A Story of the Starblade Battalion

'...and the priests take care of the dead.'

Episode 26 (2180.08.30)
by Shawn Hagen (1998)


Starblade Battalion is the Property of R.Talsorian Games.

Opening Credits, same as before.

Jesse had claimed the Thunder Clap's tactical room as his. It was better than trying to cram everyone into his cutter.

They had put down on Deon less than two hours before and had immediately sent out scouting parties. They had picked up a number of useful informants-people who had escaped from the cavern complex--within the first hour.

The tactical room was getting a little crowded. There were the normal members of the staff, plus and everyone else he had called together.

"Okay, let's get this underway. In all likelihood the terrorists are Midnight Sun. We have yet to get any positive IDs yet, but some of the suits that are being used in there sound an awful lot like Harbingers.

"Here's the basic run down of what happened. The Midnight Sun comes down in drop shuttles. Colony was expecting a cargo run, thought nothing of it. Midnight Sun comes out of shuttles, colonists discover they have a fifth column. Inflitrators keep the main doors open, Midnight Sun enters. Midnight Sun seals the colony up and starts killing everyone.

"As of ten hours ago, according to one of the escapees, the colonists had found a large number of secure sites and are now trying to defend themselves. Estimate several thousand dead."

"Can we get in?" Ree asked.

"Not easily. The colonists fortified those caverns just to prevent this sort of thing, now it is working against them."

"Wonderful. So what are we going to do?" Lilith asked.

"All the entrances, except for a few small ventilation shafts, to small to be of any use, are sealed. The largest of the entrances, the ones we could get a suit through, can only be opened from the inside."

"But we can open the smaller ones from outside?"

"In theory."

"Let's hear the plan."

"It's very simple." A holoprojector filled the air with a three dimensional map. "We send a small team of PAFSs in to this entrance." One of the entrances was marked in red. "Miss Miya will go in with them, and some other personnel, and open that door. Once in the group will travel across the fist cavern, to the main entrance. Miss Miya, you will open this door as well while the PAFS set up a defensive perimeter. Once the door is open Miss Maxil will take her force of mecha in. We will secure the First Cavern and then move out, retaking the entire colony, and dealing with any Midnight Sun we find."

"Sounds like great fun," Ree said. "If they have managed any serious fortification of their position..."

"They haven't," Jesse interrupted her.

"Good to hear."

"How many suits are you leaving out here?" Lilith asked.

"Half our force."

"Will that leave you enough to take the colony?"

"Miss Maxil?" Jesse looked over at Ree.

"Probably. Most of those Midnight Sun types are fanatic, but not the best pilots."

"I want everyone here to be careful, but I also want to take the caverns as soon as we can."

"What's the rush?" Lilith asked.

"One of the companies that set up in there is 'Taplin Chemical'. Officially they deal with industrial acids and oxidation agents. Unofficially they have been accused of making chemical weapons."

"Oh joy," Ree said. "NBCD gear all around."

"While I admit there is a possibility they want to take those chemicals, if there are any there, for use on the colony, I suspect they have other plans."

"So when do we start this?"

"Now. Miss Miya, report to Commander Fairbank, its his job to get you where you are going."

"Yes sir," Emiko told him as she got to her feet.

"Miss Maxil, get your people ready to go in. Make sure they know what they have to do, and remember there are still colonists in there."

"We hope," Ree said as she stood.

"We hope."

Emiko looked at the monitor, staring out at the terrain the jeatle was crossing. She had never ridden in a six legged vehicle before. The ride was smoother than she would have expected, most of the time.

There were several of the jeatles, carrying medical personnel and a few other specialist, like herself. Around them were the PAFSs, crossing the rough terrain, making for the entrance. The journey had been quiet, nothing moving on the monotonous landscape.

"Ever seen Deon before?" the Doctor beside her-Erica Lenau-asked.

"First time," Emiko said, turning away from the monitor and looking at Erica.

"First team that got here was a bunch of Jagers. They took one look around, tagged as the most boring world in the cluster and left. Can't blame them," she looked at the monitor beside her. "A couple of piddly oceans, no mountains worth the name and a climate that does nothing other than stay at an unpleasant ten degrees. Look at that," she pointed at the monitor. "Do you know that ugly grass covers most of the planet?"

"No," Emiko said.

"Can't do anything with it really, I don't blame the Jagers for wanting to get the hell away from here. It was a Ranger team a few months later that discovered the caverns. They are something, with just a huge amount of fauna, very little flora though."

"I guess with no light..."

"That's what everyone says. Lot of light in there now, artificial of course."

"Have you been here before?"

"A friend of mine was part of the advance team that set the colony up, he left after the first two years, showed me a lot of pictures." Erica frowned. "The Midnight Sun probably made a mess of it. You ever been on a mission like this?"

"Not really."

"Remember to keep your head down. That's about the best advice I can give you."

"You've done this before?"

"Similar. The team has made runs into hot areas before, go in, patch the wounded up, get out. Last time it was an industrial accident in Loki. Less than fun."

"What do you think it will be like?"

"The Midnight Sun does not play nice. I expect a lot of dead. We'll help who we can, make the passing easier for those we can't help, and the priests take care of the dead."

Emiko said nothing. She had managed to avoid any sort of large scale battle and casualties. What worried her was how she might react to it. She had seen pictures form previous wars, the wounded lying around, the dead stacked like wood. It scared her.

The jeatle rocked to a stop, Emiko could feel it lower to the ground.

"We're hulled down," Erica said. "Now the PAFSs go in to secure the area. Then you're on."

Emiko did not respond, instead she opened her pack and looked through it one last time to make sure she had everything that she needed. The computer was neatly packed in its gel shock absorber, around it were magazines and boxes of rounds for her weapons. She shifted the computer slightly, making sure the grenades were where they were supposed to be.

Not so long ago she might have been surprised at all the weapons she had, but at some point she had gotten used to it. Mostly used to it. She sealed the pack then leaned back in the seat.

A few minutes later the jeatle shook as it got to its feet, then it was once more moving, making its way towards the entry tunnel.

"The area is clear," the driver called to her. "The Commander wants you to keep your head down though, just in case. You'll have a screen of PAFSs, but don't do anything to make yourself more of a target then you have to."

"I understand," Emiko said.

The jeatle scurried across the ground then entered the tunnel, moving through it quickly. A moment later it came to a stop. Emiko opened the hatch beside her and climbed out. The tunnel was fairly large, though she did not see any places where an enemy might hide. The walls were smooth, carved out by machinery. The lights from the PAFSs and the jeatle left little in the way of shadow. She had been told to keep her head down so she kept her head down.

The heavy doorway loomed ahead of her. Beside it was a very small panel, looking too small to be of any use. That was only an illusion thought. She set her pack down in under the panel, opened her pack and removed a set of computer leads.

After plugging the leads into her computer she set the interface crown on her head and went to work.

The security on the locking system was very good. It took her several minutes to ferret out what she needed then a few more minutes to get the locking system under her control. She looked at the PAFS behind her and nodded. The other suits moved around, Emiko found herself pushed against the wall by the bulk of one of the suits. It was a little uncomfortable but at least she was safe.

When she got the okay Emiko ran unlocked the door. The PAFS's went in fast, leaving her crouched against the wall.

"Get in," the driver of the jeatle called to her.

Emiko got to her feet and ran back to the jeatle. She climbed in, pulling the hatch shut behind her. She pulled on her restraining straps, then began to pack away her gear. "What's happening?" she asked Erica.

"The PAFSs are doing a sweep. Once they're sure its clear we go in with the rest. Then I suspect that it will get a bit rough. Make sure your seat belt is tighter."

"Thanks," Emiko said as she tightened the belt.

"It's going the be a rough ride I think."

"Do you think we will come under fire?"

"Probably." She smiled.

"Are you," Emiko paused, wondering it the questions she was going to ask would be considered impolite. "Are you looking forward to it?"

"What can I say, I like excitement. You kind of have to do my job. I'm not an action junky or anything, I avoid it when I can, but when I have to go into a situation like this, well, better to enjoy it. I mean, don't you feel more alive at this moment?"

Emiko said nothing, she just thought about the question.

"Hold on," the driver called. A moment later the jeatle jerked into motion, moving forward. Behind them were several other jeatles and PAFSs. The jeatle Emiko was in scuttled through the entryway and into what looked like a large garage.

Erica let out a short laugh as the jeatle's movement threw all of them against their restraints. The vehicle slid slightly as it took a tight corner, the driver corrected, using the legs to halt the skid. They were moving fast, making for the cavern. Emiko watched the monitors, trying to make sense of the images that were flashing in front of her.

They exited the gate house moving into the cavern. Emiko was a little disappointed. She had expected the cavern city to be a little like Tokyo. There was nothing on the ceiling, except for banks of lights-many of those destroyed-and there were huge open areas between most of the buildings.

The jeatle bounded over some sort of road block, tossing its passengers around. Emiko almost banged her head on the monitor. She reached up and grabbed one of the handholds, hoping to keep herself steadier.

On the monitor she saw an illuminated section of the caverns wall. The quartz and silver deposits caught the light, reflecting it back making the whole wall seem to shimmer. Emiko was amazed at how beautiful it was. It was a strange time to be appreciating the beauty of the cavern, a fact she was reminded of a moment later when something exploded close by.

The jeatle was flipped over by the force of the explosion, rolling twice, back onto its legs. The driver seemed unfazed by the entire thing, he just kept the vehicle moving. "We got some mechs in the area," he shouted, not looking back at them.

"Are you all right?" Erica asked Emiko.

"Hai," Emiko said. "Bikurishta wa yo(I was very surprised)."

"Whatever," Erica said. "What's the deal?" she called up to the pilot.

"A couple of souped up industrial suits. The PAFSs are going after them, we're finding another way around."

"Want us to take the guns?"

"Yea, we'll probably run into some soft targets sooner or later. I'm taking them off standby."

"You control the cannon on the right," Erica said to Emiko. "It works like this." She grasped the monitor beside her and gave it a hard pull. The monitor came loose from it wall mounts, swinging out so it was in front of her. A joystick unfolded from the side. "Heavy machine guns," Erica explained as she grasped the joystick. "Just like a video game."

Emiko turned towards her monitor and did what Erica had. The monitor swung out in front of her, the joystick unfolding. She grasped it, watching as targeting information came up on the screen.

The jeatle's gait changed suddenly, the driver putting it on one of the smooth roadways. From each leg a small wheel deployed. Emiko shifted the joystick around, using the gun cannon to get a better look at things. The weapon was mounted in a side turret that could rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. Emiko looked behind them, seeing several other jeatles and PAFSs.

"Hold tight," the driver came back. The jeatle's body dropped, the bottom scrapping on the road, raising a cloud of sparks. A moment later the legs flexed, propelling it over another road block. The landing was hard and shook up the occupants. The driver was trying to bring the vehicle back under control so it was Erica who spotted the movement ahead.

"Soft targets in front of us," she said, opening fire.

Emiko swung her cannon around until she spotted the people ahead of her.

"Just keep their heads down," Erica said. "They could be colonists."

"Hai," she said, then began squeezing off short, controlled bursts.

The jeatle's evasive maneuvers made it hard for Emiko to do much with the weapon. She would get a lock on something, then suddenly the vehicle would jerk around and she could no longer see her target. Beside her Erica was not having any problem keeping her target locks. Emiko guessed that the data link made all the difference.

The jeatle sped by the group that had been firing at them, leaving them behind. Emiko, looking for targets, almost fired on one of PAFSs that was thrust skating close by. She forced herself to relax and went back to scanning, keeping her finger off the trigger button.

Her screen went white suddenly and at the same time she felt as if she was being lifted into the air. Something had exploded close by, the jeatle was flying in the air, turning over. A moment later it hit the ground, bouncing. The restraint straps had inflated, cushioning the force of the impact. The vehicle continued to roll, bouncing across the ground for several seconds before coming to a rather sharp halt as it hit the side of a building.

Emiko clutched her restraint straps, her knuckles white, and looked around. Erica was looking back at her, most of her jovial manner gone. The jeatle began to rock as the pilot worked to put it back on its feet.

"What was that?" Emiko asked.

"Near miss from an enemy suit," the pilot called back to her.

"That was a miss?"

The driver said nothing, his attention was on getting the vehicle out of there. Erica fiddled with her gun controls, getting the camera back on line. She spun the turret around, searching the area. "There is it."

Emiko looked towards the screen. There was a large black suit, a Harbinger she guessed, spraying an area around it with its arm cannons. Its fire was causing a number of explosions and setting the structures around ablaze. As she and Erica watched they saw a blossoms of flame appearing on the surface of the suit. The suit was rocked slightly but otherwise seemed unaffected.

"Their missiles are not powerful enough," Erica said.

The jeatle rocked over, getting its feet under it again. It moved off quickly, trying to link up with the other units. While its gait was rougher than before, the ill treatment it had just gone through did not seem to have effected it greatly.

Emiko looked to her gun controls, trying to bring her weapon back on line. The gun was responding, at least the diagnostics said it was, but there was no feed from the camera. After several more tries she gave up. "I'm slaving my gun to yours," Emiko told Erica as she entered the commands.

"Right," Erica said, distracted.

With nothing else to do Emiko leaned back in her seat and waited.

After a time the jeatle slowed, then stopped. Emiko leaned to the side so she could look at the forward monitors. Ahead of them were a set of large, heavy doors. As she watched two heavy PAFSs moved up close to them. Shoulder mounted laser cannons swung forward, the high powered lasers began to cut into the metal. Once they had cut an opening the PAFSs pushed through it.

The jeatle moved forward, entering the structure. Behind it were several more jeatles and some larger, legged vehicles. Most of the PAFSs remained outside to set up a defensive perimeter.

One of the larger vehicles moved in front of the jeatle Emiko was in then stopped. Large doors opened and a group of men in power armour exited the vehicles. She watched them as they moved out quickly, going deeper into the structure. It was not long afterwards that the muffled sound of weapon fire came back to them.

Erica had removed her restraining straps and swung her gun controls back into the storage position. Emiko copied her, then picked up her pack and put it on. From the weapon clamps beside her seat she removed her sub machine gun and looked it over.

The sound of weapons fire continued for a time, at one point it sounded constantly for almost a minute. After that it became more intermittent.

One of the soldiers approached, his power armour scarred in several places and smoke raising up in wispy streams from his epaulette.

He walked to the side of the jeatle, pulling the door open. "Lieutenant Miya, please come with me," he said.

Emiko stared at him for a moment, or more to the point his face mask. It looked like that of a demon and she reminded of the samurai armour from her own country. She said nothing, just got out of the jeatle.

"Come on," he said, turning away and walking back the way he had come. Emiko followed after him, having to run. The power armour was boosting his strength and it was likely that he did not know he was leaving her behind.

"They set up a bunch of drones, dumb things, release and forget. They have basic target acquiring software and lasers. We think we got them all, but some are small. If we run into one, move fast, erratically. They are cheap jobs and don't track very well."

"I understand," Emiko said.

"Good," he told her, leading her out of the garage into a corridor.

One of the first sights Emiko was treated to was the dead body. He wore a set of coveralls, a tool belt around his waist. There was a hole in his chest and he sprawled in a field of dry blood and waste. The scent was a little like rotting meat. Emiko put her hand over her mouth and nose and tried not to breathe.

She followed the man in power armour, doing her best not to look at the bodies that sometimes marked their path. She saw one man in power armour treating another. The scent of blood and burnt flesh was fresh in the air, but somehow that did not bother her as much as she might have thought.

Finally they reached their objective. A room two floors up from where they had begun. Its door, once a thick piece of armour, was a piece of twisted metal hanging in the ruined frame. The man led her through it.

Inside she saw that the walls and equipment had holes torn in them. There was a fair amount of blood as well. She looked back at the door and could picture parts of it fragmenting, spraying the interior of the room with shrapnel.

There was a woman there--she had removed her power armour's helmet-who was looking the equipment over. She turned and looked back at Emiko and the man who had brought her. "Thanks," she said.

The man nodded and turned, walking out of the room.

"The Midnight Sun made a mess of this place when they blasted open, but they fixed up most of it, enough for them to use."

Emiko looked around. She saw several bodies stacked in the corner. A number looked like fresh kills. On top of the stack a woman seemed to stare at her from a single eye, her other eye was lost, as well as half her head.

It all proved a bit too much for Emiko who stumbled over to the opposite corner and was violently sick.

The woman waited until it looked like Emiko was finished. "All right?"

Iie, Emiko thought, but she turned around and nodded.

"They needed to fix this place," the woman said, continuing as if nothing had happened. "It controls most of the gates in this place. They buttoned this place down and had everyone trapped in caverns for their amusement."

Emiko nodded as she walked towards the controls. She looked them over, the took her pack off and put it on the ground.

"How long till you get the gate open?"

"A few minutes," Emiko said. "I'm not sure."

"I hate to put pressure on you, but you might not have a few minutes. There are a couple of suits stomping this way to support that Harbinger that was giving us so much grief."

Emiko nodded as she plugged her computer into the controls.

Ree drummed her fingers on the console, every now and then running a self diagnostic. Her Manticore, her ever so slow Manticore, was in good shape, though the lack of proper replacement parts was beginning to tell. She did not let it worry her though, it was still a very effective suit and soon she would replace it with an Arrow.

No matter how good the Manticore was, no matter how well it had served her, she could not help see it as a big, slow, scow. She was like that with all her suits. She had loved that dumpy old GP suit her father had rigged up for her. She had loved it, spent hours working on, hours piloting and it had taught her the basics that she had built her skills on. For all that, the moment something better came along, she turned her back on that GP and never looked back--Ree was glad that suits were about the only thing in her life that she treated like that.

The Arrow, so fast, so agile, so hard hitting, packed full of innovations that no one else would have, it was everything she could want. The Arrow had been designed for her, she felt it was a gift from the Universe. Perhaps a little self centred, but she felt it non-the-less.

<This is Tiger to all units, get ready, we should be going in soon,> she transmitted via the data link. She had piggybacked a timer above the chronometer on her screen, it was counting down to the expected time of the hatch's opening, if everything had gone exactly as planned. Ree did not really expect the door to open right on time, but she had to have some gauge of when something might happen.

The had received a transmission, slightly garbled by the jamming field that the Midnight Sun had set up. The primary objective had been reached, but there was fighting going on. That message had come in several minutes earlier and since then there had been nothing.

Ree watched at the countdown timer reached zero. The hatch several hundred meters ahead of her remained locked down. The timer began to display negative numbers. Ree ran another diagnostic and continued to drum her fingers on the console.

The room shook, and a fine dust rained down from the ceiling.

"I don't want to tell you your job, but you might want to hurry," the woman said.

I am hurrying, Emiko thought. "Hai," she said. The basic security was impressive enough, but the terrorists had had added to that. It was a firewall of sorts put up around the entire system. Probably meant to keep any of the colonists from getting control of the gates. She had puzzled out how to get through it, but her window was murky, as it were. It made everything harder than it should be.

Emiko stopped suddenly, looking at what she had stumbled upon, purely by accident. The wall was basically changing properties about every ten seconds according to a rather complex algorithm. What she had found was that algorithm's protocol. She snapped in up into her computer, quickly matching her system to the wall. The interference she had been putting up with suddenly cleared up.

Taking a moment she rewrote the wall, making it her tool. That would give the terrorists no end of troubles. She buried the new protocol deep in the system, camouflaging it. That done, she went to work for real on the gates.

The room shook again, this time it was more severe.

"We've got drones breaching our defences," the woman told her.

Emiko guessed that was a subtle way of telling her to hurry up again. She did not let the thought of the drones, and what they might do, bother her. The security was bowing to her and the codes were within her reach.

A few seconds later she had them and the gates were hers.

One hundred and eighty six point two seconds after it was supposed to, the hatch opened. Ree had started her suit running forward as soon as she had seen the movement. The other suits were falling in behind her, arranged as she had ordered. With the huge hatch opened the effect of the jamming was lessened somewhat and Ree got a direct feed from Commander Fairbank's tactical computer. Her computer decrypted it and displayed the situation.

She came stomping through the hatch, her suit's cannon swinging around to target the Harbinger. They were fast, when they were flying. There was not much clearance in the cavern for flying. That made the suit just a big target as far as Ree was concerned.

From the mouth of the cannon erupted a hail of projectiles, accelerated to the speed of sound and beyond by a powerful set of magnets. The Harbinger looked like it was trying to move, but Ree had lead the target just a little, certain she knew which way it would go.

Her instincts proved right and the large, terrifying suit was ripped apart by the high density projectiles. Ree watched with approval as the suit's munitions were touched off, turning the suit into a ball of flame that lit up the entire cavern for a moment. She had heard that the Midnight Sun only had one such suit. If it was true, then they had none now.

One of the other Midnight Sun suits, a souped up troub, was taken out by the Galliard beside Ree. Ree took out the remaining suit, an old Starmax that had seen better days.

<Spider, this it Tiger,> she sent to Colonel Fairbank. <Feed target co-ordinates to Wolf 1 and Wolf 2, over.>

<Tiger this is Spider, understood, out.>

A moment later Wolf 1 and 2-a pair of heavy construction suits each armed with a set of high speed 104mm cannons-opened up. Ree watched as areas around the cavern were targeted by the deadly fire. The laser guided shells fell on the areas Colonel Fairbank's PAFSs were lighting up. Very precise and very clean.

In short order they had First Cavern secured. Ree sent a unit of suits to the entrance to Second Cavern and told them to secure it. <Tiger to Starshine,> Ree sent. <Objectives met, holding until further orders, over.>

<Starshine, hold tight until you get orders, Out,> Jesse sent her.

Ree nodded and then began to move her people into position.

"Give me the basics," Jesse said.

"They have a lot of drones out there, simple little things, but annoying," Diane told him.

"M Sun members are using a simple signaller to identify themselves as friends. We grabbed a few." Marshal Sharp placed several of the thin, badge like, transmitters on the table.

"Can we fake this signal?" Jesse picked up one of the badges and looked it over.

"Don't know," Diane shrugged her shoulders.

"What about live forces?"

"Lots of them, scattered all over the place. They are well armed, but not well trained. That lack of training is not a big problem for them as they are happy to die and will take outrageous chances to complete whatever task they have been given," Diane told him.

"On the other hand, anyone in charge of suits, or some other heavy weapons, looks fairly competent," Conaly added.

"What about Taplin Chemical?"

"Sealed themselves up tight, but the M Sun is trying to get at them. We got a look at them," Diane said.

"Will they get in?"

"I don't know."

Jesse looked at the holomap, the Marshals had helped him to add more information to it. There were a lot of caverns between his forces and the deep cavern Taplin had set up in. They had control of the doors now, but they would still have to fight their way forward. They had taken Second Cavern, and Third Cavern A. He could push forward, leaving Third Caverns B and C for later, but that could leave his people open to a rear attack.

"Get some rest," he told Diane and Conaly. "I'm probably going to need you later."

Both nodded, then got to their feet. They saluted quickly, then left the office.

Jesse watched them go, then turned his attention back to the map. He could get his people to the Taplin Cavern in less that an hour if he was willing to be sloppy about it. Could he get people in there, and still hold the areas that had been taken?

Jesse reached for his field phone.

Grendel looked at the huge gate that sealed the short tunnel. Behind it was Taplin Chemical, his goal. So close, but impossible to reach until that gate was gone.

"Why haven't you opened it?" he demanded, turning to face his engineer, a small, mousy woman whose name he cold never remember.

"The gate is too strong," she told him. "To blow it I'd need an explosive that would bring the entire tunnel down."

He was not sure if he could accept what he had just heard. He had fought his way into the caverns, through the impressive defences the colonists had mounted, and finally to this gate. Now he found out that he could go no further because the door was stronger than the tunnel. It was almost funny.

Grendel turned to look at the door for a time, the removed a map board from his pocket. He activated it, projecting a tiny map of the cavern system in the air before him. Using the small buttons on the board he navigated through the system. "Come here," he said to the woman.

"Sir?" she asked, stepping close.

"This is Cavern 6 D, agricultural use."


"Twenty meters below it is the Taplin Cavern. Can you cut us an entrance?"

She looked at the representation, tracing out the route he suggested with her finger. "I think so," she said after a moment.


"I'm sorry sir, but I do not have detailed analysis of the rock in that area, I cannot be certain of how it will behave."

Grendel thought about it for a moment, then turned to look at the huge gate that barred their way. "Do your best," he told her.

"Yes sir," she said. She turned then ran back towards the other engineers. Grendel continued to stare at the gate for a moment, then turned around and walked towards his Harbinger that was kneeling at the end of the tunnel.

Emiko slid over the rubble, down into the ruined structure. She removed her light rod from her belt and turned it on. The powerful light's beam cut through the dust filled darkness. She played it over the broken walls and floor, looking for wounded.

Moving forward, careful of the loose rubble that covered the floor, Emiko searched the area. She almost stepped upon an arm thrust out form under a broken slab of fallen ceiling. She knelt down and began to work, shifting the slab away. Under it was a woman holding a small child. For a moment she was worried that both were dead, but the woman, while a mess, was breathing and the child looked fine.

Moving back the way she had come, Emiko climbed out of the ruined building and attracted the attention of two of the medics. In a short time the woman and child had been treated and were being evacuated from the ruins.

Emiko sat with her back against the wall of another damaged building, watching as the casualties were loaded into an ambulance. They would be evacuated out of the caverns to a camp set up outside of the Thunder Clap.

A large truck rolled by, in the back were another group of colonists, being evacuated from the caverns. They had a shocked and beaten look about them, Emiko had seen it on many faces since she had begun to help with the evacuation. Many of them had given up, had just waited for the inevitable. The ones that had not had either found a way out, or had fought back against the terrorists.

Emiko was about to get to her feet when a section of the road simply exploded. Chunks of the broken stone sprayed out from the blast sight, she saw several people in the truck get hit by the shrapnel. The truck was speeding up, trying to get out of the area, but Emiko was no longer looking. She had thrown herself flat and had crawled into the shelter of a burnt out vehicle.

Moving slowly, she shifted up onto her knees, peering out from between a rip in the car's frame. Near a mostly intact building, about fifty meters from her, she could make out a group of low, quick moving shapes. Drones.

The small, mobile weapon platforms were only a minor problem to the PAFSs that were supposed to have cleared the area out. To her they were more of a threat. She slid back down, turning her back to the vehicle.

The truck and ambulance had run, clearing the area. No doubt the drivers or someone had called this in, and eventually someone would be sent out to deal with the problem. That did not help her much. Looking around she could not see any of the others who had been working on the evacuation. Most had probably moved on, the area clear, or as clear as they could get it. As for anyone else who might have remained, Emiko had no clue.

The sound of the drones approaching was a cue for action. She set off in a low crouch, moving into the rubble of one of the building, using the broken structure for cover. Earlier she had crossed the expanse of wreckage in search of wounded. Now she used that earlier knowledge to quickly pick her way across the broken ground.

She stopped suddenly, spotting another group of drones, cutting her off. Someone had obviously missed a large number of the things when they had been clearing them out. Or maybe these were newcomers. Where they might have come from did not matter that much to her, the fact was that they were there.

Turning, Emiko made for the deeper caverns. The fighting was still going on there, but at least she would be able to find some people on her side.

Several times she spotted the drones but they did not detect her. The stealth qualities of her armour were blinding them to her. She passed through the line of drones without incident, leaving them behind.

Ree's Manticore stood over the smoking remains of another suit. Inside Ree was in conversation with Jesse.

"I know this is asking a lot," Jesse said.

Ree smiled. "I know how his game is played, and I don't think this will be a particularly dangerous mission. I'll get them."

"Good luck."

"Thanks, Tiger out." Ree switched com frequencies, switching over to a data link com. <Tiger 2, this is Tiger, message, over.>

<Tiger 2, send, over.> Epiphany sent her.

<I've been given a new job, I'm leaving you in command of everyone except for Rhino 1 and 2, over.>

<Understood. We're getting a bit stretched out, over.>

<I know, do the best you can. Tiger out.> Ree switched over to the general frequency. "Tiger to Rhino 1 and 2, you're with me, over."

"Understood," Rhino 1-Tequila Nelson-sent.

"Understood," Rhino 2-Fire Lasha-replied.

Ree watched as the two suits approached her. Tequila was ex SAC, she had been one of the crew onboard the Perth. Her suit was a Leopard, painted to match its namesake. Fire was Charybdis and was piloting a Myrmidon, one of the first that had come off the lines. Ree figured the three heavy hitting suits would easily be able to handle the Starmaxes that appeared to be the suit of choice for the Midnight Sun's mission.

Ree switched over to data link, encrypting everything. <Rhino 2, we're going into Cavern 4 B, I want you to sweep the entry tunnel as we go in, saturate the floor, walls and ceiling. Rhino 2, hang behind me, be prepared to open fire when we enter the cavern. Conserve your ammunition.>

<Got you,> Tequila sent.

<Roger,> Fire sent.

<Let's go.>

The three suits moved out, the Manticore and Myrmidon's heavy foot falls cracking the cavern floor as they ran. The Leopard cruised forward on its wheels. When they approached the tunnel into 4 B Fire swung the plasma rifle forward and opened fire, the plasma blowing chunks of the wall out, but also detonating mines, destroying drones and clearing the way.

The Leopard shifted back to bipedal movement, running after the other two over the broken rubble that littered the tunnel floor. The Myrmidon slid into the cavern, crashing through an impromptu roadblock made of burnt out vehicles and other junk. Ree fired off her verniers to bring her Manticore sharply around the Myrmidon.

The were no large targets in the room, nothing that was firing at them, at least nothing of any importance.

<Cavern 4 D next, same plan,> Ree said, moving off.

Emiko had met up with a friendly group, but they were not part of the Battalion. They were a group of colony security as well as some of the colonists who had taken up weapons in an attempt to defend their colony.

She had almost been killed by the group, then one had recognised her from the broadcast she had done.

They had taken her in, giving her one of the badges that made the drones ignore them. After that they had set off, destroying the drones-which unfortunately were not so badly programmed that they ignored them after they started shooting-and going after groups of Midnight Sun ground forces.

Emiko looked around as she moved through the corridors formed by two buildings. They were in Cavern 3 C, one of the most built up of the caverns. The light system above them was barely extant, they were in near complete darkness. The fires, scattered through the cavern, provided little light.

Emiko was not bothered by that, her armour included goggles that combined low light and thermographic features. A small computer read the ambient light and adjusted the goggles to take it into effect. It was that aspect of the goggles that gave her an advantage when the flares went off.

Emiko did not pause, she just dived to the side, getting under some thick cover. Most of the security did similar, the few people that remained standing were cut down by fire coming from above them.

She waited, waited for the fire to end. It took some time, above them their attackers were trying to get everyone. Emiko stayed beneath the heavy cover, trusting it and her armour to keep her safe. After a minute the flares started going down, quickly burning out, darkness once again coming to claim the area.

Taking advantage of the moment, hoping that the terrorists goggles, if they had them, were not as high quality as hers, she rolled out from under the cover. On her knees, Emiko brought her weapon up to her shoulder, sighting on the shadowy forms above her.

Emiko was not thinking about the people she was shooting, her mind was already on the next target. It was only when she retreated back under cover that she realised she had possibly killed several people. For a moment the thought threatened to paralyse her, but she stuffed it into a corner of her mind to be dealt with later and rolled back out form under her cover, firing up at another of the terrorists.

A Starmax was torn apart by a burst from the Manticore's cannon. Ree spun the suit about, lashing out with its right elbow to knock another suit away from her. Some distance away the Myrmidon was driving another of the suits back, its battle axe tearing chunks of armour out of its opponent.

Ree turned her suit about and drove its heavy foot down onto the suit she had knocked over. The suit jerked under the assault, the foot breaking through the armour over its chest.

For a moment they were in a clear space, the huge cavern empty but for the two suits. Cavern 6 A stretched out around them, a huge open space, dedicated to agricultural use. Ree looked at the torn up and burnt crops, the wrecks of a number of agricultural vehicles. She had been responsible for some of it, the huge weapons the suits used doing large amount of collateral damage.

<Tiger to Rhino 1, report, over,> Ree sent.

<Rhino 1, have reached objective. Area is clear, over.>

<Say again, over.>

<Area is clear, no enemy units. Area is still secure, over.>

<Wait one, over,> Ree told her, then brought up a map of the caverns. There was only one way into the Taplin Cavern, and that was a straight corridor with no branches. How could not be there? <Rhino 1, get back here, Tiger out.> Ree looked at the map again, wondering if she was missing anything. <Tiger to Starshine, message, over.>

<Starshine, send, over,> Jesse replied after a time.

<No enemy units at objective, advise over.>

<Hold position and wait. Starshine out.>

Ree leaned back in her seat and looked her sensors over. Where they hell were they?

Grendel stood beneath his kneeling Harbinger, watching the engineers work. One of the Starmaxes had scraped away the thick soil of the agricultural area, revealing the stone floor. Holes had been drilled into the floor and the engineers were filling them with explosive compounds.

He looked down at his tactical map board, seeing how far the enemy had progressed. The largest number were tied up in the third caverns, no doubt working to save as many of the colonists as they could.

It was sad they worked so hard to live, and to force others to live. They were lost. Thinking of the lost, he looked over at a group of mercenaries. The Nemyss had hired them, needing their skills. Grendel did not dislike them, they just did not know the truth yet. He could forgive them for their ignorance.

He saw his engineer, the mousy woman whose name he could not remember, moving towards him. The leader of the mercenaries, a woman who named her self Poison, saw the engineer's approach and came as well.

"Sir," the engineer said. "We are ready to blow the charges."

"Will they open the way?"


"Good." He turned toward poison. "Are your people ready to go?"

"As soon as that hole is open."

Grendel nodded at the engineer who turned and walked back to the work sight.

"So," Poison said. "Will they stand there and blow themselves up as well?"

"They do not yet have permission to die," he told her.

Poison stared at him for a moment. The way he had said that, it was like some other people might say that starving people did not have enough food to eat. There was regret in his voice. She shivered slightly and tried to hide it by turning away from him. "I'll prepare my people," she called back to him as she walked off.

He nodded at her and said nothing.

Poison did not understand the people she had been hired by. Looking down at the work sight she saw the last moment preparations being made, and number of the engineers moving away from the sight. Many were looking back, as if hey wanted to stay. Very strange.

What was most worrisome was that some of her people had been talking with members of the Midnight Sun. She suspected some were being converted. The death cult's message of a subtle one, one which played upon the weakness of everyone. The fear of death, and the true fear that everything would go on, unchanged, after one's death. She could understand the draw, but it did not resonate within her. She loved her money too much.

"Saddle up and get ready to go," she called to her troops. They stopped milling around the trucks and APCs and went to work, breaking out their PAFSs.

Several minutes later the mercenaries were in the PAFSs-light weight, small recon modes-and the engineers ready to blow the cavern floor.

On a nod from Grendel the explosives were set off.

The charges had been set to go off in two groups. The first group pulverised much of the rock, the second group, set in much deeper cores, ripped a hole into the Taplin cavern. The mercenaries did not wait for the dust to settle, they leapt down into the hole, the thrust units on their backs giving them great manoeuvrability.

Grendel watched, then climbed into the cockpit of his suit. "All units, move to secure exit route," he said over his radio.

The Midnight Sun suits moved out.

Ree was taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of the enemy suits. Her surprise did not slow her down though. The Manticore's cannon tracked one of the suits and fired on it, the quick burst ripping the Starmax apart.

A burst of the thrusters lifted her suit into the air for a moment-and almost bounced her off the ceiling--allowing her to escape the barrage one of the other suits lay down. Before it could target her again the Myrmidon opened fire on it, the plasma cannon burning deep holes into the armour.

Landing, Ree picked out another target and fired. The rail cannons rounds blew the left arm and leg off of a heavy construction unit and damaged a beat up Galliard that was behind it. A beeping told her that her cannon was out of ammunition. As the cannon was swinging back into its storage position the Manticore drew its heavy gauss pistol.

Skating along on its wheels, the Leopard moved quickly, setting up an effective shot. Another suit opened up on the Leopard, but was unable to get a lock due to the speed of the suit. The Leopard spun about, firing back. The rounds ripped through the first suit and continued on to cripple the suit behind it.

For a moment it appeared that the three suits might hold off the greater number of Midnight Sun suits, but then two Harbingers moved into the fray, changing the balance.

Speeding backward on its wheels, the Leopard almost avoided the hellstorm missiles one of the suits launched at it. Two of the missiles hit, exploding into a ball of flame that the Leopard was caught in the middle of.

As Ree was dodging a hail of fire from the second Harbinger, she watched the Leopard emerge from the cloud of flame, looking beat up, but still functional. In fact the main cannon swung forward, firing through the flames at the Harbinger that had launched the missiles.

The Harbinger managed to avoid most of the fire, but a Starmax close to it was ripped apart by the heavy rounds.

Ree spun the Manticore about, avoiding several rounds from the chest cannon of the Harbinger she was facing. She fired a burst off at one of the Starmaxes, taking its head off. She was turning to face the Harbinger when the Myrmidon's huge battle axe shot across the cavern, burying itself in the chest armour of the enemy suit.

She switched her aim, firing at the other suits, covering the Myrmidon's advance.

Fire moved quickly through the lines of the enemy, his suit's shield held forward, taking the brunt of the fire. The Harbinger had been knocked back by the attack, and it was unbalanced. Fire slammed his shield against it, knocking it back some more, the right hand reached out and pulled the battle axe from the other's suits chest.

As Ree fired on the other suits she watched as Fire's suit lifted the axe high above its head. The Harbinger released a volley of missiles. The hellstorms exploded around the Myrmidon, the explosion of flame actually catching two other Midnight Sun suits. The Myrmidon came out of the flame, unscathed, and drove the axe down, cutting into the already weakened armour of its chest.

The Harbinger fell back, hitting the ground.

<Fall back,> Ree sent, her Manticore's free hand removing a grenade and arming it. As the other two suits retreated she hurled the grenade amidst some of the enemy suits. The resulting explosion not only crippled one of the suits but brought down part of the roof, giving them cover for their escape.

<Tiger to Starshine, we've got a situation, request some help, over,> Ree sent out.

The security in the Taplin Cavern had been expecting something to happen, had expected the Midnight Sun might batter its way though the gates with a suit. Blowing a hole through their roof was not something they had given much thought.

Poison had her people move fast, using their light PAFSs speed and manoeuvrability to its greatest advantage.

The cavern was filled with pipes and chemical vats. Half of Poison's team fired upon them, spilling millions of litres of acids and other chemicals onto the cavern floor. Several of the resulting chemical reactions filled the cavern up with a blinding, and often toxic, smoke. The mercenaries were not affected by their actions. Their PAFSs had powerful sensor packages and had been sealed against chemical weapons.

The other half of the team cut through security, making their way directly towards the vault. It was an imposing building, a solid cube. Poison might have been impressed by the flat black walls, but the grey door that was the only way to enter and was made of the sort of armour plating they put on battleships. She might have, had she not had the pass codes.

The security was not much of a problem. With the choking, blinding vapours filling the air they were at a serious disadvantage. Poison slid to a stop in front of the mighty door, the rest of her people moving into defensive positions but for a single PAFS that was fitted with a rear storage compartment. That one stayed beside her.

Poison's PAFS lifted its hand, placing it on the door controls. A set of leads snaked out of the arm housing, plugging themselves into the sockets. A moment later the door slid open. Poison moved in, closely followed by the other PAFS. The door slid close behind them.

Powerful spotlights on Poison's PAFS lit up, blinding light that fell where ever she looked. She walked along the racks that held various receptacles in which any number of hazardous and dangerous chemicals might be stored.

They were arranged in a bewildering order, but Poison knew the pattern, could make order out of the chaos. The codes for the door, the plans of the factory, everything, had come from the Midnight Sun. She suspected that someone in Taplin was a member. It did not really matter how they had got the information though, just that they had given it to her, just that it made her job that much easier.

She finally found what she had been sent to get. There were ten of the cylinders, each as long as her arm with a diameter of a hand span. Cylinders made of dull grey palstisteel, unmarked but for a series of ten alphanumeric characters. The other suit turned around, its back to her. The back pack like compartment opened up, allowing her to place them in the smart padding. The foam like material accepted each of the cylinders, pulling them into itself, holding them securely in a gentle embrace.

Poison smiled slightly as she slid the last of the cylinders into place. The sexual condentations of the act dawning on her.

She laughed as she slammed the storage compartment close, giving it a hard tug to make sure it was properly sealed. "Let's go," she said.

The two PAFSs moved out, half way out Poison turned her suit and began to fire time detonated grenades into the vault.

When they reached the door she once more fed it the codes and it once more opened for them. "We're leaving," she called out over the com.

The PAFSs began falling back towards the pile of rubble above which was their exit.

Ree ducked her suit under the Starmax's sword, her suit's fist slammed forward, crushing the other suit's knee. Standing, she grasped the sword, twisting it out of the Starmax's hand. She reversed the sword and lashed out with it, cutting deep into the other suit.

Around her the city in Cavern 3 B was burning, in the flickering light suits fought, the Midnight Sun was pushing towards an exit gate, the Battalion's forces were trying to stop them. The orders had been very specific, the Midnight Sun was not to leave.

Taplin had been breached. It was likely that the Midnight Sun had what it wanted. Of course no one knew what that was most were certain that it was not something benign.

The Starmax was slowly getting to its feet, its balance looked off. Ree was willing to wait until it was standing. She was not planning on hitting it while it was down, but then her proximity alarm went off, another suit was approaching.

She took the Starmax's head off, then spun to face the new threat. Behind her a Harbinger was approaching. Her Manticore stepped aside, avoiding a burst of fire from its scatter guns. Behind her another part of the city exploded into flame.

Stepping forward, Ree stabbed at the Harbinger. The black suit snapped out its left arm, its ripper snapping her borrowed sword in half.

Ree dropped the broken blade, moving in close. The Harbinger was a little off balance, not much, but enough. She grasped the other suit's wrist, digging the Manticore's fingers into the armour. She lifted its arms high, twisting its body so the chest cannon was no longer pointing at her.

The Harbinger pilot was trying to reverse the hold, trying to force her in front of its cannon. Under the suits' feet the cavern surface cracked and splintered, and both suits fought to maintain their balance.

As Ree fought she realised she had faced the suit and the pilot before. It had been on Salamanca, and she had been beaten that time. Not this time, she thought. This time she had a suit that was a match for the Harbinger. Her stress indicators were in the yellow, but staying there. From the feedback she was receiving she was certain that the armour under her Manticore's fingers was close to buckling.

The Harbinger changed tactics. It suddenly tried to drive the ripper on its right arm down, into the Manticore. Ree pushed back, forcing the blade up. Then the Harbinger snapped its arm up. The arm slid from the grip of the Manticore's metal fingers, giving Ree little leverage against the suit. As it began to twist its torso about, Ree released her hold on the Harbinger and threw herself to the side, avoiding the blasts from the Harbinger's chest cannon.

Even as she was fighting to keep the Manticore on its feet, Ree reached the suit's hands up, over its shoulder and grasped the suits main cannon. The weapon mount released at Ree's command and she shifted the huge weapon in front of her. Taking a step forward, her suit swung the cannon like a bat, hitting the Harbinger and knocking it from its feet. The cannon snapped in two, leaving a short club in the Manticore's hands.

Ree hurled it at the Harbinger that was getting to its feet. The projectile hit the lower left arm, snapping the sword like ripper off. Ree shifted her suit forward as it drew its knife.

Jesse looked at the tactical board, trying to make sense of it all. The Midnight Sun had blown the gates that he had hoped would keep them contained-they had used some huge weapons to do it, almost bringing down the cavern on themselves. The majority of their forces were close to one of the exits. He considered moving the suits that were guarding the Thunder Clap to intercept, but was not sure if it was wise leaving the ship, and the aid centre that had sprung up beside it, unprotected.

He reached for the phone, then entered the code for the Perth.

A few seconds later it was picked up. "Lieutenant Commander Collins."

"This is Ryuzaki," he said, not bothering with a rank. The Battalion had still not gotten around to a formal system of rank. "Your gunners up to a challenge?"

"What kind of challenge?"

"I need you to hit an area, you have to be within ten meters."

"Six figure grid reference?" she said. "We can do it sir."

"Good. I'm transmitting the references now. I'll tell you when to fire."

"Yes sir."

Emiko ran across the broken ground that was occasionally illuminated by the muzzle flash of many cannons. Heavy rounds from one of those cannons were falling close by, and getting closer, the roads and buildings were exploding.

Across from her was a child, a girl. She stood by a building, frozen by fear. Emiko ran faster, trying to beat the rolling barrage that was getting closer every moment. She reached the girl, grasping her, turning her own body to shield the child.

Suddenly the world exploded and Emiko found herself flying through the air. She did her best to keep herself and her armour between the girl, to keep her safe. Then she hit the ground hard, landing on the girl. She did what she could to keep as much of her weight off the child as possible, but there was only so much she could do.

Emiko slid to a stop, twisting around so the girl was above her. She lay there, breathing deeply, for a moment it was peaceful. Then the sound baffles in her helmet opened up and she could hear again.

"Daijoubu desu ka?" she asked the girl. The girl said nothing. She did not move. Emiko sat up, turning the girl around. Her left side was a bloody mess, the same shrapnel that had bounced off Emiko's body armour had torn her apart.

Emiko shook her head, then struggled to her feet. She carried the girl over to the side of one of the buildings then lay her down. There was so much blood. Emiko tore her glove from her right hand and lay her fingers against the child's throat. There was no pulse.

Suddenly Emiko was crying and she did not know why. She had seen other dead, children, adults, the elderly. Her enemies, her allies, even some acquaintances-thankfully no friends-and she had not cried. She had had to fight the feeling of nausea, but she had not cried.

Now she cried and she could not seem to stop. She pushed her hands, one gloved, one bare, against her eyes, trying to stem to flow of tears.

It was all so futile she realised. All so terribly futile. She had stolen, she had opened security systems, she had plotted and she had killed and they still died. Was it worth killing in an attempt to save lives? She did not know. Around her she could hear the explosions, and feel the tremor of the titanic war machines as they walked. She did not care.

For a time she stared down at the girls face, then she removed her pack. The kevlar weave had been perforated several times, her computer was a mess, as were some of her weapons. Fortunately all of the explosives compounds in her ammunition were very stable.

She opened the pack and removed a small packet. She tore the packet open and removed a folded silver blanket. She unfolded it a few times, then snapped it out several times. After it was completely open she slid it up the girl's body. She stopped with it was midway up her chest. With the wound covered it looked almost as if she was just sleeping, as if Emiko might wake her with a gentle shake. A sob escaped from her, a painful expulsion, drawn up from somewhere deep within her chest. It hurt so much. She pulled the blanket completely over the girl, then weighted it down with small chunks of rubble.

Finally Emiko stood. She looked around, wondering who was winning. She walked down the street, trying to make sense of what was happening. She felt as if she could not be touched. She knew that that thought was dangerous. She knew that that feeling might kill her. Still, she walked on. She was still crying.

She was snapped out that dangerous state by the huge foot of a mech coming down not ten meters away from her. The flickering light made it hard her to the see the colour scheme, but she recognised it from its silhouette. It was a Ree's Manticore.

Emiko backed up quickly, fortunately as another suit's feet came down close to where she had just been. She recognised that suit as well, a Harbinger.

Ree lashed out with her suit's knife, cutting deep into the Harbinger's torso. The Harbinger punched out with its left hand-fortunately the side that had lost its ripper-hitting the Manticore's extended arm, the inner elbow.

The damage shorted out several control relays, the Manticore's hand flexed, the knife falling from it.

Cursing, Ree moved back, staying out of the torso cannon's line of fire. She was out of weapons, beyond the Manticore's brute strength. She looked over her sensor screens, hoping to spot a discarded weapon. There was nothing, nothing she could see a least.

The Harbinger leapt at her, she side stepped, but she could not move the suit fast enough to get an attack of her own off. The lack of proper replacement parts for her suit was finally beginning to tell. She also suspected that the Harbinger she faced had entered the battle fresh while her suit had taken some hits before hand.

Ree turned her mind away from such thoughts. Calling unfair would not help her.

Grendel watched the other suit. It had lost all of its weapons now, it should be easy to destroy it, but he knew it would not be. The pilot was too good. The Manticore was in poor shape, but so what his Harbinger. The scatter gun in his suit's left arm had been knocked out of service at the same time he had lost the ripper. The one in his right was out of ammunition. He had a few rounds left in the chest cannon, but he did not want to use them.

He would have used the hellstorm missiles, but the other suit stayed too close to him and he did not want to get caught in the blast of his own weapon.

He swung his suit around, as if he was attempting to bring his chest cannon to bear. As he suspected, the other suit moved out of his line of fire. Sending his suit springing forward, he lashed out with the ripper. The Manticore twisted away, lashing out with its foot. He turned his suit so it took the brunt of the attack to the outer thigh. The armour buckled and there was damage to the myomer muscles, but it would not slow him down.

He moved away from the Manticore, then, knowing he had a few seconds, looked at his tactical board. His people had fought their way close to the exit, they would blow the door soon and escape from the caverns.

He could not, not until he could disengage, and the only way he could do that was by destroying the Manticore.

As he turned his attention back to the battle a new plan came to him. He once again tried to centre his chest cannon on the other suit.

Ree had been about to try for another kick when the Harbinger swung around, trying to use the chest cannon. She moved quickly, to her left--to her right were a group of intact buildings, almost as high as the Manticore.

The suit's foot came down on what had looked like fairly solid rubble from her perspective. It turned out to be much less solid than she would have liked. The rubble shifted, her suit's leg almost flew out from under her, she had to fight to keep the suit on its feet.

The Harbinger choose that moment to leap forward, its ripper in the lead. Ree realised that she had been set up. A simple trap and she had walked right into it. She tried to bring up her arm to block, but the earlier damage slowed it by a fraction of a second. A fraction of a second too much. She managed to knock it aside slightly, but not enough.

The tip of the blade cut through her armour, cut into the suit, cut into the cockpit, and cut into her.

Deflected slightly, instead of going straight into her chest, the very tip pierced the left side of her body, around her shoulder. The pain was unbelievable, she almost blacked out, she was certain she almost died. It was as if she could feel the blood leaving her body, leaving her an empty shell.

After a moment the pain stopped registering, there was too much, her brain could not keep up. Her vision was going grey. She could not feel her left arm. Death felt close.

Ree gritted her teeth. There was something warm in her mouth. Blood? She did not want to die. Shut up! she thought angrily to herself. No whining. If she was to die, so be it, but no whining. Who was she to whine?

With her right hand, she grasped the controls tightly, clinging to them as if they might hold her, ground her soul in her body.

The Manticore's hand quickly and gently, ever so gently grasped the blade and began pulling it from its chest, from her chest. Ree squeezed her eyes tight against the fresh pain, refusing to be cowed by it.

When the blade was fully out of her suit she twisted it, snapping it.

A little surprised she could still think, still act, with the cockpit rich with the scent of blood, her blood, she turned the Manticore's hand and drove the end of the blade deep into the Harbinger's chest, straight into the barrel the chest cannon.

Grendel had been amazed when the other suit grabbed his blade and removed it. He looked up at the Manticore's head and wondered if the pilot was there. No, the canopy was smashed, there was no pilot there. How could the pilot still be alive then. He was sure his blade would have gone into the cockpit. The pilot should be dead. Why wasn't the pilot dead?

His surprise cost him, her could not react in time to stop the Manticore's attack. There was irony in that, using his own weapon against him. He would have laughed if he had had time.

The ripper wrecked the cannon, slicing into the power feeds. A burst of feedback slammed pass an array of damaged circuit breakers. His cockpit exploded into sparks around him and his suit went dead.

It fell backward and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He relaxed his body as much as he could and hoped that the restraints would keep him safe.

Emiko had watched the Harbinger's blade plunge into the Manticore. She knew the Manticore's design, she had helped Ree with all the pilot maintenance. She knew that the weapon would end up in the cockpit. There was no way it could not. She fell forward, collapsing to her knees.

Then the Manticore moved. It grasped the blade that was inside and in carefully, gently pulled in free. Emiko watched as the blade was snapped into, and then watched as the Manticore drove the end of the very blade that had pierced it into the Harbinger. The Harbinger fell, defeated.

For a moment relief washed through her, mixed with elation.

Then the Manticore slowly collapsed to one knee. She recognised the movement. It was how a suit behaved with the pilot's data link no longer was connected to the suit. It had happened to her when Ree was trying to work out the bugs in the system she had set up for Emiko. Sometimes it just cut out, and the suit would drop carefully, slowly, to one knee. Just like that.

"Oneechan," Emiko said softly. Nothing happened. "Oneechan!" she screamed until her throat hurt.

She leapt to her feet, running towards the building's fire escape. She pounded down the stains, grabbing a hold of the banister railing to whip herself around the corners. Her feet slipped several times, but she pulled herself up each time, not slowing in the least.

Two stories up she leapt the banister, flinging herself into the air. She hit the ground hard, but the armour took most of the impact, leaving her unharmed.

She scrabbled to her feet and began to run towards the Manticore.

In the distance she saw a pilot climb from the Harbinger. No, Emiko thought as she lifted her sub machine gun, you can't live. She pulled the trigger.

Grendel had just climbed from his ruined suit when he came under fire. He did not waste any time, he leapt from the suit, sliding down the chest and putting it between him and whoever was shooting at him.

He began to run, heading not towards the exit where the others were gathering, but back, towards the area where the mercenaries and the others that the Nemyss had told to live were waiting. The fighting had died down greatly over the last little while, but there was still enough confusion to cover his escape.

He felt jealous of those leaving by the large exit, he thought it was likely that they would die. He had his orders though, and he would not disobey the Nemyss.

Emiko watched as the Midnight Sun pilot went over the side of his suit. She wondered if she had hit him. She hoped she had. She hoped he was dead.

Tossing aside her sub machine gun, Emiko leapt at the Manticore's leg, catching hand holds, and pulling herself up to the knee and then onto the relatively lever surface of the upper leg. She ran along it to the chest unit, then reached up and opened an emergency cover.

Quickly she tapped in the emergency code, then grabbed a handle and pulled. The handle trailed a long cord, and she had to walk backward along the suits upper leg to pull it all out.

As soon as she had the cord free a set of micro charges blew the large chest panel open. Emiko ran forward, ducking under the rising armour panel, and pulled herself into the Manticore. The armoured cockpit was nestled in the centre of the suit. There was hole in it, not quite in the centre, but up, and to the right.

Emiko pulled herself up to the armoured cockpit and grasped the release lever. She pulled hard, for a moment the lever remained fixed, then, suddenly, it moved. Emiko almost fell but managed to keep on her feet.

The cockpit opened, the top half raising, then, once the top hatch was clear, the bottom half swung down.

The smell of blood and other things hit her, it almost made her gag. She steeled herself and pulled herself into the cockpit.

Ree was still strapped into her seat. Her left arm was gone at the shoulder, a deep cleft in her side. She was so pale.

"Oneechan," Emiko said softly, moving close. She placed her fingers against Ree's neck. There was no pulse. "Oneechan," Emiko collapsed, her face against Ree's whole shoulder. She had though she had cried herself out earlier, but there were more tears, more than she could have imagined.

Emiko did not know how long she had been there, crying in Ree's shoulder, when someone grabbed her.

"Iie!" Emiko screamed. No one was going to take her away from Ree. She drew her pistol and turned around, but the weapon was slapped out of her hand and she was off balance. Whoever it was gave her another pull and she tumbled from the chest. She might have fallen to the ground but someone grabbed her.

Emiko fought the hands holding her, flipping herself over. There was a man in the cockpit with Ree, she could only see his back.

"Hanase(get away)!" Emiko yelled, twisting around, trying to get at her backup pistol.

"Will you just relax," the person holding her yelled. "We're trying to help."

"How does it look," someone said. The voice was behind Emiko and sounded familiar.

"Chest and abdomen have a low oxygen levels, but not critical. Brain oxygen level is still high," the man in the cockpit called back. "Main injury is a really nasty thing, took the arm off, opened her chest right up, massive lung damage. I've given her a trauma shot. I'll patch everything up and we can move her."

Emiko stopped struggling, she just stared up at the man working in the cockpit. They were talking as if Ree was still alive, as if she could be saved.

"You all right?" the person with the familiar voice said. Emiko looked back and saw Doctor Lenau.


"Will be looked after," Erica walked up and knelt beside Emiko. "What about you?"

"I'm fine. What about Ree?"

Erica looked up at the cockpit. "It sounds like her nanobodies kept her brain oxygenated. That should mean there is little or no damage. It's a good start." She paused. "No promises though. We may not be able to recesutate her."

"Okay, let's move," the man in the cockpit called.

"Get out of our way," Erica said. "We got work to do. Get her arm," she shouted at the man in the cockpit. "You know how these pilots are about original parts."

Emiko stood and moved off to the side, grabbing the side of the unit so she was out of the way. A stretcher was brought up and Ree was placed on it. In a very short time they had her out of the cockpit and were transferring her down towards an ambulance.

Emiko watched, unable to move. They had Ree in the ambulance and then the vehicle was moving off.

"Want a ride?" Erica called as she put a leg into the jeatle.

Emiko shook her head.

"Careful, there is still a little fighting going on. We won though," she smiled, then climbed into the jeatle.

Emiko watched the jeatle move off, crossing the broken ground easily. Emiko swung herself back onto the Manticore's leg then turned to look up at the suit. It was so beat up. She wondered if it might be fixed. She realised that she was not really concerned about the suit. She moved up into the chest to find her pistol.

A refugee camp of some sort had sprung up around the Thunder Bolt. The evacuated colonists were gathered there. Tents were being set up as fast as possible but many stood outside, waiting. As Emiko passed through the lines she saw the wounded, many lying out in the open, their wounds not life threatening enough for immediate treatment. She wondered where Ree was.

The guards at the Thunder Clap knew her, they let her by. Emiko climbed up the boarding ramp and into the ship. She passed through the corridors, her head down. No one talked to her, or maybe she just did not hear anyone. She found herself in front of Doctor Rolson's office. She pushed the door open and entered. He was not there, but Emiko entered anyway. She closed the door behind her, removed her pack, then sat down on the couch.

She waited for almost two hours before Dr. Rolson entered. He looked a little surprised by Emiko's presence, but smiled. "I keep the drugs in the sickbay," he told her.

Emiko tried to smile, but her face would not work to do it.

"Is it possible to turn a data link off?" Emiko asked him.

"Pardon?" he asked. He was tired and not sure he had heard her right.

"Is it possible to work some kind of switch into the a data link so it can be turned off, like it wasn't even there?"

Andre looked at her for several seconds, then walked over to his computer, turning it so he could see the screen. He placed his hand on the touch pad and began entering commands. After a few minutes he looked over at her. "Yes, there have been a few designs worked out."

Emiko nodded. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. "I want to get a data link, one with such a switch," her words tumbled over each other as she said it as fast as she could.

Andre said nothing for a moment, then nodded. "Come along, we'll program the nano machines in the lab."

Emiko stood, and forced herself to calmly walk after the Doctor. She wanted to run away, but she didn't.

Ending Credits, the same as before.

Tech Notes

Jeatles. What do you get when you combine a jeep and a beetle (the insect, not the car)? Jeatle are vehicle bodies fitted the legs as their drive system. While jeatle really refers to the jeep sized vehicles, the term is used for most military, legged vehicles. They are usually lightly armoured and armed.

"Watashi wa anata no ane, soshite haha, soshite anata."
--Miyu Kyuuketsuki ga Yui ni itta
Shawn Hagen <hagen@brant.net>

On to Chapter 27