one of the most powerful turrets on the hull of the Grey Stallion. They lanced by Caleb's fighter missing by less than a meter before smacking into the hull of the micro fighter pursuing him.

Since the range was so extreme, neither bolt did major damage, but it was enough to knock the tiny fighter off Caleb.

"What the...?" the startled woman shooting at Caleb cried out as she suddenly had to fight to control her craft.

At the same time Caleb felt his eyes go wide, "MOM!"

Caleb's mom responded with a dry, cracking voice, "I got her off you son, if you can really fly that bastard, paste the wench; otherwise run to mom and I'll do it for you!"

"I am done running from anyone!" Caleb snarled pulling the nose sharply upward by firing the thrusters under the nose while hitting the port side thrusters, as he came around he pushed full throttle on the main drive forward quickly changing from hunted to hunter. The almost textbook rollover maneuver put him facing the woman's micro fighter before she fully regained control.

Caleb snap fired his electron cannons the moment his nose settled in on the rapidly recovering fighter, hitting with one. At the same time he used his thumb to load a pair of missiles into the wing launch tubes. Even as he got the green lights on his HUD's weapons' status, a bit of a smirk crossed his lips as a large laser sliced by his port side so close it actually left a mark without doing damage.

A second later his computer chirped out a launch warning as the woman fired her second under wing missile. He didn't even flinch, if anything he became calmer as he once again fired off his electron cannons, scoring another hit all the while working on getting a lock for his own missiles.

Vladimir's voice came over the radio, "Comrade, you have incoming!"

"I know." Caleb responded as if his blood had turned to ice water. A moment later he got a steady tone on his own missiles, "And so does she." With those words, he fired both missiles. His fighter rocked violently with the dual launch, but nothing like it had after his first couple of missile firings. Even as the twin flame trails of death raced toward the small target, Caleb used his thruster control hand to press a pair of buttons activating the point defense anti-missile system.

Two rounded pods popped out of each wing, one on the top one on the bottom. Caleb then pushed his nose slightly down and activated the two top pods. He then sighted in on the oncoming missile and waited until it got to less than a second and a half before impact before triggered the pods. Scores of tiny pulses of laser light flashed out of each pod as multiple micro turbo lasers engaged.

The power drain on the fusion power plant was enormous, dimming all the lighted systems, taking all weapon systems temporally off line, and even causing the Head's Up Display to flicker. Caleb gritted his teeth as the power assist to the controls even cut out for a full second.

Outside the fighter it almost looked like the top of the fighter had exploded, as a multi color spray of laser light erupted out of the two pods. The single incoming missile, on the other hand, never stood a chance. The vast majority missed, most not being close, but a full half a dozen stitched across the missile causing it first to spiral out of control then detonate as one of the pulses found the warhead.

Caleb closed his eyes and activated the safety, hoping there was power for it as he hurdled thought space at a break neck speed toward the fragments of the missile. Fortunately for any pilot of this kind of fighter, and Caleb in particular, Brave Humanities engineers had thought over this problem. A secondary micro fusion plant activated, giving the ship safety power, snapping armor over all vital weapons, systems, and cockpit. Caleb took a breath of relief as he heard fragments bounce harmlessly off the cockpit and wings. The computer came back on line even as he deactivated the safety, informing him the latest fragment cloud had done only minimal armor damage to the forward edge of starboard back fin.

At the same time the Earth Core Commander found herself in a desperate fight for survival. One incoming missile was bad enough, but trying to dodge two, each with independent lock was easily five times worse. No longer could she worry about the other fighter still coming at her head on, let alone the other that was now doing a max thrust burn toward her from her port side. She spun hard to starboard while putting full power to her upper nose thrusters, radically forcing the tiny fighter to spin and dive. This caused one of the missiles to loose lock, narrowly missing her as it went though the flames of her thruster wash, but the second was not quite as confused.

Even as she tried to pull the nose back up and spin to port the second missile clipped her engine and exploded. Warning lights flashed over the entire cockpit. Then, before she even realized it was happening, the auto eject system activated as it detected the hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks had been breached and were already blowing the back half of the fuselage apart. She screamed in rage and fear as the entire cockpit rocketed her away from the disintegrating hull of her former micro fighter.

Vlad's voice came back over the radio, "I will take her Comrade."

"No, she is mine." Caleb responded sounding strangely calm. "Keep me covered while I deal with this."

"You got it comrade."

Major O'Connell's almost breathless voice came over the radio, "Kay, we can deal with this..."

"Sir, she is mine."

His tone told the astonished unit commander more than the words. Short of shooting at Caleb, this was pretty much out of his hands. He glanced around the bridge seeing only several jaws hanging open and a few shrugs. Tossing up his hands he keyed the radio. "OK, son, take her."

"Thank you sir." Caleb stated with little emotion as he powered back and hit back thrusters. He closed on the pod quickly, its twin lights flashing, making her position very easy to locate. He slowly circled, using side thrusters so his nose was always pointing at the cockpit pod and the now helpless woman within.

Her voice trembled even though she tried hard to make it sound defiant. "Are you going to pull the trigger or gloat?"

Caleb's voice had a deadly edge as he replied. "Neither. Either you tell us who exactly was behind the attack on the PLC and why or you will die a slow very painful death out here as you run out of life support."

"What are you going to do, watch me for the next five or six days? Cause unless you are, I have friends who will come get me."

"They will have to find you first." Caleb responded as he powered up his starboard wing medium laser, took careful aim, and shot one of the blinking lights off the side on the pod without doing any structural damage to the craft itself. "You must have a short memory, cause I showed you what I can do back in the bay of the PLC. I can, and will, pick off your radio antennas, flashing beacons, and emergency transponder without putting more than a few burns on the sides of your ejection pod. Your friends could fly within half a kilometer of you and never find you, put this on top of the fact you are now a good hundred kilometers from where you started and have been in a dog fight, so they don't know where to even start a search. In simple terms you EC whore, you are screwed. Now I am gong to ask you the question one time. If you refuse to answer I will shoot off another way for them to find you, then ask again. "So, who was behind this attack and why?"

"What happens to me if I answer?"

Caleb spun his fighter and shot off the secondary antenna, leaving a blackened mark across the back of the pod. "I am the one asking questions; you are the EC wench who is going to answer or suffer a horrible death. Your choice. Now who and why?"

"Shit!" the woman screamed as her secondary radio caught some of the feedback from the antenna array being blasted off and went dead, "OK, fine! The orders came down from somewhere high in the Earth Core Senate, but my orders came directly from Legatus Lucius Maecenas, commander of the FPA, EC defense corridor. He also wanted young slaves for his estate that knew how to fight, probably for gladiatorial games, so that is why we tried to take so many cadets!"

Caleb contained a snarl, just barely. "Good start, now why?"

"The only reason we were given, was they didn't want a Quaker VII government in exile on New Brunswick."

Caleb spun the fighter again, "You are about to loose your transponder; you better do a hell of a lot better than what you were told! I may be a kid, but I ain't stupid. Besides, us Grenadiers know more than most. Maybe you didn't realize it, but we have fought EC before and even us kids know EC ranks and command structures. If someone as high ranking as a EC Senate appointed general gave you direct orders, than you have to know more than simply what you were told! Add on the fact he asked you to get him slaves and you knew what he was looking for, I bet my baby sister could figure out you have to know some real info." He fired again, leaving a black mark on the side of the pod and pushing it violently to the side just to make it clear he was not in the mood to play around.

"Alright, already!" A now half sobbing voice came back over the radio. "The whole thing is a huge distraction to keep Blood's Honor and any allies it has busy. EC funneled massive arms shipments to Quaker Six and several other poorer worlds in various coalitions including Lord Talborne on Ulysses.

"Talborne's attempted takeover of the ABR was even more of a failure than expected though, and has forced EC to send even more money for mercs, arms, and weapons to keep Talborne supplied and fighting while EC makes some more moves in other coalitions so there is something for Blood's Honor to do once they take back the ABR, which we knew from the start they would do. But I really don't know what EC is doing beyond messing with Blood's Honor again! All I now is whatever the plan is, all the other worlds, like Quaker VI, are all for the purpose of distracting Arial McCurdy, Forest Garden, and Blood's Honor as it is pretty much expected for them to take out Talbone within two to four years.

"At the same time, they really expected Talborne to do better at the start, considering EC hired over 50 merc units to support Talborne's assault on the ABR capitol. EC Command wants that civil war to continue for at least a couple of years then they wanted Blood's Honor to spend another year or two cleaning up the problems like Quaker VI, because Quaker VII and like worlds will grow tired of being crushed by the likes of the Quaker VI's out there and will ask for outside help. When they do, it will, of course, be the vaunted Blood's Honor who will help deal with it. However, EC needs it to take a lot of time, which is why I guess they didn't want a government in exile to form so soon for Quaker VII. I can think of no other explanation for this kind of mission."

Caleb fired his forward thrusters backing way form the ejection pod. "I got what I wanted, sir." Caleb radioed the bridge of the Grey Stallion, do what you want with her."

A moment later twin Quark Cannon beams slashed into the pod, destroying it and killing the woman before she even knew she was being fired on. Caleb's mom's voice came over the radio, "No one shoots at my boy and lives."

Captain Tanner broke the uneasy silence after nearly 30 seconds, "I think mom has spoken."

"Indeed." Vlad replied with a nervous laugh, as he glanced toward the still quite distant Grey Stallion. "I now know where Caleb gets his space gunnery genes."

"Damn straight." Caleb's mom answered. "Major, when you get down to me, have whoever it is bring me a beer, a bottle of whiskey and a container of the hard shit Dante's mom brews up in their quarters."

"Are you in that much pain?" Captain Tanner quickly asked with a great deal of concern.

"To be honest, my neck is killing me, and I can barely move my head. My right shoulder and right knee are really messed up too. That's why I want the whiskey."

Captain Tanner glanced over to Major O'Connell with a quizzical look.

Major O'Connell grabbed the mike, "OK, so what in the hell is the beer and the nasty crap from the Master Sergeant's room for?"

Caleb's mom took a deep breath, "The beer is for a parched throat, and the 180 plus proof crap is to get solidly drunk cause I need to be after waking up only to find my kid is out their kicking ass and taking names in an IPSC only a pair of months after he turned eleven!"

Caleb responded, "Like Vladimir said, mom, I got some good genes!"

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