Episode 25 (2180.08.20)
by Shawn Hagen (1998)
Starblade Battalion is the Property of R.Talsorian Games.
Opening credits, same as before
The Arrow was linked to the toroid by a catapult arm, traveling the circular path with it. Inside the cockpit, the 'Goldfish Bowl' as Tess called it, Ree could see everything around her. It was much like floating in space, alone. While Ree found it a little disconcerting, she loved the visibility she had.
Originally a light outline of the suit could be seen, an idea from the Myrmidon design team. Ree had it removed from her suit's display, not thinking it necessary.
<Hey,> Ree transmitted. <Are we ready to go yet? I'm getting tired of going around in circles, the scenery is boring.>
<Just wait,> Tess sent to her. <You'll have to excuse us, but we consider this to be a job and not a game.>
<I got that idea. What do you have left to do?>
<Just getting the internal sensors set up right.>
<So when this thing flies apart you know exactly why?>
<I thought being a test pilot was supposed to be a glamorous job.>
<Only if you survive.>
<Well, if I am going to die I'd rather not die of boredom.>
Several seconds went by, then, <Okay, bring up power plant to fifty percent.>
<Everything in the green, fifty percent.>
<Bring it slowly up to one hundred, slowly.>
<Haven't you done this test hundreds of times?> Ree transmitted at she did as she was told.
<And now we'll be doing it hundreds of times plus one.>
<This is so boring.>
<You're breaking my heart.>
<Everything is in the green, and we're at seventy percent.>
<Bring up the engines, one percent of output.>
<Done. Power plant at eighty six. Everything in the green.>
<Wait for full power.>
<I got tired of waiting, bringing engines up to fifty percent, better release the boom.> Ree pulled the throttle back close to the same time the clamp on the catapult boom released. The Arrow was flung of by the boom at 1G. It accelerated quickly, it velocity doubled then tripled by the engines.
Ree let out a whoop as she pulled the throttle back even farther, going for a long burn. She watched as her velocity climbed, smiling. It was such a sweet ride. When the throttle was all the way back, the engines' output at maximum, she shut them down, ending the acceleration.
She made full use of the thrust vectoring, flipping the plane over so she was flying backwards, the nose pointed the way she had come. Another micro burst, the port engine firing up-relative to the plane-the starboard engine firing down, started the plane rolling. She fired another burst, then another, building up the speed of the roll.
Suddenly she changed the engines' orientation and stopped the craft's roll. Then the engine thrust was redirected straight back, bringing the plane to the complete stop.
"I like this," Ree said.
<If you are finished playing, would you mind getting back to the test program.> Tess sent.
<I suppose I could.> The Arrow shot forward, moving towards the test area.
"How did it hold up?" Tess asked, looking over at Jeremy.
"No problems, stress monitors stayed in the green."
"You can handle the rest of the test?"
"The test yes, the pilot, I don't know."
"Good luck," Tess turned around and walked towards exit. "Dr. Ryuzaki shows off his design today."
"Get back fast and tell us about it," one of the members of the design team called.
"Keep your minds on our design," Tess said as she left the room.
Akira was not really a showman. He put his suit design in a large bay, covered it with a tarp, then let everyone in. Once everyone was there, or at least most of them, he moved to stand at the feet of his team's design.
"We have finished the Soldier design," he said. "It has been fully tested and we have already begun manufacture. I give you the Starblade Battalion Draken, Mark 2."
The tarp fell away, revealing a familiar looking suit. The head was different, matching the more anthropomorphic heads the other suits had, and there were a few other, minor, differences, mostly cosmetic. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, Dr. Ryuzaki's team had simply copied the Draken.
There was some laughter and a lot of murmuring in the audience. Akira said nothing, waiting for everyone to quiet down. When they finally did he waited few seconds before beginning. "I suppose you were expecting something completely new. I was as well to be truthful, but for a number of reasons, one of them being having to take care of all the other design teams, I was a little too busy to be innovative.
"The Mark 2 is both faster and more maneuverable than its predecessor. It uses Miss Belin's armour and cockpit design as well as an improved Roberts type plasma rifle. It is a design that is already tested, it can use captured and donated ODF armaments, and, not to be over looked, the same command armour upgrades."
Members of his audience began to nod, seeing the value in his plan. While it was obvious some would have been happier to see a completely new design, they were in the minority.
"You can pick up the specs at the door. Now, as I have work to, I wish you a good day," he told them. Then he walked away.
Once he was gone the murmur of conversations picked up again and a number of people drifted to the door to get a copy of the specs. Tess moved up close, looking at the design.
"Disappointed?" someone asked.
"Pardon?" Tess turned to face the speaker. "Captain Frost," she said, a little surprised. "Uh, no. I mean, it is a good weapon system."
"He did a good job of keeping it secret," Redding said. "Your team has been quite open. Miss Maxil is giving anyone who cares to look a good show."
"I suspect that Dr. Ryuzaki and his team just wanted to avoid the sort of ribbing they are going to get for as long as possible."
"No doubt. You'll have to forgive me Miss Belin," he took a step back. "I'll look forward to the Arrow's actual unveiling." He turned and walked away.
"There's a man with a lot of things on his mind," Tess said quietly. She turned back to look at the Mark 2. It was going to surprise the hell out of anyone who thought they were just facing the old Draken. After a moment she began to walk away from the suit. She still had a lot of work to do.
Redding and Jesse walked through the corridors of the Nebula Works spinner. It was something they did, a way of exchanging information without it taking on the feel of a formal meeting. Neither of the men cared much for such meetings. Of course they had a lot of them due to their positions.
"You missed the unveiling of your uncle's new suit," Redding said.
"What was it like?"
"He reinvented the Draken. The Mark 2."
Jesse laughed. "I guess I'm not surprised. In a situation like this, he'd go for a tested design and improve on it. In different circumstances, he'd try something completely new."
"Were you watching Miss Belin's new suit?"
"Yea," Jesse smiled, looking a little embarrassed. "I have never seen anything like if before. My hands are itching to get on the controls of one of those."
"I'm sure you can arrange that. I was thinking, if the design proves sound, such a suit would be a boon to scouting missions."
"A practical vision."
"And I will admit, it looks to be a joy to fly."
"That's the spirit. What's up with this Napelli Battlegroup I'm hearing about?"
"Gina Napelli decided the best way to end the threat in the cluster is to destroy all cluster shipping. My reports say that Admiral Dover finally let her off her lead. She'll be annoying everyone for a while. I've already told Shiva, he's got his ships on the look out."
"Want to go after it?"
"Not really. I'd rather the ODF use its resources to deal with the good Admiral."
"Seems we could improve our image more by saving civilian ships."
"Seems we could loose a blade or two going up against a battlegroup. How is Lt. Commander Strazza doing?"
"Fine. Tells me that ODF intelligence suspects that there is a leak, but they aren't looking in her direction. What about Campbell?"
"He's not so lucky. Auden suspects him, though she can't prove anything and is not willing to move against him at this time. His Ravager allies keep him safe. Which reminds me, Miss Redmond needs a sizable force to make an Earthside appearance in the next few weeks. Can we do it?"
"Depends," Jesse knitted his fingers together behind his head. He turned his face up to look at the ceiling as they walked. "Define sizeable."
"Twenty, at least half those real military."
"It's possible. Why?"
"She has to make an impression on some of the other clans to keep them in line and then she's going to raid a rather large weapons warehouse in Rome. We'll also need some cargo ships."
Jesse laughed, taking his hands from behind his head. "I like her you know."
"She does have a certain," Redding paused. "What's the opposite of Charm?"
"Good word," Redding nodded. "How is the ODF's new, more aggressive recruiting campaign going?"
"Well, unfortunately. They have yet to start up with press gangs, but that could be the way they are going. Right now they are offering pardons for military service."
"Does this have anything to do with the 'Chain Gang' I have heard so little about?"
"Yes and no. If you get arrested for a fairly minor crime, anything up to attempted murder in some cases, they give you the option of either going to prison, or serving in the ODF and getting a complete pardon and a clean record. For crimes like murder and such, the offer is the same, but you get sent to the Chain Gang."
"New Task Force, based around an experimental battleship as I understand it. They pulled a large portion of the personnel off Goal. Fatality rates in this task force are expected to reach eighty percent."
"Doesn't seem like a very promising option."
"If the choice was an eighty percent chance of death in battle or spending several years on Goal, I'd go with the eighty percent."
"Goal that bad?"
"From all I've heard. Seen a few documentaries, not a nice place."
"Think this Chain Gang will be much of a threat?"
"It is supposed to be a heavy assault Task Force. I think they will do a lot of damage before they are taken out. They are in the Loki system right now, training."
"Then they might not be a problem soon."
"Ever heard of Ngao Gunderson?"
"Pitcher, Solingen Tigers?"
"No. He's in command of Battlegroup Gunderson."
"That would have been my next guess."
"He feels, as do his supporters, that the way to deal with you terrible expansionists is to completely destroy your industrialized worlds. SAC command been keeping him out of the war, giving him Earth Patrol duty."
"Sounds like a nice guy."
"They recently threw Gunderson and his supporters a bone."
"Let me guess. They've sent him to the Loki system, as that is a system the Gaian's would not be terribly upset to see hurt."
"That's the way of things."
"If it wasn't for us there would be no more good guys left."
"So we're multifunctional."
"Good to see you have a sense of humour. Oh, I meant to ask you, how's the security for this Shoal?"
"Well enough. Lieutenant Clarris handled it. She did a rather good job."
"It better be. This place has become our biggest advantage and greatest weakness."
"I am aware of that Mr. Ryuzaki."
"Sorry," Jesse smiled. "Not my place to tell the fox how to steal chickens."
"Is that a compliment or an insult?"
"Depends what you think of foxes and chickens I guess."
Redding shook his head. "What's the status on the Blades?"
"Good. More ships, more suits, more people. We're still rag tag and undergunned, but, we're working on it. What about supplies?"
"Food and medical are our big problems. If our resources are cut off, we have a two week surplus. On the other hand, construction materials are not a problem. The Alincourts have been stockpiling material for the past twenty years."
"Too bad we can't eat hull metal."
"I will not have any defeatist talk on my watch Mr. Ryuzaki."
"Yes sir. We can eat hull metal sir."
"You can. I'm going to get some curry."
Emiko moved slowly, carefully. The pod she was in was attached to the Alincourt Cylinder by an elevator cylinder, its gravity almost 2.5 Gs. It was difficult to breathe in the heavy gravity, she felt as if her skin was sagging on her, almost as if it was being pulled off her bones.
She lifted her left leg up, keeping her balance, controlling her movements. In the high gravity a sudden movement might rip muscle and other connective tissue. That was one of the dangers of exercising in the pod, the other was muscle build up. Diane had told her that loss of flexibility with greater muscle mass was a real threat. As a result all of the exercises Emiko did also had an element of stretching.
When she had lifted the leg up as high as she could, she let it down, slowly, carefully, under control, until it was back on the ground. She breathed deeply, feeling wasted. She had been in the pod for just thirty minutes and she felt like she had been exercising for hours upon hours.
Thirty minutes was enough. The short walk to the elevator tube was a good end to her workout. She entered the car, tapped the single button, then leaned against the wall. As the car began its slow descent, Emiko could feel the gravity easing off her. It was a very pleasant feeling, her skin felt normal, her bra straps stopped digging into her shoulders, breathing became easier and she no longer felt as if she moved quickly that she was going to hurt herself.
When she finally stepped out into the cylinder's skin level, she was feeling much better. The lighter gravity-still a little above Earth standard-was like a rest. She felt refreshed and ready to do anything. The feeling was a little illusionary, but only a little.
She gave herself some time to rest, then began a series of warming down exercises, stretching out her muscles.
Finished, she gathered up her things and started centerwards towards the living surface of the colony.
At some point Emiko had had her permanent quarters moved off the Spinner and onto the Cylinder. Juan had probably had something to do with it. She felt a little guilty about it, the Alincourts had opened the cylinder up to only a few people.
While she had a rather nice room to herself, she shared a bathroom with Ree, not that she had seen much of Ree since she had returned from Organon. The bathroom had a very large tub, the sort of tub one could just soak in. She took advantage of it whenever she could. The heat of the water was leeching the pain from her muscles, making her feel sleepy.
She placed her head on the side of the tub, the cool material contrasting sharply with the heat of the water and steam.
"Emi-chan," she heard Ree call.
Emiko said nothing. She could not find the energy to call out.
A moment later Ree opened the door into the bathroom. She was wearing her skinsuit, a flight jacket over it.
"You look comfortable."
Emiko looked up at her, smiling slightly. She nodded, then dropped her head back down to the tub side.
"Looks like you are getting lazy," Ree said, taking off her jacket. "Soft." She tossed her jacket out the door, into her room.
"Gomen," Emiko mumbled.
"Get yourself together, I'll take you out for dinner." Ree deactivated the safety and then pressed a recessed switch on the wrist unit of her skinsuit. The memory fibers of the suit relaxed, the suit became very baggy.
Emiko considered telling her that she did not want to go for dinner, but was fairly certain that Ree would not take no for an answer. She reached out for her towel then stood up and pulled the towel about her.
Ree had removed her skinsuit, leaving it in an untidy pile on the floor, then stepped into the shower stall. As Emiko left the bathroom she could hear the hiss of the water. She closed her door on it, then walked towards the wardrobe.
It took her a while the decide what she wanted to wear. In the end she went for a casual look, loose pants and a blouse, both made from the silk of some Organon insect. At some point her wardrobe had increase substantially, another thing she felt a little guilty about. It seemed wrong to be living in luxury, of a sorts, when most of the members of the Battalion were housed in less than opulent conditions.
She had dressed and was brushing out her still damp hair when Ree walked into the room, ready to go. "You're very slow," Ree told her.
"Sorry," Emiko pulled the brush through her hair one last time then stood up. "I'm ready now."
"Come on," Ree said, walking from the room.
Ree set a quick pace, not saying much, leading Emiko towards the landing bays. The few corridors and transit system they used were mostly empty. There were a few Alincourts, some members of the security team that Redding had put on the cylinder, and a few doctors and other medical personnel-a hospital had been set up in the cylinder, a better environment for the patients.
A small hopper shuttle was waiting in the nearly empty bay. Emiko saw the Sloop John B. held in its berth, waiting for Tern to get back to it. Ree climbed into the cockpit section of the shuttle, Emiko followed after her.
Ree brought the power up, then turned on the com. "Control, this is craft Double A four, bay C, berth 12, requesting permission to go, clearance code Mike, November, Niner, over."
"Double A four, permission granted. Talk to you soon, over," someone said from the control bay.
The ship was moved out into the center of the bay, then lifted up into the shaft, moving towards the center of the cylinder. Ree ran a quick preflight, then settled into the seat.
"Where are we going?" Emiko asked Ree.
"Nebula Works. One of the designers has set up this really nice restaurant. Japanese. Probably the only reason Doc Ryuzaki allowed it."
"Natsukashi," Emiko said.
"I'm just feeling nostalgic for the old days."
"I've been told that the food is really good, five star. I have no idea where he would be getting fresh fish though."
"Probably using a synthetic."
"Synthetic fish." Ree grimaced.
"Actually, it might be all right. Synthetic fish can be pretty good. With all the pollution in Earth's oceans, real fish is very expensive."
"With luck they have a run from Salamanca."
"That would be nice."
"Double A four," the person from control said. "Ready? Over."
"Everything is fine here, over," Ree said.
"You're cleared to go, over."
"Thanks, out," Ree said as she brought up the engines, firing off directional thrusters to cancel the effects of the cylinder's spin. The hopper shot out of the bay, out into space. Ree cut the thrust, tapped the directionals until they were on course with the spinner, then fired off a ten second burst.
Emiko leaned back in her seat, closing her eyes. She was still tired.
"Wake up Emi-chan," Ree said, gently nudging Emiko.
"Nanda," Emiko woke, blinking her eyes.
"We're here. How tired are you?"
"Just spent a lot of today exercising," Emiko said. "I have to do something," she undid her restraint harness.
"You need more stamina Emi-chan."
"Come on," Ree helped her out of the cockpit. "The walk and being around people will wake you up."
"It would be a nice change," Emiko told her.
"Lots of luxury in the cylinder, not much personal contact."
"The Alincourts are nice," Emiko said.
"The Alincourts are too interested in building things. Not that that is a bad thing," Ree pulled herself along the catwalk rail. "Just less than fun at times, unless you speak their language. Tess thinks they are all great."
"How is Belin-san?"
"Happy. Her suit is performing nicely. Doing anything tomorrow?"
"Good. I'll give you a crash, err, quick course on the Arrow and show you what it can do."
"As long as it is all right with Belin-san."
"I'm sure it will be."
They continued on, taking an elevator to the main shaft, then moving up to an elevator that took them down into the toroid.
Emiko realized that Ree had been right. There were a large number of people in the spinner. It was not crowded, but busy.
"They're gearing up for production of all the suits," Ree told her. "I'm told these are the most advanced construction lines in all of human space."
"That's good," Emiko said, just to say something.
"Everyone here seems to think so. Cheaper and faster, those are the catch words. Turn here," Ree directed Emiko into a narrow corridor. Up ahead Emiko saw a doorway, over which were a set of short curtains that had the name of the restaurant on them.
They passed through the doorway and into a busy restaurant. A young woman dressed in a kimono approached them. She wore the kimono well, but the way she moved in it told Emiko the woman was not used to wearing such garments. Her light brown hair and blue eyes probably helped to explain that.
"Good evening," she smiled. "Table for two?"
"Yes," Ree told her. "I've got a reservation, Maxil."
"Yes Miss Maxil," she said. "Please, come this way."
As she led off Ree leaned close to Emiko. "Not much like home I guess."
They were showed to a small table in the back, Emiko was happy to note that it was traditional. She knelt down on one of the cushions and watched as Ree settled down, sitting cross legged, across from her.
"Hey," Ree said to the woman. "What's the fish like?"
"The majority of it if specially frozen fresh on Salamanca and then shipped here."
"That is a pleasant surprise."
"Yes," the woman nodded. "One of the owners arranged it. I'll be back soon to take your orders." She hurried off.
"What do you want to bet that the owner in question is Juan?" Ree asked Emiko.
"It does seem to be his style."
"He's a wonder. Lines his pockets at the same time he improves morale. So, what should we eat?" Ree indicated the menu pages under the glass top the covered the table.
Emiko studied the menu, reading the sidebars which explained what each species of fish was like. "How about we just get the big mixed plate. It looks good," she said after a while.
"Sounds good. So, what have you been up to? Why so tired?"
"Not very much really," Emiko told her. "I've been training on my own, working on those computer files, getting some simulator time. That's about it."
"Find out anything interesting with those files?"
"More detailed explanations of the plans we have seen so far. They've planned it out quite well."
"Good planning skills. Always useful in tyrants."
"Not nice Oneesan."
"I have to be nice to them?"
"They are only doing what they think is right."
"That does not make it right, and it they really looked at it, they would realize it."
Emiko did not say anything to that and they drifted into an almost uncomfortable silence. The appearance of the waitress saved them and they ordered their food.
A short time later Emiko was dipping a piece of sashimi a mixture of soy and wasabi, watching Ree struggling with her chopsticks.
"Do you like testing the mech?" Emiko asked, then put the fish in her mouth.
"What?" Ree asked, then dropped a piece of sushi onto the table. "Oh, yes, it is a lot of fun." She put her chopsticks aside and picked up a fork. "I always wanted to do something like this." She stabbed the fork into the sushi, then put the sushi in her mouth, chewed a few times, then swallowed. "It is one thing to fly the best mass production suits, it is another to be right on the cutting edge, finding out what the best prototype can do."
"Did you want to be a test pilot?" Emiko asked, then put another piece of sashimi in her mouth.
"Not at first, but after a while. I even had put in for the transfer, probably would have gone through, had I not shot my C.O." She smiled.
"I'm glad you finally got what you wished."
"For now. Once I finish putting that suit through its paces, it will be back to the normal grind. Of course, I'll be flying one of the Arrows then."
"Going to use your influence with the designer?"
"Exactly," she told Emiko, then took a drink of her beer. "Hey," she placed the glass down, "what's up with everyone else?"
"Do you mean what are they doing?"
"Well, Juan is, somewhere, doing something. I believe he is trying to improve our supply situation."
"And make money."
"Perhaps. Marshal Vichy and Marshal Sharp have selected out the most promising recruits and are teaching them, intense training."
"What about Tern?" Ree asked, winking at Emiko.
"Very busy," Emiko almost sighed. "As he says, he is trying to teach a bunch of farmers to be pilots. I don't think it is that bad, but it keeps him busy. It is not the sort of job he likes."
"Epiphany worked herself to near exhaustion setting up security and defenses."
"Did she do a good job?"
"I have not heard anyone complain about it."
"She's a good one," Ree told Emiko. "Sure, a little on the weird side, but a good one."
"I don't think it is nice to say she's weird."
"But it is true, to an extent. I'm not talking about the fact she one of the XY's acting like a double X, seen that before, have no problem with it. I'm talking about the fact she doesn't really know which way she wants to go."
"I don't understand."
"Don't worry about it. Epiphany is one of the best people I know. Is she still working on security and such?"
"No, she's moved into training."
"Epiphany has infinite patience with students."
"Unlike you." Emiko smiled.
"Unlike me. Speaking of which, you said you were hitting the simulators, how far have you got on those programs I set up for you?"
"I'm on the I level scenarios."
"Not bad. Not great either, but not bad."
"I'm glad you grudgingly approve," Emiko said.
"Eat your raw fish Emi-chan, the night is still young. By the way, how do you feel about being one of the rich and powerful?"
"You mean that Solingen stock?"
"What do you think I mean?"
"It hasn't made a difference. Solingen has blocked me completely. They won't give me information, due to security concerns that war has raised, unless I get it in person. I can't vote my stock, unless I do it in person."
"Figured out a way around it yet?"
"Not yet," Emiko told her. "But soon."
Maintenance crews were all over the Arrow even as the elevator was lifting it into the bay. They were stripping of armour platting, getting into the frame to check it out. A hatch opened on the bottom of the plane, lowering until the free end touched the ground. Ree slid out, pushing herself free of the craft. She rolled over and got to her feet, removing her helmet at the same time.
She moved out from under the arrow and tucked the helmet into the crook of her left arm. She looked around then grabbed one of the techs as he rushed by.
"I want the controls tighter," she told him.
"Tighter," she interrupted him. "It does not react as fast as it should."
"Yes ma'am," he said, giving up any thoughts of arguing.
"Good," Ree released him and left the bay, making her way towards the locker room.
Some time later Ree, wearing her flight jacket over a loose set of coveralls, walked into Tess' office. "What do you think?"
"No problems, everything in the green. Performed beautifully. Do you really want to crank everything up?"
"We can squeeze a little more out of her, I can feel it. The barnstorming was fun, but it is not combat."
"Veteran World War one pilots used to put on these shows, trick flying, going through a barn, that sort of stuff."
"I never pictured a four kilometer long construction dock to be a barn."
"In theory it is the same. How did you talk the Alincourts into letting us do that."
"The Alincourts love the Arrow, and have control of a near majority of Eleventh Hour Industries' stock. They want to see the design completed. Letting you slalom through a collection of construction gear and ships is in their best interest."
"It's fun as well."
"So everyone is happy. Now, tell me everything there is to tell."
Ree took a seat beside Tess and began recounting the flight, going through every detail. Tess shifted her attention between Ree and the computer records, asking questions about anything she was not sure of. It was long, and as far as Ree was concerned, boring work. It was a necessary evil though.
"Looks good," Tess said eventually, looking over a schematic of the Arrow. "Tomorrow we do the final space test, mass combat."
"And then we get to work in atmosphere," Ree said, smiling in anticipation.
"That will be fun."
"For you. For us it is a nightmare. We'll persevere though."
"Let's hope so," Ree said. "Do you think I would look good with cat ears?"
"Cat ears. Do you think I'd look good with them?"
"Again, I say pardon."
"Cat ears, cyber modifications. Fashion types are saying they may be back on the way in. This girl I used to work with, she had them."
"This really harkens back to the dark days you know."
"It is just cat ears. She was thinking of getting a tail though."
"Extra limbs are always a bad idea, extra stress on the brain."
"Yea, yea, I've heard it before. This is not the bad old days of cyberware you know."
"Doctor Averal Starbuck has written a lot about this you know. She say the real reason that incidents of cyberpsychosis have all but disappeared is not due to better ware, but a better society. Fortunately, if you go into a doctor's office and ask to me made into some sort of anthropomorphic chipmunk, most of the time you will be told to get out, if not sent to a psychiatrist.
"Pardon me, but Doctor Starbuck is considered a bit of a quack by most of the psychiatric community, and she used to be a customer where I worked and the stories I could tell, if I had not signed the non-disclosure contract, would make you rethink your admiration of her.
"Now, Doctor Gehan, he says that you could climb into a vat, let nanobots strip you down to a bran and a nerve network and then rebuild you completely without any danger of any mental imbalance."
"You might not know this, but Mr. Haswh Gehan lost his license more than a year ago and is currently a wanted criminal."
"Oh, well, that a Gaian based government would consider such a man a criminal is such a big surprise."
Tess stared at Ree for a few seconds. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
"Fine," Ree said, turning back to her work.
Tess turned back to her computer, not saying anything for a few minutes. Then, "Why not bunny ears?" She asked, not looking at Ree.
"I'm not perpetuating that stereotype. I'm more of a cat. Sensuous, a hunter..."
"Enjoying being petted, like to play with your prey."
"Exactly," Ree said, not looking at Tess.
"Your life I guess."
"You'd make a good fox."
"I don't think so."
"You're clever like one. Nice ears, bushy tail. That's a look that could work for you. If you plan to start a music career it could be a look that would help. Make you stand out."
"I'll trust the quality of my music to do that for me."
"Still, for a stage show."
"I'm not going to get fox ears put on my head," Tess said, finally turning to look at Ree.
"Of course, maybe a set of holographic hair clips, they could simulate it."
"What about the tail?"
"I don't want the tail."
"Tails are cute."
"I don't want the tail," Tess said slowly, pronouncing each word clearly.
"Let's get back to work."
"Okay. I want an in close weapon on that suit."
"You don't need one. You can keep your distance."
"So you say, but things don't always work like that."
"What am I supposed to do. Sticking more weapons on it won't work. This isn't just any suit, you can't just Velcro a sword on it. I'm already getting flack about the wing missiles."
"Well what about a whip like arrangement, sort of the same deal that Dr. Roberts has."
"Well there has to be something. We need it, trust me on this."
"I don't think..." Tess trailed off when one of her team members-Miranda Siprian--came up beside her. She held out a folded piece of paper. Tess took it from her. The young woman turned and walked away. Tess looked at her, then at the paper.
"Does she talk?" Ree asked. "I mean, I've never heard her talk, she just passes those stupid pieces of paper around."
"Can talk, chooses not to," Tess unfolded it the paper.
"What does it say?"
"She thinks you would look good with cat ears, thinks the tail is a bad idea."
"Well the tail was never a real interest item."
"She's also offered us a solution to our problem," she handed the paper to Ree.
Ree took it, read over the explanation, looked at the simple schematic drawn there. "This could work. Has a nice surprise value to it. Can you get it in by tomorrow?"
"No, but I can lay the basics down. It is not a live fire exercise so I just need to have a rough outline to give the computers."
"I say we do it."
"Okay," Tess nodded.
"Are you sure you want cat ears?"
"Oh shut up."
Ree pulled the throttle all the way back, flipping the Arrow ninety degrees, sliding by the Blitzen, avoiding its fire. She almost transformed the plane, but held off. She still had not reached the exercise's target and would need the missiles on her wings. Yet another problem with Arrow.
Behind her the Blitzen released a cloud of 4Ms, the missiles chasing after her as the Blitzen could not. The expert system in the plane activated the missile jamming at the same time Ree released four of her chaff/heat counter missiles. The few missiles that got through were easily avoided by the fast and agile Arrow.
The wing missiles were a problem, but a minor one.
Ree glanced at the tactical map, making note of the units that were close to her, and the location of the ship she was supposed to destroy. There were a lot of craft out there, all of them trying to get her. The odds were really stacked against her, but she had wanted it that way, she had wanted a test that would force her to make full use of all the Arrow's abilities.
Ahead of her were two Vogels, and a third was trying to outflank her. Ree kept the throttle open and put her craft through a series of rapid evasions, avoiding the fire coming from the two craft in front of her.
Her return fire was more accurate, one of the Vogels shut down, its computer having decided it was destroyed. The other Vogel stopped firing and its flight became erratic. Ree decided it was out of the picture for a few seconds at least. That left the third Vogel, coming it at her from her high port.
The Arrow came about hard, its plasma cannons targeting the incoming Vogel. She took a few glancing hits, the computer simulating the effects, but they did no real damage. The Vogel shut down, another destroyed target.
Twenty 7M missiles came from the remaining Vogel, about all it could do. The Arrow jammed them, Ree evaded them, then flipped the Arrow around, opening up with the laser pod and the plasma cannons, dealing with the remaining 7Ms.
She flipped the Arrow around, noting that the interceptors she had earlier left behind her were now catching up to her. They were persistent, she had to give them that. They really had no chance of catching her, unless she made a big mistake, and yet they tried.
The Arrow leapt forward, once again making straight for the target. She had a clear run, but for two suits a kilometer behind the ship. It was obvious they were waiting for her, a final set of guards.
It was not long, not at the speeds she was maintaining, before she was in range of the Galliard and the Draken's weapons. They were in range of her weapons as well, something she took advantage of. At the weapons' extreme range there was little chance of her hitting them, but she did not have to worry about ammunition.
The other two suits were just as unlikely to hit her, and had they had a choice they would not have returned fire. They did though, they had to. It was a benefit to them that she was evading their return fire, it made it less likely that she would hit them. With their weapon's ultimately limited ammunition, that was a waste.
Ree kept firing, kept flying in, but she was hardly paying attention to that. Her computer was trying to cut through the ship's anti-missile ECM. The Arrow leapt around, jerking back and forth, firing back at the opposing suits, even managing to get some glancing hits. Ree was just getting into optimal weapon range when the computer beeped loudly, telling Ree that she had a missile lock.
At almost the same time that the two, ship killer missiles exploded forth from the wing mounts, she initiated the transformation sequence. The cockpit jerked around her, and the outside view changed as well, but she had become used to it all, having made such high speed transformations hundreds of times.
She was no longer piloting a fighter, but instead an incredibly agile suit. Slipping past the fire of the other two suits, she closed in, opening fire with both her plasma rifles. The cut down weapons looked a little like archaic dueling pistols.
The Draken and the Galliard spilt up, moving to come at her from opposite sides. Ree kept both her pistols trained on the Galliard, deciding it was her primary target. She jerked back and forth, climbing towards it, avoiding its fire. After a few seconds its course grew erratic and it stopped firing. That's one, Ree thought.
She was just turning towards the Draken with something caught her attention. She might have missed it with everything else going on, but she had, in a way, expected it.
A Zephyr flew out from under the ship that had masked it. Ree knew it was there to destroy her missiles, then it would come after her. The Draken was rocketing towards her, it's sword drawn. Bad situation.
With the rifle in her right hand she targeted the Zephyr, firing on it. With the left rifle she opened up on the Draken, not really giving it much attention.
The Zephyr fired, one of the missiles she launched suddenly veered of course, hit. Then the interceptor took several solid hits from Ree's rifle, stopping in space.
Few, if any, of her shots had hit the incoming Draken. The pilot was good, probably Epiphany. The sword was out and it was obvious that she, if it was Epiphany, was going to make things personal. Running was no longer an option, the Draken was too close. I knew that there were going to be times when this thing was going to have to fight in close, Ree thought.
Fortunately Miranda had given the Arrow an in close weapon.
Her left rifle swung back, locking into its storage position on the arm. She spun her suit about, ready to meet the Draken's charge, though made it look like she was trying to run. Her hands on the controls, she waited for the best moment to act. She was only going to get to try it once.
When the Draken was in close, its sword almost at the Arrow's chest, the Arrow lifted it's left arm, the forearm shield taking the Draken's attack, pushing the sword up and over its shoulder. The maneuver had bought Ree some time, but not much. Her suit's left hand lashed out, grabbing the shoulder of the Draken, the reinforced fingers digging into the armour, making very shallow dents.
The Draken's sword arm stopped moving, it's computer registering disabling damage done to the shoulder unit. When the hand was complete it would be able to generate enough heat to melt through armour. Ree liked it, a very subtle and effective weapon.
She swung her right arm over the left, pointing the plasma rifle directly at the head of the Draken. Two shots to shut down everything in the head, then she was jetting away from it, the left plasma rifle swinging out of the storage position.
With both of the rifles firing on the Draken it did not last long.
That was done, now she had time to see what had happened to the ship. According to her sensors, which were getting feed from the ship, the ship had been registered as destroyed. First part of mission accomplished, Ree thought, swinging the Arrow around, switching it into its fighter mode. Second part required that she get back to her lines without being destroyed.
The Arrow's powerful engines flared and the craft was accelerating away from the battle site.
The Arrow, in suit form, stood in the middle of the room. It was surrounded by scaffolding, allowing the techs to swarm all over it.
Tess was with them, checking out the internal monitors, making notes. She was pleased with the results of the test. The Arrow had completed the mission objectives and had ended the exercise still combat ready, if barely. Nine of the eighteen enemy craft had been registered as destroyed and three others had taken significant simulated damage.
It was a success. Well, so far a success. There were still other tests, any of which might show the Arrow to be a failure. Tess did not think that would happen though. There would be problems of course. Nothing that could not be dealt with though, she was sure of that.
"Tess," Jeremy called. "We've got a problem with the port engine."
Tess pulled herself out of the suit, then slid to the edge of the scaffolding platform, looking down over the edge. "What sort of problem?"
"Lots of stress fractures."
"Test the metal, see if there is any thing wrong with it, then trace that engine's history, see if there is something there."
"Right. You find anything?"
"It's all green here."
"Miss Belin," Reiko called from above.
"Yes Dr. Mako," Tess turned over to look up at the woman.
"We burnt out some circuits in the ECM suite, I want to take the entire thing apart and see what the problem is."
"Can you get it all back together for tomorrow's tests?"
"Doubtful, but we won't need it for tomorrow's tests."
"Fine. Tell me what you find," Tess told her, then turned around, pulling herself back into the suit. There were problems of course, Tess told herself as she went back to work, checking out the internal sensors. They would solve them though.
Ree was holding court, as it were, in the Clear Floor. After winning so decisively, she felt like celebrating, and easing any hurt feelings. She had invited all the other pilots for drinks, on her of course.
With a few drinks in them, most everyone was willing to admit they had been fairly beaten and that the Arrow was an excellent suit. The Arrow was a lot more visible then the other suits had been before their official unveiling. Tess had wanted it that way for some reason Ree had not figured out. There were a lot of people in that bar who had not been part of the test wanting to find out about the new suit.
They did not find out that much though. The pilots and others had been asked to keep things as quiet as possible. Security was still a concern.
Ree drifted through the room, exchanging a few words here and there, taking her praise, giving a bit of her own as well-Ree had learned to be a gracious winner to keep her friends. Eventually she drifted up to Epiphany who was sitting alone at a table in a dark corner.
"Lost your admirers?" Ree asked her as she took a seat across from her.
"Got bored of being an exotic."
"There's a big man way on the other side of the bar who spends a lot of time looking at you, but trying to make it look like he's not."
"That would be Commander Gentry," Epiphany told her, taking a sip of her drink.
"Dom Gentry. He used to be a junior officer in the SAC before he quit and formed a small mercenary group. Don't know exactly what happened, but he doesn't seem to like either the USSA or Solingen. Brought his group to us, has increased his numbers as well."
"All well and good, but why is he looking at you?"
"I think he likes me."
"You enjoy the fact you confuse the hell out of men, don't you?"
"No," Epiphany said.
"I don't believe you."
"I can't make you believe me," Epiphany told her.
"Are you ever going to make a choice?"
"I will probably have to, eventually."
"Why do I put up with you?" Ree asked, shaking her head.
"Because I'm a nice person."
"That doesn't seem likely. Like the Arrow?"
"And who are you to be offering me one?"
"The test pilot who got Miss Belin to agree to do me a favour for flying for her."
"You would have paid to test that suit."
"She did not know that."
"You have a distinct lack of ethics."
"I never said otherwise did I?"
"I'll take one."
The Deltaboat Cutter still had its SCC markings. Few of the ships in the Battalion had been given new markings. There was still some discussion going on as to what those markings should be.
The small ship transmitted the clearance codes to the security net then waited until it was given permission to continue. The ship's captain called into control, making a very quick report. He was soon put through to Captain Frost.
"We have a problem," Redding told Jesse as he walked into the small office Jesse used while on the spinner.
"I was just about to leave. I was looking forward to it actually."
"There is a problem on Deon. A group of terrorists, probably Midnight Sun, have attacked the colony there. The initial attack was twenty seven hours ago."
"Deon is Colonial. Is the ODF doing anything?"
"No. Neither is the SAC. Both are worried about it being a set up, or so they say."
"Figures. You want to go and help them."
"There's almost forty thousand people there."
"What do you want me to do?"
"You'll take Thunder Blade and provide whatever aid is necessary."
"Will Thunder Blade be enough?"
"That is one of the things you will have to decide."
"Fair enough. I take it that this is a right away thing?"
"Well, I better get to work." Jesse paused. "You'd rather be leading this mission."
"Yes," Redding smiled. "But I don't have that option right now."
"Any idea why they hit Deon?"
"No. That is something I want you to find out."
"Understood. You'll be giving me and Captain Backhand a full briefing I suppose?"
"In thirty minutes. I figured that would give you time to inform your people."
"I'll see you in thirty minutes then."
"Wait, you can't leave," Tess told Ree.
"I have to. There's a situation."
"We still have testing to do."
"And we will do it. This should be a simple deal. Go in, do the job, get out. I should be back in three days, four tops. You've been pushing this pretty fast anyway. Time that you and your team had a break. I heard Dr. Mako saying that a few days of computer work couldn't hurt."
"Sure, take her side."
"Sorry Tess, but I have to go. I'll finish testing your suit, I just am taking a little vacation."
"I can't stop you?"
"Don't get killed."
"I'll do what I can. Bye Tess."
Ending credits, same as before.
Visit http://www.netroute.nSBB for neat stuff relating to this story series.
"We're here in the Engineering section of the USS Enterprise.
We have replaced the fine Dilithium crystals they usually use
with folgers crystals. Let's see what happens.
Shawn Hagen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
On to Chapter 26