Castle Roland

O'Connell's Grenadiers

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 14

Published: 2 Jul 15

O'Connell's Grenadiers

Copyright © by
Kyle Aarons

Robin entered the upper level Tactical Action Center, or TAC accompanied by Jessie, Cody, Luna, Jared, and the cadet commanders from the infantry, armor, and frame sides of the Quaker VII academy. For aerospace support the former cadet XO was included because the cadet commander had fully signed on with the Grenadiers.

Command Sergeant Black eyed the group for a few moments before introducing the two men standing behind him. "Before you all take a seat, I want you to all meet my team's second in command, Master Sergeant Ryder to my left." He gestured to a man in his early thirties who looked more like a brick than a human. The man was so muscular he appeared to have no neck and his arms were bigger around than the legs of anyone else in the room.

Command Sergeant Black forced himself to hold a neutral looking face as he saw each and every youngster in the room gaze at the man in awe mixed with fear. Before the kids could wrap their brain around the fact the guy was slightly under 200 centimeters tall as well, he motioned to his right, "And this is Senior Sergeant Nire, my team's tactical assault specialist."

Without hesitation, Sergeant Nire moved forward and shook the hand of every youngster in the group while showing each of them he already knew their names, dates of birth, current academy ranks, and a few small personal details about each of them. He then backed off leaving them to think this all over for a few seconds while studying their reactions.

In order to distract the kids so his team members could get a better read off of them, Command Sergeant Black cleared his throat and started speaking. "I just want to make it clear from the start of this meeting, you all, not me and my team members, have the final say. We are here for advice only."

Robin let out a snort, "With all earned respect, Sergeant Black, I really don't believe you."

The other kids in the room all looked over at Robin with a shocked expression. At the same time Master Sergeant Ryder smirked, Senior Sergeant Nire shot the boy an annoyed glare.

Command Sergeant Black, on the other hand, snickered, "Young man, I am going to find a way to have your mother let you join the Blood's Honor Academy. You are the kind of new blood the Command School and BHJMA needs more of.

"Now what makes you say you don't believe us?"

"The sonic stunners you built into the load-out specs for the frames we were given, for one." Robin fired back with a clear annoyance in his voice. "We ain't Blood's Honor, and I for one have no desire to put a sonic stun shot into any of those we are going after."

"So you are planning on murdering them?" Sergeant Nire demanded to know.

The left side of Robin's mouth twisted upwards, "Call it murder if you want; I call it ridding the galaxy of vermin. Back on New Bravaria, we went down into the sewers and hunted Shredders for food and we saw what Shredders did to people when EC bombed cities forcing the nasty rodents out to rip into people trying to hide from the bombs, so did my mom, Major O'Connell, Captain Tanner along with dozens of others of our framers. All I ever heard was how those things should be eradicated. Those who killed the Captain of the wagon and tried to vac the whole ship are even worse, since they weren't attacking food or fleeing flames. They were killing families, fellow Q VII academy cadets, and their parents. They even used nerve gas on captured civilians.

"They are worse than Shredders! They are not human either, so don't try to tell me they are. They are vermin. Vermin don't need to be captured; they need to be cut down where they stand. If I didn't have a hard point taken up by a stupid stunner, I'd have been able to put more on my frame to make sure it happens."

"OK, then..." Command Sergeant Black's voice droned on for a few seconds before fading. All the while he tried to stare down Robin, but the boy in front of him would not so much as flinch, let alone look away. Finally he took a long breath, "Come hell or high water I am going to make sure you link back up with my daughter, Cory, and Joel. You all are meant to be fighting side by side.

"In the meantime, I need you to pack some of your anger and stuff it in your back pocket while you listen to me and my teammates. Otherwise, the three of us are going to pull the plug on the stealth bots and head back to the resupply ship. I am not going to be part of a group of hot-headed punks on a vendetta mission. There are still well over a hundred people down there who are not behind what happened to any of you, your friends, or their families.""But we aren't going to be shooting at them, sir." Jared stated with confusion.

Master Sergeant Ryder stepped forward, grabbed Cody, spun the startled boy around and backed up away from the group of kids. Without any hesitation the massive man pulled a knife from his belt and held it to Cody's' throat. "OK, kids, this is the situation you may well face. How are you going to take me without my hand twitching and putting a deep blade wound into a hostage?"

Luna snarled out without a moment of thought. "If I was in my frame, I would jump forward, grab your arm and shatter it, take the knife, pin your surviving hand to a piece of wood so you were held up, then slam my carbon steel axe through your legs taking them both off at the knees. I would then back off and leave you there to bleed to death."

While Sergeant Nire cringed at the description, Command Sergeant Black's hand crashed into his forehead. "OK, let him go, Sergeant. I think we need something a bit more complicated to get our point across to the young mercs in our midst."

Cody let out a sigh of relief as the massive man sheathed the blade, gave him a healthy pat on the back and let him go. "Um, I guess I am confused. What good would a stunner be..."

Robin's eyes rolled as he responded, "He was thinking we would say to shoot you with the stunner so you would jerk back and fall, and at least slightly confuse they guy holding you. They wanted a non-lethal way of getting us an open shot at him. You would probably end up with a nasty cut under your chin, but the vital part of your neck would stay intact. But I am with Luna. Grabbing his hand with the power assist of the frame and crushing it around the held blade would have been my answer as well. I'd follow it up with a few gut shots from my carbon steel fists, then send a few more into his shoulders and hips to bust them up before I dropped him. Then if the jerk was holding someone I knew, like you, I would kick him through the nearest wall for hurting a friend. A sonic stunner would be the last thing I would think about using."

Sergeant Nire eyed Robin skeptically, "And you really know how to hand fight in frames?"

This time Jared busted up laughing, "Before any of us core double digits were allowed to fire a frame weapon! All the O'Connell double D's are taught how to fight unarmed in a cargo-loading frame before we are ever allowed into a combat frame! The Major says we need to learn the power of what we are piloting before we can really understand how to fight in an armed one. Even Caleb and Dante could have ripped the arms off of your Master Sergeant before he put a nick on Cody's neck as close as we were to you!"

Luna noted how all three men were still eyeing them with a tinge of disbelief. "One of the things all of us Grenadiers were so weirded out by, was the lack of unarmed frame combat in the academy. All of us tested out and got basic certs in piloting without having to throw a single punch or kick at a hard target. The whole piloting testing process was a total joke to us."

"We noticed." Geva nodded. "My whole Cadet Command Squad, along with the Infantry Command Squad, and Armor Squad, watched you all test and you all smoked it." She turned to the three men. "Before they were allowed in, they had to do our obstacle course in a Trainer class frame. Even those who were almost too small, like Dante and Caleb, made it with several minutes to spare on the clock."

"Trainer class, not Cadet or Micro class frames?" Sergeant Nire inquired with befuddlement.

"The cadre thought by putting them in a larger and heavier frame they would have a better chance of failing. All it did was make them get through it faster, since they all pretty much ran the whole thing and a Trainer frame moves faster than a Cadet or Micro. Caleb was the slowest, but he still finished with nine and a half minutes on the clock. They also all totally messed up the cadre on the final part where they were to engage targets."

Sergeant Nire cocked his head to the side, "How do you mess up the teachers when engaging targets?"

Geva snickered, "They ran the full course with full loads of paint ammo and paint burning lasers. At the end, when they thought they were done, six targets popped up and they were radioed to engage. All of us thought the orders were pretty straight forward..."

"They were!" Robin looked over with confusion. "The first five were all cutouts of men holding remotely controlled weapons. I took on the first two, one with a kick, the other with a fist to the face, sprayed the next three with the light machinegun, while getting behind some cover then unloaded on the last one since it was a kid in a cadet frame. He pegged me a couple of times, but I still won with no problem!"

Jared looked over, "Pretty much the same thing I did when I ran it, but I used the pistol on the third and fourth one while rolling for cover, put a light laser into the fifth, then fought the frame. We beat the crap out of each other, but I was declared winner, barely."

Luna snickered, "I clothes-lined the first, elbowed the head off the second, leg swept the third, and followed it up with a heel plant into the center of the wood cutout which snapped the heavy rifle it had mounted on it, and sprayed the last two. From there I simply led the machinegun into the framed up kid. Whoever was in it only hit me a few times before I managed to hit him with a trio of grenades, a few light lasers, and full burst of machinegun rounds from behind..."

Geva shook her head and smiled. "Yeah, Mitchev lost you and the next thing he knew his back was being plastered with paint rounds. It took him over six hours to clean it all off and then repaint it so he could make inspection. But each time you all went through it, you Grenadiers took out at least two infantry targets without firing and freaking Dante, Caleb and Zane were really nuts."

"Oh?" Jared looked over clearly wanting an explanation.

Geva let out a long breath, "Caleb ripped one of the fence posts out of the ground, snapped the first cutout, spun and delivered a backhand with the post to the second and threw it like a spear through the third, before putting pistol shots into the last two. It gave Glorna a chance to get a couple of good shots off into him, but he charged her and knocked her down, then opened up at point blank range with everything. She was too shook up to even get another shot off so she just laid there and took it until the cadre finally remotely shut off Caleb's weapons. They sent her frame out for special cleaning because there was paint and burns everywhere, plus the back had some real armor damage since he knocked her down hard."

This got some laughter out of Jared, "You should have warned us not to do real damage to the other frame if you all didn't want it beat up a bit. He is not a very good shot inside a frame. He probably felt it was best to get close."

"Not a good shot in a frame, but put him in the seat of a fighter..." Luna let the thought trail off showing she was still astonished by what Caleb had done. "What about Dante?"

"I saw his full run, because by the time he came up, it was clear you guys were not the same kind of framers as we had in the academy," Gregori answered with the shake of his head. "Dante's run turned into part of a training session on why to never let a framer get a running start at an infantryman. He bull rushed the first target, lined himself up with the next ones and dropped and rolled. He mangled the next two. He then must have overridden the minimum detonation of the grenades somehow, which I had no clue anyone could even do by the way... Anyway, he pulled an override somehow for the rounds in his grenade launcher because he rolled down the hill to get behind cover and fired grenade after grenade. They air burst splaying Denli and the last two targets with all sorts of paint. It confused her so badly she didn't notice him get back up. He ended up tapping her on the back of her frame and told her to surrender or he would make a mess out of her frame. He didn't end up with a drip of paint or a burn on his frame."

The three men were now glancing over at the totally satisfied smirks on the Grenadier kids while the others all eyed Geva and Gregori as if they were wondering why they had never heard any of this before. Command Sergeant Black finally let out a long breath, "OK, so what about this Zane? What exactly did he do, and why in the name of God did the cadre not give all of the Grenadiers officer spots?"

"Mercs were looked down on..." Jessie responded with a shake of his head. "They fought tooth and nail to get all of the mercs kicked out. But the more pressure the cadre put on us to get rid of them, the tougher they got, which is why I decided to get to know Robin and befriend him. Once I did, I knew I had a friend for life."

"So why make the effort in the first place if all the cadets were told to push them out?" Sergeant Ryder asked as he cocked his head to the side.

"First off, I pretty much knew before they even showed up I really had no idea what being in the military would take and was not sure I had whatever it was. I also liked the way all the merc kids, even the non-Grenadier kids, who came into the academy carried themselves. I think it was the second or third week after they started when I saw Robin step between a couple of senior Quaker VII cadets and a new junior cadet just before lights out in the dorm area. They were really hassling this kid because he was having some homesickness.

"Robin told them to back off but instead they came at him. One ended up stuffed in a towel locker and the other hogtied with his own jacket. They were both bigger than him, but they never stood a chance. He left them there and I never heard anymore about it, but both kids steered way clear of Robin whenever they saw him. I guess I liked what he did for the new kid. Plus, I knew if I ever had to fight I would need to have some of the toughness he and the others showed."

Robin snickered, "I knew if they told, I would get into big trouble and probably get tossed out, so I told them if they didn't keep their mouths shut I'd have the Grenadiers kidnap them and take them with us as ship cleaning boys when we left the system. I passed it on and let the others deal with them."

Luna grinned deviously. "A couple of us went and let them loose, but first we stripped them, took all their clothes, and tossed them up into trees in the garden area. We took vids of them getting them down. Then, as they went to breakfast the next morning, Neil and I grabbed them, pulled them out of the hall and put bags over their heads before taking them out the side door. We told them it really would be just that easy to take them whenever we wanted and the Grey Stallion needed a couple of good cleaning boys."

Geva sighed, "Well, now I have a good idea why Andev and Nikolai flatly refused to help try to drum you and the others out..."

"It wasn't just the threat of being taken by the Grenadiers." Jared chuckled, "Valerie kept threatening to put the vid of them getting their clothing out of the trees on the academy public chat board."

Command Sergeant Black and his teammates couldn't help themselves. They all chuckled and shook their heads at not only the descriptions, but also how satisfied all the Grenadier kids looked about how the situation was handled. Sergeant Nire finally spoke up. "OK, but they surely could have found excuses to kick out the mercs if they really wanted to."

Geva shook her head. "No, because too many of the kids were afraid to really do or say much. Bad things happened to those who did. One or two instructors even had interesting accidents when they went overboard and were obviously mean or unfair. Besides, those of us who saw the runs were impressed and we wanted them around. We were told not to say who was in the frames, even though they all ended up in training vids for advanced frame, armor and infantry cadets, but we knew we would all be better with the mercs in the academy with us. You know, it was kind of hard to bite my tongue when I heard some of the others commenting on how good the pilots of the Trainer frames were. Most thought they had been piloted by cadre."

"Sounds like the cadre should have viewed the Grenadiers as a resource, not a blight." Sergeant Nire grumbled. "Had they done so, you all may not have lost your world."

"We would have been a lot better off, no question." Geva nodded in agreement.

Gregori nodded, "And a whole lot of people in the academy would not have ended up being so afraid of you all. I tend to think less money would have been spent in the infirmary too. Messing with a Grenadier was known to be hazardous to health and happiness after only a few months."

Robin shrugged, "A bit late to worry about what should have happened now, but I am with Command Sergeant Black. I want to know what Zane did."

"You all didn't talk it over?" Sergeant Nire demanded to know.

Jared shook his head. "No, we all decided we each needed to earn our own way so we never talked over the obstacle course. Besides, it was so easy... There was nothing to really brag about. I think we all kind of shrugged it off."

Seeing Geva frowning, Jared decided to explain a bit further. "I mean, we had a full hour to run the course and the radio message said we would be accepted if we got at least three kills and did some damage to the frame. Any moron who knew anything about frame piloting and combat should have had no problem with it."

Geva lowered her head, "Over half the kids who come from other academies fail the first time and they only have to take out two of the infantry cutouts..." She looked up and forced a grin. "Zane, on the other hand... He took all six down and never fired a shot."

"Huh?" Master Sergeant Ryder belched out. "How?"

"He's nuts." Gregori answered with a shake of his head, which in turn caused the Grenadier kids to bust up laughing.

Master Sergeant Ryder eyed the kids from the Grenadiers with a bemused grin, knowing by the reaction alone, the kids who knew this Zane had a similar yet more refined take on the youngster in question. "So, I gather this comes as no surprise to some of you?"

Luna managed to hold back some laughter as she looked up with a gleam in her eyes, "Nothing would surprise us when it comes to Zane!"

The three men glanced over at each other before Command Sergeant Black finally spoke up, "OK, I want to hear this. He pointed at Gregori, "Out with it young man."

Gregori talked as he pulled out a memory stick out of his side pouch. "I'll let you watch what the academy cameras caught so you can see it for yourself."

"You kept a recording of it?" Jared shouted out in surprise.

"I have a recording of all of your runs. Like we said, we used them as part of our anti-frame training to show what happens when an infantryman thinks he knows what a framer is about to do. Until you all ran the course, we never had anyone attack more than the first infantry cutout by hand, let alone all five like Zane did."

Sergeant Nire took the memory stick and inserted into the computer. Noting the stick held hundreds of full classes, along with a long list of vids he decided to make a copy so he could see some of what the academy taught and how they did so as time permitted. Even as the computer made a full copy, he scrolled down the list, "Ah, here we go, Grenadier Mercenary Zane Qualification Run, overhead view of combat sequence."

The holographic player flickered once then brought up an image of a Trainer class frame jumping off a three-meter high wall. The pilot dropped to the ground and rolled, coming back up on the frame's feet with a great deal more ease than the three adults figured a young cadet could. The clock in the lower left side suddenly stopped counting down showing twelve minutes forty-one seconds. A radio transmission came over the speaker, "Impressive time, note your weapons are now free. You must engage the six targets as best as you can. Take out three infantry figures and hit the frame and we will accept you into the academy. Major Ikev out."

Even as five infantry cut outs popped up from behind mounds in front of the frame, Zane dove and rolled. Those manning the attached remotely operated weapons on the infantry cutouts didn't react fast enough. A pair of lasers, a bullet from a heavy rifle, a pistol shot, and a light rocket round all missed. Zane simply continued his roll toward the first two cutouts. He took out the first with a punch to the groin as he rolled by it, the second with a snap kick, the third by rolling into and over it shattering the wooden cutout and totally mangling the remotely controlled heavy rifle.

He then grabbed what was left of the rifle in his left hand and a large rock with his right. He popped up over the hill and whipped the rock at the furthest infantry cutout, putting a hole through the face of it, then spun out of the way of fire from a frame as it came over the hill. As he spun, he hurled the chunk of heavy rifle into the last infantry cutout, putting a hole through the chest portion showing he was probably ambidextrous. He then rolled down the hill and disappeared from view for a several seconds until the overhead drone could fly over the hill. By the time it did so and the camera was pointed in the proper direction, there was no sign of Zane.

The cadre commander's voice came over the radio, "Jasha we have lost visual, be careful. Switch over to IR."

"Hey!" Luna snarled, "That's cheating!"

"Trust me, we noticed," Geva nodded in agreement, "but it didn't do Jasha any good."

Even as the other Grenadiers grumbled about how unfair it was for the cadre to help the kid in the frame, the vid focused on Jasha. The boy piloted his frame over to the hill and looked down, but there was no sign of Zane. "I got nothing. Did he run away?"

"We don't know where he is, cadet, but he didn't run or we would have seen him. Also he knows his frame will shut down as soon as it gets to the edge of the training area. He is around here somewhere, but we have seen some pretty crazy stuff from these new applicants so far, so be ready for anything."

Jasha let out a long nervous breath as he moved down the hill, firing off a few bursts out of his machinegun at possible hiding spots as he moved. Still not finding anything, he started to head up the hill on the back side when Zane's arms came out of the mud at the bottom of the hill, tripped Jasha, then stood. Before Jasha could roll over, Zane sat down on Jasha's back, grabbed onto the frame's elbows, and spoke, "You either pop white surrender smoke or I will rip out your hydraulics, which will break your elbows inside the frame."

"This is cheating!" Jasha shouted.

"No, this is how I would get a back-up frame without putting a scratch on it and not wasting ammo when I didn't need to. By the way, you owe me a decent dinner, cause if you don't, I'll tell everyone how I punked you out here."

The overhead showed Zane start to pull back on the arms of the frame getting a slight gasp of pain out of Jasha. "OK! You win." Jasha relented after another tug on his frame's arms. Seconds later white smoke popped and blocked out both frames.

Command Sergeant Black made a slashing motion with his hand signaling to kill the vid. "By rolling in the mud and staying down, he blocked the heat from his frame. Devious, and extremely well played. Before I leave, I want to meet this Zane. Like you others, he deserves to be at Blood's Honor Academy."

"I really don't think they would want us. " Luna stated with a smirk, "We'd make them look bad and get way too many demerits to ever get rank."

This got some snickers out of the adults in the room. At the same time, several of the Quaker VII kids couldn't help but nod in agreement.

"After seeing what Zane did, it makes me wonder if the fight the two of them got into... I mean do you think the fist fight they had in the hall a few months ago had anything to do with the obstacle course?" Luna wondered aloud.

"No idea." Geva shrugged. "All I know is we all decided to edit out the ‘punked' part before showing everyone the senior students in our classes the vid. I also know Jasha refused to blame Zane for the fist fight, saying it was a fair fight, even after the cadre threatened him with a demotion and hard labor. Some of us stepped in to prevent it, but I doubt Jasha would have ever gotten another promotion or at least not one for a very long time."

"No need to worry about Jasha, now." Luna hardened. "He is one of us."

"Good for him." Gregori managed a smile. "I know a few started calling him a merc lover after the fist fight. Kind of dumb, since he all but got his face rearranged by Zane."

Off to the side Command Sergeant Black scratched the top of his head and replayed the vid while the kids talked. Finally, after watching the whole thing again he decided to run through a few of the others with his team members, including Robin's academy qualification test. After nearly twenty minutes, he cleared his throat and pulled up floor plans of a building. "OK, so I can clearly see all of you Grenadiers have been given pretty extensive unarmed frame combat training. A few of you would probably be able to get basic certifications in it and be allowed to move on to Frame Martial Arts. Luna, you may even be able to pass FMA. If not right off, it would not take much to get you there. I don't think Zane is not far behind either."

"Zane's dad and Luna's mom are lead teachers for us," Robin informed Sergeant Black. "So they get lots of extra work on frame unarmed fighting. Some of us think Zane actually likes to get tossed around by his dad while framed up, since he does so every chance he gets."

Command Sergeant Black rolled his eyes, "Yup, I need to meet this Zane, I think I like him already. I also have to admit, we are all impressed. However, I pulled up a few scenarios I want you to look over."

Robin jerked his head for the others to move closer to the holographic table. The fact the others, even those a year or two older than Robin, all ceased talking and obeyed was not lost on any of the adults.

Sergeant Black nodded over to Nire and took a step back. Sergeant Nire made sure he had everyone's undivided attention before he started talking. "This is a direct after action's vid from a Brave Humanities research dome on Yeti XI. We were called in after a Star Tech infiltration team breached the compound to steal plasma research and ended up getting caught by Brave Humanities on-site security. They took over fifty hostages including a score of dependents."

Sergeant Nire fast forwarded but at a speed that showed the Brave Humanities strike team enter the facility, take out a half dozen Star Tech infiltrators and free well over half the hostages. He then hit pause. "At this point we sent an ultimatum over for the remainder to surrender or be eliminated. Some of the hostages must have overheard and panicked."

As the player restarted the images showed part of the Star Tech assault team moved to stop a group of eight hostages and they made a break for it. This put the fleeing non-combatants between Star Tech frames and Brave Humanities frames. Even as the Star Tech framers started to open fire, the Brave Humanities frames moved forward. Instead of engaging the frames, they shot stunners into the fleeing hostages. With the non-combatants lying on the floor unconscious, the Brave Humanities frames turned their attention to the Star Tech frames and decimated them.

Sergeant Nire dismissed the holographic images, "Had we opened fire right off, all eight of those people would have certainly been killed, which means BH would have lost a pair of valuable scientists. Instead only one of the non-combatants was killed and one wounded. It also left us with wide-open fields of fire to take out the four frames facing us. The last three surrendered once we encircled the room they were in and breached it in five areas. Only two more civilians were killed."

Jared shook his head, "Those first eight were just plain stupid! The ran right into a crossfire!"

"Agreed," Sergeant Ryder barked out, "but they didn't know better. They were scientists and the kids of scientists. Military training tells you it was dumb. To those running, they saw friendlies and just wanted to get to us. We can't blame them for not knowing better."

"Common sense should have kicked in," Luna snickered, "especially since they were supposed to be smart to start with."

"Common sense and being smart have very little to do with each other, Luna." Sergeant Nire lightly scolded the girl. "Some of the smartest people in a lab are also some of the last to duck when bullets start flying. They just aren't wired to think fast when dealing with threats, nor do they really comprehend dangers outside in the real world. Even people trained in the art of war can lose it."

Seeing he still was not getting through, he glanced back over his shoulder, "Sergeant Ryder, pull up the Andar IX palace airstrike and the stunning of Prince Kojol of Jade Water."

Sergeant Ryder started to protest but was cut off by a shake of the head of Sergeant Black. "Let them see it. I was with Blood's Honor at the time and was there. They need to see real panic now, before they face it in others for real. My girl knows Robin and a couple of others here. They fought side by side. Besides, we already know Talborne knows who was behind the crushing of his son's frame force and the Ulysses Sixth Armor. There is no real reason for it to be classified at this point."

"I'm more worried about giving these kids nightmares tonight." Sergeant Ryder muttered as he typed on the control terminal for the holographic table.

The scene displayed on the Holo-table shifted to a huge military compound surrounding a massive building with several flags around it, many of which were on fire as was several buildings around the central structure. A pair of fighters appeared off to the left sending beams of laser light and tracered machinegun rounds across the courtyard cutting down dozens fleeing the large building.

A single Cadet frame sent up a pair of micro missiles, hitting the engine of one of the fighters causing it to explode and slam into a fountain only meters from the front steps of the main building.

Suddenly the voice of a young boy came over the radio, "Chip, this whole place is going nuts! Many of the senior cadets are starting to fold and run. We can't hold for long and I am almost out of missile ammo..."

"Joel!" Luna, Jared and Robin all spoke at the same time.

Sergeant Ryder nodded, clearly surprised all three kids were now totally focused on the lone Cadet frame with a degree of concern on their faces.

The audio continued even as all the kids edged closer. "Joel, I have a kid from Andar who says we can get all the competition frames online, I just need a few minutes!"

Another young voice came over the radio, "Guys, I am with some framers from New Bravaria. They are ready to help and know where there is a rearming station. If we can activate their weapons we can move and hold it so we can get everyone with live ammo!"

Joel's voice came back instantly, "Chip, get the Andar kid to wherever you need him! Karen, Terrin break off and cover Chip and the kid he is with. Beth, you and Jennifer link up with me where we had dinner and take out their fighters! They are ripping up cadre and cadets with every pass!"

The scene panned outward showing the lone cadet frame fire again, this time with a large laser. It hit a missile under the fuselage of another fighter, causing both the missile and the fighter to explode. "Blood's Honor Command, tell us where to send all those Cory, Beth and Brandon are getting into vehicles before we lose the palace and everyone in it!"

At this point the drone view clearly showed the state of chaos over a wide area. People were running with no rhyme or reason, some diving for cover, others just running. Even many of those in frames seemed to scatter, or worse yet, run into the open so they could easily be targeted by strafing fighters. Off in the distance another fighter took a missile hit, spiraled out of control, and slammed into a building.

"Chip, as soon as you get the codes and free the frames we need to find people to get up into the gun towers. The adult barracks are in flames and I don't think many made it! We need some of those heavier guns, or this is going to be a very short fight. We can't hold off everything like this and I see incoming PLC's!"

From one end of the massive base to the other, very few offered any resistance. Instead they ran or hid. This started to change as Chip's voice came back over the radio, "New Bravaria cadets, prepare for full weapon release!"

As Chip's voice continued to tell kids from other academies their frame weapons were being released to full power, some of the frames stated to fight back. As this happened, another voice started helping Joel to organize a better defense with those who suddenly had full power to the lasers and other energy weapons mounted on their frames. The same voice also started directing activated frames to cover infantry cadets, so they could get to static weapons and at least provide some extra heavy defensive fire.

"That's Gabriel!" Robin pumped his fist. "They were all on Andar when it was hit! They are the ones who fought back, weren't they?"

Command Sergeant Black nodded and grinned at the smiles plastered on the faces of the Grenadier kids, but motioned for them to continue to watch and listen.

Suddenly a man ran up and a voice could be heard demanding to be given priority on getting to safety. The frame they now all knew Joel was in, pushed the man back and shot him with a sonic stunner without hesitation. He then told two other adults with the man to get him on one of the secured vehicles and to get him the guy out of his face so he could fight.

"Right on Joel!" Jared snickered. "The guy was being a giant ass-wipe."

"Agreed," Command Sergeant Black stated, "but you are missing the bigger picture here, guys. Most of those running around doing nothing useful were and many still are, military cadets and adult leaders. This cowardly sneak attack killed thousands, but many were pulled off because a very few stood the line. The man you saw Joel shoot, happened to be a senior official of Jade Water III. Because of him, and other high officials rescued by a few Blood's Honor cadets, Forest Garden was able to form a coalition of other former ABR planets to fight Talborne and the rest of the ABR he subjugated. Without the use of a stunner Jade Water would probably not be part of the New Frontiers Coalition, led by Blood's Honor and Forest Garden.

"Non-lethal weapons were used by just about every one of the kids you all consider friends from the fight back on New Bravaria. Most of those shots were on non-hostile targets who were in the way. Yeah, there were a whole lot of very angry people, but the vast majority realized in short order it was better to get stunned and dragged out by others, than to be under the heel of Talborne or dead."

Robin clenched his fist, "OK, fine. So I will use the stunner on idiot NC's, but don't expect me to use it on any Q VI or EC jackasses."

Command Sergeant Black held up a hand to prevent his team members from saying anything. "Up to you, but a prisoner or two wouldn't hurt. Non-Combatants, or NC's as you like to call them, deserve protection for sure. Also knocking out a few NC's will keep them safe if they happen to get into the line of fire. However, we still don't have much hard intel and the one you all captured on your ship hasn't been very forthcoming. It is possible there isn't much hard intel to be had, but it would be nice to know what happened to the others who fought you in the passages of the wagon. It may be the best chance we have to find out what happened to any captives they had with them."

Jared sighed as he glanced over to Robin and Jessie, "He's right. We need to find out what happened to Jessie's brother and some of the others missing out of the luxury cabins. The Q VI moron was on a different team than the one you fought, since they came aboard our ship to do whatever they were going to do before Lieutenant Mischev and us took 'em out. We need someone who might know more about the Captain's yacht and where they were planning on going."

"And how they plan to get there." Sergeant Nire interjected. "Since we haven't found it, it is either hiding out on a moon somewhere or moved into deeper space. Finding her is probably not going to happen unless we can find some intel to give us a starting point."

"OK, fine..." Robin sighed, "I'll keep the stupid stunner on my frame, but I'd still prefer to have the extra hard point for something a little more powerful." He then turned to stare right back at Command Sergeant Black, "But don't go getting all pissed off when I don't use the stunner on the Q VI asshole I am going to bring back for you to talk to. A stunner ain't nearly painful enough."

Sergeant Ryder rolled his eyes, "I'll let our interrogation guys know they will need to have medical standing by for any you bring back, Robin."

A smirk spread over Robin's face, "Tell whoever it is to have lots of air-casts on hand."

Although a bit disappointed by the boy's attitude, Command Sergeant Black gave a single nod. "Understood, so how about we get down to us helping you all to plan this assault?"

Robin pulled up his readout as the Brave Humanities frame assault craft decelerated and come to a stop hovering one hundred and fifty meters above the surface of the moon's surface. Before he could even begin to get a grasp on all the information provided by his battle map HUD, Command Sergeant Black's voice came over the radio. "Assault group one, prepare to deploy. At this time you have total air superiority from your fellow Quaker cadets. No hostiles are airborne. Remember, this is a combat drop so you will have some turbulence from the hover thrusters. Wait for your drop pods to come to a complete rest before breaking out of your cocoons to prevent injury. Good luck assault group one."

A moment later a round opening appeared under the drop pod and the mechanical arm holding the drop pod Robin's frame was in let go. It took less than a second before Robin was no longer in the ship. Instead he was freefalling, literally dropped out of the bottom of the hovering assault craft. Even though he had done this a hundred times in simulators, nothing he could have done really prepared him for the first real drop.

First there was weightlessness for an instant then the thrill of plummeting one hundred and twenty meters. The first part of the fall was beyond bumpy as the pod fell through the thrust of the already departing assault craft. Then there were a few spectacular moments of straight freefall. Not letting himself get too giddy, Robin almost forgot to look at his landing trajectory, but countless hours in simulators and time spent with Major O'Connell took over. He used a couple of quick side thruster bursts to get his landing spot away from a particularly nasty rocky crag, then let the pod auto adjust on its own. Finally there was the gut churning pressure as the drop pod fired off powerful thrusters to slow the descent to a safe speed and last but not least, the jarring motion of the pod slamming into the moon's surface. The shock absorption in the bottom of the pod prevented injury, but it still left Robin a bit shook up.

Robin extended his frame's arms, busting encasement so he could step out. Even as he did so, he couldn't help himself as he smiled widely and shouted, "Kick ass! I want to do that again!"

Robin quickly calmed as the readout showed all one hundred and fifty-five frames selected for the initial assault drop were on the ground.

He cringed as he saw twenty-nine of the dots turn red, meaning twenty-nine of those with him had problems of some sort. This had to be priority. "OK, people, send your status over to Cody. If you're close to any damaged frames or injured cover them. It looks like Command Sergeant Black was right, some of us didn't do so well on our first real drop. Jared and Luna, looks like you picked the right people, both your teams are totally intact. Move in and secure the outer buildings before they get organized. Remember to try to pull as many frames as possible to you so they don't have as many framers guarding the NC's."

Even as Jared and Luna confirmed commands, Robin noticed Jessie's frame limping slightly. He moved over to his friend, "You OK?"

Jessie gritted his teeth inside his frame. "I busted out too soon and twisted my knee. I have some very minor hydraulic damage which is going to slow me down and my knee is not real happy with me at the moment."

"OK, hold back and help guard the really badly hurt and damaged frames. Take five others of your choice. Once Brave Humanities med teams get here, move in and help if you are up to it. Otherwise..."

"I'm not going back on a med shuttle, no way!"

This got a smile out of Robin, "Understood, see you in the camp."

Cody spoke up, "Robin, Jannie and Meriv are hurt bad, they both broke out of their pods before they even hit the ground. Several others broke out too soon and have some degree of frame damage. Most also have some degree of real injury."

Robin responded, "Jessie twisted his knee but other than real minor damage, he is fine. But since he is slowed, he is going to pull people to guard and tend to the fallen while we move. I need a wingman though."

Dante spoke up, "Robin, Stasik's pod landed on a rocky outcropping and mangled his drop pod. His arm is screwed. Best I can tell his frame's arm is busted and so is his wrist. He's out. You can take his wingman, Jasha, if you want him."

Robin didn't hesitate, "Jasha, you are with me. Stasik, I can already see help on the way on my HUD. Stay put. Dante, get the rest of your team up and moving. Take what is left of Alpha Two. I want you to cut off escape from the mine and take the outer buildings. With as many frames as we lost from Alpha Two, they are in no shape to take it like we planned."

Inside his frame Dante's eyes went wide at being handed such an important mission. "I'm on it, Robin!"

Up on the White Tiger, Major O'Connell clenched his fist upon hearing the transmission. "Kay, you need to escort those med shuttles in fast. Sounds like a few of your friends are pretty messed up."

Caleb's voice came over the radio, "The ferry is making a break for it and has pop-up turrets. The others will have to escort the shuttles in. I'm breaking off with Yuri to make sure it doesn't get far, Major."

"Take the bastard down!" Major O'Connell growled, "But if you can, leave it with enough intact to land again. They may have some of the hostages aboard. Also, try to disable any guns so they can't shoot back, even if you have to strafe the bastards once you force them down."

"Count on it, sir." Caleb responded with a degree of anger in his voice, "But we are going to need some ground forces to secure it once it hits the moon's surface again."

Command Sergeant Black spoke up, "Geva, it sounds like you are going to have to go change your plans, target is on the move. Get with Sergeant Nire so he can help update your attack strategy."

"Will do." Geva responded, "I think we are going to have to do this on the fly, though. All the tactical maps he came up with for the best paths to attack the ship are useless..."

"He can still give you some pointers. You will have to do the rest."

One of the other kids in Geva's command team responded. "As long as your pilots and crew can get us there, we'll take out the trash, Sergeant Black!"

Command Sergeant Black forced a snicker before changing frequencies. "Ryder, the kids are down and moving. Take in your group and get the hostages out of the mines now, before they realize we are taking an active role. There is no way I want those kids fighting in a mine let alone a whole underground complex of tunnels."

"Moving now." Sergeant Ryder confirmed, "Just keep them focused on the outer buildings until you hear back from us."

Zane's dad shot a sharp glance over to Command Sergeant Black, "You best hope our double digits never find out about this. They really wanted to do this on their own."

"And for the most part they are." Command Sergeant Black stated seriously. "But a single misplaced shot or one hostile with an explosive charge could bring down the whole place on whatever kids go in there. Sergeant Ryder and his team are the best BH has in underground fighting, and with their Stealth frames, they will be able to get in and out before whoever is down there even knows the mines were infiltrated. We'll clear the place, put a holographic image of a hostile frame around one or two of his team, and will let them forcibly move the hostages to a relatively safe location. Then we can let your kids get them out."

Major O'Connell rolled his eyes, "For your sake and mine, I hope your people pull it off. If they don't, it is not going to be much fun living around Robin for the foreseeable future."

"The more I hear about your kids, Major, the more I am convinced we need them all in Blood's Honor Academy."

"Sorry, we don't take handouts, so unless they manage to capture a PLC or something even bigger, I don't see how we could ever scrape together the money."

Captain Tanner tossed his own thought in, "Still, it would be nice to see them somewhere safe for a while..."

"Maybe we could work out some kind of contract with Blood's Honor once your current one is up. I bet we could add a clause where part of it is sending your kids to the academy. Blood's Honor is in need of good merc units since Talborne took the ABR and yours has an outstanding rep."

Major O'Connell raised an eyebrow, "Not a bad idea. If you really want them, though, maybe you could come up with a minor contract, something a bit tougher than this, where they could earn their own way. This would cut down on a whole lot of bitching from the parents and not make it a free pass. It would have to be something tough enough to where they actually earn their way in, though. My XO is correct. I don't take handouts and a pushover contract is still a handout."

"I'll put my feelers out and see what we can come up with. I bet there is a minor Talborne outpost Blood's Honor wouldn't mind getting rid of somewhere. An assault on even a small important outpost is worth a couple million, so it would pay for your kids to be in Blood's Honor Academy."

Captain Tanner smirked, "Yup, the soon to be newest merc unit in AIM, the Rugrat Renegades."

Even as the adults in the room snickered, they watched a live vid feed from Caleb's Timberwolf IPSC. Caleb barrel rolled to avoid cannon fire from a back turret. He then lined up and used his nose mounted standard laser to take out the turret. The boy dove to stay under the firing arc of the ferry's upper turret, pulled the nose up, and put a stream of heavy machinegun rounds and a pair of light lasers into the primary engines of the ferry. The back of the large craft sent out a large belch of smoke and started losing altitude.

Without hesitation, Caleb punched it and deftly darted under the rapidly descending craft before banking up past the nose. He executed a nearly perfect rollover and strafed the top of the ferry with his heavy machineguns, taking out both the front and back turret, leaving the crippled craft totally defenseless while further damaging upper control surfaces.

Yuri's voice came over the radio, "Nice shooting, comrade! Looks like they are out of guns and down to maneuver thrusters. They land with thrusters only or they crash!"

"A large craft kill ribbon, Kay." Captain Tanner cheered the boy on. "Well done!"

A few seconds passed before the pilot of the crippled spacecraft put everything into the underside front thrusters just before the ship slammed into the ground allowing it to land hard with the nose up. The landing gear crumpled under the impact and the craft slid another two hundred meters before the nose buried itself into a low hill.

"Scratch one ferry!" Caleb's voice shouted with jubilance. "It's at grid seven niner one four by six two four two."

"We got it Kay!" Commander Bennett all but shouted showing just how impressed with the youngster she was. "Stay on station and keep your eye out for them to break out any heavy weapons. Geva and her group are on the radio with Sergeant Nire and she is less than five minutes out, but we don't want them trying to put any shoulder launched missiles on the assault craft when many of those are doing their first live pod drop!"

"I'll take the missile before I let the assault craft take it." Caleb growled. "This thing has enough armor to take a shoulder fired missile or two."

While Captain Tanner focused in on Caleb and the crashed ferry, Major O'Connell turned his attention to the attack on the mining camp as the overhead drone picked up the first exchanges of fire. Both Command Sergeant Black and Major O'Connell cringed as one of the young framers turned a corner and ran right into a pair of hostile Riot frames. Both of the enemy pilots proved to be excellent marksman as they sent a combination of laser and machinegun fire into the unprepared youngster.

Even as the young pilot got knocked down, however, Luna and Zane ran straight at the two Riot frames. Luna's chain gun opened up tearing chunks of armor off both frames. This forced the two pilots to focus in on the newcomers, which in turn allowed the pilot of the badly damaged frame to stand and limp out of the line of fire.

Luna got to the pair of frames first and showed no mercy. She fired point blank with both of her standard lasers. One of them found a spot in the armor already damaged by the chain gun and went internal on the pilot's shoulder, causing the pilot to grab at the badly burned shoulder out of instinct. This caused the frame he was piloting to duplicate the maneuver.

Luna saw heavy armor damage to the arm covering the breached spot in the armor and swung her axe at the damage. The blow was precise and devastating. The axe shattered the lower arm sending hydraulic fluid and blood spraying out of the opening the axe created. While those watching the drone feed could not hear the pilot scream, they all cringed as if they had.

Zane was equally vicious with his attack. He put two of his three pico missiles and a burst from his auto ultra rifle into the chest of the second Riot frame knocking it off balance. Then, as the pilot struggled to regain steady footing, he moved behind the Riot frame and pumped a single standard laser into the back armor, breaching it and frying a few power units just under the armor. He then slammed his axe at the rear panel where the pilot climbed in.

Already teetering from the heavy fire, the frame face planted from the impact. Zane didn't think twice. He brought up the carbon steel axe and slammed it back down into the back panel again. His young voice didn't sound in the least bit scared as he snarled, "Surrender now or I will hack through your back armor and snap your backbone!"

Another slash with the Axe was all it took for the Riot frame pilot to pop white smoke, signaling surrender.

Luna radioed, "Nikki I know you took a pounding, but I need you to take the pilot Zane just captured back to the drop zone for extraction if you can."

The pilot in the badly shot up frame reappeared tentatively by poking her frame's head around the edge of the building. Seeing Zane grab the guy and yank him well away from the badly damaged frame, she limped forward. Her voice trembled as she spoke, "Two solid combat kills, comrades!"

"One each," Luna snickered. "But I think it will be easier to repair the frame Zane took down."

"And a lot less messy." Zane added with an undertone of sarcasm in his voice as he shoved the man who had exited the Riot frame over to Nikki. "If he gives you any problems, knee him in the nuts."

Seeing the man's eyes go wide, Luna held up her frame's hand without the axe, showing she had carbon steel fists as well as the axe. "Any problems out of you, mister, and I will slam this fist in your mouth and twist it back and forth until you don't have a tooth left. Got me?"

Seeing the man nod like a bobble head doll, Luna pointed back in the direction of the landing area. "Any problems, frame knee to the nuts and let me know so I can find out how far a frame fist can fit into someone's mouth."

Zane glanced over his shoulder as the man was roughly led away by the limping frame, "I think he pissed himself."

"Good," Luna fired back. "Now let's go take down a couple more Riots so we can each have enough to rebuild one."

Back on the White Tiger Command Sergeant Black shook his head in astonishment, "Frame Martial Arts is a must for those two."

Off to the side, Zane's dad snorted as he took control of the radio, "Sloppy, Son, really, really sloppy. You had him dead to rights. You should have leg swept the guy first and conserved ammo."

"Sorry Dad," Zane responded, "I was just pissed cause I thought they hurt Nikki bad. She's one of us now."

"Well, shit, boy." Zane's father sneered, "Since she's a Grenadier you should have at least backhanded the bastard for shooting at her."

Zane openly laughed, "Come on, Dad, give me a break. I wanted him to be able to try something so Nikki could knee him in the nuts."

This got some laughter out of many in the Tactical Command room of the White Tiger even as Zane's dad responded, "OK, I'll let it slide this time, but it was still kind of a sloppy take down, Son."

"I won't let it happen again, Dad."

Off to the side Command Sergeant Black shook his head and muttered, "I really, really need to meet this Zane."

Back in the mining camp, Robin saw an Aggressor frame put a pair of lasers into one of the frames under his command. He turned and fired his heavy laser and electron rifle. The laser hit, but his lack of skill with advance beam weaponry showed as the electron rifle shot burned a hole in the building behind the frame.

Still, it was more than enough to get the frame pilot's attention, which in turn allowed to kid under his command to get behind some cover.

Robin quickly spun behind a mining rig as the enemy frame focused on him. Bits and pieces of the rig harmlessly bounced off his frame even as Jasha turned and put a sonic rifle shot and a half dozen disks from his auto disk rifle into the enemy frame.

This forced the Aggressor to back off behind a shot up hover car, while an Intruder frame moved up and fired at Jasha from the side. Unfortunately for the pilot, Robin spotted it just in time.

Robin sent four micro missiles and a heavy laser beam at the frame, hitting with everything. This caused the twin lasers it was aiming at Jasha to miss by a wide margin.

Seeing the new threat, Jasha quickly spun and put a gyro round and a light laser shot into the already off kilter frame, causing it to lose balance. It fell hard.

"Nice shooting." Robin praised the new Grenadier. "Finish him while he is out in the open. I'll take the jerk behind the hover car."

"Happy to, comrade." Jasha radioed back even as he put a sonic rifle and a stream of disks into the prone frame. He then followed it up with another gyro round. The armor breached on top of the shoulder and something started sparking. The pilot tried to roll over and sit up so he could bring a weapon to bear, but all it did was give Jasha a nice clean shot as the frame sat up. He put another sonic rifle shot into the chest destroying the remaining armor over the upper left chest. He followed it up with a laser to the same spot. The chest padding meant to protect the pilot wasn't enough to stop the powerful beam. The laser burned into the man's lung, killing him. The frame face planted and didn't move. Moments later the computer detected no muscular commands from its pilot and sent out red smoke to alert medics the pilot was gravely wounded.

Robin, on the other hand, ignored the fallen frame. Instead, he launched another set of four micro missiles into the burned out hover car. Three of the four tore what was left of the vehicle apart, even as the framer behind it took more chunks off the mining rig Robin was using for cover.

The pilot of the enemy frame realized it had no more cover and started to run, angling to get behind a building. It didn't quite get there. Instead Robin's heavy laser breached the lower leg armor of the left leg and burned into the skin underneath. The pilot lost control of the frame and slammed into the building instead of making it behind the structure.

With an easy target, since the frame was half embedded into a wall, Robin brought up everything and let loose. Micro missiles, machinegun rounds, an electron rifle beam, and his heavy laser all found the frame. Hydraulic fluid, and sparks told the tale of multiple armor breaches and damage. Already injured, and knowing there wasn't a chance of surviving another barrage, the pilot popped white smoke and powered down what was left of his frame.

Up at the mine itself, Dante watched the scene around the outer buildings carefully as he maneuvered behind a Riot frame. He let the pilot put a pair of lasers into one of his teammates as he continued to move closer. With a nod to the kid who had just been shot, Dante motioned for the kid to open up, even if a few of the shots resulted in friendly fire. None did. In fact, other than a single light laser hit, the boy missed badly with everything. This gave Dante enough time and provided a good distraction, however. Dante, with ECM on, closed in tight.

Before the enemy framer even knew someone was behind him, Dante fired his heavy gauss rifle into the back of the head of the unsuspecting pilot. The frame staggered forward but didn't even get a chance to turn. Instead Dante fired his laser into the back of the head unit, breaching the armor. He then closed on the stunned pilot and slammed his carbon steel fist into the breach. The hard punch caved in what was left of the back armor and the fist shattered the pilot's skull. Dante pulled his frame's hand back, having to twist and pull hard to get it out of the shattered head unit, but when he did the carbon steel fist was coated in grey matter.

Seeing the kid looking at him with wide eyes through the visor of his frame, Dante shrugged, "Be a bit messy, but easy to repair. Probably have to replace the computer and the radio, but the rest is totally intact. Looks like I got me a back-up frame!"

The boy quivered as he spoke causing his whole frame to shake, "Oh, yuck! You would actually get inside it after..."

"Damn straight!" Dante nodded. "If nothing else it would be a good reminder to never, ever, let anyone behind me." Dante paused and held up the gore-coated fist to give the kid a better look. "Um, if you are going to puke, rise your visor and do it. We are clear since this guy's brains is now all over my fist."

Back in the Tactical Center of the White Tiger, Commander Bennett cringed as the sound of the boy puking came over the radio, "OK, who was that? I know he said it on purpose just to get the poor kid to throw up."

Captain Tanner's eyes sparkled as he turned to glance at the woman, "That, ma'am, would be Dante, and yes, yes he did."

"Not very nice, and kind of disgusting even to this combat vet." Command Sergeant Black chimed in.

Commander Bennett forced a chuckle, "Another real good buddy for Cory if you ask me Command Sergeant."

"Yeah..." Noticing the questioning glance out of his teammate, Command Sergeant Black glanced over to Sergeant Nire, "Don't ask. You wouldn't believe it, even if you heard it."

"But what kid would want to befriend a kid who just punched the back of a guy's skull out and showed the brains to someone just so they would get sick?"

"My adopted son and a few of his friends." Commander Bennett answered smugly.

Suddenly Neil's voice came over the radio, "Robin, we breached the main building and got a few dozen out, but we are too late, they have some of the hostages lined up as shields and a few of them look like they have explosive charges strapped to them. They moved everyone else into the sheriff's office wing and probably into the cells. It is the most hardened building in the camp. If we try to breach the walls, whoever is behind them is going down unless they are in frames or behind some kind of armor. The entrances have hostages secured to the doors, too, so if we try to breach they are going to get splattered all over the place. I can see one of the kids from my frame force back on Q VII, too!"

Caleb's voice came over the radio, "They lied! They said they gave us everyone for the QVII academy! We need to try to rescue them!"

Even as Command Sergeant Black punched one of the tables in the Tactical Center out of frustration and anger, Valerie's voice came over the radio, "Hey, Neil, did you happen to rescue kids?"

"Yeah, about two dozen, why?"

"Are there any who looks even close to me?"

"Um..." Neil's voice droned on for a few seconds, "Well, yeah... Real close, but she has dark hair..."

"Don't let her go anywhere. I've got an idea. I'll be there in a few."

As Valerie piloted her Preceptor frame toward the group protecting the group of hostages rescued out of the main building, Commander Bennett glanced over to Major O'Connell, "OK, what is she up to?"

"No clue," Major O'Connell shrugged, "but those are my kids and I say let her go with whatever it is no matter how much we dislike it. She is kind of an unknown to me..." He glanced over at Captain Tanner and got a nod of agreement. "This may be the breakout she need to really show off as a Grenadier."

Commander Bennett pulled up the information on the girl, "She's only eleven and a half..."

"Three and a half months older than Kay, and he already has a fighter kill ribbon with clusters and a large craft kill ribbon on the way." Captain Tanner noted.

"What will you tell her parents if she is killed?" Sergeant Nire demanded to know.

"Her dad died being a Grenadier and her stepmom... well, she has never really recovered from losing her two boys back on New Bravaria..." Major O'Connell sighed, "But she's a double digit and I know Robin will never let anything too bad happen to her. He may kill every hostage to stop it, but no way in hell will he let a Grenadier fall."

Commander Bennett took in and let out an uneasy breath before she held up her hand to stop any of the others from saying anything. "OK, well this should prove interesting... Nail biting and troubling, but interesting and it isn't really our call. We'll defer to you, Major."

More to distract the others than anything, Captain Tanner switched over to talk to Dante, "Hey, buddy, how's it going?"

Dante answered back in a frustrated voice, "Only found three more framers and a few NC's. We have a few armor dings, but those with me are fully combat ready. I still pulled back the three with the worst damage so they could patch their frames while we keep an eye out on the infantry kids so they can sweep the upper floors of the buildings. Our frames are too heavy. Kiev already tried and fell through a floor..." Dante took a long breath, "Captain, can I ask you something?"

"Of course you can, Son."

"Um, well one of the guys with me took a laser hit. I mean it was no big deal or nothing. It'll only take a quick fix with an armor liquefier to drip in a patch, but he is like totally freaked out. His crying like a five-year-old ain't helping a few of the others either. I'm not sure what to do or say."

"What feels right, Dante?"

"Um, to be honest, I kind-a want to slap him or something. If he wasn't still in his frame, I'd have used this stupid stunner they stuck on my frame."

Major O'Connell lowered his head and shook it while Command Sergeant Black slapped his forehead.

Off to the side Sergeant Nire clenched his fist, "First time taking a combat hit freaks a lot of people out..."

"True," Commander Bennett snickered lightly, "but it's pretty clear Dante either never freaked out or has forgotten..."

"Dante..." Zane's dad spoke up. "He wasn't even fazed by his first few tastes of combat. The beatings he's been through are way worse than the nastiest combat situations."

Captain Tanner didn't allow for follow-up questions even though he could see several in the room had them. Instead he spoke to the boy. "Dante, this is your first command, so what you do and how you do it is up to you. But it's not real fair to get angry at someone who is a little gun-shy after being shot for the first time."

"Part of me knows, Captain, but I still want to strangle him!"

Captain Tanner couldn't help himself, he snickered, "Been there, buddy. It's one of those things where what feels right isn't. If I were in command of him right now, I would find something for him to do. Find something he will see as important, but also puts him out of the line of fire so he can calm down."

"Like what, Captain?"

Zane's dad spoke up, "Dante, I know on the first few times I was in combat I used up my ammo way too fast. How are the ammo loads of those with you?"

"Ahhhhh..." Dante's voice droned on for several seconds, "I really don't know... I haven't really paid attention to the others ammo usage. I know I only fired a few shots of actual ammo and I have two of the four kills, and yeah, they are real dead."

"We saw the vid of your fist into the back of the head..."

Dante snickered, "The second one was better, I caught him off guard while he was fighting a couple of the others and slammed into him from the side. Once he was down I kicked him and dropped my knee into guy's crotch. I then punched into the armor breech and came back with the family jewels! Didn't even fire a shot at him!"

Everyone in the Tactical Command Center of the White Tiger noticeably cringed, many audibly. Captain Tanner gave a quick shudder with his shoulders while shaking his head, "Um, I think we will take your word for it, Dante, there is a vid I really don't want to see."

"Agreed!" Zane's dad stated with a wince. "But you are missing the captain's point, Dante."

"Um... What point?" Dante asked in complete confusion.

"You are one of us and think like one of us, son," Zane's dad reminded the boy. "You like to get down and dirty where ammo expenditures aren't needed. You have learned how to dish out punishment with your frame's enhanced power without doing major damage to it. Armor patches are cheaper than ammo after all.

"Those you are with are kids who are used to shooting what they have, cause they haven't had to worry about ammo cost in the real world. Nor have they even been in a situation where they may need to conserve ammo. Few if any have ever contemplated getting close enough to open up a can of whoop-ass on another frame, at least until now. Also, keep in mind you are in command of the group you are with. As a leader, a person in a command position, keeping track of ammo on those underneath you is important so you know who can take what kinds of missions or who needs to hold back and support with energy weapons."

There was a few second pause before Dante spoke again, "I never thought about stuff like this before, sir... Um, give me a few and I will get back to you on the ammo situation... But what about Ardon, and his crying, sir? It's driving me nuts!"

"He's scared kiddo," Zane's dad tried reason with the young Grenadier. "He's young and not a merc."

"Yeah, well he is a year and a half older than me and didn't have any problem acting like he was better than me at the academy. I want to put some diapers in his locker when I get back!"

This got a burst of laughter out of Commander Bennett, "While funny, it's not a good way for a leader to handle things, son."

"I know, but it would sure feel good and I'd love to see his face," Dante responded with a giggle. "Um, I still have no idea what I'm supposed to do though. All I want to do is just the opposite of what I know in my head I need to do, but I come up with nothing other than teasing him and beating the crap out of him."

Zane's dad shook his head while trying not to laugh. "OK, buddy, we'll help you out this time. We want you to find out where everyone sits on ammo. If you have a few who are even slightly low, then send him back with one of his friends to the drop site to secure reloads and bring them back. If not, have him run and get some armor patches or some tools, whatever. Just make it something you need or make up some fake damage to a system in your frame. Blame it on the unarmed combat if you have to. This will get him out of the line of fire, give him an important mission, and get your team more combat effective and ready to continue the fight if needed. This way, when you get to the mines, you will have ammo to fight with too. In the mean time, keep a close eye on the infantry cadets and fully secure the outer buildings so there is no chance of anyone getting in behind you."

"OH!" Dante shouted, clearly annoyed at himself for not seeing what the adults had tried so hard for him to figure out with their hints. "Sorry... I... um..."

"No harm, no foul, Dante," Captain Tanner assured the youngster. "Now pull back your anger and give the command without sounding angry or frustrated, even though we know you are. Hiding your feelings and keeping cool will help all the others out there with you."

Dante took a deep breath, "I may as well have the others with light armor dings patch up too, then, right?"

"If there are enough of you who have no armor damage to cover the infantry sweep, it wouldn't be a bad idea. It would also help to rotate out and let everyone take ten to get some water and a bite to eat. It will calm the stomachs of those who have a case of the heebie jeebies. Besides, those in the mines surely know you are there and are going to be ready for you, so taking a bit longer isn't going to matter, other than you will be at full capacity when you move in on them."

"Will do, Captain. Thanks."

Off to the side, Command Sergeant Black nodded, "Nicely played. You are giving Sergeant Ryder the extra time I am sure he needs, while giving some good leadership pointers to the boy."

"I just hope your people can clear the mines. I really don't want my kids going in there." Captain Tanner stated with a great deal of unease.

Off to the side Major O'Connell gave a short snort. "I just hope the crying brat gets his shit together before Dante says what he really wants to or pounds him into a puddle for being a poltroon!"

This got some heavy laughter out of the Grenadier adults and nervous chuckles out of most of the others.

In the middle of the lower mining camp, Valerie moved up to the group of rescued hostages. She quickly spotted a girl about her size, with much shorter dark hair. She nodded in satisfaction as she noted the girl was wearing a stupid flower brimmed hat. She glanced over at Neil, "We secure here?"

Neil nodded, "Yeah, the TAC says they still have live feed from everywhere but the jail, and they only saw three frames move in there, a Riot, a Aggressor, and a Intruder. All the buildings around here have been cleared and we have accounted for all but three other Riots at this point. We have infantry on top of all the buildings and a few overhead vid drones according to the TAC."

Valerie moved out from behind the building and used her telescopic mode to check the large building. She moved back behind the building, powered down her frame, and climbed out. As she moved up to the girl, she spotted a boy with a ball cap who was close enough to be passable for Neil. She grinned and turned back to Neil, "Want to have a bit of fun?"

"Um," Neil eyed the girl for a moment, "not sure what you have in mind, but what the hell. I'm game."

"Cool, get out of your hunk of metal then."

Jared moved up and looked at Valerie with some confusion. "You know the atmosphere is rated as unsafe, right?"

Valerie simply nodded as she moved up toward the kids. "Slightly toxic with prolonged exposure and deadly cold when it moves behind NB VIII, I had to go through the vids Brave Humanities has on this place too."

Jared's frown deepened, "So, do you have a frame problem or something?"

Valerie grinned widely, "Yup, three of them, all in the jail over there." She pointed in the direction of the main building in the camp. "Neil and me are going to go play with them. You all need to keep your eyes out for the last three Riots while we go have some fun."

At this Neil raised an eyebrow, even as he opened the back hatch of his frame, powered down, and climbed out. "Well, this should be interesting. What do you have in mind?"

Valerie held up her hand and pointed to the boy and girl, "You two, get over here."

Seeing neither move, Jared's eyes narrowed. Even though he had no clue what Valerie was up to, he didn't hesitate in the slightest. He turned and grabbed the front of the boy's dirty jacket and tossed him over in front of Valerie. He then stared at the girl, "It wasn't a request! Move!"

With shaky knees the girl moved over to Valerie while the boy stayed on the ground and looked up with terror in his eyes.

Valerie ignored the look, "We aren't going to hurt you unless you don't do what I tell you, so chill the hell out. What's your names, full names, and what did you do here?"

Seeing the boy was too afraid to respond, one of the rescued adults spoke up, "His name is Finn King, he's in the seventh grade. What do you want with him?"

Valerie turned to the man with annoyance, "Who are you?"

"Callum White, I'm Iron Horn's Finance Officer..."

"What the hell is Iron Horn?" Jared interrupted the guy.

"The owning company of this mine. Do you know how much damage you all have..."

"First off jackwad," Neil growled at the man's tone, "Right now your company doesn't own shit and your security sucked so bad a bunch of second rate goons on a shot-up ferry from Quaker VI took it from you. Second, the government of New Brunswick handed Brave Humanities the contract on taking this place back. You got issues, take it up with them. In the meantime, stay the hell out of our way."

"How dare you!" The man shouted. "I am..."

Jared grabbed the guy by the front of his shirt and pointed his arm-mounted stunner into the guy's face. "Hey dickweed, you ain't shit to us and never will be. You ain't paying the contract to take the place back, New Brunswick is and they are the ones who wrote up the AIM approved contract. I got news for you. Saving your ass ain't written into the contract anywhere."

Even as the guy in the grip of Jared's frame quaked with fear a woman stepped forward. "What does a bunch of kids coming in and shooting the place up have to do with an AIM contract?"

Neil responded. "The contract was an open one, given to Brave Humanities to clear this place. There were no requirements of who they sent. As a matter of fact, there is no wording it even has to be an AIM approved force. Since the contract was handed to Brave Humanities, it was assumed they would use their own people who are not AIM registered. We are the agents they sent in and they have the contract, that means we are the government here. Any more attitude out of you or Mister Finance want-a-be and you get to find out what it feel like to get shot point blank with a frame mounted stunner. Hell, I have never seen it, but it sure sounds painful."

The woman stepped back four full paces while muttering, "I'm going to lodge a complaint with AIM..."

"Fine, whatever." Valerie jumped in again. "I'm sure AIM will smack you with a fine for a frivolous complaint, just like the last four complaints filed against the Grenadiers. We don't break contracts."

Robin moved up, shook his head, and motioned for Jared to put the guy down. "For all of you who think you are anything other than Non-Combatant irritations for us, you best rethink and rethink fast. For the record, the contract was real straight forward. We take the facility back and capture or eliminate all foreign fighters. There are no other clauses and nothing on protecting your NC asses, so you might want to pretend you ain't nearly as important as we all know you aren't.

"We'll do what we can to protect you, get you off this rock and back down to New Brunswick Prime, but don't test us or get in our way. There are a few people we are going to rescue and anyone who gets in our way is no longer a NC, which means they are part of the problem.

"In simple terms, it's in your better interest to shut the hell up until asked a question, answer what is asked nicely, or start walking." Robin pointed toward a line of distant hills. "The next facility is exactly three hundred sixty-nine point two eight seven kilometers from where I am standing. Maybe you can find someone who cares who you are there."

One of the older kids looked at Robin's frame with wide eyes. "There is no way anyone could walk there before the moon is shaded by New Brunswick VIII again. Do you know how cold it gets once this moon moves behind the planet?"

"Yeah," Robin answered with a smirk, "which is why the atmosphere is so bad. The creepy plants here curl up and go to sleep while the moon is shaded by the planet, so the air here is never going to be great and the toxic rating allows all those up here to ignore any kind of pollution laws, so it hasn't gotten any better in decades. Brave Humanities seems to think it has actually gotten slightly worse. Fortunately, the weird orbit of this moon keeps it in the sunlight for long periods of time, but the nine days of darkness drops temps to dozens of degrees below freezing and there is no air purification going on from the plant life during those nine days.

"Still, it is seven and a half days before the moon moves behind New Brunswick VIII again, so you would have to make slightly more than fifty kilometers per day. Definitely doable. Granted, not much fun, but doable. The other option is to hunker down in one of the buildings until we leave but most have limited power and damage. Other than the main building, we have cleared the lower camp and didn't find many more people. It sure seems like we are missing a bunch, though."

Another man took a deep breath, held his hands up to show he meant no threat. "Um, I'm Isaac Nash, Lead Geologist for Iron Horn..." Seeing the group of kids, mostly in frames, looking at him he took a nervous breath. "Um, they took about half the others to the mines..."

"We know they took some up there." Luna growled. "We have one of our Double D's on it. Now chill and put your hands down. We really don't want to hurt any of you, but don't think we won't if you get in our way. Can you tell me how many, exactly, are part of this camp?"

Isaac glanced over at the Finance Officer, "Callum you know every nut and bolt brought into this camp and pay for everything..."

Callum glanced over at Jared with trepidation before speaking, "Three hundred and seven company officers and workers plus ninety-eight dependents under the age of fifteen. Those thirteen to fifteen have to spend at least twenty hours a week in the sorting smelt, so they are technically employees even though we don't list them as such.

"I don't know how many are left. They killed the entire security force, so drop eighteen there and I am sure Tyler is dead, since they started ripping out his teeth and fingernails until he gave them the company override codes on our security frames. I know they killed several others, but I don't know how many. I heard seventeen up in the mine were killed through one of the kids they brought back here, but then they took her and four others, saying they were headed to their ship when they realized the place was under attack. I am sure there were more killed though."

While Robin was getting more information out of the adults, Valerie turned to the girl, "And your name and what do you do?"

"Lily Walker," the girl squeaked out, "fifth grade."

Valerie glanced over at Isaac since it was pretty clear he was one of the least afraid, "How many do they have in the main building and what can you tell me about them?"

The man took a long breath, "They have our CEO, Holden Jeffies, six or seven other adults and a handful of kids plus another twelve they had with them when they took the place..."

"No," Valerie sighed, "how many combatants. I don't care about the NC's."

Robin saw the look on the guy's face and snickered, "She only kind of meant she doesn't care about the Non-Combatants. She just means she is more interested in who is a danger to her. Cause, unless I miss my guess, she is about to become Lily."

Neil suddenly understood what Valerie was thinking, "Which makes me Finn for the day. Who the hell names their kid Finn, by the way?"

A few of the kids pointed to a woman in her late thirties who was sitting with her back up against the wall, holding her right arm, and looked to be in partial shock. Neil shook his head, "Robin, we ought to get Erin up here. Some of these people are hurt." He then turned to Finn, "And you strip. We need to change clothing."

Even as the kid looked at Neil with shock, Valerie turned her attention to Lily, "Same for you. Everything off. We even need your undies since they may check if they capture us. You get to be Valerie for the day while I get the stupid name Lily."

"You want me to get undressed right here?" The girl squeaked out.

Valerie was already undressing, which answered the question. Robin snickered at the expressions on most of those rescued as he moved up to Finn and looked down through his frame's visor, "Come on, everything off. Otherwise we stun your ass so we can strip you down and I swear we will leave you butt naked right where we stun you."

Even as Finn pulled off his shirt with trembling hands, a couple of the adults started to complain. Jared shut it all down as he turned to the large group and growled, "One word and you can start walking. Val and Neil are about to risk their lives to get at those who attacked this place and hopefully save the rest of the captives."

Neil tossed his shoes, shirt, shorts, and underwear over to Finn, standing completely nude as he waited for the kid to get undressed, showing little to no embarrassment as he did so. "Come on kid, this wind ain't exactly warm!"

He then turned his full attention to the geologist. "So how many do we need to take out once we get in there?"

The man found it hard to look at the nude boy, but answered, "Five or six plus the guys in the frames."

"So figure nine." Neil sighed, "Four and a half each, Val."

"You can take five, I'm younger." Valerie teased from only a few paces away. Even as she spoke, she did the exact same thing Neil had done, except she didn't just stand there waiting. Instead she moved over to Ruslan, "Hey, could you flamethrower the shed behind you please?"

Ruslan, even though embarrassed to be looking at a naked girl, shrugged, turned and lit up the small building with his hip mounted flamethrower.

Valerie couldn't help but smile as behind her she heard the finance guy gasp at seeing more damage happen to the camp. "Once we get some good charring, break some of the wood off and stamp it out for me while I get dressed up."

By the time Valerie and Neil were dressed in the two kids' clothing, Ruslan and a couple of others had broken off some of the charred wood and put out the flames. Valerie nodded her thanks as she went over stuck her hands in the soot and coated her hair with it. Looking back at Lily, she frowned and shook her head. "Hey, Robin, your switchblade still nice and sharp?"

"Yeah, why?"

"If I am going to pass for the wallflower over there, I'm gunna need a trim. Neil's lucky, his hair color and length are real close to the fish kid."

Neil snickered, "Mine's nice and sharp and in the front pocket of my shorts." He turned to Finn, "Hey fishy-boy, toss me my knife!"

The kid complied but finally found his voice, "What's with calling me fish and fishy?"

Luna snickered, "Finn, as is fish fin. Besides with the way your eyes keep bugging out you look a bit fishy. It fits. Now hush before we find another name or two to call you."

Neil watched as Luna moved up, got out of her frame and quickly cut a good fifteen centimeters off of Valerie's hair in the back then trimmed a couple of other spots before deciding it was about as close as she could quickly get it. "You sure about this Val?"

"No, but it is the best chance we got." She stepped up to one of the infantry kids, "I'm going to need a few things."

Even as the former Quaker VII infantry cadet nodded and held up his hands so Valerie could take what she wanted off his gear, Neil was doing the exact same thing only a few meters away.

Neil put a heavy knife into the small of his back while wincing slightly, "Damn, fish boy, you have small feet. I can't wait to get out of these boots."

Off to the side Luna snickered, "Yeah, his toes are kind of cute, but I kind of liked his butt the best."

Even as Finn turned bright red, the Grenadiers howled with laughter. At the same time most of the Quaker VII kids shuffled their feet in embarrassment and snickered lightly, while those from the mining camp looked horrified by the comment.

Still laughing, Neil glanced over at Robin, "Give us a good distraction, dude. We need to get in and look like we didn't quite escape for this to work. I just hope I can get through this without having to go through a rejev chamber again."

"Trust me, it had to have been better than the regen I was put through." Robin responded seriously. He then turned to Jasha, "Take Kerri and go with them. Hang back and use your telescopic, IR, and UV to make sure they are clear to get to the building. If they have a sniper covering the back side, like I would do, then take the bastard out."

"But what about being your wingman?"

"Kerri needs a new one since Myra took a hydraulic hit to her hip. Luna, Jared, Cody, Ruslan and me are going to hit the building and be a distraction. Then I'll be hunting those last three Riot frames while Luna moves her team up to the mines to help Dante. Jessie just got cleared, so he is going to link back up with me. They were able to replace his foot piston and put an ankle and knee brace on him, so him and his frame are totally back up. You just take care of Neil and Valerie. No one and nothing means more to us than they do, got it?"

Seeing Jasha nod, Robin changed frequencies, "Kerri, I need you to link up with Jasha for a cover sortie. He'll brief you by voice once you link up with him. These jerks might have some EC decryption stuff and we can't let them know what we are doing."

Robin then turned to the two dozen other Quaker VII framed up cadets. "Half of you escort this group back to the landing zone but keep your eyes open; there are still three frames out here somewhere. The rest of you, spread out with your wingmen and cover the large building. If you hear anything about Valerie or Neil getting into trouble, you assault the place and to hell with casualties. They are your only priority should something go wrong!"

While the kids separated, a pair of the boys from the group of rescued hostages moved up to Neil. The older one spoke, "Hey kid."

Neil glanced at the boy who was only a couple centimeters smaller than him, but already developing a good amount of peach fuzz over his upper lip. "Need something?"

"Getting my old man out of there would be great, but I think we have something you could use."

Neil raised an eyebrow as he listened to the slightly older boy. After a few seconds, he held out his hand, glanced down, and smiled widely, "Nice, very nice. You sure?"

"Oh, yeah," the younger boy nodded, "As long as you know how to do it..."

"It's way easier than it sounds." Neil verified. "I have done it dozens of times. I just want to make sure you are positive about this, though."

"I am." The older boy spoke up again, "My little brother and I have wanted to be frame pilots our whole lives and I know everything about them. I even started working with a few of the security guys on repair and stuff and basic piloting. Once I heard them talking, I knew I had to get my hands of a few of them. If I knew how to actually do it, I would have. I'm THAT sure."

"If this works, I'll find out a way to give you two a shot at becoming framers..." He glanced over at Isaac, "Hey, I just want to make sure you know these two."

Everyone in the group of rescued hostages nodded as Isaac responded, "Peter and Sam Kipling, they are sons of our Heating and Power Repair crew leader, James Kipling. If you aren't careful they will get drool on your frames..."

This got quite a few nods and even a few giggles out of several of the kids. Satisfied, Neil turned back to the two. "So you both know the basics of piloting?"

Peter nodded, "For helping with frame repair and whatever else the security guys wanted, we got lots of simulator time and even a few hours inside an old Blade they keep in storage. You may be able to get to it too; if you do, the start-up code is 'P O S One'. It stands for..."

"Piece of shit." Neil snickered. "A great start-up for a Blade. What's it armed with and where is it?"

"It's just behind the main freezer in an old pantry with a rusty padlock. Combo is four, three, one, one. One of them pulled on the chain to the door and was about to shoot the lock off, but was stopped by one of the others because there was plenty of food and said not to worry about some stupid locked pantry. They argued in some other language, but they finally left it alone and dragged us down to the cellar with the others. As for what it has, it only carries a pair of machineguns and a pair of light lasers on it. It's stored with a full ammo load. It wasn't much, but at least we got to pilot and shoot a few times..."

"Nice." Neil glanced over at Valerie, "Open your frame up and let Sam take over. I'm giving control of mine to Peter here." He then turned back to Peter, "I need you to jump out as soon as I get back to you. Don't use anything but lasers, so I keep a full ammo load. I have a standard in the right shoulder and a light on the left."

Even as Valerie did so, she glanced over at Neil, while eyeing the pocket he had stuffed the small items into. She then shot an eye over to Peter, who had been the one to give whatever the items were to Neil. She was about to ask more, but was stopped since Robin overheard as well and quickly moved up, "You sure you want to hand over your frame to an unknown, Neil."

"Yeah, and if this works, we need to find a way to get Major O'Connell to hire their dad so they can join us."

Robin shrugged and said nothing as Neil and Valerie took off on foot, angling to get around the far side of the building without being seen. Instead, he jerked his head at Kerri and Jasha. "Don't let them start their infiltration until we are fully engaged on this side. Kill anyone who so much as thinks of taking a shot at them, then shoot them again just because!"

"Screw that." Kerri snarled, "I'll rip their eyeballs out and let them wander around out here till the moon goes behind the planet and they freeze to death!"

Robin shot Kerri a grin then watched to two frames power up. He could tell almost instantly, neither of the boys could pass a frame pilot certification, but they knew enough to be dangerous. "OK, your job is to stay close to the building, so when they come out they can get their frames back. Energy weapons only, and don't even think of shooting unless you know exactly what you are shooting at."

Seeing both kids nod, Robin let out a long breath, "So what did you give to Neil to get him happy enough to hand you his first frame, even for a few hours?"

As he heard the response he snickered, "Oh, man, kick ass!"

Valerie and Neil stayed down even as the sounds of combat broke out of the far side of main administration building for the mining camp. They gave it another minute and bolted for the building. A man on the second story spotted the running figures while trying to speak into his radio, but the ECM of the frames attacking the front of the building prevented him from alerting anyone. With a clenched fist he grabbed his rifle and scanned the area. Seeing nothing else moving and figuring the two kids were going to try to place explosives or something on the side of the building to open a breech, he leaned out and sighted in on the boy. A moment later half a score of high velocity carbon steel disks stitched across his upper body and face. The speed of the disks was fast enough to go right through him before they embedded in the wall and ceiling several meters behind him. Hunks of his face fell from the window, cut off by the disks. He never even had a chance to scream.

Behind a smaller structure Kerri glanced over at Jasha, "Damn! Nice shooting! I think you hit with all of them!"

Jasha smirked as he lowered the left arm of his frame. "I fell in love with disk rifles from the first day I fired one. They are quiet, don't have much kickback, and accurate unless there is a really heavy wind."

"They are really expensive though..."

"Brave Humanities had like ten cases of auto disk rifles available. When it got to my turn, it was the first weapon I picked for my frame. Stasik did the same thing. Besides, you can also do some really cool things with the disks once you get good with them."

"Like what?"

Jasha spotted a woman looking out of a side window on the third story. He pointed it out to Kerri then held up his right hand to stop her from shooting. He raised his left arm again, twisted his arm so the disk would come out at an angle and fired a single shot. Moments later the pistol the woman was pointing out the window fell and landed on the ground under the window. The woman looked down as blood pumped out of her wrist with a stunned and confused expression. Jasha lined up his shoulder mounted light laser and put a beam into her skull before she realized she needed to scream.

Jasha pointed to the weapon lying on the ground, "Zoom in and take a look."

Next to Jasha, Kerri let out a gasp, "Oh, shit, by sending the disk out up and down instead of sideways you were able to cut her hand off!"

"Like I said, once you get good with a disk rifle there is pretty neat stuff you can do with them. Also, I know you don't know me very well, but one thing you should know since we are teamed up... I might not be able to fist fight, but I was the second best shot in my grade and the best by far in my frame force."

"Let me guess, you started teasing Zane about being a bad shot, so he kicked your ass?"

"Um, kind-a," Jasha admitted. "I told him he needed to go back to first grade and learn how to fight. He said he'd show me how to fight if I showed him how to shoot. I then got stupid and told him shooting was fighting and told him the only way he would ever beat me is if I was blind, and even then I'd take him down unless he had his low life merc morons with him. The next thing I knew one of my teeth was flying out of my mouth. It was the last time I ever said anything bad about any of you."

"At least you called it a fair fight." Kerri stated as she caught movement on the roof and sent a single shot of her frame's right shoulder mounted sniper rifle into the crouching figure. The armed figure spun from the impact of the bullet but didn't get a chance to even get behind cover. Instead a trio disks sliced into and through his neck and face."

"Damn, you are a hell of a shot! Neil and Val just got into the window without a shot being fired at them, mostly thanks to you!"

Jasha managed a smile as he continued to keep watch in case there were signs of trouble, "And after working with Zane for a couple of months on the sly, he is pretty good too and I can at least throw a decent punch."

"They never let us get extra range time! How'd you two pull it off?"

"Stasik let him use his ID in exchange for Zane working with us on unarmed."

"What about the Biometric lockouts?"

"I heard Dante built him this gadget with the help of Caleb, but I'm not real sure. One way or the other, the little hand held thingy took a bio-reading off of Stasik and tricked the range into thinking it was him. Stasik missed some of his bonus range time, but he didn't need it anyway. He is the only one in the whole grade who can shoot better than me."

"Which is why Zane was working so hard to get you two into the unit... Now it all makes sense."

"I thought Jared got Stasik in..."

Kerri shook her head, "Jared found the sponsor, but it was Zane who really pushed him to help out. None of us knew why, but if Zane wanted you two in, we were going to get you in. If his folks hadn't taken you, I was a stone throw from getting my parents to agree. Once they found out you were given a slot, they took in Nikki, since Luna really wanted her to be one of us."

"How come you kids have so much pull with the adults?"

"Because of Robin."

"Robin? I know he is kind of the leader of you all, but..."

"But nothing. He really doesn't like us talking about it, but he prevented pretty much all of us from being EC captives or killed. He also has one hell of a kill ribbon, but until he puts it on, he won't let us talk about it. The only thing I can say is, EC hates us, Blood's Honor really likes us, and Robin is pretty much the reason. If I was a betting person, and I kind of am, the fact Brave Humanities is here with parents of kids we know from Blood's Honor is no fluke."

"But they are here because the FPA..."

"Bullshit." Kerri barked out, "No one is going to spend the money to send five warships to rescue us unless something else is going on. You may or may not know Robin and Jessie sent a Zip Ball directly to Forest Garden, but they did and only a few days later Brave Humanities shows up with a vengeance. Not only did they send in five warships, they also happen to be here with parents of two kids many of us Double D's know. Come on, that is not fate or chance.

"Then add in all the frames we were given... I mean give me a break, they didn't give them to the academy in exile, they gave them to us. Hell, right now I am in a better frame than either of my mom or dad have and it's all mine. If they really wanted to pat us on the back, they would have dropped off a ship full of Blades or at the very most Aggressors or Intruders. Not this beast...." She paused and grinned, "Don't get me wrong, here, I am not arguing."

This got some laughter out of Jasha, "Me neither comrade, but if this is really what you think, then why are they doing this?"

"I bet something Robin sent was more valuable than we fully know and this is a payback. I'd even place my meager allowance on the powers that be finding a way to link us back up with Joel, Cory, Karen, Gabriel and the other Blood's Honor cadets we know. All I really know is something much bigger is going on behind the scenes. I wouldn't even be surprised if this whole raid isn't a test of sorts for some reason. I'm not real sure what is going on, I just know we all need to keep our eyes wide open for the foreseeable future."

Up at the back of the building, Neil helped Valerie through a hole in the wall. They both crouched down for a few seconds and listened to the sounds of nearby combat. Once their eyes adjusted to the gloom inside the building, they nodded at each other before moving at a crouch into the interior of the building where there was a much better chance of not getting hit by a stray round coming in through the outer walls.

Valerie pointed to some steps going up, "The higher up we are the better. Unless I miss my guess, the bastards are going to drag some hostages out and threaten to shoot them if the attack isn't stopped. If not, they'll shoot a couple and toss them out."

"My guess it will be a combination, so this better work or we just killed a couple of NC's for nothing."

Valerie gave a light shrug, "As long as it isn't one of our academy mates... if it is..."

"Then Brave Humanities better forget about getting any prisoners to talk to out of this building." Neil responded as he glanced around the second floor room he found himself in. Spotting a body in the corner he moved over to it and knelt. He shook his head, "Cold dead but no rot or smell yet. My guess is less than a day. No blood, and his chest feels soft, so probably beaten to death."

"Had to be before our attack." Valerie shrugged. "Any weapons or usable stuff?"

"Nope." Neil shook his head, all his pockets are turned out, so he was searched." Neil moved away from the body and peaked around the doorframe, "Looks like the center hallway. If the floor plans they showed us are right, there are stairs going up at both ends and a elevator toward the front."

"Let's do back steps, there is too much fighting up front."

Neil nodded, glanced around the corner and bolted down the hall. Once he was about halfway to the far end he ducked behind a shot up drink dispenser and let out a light whistle. It took only a few seconds for Valerie to slide in next to him. As she did so she spotted a body lying in a pool of blood next to a window. She moved in and checked the body, "Looks like someone was giving us good cover. This one is still has blood coming out..." Before she could finish speaking the shooting out front stopped.

"Shit." Valerie spat out in anger, "They must have moved hostages up. We need to get up to the next floor and move to the front so we can shout for them not to leave us."

"Too obvious. Let's run and make some noise then wait for them come for us. As soon as we hear them, we start to climb out a window and let them catch us. If they grab us and pull us to where they want us, there is less a chance of finding the weapons we stashed on us."

Valerie thought it over, "Sounds kind of painful, but it will play out better as we try to pull free and plead with them to let us go."

Neil took a deep breath, "I just hope Robin realizes we need to let them beat on us a bit for this to work."

Valerie rolled her eyes, "I'm more worried about the Brave Humanities wimps ordering Robin in when they see us getting roughed up on their stealth bot cams. I'd bet money we are being tracked even now."

"Yeah," Neil agreed as he moved out toward the steps in the back, "Makes me wonder how Blood's Honor ever got the rep they have."

"Probably why those guys are now with Brave Humanities and not Blood's Honor. They ain't no real mercs."

A few seconds later Neil lowered his shoulder into a vending machine and knocked it over as he and Val moved into the room behind it. The loud crash all but guaranteed someone would investigate.

In the Tactical Command Center of the White Tiger, Major O'Connell openly snickered as he heard what the two young Grenadiers were saying.

At the exact same time, Sergeant Nire cringed and Command Sergeant Black covered his face with his right hand and shook his head slowly back and forth.

Commander Bennett did her utmost to keep her face neutral, but failed badly. Realizing a smirk was all but plastered on her face, she let out a snort, "As soon as these Grenadiers hook up with Cory and the others, Blood's Honor Academy is never going to be the same!"

In turn, this got a huge smile out of Captain Tanner and a purely nasty, yet totally amused, burst of laughter out of Zane's dad.

Command Sergeant Black finally looked up at the ceiling, "At least the taking of the ferry went well."

Commander Bennett nodded, "Only because Caleb forced her down hard and they were too shook up to fight back with any kind of organization. Taking her basically intact also gives us confirmation of Earth Core involvement, since the inside shows she was an Earth Core Fire Lance combat ship with a refit package to make her look like a standard Gamma Industries Ferry."

Zane's dad spoke up, "Makes me wonder why they didn't activate the pop-up turrets and shoot the crap out of everything in the ship bay."

Commander Bennett shook her head, "They had topnotch Earth Co built sensors so they knew what they were up against. If they had shown what they were inside the bay, they would have ended up in a firefight with a yacht armed with four point defense turbo lasers. Out in space the Fire Lance's turrets would have decimated them. But nose to nose, they would have had a hard time tracking with pop-ups and the yacht would have annihilated them with turbo laser fire.

"The yacht is one of our top end luxury craft and was beefed up with combat armor, Zip Ball launcher, turbo laser defense package, and while the missile batteries were empty, it has a pair of Micro missile ten packs with two hundred round magazines for each. The sensors were upgraded to an Aegis ECM cloaking array. The Engines are also swapped out for Hermes Ultra thrusters. Someone spent a fortune on her and the Earth Co Tri-Doppler scanning suite would have told them most of what I just told you, but they had no way to know it had no missiles since they were internal."

Captain Tanner let out a whistle, "Man, Jessie's dad must have been totally loaded. No wonder they didn't try to take it on."

Major O'Connell smirked as he added, "Plus, they may have thought they had the upper hand until Kay got into the fighter and activated it. Then it was suddenly two on two and the second a turret started to show, it would have been shot off. While it may not have opened up a hull breach, it sure would have made entering an atmosphere impossible."

Captain Tanner paused and looked over the multitude of views of the mining camp. "Right now, I am more worried about those three missing Riot frames. While I am sure our kids will be able to take them out within seconds of them showing up, they could take out a kid or two, especially the infantry kids."

"Or a whole host of rescued civilians." Sergeant Nire chimed in.

"Secondary concern." Major O'Connell fired back. "There is no extra pay for pulling them out nor are they part of the contract. But you are correct, those NC's are cannon fodder to a surprise attack from a frame or three."

"Which is exactly why Robin assigned so many frames to escort them back to the landing zone." Captain Tanner reminded the others in the TAC. "What I am more concerned about, is what they are planning. Without their ferry they need to secure transport or be stuck on that God forsaken rock. Shooting one of the NC's and threatening to shoot a couple more to stop the attack says those who are still there are trying to buy time. Killing one of the NC's is not a good way to negotiate for any kind of good deal. If it was me, I bet they are trying to figure out how to take one of the transports."

"Not going to happen." Command Sergeant Black assured Captain Tanner. "We are only sending down armed and armored shuttles and each one has a full squad of BH heavy framers aboard. There's no way they are taking one of our ships!"

"Damn," Sergeant Nire interrupted the others, "Neil and Val dropped something big and blocked the stealth bot out of the room they entered. I can't close track them!"

"Keep them on IR, even if you have to risk burning through a wall, we need to know their condition!" Commander Bennett ordered.

Major O'Connell clenched his fists, before speaking into the radio, "Robin, Neil and Valerie are making their move to get captured so be ready in case we call you in, but I need you to think about something else as you deal with the main building."

"Listening, sir," Robin responded after a few second delay. "But they just shot a guy and left him in the street and are talking about killing more if we don't totally back off and..."

"I get it, and you have trusted Neil and Val to infiltrate, so do so. Just be ready should it go wrong. But right this second I need you to ignore the body, stop putting your dad's face on it, take a long breath, and even a knee if need be. Once your head is straight let me know and then just listen. "

It took a few seconds for Robin to respond, when he did his voice told of his unease, "I shouldn't have let them..."

"Son," Major O'Connell spoke sternly, "it's too late to go second guessing yourself. Now let it go. You will do whatever you have to should it come to it and we all know it. Now, while you are in a bit of holding pattern, I want you to look around and try to figure out what those three framers are up to. They didn't just vanish into thin air. Those three missing framers are somewhere and the only chance they have to get off the moon you are on is to secure space transport.

"The shuttles Brave Humanities are sending back and forth are not viable options, so they have to come up with something else. My bet is everything they have going on down there now is a big distraction to let those three frames escape, but this means those in the building are expecting a rescue. I have no clue what they are up to, but you might be able to figure it out, since you are down there and seeing everything first hand instead of through overhead camera views like we are. I'm sure there is an end game; you need to help us figure it out and stop it."

"I'll see what I can do, Major, but the second I find the bitch who just shot the guy lying in the street, I am going to kill her and those Blood's Honor guys can kiss my ass and take this frame back if they don't like it."

Command Sergeant Black couldn't help but to respond. "Kiddo, she murdered a guy in cold blood. You do whatever you think best."

"Good to know Karen gets some of her guts from your side, Command Sergeant." Robin radioed back with a growl. "But after talking to you, turning off the vid once I see her again and never watching it may be something you might want to consider, because she is dead. If she knew what's good for her she would put a laser in her mouth and pull the trigger... twice... she just doesn't know it yet, but she will."

"I'll make sure to edit it out of the recruitment vid I send to BH Academy on your behalf, Robin. Now keep your eyes peeled, cause your major is right, there is a plan going on and you need to help stop it."

Major O'Connell raised an eyebrow as he glanced over at Command Sergeant Black, "You really are dead set on getting my kids into Blood's Honor Academy, aren't you?"

"Even if I have to bend arms into pretzel shapes to make it happen. My daughter and several others could learn a lot from your kids and I bet your kids could learn a lot from BH."

"Then you best start scheming on how you are going to convince me and the parents and how they are going to pay for their own way." Major O'Connell stated as he excused himself from the room.

As soon as the door closed, Captain Tanner, let out a long sigh. "Your best bet is to convince Robin he wants to go. But even then, the major will never take a handout, so..."

"I think we can come up with something, Captain." Commander Bennett interjected firmly. "The salvage on the ferry alone is probably enough for the first year for all your kids."

Captain Tanner shook his head, "I would bet everything I own on Major O'Connell saying you get all salvage in return for getting us the frames, overhauling the Stallion, fixing the frames once this is over and giving the kids a few extra ammo loads. Because like it or not, there is not a single Grenadier who buys the fact this is all being paid for by the FPA. The rescue fleet, maybe, the refit, pushing it, but I could buy it. The overhaul the likes you are giving us, no way. The frames, sure, but not those frames. Hell those kids now have better weapon systems than the Grenadiers do!"

Even as Captain Tanner saw a grin flash on the face of Commander Bennett, Neil dove behind cover somewhere on the third floor of the mining station's administration building as two figures appeared with pistols with lights under them.

The beams of light panned the room, one catching a foot Neil had purposefully left out from behind the desk he had hid behind. The other light quickly found Valerie, who had put herself in a corner and had both hands up in front of her face. The figure in the door pointed at the foot even as the other figure closed on Valerie.

Seeing the man moving up with a gun pointed at her, Valerie bit back the desire to shove the gun so it was not pointing at her and jab her fingers into the jerk's eyes. Instead she screeched, trying to sound far more afraid than she was, "No! Just let us go!"

The man moved up and grabbed her outstretched hands and yanked her toward himself. Even as he did so, Valerie called out, "FINN! HELP!"

Neil, knowing he was spotted pulled his foot back as if trying to hide better.

This got some laughter out of the second man, "Oh, a brave one, huh? Get your ass out from behind the desk before I put a couple of rounds through it and into you."

Neil hedged his bets sliding further under the desk and as flat to the ground as he could, just in case the guy holding the heavy pistol really was going to aim for where he had been.

The man holding Valerie, slapped her face as she tried to pull away. "Knock it off before I decide you are old enough to enjoy."

This got Neil's blood boiling, but he forced himself to stay down while deciding the guy holding Valerie was going to suffer a bit before he died. He closed his eyes hoping the other man was going to fire high. He was not disappointed. Two bullets tore into and through the desk, then continued through the wall. The fact the rounds tore right through a desk and a wall told Neil the pistols were loaded with anti-armor rounds, he filed this away for possible future use.

The guy moved up to the desk and kicked it, "Kid, I know you are back there. The next shots are into you, not the wall. Now slide out from under there and make damned sure I can see both hands as you do it."

Neil poked his left eye hard enough for it to tear up and look red while scooting out and putting both hands up. He kept his right eye behind the desk so the man could only see the one "crying" eye.

The guy reached over and jerked Neil to his feet and let out a sigh, "We had both of these brats in the basement with the others."

"You sure?" The second man asked.

"I had to feed them, I'm sure. Same clothing, same size, same stupid ball cap, same even dumber flower hat." The guy stepped forward and punched Neil in the gut, sending him to the floor gasping for air. "That's for making me waste a pair of bullets and not protecting your girl friend."

Valerie squirmed, knowing the punch had been hard, but not hard enough to do permanent damage. On the other hand she knew it had hurt and wanted to make it look good. "Finn!"

"Shut up!" The man holding Valerie commanded.

Neil gripped his stomach and forced air into his lungs, while keeping his back to the wall so the knife he had stayed hidden, "Lily," he managed to cough out, "don't fight them!"

The man who had punched Neil glanced over to his partner giving Neil a chance to stick the blade deeper into the waistband of the pants he was wearing, "Huh, look there, Pavel, the boy does have a few brains in his head."

The guy took a step forward and glared menacingly, "Now get your ass up."

Neil looked up keeping his right eye closed with a fake cringe so the man could not see it was not red. "Please don't hit me again!"

Even as Neil started to stand the man reached down and grabbed Neil by the chin and yanked him up to his feet. He then squeezed hard, partially choking Neil, "Rule one, shit head, no talking unless we say you can." He dropped his pistol back into a shoulder holster and slapped Neil hard enough to give him a full handprint on the right side of his face.

Valerie closed her eyes and imagined herself grabbing the man's pistol and putting a round into each knee, then kicking his teeth out. At the same time she forced herself to make some kind of sobbing sound.

The man they both now knew as Pavel rolled his eyes and spoke in Russian, "Careful, Trofin, damaged goods are not going to be worth much and we are going to need as much as we can get our hands on once we are on NB Prime. Besides, it'll be easier on my ears if you leave him alone. I don't think I can handle too much of this high pitched squealing."

Trofin responded in Russian with a shrug, "We have to get out of here first and at the rate the tunnel is going, we'll be hard pressed to make it before they decide to save who they can and to hell with the rest. I told them they should have kept more of the miners down here."

"All we need is another few hundred yards," Pavel stated with a great deal of unease. "Once we get to the cave, we can blow the place and leave enough dead bodies for them to think everyone else was killed. I just hope Commander Lukov and those two Earth Core framers get us transport, or we are screwed."

Trofin shook his head dismissively, "If we get to the cave, I'll figure out a way to get us off this foul smelling moon. Besides, we have enough food and equipment stashed up at the secondary to keep us warm and fed while this accursed place goes dark. Once it goes dark, they will stop looking for survivors so we can wait out until it warms up and head out again. If we have to, we'll hit one of those other mining stations and take a transport to New Brunswick Prime. They don't know who we are and as poor as the world is, we'll be able to buy passage to wherever we want."

He switched back to English clearly not realizing the two kids understood every word. He once again grabbed Neil's jaw and tilted the boy's head up so he could look him in the eyes. "You tell me where the others are or I'll snap your neck."

Neil found it hard to talk, but realized unless he was going to make a move now he had to play along. Besides killing theses two now would not get him down where the others were. "Lily tripped and fell as we were running out of the basement. They left us..."

"Why didn't you run when they attacked again?"

Valerie spoke up hoping to take some pressure off of Neil who was struggling to breath properly, "We tried but they shot at us. They killed someone downstairs too!"

Trofin's eyes narrowed as he loosened his grip on Neil's chin and neck allowing the boy to take in a couple deep breaths, "Where?"

Neil coughed for a couple of seconds, "Um, downstairs by the drink machine. Please, let us go!"

"Ask again, and the first punch will feel like a love tap. Now put your arms up!"

"Crap!" Sergeant Nire all but shouted as he saw the heat signature through the wall put arms in the air, "They are about to search them. "You two covering them, send a burst of fire into the sixth window over from the left, third floor! Aim real high!"

Without any hesitation, Kerri sent a five round burst of light auto-cannon fire ripping into the window. The side of the building and the window shredded as did a section of the ceiling. The high-powered rounds ripped right through the roof. Bits of the rooftop erupted upward as the high velocity rounds continued into the sky.

Inside the building, the two men yanked Valerie and Neil down and covered their heads as bits of wall, window, and ceiling rained down on them. "Shit!" Pavel shouted as the heavy fire stopped just as suddenly as it started. "They have the back covered and must have seen some movement!" He rolled over and saw sunlight coming through the new holes in the roof. "They ain't playing either. Those were real heavy rounds!"

Neil didn't really have to force his voice to quiver since the abrupt fire had shaken him up a bit, "They are shooting at us!"

Trofin crawled to toward the door. "Yeah they sure as hell are. They must have seen a hand when you put it up."

Pavel also stayed low as he moved at a crouch to the inner hall. "There ain't no going out through the back. You two brats stay low and follow us. Those were heavy anti-armor rounds and as you can see if you look up they can pretty much tear clean through this building. At this point you are better off with us than trying to escape."

Both Neil and Valerie took deep breaths and used the few seconds of distraction to readjust the weapons they had hidden on themselves. The two kids exchanged glances then, realizing the two men were more worried about their own skins than searching them, moved closer to the two men. Neither of them wanted to show they knew how to crawl like they had military training, so they moved like toddlers on their hands and knees.

In front of them, Pavel used a hand motion to tell them to continue to stay low until they made it to the stairway going down. Finally he turned, "OK, listen and listen good. Stay behind us and do exactly what we tell you. Keep low, no talking, no trying to run. We need to get below ground and if either of you do something to draw attention to us, it's real clear they are going to shoot first and ask questions later. You both got some value to us, but the one thing I ain't going to do is risk my ass to save yours. In simple terms, if you screw up I will shoot you myself. Got it?"

Valerie let out a light sob and nodded, while Neil gulped out a light, "Yes sir."

Pavel glanced over to Trofin, "With all these holes in the lower walls and the way they were shooting at any movement upstairs, we'll have to be careful. I'll keep my eye on the brats, you find us a way down where we can't get seen."

Several minutes later, Trofin entered the lower section of the security wing and shoved Neil over toward twenty-three other captives, then jerked his head for Valerie to join him. A short haired woman with a facial scar running from under her left eye, all the way down to under her chin turned away from doing maintenance on an Aggressor frame. She eyed the two kids, then looked over to Pavel, "Who are they and is the building clear?"

"Two of those from the main group. They got separated during the rescue attempt and ended up trapped in the upper floor when the fighting broke out."

"You sure?"

"I fed them several times, I'm sure."

"What about Danill, Isaj, and Lada?"

"Danill and Lada are dead." Trofin responded with a bit of concern. "We didn't get up to the roof, but I am sure Isaj is too. Hell, they shot at us even as we checked these two for weapons and damn near killed us all. They are shooting at anything moving."

Off in the corner, Neil waited until the two guards assigned to watch the group of captives turned to pay attention to the conversation before moving over to the lone faucet in the room he had been pushed into. He made sure the dirty jacket stayed pulled down to cover the knife in his back as he moved over to a cot and pressed his shoulder over the slap mark on the side of his face. Letting out a deep breath, he laid down and pretended to focus on the slap mark, while actually studying those in the room with him.

At the same time Valerie moved over to a group of a half dozen kids in her age range and knelt. All six looked at her with a degree of confusion so she held up a finger to her lips and spoke very softly, "We're Lily and Finn. Seeing all six kids look at her with uncertainty, she pointed to herself, "If you want out, I am Lily, and he's Finn. You know us and we know you. Is there anyone else you all don't know in this group?"

This seemed to get through to a couple of the kids who in turn nudged the others. Finally the oldest girl spoke softly, "The woman in the brown jacket was not part of the camp."

Valerie didn't even look over. "You all sure?"

Getting nods from all six, she forced a weak smile. "How about you six? All of you know each other?"

This time the oldest boy spoke, keeping his voice low. "Yeah, we were all part of the camp." He quickly introduced the others and included nicknames before adding, "We normally called Lily, Flower."

"Then I'm Flower. Anyone else you don't know?"

"No," the older girl once again took over, "everyone else has been here for a last two and a half months, since the last transfer to and from New Brunswick Prime."

"Are you the only ones left?"

One of the other boys looked down fighting hard not to cry, "They have my dad and about a dozen other miners down below us in the deep planet shade bunkhouse. But I don't know what happened to them. Three of the frames took six of us several hours ago, too, including my sister."

The older boy put his arm over the boy as he added, "They had 'em put on light e-suits. We haven't seen them any of them since."

Valerie glanced around, "As you all get a chance, talk to the others and let them know we are Finn and Lily... Flower... whatever. I'll answer to it. Just make sure the woman you don't know doesn't hear." She glanced over at the guards, "Do they always keep two framed up?"

"No," the girl whispered, "Normally only one, but they all jumped inside their suits when the fighting started. Do you know what happened to Mr. Kreiger?"


"The woman working on the frame took Mr. Kreiger when the shooting was going on," the older boy explained, "but didn't bring him back."

Valerie shrugged her shoulders, "Sorry, we didn't see anyone else. Are there any other bad guys?"

"Just one up here," the girl took over again. "They took him into the back room. It looked like he got hit. He was moaning and they had his stomach all bandaged. We haven't seen them check on him since. There is a trio of guys with the miners, though. One of them is in a frame, but it's kind of pieced together from two others and it didn't look like it was working quite right cause the guy in it couldn't lift the left arm and it walked with a wobble."

"Sounds like shoulder servo and gyro damage," Val muttered softly. "He'll be easy to drop. One of you do me a favor and let Finn know about the woman you don't know."

"What about the rest of us?" The older boy demanded to know. "When is help coming?"

Valerie's eyes narrowed. "It's right in front of you."

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