Episode 35 (2180.12.13)
by Shawn Hagen (1998)
Starblade Battalion is the Property of R.Talsorian Games.
Opening Titles - As Before.
L.A. was burning. Grey was more than a little impressed. She would not have thought the city could truly burn, what with most of it being concrete and steel. Still, the USSA had dropped enough bombs to break all that concrete into small bits, and in all that rubble were things that would burn. Added to that were the many chemicals that had permeated the very city over the many decades and the city did indeed burn.
"I'd almost say this is beautiful," Grey said.
"We should leave soon," Quick, one of her lieutenants, said.
"The fire is getting closer."
"Not that close. Is everyone out?"
"Yea, finished our evacuations several hours ago."
"Loose anyone, or anything?"
"No, it was all clean."
Grey shook her head. "These SAC jokers just have no idea what they are doing."
"They are trying to put the fire out now."
"Figures. Just no idea."
"Where do we go now?" Quick asked.
"Yes. Our rides should be arriving in time."
"What do we do until then?"
"Stay scattered and wait. I'm going to use this chance to clean house."
"It's going to get messy." Quick sighed.
"Definitely." Grey smiled.
"Was this the right thing to do?" Mint asked.
"Of course it was," Auden told her.
Mint said nothing, she just stared down at her lap.
"Lieutenant Waltz, you did the right thing in bringing this to me. While I will admit that Miss Dover is doing a noble thing, part of her reason for doing so is personal."
"But isn't peace something we should be striving for?"
"No. Not at this point. We do not know that the Colonies would honour such an unofficial agreement, and in the end it will only be demoralising for our people. When the Colonies officially request such an agreement, then it will be time for peace agreements. I hope you understand Lieutenant."
"Good. Thank you for brining me this information. You have performed a great service for the USSA today."
"Thank you ma'am."
"You can go now."
Mint nodded, then got to her feet. She saluted Auden without any thought and then turned and walked from the office.
Auden had already put the young woman from her mind before she had left. This peace agreement was very poorly timed in her opinion. In a few months Earth's forces would be built up to the point where they could start a serious campaign with the Colonies. They needed that, they needed to crush the ODF, to bring the people of the Colonies to heel.
No, a peace agreement now would be disastrous for the environments of all the planets in the cluster. It would have to be stopped.
The entire thing had Campbell's hand on it, she was sure of that. There was nothing she could do about that though, she did not have any proof. She could go after Joanna or Kent, but that could be a dangerous move. The press were watching, and they might very well leap to the defence of both of them.
She just did not have the proof to do what she wanted. Mint had brought her some useful information, but no proof. Without proof there was nothing official she could do.
Turning her computer screen to face her she began to bring up the disposition of all Gaian Wardens, where they were and what they were doing. She was going to have to deal with the problem in a more direct manner.
Her Arrow cut through the planet's upper atmosphere, moving very fast. Inside the cockpit was beginning to get dangerously hot. Ree blinked the sweat from her eyes and looked over the instruments. The Arrow had not been designed to make such a rapid re-entry, but a thick coating of ablative heat shielding made all the difference.
That foam was nearly gone now, but it had done its job. She changed the angle of attack, swinging the Arrow into a new course. <Epiphany, report,> Ree sent.
<We're all through, no problems.>
<Good. Race your people down to the planet's surface as fast as you can. After that set up an ambush and wait for us.>
Ree switched frequencies. <Okay people, we've got two minutes to get to the LZ, let's do it.>
As Ree opened up her Arrow's engines five more of the craft fell in behind her, following her towards the planet's surface.
Some distance away Epiphany was doing the same thing.
"How are your people shaping up?" Juan asked Ree.
"Well enough. They can hit the planet's surface in the time frame we want, and once there they will be able to mix it up well enough. We only have twelve suits though."
"That should be enough."
"I hope so."
"We've also got ten more suits that we can put on the planet's surface fifteen to twenty minutes after you put down."
"Assuming the shuttle does not get shot down."
"Aren't you the optimist," Juan said.
"Just pointing it out. What about the advance team?"
"We're ready to go," Diane said.
"So when do we go?" Ree asked
"We'll be shunting off in about six hour," Juan told her. "What do your people think?"
"No one believes the official story anymore, but the first rumour you started still lives on. A few don't believe that any longer, but they have grabbed onto that second one you started. No one has a clue about what we are really doing."
"All right, let's keep it that way. Make sure all your people get some rest."
"Captain, an ODF cutter just shunted in," a sensor operator called out.
"Is it where it is supposed to be?" Redding asked.
"Good. Verify them then clear them for docking."
"Another ODF cutter has appeared."
Redding watched as the two ships approached, moving to dock with the Ruby. He had staggered the arrival times of the two groups. It was bad planning to have both the SCC ships and the ODF ships moving about one another. People were bound to be nervous and he did not want any accidents happening.
For that reason he had chosen one of the Rubys-the 'Seraphim'--as the meeting ship. The civilian ship did not look threatening, and was comfortable. Once both groups had docked he would shunt out of the area, moving to a place neither side knew of. Neither the USSA nor Colonies' delegations would have any sort of advantage. A level playing field with the Battalion acting as the perfect middleman.
It all looked good, which was probably one of the reasons he was worried. When things looked to be going perfectly, that was usually when the Universe rapped one hard about the head. Or so it often seemed.
"The first ODF cutter has docked," someone called out.
"SCC cutter has just shunted in."
"Second ODF cutter almost completed docking, crew moving from first cutter into the ship."
"Send them up to the bridge," Redding ordered. He had decided to meet all the delegates in the bridge. The gold fish bowl would make the right impression.
"A second SCC cutter has just shunted in."
"First SCC ship has verified."
"Tell them to come in."
"Second SCC ship has verified, giving them permission to dock."
Redding nodded, pleased with the way things had gone. "Prepare to shunt," he ordered.
"Laying in course."
"Engineering standing by."
"Everything in the green."
He watched as the two SCC cutters approached the ship. Their approach was slow, non-threatening, weapons were retracted, none of the cutters were outfitted with suits.
"We can shunt as soon as you give the command."
"Once both of the remaining cutters have docked get us out of here."
Redding heard the door open and turned about. Standing in the threshold was Andre Roarke. Redding was a little surprised by the lack of resemblance between him and Tern. Andre was looking at Redding expectantly.
"Enter," Redding said.
Andre nodded and stepped into the bridge, looking about it for a moment. Redding could tell the fishbowl put him off a bit, but he quickly recovered. "Captain, I am Andre Roarke, Director of Ironsun, unofficial representative from the Pleiades."
"Welcome aboard Mr. Roarke. As soon as the delegation from the USSA has arrived we will be shunting out of the area and then we will begin the initial talks."
Redding watched as three other people, two women and a man, entered the bridge, part of the delegation. As Redding understood it the Grand Marshal had wanted to come but had been unable to. A few more higher ranking officials would have been better, but Redding was happy with what he had to work with.
"The first SCC cutter is lining up for docking."
"Good," Redding turned away from Andre and back to the work at hand.
An alarm suddenly shrilled loudly and there was some shouting.
"Another ship has just shunted...."
The rest of the report was lost as the Seraphim shook violently, throwing crew about in the micro gravity.
"Report!" Redding bellowed, making his voice heard over the alarms.
"A ship shunted in, SAC cruiser."
"Hit to starboard bow, depressurisation on several decks."
"Damage reports coming in, casualties minimum."
"One of the SCC cutters was caught in the blast, severely damaged."
"The Blood has just dropped its cloak and is moving to engage the fighters."
It all came at once and Redding almost missed it all, but he heard what he needed to hear. He was about to order the ship to shunt when it took another hit.
Makoto sat on his command chair aboard the Hachiman, watching as the battle began to unfold. He was not in command of the operation, that responsibility fell on the shoulders of the Warden team that had been assigned to his ship.
He did not like any of them much, though he was not sure why. While he might not like them he knew the mission was important. A group of spies within the USSA were meeting with their contacts in the Colonies to give away Earth's secrets.
He had come out of shunt with the guns ready to fire. They had hit the large ship twice already and had blown one of the SCC cutters from space in the opening volleys. The Warden team had launched their suits, moving in close to the fray. Everything looked to be going their way until the ship dropped out of cloak and began to fire on them.
That had changed everything.
"Launch our suits," Makoto ordered, noting that the newcomer was doing the same. The ship had a cloaking device, but did not match any ODF ship on file. It might be one of the Battalion ships. "Shift fire to that ship."
The Hachiman rocked as it took several hits from the other ship.
If the Battalion was involved, did that mean that they were part of the ODF, as many had said for a long time. Or was the mission briefing in error? He did not know and as the ship shook again he decided that there were more important things to be concerned with.
When the cruiser had arrived Dom's first thought was that the USSA side had betrayed them. Even as he was ordering his ship to drop it's cloak and launch it's suits he was rethinking that theory. One of the first things that ship had done was to fire on the SCC cutters, vaporising one in the opening volley. He also noted the colour scheme on the ship. It was a Warden pattern. The Gaian Wardens were a bit of an unknown in the war, but the feeling in the Battalion was that they were the Circle's attack dogs.
"Get our fighters in close to the Seraphim, keep those suits off her."
"Captain, we're getting reports from the Seraphim. She's taken heavy damage."
"Tell them we'll do what we can. Suggest that they might want to pop out of here."
"The cruiser is beginning to launch suits."
"Hit that thing again."
"They are coming about."
"Engines ahead full, starboard twenty percent, ventral thirty two. Let's see if we can get under her."
"The suits have begun firing on the Seraphim."
"Where are our fighters?"
"Arriving on the scene."
"Good. Tell them to get to work."
"The cruiser is firing on us."
"Continue evasive manoeuvres, fire on that ship," Dom called out. A moment later the Blood shook slightly.
"Minor damage, mid-starboard."
"Fighters engaging the suits. The Seraphim is pulling back."
Dom listened to it all and watched. They were closing on the Warden cruiser, firing on it as they went. It was returning the fire, trying to hit even as it evaded.
The tail section of the Seraphim exploded, ripped apart from a blast from the Hachiman's railgun. The ship shook, and then began to spin, the thrust that was once channelled by the tail escaping, uncontrolled.
"Cut that!" Redding yelled. The ship immediately steadied in its course, though it was no longer as manoeuvrable as it had been.
"Sir, we can still shunt," the Shunt Navigator called out.
"Hold that. Damage report."
"Multiple hull breaches, damaged engines, main generators will reach shut down point in five minutes."
Redding considered his options. If he were to order the ship to shunt they would be away from the battle, but in a dying ship. The Blood would not be able to reach them for six hours, and he doubted that the crew could survive for six hours. He doubted they could make it past half an hour.
"Give the order, abandon ship, necessary crew will remain on board to keep this thing together until everyone is off."
There was no hesitation among his crew, they knew the ship was in bad condition, and none of them had any attachment to the Seraphim.
Andre looked at Redding for a moment, then nodded and headed off the bridge, taking his people with him. Redding wondered if they would ever manage to bring the two sides together again.
"The Seraphim is abandoning ship."
"Good for them," Dom said. "Let's make sure they can do it safely. Main plasma cannons into split mode, saturate the areas that the enemy suits are in. Rail cannons on the cruiser."
The Blood began firing, the three plasma cannons opening fire on locations in space where the enemy suits were concentrated. While the huge guns could not target the small suits directly, they could use the shotgun method. While not that effective, it did make the enemy pilots very nervous.
The Hachiman was an easier target for the rail guns, though the Warden ship made itself a hard target.
The blood shook, the Hachiman's gunners had managed a glancing hit.
"They should not be able to target us that well," Dom said. "Bring the plasma cannons to bear on that cruiser, order our suits to close with the enemy units."
Makoto watched at the enemy cruiser closed on his ship. He had not been able to stop it, though he had not been helped by that Warden team. They had taken control of his suits, throwing them into the fight to destroy the first ship.
"Order a retreat," Makoto said calmly. "Inform Captain Henderson that this mission is over and I am taking complete control of my suits. Have our suits move into a defensive position, I want two platoons to close on that ship and make them back off."
"Captain Henderson does not agree with your orders," the communications tech said a few seconds later.
"Tell her to file a report." Makoto was not too concerned with the Captain, he would deal with her later. He watched as the suits began moving into formation, and the two platoons went after the enemy cruiser. The first ship, a freighter Makoto had guessed, was beginning to roll, small explosions blossoming on its surface every few moments. It would not last long.
"The enemy cruiser does not seem to be following."
"No," Makoto nodded. "They'll have to stay back and pick up the survivors. Continue with evasive manoeuvres, don't worry about fuel. We'll shunt back to Gamma 4 next."
Dom watched at the other cruiser left the battle area. He waited a few minutes until he was sure it was retreating then ordered his suits to help in the Seraphim's evacuation.
The ship was rocked by an interior explosion, Redding was almost thrown from his command chair.
"Fuel tank three exploded."
"I ordered all fuel to be jettisoned."
"Yes sir, there must have been some fuel left in the tank."
"Some?" Redding said softly. He would not be surprised if that blast had blown the ship in two. "Who's left aboard?"
"Skeleton crew, maybe thirty people."
"Then it's time to leave."
The bridge crew did not need to be told twice. The communications tech stayed just long enough to make a ship wide announcement and the inform the Blood. Redding waited until she was gone then went after them.
The corridors around the bridge were in fairly good condition. That was not surprising as the bridge was well protected. The further they went, moving closer to the hull of the ship, and where the escape pods and other sub craft were kept, the more damage they ran into.
Redding propelled himself down hallways, following after the rest of his crew. The ship would rock every so often from the force of an explosion. Corridors were often blocked, sometimes by damaged sections of the ship's structure, and other times by emergency bulkheads. That made the going more difficult and once they were forced to back track.
They were getting very close to one of the launch bays and the shuttle it contained. While using an escape pod might have been faster, Redding, along with most of the bridge crew, did not like escape pods very much. Not only were they uncomfortable, but they had a sort of defeatist feel to them. Far better to leave a ship in a shuttle.
The explosion that tore out the ceiling made most of them change their minds on that. They were thrown down the corridors and against the wall by the force of the blast. Fragments of ship's structures had become very deadly projectiles, there was, barely audible, the hiss of air escaping into a vacuum, and emergency alarms were blaring loudly.
Redding, near the back, had been spared the worst of it, though he thought that he had broken a rib or two, and a piece of metal had torn a gash in his right shoulder. Most of the bridge crew had come through it in similar conditions, though there were two bodies, floating, unmoving, further down the hallway. There was also a lot of blood, most if it drifting gently towards the hull breech.
"Let's go," he called out loudly. He grasped a handhold and propelled himself down the hallway. He closed his eyes as he passed through the red bubbles that were in his way. They splashed against him, his face, warm, thicker than water, and filled his nostrils with the sharp tang of blood.
With the Hachiman gone, the Blood was able to move back and start rescue operations. It did not take long for all the crew of the Seraphim to be moved aboard the cruiser. All the survivors were on board, a number of corpses had not been recovered, and some never would be.
Redding sat in a small room that had been given over to him when he came aboard. Captain Gentry was there, as well as a few other people, including Joanna Dover. A medic was taping up the wound on Redding's arm. He had a number of other small wounds as well, but they were not at all serious.
"So, you're going?" he asked Joanna.
"Yes. I've lost half my people. We aren't much of a negotiating team, unofficial or otherwise. I don't think the Colonial team came out much better."
"There is still a chance," Redding said.
"Not really. We no longer have the weight behind this thing to get it moving. The USSA obviously knows about this as well. No doubt they are already gearing their public relations machine up to deal with it."
Redding nodded, having already reached the same conclusion. He just had not wanted to believe it. "Do you need anything?"
"Just the continuing repairs on our cutter. We'll head back to Earth as soon as we are able."
"Thank you," Joanna got to her feet. "It is too bad that this did not work."
"It's more than too bad," Redding said.
Joanna nodded, then left the room.
"How's Mr. Roarke?" Redding asked the medic who was just finishing up with his arm.
"Still unconscious, but the Doctor thinks he will come out of it soon."
"Captain Gentry, you will stay here, unless of course the area gets too hot. The Seraphim should be shunt capable in a few days, get it back to the Shoal if at all possible."
"Baby sitting a wreck. What a wonderful job."
"Live with it. Get me a cutter, I'll be heading back to the Shoal now."
Redding got to his feet, causing the medic to scramble back. "You'll have your new orders by the end of the day I think," Redding told him. "If you have to leave before they get to you, return to the Shoal."
Redding started to leave, then stopped and looked back at Dom. "Good work Captain." That said, Redding left.
"Captain Miya, would you like to tell me why you ordered us to retreat?" Captain Henderson demanded.
"There was no reason to stay. The ship had been badly damaged so our mission objectives were completed. That other cruiser was also making the area too hot to stay in," Makoto said.
"We were supposed to make sure that ship was completely destroyed as with any survivors."
"You were supposed to do that. I was to get you to the target and provide what aid I could. I also have a duty to this ship and her crew. I had no intention of remaining when there was no need."
She looked at him for a moment. "I'll report this."
"As will I."
The Sloop John B. silently, invisibly, entered the atmosphere of a planet in a system some distance from everything. The system was not even in the Cluster. A boring red star, around which four planets orbited.
The second planet out was the best of the four, though it was no prize. A ball of rock, with a thin, slightly toxic atmosphere. Even if any Rangers or Jagers had ever come out that way, and none had, it was not likely they would spend much time in the system. It made it a perfect place to hide.
Juan thought about that as the John B. descended deeper into the atmosphere. It was a slow re-entry, as slow as it could get. Less chance of someone picking something up when they came in. Susan and Veronica were doing the piloting. Every time he looked up at them he was struck by the thought that Tern should be there. It was his kind of mission.
He looked over at one of the sensor displays. Ugly planet they were dropping onto. Ichiru had told him that is was a nerve centre of sort. All the communication and planning was done from there. It was also where the Midnight Sun kept a lot of their equipment.
They had considered just bombing the planet from orbit, but that was not precise. The ultimate goal of the mission was to find Tauutus and kill him. With their centre of operations gone it would take the Midnight Sun a year or two to rebuild. With Tauutus dead, the organisation might die as well.
"How's it going?" Juan called out.
"Good," Susan answered. "We've entered areas of sensor coverage, but they don't seem to be seeing us."
"How long till we land?"
"Ten minutes, there abouts."
<We'll be landing in ten minutes,> Juan sent back to Diane.
<We're ready back here,> she replied.
Juan nodded, not that Diane would have been able to see it. After that he waited as the John B. continued its drop. Almost ten minutes later the ship was flying over the rough ground, looking for a place to land. The topographical sensors scanned the ground, Veronica looking for an appropriate sight.
"There," she said, showing the location to Susan.
"Perfect," Susan said, swinging the ship around and moving over the gully that Veronica had found. She gently dropped the John B. into it. The ship settled onto its landing gear, wedging itself securely into the U shaped gully. "We're down."
"Good," Juan said as he got to his feet. <We're down. Let's move.>
The rear bays cargo bays, one of which had once held Tern's car, opened up. A number of light PAFSs exited the ship, moving out into the valley to secure it.
In the ship Conaly pulled on his helmet, making sure the respirator was set right. <You know the plan. Let's go.>
The team moved out of the ship, into the gully. There were twenty of them: Conaly in command with Diane as his second; Three other Marshals, including Kelly Wright; Cobolt, two other Commandos and Janet Fender; There were four men, Black Flag warriors; Five more of the group was made up of Charybdis personnel, including the Clayton twins; Juan and Caroline Mason rounded the group out.
Conaly looked around from where he had taken up position near the ship's stern. He looked over at the Black Flag members and, with a series of hand signals, sent them up to the gully's ridge to get a look at the area around them.
He watched as everyone took their positions, moving out exactly as he had planned it. The PAFSs were some distance away, not under his direct command. That was fine with him, mixing a stealth team like his with PAFSs, even the scout models, could be trouble. He also trusted Commander Fairbanks to handle armoured units.
A minute later the Ravagers gave him the all clear signal. With a few quick, hand gestures he had his people moving out of the gully and towards the Midnight Sun compound. They had rehearsed everything a number of times and no one had to be told what to do. They fell into the marching order he had decided on and were crossing the terrain as stealthily as possible.
Juan did not care much for the planet. About the only thing of real value he could see was the water. It was a wet world, though the water was tainted by the same toxins that were in the atmosphere. Nothing a little filtering could not deal with though. Beside him was Caroline, another non-combative.
Up ahead he saw the signal to stop being passed along. He stopped, moving into the cover as he had been instructed. Caroline was beside him.
"What do you think is up?" she asked. Her voice was somewhat muffled by the helmet.
"Don't know. They must have found something."
"I think we're going to find out," Caroline said, looking over their cover.
A moment later they were joined by Terrence Gold. "We've come across a couple of ships," he said.
"Anything special?" Caroline asked as she checked her camera over.
"That's what Marshal Sharp wants to find out. You want to come up and get some pictures?"
"That's my plan."
"Come on then. What about you?" He looked over at Juan.
"I'll just wait here."
Terrence nodded. "It should not be too long."
Juan watched at the pair of them left, then turned about, facing the way they had come. Somewhere back there were Cobolt and Janet, rear guard. He did not have too much to do on the mission, it was not his speciality after all. He had wanted to be there though, to see it through.
Conaly looked down at the two ships. They were set in gullies, camouflaged nets pulled over them. He might have missed them if not for the way their presence formed small lakes where they blocked the flow of water.
As he watched he saw Diane and two commandos making their way back to him.
Diane climbed up beside him. "No guards outside, some crew in the ships, I think."
"Can we get close?"
"As close as you want I would think."
Conaly looked over at the Claytons. "Can you disable those ships?"
"Well," John began as he looked down at them. "It would depend.."
"On just how disabled you want them," Jim finished for him.
"Not being able to take off would be good."
The Claytons looked at each other, then nodded. "We'll put shaped charges over the engines," Jim said.
"They'll cut right through the outer hull, into the engines themselves, maybe touch of a fuel explosion. Either way they won't go anywhere," John told him.
"Ten minutes, maybe a little more."
"You got ten minutes. Hook it up to a radio detonator, I'll tell you when to blow it. Diane, go with them."
Diane nodded. "You need anything?" she asked John and Jim.
"No, we're ready to go."
"Then let's go."
The group was moving again within ten minutes. They stopped again, spotting another ship. That one was an actual cruiser, an ODF Wotan. Conaly had the Clayton's hack the ship's computer to get registry information. If someone was supplying the terrorists with military equipment he wanted to know who they were.
One that was done, and the ship had been wired to blow, Conaly had everyone moving again.
They made a few more stops like that, spotting other pieces of equipment as they went. They did not find anymore ships, but they did discover a number of shuttles and supply dumps. The Midnight Sun, it seemed, had more equipment then it could use. That was not too surprising considering their suicide tactics.
Four hours after leaving the John B. they reached the area where the main base and living quarters were. The land had been rising steadily, the ground getting more rocky as they went. The short, wiry grasses that had covered the ground were beginning to disappear as the terrain grew too inhospitable.
The area was marked by boulders of all sizes, some as big as cutters, and a number of caves. Ichiru had told them that the caves formed a network of sorts that the Midnight Sun made use of.
In one of the caves, with the Clayton Twins and two members of Black Flag, Conaly was looking at a humming machine.
"What is it?"
"Filter and compressor," John said.
"Keeps the air inside clean and the pressure up," Jim told him.
"Anything beyond that thing?"
"There would have to be. I suspect that this cave continues on, linking up with other passages. No point in putting this thing here otherwise."
"Can we get through it?"
"Probably. It is kind of door like. Barely."
"We'll have to set up an air lock of sorts at the mouth of this cave though," John said.
"If we don't they are sure to pick it up when this thing is opened."
"Get to work on it."
"It will take a bit of time."
"Just do it." He turned to look at the Ravagers. "I want someone to head back to the ship and inform Commander Fairbanks of the situation and what we have found here. Tell him to start moving his people towards here. Tell Marshal Vichy to make sure everyone stays low, and keeps hidden until we are ready to go."
Neither man said anything. They simply nodded and left. Conaly turned back towards the Claytons to watch their progress.
"I think we got this figured out," John said.
"Tell me," Conaly moved up behind them.
"Well, to disengage the bolts, we need the right combination, which we have now."
"But when we enter it, some sort of alarm is going to sound."
"So we've got to slide the bolts, yet convince the computer that they are still in place."
"The computer in this thing is fairly complex. There are four protocols that deal with this out in the open."
"Two more are hidden."
"We can take care of them though."
"How do you know that there are no more?"
"We didn't find any, so they must not be there."
"I see," Conaly said, not impressed by their circular logic.
"Don't worry, we're certain there is nothing more."
"So we can get this thing open, but we still think there is a problem."
"This really isn't an entrance when you get right down to it."
"You can open it, but you are not supposed to."
"We figure they have booby trapped it."
"And how do you find out?"
"We'll drill a hole through the stone walls and take a look."
"How long will that take?"
"About an hour."
"Okay. Get to work."
"Right away," John said as he and his brother began to break out more of their tools.
By the time the Claytons were ready the cave had been sealed off with a make shift airlock and more than half of the team was crammed inside.
"Here's what we go," John said, pointing to a small screen. "That's about a kilogram of explosive wired to the inside of this thing."
"It will make a lot of noise, and it will collapse the entire corridor."
"Can you deal with it?"
"Of course. Just let us get a few waldoes in there," Jim said as he began feeding the robotic cables into the hole they had drilled.
"It's got two triggers. One is simply a trip wire deal, which we simply snip, like so."
"The other is a motion sensor, which we just need to shut down." The screen showed one of the waldoes approaching the explosive. A moment later there was a small spark. "Done."
"Now we just cut away this final restraining bolt." John produced a small cutter with which he did as he said.
"And enter the codes for the lock."
"And it is open."
Jim grasped the plug and gave it a hard pull. Nothing happened. John lent him a hand, and still it did not move. Conaly moved into the help, and with all three of them, the plug swung out on its hinges. Beyond was a natural corridor, leading into the mountain.
Air rushed past them for a moment, then stopped. The air pressure within the cave rose and the plastic seal on the end bulged out.
"Diane," Conaly looked over to where she was waiting. "Take Jim with you, head down there, make sure the way is safe. Stop as soon as you come to a junction or the passage branches."
"Got you," Diane said, moving pass the plug and into the corridor. Jim fell in step beside her.
Conaly waited for a minute, then sent the next two in. The people knew what to do and did not required being told. Within ten minutes everyone was in the corridor and Conaly, with John's help, was pulling the plug shut.
When he joined up with his people he split the group into two sections of ten and they moved out.
Diane took a mirror from her pocket and used it to look around a corner. After getting a good look she shifted back and turned to the three men with her. She held up all five fingers of her right hand, then placed two fingers of her left hand on the palm. Ten people.
The sections had split up further into five groups of four. Diane and her group had been moving through the tunnels, avoiding the Midnight Sun personnel and planting explosives on equipment as they found it.
Now it looked like it would not be possible to avoid the Midnight Sun. They had known there would come a time when they were going to have to give up their stealth tactics and get loud. She had hoped she would not be the one to start it though.
From a pouch in her webbing she removed a her inertial compass and mapping unit. On the screen she was presented with a map of the tunnels they had traversed. It did not look like there was a way to get around the place they were in now. Only one way through.
She was about to give the orders to attack when a message came over her datalink. Someone else had started fighting. A far off rumbling told her that someone had also set off some explosives.
Diane looked at the three men with her, made a jerking motion with her head, then moved out. The three men followed her.
She came around the corner, the SMG in her hands firing. She walked her fire across four of them as she advanced, looking around to make sure she had their numbers right. Behind her one of the commandos opened up with a gyrojet rifle, the tiny missiles killing whoever they hit.
The terrorists were going for their weapons, but they never had a chance. Within a few seconds all ten were dead.
"Keep moving," Diane said as she set off a quick run towards the cavern's exit.
Tauutus' office was surprisingly normal. Some might even be disappointed by it. There were no pictures of mass murderers on the wall-as several fictional portrayals had suggested-no shrunken heads, no human skin lamp shades. About the only thing that stood out in the room was a Monet, handing on the wall behind him.
Tauutus himself sat as his rather plain desk, looking over a datapad. There was always so much work to do, co-ordinating everything, making sure that supplies were available for his people and their missions. Having to deal with the machinations of the Starblade Battalion just made him busier.
He thrived in such an environment. As long as he had a challenge he was happy. It was what had brought him so strongly to the Midnight Sun in the first place. It was what had allowed him to raise in the ranks. He pushed himself hard and was constantly rewarded, in one way or another, from his actions.
A far off rumbling made him raise his head. It might be nothing of course, some small accident perhaps. He waited. Several seconds later he felt another. Turning his attention back to the datapad he entered a few commands, shifting from the files he was reviewing to internal security. As he watched reports began to come in. Possible intruders.
Tauutus remained at his desk, his people knew what to do. He called up a map of the cave system next, trying to decide where the intruders might be. Several areas were marked as points of enemy activity. The placement made little sense, which suggested that they did not know where they were going.
The security screen came back. Another attack, this one on the outside. Armoured suits. Tauutus nodded and opened his desk drawer. Inside were two pistols which he removed and placed on the desktop. He might not need to fight, but it was wise to be prepared.
Ichiru had only been able to give Juan and the others so much information. He knew where the planet was, and the basic lay out of the base that the Midnight Sun had set up. He had told them of a set of very large doors that were used for moving big cargoes and the suits into and out of the cavern beyond.
It had been decided that the PAFSs would try to seal the doors. It was hoped that that would prevent the suits from being used.
It had gone well at first. The PAFSs had come out of a ravine a few kilometres from the target moving fast. The few guards they had encountered had been easily dealt with. Then as they approached the doors they came under fire from automated defences. Their numbers had been cut almost in half and the objective not met.
The huge doors opened and the Midnight Sun suits tromped out.
The Celeste dropped its cloak as Ree's team sped out of the open cargo bays. The Arrows--covered in ablative foam--began their dive towards the planet's surface.
<You know the drill,> Ree sent. <Keep your cool and don't get dead.>
Conaly stepped out into the hall, his whipsword snapping out. The blade snaked along the floor, then shot up, impaling one of the terrorists. He snapped the blade free and slashed another. The blade was retracting back even as he stepped back into cover. A moment later several shots passed through the space he had just occupied.
"Perhaps you could work a little faster," he suggested to Juan.
"Not today," Juan said as he looked the launcher system over. "Why don't they write the instructions on these things?"
"Give me that," Caroline said, snatching the rifle and launcher from Juan. "Safety off, charge primed, and," she moved out into the hall at a low crouch. Conaly, a little surprised, pulled a pistol from his belt and fired several shots to cover her.
Caroline fired a burst down the hall, just to keep them busy, then she triggered the launcher. The hellsender fired out of the under barrel launcher with a soft, puff like sound. It travelled down the hall, and hit the blockade the terrorists were using for cover. It stuck there. A moment later the powerful plasma generator activated and a small sun appeared in the hall.
Caroline dove back into cover, blinking her eyes to try to clear the spots. Conaly had not caught much of the dazzle and was fine. The terrorists were in a more difficult situation. The plasma generator was melting through their barricade, and the heat was intense. One of the terrorists had been so close that he had caught fire. A few more were suffering from burns of varying degrees.
Conaly looked out, then jerked his head back. Still a little bright. "From now on she carries the heavy weapons," Conaly said to Juan.
"Fine with me."
"Did it work?" Caroline asked, her eyes finally clear.
"I'd say yes, but we'll know for sure when that thing burns out.
Caroline nodded as she grabbed the satchel and began looking through it, trying to decide what might be best to load next.
"So where did you learn to do that," Juan asked her.
"Just picked it up by osmosis," she said, loading another hellsender.
Diane coughed loudly and wiped rock dust from her face. Behind her part of the corridor was collapsed, the effect of a Midnight Sun security device. She wondered if the rest of her team had survived or not. She had been some distance in front of them, so it was likely.
She pushed herself to her feet and pulled her pistols out. There was noise up ahead and the terrorists she had been chasing could not be that far ahead.
Tauutus was not particularly worried, not yet. It was very likely that they would have to abandon the planet, but he had prepared for that eventuality. That they might loose a good deal of their equipment was a problem. It had taken a long to gather all the things they had, loosing it would not be good. He was fairly certain that they would have time to make a proper evacuation of the planet. The attacking force did not seem that big.
"Nemyss," a woman called as she ran up to him. His personal guard parted to let her through. She dropped to one knee, her eyes on the floor. "A ship has just appeared in orbit. It is launching sub craft."
"Do you know whose it is?" he asked.
"No. It does not match any ODF ship we know of."
The Battalion, he thought angrily. His fury never reached his eyes. "We will fight a holding battle as long as we can to salvage what we can. Die well," he told her.
"Yes sir," she said, getting to her feet and running back the way she had come.
He was about to give other orders when the sound and force of a near by explosion washed over them. His guard had moved closer, shielding him from the worst of the blast. After his ears stopped ringing he heard the sound of running feet getting closer. His guard assumed defensive positions, looking towards the sound.
A few seconds later four men came running up. They were all wounded but all came to a stop and dropped to their knees when they saw Tauutus.
"What is it?" Tauutus asked, sounding bored.
"Nemyss, we were being pursued by the intruders, but we have sealed the corridor behind us," one of them said.
"Good," he said. "Let us go." He turned and his security people fell in around him. He walked down the corridor, no haste in his step. The four men got up and followed.
Diane ran down the corridor, keeping her foot steps as quiet as possible. She slowed down at corners, looking around before moving on.
Finally she spotted the men she had been chasing, and others. She picked up her pace, all of them had their backs to her. Just beyond the men where a group of guards, she guessed. They were all wearing light armour and looked to be carrying long arms of one sort or another.
She did not really like shooting people in the back, but there was a point where honourable behaviour was suicidal. She opened up on them as she ran, firing on the guards first.
Some of the group spun to face her, others moved for cover. Diane just kept moving forward, quickly. A moving target was harder to hit, and by staying on the offensive she kept her advantage.
One of the armoured guards went down, spraying two of his companions with fire from his weapon. A stray round clipped the rock near Diane's head and her cheek was cut by a fragment of rock.
She kept firing, kept closing. The four that she had originally been after were either dead or hugging the floor. Almost all of the guards were out of the equation as well.
As she ran two moved from out of cover, putting themselves in front of her, bringing their weapons to bear.
Diane dove low, kicking herself around as she went. If she had been in micro gravity she might have expected to sail right between the men at knee level. What she ended up doing was landing on her back, hard, and sliding a little. That was fine with her. It put her pistols directly under both guards who were still trying to target her.
She fired, picking out the gaps in their armour that her position allowed her. They both jerked back and up with each round, then they fell.
Diane kicked herself over backwards into a somersault, releasing both her pistols as she went. She twisted about, and landed on her feet, facing the way she had been originally. From one of the bodies she grabbed a pistol. She emptied the magazine into the last few of the guards.
"Very impressive," someone said from a little further down the corridor.
"Come out," Diane ordered, gabbing up another pistol.
From a small alcove about two meters in front of her, a man stepped. The lighting in the tunnel was not very good to begin with, and it was made worse by the smoke from the guns. Diane straightened, keeping both pistols pointed at the figure. "Don't move."
"Would not think of it," Tauutus said. "I must say, you are very good at killing. I admire that." He smiled.
It took Diane a moment to recognise the man in front of her. It was a shock to realise that she was facing the Nemyss of the Midnight Sun. It was the sort of thing that many law officers dreamed of. "Raise your hands slowly. No sudden moves or you won't get to end your own life."
"What makes you think I am at all bothered by the prospect of dying?"
"I figure you are just arrogant enough to believe that this won't go on without you."
"Isn't that what you think? Isn't that why you are here?"
"What I think hardly matters. It is what you think. Raise your hands."
After a moment Tauutus shrugged his shoulders and began to raise his hands. His lower arms were parallel with the floor when the cyber-gun popped out of his left arm and began firing.
Diane caught the small movement almost a moment to late. As it was she had to flip out of the way, firing as she did so. She felt a stinging sensation in her shoulder, and then she hit the wall of the cavern. As she fell towards the floor she kept firing. She had to stop firing to tuck and role at the last moment to avoid breaking her neck.
When she rolled to her feet Tauutus was gone.
She cursed him, then took a look at her shoulder. Minor wound, entrance and exit would, looked fairly clean. It was bleeding a bit, but not so much that she thought he had hit anything important.
From her webbing she removed a small first aid kit. She opened it and looked through the contents. A moment later she held a small, pen shaped object. After placing the tip into the wound, she pressed one of the controls. A cool sensation began to expand out from the where the tip rested. Diane worked the device all the way into the wound, hissing slightly as she went faster then the pain killers.
Once it was all the way through she pressed another of the buttons and began to draw it out. From the tip a quick expanding foam was released. She pulled the bloody instrument all the way out then let it drop the floor. The bleeding had been stopped.
Quickly gathering up her things, Diane set off down the hall, reloading her original pistols as she went. At first she thought that Tauutus had a good lead on her and she might never find him. Then she noticed the blood drops on the floor.
Smiling she went after him.
"Quite good," Tauutus said softly as he pushed his hand over the wound on his right side. He ran, hoping his nanobodies would be enough to keep the injury from being fatal. Well, if they weren't, everyone had to die. He was just worried about dying before he got everything done. Then again, he might become a martyr.
All things considered, he'd rather not die, but if he did, well, that was the way the universe worked sometimes.
Ahead of him he spotted some people. He kept moving towards them. If they weren't his, well, going back was not an option anyway. Not a healthy one.
"Nemyss," he heard one say, the awe obvious in their tone.
Tauutus smiled. "Come here," he ordered.
"Nemyss," a young woman who looked to be in charge said. "You're wounded."
"It is of no consequence," he waved her off. "There is someone coming. I want you to deal with them," he ordered, at the same time wondering if the four people in front of him would be able to stop that woman. "Give me your sidearm," he said to the woman. "And yours," to the man just behind her.
They both handed over their weapons, machine pistols with top mounted, helical magazines. He nodded as he took them. "Now go."
Three of the four moved off quickly. The fourth, a young man, more of a boy, paused just long enough to hand Tauutus a first aid kit, then he went off with the others. As he ran off Tauutus looked over his shoulder, smiling at the boys back. The young died so brightly.
Grendel's Reaper moved out of the cave, the huge suit moving with an unnatural grace. His lost Harbinger had been replaced by the newer suit.
He came under fire almost as soon as he left the cave. His attackers were several PAFSs armed with anti-mech weapons. He lifted his suit's right arm and opened up on them with the scatter-guns. He watched as two PAFSs were simply torn apart by the fire. The other ones went into hiding.
His suit moved out into the open, other suits moving out behind him. Their mission was fairly simple. Deny the enemy any close landing sight. All they needed was time to get all the equipment off the planet.
<Sir,> one of his pilots sent. <There is a shuttle just beginning to enter the atmosphere.>
<That must be them.>
<The sensor stations are also tracking a number of fast moving objects.>
<What are they?>
<Unknown. Some of them are also jamming us.>
<Full alert,> Grendel ordered. <Prepare for incoming hostiles.>
Ree felt like screaming, some sort of primal war cry. Unfortunately all she could think of was, 'let's kick some tail,' and that did not seem at all fitting. As her fighter sped towards the target area she was thinking about the Harbinger and all it's weaknesses. There were close to twenty ways she could quickly deal with one. About fifty ways she could play with one.
As the target area came into sensor range she got a look at what she would be facing. Eight units, tagged as Harbingers, five tagged as Starmaxes, one as a Blitzen and three as unknowns. Hard odds.
<They've got us outnumbered here,> Ree sent. <But don't let that worry you. We just got to keep them busy and let that shuttle get down safely. At that point we'll take numerical superiority. You know what you're supposed to do. Do it and stay alive.>
That said, Ree picked out her targets, got missile locks, and emptied the wing pylons. The missiles streaked ahead of her, and the other planes, on the way to announce their coming.
The fast moving units that had been approaching had launched a number of smaller, faster moving objects that were quickly identified as missiles. Grendel ordered his people to take evasive action and then did so himself.
He swung the Reaper around to face the incoming missiles, taking the phalanx guns off safe. Several missiles were coming in on him. When they were in range he squeezed the trigger for the high speed cannons, at the same time dodging to the side.
Several missiles exploded in front of him, blown apart by the phalanx gun. Several exploded around him, rocking the suit, but none hit.
Few of his other suits were so lucky. One of the Starmaxes exploded, damaging the only Blitzen they had. He saw a Harbinger have its arm blown off, and another lost its head. Still, that seemed to be the worst of it.
<Prepare to engage targets,> he ordered. He was not entirely sure how well they could engage the fast moving, airborne targets. That worked both ways though. Fighters often had a harder time fighting ground bound targets. He did not want to take the fight into the air where the fighters would be at a huge advantage.
The fighters could not hold ground through. They might be able to hurt his forces, but he did not think they would manage to get them all. It gave him a distinct advantage.
Fighters appeared over the horizon, fast moving darts of metal. Grendel tried to track them, but they were all moving too fast for his system. He began firing anyway.
The fighters returned that fire, their cannons blowing craters into the rock and dirt, but they seemed to be having the same problem that Grendel and his people were.
Another wing of fighters came behind the first, but they were not moving as fast. <Get ready to target those fighters,> Grendel ordered. The slower moving craft would be easier targets, and would have an easier time targeting. This is where the fight began.
Then the fighters did something he did not expect. They dove towards the ground. For a moment he thought they were flying apart, then he realised what it was he was really seeing. The fighters transformed into suits, hitting the ground on their feet. Chunks of rock and dirt were kicked up when they landed, and when they began to run towards the Midnight Sun suits.
Grendel allowed himself to be surprised for a moment, then he moved to meet the attackers. There were only six of them, which gave him numerical superiority. He also suspected that the suits were not as strong as his, they looked on the light side. He felt very confident.
He dodged the fire from one of the suits, noting that is seemed to be armed with some kind of energy weapon. When it got in range he fired off a cloud of hellstorm missiles. The missiles hit, engulfing the enemy suit in a ball of flame. Grendel smiled, certain that was the end of the enemy unit.
Then it came out of the ball of flame, blackened yes, but hardly as damaged as it should be. Up close, the suit swung its energy rifle up, putting the barrel up against the Reaper's upper leg.
Grendel did not have much chance to dodge, and the bolts of energy tore deep into his suits armour.
The Reaper reached behind itself, grasping the weapon that was clamped to its back. The clamps released and it pulled forth the scythe. The blade snapped out from its storage position as Grendel swung it around.
With the strength of his suit behind it, the blade sheared off the Arrow's arm, and cut deep into the torso. Grendel was swinging the scythe around for another attack, but the pilot had leapt the suit back, taking to the air. That was impressive, Grendel thought as he shifted the suits hold on the scythe. He would not have thought anyone would be active after having the electricity from the scythe run through them. Of course the suit did not seem very well controlled.
The scythe blade flicked out, becoming the spear tip on top of the weapon's shaft. He hurled it up at the fleeing Arrow and watched as the blade pieced the torso. A moment later the suit was falling backwards, plummeting out of control towards the ground.
Grendel turned his attention to the rest of the battle and was please to note that they seemed to be winning, but there were the still six other craft, and his sensors showed him they were coming back.
Two of the enemy suits were down, but the four remaining seemed to have picked up on the strengths of the Reapers and were not going to make it easy. It was going to be a real fight.
Diane stopped suddenly, the small corridor she had been running through had suddenly opened up into a large, dark space. She jumped back into cover.
The cavern beyond was large, poorly lit, and she could see the stalactites and stalagmites that covered the ceiling and floor. Had he gone into there? He had to. There had been no other way that he could have gone. She leaned back, took a few deep breaths, then moved out quickly.
She had gone nearly twenty meters when a burst of automatic fire chipped the floor and stalagmites to her left. She dove behind the cover of another of a large stalagmite, returning fire at the same time.
"You're very good," she heard Tauutus call from some where beyond. Diane tried to track him by the sound of his voice, but there were too many echoes. "I mean, I must have sent twenty people back to stop you. Obviously they couldn't."
"Give up then," Diane shouted, then moved. A burst of gunfire clipped the floor close to where she had been. She fired towards a point of light she thought she saw. Perhaps it was the muzzle flash.
From one of her webbing pouches she pulled out a pair of low light goggles and put them on. The room seemed to get brighter, but there were still many dark patches. Good enough, she thought as she moved out.
Tauutus carefully watched the area where he thought the woman was. He thought he caught some movement and fired at it.
"Are you still there?" he called out, moving at the same time. He was answered by the sound of several shots hitting close to where he had been.
"I like you," he yelled, getting more echoes. "I mean, you are a true artist. You kill so well." Several more shots rang out close by. "I respect that. Don't you ever feel limited."
There was silence for a moment. "What do you mean?" the woman called out.
"Well, there are only so many people you can kill in your present line of work, I would assume. How would you like to kill anyone you wanted?"
There was more silence for several seconds, then it was broken by a number of shots, one of which grazed his arm.
Tauutus began moving backwards, firing both weapons at once, the noise was amplified in the cave. He smiled, hardly bothered by it. "Well," he called out. "I won't kill you, even if I could," he said, ducking down. A moment later several shots passed overhead. "You see, alive you can kill many more people, so you help me no matter what."
More shots, but by that time Tauutus had entered another corridor and was running off.
Diane fired off another volley of rounds as she moved closer to where she suspected he was. She was a little angry at the man's proposition, though she did not let it colour her thinking. She'd wait until she had him disarmed and handcuffed, then she'd give him the anger he deserved.
He was strangely quiet, and he was no longer shooting. That had Diane a little worried. Was he setting her up, trying to make her do something careless, or was he gone? She decided to assume that he was setting her up and kept moving cautiously.
When she reached the area where she suspected he was, she found nothing. Farther on she saw the mouths of three tunnel entrances.
Finally deciding to take a chance, she dashed across the open space towards one of them. No one shot at her. It was all quiet. She looked around. There was nothing to see. She checked out each tunnel, but there was no indication of which he may have gone down, assuming had exited through any of them. He might still be in the cavern, but she doubted that.
After a few seconds she ran off down the centre one. Perhaps she would get lucky and find him. Ultimately moving forward was better then waiting and becoming a target.
Ree landed hard, the feet of her suit throwing up stone and dirt. She was regretting letting Epiphany land first, but then decided that what had happened was not Epiphany's fault. Those new suits, they were the problem. They had figured out the Harbingers, and none of the other suits had been much to worry about. The new suits played by a different set of rules. Then again so did the Arrows. She figured victory was just a matter of time.
<Epiphany, have your suits fall back, move to cover us.>
<Roger,> Epiphany sent back.
<Okay people, stay away from those new suits, hit them from range. Let's avoid getting close when we can. Show them what we can do.>
Ree, ignoring her own orders, charged one of the new suits. It pulled its scythe and brought it around, at the same time opening up with its scatter-guns. Ree dodged its fire easily enough and ran right into the scythe attack, which she expected. Ducking her suit in close, she drove her arm up, letting the forearm shield catch the shaft of the weapon.
The force of the blow almost drove her Arrow to its knees. Impressively strong, Ree thought. She drove the Arrow's heat hand forward, trying to drive it into the chest section of the Reaper. Impressive armour, she thought.
The Reaper tried to respond with a kick, but she managed to spin behind it. Moving so suddenly, removing the support the Arrow had been provided caused the other suit to stumble forward. The weapon on her right arm swung forward, her suit's fingers closed around it. "Bye," Ree said, pulling the trigger.
The huge shot gun, Jeremy's cancelled design, fired a spread of steel darts as the back of the Midnight Sun suit. She was more than a little surprised to note that the suit was not torn apart like she had hoped it would be. The armour was certainly damaged, but it did not look as if she had managed to breech it. Well Jeremy was not going to get a 'thank you' from her.
She looked at her sensors, waited a few seconds, then activated her jamming suite and hit her thrusters, climbing into the air. The volley of hellstorms that a Harbinger had fired, denied of their original target, continued on a straight line and impacted against the Reaper.
"That's the sort of stupidity I appreciate," Ree said as she landed her suit once again. She brought the shotgun and the plasma cannon about, firing on the Harbinger that had just helped her. As she had expected the combination of fire, in the right places, had a very pleasing effect.
Grendel was presented with a difficult problem. The enemy pilots had made a few mistakes at first, the Reaper and its abilities had taken them by surprise. Of course that was true for him and his people as well.
Now the pilots were making much better use of their suit. They used speed and manoeuvrability to their advantage. He could close on one of those suits only to have to take to the air before he could get close enough to attack. The hellstorm missiles seemed to have no effect against the armour of the new suits. The scatter-guns ammunition could crack that armour, but lack of range was the main problem. They just could not get close enough.
On the other hand, the enemy's weapons did not have to power to bring the Midnight Sun's suits down with only one burst. It was a stalemate, for a while at least. In a battle of attrition, the enemy was likely to win.
He ordered his people about, looking for the best way to arrange things when one of the Harbinger's suddenly took to the air, the Nova thruster on its left leg rocketing it into the sky. As he watched one of the enemy suits shifted into fighter form and chased after it. The Harbinger, stuck in a erratic fight was nothing but a big target.
Grendel did not understand what had happened. He shifted his sensors towards the area where the Harbinger had been, wondering why it had taken off so suddenly. It was then he spotted several people, moving between the feet of the giant war machines.
As he watched they fired some sort of weapon at one of the Starmaxes. Grendel could not be sure, but whatever it was looked like it had been shot at the ground in front of the big suit. When the Starmax stepped forward its foot shot out from under it, dropping the suit on its back.
Grendel held himself back from screaming. He targeted the group with several hellstorm missiles and fired them off. At the same time he launched a large number of smoke missiles. If the enemy had man portable weapons that could effect them he had best make it difficult for them to use them.
Ree was rather pleased with the way things were going. Once the Arrows had switched to hit and run tactics, things had become that much easier. She did not let her guard down, not yet. She did not know the full capabilities of the new suits yet. While they had not shown any weapon systems that she considered a major threat, she was not going to let herself get complacent.
She found her eyes drawn to another of the suits, one of the newer ones. There was something familiar about the way the pilot was moving it. She watched as it fired a volley of those fire missiles at something. Then it began to release smoke. The smoke did not bother Ree, the Arrow's sensors easily saw through it.
She knew that pilot. She had fought him before. Again, breaking her own commands, Ree began to move in close.
Grendel did not like the way the situation was turning out. That shuttle was still on its way down and the suits he was fighting were giving him endless problems. There was only one thing left to do. It was extreme, but it was the only thing that would help.
<This is Commander Misti, innate plan Thepsilon two, repeat, plan Thepsilon two,> he sent out. <All units, prepare for Thepsilon two.>
High up on the mountain a camouflaged screen rolled back, revealing a missiles launcher. The launcher slid out on rails and tilted back, pointing the nose of its payload towards the sky. A moment later the missiles climbed out of the launcher on a gout of flame.
It continued climbing until it was four kilometres above the battle sight. That was when the nuclear warhead exploded, an EMP spreading out from it in all directions.
On the ground Grendel smiled ever so slightly. The Harbingers, the Reapers and the other Midnight Sun suits had been shielded against electromagnetic pulses so they could use nuclear weapons in close proximity. Once the suits they were facing were shut down it would be easily enough to deal with them.
The EMP had a number of effects. In the upper levels of the caves most electronics ceased functioning. Radios suddenly went out and the communication net was too noisy to use. There would be a number of long term problems with cyberware in some cases as the nanites were scrambled by the wave of energy.
The stone provided a lot of shielding though, and few people were overly effected.
The PAFSs still functioning were shut down.
The shuttle received a warning from the Celeste and began to climb. It's landing time was pushed back.
In that Grendel's order had accomplished something of value. It was not what he had wanted though. The enemy suits were all still functioning. Obviously the Midnight Sun was not the only people who valued EMP protection.
One of those still functioning suits was charging him. He swung his recently retrieved scythe out, ready for the charge.
Ree was a little surprised by the explosion. She did not let it slow her down though as she charged the Midnight Sun suit. The pilot in that suit had bested her before. It was time to rectify that.
The Reaper opened up with its scatter-guns, the plasma state rounds ripped into the area around the Arrow, but did not hit.
Ree was not too worried about the ranged weapons, she could deal with those easy enough. She suspected that the pilot she faced would make good use of his scythe. She was not disappointed, as it were.
The Reaper swung the scythe in a circle, arcing it around towards the Arrow's midsection. Ree moved in closer, suddenly, avoiding the scythe's blade. She caught the shaft with the shield on her right arm, using the left arm to brace it. This time she expected the force behind the blow and stopped it. Several alarms went off, warning of damage to the servo mechanisms of the suit. The mechanics were going to be complaining to her about that.
The Arrow's left hand shot out, removing its support from the right. The heat hand wrapped around the shaft of the scythe, burning into the armour. She drove the shield forward, putting more strain on the shaft. She watched the other suit, making sure that the pilot was not trying anything. Trying to drive her back with the huge, two handed weapon seemed to be taking up all of the pilot's attention.
When the heat hand burnt through the armour and the insulation around the power cables, a large amount of power grounded out through her suit. Some of it passed through her. Her entire body jerked, and her teeth would have snapped shut had she not already been biting down on them.
Her body was trembling and she could not make it do what she needed it to. Looking at the Reaper beside her she wondered why it was not attacking her.
Grendel had been hoping to sweep the other suit out of the way so that he could use the scythe's blade. He did not know about the Arrow's heat hand, so he did not think there was any danger of the weapon being damaged.
When the power cables were cut not only did the energy ground out through the Arrow, but it back lashed through the Reaper as well. Grendel decided that anyone being hit by the Scythe was bound to be rather unhappy.
After several seconds he managed to make his suit move. The huge foot lifted into the air and began swinging around towards the Arrow. He made contact, hitting it in the upper part of its leg, driving it back.
A moment before the Reaper's huge foot made contact with her suit Ree managed to leap the Arrow back. The foot still caught her, buckling the armour over the Arrow's legs. Warning screens came up, telling her that she had just lost the engines in that part of the leg.
In front of her the big suit lifted both its arms and began firing on her. Ree twisted out of the way, her own weapons snapping forward. She returned the fire, but Reaper managed to avoid her fire as well.
The two suits stood, almost two hundred meters apart. Around them a number of battles were being fought. The Midnight Sun suits had the advantage through it was precariously balanced. Ree noted it, but did not let it concern her. Epiphany could handle things well enough.
Grendel grasped the controls of the Reaper tight, squeezing them. He stared at the suit in front of him, trying to decide on how best to handle it. It was fast, its main advantage as far as he could see. All he needed was to get a hold of it.
There was a way. A very dangerous way. He could not think of anything else.
He leapt forward, at the same time triggering the rocket boosters. He might be able to pull it off.
When the Reaper suddenly began rocketing towards her Ree was a little surprised. It slowed her reaction time down. Not by a lot, but it certainly had an effect. She tried to dodge the incoming suit, leaping high, triggering her own engines. She almost made it.
As the Reaper passed under her it reached up and got a grip on her suit's foot. With a jerking sensation she felt the Arrow being pulled along with it. Ree reacted quickly, swinging the plasma rifle down, jamming the barrel against the wrist of the other suit. It was a difficult manoeuvre to pull off in the position she found herself in, but she managed it.
She pulled the trigger repeatedly, blowing the hand from the suit. The Arrow was released to go spinning off. Before she managed to get the suit back under control she had been bounced hard against the rocky surface.
Grendel had intended to hurl the other suit at the side of the mountain. He had not expected that the pilot would be able to free the suit. That is what had happened though.
When the Reaper's hand had been blown off the sudden decrease in weight had sent him flying into the air, barely in control. He shut down the boosters, bringing the standard engines up, using them to fly back towards the ground. Being in the air was not what he wanted.
On landing he spotted the other suit getting to its feet. The armour was dimpled in a number of places, and the paint was a mess, but the suit seemed steady enough, Grendel opened fire on it with his scatter-guns.
The nimble suit leapt away from the point of impact, twisting in the air, returning fire. The Reaper, no where near as agile, took several hits before Grendel managed to move out of the way.
He watched at the other suit landed, just beyond the optimum range of his weapons.
"So," a voice, definitely female, came over his radio. "Do you think that this time we will reach a decisive conclusion?"
Grendel said nothing, he just considered the words. That she said 'this time' suggested that he had fought this woman before. There were aspects of the way the pilot fought that seemed familiar, but he could not place them. He knew he had never faced a suit like that before.
Instead of answering he charged forward, the Reaper's huge feet cracking the ground as it ran. He released a spread of hellstorms as he went, knowing they could not harm the other suit, knowing that he was not even at a good range for the weapon. That did not matter.
When the missiles exploded he used them as cover, firing into the flames and at the suit he knew was beyond.
When Ree saw the spread of missiles coming towards her she considered all the possible reasons for such an action. She was out of range, and even if she wasn't, the weapons could do her suit little real harm. That meant they had to be a distraction.
She was not really thinking that through, it just came to her and even as the missiles were exploding she was dodging. The explosions and flames created a vision shield between her and the other suit so she decided not to even try firing. She just ran her suit towards where she expected the Midnight Sun suit would appear from the flames.
Grendel charged into the blaze, moving through the fire quickly. It caused some minor damage to his suit. Nothing that would slow him down.
He came out of the flames to find himself facing the guns of the Arrow. A moment later he was driven back into the flames by its fire.
Screaming, he drove his suit forward, firing his own weapons. He was finally angry. For a moment both suits simply fired at each other at near point blank range. The other suit moved first, leaping into the air. Grendel was not surprised, the other suit did not have the armour the Reaper did.
He was not going to loose. There were a number of strategies he could still use, including calling down a nuclear strike on his own position. Extreme, but it might just be necessary.
His suit lifted its head up, trying to track the Arrow. Grendel was not able to see anything. The heat and smoke from his missiles rose above him, blinding several of his sensors systems. Other systems were being jammed. He had no idea where the suit was. His index finger was slowly depressing the thruster switch when his world exploded around him.
Ree leapt high into the air, going straight up. Even as she was climbing she ordered the Arrow's computer to start jamming. At the apex of her thruster assisted leap, several hundred meters in the air, she flipped the Arrow over, and began plummeting, suit's head first, towards the ground.
If she had done everything just right, then directly below her was the Midnight Sun suit, probably just raising its head to look for her.
She began to fire.
A spread of spikes from the rail cannon and bolts of plasma rained down on the reaper, slamming repeatedly into its head and upper shoulders, blowing armour out of the way, ripping into systems below.
Grendel could feel himself burning as the plasma began to lick into the cockpit. The suit would not do as he wanted, or perhaps it was his body that was betraying him at the last.
He managed a scream before he went. There were no words to it, he was to far gone for words. It was primal and animalistic conveying only anger and pain.
Then there was nothing.
Just before she hit the ground Ree sun the Arrow about and landed it on its feet, sixty meters from the Reaper. She stared at it from across the distance, bringing her weapons up. She hoped that it still had some fight in it.
Then the suit went up in flames, the remaining hellstorm missiles within it cooking off. Ree stood and turned her suit away from the explosion.
"Thanks for the dance," Ree said softly as the Arrow walked away from the battle site.
After that the battle was one sided in the battalions favour. With Tauutus gone, and Grendel dead, there was no one left to make any big decisions. Then the shuttle landed and off loaded the five Myrmidons and five Lovitars. The Midnight Sun mecha did not last long after that. While the interceptors and Arrows kept the enemy busy, the Myrmidons moved into place and destroyed the terrorists with ease.
The fighting in the cave took much longer to finish off, but in the end it was completed as well.
Juan walked between the wrecks of two Harbingers, looking around. In the distance he spotted Caroline Mason, making her own tour of the battle sight. The reporter's arm was in a sling, though that was not slowing her down.
"The DOD boys are going over one of those new suits. Once they are sure it is safe we'll pack it up and send it off to be examined." The man was Battalion intelligence. It was his job to try to make sense of everything they found.
"Good. What about this ships?"
"So far we've found two more beyond those you've already seen. One of them is a beat up old freighter with a bit of armour bolted on. The other is fairly new, one of Gravesend's merchant designs. They've upgraded her to a cruiser from what we have seen."
"Any idea where they might have gotten the work done?"
"None. I'm fairly certain it was not here though. It's a supply dump, but they don't have the equipment for that sort of work."
"So you didn't find a Suit factory either?"
"I guess that would have been too easy, getting all the big stuff in one swipe. Prisoners?"
"Not many. The only people we have managed to take are those who were too badly wounded to kill themselves. A lot of them didn't make it, and those that do, when they wake up, kill themselves."
"Have the doctors tried to figure out how to stop it?"
"They tried it with one patient. After he died they decided not to experiment any longer."
"No luck there then. What about those that got away?"
"We found a few, but most seem to have found deep holes to hide. Unless we stay here a lot longer and get more personnel, we aren't going to find them."
"I understand. Keep up with what you have been doing. I want that cave system blown in three hours, that's when we are leaving."
"Not a lot of time."
"We have other duties. We've completed this mission, anything else we get is just a bonus."
"Yes sir," the man said, then moved off, heading towards the caves.
Juan stopped to watch a Myrmidon slowly lift the wreckage of one of the Arrows.
"How are things going?" Placide asked Jesse.
"You know. Good news bad news. The peace negotiations fell through thanks to meddling from the USSA. On the other hand a courier ship arrived and it looks as if we've managed to shut down the Midnight Sun, for a while at least."
"Yes. So, what kind of news do you bring?"
"Bad news and more bad news."
"Wonderful." Jesse stopped outside of the door to Redding's office and knocked.
"Enter," they heard from in the office.
Jesse pushed the door open so Placide could enter. Redding watched as both of them entered then waited for Jesse to close to door.
"What brings you here Placide?"
"There are some things I thought the two of you needed to know, and I thought I could use an update."
"How's your cover?" Redding asked her.
"Fine. There are some people from internal affairs sniffing around me, but I'm not the only one to draw some suspicion. I'll be fine."
"If you have to run, are you ready?"
"As ready as I can be."
"The ODF wants to see how serious Organon and the others are. They are planning a series of small attacks, just to see if they can get them to fold with minimum force."
"Got any numbers?"
"Yes," Placide said, removing an EO pad from her jacket.
Jesse took it. "I'll set up some of our people to meet them, make sure we have enough for a decisive victory. That should do it."
"There's more," Placide continued. "Solingen has been pushing the building of ships and suits as well as speeded up military training. They've put together a serious occupation force and plan to stake their claim to Faraday."
"Wonderful," Jesse shook his head. "You want to get involved in this?" he asked Redding.
Redding thought about it for a moment. "No. There are no civilian concerns. Maybe both sides need to get into a costly battle to realise that this war is a mistake. If it begins to escalate around Faraday then we'll move in, but not until then."
"Think it will escalate there?" Placide asked him.
"It depends on how angry the USSA gets in the next month or two. If they just want to crush the ODF, then it will be there. If they want to go after some bigger targets they'll try to take it to one of the core worlds. If they do that, then we'll have to act."
"How close is the ODF to having the build up they want?" Jesse asked Placide.
"What about Earth?" He looked over at Redding.
"Also very close. That's what's been holding them back."
"Looks like things are going to heat up soon," Jesse said, tilting his head back. He blew his hair out of his eyes. "Very hot."
Emiko hid a yawn behind her hand as she walked out of the school. She favoured her left foot slightly due to a small bang up in the kendo club. At least he came out of it worse, she thought in a way that made her think of Marshal Sharp.
A number of other students were milling around her. Ahead of her, on the sidewalk, Emiko saw a group of girls she knew. She was starting towards them when a car pulled up beside her. She caught motion out of the side of her eye, one of her security people trying to get a little closer.
The door opened. Auden looked out. "Are you busy?" she asked.
"Well," Emiko looked off at the backs of the girls. "Not really," she said. Politeness had won out.
"I know your mother is going to be busy tonight. I thought I'd treat you for dinner."
"Well, if it is not too much trouble."
"Don't be ridiculous." Auden smiled. "I'd not ask you if it was trouble. Please," she slid back into the car. "get in."
Emiko ducked slightly and got into the back seat. She closed the door once she was in. The car started moving as soon as the door was closed.
"So, how is school?" Auden asked.
"It's good," Emiko said. "I'm learning a lot, and going to a school outside of Japan has been very educational."
"You do that well."
"Sound happy. I'd almost believe it."
"Why do you think I only sound happy?" Emiko asked, confused and curious at the same time.
"I know your mother, I know you. I suspect you'd rather be with your friends in the Battalion."
Emiko said nothing.
"I can understand that of course. They are a good group of people. They tried to broker a peace agreement recently."
"It was quite a clever idea really. It would have been unofficial, but it would have still carried a lot of weight. I of course had to stop it."
"What!?" Emiko could not keep her voice from raising. "How?"
"How is not important."
"That is what I decided to talk to you about." She raised a hand to silence Emiko's next question. "I'll explain it to you soon. So, your mother tells me you two are returning to Japan for New Years. I'm sure you will enjoy that."
For a moment Emiko did not know what to say, then politeness won out, as it always did. She and Auden shifted into a simple conversation, talk about the war temporarily put on hold.
Eventually the car dropped them off at an airfield where they boarded a military helicopter. It was a big insertion model, turbo fans set in rings on each side instead of a rotor. As soon as they were aboard the aircraft took to the air. Auden and Emiko sat alone in the large bay.
Soon after take off a female officer came from up front. She carried two coolers with her. "Ma'am," she said to Auden, placing the coolers on the floor.
"Thank you," Auden said.
The woman saluted, then turned and when back the way she had come.
Auden opened one of the coolers. "I hope Chinese is all right. Horrible little restaurant, but the food is so good." She removed a carton, on which was the name of a restaurant.
Emiko stared for a moment, a little surprised.
Auden smiled. "I did promise dinner."
Emiko laughed after a moment, then she looked guilty.
"Just because you like me doesn't mean you have betrayed your friends," Auden said, then held the carton towards her. "Rice?"
Emiko took the carton, then the chop sticks that Auden handed her. "There are drinks in the other cooler, and we have plenty of food."
Auden nodded, then removed another carton from the cooler. "Your mother and I used to eat at this restaurant, way back when."
"Really?" Emiko asked. She could not picture her mother and Auden eating in a 'horrible little restaurant'.
"All the time when we were going to school."
Emiko thought about that as she ate her rice.
"I owe a lot to your mother you know. She helped me quite a bit when I arrived at University. I was a rather young student, and she had that maternal instinct." Auden was quiet for a time. "When she left to marry your father I thought she had, well, sold out in a way. It seemed so cliche. I've had time to rethink that over the years. She's always done as she wished."
"What do you mean?" Emiko asked. Doing as she wished did not seem to be anything her mother would do.
"She is one of those few people who have managed to have everything they want. You may not know it, few people do, but your mother is one of the top scientific minds in the USSA. She also has managed to marry the man she loved and have two wonderful children. And there is more."
"Like being part of the Inner Circle," Emiko said, and not without some bitterness.
"Yes. While you may not care much for us, you should realise what an exclusive organisation we are. Your mother got herself included completely on her own merits."
Emiko said nothing again, she put the carton down and opened the other cooler. "Do you want something to drink?"
"The grape juice."
Emiko removed the bottle and poured two glasses, handing one to Auden.
Auden took a drink, then placed the glass on the floor. "I've always envied your mother for your father and Makoto, and you. I'm not sure I could have managed to get everything I wanted had I had a family. It's funny," she looked at Emiko and smiled. "I've always thought of you and Makoto a little like my children, god children I guess. I was always happy to hear your mother talk about you, though I almost had to force her. Your mother is not the sort of women to talk about her family at the drop of a hat. I think she thinks it low class."
Emiko laughed and nodded, then suddenly looked guilty again.
"Anyone who tells you can't laugh with a woman who knew you since before you were born is not giving you good advice Emiko-chan."
"No need to be sorry. Just be yourself."
"I enjoyed watching Makoto and then you grow up. Had either of you needed any help, I would have given it to you, but neither of you ever did. I admit to arranging it so Makoto's first tour was as prestigious as it could be, but I suspect he would have done just as well on his own." She finished off the juice in her glass. "Is there anything you need?"
Emiko shook her head. "No. Thank you for asking," Emiko said politely.
Auden shook her head slightly. "I wish you would not see me as an enemy." She paused. "Your mother loves you dearly you know."
Emiko nodded. "I know."
"Do you really?"
Emiko looked up at her, a confused look on her face.
"I was there when she first found out. It was quite a shock to her, but she was ecstatic. She stayed that way for almost a week before she began questioning having a second child. Her dedication to the cause told her that she should have the pregnancy terminated. That fact that she had always wanted a daughter made her refuse that. Says quite a bit about her feelings towards you, does it not?"
"Still, I'm sure that you have had to deal with a few problems because of that. Poor Sempai," Auden shook her head. "Less than ten percent of women in the USSA are having children right now. She could have had ten children and not put any undue stress on the environment." Auden looked at Emiko and smiled. "All things considered it might not have been a bad thing is she had had more children. Look at you and your brother."
"Thank you for telling me that," Emiko said.
"No need to thank me. Here, try some of these egg rolls," she said, handing Emiko another carton.
A short time after they had finished eating the pilot told them they were approaching the target area. Emiko still did not know what the target area was, but got an idea when Auden gave her an NBCD suit.
They were dressed in the protective clothing by the time the helicopter put down. When the ramp opened Emiko saw a group of armed men standing below.
"My guard," Auden said. "Come along." She walked down the ramp, passing the men without seeming to notice them.
Emiko looked at the readout on the suits right sleeve. The chemical trace in the air was not all that bad, and the radiation was fairly low. Hardly enough to require suits, unless they were going to be spending a few days out there.
"Right now it is pretty safe," Auden said, noting Emiko's action. "If the wind was coming at us, there would be a lot more chemicals in the air. That's why the pilot put down here."
"Where are we?"
"On the border of New South Wales and South Australia. We're about thirty kilometres from Lake Torrens."
Emiko committed that information to memory so that she might later look it up. "What's here?"
"This place used to be mined for opals, back near the end of the Twentieth century. By about 2016 most of the mines had been played out, leaving holes in the ground. It was not too bad, environmentally wise. The miners had not been that hard on the land around them. Sometime between the twenties and the thirties a waste disposal company started dumping chemical wastes into those holes. It was unofficial of course. Once full they sealed up the holes with concrete and looked at the next mine. Shortly before this was discovered they had started dumping nuclear waste here as well. Radiation is rising."
Emiko wondered what she meant for a moment, the looked at her readout. The level of the background radiation was indeed climbing. There were more chemicals in the air as well.
"When the government finally got involved the waste company had gone bankrupt, so there was no one left to sue. A few deaths and some disappearances stopped the investigation, and the company officials all got jobs with another, bigger waste company.
"The government decided that since the damage was already done, and since cleaning up would be costly, to just leave it. Nothing all that new for the time.
"This is one of the many places we're leaving alone for now. We don't have the resources to clean it up. We should get to it in a few years." Auden paused. "I almost wish we could leave it like this, just as an example to people, a warning."
"Why don't you?" Emiko asked.
"No real point. The planet will fix this, even if left alone. That's the way things work. It is really hard to completely kill a planet you know. On the other hand it is very easy to upset the environment to the point where it will not longer support your species, as we have found out."
"Are you really concerned about the people?"
"Do you find that so hard to believe?"
"I've read your plans for the colonies."
"I'm willing to take away some freedoms, for a time, in order to offer a better future. You see Emiko, no matter what I do, mankind will come back to this point one day," she looked around the area. There were several concrete plugs around them, some cracking and crumbling. The radiation count was much higher.
"There will come a time when someone realises that they can make more money if they are just a little sloppy. Others will see that, and it will begin to escalate. The scientific advances we have made that make it easier to preserve and repair environments also make it easier to destroy them. That's the way things will go.
"By brining the colonies to heel I will put that time off, for a while."
"But if it is inevitable, why bother?" Emiko asked.
"Right now it is inevitable. I believe it is within humanity's make up to change, to become better. If that happens, then we may never see another environment destroyed by us.
"What I am doing to the colonies may only gain us another century of Gaian enlightenment, but that is another century in which we may change. You asked me why I put an end to the peace agreement. That is why. Peace will not serve our purposes."
"Your purposes," Emiko said, though it sounded weak.
"Perhaps," Auden said. "Let us return to the helicopter. I'm sure you wish to return home." She turned about and went back the way they had come.
Emiko remained for a few seconds, looking over the blighted landscape, then she turned around and followed after Auden.
Ending Credits - As before.
Description: 158cm, 56kg, 17 years old, long black hair, brown eyes with green flecks. Quote: "I wish there was another way to do this." (said just before doing it)
Emiko does not live up to anyone's image of the brave hero. She is quiet, polite and modest. Still, there is a core of bravery running through her, mostly brought out by desperation. She is a computer genius, and while she now possesses a datalink she does not make use of it. She strongly believes in the Gaian philosophy, but also has the ability to look beyond it. Odd for a girl with her back ground. One would think she would either be a die heard Gaian or have completely rejected the belief.
Close to all her family, she cares for her mother even though she (her mother) is embarrassed by Emiko. She also thinks much of her father, even though he is often away from home. Her hero worship of her older brother has been tempered by the events she has lived throug.
Stats: Attractiveness 8 Body Type 5 Cool 6 Empathy 7 Intelligence 9 Education 9 Luck 7 MA 6 Reflexes 7 Tech 9
Skills : Personal Grooming 5 (hanging around with Epiphany) Wardrobe+Style 5 (ditto) Persuasion+Fast talk 2 Human Perception 3 Social 4 Expert Biology 3 Chemistry 3 Math 3 Language English 7 Programming 9 Blade 5 HTH 4 Athletics 3 Zero G 5 Basic Repair 5 Jury Rig 4 Mecha Piloting 5 Mecha Fighting 4 Mecha Missile Weapons 3 Mecha Gunnery 3 Handgun 4 Expert - Business 2 (hanging around with Juan) Oratory 2 Awareness 2 Shunt Navigation 1 Shuttle Pilot 3 Starship Pilot 4 Seduction 2
Cyberware - Data Link
Note: Emiko's many skills, and the levels, have much to do with the quality of her teachers. At this point she is moving away from being a rookie character.
"We're here in the Engineering Section of the Starship Enterprise where we have replaced the fine dilithium crystals they usually use with Folgers crystals. Let's see what happens."
"Watashi wa anata no ane, soshite haha, soshite anata."
--Miyu Kyuuketsuki ga Yui ni itta
Shawn Hagen <firstname.lastname@example.org>
On to Chapter 36