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    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    Advanced Response Machine Aesir

    (Author's Notes: I've converted the existing thread into the comments thread. So please remember to keep using that thread for your comments. This thread will exist as the story thread from now on. Thank you.

    Well I've got a new story I've been working on. But wait I'm still doing Shift. >.> Yeah, well I need a side project since Shift is a ten year project. Something to keep me sane I think. Plus I'm really excited about the two side projects I've been working. Wait a minute, not one but two side projects. Should know by now I can never make my life simple. Anyway, I have two side projects in the works this and another one. The second I'm still working on, but the idea is that I'll present the two and hopefully let the readers decide which they find more interesting for me to do first. I'm going to do both, but I can't do them at the same time. It's going to be difficult to pick between two when the second isn't available yes, but I'm wanting some feedback on this one since I'm still making continuous tweaks to it even now, like the title just came up with that five minutes ago.

    Follow this link the second story - http://www.thefinalfantasy.com/forum...twin-moon.html

    Remember please let me know which story I should do first.

    So the first issue I have with the first episode that I wrote is that its long...really long. Like I'm going to have to double post to make it fit long. I'm trying to decide if the length is a bad thing or not and what I could trim down on. Though being an introductory episode I spend some necessary time building and flavoring the world.

    The next issue is that I'm not really fond of the speech of a few of the characters. They'll stand out on themselves so I won't need to point them out to. I'm keeping to the original speech of the characters, since this is actually a converted RP from years gone by, but I'm not sold on it. I already have planned if I keep them they'll slowly get fazed out due to what happens to the characters. I find the language a little stereotypical and offensive, even if not personally. It also feels a little over done, but I'd like a second opinion. I did change speeches to varying levels of accents so some have light accents and others really heavy ones. So if it looks inconsistent it was done initially.

    Next I'd like to know how the characters themselves came off. I wanted to drive home certain initial reactions, which I think I achieved, but I'd like to know how others feel about them. Considering the main character needs to be likable and sympathetic to the audience I'm not sure how she turned out in this first episode since she comes off in a couple different manners.

    Another question mark is simply nailing the genre I was shooting for. I spent a lot of time watching mecha anime and reading some fiction I could find on the internet to see how others addressed areas of concern I had. So I'd like a read on how that turned out. It's light on the mecha for the first episode, but nailing it out of the gate will be important.

    Last, do you feel interested in enough to want to read more of it later? And if you say no, please also answer if you like or dislike mecha, since liking the genre or not will naturally influence your desire to read more as well.)

    * * *

    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterwards from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of buildings fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet had been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, goals was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 1 – The Land that had Forgotten War

    South Asia near the Safety Zone

    The vibration from the ship’s hull was rattling through the cabin threatening to snap the bolts that anchored the series of six chairs quickly fashioned into rear compartment behind the pilot’s cockpit. Components within the fuselage that were not even known to exist were pounding and groaning all around them, ceaselessly. The mechanically orchestrated symphony of chaos was the only music that attempted to drown out the warning sirens and messages that were playing in a finely irregular pattern that tempted the sanity of even the stoic.

    One of the six seats was left longingly vacant as its passenger was in the co-pilot seat in the cockpit. Its missing companion was twenty-five year old Commander Callein Tulother. His gray and purple helmet left much of his head concealed leaving only a little of his red-orange hair breaking free. While seated in the co-pilot position it did not mean he was providing aid to the pilot. All his dark green eyes did was watch the panel in front of him to provide him a sense that he was control while it was made obnoxiously violent that all he had was his own anxiety to grasp.

    The mission alone was dangerous, but it was the procedure required to be allowed to do the mission that provided the greatest threat to them. No one knew what to expect from the start. Even the scientists could only guess at what they were doing and prayed while they sounded confident in their fancy university taught tongues that left the simply minds of Callein and his team to have faith. What they were attempted had never been done before and until recent considered a taboo and forbidden. It carried more weight than plainly being unknown, for it was engrained into every child. They were entering the land of death that does nothing but steal, torture and revel in the delight of pains of others, in other words Hell.

    Seemingly having a painted on smirk across his face was Rinn Ellune the only pilot in the fleet crazy enough to take on such a mission and enjoy it at the same time. To be the first man to accomplish this was enough reward for him. Yet he had to be the only one on the ship that was not unnerved by the buckling coming from the hull. It was difficult to discern whether he had some faith that the ship would hold together or he flatly was insane enough already not to care.

    Wearing a gray and purple pressure suit like Callein, Rinn’s right hand separated from the manual controls to push a couple of buttons on display screen. The immediate results pulled back the heat resistant panel from the main windows in the front that continued smoothly to the side. Accompanied with the barely acknowledgeable hydraulics that held fastened to the thick metal panels was an audible drop in the percussion around the entire ship.

    Rinn’s helmet tilted to the sides allowing him to check his space quickly as his right hand ran through entry procedures. “Shield Penetration completed, continuing atmospheric entry,” said Rinn calmly through his helmet’s internal headset. “Hold on to those lunches of yours!” The thrusters on the ship suddenly lit up returning the rocking to ship with increased vigor.

    * * *
    A stiff wind blew through the field of corn playing the leaves against each other. In the rows spread out over several acres of land were workers toiling everyday to tend to the plants. An occasional truck would drive by the edge of the row taking in weeds removed from the paths. It kept the grounds quiet with nothing but the village of Welest for as far as the eye could see. There would not be another village or town for a day’s drive. However, this was their life and leaving was not what they wanted to do. They welcomed the simply life that dirtied their hands and toughened their skin. It made each day feel alive and worth living.

    The village was far enough north, meaning it was built in the last decade, that the people were emigrants from Antarctica City rather than having been born in the land. There were a few that came from other villages, but it was a place of adventure for many, whose boring slow lives had been eking out an existence surrounded by nothing but steel and plastic. It was chaotic and disordered, but it was exactly what they wanted. Sweat made them smile and breathing free open air made them want to stand up on their own legs.

    It was same for her as well. A young girl bent down in the brittle earth pulling out a large weed from near the base of a stalk. She dropped it in her woven basket. That had been the last for the area and so she treated herself to a stretch by standing up lifting her arms up above her head. Even at her full height only her arms managed to clear the tops of the corn, she was only fourteen and still growing. The villagers saw her as a child still in many ways, but she still insisted on helping them not letting the word get to her.

    There was still plenty of time left on the corn before it came time to harvest. Once it got too tall Shizuka would not be able to help them anymore with some of the tasks. However, she would still help them shuck the corn during the harvest season. It was then that what the village needed live off they would keep while the rest was shipped off to the trading towns. There at the towns it would be packed for the major ports to be processed before shipped back to Antarctica City where a large percentage of the population still lived relying on the imports of supplies to survive on the frozen continent. It was how life had to be, they worked for the benefit of those in sheltered domes. Most did not even think about the cycle for a moment, but it was a fact that never escaped Shizuka. It always left her with a dull aching feeling that she could not completely hide behind with the need to keep living her way of life.

    Once her back and legs felt at ease she pulled herself back straight dropping her arms down. While she was standing she checked her hair that was tied back with a course cloth. It kept her hair off her back and folded up, left to dangle in a large loop at a third its normal length, to keep it from running along the dirt as she worked. Her hands delicately confirmed for her that it was still fastened tightly. She dusted off her brown aged canvas dress and wiped off sweat from her forehead leaving a little dirt behind on her face, a common ingredient for her skin from her appearance.

    Shizuka turned her light blues eyes up to the sky catching the thick cloud cover of the late morning. It was a rare sight to see the sun that provided a pale illumination to the surface of the planet always shrouded in an endless sea of light gray to dark gray clouds. Particles from the fires of the past still hung suspended in the atmosphere preventing anyone ever forgetting or feeling completely safe. However, as she was turning away the roar of an engine from a plane alerted her to its passing. ‘What’s a transport doing out here at this time of year?’ she thought to herself while she stared at it getting smaller. Sound and sight of the transport disappeared from her allowing her to return to her duties forgetting that it had occurred.

    An hour had come to pass as the morning warmed a little more bringing it to a tepid temperature. All of the crops and plants that grew had been genetically altered to fit a more hostile unforgiving environment than they were previously used to. The land that they were using was clean and terraformed, but the clouds and atmosphere still held their reminder fighting to keep the memory alive. It was the only way they were able to produce the farms that they needed to support the growing population and not die off from consistently cool weather.

    Lunch would be soon providing for a break. Shizuka had finished her row and began returning to the village along the edge of the plot. There was a gap of dirt along the end of the rows before going into a thick grass that rose up to the dirt and gravel road that lead into the village. She took to the side of the road following it until she came to a tree nearby. It had not been the tree that caught her attention, but the person underneath it. ‘Is Dave slacking off again?’ A wrinkle around her eyes pulled down as she marched over to the tree prepared to give him a piece of her mind. However, when she came in front of the person ready to open her mouth she could see that it was a stranger. ‘A foreigner?’

    Reclined with his hands comfortably rested under his head for support and his eyes closed was teenage boy, older than Shizuka. A well used brown fedora stood upon his head tilted forward slightly as though he was trying to sleep. Slowed movement, not cautious but relaxed, had stirred from the boy. It took a moment longer, but he picked up on her presence feeling the slightly darkened light around him. Keeping to his lax position and not even looking to address her he spoke out casually, “Yer blockin’ the view.”

    “The view…” she said curtly. She had already been ready to deal with Dave that her emotions quickly transferred without issue. The appearance of the kid made her quickly realize that he was from the city. There was the casual attitude not caring about work or the world simply thinking that everything was ready prepared without having to lift a finger or think for one’s self coming off of him. For her, that held the heart of the matter. However, she was not about to start a fight with a foreigner and turned to walk away towards the village.

    The teen pulled himself up no longer able to sit still and lifted his fedora above his eyes getting an actual view. “Oh…yer a girl…” It seemed to fall out of his lips so casually as a personal note, except that it was declared aloud.

    Having been mistaken for a boy stopped her legs immediately. Shizuka turned slowly around struggling with the full display of anger that she was wishing to show to the stupid boy. She ripped the tied cloth in her hair free holding the gently blowing fabric in her clinched hand. As her hair fell down a strong frigid gust broke through the area dragging her hair out to its full length wrapping partly around her. It provided an almost serpentine quality to her hair exaggerating the anger in her face. “Was it the dress or the hair that clued you in?!”

    “Made ‘er mad, Ed…” he said to himself under a low breath. He took a step back putting up his hands in front of his chest trying to show the girl he was not interested in a fight. “It wasn’t like I’d thought ya a boy, kid!”

    Shizuka narrowed her eyes a little more taking further insult to being called a kid. “All you people from the city don’t have any manners.”

    “Manners?! Now wait a minute ‘ere yer the one gettin’ upset fer nothin’”

    “Nothing?! How dare you! You’re the one acting like me being a girl is a surprise. How would you like it if I did that to you?”

    The young man recoiled a little having to take the time to think about her question. ‘What’s with this girl?’ He rubbed his hand against his chin as he watched her for a moment waiting to answer her. The piercing glare of her light blue eyes was entrancing him almost as though she was penetrating his mind. “Well…I guess I wouldn’t. Whatcha want from me?” It seemed that agreeing with her did not make her temper any less severe leaving him cornered.

    “I want an apology!”

    “Wha-but I…” There was no relenting from the girl forcing a sigh of reluctance. “…I’m sorry…”

    Shizuka held her gaze at him reading him for his emotions and intention. ‘That’s was pretty empty sounding, but…’ She was feeling less angry with the boy, though still miff with him still about the misunderstanding.

    A slow catch up by him made something Shizuka had said stand out to him. It left him with a little suspicious. “How’d ya know I’s from the city?”

    Feeling more like herself she checked her speech having slipped up from getting so angry with the boy. “Ya stand out like a sore thumb.” All she got back from him was a confused and perplexed expression that was not following what she was meaning. “Yer too clean and yer clothes are nothin’ like around ‘ere.”

    “Oh…that obvious huh?” he said as he examined his own clothes before comparing them with Shizuka’s. Dirt covered her hands with smears on her face as well as old stains in her dress that had not been able to be washed out. Threads were hanging loosely beginning a discordant mess at the edges of the material. Wear and tear was an understatement as it appeared to be treated as the only dress available to her. It made him take a step back. “Well guess yer right! Name’s Edgar Dubois, but ya can just say Ed.” Ed began to remember his manners having forgotten to introduce himself.

    Shizuka scanned him cautiously not keen on his overly familiar attitude suddenly. “Mr. Dubois, why ya out ‘ere?”

    Ed let his mind crawl over what he remembered from the meeting that they had had before leaving. “Well I guess the short of it is we’re lookin’ fer someone.” He turned his head towards the village up the road in the distance thinking to himself. ‘Guess Cap’n Fin’s there by now…’ His hand rose up to lift his fedora up as he scratched his head. “Come ta think ‘bout it, yer from that village up the road, right?”

    A cautious nod came from Shizuka before she spoke as she started to understand his purpose. “That’s my village. Who ya lookin’ for?” There was a building fear in her stomach that she could not shake. It was gnawing at her insides drawing up memories she wanted to forget.

    It was taking time for Ed to recover the name. ‘Everyone else seemed to remember…’ Names were never his strong suit and for him it was an even weirder name than he normally heard. “Well ya see…I think started with an ‘S’…Sue, no…Suoka, hmm…who was that doctor guy?” He could not believe that he was forgetting something so important to his mission. ‘Sheila’s gonna kill me. Wonderin’ off and forgettin’ the mission for Dr. Kitawara.’ Moment longer was all he needed before he finally remembered. “Shizuka Kitawara! Knew I’d remember if I thought hard enough.”

    Ed feeling pleased with himself to have recalled the name focused his eyes back towards Shizuka. “So do ya know her? She’s supposed to be the daughter of our client. If I recall she’s got black hair and fourteen…uh… Ya know I don’t know yer name, what do I call ya?”

    Shizuka did not like how friendly Edgar was getting with her. He was extending a hand out to her leaving her a little cautious of his motives. “Hiraoka…Miss Hiraoka,” she said reluctantly shaking his hand.

    A bit of a frown transitioned across his face hearing how cold she was still being to him. “Ya have a first name right? Ya don’t need to be so formal! We’re just a coupla teenagers.” He tried to smooth things over with her, but it was being broadcast strong enough that she was not going to play along with him. “Ya can call me Ed, alright?” he said making another attempt to make things casual.

    “What are ya plannin’ on doin’ with ‘er?”

    “We’re just supposed to take ‘er back to ‘er dad. Dunno what happens afterwards.”

    “I see…’fraid she doesn’t sound familiar, Mr. Dubois.” Shizuka turned away from him quickly stepping away from the tree back towards the fields of corn. She had heard enough from him.

    Ed paused for a moment feeling like he was missing something, but then jumped down grabbing Shizuka by the arm. “Hey wait! Aren’tcha gonna back to the village? Maybe someone there knows more!”

    She quickly snapped back around glaring at him venomously making him back off. “Don’t touch me!” Once Shizuka was done she rotated on her feet and entered the row of corn quietly disappearing amongst the plants.

    “Didn’t answer my question…” said Edgar softly no longer able to see Shizuka. He readjusted his fedora once more feeling frustrated that he was in a dead end. After a moment his eyes panned over to the village in the distance answering for him what his next course would be. ‘Strange girl…are all the people outside of the city like that?’ Forced to go back empty handed did not make him feel good, but he was left with little choice as he began walking the dirt road. He kicked a small stone out of the way as he slowly made his way to the village.

    Shizuka came to rest once she was deep enough into the field that no one would see her. Lunch would be coming soon meaning that the grounds would be empty for the time, but she could not help but feel nervous as she carefully sat down. Her mind was racing with questions from what she had gathered from the city kid. ‘So father’s come looking for me, huh? It’s been six years. He was probably so busy with his work that he just now realized that I was missing. Why’s he looking for me anyway? It’s not like I need him now. But it looks like I’m going to have to leave Welest…’

    Antarctica – Antarctica City – H.O.P.E. Headquarters

    An abandoned chair lazily waited for its owner. It had been a long time since the office chair had been occupied. Resting in a large darkened room, the room was filled with computers and displays all quietly humming away an even content tune. There was only enough lighting to make out silhouettes marking it for its disuse. However, annoyed for being ignored for so long it seemed a sole monitor screen was on with pinging noise coming out of it that barely reached to the half ajar door of the room.

    This was the secondary military command center for H.O.P.E. meant to be used as a back-up if the main was ever damaged or in need of maintenance. However, in the time of peaceful calm that the Earth had known for centuries neither had ever been used. The worst that they had to combat was terrorist attacks as infrequent as they were. Of course, the rooms received regular maintenance and cleaning, but need for them never arose.

    It was the task of the officer of the watch to make visits to either room to check, but most ignored the room only making a single visit a day and not the hourly expected of them. There had never been a need for them, so most soldiers did not even know about the place. No one expected that they would be needed, however today proved them wrong as a day that everything changed forever. The station with the noise playing in discordant tune against the constant electrical melody was the monitoring station. It alerted the operator to unknown objects entering the atmosphere, an act that it had been repeating without end for an hour.

    Peace had come from an unlikely source. Passing through the hall were three soldiers with plans for lunch. The soldier on the right raised up his arm having thought that he heard something. Confused and a little bothered they kept talking until he stopped them once more no longer uncertain. “There’s a sound, can’t you hear it?”

    “No, I can’t hear anything,” the man replied quickly before even listening. “There’s nothing down here.”

    “It’s probably just some tech doing work,” the third soldier piped in.

    The first soldier did not let their doubt get to him as he walked forward hearing it a little more clearly than before. Once he reached the ajar door there was no question left as he motioned the others over. “It’s coming from here.”

    “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” said the soldier. He turned to look at the panel on the wall that titled the room. “We aren’t allowed in this room. Only officers, cleaning crew and messengers.”

    He pushed the door open completely getting a full effect from the alert and the single lit monitor in the darkened room. “There’s something wrong. If we don’t find out what it is and report it. We’ll be in trouble for negligence. There’s cameras everywhere.”

    “But it’s probably just a malfunction in the system.”

    The soldier pressed on into the room ignoring his comrade’s excuses. He stumbled slowly through the maze of chairs left unattended to reach the monitor that was flashing. It would require a trained person to understand it, but there was something on screen that was made very clear. “Get the CO on the line now! There’s an unknown transport that entered through the atmosphere!”

    “How’s that possible? Nothing’s been through the atmosphere in centuries!”

    H.O.P.E. Hanger Bay

    A loud alarm was blaring through the large hanger bay causing dozens of mechanics to scramble around the floor. Such activity had not been seen since the last emergency practice drills. However, the alarm that was sounding currently was no drill. It was the real thing and it had left a thick air of panic for everyone to take in. Accompanying the alarm was an announcement by the commanding officer currently schedule during this lax period.

    “Prepare transport for immediate launch with surveillance equipment! Load AESIR Unit 3 Skadi on to the transport! I repeat!” The man’s voice came over with a poorly disguised frantic and nervous nature. None of the regular command staff was present leaving the facility severely unprepared.

    The work crews ran about prepping the plane and moving it to the bay doors as drivers hulled Skadi on a large truck lining it up. “E-Type equipment!” shouted the foreman directing men. There were different names for the equipment depending on the request, but the order from the officer had thrown everyone off leaving some of the new people taking the wrong gear to the plane. They were losing time from so many mistakes being made.

    Walking up quietly with an empty expression that seemed almost inhuman was young girl wearing a pilot suit. She held her helmet at her side by the lower face guard. The suit and helmet held the same green motif of medium green for a base with a darker green along the shoulders and sleeves with the top of the helmet down the back dark green also. She stepped out on to the moving platform that slid the plane into place.

    “Air!” a man voice shouted over the noise out to the girl. Aerona, Air, tilted her head over shoulder while pausing in step. “Keep your line open! I’ll be in the com monitoring the situation. So don’t go out until I give you the word!”

    “Understood,” Air said before continuing towards the plane’s side door. She could see through the opening the truck drawing up into the cargo bay of the plane. Inside the transport she took a seat along the side waiting until clearance was given to launch.

    “Launch gate opening!” informed the commanding officer over the communication speakers. “Track 013 has been aligned!”

    The engines on the plane roared to life creating a wash of thunder through the hanger as everyone watched from the side. Soon the transport began to move planted on a metal plate. Using the force of the engines to propel forward the metal plate slid along the wheels underneath pushing the plane into the track. It quickly began to pick up speed through the track building lift as it reached the end bursting out at an angle that met with the surface above. Out of visible sight of Antarctica City the plane left from its underground runway with its target in South Asia.

    South Asia – Village of Welest

    No longer a quiet village, Welest’s small populace of three hundred were gossiping and watching the visitors that they had. It was uncommon to receive anyone when it was not harvest time and even stranger when it was not about immigration into the mainland. Most had kept away feeling uneasy by the presence of the strangers and the questions that they were asking. Since most of the villages had remained out of sight it meant that the mayor of Welest had stepped out to speak with the strangers.

    The leader of the strangers and the mayor had been talking inside the mayor’s home for quite some time. The rest of the group hovered around the center of the village taking advantage of the location to speak to anyone that had passed them. While uneasy, the villagers were friendly when talked to and answered their questions the best that they could. It would always be the same series of questions inquiring about a teenage girl that was supposed to in the village, but never fit the description provided. Obvious frustration among some of the less even tempered strangers was starting to surface after having the same dead ends after thirty minutes of trying.

    A man in his twenties with a rough hair cut and sloppy clothes kicked a wood pale a few feet. He turned towards a woman calmly sitting on the edge the stone well. “Come on Sheila! We know their lying and hidin’ the girl! Let’s just start knocken’ down doors until we find her!”

    The woman turned her gaze up through her long light brown bangs that immediately changed the man’s mood. “Don’t make me send ya back to the ship, Nate!”

    Nate took another step back away from Sheila going around to the other side of the well staring off into the distant folding his arms up. A heavy annoyed sigh came from his mouth, but there were no more arguments from him. As he looked around to keep himself from getting bored he noticed Ed come up the main road. Once Ed had rejoined them close enough not to be yelling Nate shot out a mocking tone. “Got lost following the road, Ed? It’s a wonder ya can even fly the ship!”

    “I didn’t get lost, Nate! I just got…distracted…” he said softly near the end trying to not to be heard by Sheila. However, heard or not she marched over to him and punched him in the face. It was hard enough to knock him back, but not do much other than leave a red mark. The intention was not to cause harm, but as a discipline action. “…Shelia! What ya punch me for?”

    Sheila glared down at Ed when he stepped back even with her. “Yer s’pposed to be workin’! And whadda I hear from ya?”

    “Did Cap’n Fin or any of ya find Shizuka?” Ed asked not having it thoughts interrupted by Sheila’s tirade.

    She sighed to herself. A quick turn of her head towards the mayor’s house and finding no activity gave her the answer. “No…none of the villagers claim to know the girl. And the Cap’n’s been with the mayor fer half an hour now.”

    “The girl I met said the same thing to me.”

    Nate pulled up behind Ed heavily dropping his arm around his shoulder. “Got lost ‘cause of some girl huh, kid?” There was a sleazy grin building on his lips as he looked down at Ed.

    Sheila did not take to Nate’s tone as she pushed him off Ed. “If ya got time to screw around, ya got time to talk to the villagers! We ain’t gettin’ paid until we find the girl!” She looked over at Ed trying to get him to shape up and take the job seriously. Her arm came up pointing a finger at him. “This might be ya last assignment with us, but that doesn’t mean ya can get lazy, Ed!”

    “Oh good, everyone’s here!” said Captain Fin from behind Sheila still walking towards everyone. The mayor was not present with him, but he carried a look that said he had a plan. Sheila motioned and moved the rest of the team together ready to receive orders. He scanned everyone quickly getting a read on the situation before he spoke. “I’m takin’ it that you haven’t found her…” There were some forced nods trying to minimize their failure. “Well it seems we’ve been goin’ about this the wrong way.”

    “Cap’n?” Nate said speaking for everyone’s confusion.

    “Seems that our info it’s a little outdated. I guess it’s to be expected when we’re workin’ from six year old data. The Mayor gave me the same stuff you’ve probably been hearing, but we were able to trace things back. He was able to confirm for me that there was a young girl here six years ago. However, the girl has blonde, not black hair and goes by the name of Shizuka Hiraoka. Now that we know this we should have more success in speakin’ with the villagers and locatin’ the girl.”

    It took a moment to sink into Ed’s head, but the name that Fin had mentioned was familiar to him. A blurry image of the girl he met out by the tree came to him. “…ah crap…” he said lowly trying not to get anyone’s attention. However, Sheila’s hearing was too perfect and she immediately narrowed in on his uneasiness.

    “What’s wrong, Ed?” Sheila said sternly expecting a quick reply.

    Pressure not helping, Ed took a sheepish step back seeing the focus being drawn to him. “Well ya see…I think I sorta met her already…”

    “What?!” Sheila leaned in grabbing Ed by his clothes bringing him even closer to her face.

    “Woah! Hey Sheila! I didn’t know it was ‘er when I was talkin’ to ‘er!”

    “Ya talked to her? Did ya tell her about why we’re here?”

    Ed turned head away from Sheila for a moment not wanting to see the anger that was building on her face. “Yeah…I thought she could help me find the girl! I didn’t know it was ‘er!”

    Sheila looked over to the Captain checking to see his reaction. She saw what she needed turning back to Ed. “Yer goin’ back to where ya found her, Ed! And we’re going to hope that she hasn’t gotten too far from here!”

    Captain Fin stepped forward looking to add to what Sheila had said. “Go with him Sheila. Nate, get the truck ready. We’ll check the road and try to get ahead of her, but considerin’ the only direction she wouldn’t have gone is north we have a lot of ground to cover.” Nate was already gone before Fin finished making for the edge of the village where they had parked. Sheila and Ed rushed off behind him after the Captain finished.

    Edgar took the lead being forced to retrace his steps back to the tree. They kept to the edge of the row of corn quickly checking the between each as they went along. ‘I can’t believe it! She was playin’ from the start just to get info!’ The realization had made him stumble a step before he recovered pressing his feet.

    * * *
    The tree and surrounding crop were all empty in a quick search. It seemed like a long shot that she would still be in the same area. There were no sounds coming from anywhere apart from the wind blowing through tapping the plants lightly. It did not feel like anyone was in the whole field leaving Ed with an unsettled feeling.

    Sheila stepped into the row a little and shouted out into the corn. “Shizuka! We know you’re here!”

    Ed quickly leapt forward grabbing at Sheila’s arm to get her to stop quickly. “What the hell ya think yer doin’ alertin’ her to us?!”

    She snapped her arm back before looking on at him. “I expect one of three things to happen. One she panics and holds her position givin’ us time to find her. Two she runs makin’ enough noise for us to track her. Three she’s not even here and it won’t matter.” Once she finished explaining herself to Ed she stepped forward beginning her march through the fields calling out Shizuka’s name at infrequent intervals.

    Grudgingly agreeing with Sheila Ed followed her strategy and took up a distance in sight of Sheila still but far enough away to provide search coverage. He kept his ears alert for any noise that he heard that might signal him to Shizuka’s location.

    Undetected, for the moment, Shizuka was trying move out of the corn, but it went on forever it seemed as anxiety mounted for her. She had not seen any strangers in the field leaving her to question if she was safe. However, knowing that there was someone looking for her had her asking herself if she could be safe anywhere. Caution was all she had with her. It was not enough for her as a noise in the distance began to alert her. Through the tops of the rows she narrowly searched finding that it was Ed the boy she had met earlier. ‘Guess they figured it out…better move quickly.’

    “Shouldn’t ya be havin’ lunch?” a voice from behind Shizuka said.

    Shizuka fell over into the dirt as she turned startled by the woman standing over her. “Who are you?” said Shizuka barely managing those words.

    “We’ve come to take ya to yer dad, Shizuka Kitawara,” Sheila said as she bent down grabbing Shizuka at the wrist to pull her up to her feet.

    “No! You’ve got the wrong person! Let me—“ Shizuka strained at her arm trying to break free from the grip, but the woman was far too strong for her. She had no leverage or strength and each time that she tried she was quickly countered into a painful position.

    “Not gonna work this time, kid! Changin’ ya name and hair color is pretty smart for someone yer age, but we aren’t gonna be fooled. And I’ll give ya points for makin’ a fool of Ed like that.” Sheila began to pull at Shizuka trying to force her to her feet so that she would walk on her own rather than getting the burns and scraps from the dirt. The stubborn streak in Shizuka fought with Sheila as she ripped the young girl up forcing her on her feet. A few steps later Shizuka purposely tripped herself dragging through the earth and slowing down Sheila. It was not enough to stop Sheila, though she was getting quickly annoyed, with her continuing down the row of corn dragging Shizuka by one arm. “Didn’t think a little girl like ya would give us so much trouble.”

    Far from done, Shizuka struggled with the woman trying to twist her arm free, but only found it to cause more pain than she could accept. She took a moment to be quiet and think while she was getting dragged. Shizuka stretched her free arm behind her going for her water bottle that was tucked away in a work satchel. The search in her pack freed up the bottle as she pulled it towards her unsnapping the top. She quickly squeezed the bottle spraying the water on her arm. The water and surprise from the woman was enough to give Shizuka the opportunity she needed to break free. It was only seconds, but Shizuka fled into the opposite direction disappearing between the rows of corn using her size to her advantage as Sheila struggled with it losing sight of her.

    10km East of Welest

    Partially dug into the earth following a rough emergency landing was a small ship. The ship was long and rounded on its corners painted an off white. There were scorch marks and shielding plates missing from parts of the hull. A little smoke and heat was dripping out the rear of the ship along its thrusters. Inside the crew had been getting their supplies together, thrown apart from the ship’s entry.

    Callein walked through the entry to the cockpit where Rinn was running diagnostics on the ship. They had been crashed for nearly two hours left wide open to being detected. Their mission would be compromised if they could not get the ship moving soon. “What’s the status on the repairs?”

    “This would be a lot easier if we had an engineer. Half of the systems on this bucket were thrown together haphazardly. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

    “Well no one’s done atmospheric entry in a long time and the records were all lost from that time.”

    “It wasn’t the atmosphere that’s the problem, Commander. Even without records it’s pretty straightforward. It’s the shield that they didn’t understand. It’s not entirely physical or energy, but it acts in a manner across both and any electronics or machinery interacting with the shield was affected.”

    “Alright, but how long? You’ve been going for two hours.”

    “As I was saying, most of the ship touched the shield as some point and so systems throughout are possibly fried or malfunctioning. If the ship wasn’t so hastily prepared and worked like a normal transport I’d be able to find the problems. However, I’ve been just trying to learn what they did to this thing.”

    “Well we can’t do anything right now. So if you need assistance we’re available.”

    “Once I know what needs to be fixed,” Rinn said returning back to the computer interface.

    Callein walked back into the cargo hold of the ship, which accounted for the bulk of the room. The seats for his team were empty as they were about the hold. Most of the supplies were finally back in order. In the back near the rear loading dock were the six Second Skins, humanoid appearing machines operated by a human pilot, outfitted specifically for combat within the Earth. They were all test Skins leaving the Commander slightly uneasy about their efficiency in combat, but that was one of their objectives. There was always one pilot in a Skin running in low power consumption to be ready in case they needed to engage whatever the devils of the Earth sent at them.

    The Skins were all secured to the ship in a seated position. Callein approached the lone Skin that was quietly humming the electronics and hardware of the cockpit. He climbed up the leg of the humanoid shaped machine to the shoulder. The entry hatch was left open as the faint glow of the two-hundred seventy degree hemi-spherical display screen crept out. Callein leaned over the shoulder near the head camera of the machine looking down into the tunnel towards the pilot seat. “Wells! I’m relieving you!”

    “Understood, Commander!” The commander stepped back and jumped down the machine as Wells began to climb up out of the shaft by the rails. His machine’s electronic whirring slowly came to a stop as systems shut down while the core recharged the energy cell. Wells jumped down his Skin as the Commander had with the same experienced reflexes of a veteran pilot.

    The team’s newbie staring off from the small circular window caught his attention. “Enjoying the view?”

    “Oh, Ensign Wells, sir! I’m sorry, sir!” said the newbie feeling a little nervous for having been caught distracted rather than work. She turned around and stiffened her position coming to attention for him, being that he was an officer and higher rank than her. Like everyone, she was wearing her pilot suit, however not being an officer the color scheme was black as a base with purple.

    Wells took a step back not being too fond of the formality that he was being shown. He liked it when it was important, but it was not now. His arms waved with his words to stop the conditioned reaction. “Hey! At ease. No need to be so formal right now. Just call me Wells or you can call me Dual Shot…um…Warrant Officer.” When he was getting to the end of his words started to lay it on pretty thick.

    New she was, an idiot she was not. She gave him a cold, hopefully refreshing, look with her words. “It’s Warrant Officer Schir Mille, sir!”

    The ensign coughed a couple times realizing that he was being cut off. He knew when to stop and changed the subject quickly. “Uh…right… So what were you looking at?”

    “Oh nothing specific. It’s just amazing. All of the stories that have been told about the Earth.” Schir stepped back turning her head towards the small window pointing out to Wells the scenery. Where they had parked gave an expansive view of green fields with some farms nearby and low mountains in the distance.

    Wells took a quick look, though he had already, and while noting it found it to be uninteresting. The rest of the team held thoughts similar with Schir finding it to be an almost shocking contrast to what it had always been built up to. Most children would be told ghost stories and things that would give them nightmares about horrific imagery to depict the Earth. For them to finally be able to actually see it gave a strange pause. “Were you expecting it to be all covered in fire like the priests say?”

    “Well no…I don’t know maybe… It’s just not like I imagined. It looks so peaceful sort of like Equuleus.”

    “It’s not all peaceful… Some of it still looks like Hell.” He pointed to the opposite side of the ship to the window that was the portal to Hell, but not in the traditional depiction. The other side of the land within sight was being strangled by an eerie purple fog that sat as a meter layer. Adding to the landscape was the dark clouds tainted by the environment and storming further away. All the land was rough and barren as an endless wasteland utterly devoid of anything. The further away the darker and more menacing it appeared almost having a life of its own that compelled one to stare on until nothing was left but a husk of a person.

    “I wonder what happened?” There were many stories that were told depending on who was talking. The religious claimed that God descended upon Earth and wiped it clean of sin that had so heavily burdened the planet. Scientists were much more divided in their theories since the records for before the disaster no longer existed. The most common theory was that it was a massive nature disaster either of cosmic origin, such as an asteroid or comet, or planetary disaster. The less considered theory was that it was man’s only fault through some explosion or virus. The average citizen believed that the Earth was used up to a point everyone was forced to leave and it was simply a wasteland of old cities and people creating a literal graveyard over the entire surface. No one was certain of anything, but one fact. There was someone still living on the planet or else there never would have been Eridanus Day.

    Piercing the empty silence of the airways was the solitary transport plane carrying with it Aerona and her Skadi. Once they entered the last known reported readings of the unknown ship entering atmosphere Air approached the cockpit. While she was walking she put on her helmet, covering her short close to her head light brown hair. The glass visor remained open, but the communication set built into the helmet allowed her to listen to the transmissions between Command and them.

    Even before the plane had entered the search area their scanning equipment was already running at maximum range. The few things that had been picked up only amounted to registered civilian vehicles with it being sensitive enough to find cars and trucks. However, once in the region they were unable to find anything from an immediate scan. It left them forced to circle in a wide path while they executed more intense searches.

    “SEA Sector E14 scan completed, nothing. Moving to E15…” the co-pilot said as he ran through the search protocols.

    “Command, the unknown ship may not even be here,” said Air calmly in an almost clinical tone. “It has been almost three hours since it was detected entering the atmosphere and the search radius does not account for the time.”

    The same man that had talked to her in the hanger came over the line. “We’re aware of that, Air. However, we don’t have the resources for such a search radius.”

    “Ensign Toule, would it not be a better use of the resources to search the locations where they could be in three hours travel?”

    “Command believes the origination to be more important.” In the travel time the main command staff had arrived taking over from the skeleton crew that was maintained. The orders that they had given changed from the initial plans that were given. It left some confused, but it was simply their task to follow orders and not question.

    “Command! Faint heat and energy being detected in E15!”

    “Source?”

    There was a long delay after the communications from Command as the co-pilot ran the readings that he was getting through the database. “There’s no match, sir!”

    “How’s that possible?” the pilot said with equal surprise as his partner.

    “Commander Tulother!” said Rinn coming over the communication’s line into his Skin. “I’ve narrowed down the problems. Most of the repairs will require replacements.”

    Callein turned his head up out of habit listening to the sound only line. “Understood. You have my team to use as you need.” There was suddenly an alert popping up on the screen of Callein’s Skin. An unknown object was approaching them. He began turning on his systems in preparation. The computer was already trying to identify the object, but he knew it would be a futile effort since anything on Earth would not be in the library. Even without an identifier the system could get a shape, size and energy readings to give him an idea of what he was dealing with. His hand tightened around the thruster and arm controls feeling his nerves rise in tension as his mission could be jeopardized. “Rinn, looks like we might have been spotted. I’m picking up what looks like a plane and judging by its size a cargo transport. Hurry on the repairs.”

    “Understood, Commander.” The line went silent afterwards as Rinn left his chair going to the storage supply of parts. He grabbed the rest of Terra One Team to help him.

    The commander opened a line through their suits to one of his team. “Rivers get to your Skin and start the initialization procedures. Keep it in conservation mode until I give you orders!”

    “Yes, sir!” Rivers said as he snapped the collar of his pilot suit back into place from the loosened relax fit, when he was technically off duty. He ran over to his Skin a JAS-1503 Jade Jiaolong machine like the rest of the team apart from the Commander, a Peng also from Jade. The base body for the Skins were all fitted to function in a gravity environment, but beyond that they were allowed to customize their Skins to suit their combat style. This flexibility was more due to the Jade Corporation’s designs and less with the military granting freedoms to its pilots. All of the machines came identical without base equipment, but it was designed to allow a wide variety of attachments to connect to the hull of the machine. For Rivers he was preferred defense over strength and was fitted accordingly with the SET-J21 Siege Targe ‘Set’ and the SSHS-J102 Solid Shift Sword ‘Triple S’. In addition for defense he had additional armor plating as well as leg thrusters to make up for the weight increase. His Jiaolong was slower than the others, but in battles he usually came out with the least damage with his more conservative approach.

    Rivers dropped down the shaft into his seat feeling the lower back chair plug of his suit locking into the seat’s back support. He brushed aside his blonde hair out of eyes focused on the start up.

    “Second heat source detected, sir!” the co-pilot reported in, “The first heat source is increasing.”

    “Air! Get Skadi started! Don’t launch though,” Toule said having received the confirmation.

    “Yes, sir!” Aerona left the front cabin and walked back to the truck holding her machine. The solid black with white highlights machine held a jarring similarity in form to a human. It seemed created to be as similar in appearance as a human even down to having fingers and a sculpted face. She leapt up to the chest of the machine walking up its thick, but slim figure towards its head. Dark soulless blue eyes staring into the distance as she looked down. A seam in the face formed suddenly at Air’s approach that widened and lengthened from the eyes to the bottom of the chin. The section of metal pivoted open from the chin granting access inside where a seat waited.

    She entered the chamber in the head allowing the hatch to close casting the small space into darkness before a complete three-hundred sixty spherical display monitor flickered. The operating system began its boot process displaying in the front in a window, on the display the words All-purpose Equipment for Self Interfacing Response, ‘AESIR’. All of the cameras became activate displaying the plane’s interior on the monitor along with core readings for the reactor start up and battery charge. “Thirty seconds to start up completion,” she informed to those on the line.

    “Commander!” Rivers said almost jumping when he saw a new energy and heat source on the display.

    Callein narrowed his eyes feeling the uneasy dread in his stomach further building. The feeling was only one that he sensed when going into a battle that he was uncertain of its outcome. “Yes, I see it. It looks like they’re reacting to us.”

    “If that’s the case we should just show those devils who should be afraid!” Wells shouted over the suit communication. He always had a reckless attitude of strike first and quick rather than waiting to judge the enemy. There was a pause in response that made Wells frustrated at the indecision. “Commander!”

    “Ensign Toule!” snapped an aged man seated the command chair of the Secondary Command Center. Other officers were held from their tasks as they stared over towards the General and the Ensign. “I gave you an order!”

    “But General Nornland we don’t know who it is yet! We can’t destroy the ship without a reason!”

    “They’re the enemy! Now follow my orders or I’ll have you court marshaled!”

    Keeping to himself for the most part as just an observer was a middle aged man in a lab coat standing in the back of the room. He looked over to the Ensign with a meaning in his eyes that told him that he should obey. “This is the moment she was born for and purpose for living, Ansgar.”

    The young man ground his hands into fists shaking while keeping his face under control and free of emotions. “Understood, sir.” He turned around facing the main monitor that displayed the camera from the plane. “Launch and destroy the target!”

    “Acknowledged, sir,” Air said evenly as the rear hatch on the plane began to open slowly pouring light in with blaring wind. Once the hatch was opened fully the truck holding Skadi began to be moved to the rear. The vehicle came to a stop at the end before the hatch allowing the machine to be dropped out from the plane beginning free fall. Faint sunlight from the afternoon sky shone around Air in the cockpit while she righted herself and applied thrust to slow her descent coming to a gentle landing.

  2. #2
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    Re: Advanced Response Machine Aesir

    “Rivers switch to combat mode! Looks like they’ve dropped a Skin,” said the Commander as he moved for the rear hatch of the ship. They had immediately picked up the large heat source falling and the radar was bouncing back a silhouette that they were uncertain about.

    “But it’s too large to be a Skin!” commented Rivers when he viewed the data. It was significantly larger than their Skins. Jade’s Skins were known to be the smallest, but even the largest combat Skins were nowhere near the size of what they were seeing. It was nearly six meters taller.

    Callein narrowed his eyes as he walked out of the ship with his Skin. “Rivers!” he snapped back to the Warrant Officer to break him out of his momentary paralysis.

    “Sorry, sir! Switching from conservation to combat mode now! Five seconds to power requirements.”

    “Get this ship flying immediately!” he ordered over the line to the ship. “We’ll draw away their fire!” Now that he was outside the visuals could come in on their target. However, the moment that he got his cameras to find the machine all of the radar and electronic detection systems seemed to fail as it disappeared from the computer’s sight. He could still see it on the camera at a magnified scale forcing him to run a systems check that came back cleared. ‘Does it have stealth technology built-in? What sort of beast have they made?’ However, he had little time to question what he saw as the computer was able to detect a new high energy source coming from the black Skin giant. “A particle weapon…” he declared as he pulled on the controls initiating his thrusters to evade the blue long ranged beam. ‘Can’t stand around here any longer!’

    When his Peng came to a rough landing he activated the wings on his back folding out straight behind the machine equipped with several thrusters. Unlike the Jiaolong, the Peng was the only Skin constructed by Jade specifically for combat on the Earth and not space combat. It had a lighter and slimmer frame than the Jiaolong, but it could also fly and had greater mobility. Callein kept the armor light to give him the speed advantage which he needed against this enemy as the readings from the energy beam would have been enough to completely destroy even a Jiaolong. He took to the sky firing all of his thrusters as the next shot came barely missing his legs causing the paint to peal a little.

    “He’s fast…he’s moving after I fire… The targeting computer is not fast enough yet,” Aerona said as she fired another shot from her shoulder mounted Heavy Focused Energy Cannon. However, when she saw on her monitor a magnified image of a second machine exiting the downed transport she changed her target. “Switching to the unknown ship.” The unmoving target would be quicker to destroy and then she could focus on the second smaller enemy.

    Rivers had just made it out of the ship when his targeting computer announced that the enemy had locked onto their ship. “They’re going after the ship, Commander!” He pushed his thrusters to carry his Skin out in front of the ship to put himself between the black giant and the transport. “I’m defending this spot, sir!”

    “No, Rivers! You’re Jiaolong will be destroyed!” Callein ran his thrusters to their maximum feeling the sudden g-forces that slammed him into his chair as he charged for the enemy Skin. He had to get into range with his ‘Pair’ Particle Assault Rifle before they could fire on Rivers and their ship. ‘It’ll cut through Rivers’ armor and hit the ship!’ All around him the rattling of his machine against the stress that he was putting on it echoed through his body as it was being crushed against the seat not intended to be used for such long durations.

    The Peng’s arm came up aiming its rifle as it was coming into range of the machine firing off a burst of shots. The small blue beams shot out hitting the mark as well as the ground around it kicking up a dust cloud. Cameras unable to detect the enemy and the computer still failing Callein was left still charging towards firing off another burst not taking any chances.

    Ominous clouds held around the machine as the small Peng roared in uncertain of a kill. A sudden flash of light burst from the clouds as a tunnel was quickly burrowed through the clouds as the large blue beam shot from the cannon of the Skadi towards Rivers. As the beam reached the Jiaolong there was a massive explosion rocking the earth. “Rivers!” The Peng flew past the revealing Skadi returning to its normal combat speed making its course over the ground of the debris cloud.

    Callein tried to get a reading on the area but there was too much debris that was clouding the radar. He was forced to wait, but he was surprised to find that the beam had been stopped saving the ship from being destroyed. His Peng made a second pass on the area as the wind blew through carrying around the cloud revealing the Jiaolong.

    “Commander…I’m still here…” Rivers said breathing heavily from what had just happened. He was sweating under his suit from the tensions and proximity of the explosion. In the last moment before the beam hit him he threw his shield away from him to take the hit. It was coated with an energy resistant material, but even with it the beam completely destroyed it and hit his machine. The energy was dispersed enough that his armor was able to take the hit. He hit the button at his side that detached all of his additional armor, now melted and riddled with shrapnel or holes. “A couple of my cameras are damaged, but otherwise I can still fight!”

    “We need to get this foe in close range!”

    “Yes, sir!” The Jiaolong pulled out its Triple S from its waist and charged forward with full thrust accompanied by the Peng from above. They forced the Skadi to move from its spot as it retracted its cannon behind it separating into three pieces and held in place. Out of its forearms came rifle barrels that shot out lower energy beams keeping the two Skins from getting too close. The battle was on the move leaving the crash site and stomping into a cornfield.

    Distant explosions reverberated through the ground towards Shizuka. It sent a terrified panic through her body that she had never felt before. The feeling was indescribable for her. Sweat dripped down her face and arms as the cold air suddenly felt like it became ice freezing her. The earth shaking echoes ripped at her stomach. Shizuka’s mind went blank thinking only of running to get away as the strange noises became like thunder overhead. Her legs tried to move, but the paralysis still gripped her until a blue beam shot overhead heating the air and whipping her hair around through the displaced air.

    Shizuka broke through the rows of corn fleeing from the sounds as the dread reached rapidly closer. Crashing through another row she collided with something solid falling down in the dirt as a large shadow was suddenly cast over her before there was a massive thud followed by the crinkling of corn. Only three meters in front of her a huge metal boot had stepped into the field. Dazed by the thunderous pounding of hydraulics and machinery, Shizuka attempted to pull her head up to look up at the colossus. All she could see through blurred eyes was the blue burst of fire from thrusters as it jumped evading a beam. ‘What’s going on? What is that thing?!’

    She scrambled to her feet as the quaking pulses from the heavy footsteps of two humanoid machines giving chase and dueling made it difficult to find the ground stable. The collapse of the smaller of the machines to the ground in a huge crash knocked her back to her knees. Next to her Ed, who she had run into, was gathering his senses still thrown by the mechanized chaos.

    A blast nearby in the field from an energy impact exploded followed in quick succession by smaller blasts all around them. It threw the two together reflexively to hold on to each other for courage and support as they were lost in the middle of a battlefield.

    “Rivers! Can you move?!” said Callein as he flew by trying to keep the monster machine away from his subordinate.

    Rivers’ Jiaolong had been thrown by Skadi when it tried to come in close with its sword. The strength of the machine surprised Rivers leaving him in the state that he was, on his back with the computer running a systems check. He had fortunately avoided direct hits from Callein’s hit and run strikes. “The left arm and leg joints are damaged, but they’ll function!” He fired up his thrusters using all of them on his back and his leg to get himself into the air enough to attempt to stand. However, a direct hit from the Skadi’s forearm beams destroyed his machine’s left arm and sent him flying backwards sliding into the earth once more.

    A communication from the ship came in to Callein’s Skin. “Sir let us sortie!” Wells shouted.

    “No! The priority is to get the ship in the air! Don’t leave until it is done!” The Skadi aimed both of its arms forward towards Rivers even as Callein hit Skadi from behind trying to interrupt its shot. “Get out Rivers!” It was too late for him do anything as the blue beams released from the barrels hitting the Rivers’ Jiaolong in the chest immediately engulfing it in a reddish-pink explosion. “Rivers!”

    “No! Welest!” Shizuka shouted as she saw the machine blow up next to her village taking half of it with in the blast. Her eyes grew wide in shock as she thought she could feel the countless deaths that were just taken. It made her heart stop for a moment before a stabbing pain hit her. Tears started to stream down her face burying her head into Ed’s chest with her hands tightly gripping onto his arms. “My village…everyone’s…dead! Why?!”

    To be continued…
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  3. #3
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    Re: Advanced Response Machine Aesir

    (Author’s Note: I’m writing this as a bit of a promise to those that expressed interest in this series and won’t get to see it in completion for sometime. So for those reading it before Twin Moon is completed then this will more than likely be the last episode for AESIR in a while. If you’re reading this after Twin Moon is completely, then you can pretty much disregard this entire thing. This episode will conclude the most of the events from the first episode though.)

    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterwards from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of buildings fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet had been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, goals was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 2 – The Will of Fire

    “Why?! My…village…” Shizuka dug her fingers into Edgar’s arms. The pain that she felt pierced deeply in her core. Images of the people that she knew from the village flashed across her shut eyes. It became unbearable to watch, but her mind had a will of its own. The flames burning in the distance combined with the crashes of thunder from the machines fought to drill into her terrible images. Each flash stole a piece of her voice until she had nothing to scream.

    At her side Edgar paid little attention to the fact that Shizuka held on to him despite the situation minutes before. Like Shizuka, he worried more about his life. While his life experienced more risk and danger than many the center of a combat zone between giant machines scared him. He did not realize how much he shook because Shizuka rattled him to his core. Edgar prayed he made it out alive.

    The reddish-pink blast from the Jiaolong slowly faded away into a winding column of smoke. Wreckage from the Skin laid scattered across a deep crater with most of the body obliterated. On the edge of the raised lip of earth at the crater broken pieces of homes struggled to stay standing. Spread out from the blast in all directions was debris from Welest. Faint screamed raised from ruined village drowned out by the fires and explosions from the fighting machines.

    The giant demon that Callein faced down granted him no pause to mourn for his fallen subordinate. It forced him to keep moving to stay ahead of the beam fire. The lift from his flight pack kept him away from death’s door by a narrow margin. “The pilot’s getting more accurate the longer this battle drags on. I won’t be able to keep up if this goes any longer! I have to end this quickly!”

    Callein forced his Peng for more output beyond a thick red line drawn in by hand on the system panel. The scientists and Jade developers that personally worked on the team made that line from their research. They insisted repeatedly to him never to take it past the line they marked while on Earth. It was the maximum thrust output deemed safe while in full gravity. The human body beyond that point took severe strain on the organs and body potentially causing the pilot to pass out or have organs rupture. The g-force alone made it difficult for Callein to keep his hands under control.

    The Peng dodged the next blast that left a crater in the farmlands they trampled through. While the energy beam finished to dissipate heat the Peng went airborne again to make full usage of all the thrust capabilities. It grew closer to the Skadi avoiding the shots skillfully.

    Inside the Skadi, Aerona maintained a flat expression monitoring the battle. Her plan to destroy the transport became delayed when she became forced away from the crash site. She knew that the battle remained on her side from judging the strength of the enemy. However, the flight type continued to elude her fire despite her refining the calculations. ‘The enemy is move faster now. What has made it so fast that it was not doing this before?’ She only considered the thought for a moment before discarding it. ‘I should end this battle so I can get back to the unknown craft. Command has ordered it destroyed.’

    The Peng roared closer to the Skadi beams shot all around it making narrow adjustments barely holding together. At the last moments before a collision the Peng unleashed rapid shots from its Pair. A thick barrage of beams exploded upon the armor of the Skadi covering everything in light and dirt ruining the Peng’s cameras. The Peng changed angles of its thrust to clear the Skadi in time before a collision occurred, but a large hand broke through the cloud grabbing the Peng’s head in its palm.

    Callein flung forward feeling his stomach tightened violently from his pilot suit being stretched at his back seat plug unwilling to let him be slammed into his view screen. Internally, he felt a ripping pain through his chest and stomach that threw blood up into his throat making him smell copper. It made him strain to cough and keep focus with only one eye open through the pain. The primary camera that made up his head no longer functioned, destroyed on the impact with the Skadi’s hand. A popping and groaning of metal above Callein echoed through him. He struggled to break free from the grasp witnessing his visibility on the screens disappear in pieces leaving a delayed static filled view of a metal palm and fingers. The perspective made it feel as though a giant hand wrapped around his body threatening to squeeze him, only held back by pure whim.

    Across the land kilometers away Callein’s team finished the necessary repairs to get the transport functioning enough to fly. The death of Rivers had instilled the drive to get themselves moving, while Wells sat in his Skin biting the edge of his restraint.

    “Get this junk in the air now!” ordered Wells through the communications.

    “This is going to be a bumpy ride!” All around the ship a terrible clanking echoed as though the ship itself coughed in pain. The blast from the engines threw back earth clouding up the rear landing hatch before it jerked forward. The restrained Skins gave a low groan and squeak against the metal that held them in place. A moment later the ground gave way to the transport scrapping at it to desperately hold on before it lost any hope. “She flies again!”

    “Turnabout to 138!” commanded Wells.

    Rinn fought with the ship to keep it steady. “I don’t recall you being in charge, Ensign.” Rinn actually out ranked Wells, as a Lieutenant, even if he was only the pilot.

    Wells had no time for chain of command. “I’m the second in command of Terra One! This is an order! Turnabout now!” His Jiaolong finished unbolting from the restrains and walked to the rear of the ship. Wells began to judge the distance and speed to the ground while taking in the radar information where Callein’s Peng fought. He knew that he could not find the enemy Skin on the radar, but he still saw the Peng. “We’re coming to extract you Cal! Disengage and I’ll pick you up!”

    Callein coughed weakly knowing the few seconds that passed since he got grabbed would not last. “Belay that Rinn! Take escape route B5 and leave now!” He tightened his hands on his controls determined not to let his team get shot down by the enemy. “I’ll hold the enemy off while you escape! Don’t leave the ship Pol!” Callein gritted his teeth together and smirked a wicked thought of defiance.

    Wells pounded his fist against the side panel in frustration. “Damn you, Cal!” The transport began to rotate in its turn. His machine spat out coordinates updating him. He looked up out the view screens realizing the transport had fully turned around aimed straight for the Commander. “Ellune?”

    An image of Rinn appeared up in a window on the displays from the cockpit of the transport. He gave Wells a wild grin like something crazy was about to happen. “I never said I planned on leaving. Get ready you’re only going to get one shot at this.”

    A grin came across Wells’ face. “Don’t you remember who I am?! I’m Dual Shot!” He quickly began to run calculations on the information that the computer gathered to find his shot.

    Fueled by determination, the Peng stopped trying to free its head from the Skadi. Thrusters on the right side activated at full power while the left shut down. The whine of metal and spark of wires erupted from the neck of the Peng. The unmoved head crushed faster under the force of Skadi’s hand while the neck gave out sparking a minor explosion. Freed, the Peng dropped to the ground just as the transport roared over head echoing into the cockpit of the Peng.

    Callein searched out through his ruined display for the noise, but the computer barely had enough time to display the incoming blast that smashed into the Skadi’s forearm holding the head of the Peng. “Where’d that come from?!” Through a piece of the working monitor he saw his Pair on the ground nearby. Callein rolled the Peng over picking up the Pair and unleashed everything left in the stores. “Fall you demon!”

    Amidst the smoke a Jiaolong sprung forward for the Peng. “Cal! Hit your thrusters!” Well’s Jiaolong picked up the Peng getting it to its feet. He saw that Callein understood what to do and with the combined lift of the Jiaolong and Peng they plowed into the black behemoth taking it off balance. A crash of metal plate armor exploded out in the collision as the Skadi collapsed to the ground. While in motion the Jiaolong and Peng continued into the air taking hold of the transport just as it made a second flyby. Another Jiaolong on the ramp of the open hatch helped the two Skins back up into the transport.

    Inside his ruined cockpit Callein coughed feeling the tension start to spill out of his body. “Pol you ignored a direct order…thank you…” Everything that held his body together fell apart an instant. Callein passed out before his Peng returned back to its seat on the transport.

    “Cal!”

    “Commander!”

    “Can you hear me?!” shouted Ensign Ansgar Toule through a windowed image inside the Skadi. “Air! Can you hear me?!” From the terminal in the command center the system readings all ceased suddenly. Reports from the transport were unable to confirm the safety of Air or the Skadi. The regular staff in the room stared on at the video feed in stunned uncertainty seeing their prized machine apparently defeated by the enemy. The General and lab coat clothed man seemed arrogantly unfazed by the situation.

    Ansgar focused on trying to get in contact with Air rather than focusing on the situation in the room. “Come in, Aerona! Respond!”

    Warnings blared all around the interior of the Skadi. Air groaned to herself as she came back around. She scanned the condition of the cockpit and her own vitals. The voice of Ensign Toule continued to come over the damaged view screen. “Aerona Diwalt reporting.”

    “Air!” The relief in Ansgar’s voice came through clearly. “Are you hurt?”

    “The Skadi has taken significant damage to the left forearm and joints. Damage to the Heavy Focused Energy Cannon, functionality unconfirmed. Yggdrasil drive reading minor instabilities—“

    “Are you hurt, Air?”

    Air paused for a moment having to think about the question. She examined her body carefully to report in accurately. “No, external injuries I can detect. I was unconscious for a period of thirty-eight seconds so a concussion is possible. I lack further medical knowledge to provide a full diagnosis.”

    Ansgar smiled to himself a little regretting the question a bit. “You’re fine then.”

    The radar and tracking programs returned for the Skadi suddenly. When she looked for the enemy only her transport plane appeared. Expanding the search left her with no further answers. “I am unable to detect the enemy any longer. Where have they gone?”

    The Ensign looked back at the General getting his orders. He turned back to the monitor that only displayed Air’s helmeted face. “Can the Skadi still move?”

    Spinning metal and hydraulics in the lower part of the Skadi broke the previous whisper to be heard within the cockpit. The complete system report came through to Air as she attempted to bring her Skadi back under her control. “Skadi output is 34% of combat capability. I can continue.”

    “Wait until the transport comes to pick you up. You’ll be returning to base.”

    “Understood.”

    The General rotated in the command chair to look back at the middle aged man standing behind him. An air of disappoint hovered around him from witnessing the battle. “A rather poor performance for our debut, Kitawara.”

    “The Skadi has yet to be completed. It was only at 50% of its construction. However, it was the only one close to combat readiness. It’ll be a different story once it is finished.” He locked stares with the General unflinching.

    “It’d better or this war’ll be very short.”

    * * *

    A soft constant thump in her stomach began to awaken Shizuka. It felt distant, but pressed against her making her sore. Her body seemed almost weightless and moving. She had trouble explaining the sensation to herself still not completely awake. ‘What happened to me?’ The more she started to surface from the fog the more a ringing in her head annoyed her. Accompanying the ringing was a widespread ache in her head. She then realized that she was upside down. The odd feeling snapped her back to her sense and awoke to her staring at brown leather. ‘I’m being carried!’

    Shizuka fought with the person that carried her to try to break free. Her legs kicked into the chest and stomach. She also tried to lift herself free from the arm around her waist keeping her from sliding off the shoulder. “Let me go! Stop now!”

    “No. Ya’ll just run away ag’in.”

    “This is kidnapping! Let me go!”

    “Can ya really call it ‘napping if yer dad’s makin’ the call?”

    “If I don’t want to see him ever again, yes!”

    “Well ain’t ya lucky tah be able tah do that.” Ed shifted Shizuka up a little to get back into position to finished carrying her. It preferred if she stayed asleep until he took her back to the ship. The thought of listening to her whining made the march back even more painful.

    Around him steam and smoke raised from the ground where particle beams impacted. Carrying Shizuka made him tired and the rise in temperature only made him sweat all the more. It felt almost unnatural to him for warmth in the air. ‘I liked tha chill better… Why’d it h’ve tah be a whiny brat?’ The longer he stared out into the horizon the more he wondered about the battle he witnessed. ‘I’ve ne’er see anyth’n like tha b’fore. What were those metal monsters?’

    Ed avoided a large crater in front of him forced to work through fallen plants that used to be crops. The entire area used to be farmland, but now became nothing more trampled garden. He wondered if the destruction caused could be salvaged. ‘Is this what war’s like? Like in tha books?’ His work with The Niphliheim sent him around the world and they had their share of conflicts. Yet none of it compared to what he saw. ‘Is it those terrorists, Ragnarok?’ Ed shook his head trying not to think too hard about it. He hoped never to see such things again.

    “Yo Ed!” shouted Sheila from their truck as it screeched to a halt. “I see yer still alive, kid!”

    He picked his head up and waved with his free arm to them. A welcomed relief came to him seeing his crewmates still alive. When the battle started he lost all contact with them. It seemed that they came out with less trouble than him. “Yeah! Somehow an’way!”

    As Ed approached them Sheila leapt off the side of the back of the truck landing on the ground. She did not miss a beat to rush out to meet Ed. “What ya hauling there?” Sheila looked around over Ed’s shoulder to get a better look at the person he carried. She pulled back in surprise to see the girl they searched for glaring viciously at her. “Hey, ya might redeem yerself after’ll!” Sheila patted their target on the butt glad to see the annoying child taken down a peg.

    Shizuka snapped immediately feeling the hand of the woman touching her. She bent around Ed to stare upside down at the woman. “Don’t you dare touch me!”

    “Still get some fire in ya, huh?” She leaned over to meet the girl eye to eye. The higher position gave her a confident grin.

    Fin poked his head out the door seeing the scene develop. “That’s enough, Sheila! Load up! We’re goin’ back to the ship!”

    “Tch! Yes, Cap’n!” Sheila pulled back and climbed back into the truck. Ed followed behind her and dropped Shizuka on to the flatbed of the truck as he jumped in himself. The closing of the rear hatch signaled Nate to start driving once more.

    Once the truck got back up to top speed Shizuka pulled herself up off the bed. She remained unrestrained, an odd thing for people not wanting her to escape. The other men and woman in the back of the truck gave her a sense that making any trouble would get stopped quickly. She leaned her back against the side of the truck looking out at the road very pensive.

    Ed faced the rest of the guys in the truck trying to put distance between the girl and him. She gave him more trouble than he ever wanted. The mission should have been a simple retrieval. ‘Damn girl!’ He found himself staring back at Shizuka and saw her too deep in thought with the road. “I wouldn’t if I were ya.”

    Shizuka shifted her eyes over to Ed catching his words. The road disappeared in the distance quickly. She did not know how safe a fall she could make at their speed. She became trapped. Shizuka resigned herself to settle back against the truck refusing to speak to anyone.


    The ride on the transport finally evened out from the rough escape that they made. It still made it difficult to treat the Commander. Once his Peng got secured into the deck Wells had already scrambled up to the shoulder of the machine forcing the hatch open manually. The rest of the team had gathered around at the feet of the Skin waiting for their Commander to be safe.

    Inside a transport carrier, they had no proper medical facilities for Callein. He rested on the line of seats used by the team while Noinae and Lellecausua tended to injures. Noinae was the closest they had to a field medic an even he had only a few extra classes than the rest. They did not have the proper tools to tend to all of his injuries. A medic kit only took them so far.

    The tension and waiting for the team became too much to take. Schir sat in her own Skin trying to feel useful by staying warmed up for any new attack. After the treatment that they managed to give Nionae and Lellecausua sat on the opposite side of the transport staring in no particular direction. Wells went into the cockpit and sat down in the co-pilot seat that Callein kept during most of the flight.

    “Damn it! We lost Rivers to those demons!” Wells crossed his arms and pressed deep into the seat not feeling comfortable. “I’m not about to see us lose the Commander too!”

    “What you planning on doing to prevent it?” questioned Rinn. He flipped through screens on the monitor. The old maps of the Earth surface helped him plot a route, but all of the cities that used to exist centuries before made it useless for trying to avoid getting spotted. He relied more on his sight than the radar. Unfortunately, the noise the transport made worried him even being careful.

    The question forced Wells silent for a moment. “There must be a hospital or clinic around here somewhere. We can just take the supplies we need.”

    “Does that include a doctor?”

    Wells turned his head to look over at Rinn in disgust for a poor joke. “Why would I want help from one of those demons?!”

    “Are you willing to swallow your pride?”

    “What sort of question is that?”

    Rinn focused on the ground out of the window rather than bother with a debate with Wells. Each person had a right to their own religious opinions. He had no plans on getting into such an argument. It never resolved anytime anyone attempted it, regardless of the individual.


    The old patch worked truck of the Niphliheim climbed into the back of their ship. Even as the truck rode the rear hatch it began to lift up closing just as the vehicle came to a stop. Shizuka saw her last chance for escape seal up behind her. She had no more options left for her, but to return to Antarctica City.

    Captain Fin ordered around his crew to prep for lift off before reaching the rear of the truck. “Hey Ed! She’s yer responsibility since ya brought her back! Don’t let her out of yer sight, understand?”

    Ed had watched Shizuka during the ride back, but figured that he would be relieved of the pain once on the ship. He stood up completely in the truck bed upset at the orders. “What do ya mean, Cap’n!? I’ve got no time tah watch a child! I’m tha pilot!”

    “It’s an order!” snapped Fin as he walked away. He made it to the end of the cargo hold and stopped. The middle age man looked back to Ed. “Yer always complaining about having Sam as yer co-pilot. Think of it as a parting gift.”

    The teenage boy grumbled under his breath. He beat his fedora against his leg to kick off the dust that built up from the trip. Ed jumped down from the truck and stared back at Shizuka. “Come on! Or are ya one of those prissy fancy girls that needs help down?”

    “Shut your foul mouth,” shouted Shizuka. She knocked away his mocking hand and dropped down to the transport’s floor. She crossed her arms waiting for him to make a move, however he insisted on her going first. Shizuka gave in after seeing the look in his eyes telling her that he would just carry her out.

    The interior of the ship made the hull of the ship seem high class. Rust collected on nearly everything possible and rust probably sat atop rust just to prove it was possible. Each step made the plating groan and cough like an old man. If any proper ceiling existed for the ship it no longer was used. Exposed pipes and wires hang precariously at head height for any adult. Blasts of heat exchangers piped into the halls through leaks and sometimes purposeful exits. The sight made Shizuka wonder how the ship managed to still function. It surprised her that the Board of Air Safety did not refuse to renew their permit.

    Ed gave her a rough push in the shoulder to tell her to keep moving through the hall. He did not even try to hide his annoyance with the babysitting duty. The trouble she made for him had him thinking if the bounty was worth the effort. ‘A simple mission! Yer last mission with tha guys! Damn dirt digging country hick…’ He shoved Shizuka again when he saw her stopped in front of only half paying attention. The girl’s stubbornness reached near his tipping point seeing her refusing to move. “Keep goin’!”

    “I can’t, moron.” Shizuka pointed up to the locked door. On the right of the door a red light blinked at the two of them demanding an access card to accept them. “It’s your ship and you can’t remember a locked door.”

    He scowled at her before snapping his arm out with a card. The action took barely a second to execute, a routine motion requiring no thought. The door snapped the bolts back and opened itself inward to the cockpit. “Get in! I’ve had ‘nuf of ya lip, kid!”

    Her feet stumbled over the port hole around the door not given enough time to walk properly. Shizuka regained her balance against the co-pilot seat and paused. Ed moved around to the pilot seat examining something on the panel leaving her unwatched. The tempting thought to flee out of the room stopped abruptly when she caught the door closing behind her. As though for further measure to punctuate her cell, the bolts on the door slammed shut locking them in.

    “No funny ideas. Just sit!”

    Any options he might have had disappeared for Shizuka. The large co-pilot seat stood as her only path to take. The chair rocked a little as she cautiously sat down. Her head never made it close to the head rest and the supports for her arms looked too high to be comfort. Underneath her the leather padding reached out with sticky sweat caked hands pulling at her dress and hair. From the right side, Ed brought down the restraining belts for a chair meant for an adult and larger frame than her. He tightened it up until it scrapped over the skin of her arms plastering her to become part of the chair. She glared back up at him only have enough room to move her head around free, apart from her limbs. “It’s tight…”

    The annoyed teen dropped into the pilot’s chair appearing to fit it better than Shizuka, but still gave the just a bit too large impression. His fingers flew across the computer screens and controls all acting by reflex. “We’ll be liftin’ off in one minute, folks!” he announced over the ship communication system.

    The ship had a constant pounding that came out like a thud with several centimeters of steel blocking it. It created a distant lilting tune. When the main engines came online for the transport it ceased to be mildly pleasant and became thunderous. Drums blasted in everyone’s ears as the old transport sparked awake from its slumber.

    To her surprise, the flight controls looked recent as well as the computer systems. A layer of dust and papers collected on her side, but lights glowed through. The pilot side had a more used and kept up appearance. Parts of the metal were worn down and rubbed off labels. It provided a little comfort to know they cared about a certain part of the ship. However, the patchwork everywhere made it difficult to take too much solace in the newer components.

    The savage pounding of the drums reached their climax when the transport began to lift off from the ground. The death rattle of hell’s minions made it seem impossible to have any hearing afterward. Shizuka twinged at the sounds wishing for her hands to be free enough to cover her ears even for a little protection. Each second it lasted felt like giant snakes drilling into her ears. She thought her ears would bleed from the stress, but it all suddenly disappeared. Peace befell her slumping in the chair as much as possible for her. She sighed.

    Ed glanced over to her for a moment. “Ya shouldn’t be goin’ wi’out sound cancellers!” He produced a headset with large pieces for around the ear. “The Niph’s canceller’s dunt come on ‘til a thousand meters in tha sky. Fergot that ya ain’t Sam.”

    She managed a bit of venom for Ed’s absentminded in a glare. “You did that on purpose!”

    “Dunno,” shrugged Ed putting his eyes back on the sky.

    Her energy became spent forcing her to rest back in the chair staring forward. Out of the window thick black smoke rose up filling the horizon with an ominous column. The sight brought back painful images for Shizuka. She felt pangs strike at her heart drawing up tears that she futilely attempted to fight back. ‘Welest…it’s gone… I don’t know if anyone evacuated in time!’ Exhausted from the day as she was did not stop her from lunging against the restrains trying to get a better view before the village disappeared. Unfortunately, the smoke remained the only she saw. She lost any sense that she had surviving merely on desperation. “I can’t see! I can’t see it! I can’t see!”

    Edgar partially tuned out Shizuka with his mind on flying the ship. Her screaming soon over powered his focus and pulled him away. “Would ya shut up! I’m tryin’ tah fly!”

    “I can’t see them! Where are they?! I can’t see!”

    He could not get through to her still not entirely seeing the problem on his hands. However, when he searched the seat restrains to see if he needed to tighten them his eyes widened a little in surprise. Shizuka’s shoulders and arms were bruised red and rubbed raw from her panic. The longer he watched he saw her starting to stain the belts. Ed unsnapped the belts in his chair and leapt out over to her chair almost tripping in the process over the controls that ran between the two. “Hey! Whatcha think yer doin’? Ya stupid?!”

    She whipped her head over to Ed bearing her wild and crazed light blue eyes at him. Shizuka saw nothing only reacting on instinct. “I can’t see! Where are they?! I must see them!”

    The sight of the girl made him lean back a little unnerved by her breakdown. He did not know what suddenly happened to trigger such a reaction. Ed swallowed quickly and put his hands on her shoulders forcing her back into the chair trying to prevent further damage. “Listen tah me! Snap out of it!” She struggled violently with him giving him surprise at her strength. The only thing that kept him in control was the leverage and position. “What’s tha matt’r with ya?!”

    Shizuka fought with Edgar trying to around him. His body blocked any view she had outside. “I can’t see! Let me see!” Her head bobbed around ripping the restrains into her shoulder deeper even against Edgar’s strength.

    “See what? See who?”

    “My village!” Shizuka screamed at Edgar challenging the record the ship made in volume.

    “Damn, girl!” After he lost his ears he stopped having any politeness left for her. He slapped her across the face loud enough to echo through the chamber. “They’re dead!”

    “Dead?!” She pulled back finally realizing that Ed stood almost in her face. “N-n-no! No…” Her body relaxed in the chair with her voice falling inward. ‘…dead…all of them? It can’t be!’ The drop in adrenaline for Shizuka sent a wave of stinging pain over her skin. She bit on her lip trying to ignore it. Once the initial assault on her body passed she searched for the source. Her skin felt something dripped slowly down her. Near her near neck on her shoulders all the skin burned and trails of blood gathered up sliding down sticking to her dirty dress, around her waist and arms felt similarly. The worst were her forearms that got caught up with the restraints and dug into the skin some drawing more blood up. “What happened…to me?”

    Ed sighed in relief that she calmed down finally. Unfortunately, the more he looked at her the more he realized his problem only began for him. ‘Damnit! Now I’ve gotta tell tha Cap’n… How am I gonna ‘splain this?’ He reached over for the headset resting on the panel. Ed did not bother to put it on. “Cap’n Fin? We’ve gotta problem with tha girl!”

    It took a minute for a response to come through. “What the hell did ya do?!” yelled Fin, loud enough that Ed did not need the headset near him.

    “Well…we’ll be needin’ tha medic kit…”

    “What?! Why? She try to end it all or somethin’?”

    “No!” He searched Shizuka for a better answer for the Captain. ‘Though it might have been easier…’ She had no answers for him leaving him to figure out something. “Just send Sam up tah take over fer me! I’ll brin’ tha girl tah tha mess room!”

    “…yeah…”

    Ed undid the belt for Shizuka and turned the chair out. “Com’on!” By the time they started to leave the door opened and a tall man in his late twenties appeared. The man wasted no time taking over the controls, left on auto-pilot by Ed. “Keep us from crashin’ in tah ocean, Sam!”

    “Yeah, I know how to fly, Edgar!”

    In a side compartment of the ship a tight room waited for them with more storage containers than shelves to fit them. The Captain and Sheila sat at one of the two tables in the room prepared for their arrival. When Shizuka came in looking like she had gone through a whipping Captain Fin jumped up to his feet. He looked over at Edgar for an explanation. “Damn, Ed! I know she’s a handful, but ya don’t abuse her to keep her in line!”

    “Woah, Cap’n!” Ed waved his arms to deny any involvement in Shizuka injures. “She did that by ‘erself! I tried tah stop ‘er!”

    Sheila picked up Ed by his shirt getting his face. “We can’t hand her over to them like this! Start talkin’ right now!”

    “Hey now! Like I said, she did it tah ‘erself!” Panic began to settle in for Ed trying to recall everything that happened. Most of the scene became a blur for him. It had all seemed random and sudden without a reason. “Look I dunno what happen’d! She was just shoutin’ sumthin’ an’ became violent! I tried tah stop ‘er when I saw ‘er hurtin’ ‘erself!” He looked over to Shizuka for some help. She simply turned her away in annoyance.

    Sheila dropped him back down to the floor giving him enough of a push to send him on his butt. She turned away to quickly check on the wounds that Shizuka had taken. “Looks like scraps and burns from the restraints.” After a brief examine she tried to touch Shizuka’s dress to look more thorough, but got rebutted. “Hey! Enough with the attitude!”

    “Don’t touch me!” Shizuka backed away from all of them. She had no trust for them. They were motivated purely by greed. “Don’t anyone of you touch me! You’re just thinking about how my father won’t pay you because of how I look! You all make me sick! Innocent people died and all you’re thinking about is money!”

    The three mercenaries looked around at each other taking a quiet moment. A little of what Shizuka had hurt to hear. The battle did not go unseen by them. However, Sheila reacted before the others did by slapping her. “What do ya think we could’ve done? This ship isn’t equipped for that sorta thing! The world ain’t so simple and we ain’t humanitarians! Ya should be grateful we came for!”

    “What?! Grateful?! How dare you…”

    “Yeah! If we weren’t here ya would’ve been in that village and killed with everyone else!”

    “What?! I-I… Y-you…” Shizuka backed away again thinking about the village. ‘I could’ve… It could’ve been…me…’ The thought of the village burning crawled through her mind. She bent over a little remembering everyone’s face still clear as in the morning she spoke to them. Tears started to trickle down her cheeks again.

    Fin grabbed Sheila’s arm to get her attention. “That’s more than enough! She’s been through enough today already!”

    “Tch! Yer being too soft on her, Cap’n!” The serious stare from her Captain calmed her down sharply. She knew to listen when became that serious. Thinking with a cooler head, she stared down at Shizuka for a moment. “Ya two need to leave!”

    “Huh?” barked Ed, confused with Sheila seeming to go back to being angry just after the Captain yelled at her. He pushed himself back up to his feet and stood with the Captain. “I haven’t dun anythin’.”

    Sheila became even more upset than before for Ed blockheadedness. “Do I have to explain it to ya?”

    “Come on, Ed,” called Fin, already leaving the room. He grabbed Ed by his collar dragging him out. “Take care of her Sheila!” Once out of the room he closed the doors behind him and stood in front like a guard.

    Ed still had no clue what just happened. He got in front of the Captain wanting an explanation. “Ya just goin’ tah leave tha girl in there with Sheila?! She’s goin’ beat ‘er up!”

    “No, it’s more like Sheila was gonna beat ya up!” Fin laughed out loud seeing that Ed still did not get it. A bit of amusement rose realizing how innocent Edgar remained on such matters. He reached out a hand placing it consolingly on his shoulder. “Women need their privacy, Ed!”

    “Huh?”

    Sheila focused back on Shizuka in the corner of the room between a couple of containers. She sighed to herself. “They’re gone now. So let’s treat those wounds of yours!” The lack of a response from her made Sheila approach her. She knelt down staring at the young girl feeling a little guilt for yelling at her. ‘She’s taking it pretty hard…’ Sheila offered a hand out for Shizuka working on a gentler expression for her sake. “Come on, ya don’t want it get an infection do ya?”

    It took a bit to clearly see Sheila for Shizuka. There still remained hesitation, but the threatening feeling she gave off before seemed to be gone. With reluctance, she accepted the hand up. They walked back over to the table with the medic kit set up, appearing just as dirty as everything else on the ship.

    “Take off your dress,” Sheila said casually going through the kit box. The disinfectant and bandaged got placed out on the table prepared while she went back for few more things. She glanced back at Shizuka for a moment seeing her still dressed. “We’re both women. No need to be shy.”

    “But…”

    “Do ya want to get an infection?”

    “N-No…”

    “Then off with the dress!”

    Shizuka cheeks turned red with embarrassment. The thought of someone she did not know seeing her naked continued to run through mind. She knew she could not tend to everything herself, but she did not want it to be one of the mercenaries. More pressure came upon her from Sheila. The burning in her shoulder reminded her of the pain making the decision for her. She turned around away from Sheila hoping to keep herself protected a little.

    Once the dirt filled dress came off it rested on the table. Shizuka kept her back to Sheila holding up her arms over her chest left only in her panties. Sheila had course hands making Shizuka stir a little whenever she touched her to clean the wounds. The bandages wrapped around chest and shoulder as well as her waist covering up nearly all of her upper torso. A few more fixed up her arms. The overall appearance made her seem worse off. “All done!”

    Most of the pain had finally passed for Shizuka. She felt a bit like a mummy with so many bandages, but the locations of her injures made it difficult to wrap. Her hand lifted towards her shoulder testing it out a little. Shizuka hesitated before turning around to look up at Sheila. She looked away feeling a little uncomfortable. “Umm…thank you…”

    “So ya can be nice,” she teased, “Ya should put yer dress back on. Ed’d probably faint knowin’ how much of a baby he is still.”

    Shizuka grinned a bit and released a small laugh. She pulled up her dress staring at it for a moment. The blood that stained the inner had soaked partially through. ‘I’ll need to clean it…the mayor gave it to me…’ With no further thoughts, she slipped back into the dress and fixed it back into place where it got stuck.

    “Girl’s got a lot of spirit, Ed,” Fin said, looking a bit nostalgic.

    Edgar gave the Captain a crooked look up from the wall he leaned against. “She’s trouble…”

    The Captain laughed a bit to himself. “Reminds me of my first wife!”

    “I’m sorry…”

    “Don’t be! I loved that fire in her! Makes things more interestin’!”

    “I guess… Are all Northerners like that?”

    Fin paused to consider the question. He remembered that Ed had limited experience beyond Antarctica. Most of the time, he remained on the ship or only met with port crew. The impression that Shizuka left on Edgar made Fin careful about his words. “Some probably are, but that’s how it’s with anyone. I suspect her attitude lies with deeper reasons than a different environment than us.”

    A long silence came from Edgar as his mind sorted through thoughts. His previous conversations with Shizuka echoed through him. “I can’t ‘magine anyone not wantin’ tah see their dad. Ain’t right!”

    The Captain looked up at the ceiling as he spoke, “Families fight… It’s sad for someone so young though.”

    “If I could…” Ed turned away slamming his fist again the metal wall. He closed his eyes trying to push back the memories and emotions that followed. “…I’d…”

    “He was a good man, Ed...”

    The doors to the mess room opened up revealing Sheila and Shizuka behind her. “We’re all done!” Sheila pulled Shizuka forward to hand her back off to Ed. “Ya don’t go doin’ anything crazy again, alright?”

    Shizuka held a more demure appearance politely nodding to Sheila. “…yeah…” She stepped up next to Ed not making direct eye contact with him, but waiting in silence. The air about her had both the Captain and Ed confused.

    “Where’d ya put the real one?” asked Ed, not believing how the girl changed so much in a short amount of time.

    Sheila giggled a bit holding a knowing look. “We’ve just came to an understandin’. Simple as that.”

    “Huh?”

    The dumb confused look on Ed holding them up gave the time for Shizuka to shift back. She did not feel comfortable standing around with him just staring at her. A sharp prickly attitude surfaced from her glancing briefly at him while trying to keep directed away. “You coming? I thought you were my jailor?”

    “Seems ya still have a long ways to go, kid!” teased Sheila.

  4. #4
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    Re: Advanced Response Machine Aesir

    Antarctica – Antarctica City – H.O.P.E. Headquarters

    Noise in the hanger reached a peak with the announcement of the ARMs transport returning back from its mission. The chaos from early remained strong with everything still feeling very new to the support teams. The work they did had not changed much from the usual missions in the past, but working with an ARM had never been done before. They always remained closed off as something seen from a distance. People wanted to make sure they did everything properly, especially in front of the command staff.

    The command staff was another rare appearance for everyone. It had them all walking around on egg shells in uncertainty. No one knew what happened or the reason for the unscheduled mission. Rumors developed quickly amongst the teams waiting around with little to do until the return of the transport. The heavy oppressive aura that sat throughout the base left all on edge.

    Alarms sounded off declaring the arrival of the transport. Lights came on tracking down the flight deck where the plane soon would land. The hanger bay came alive with automated machines preparing for the transport for venting exhaust out of the underground facility and halting the transport if in an emergency.

    The communication officer from the command center came across the speakers in the hanger. “Skadi transport incoming! All teams to the flight deck!”

    Ensign Toule finally arrived from his post to the hanger as the transport came to a slow halt. He paused for a moment working on catching his breath from the long run. He pulled down on his uniform jacket to straighten back out and readjust his belt over the jacket. Once he felt ready to go out and meet the transport Toule left the entrance.

    When he arrived at the site of the transport the rear hatch already had opened and a truck pulled up to attach to the ARM bed Skadi laid upon. Out of the side door he found Aerona disembarking in silence. He hastened his pace to meet her. “Welcome back, Air! How are you feeling?”

    She snapped to attention and saluted him being a superior officer. After he accepted the formality she loosened a bit. “Thank you for meeting me, Ensign Toule. I am experiencing no problems at this time.”

    Toule thought on the matter for a moment knowing how she could be. “All the same the doctors should examine you. This is your first time in the Skadi.”

    “Understood, sir!” Aerona saluted him again and turned away to follow the order she had been given.

    He watched her leave the hanger without a second thought. Their brief conversation made him sigh a bit. ‘So stiff still…’ Toule saw the Skadi getting off loaded from the transport. Curiosity overtook him to see what the strange machines had done to the Skadi. He stared at the large black ARM. The paint made it difficult to see some of the damage it had withstood, but cracks in and melting in the armor told him everything he needed to know. ‘I know they said that Ragnarok was involved, but they’ve never been shown to have ARM technology. Was this really done by terrorists?’

    In a briefing room within the base several high ranking figures met. General Nornland sat at the head of the table with the Air Marshal and Admiral on his right. An empty seat with a disorganized pile of papers and tablets marked out the Head Engineer’s place. Kitawara stood at the end of the table where a large screen glowed with the data retrieved from the recent battle. “There’s still a lot of data we’ve yet to analyze relating to the enemy machines, but this is the initial report we have.”

    Images appeared of the Skadi firing upon a heavily armored machine staying to protect the downed transport. Video played out of the resulting blast being scattered by the enemy. He paused it at the moment of impact. “This was of great interest to us. Preliminary data says that this shield they had was able to take most of the energy of Skadi’s Heavy Focused Energy Cannon before being destroyed. It seems like it could disperse and absorb the heat and particle density to reduce its overall effectiveness. The shield still got destroyed, but under a less powerful particle beam the shield would be able to take the hit and completely negate the damage done.” A new image appeared with the destruction of the enemy machine.

    “Indications from this are that the enemy machines armor are not using the same technology as the shield. It’s unclear if this is due to cost or the technology being ineffective for larger application. However, this should be of great interest with the further development of the AESIR units.” The screen changed over to the first enemy unit to appear on the battle. An analysis program displayed a wireframe model of the flight parts. “This unit seems to have been specifically constructed for flight within a gravity environment. Considering the enemy, the need for a gravity combat unit would be unnecessary for them.”

    “So we can assume that they built that specifically for combat on Earth,” remarked the Air Marshall. He looked over to the General with a grim expression. “This unit makes their intensions quite clear.”

    The General shifted away from the screen keeping his hands up against his chin. “Indeed. This little intrusion of theirs is only a prelude to what is to come in the future. My concern is with the AESIR units. We sank an enormous amount of resources into ensuring that they would be the most advanced machines and to be defeated by only two units.”

    Kitawara did not crack from his self assured confident features. The doubt from the military did not make him flinch. He switched the images over to the Skadi project files. The computer ran simulations and test data on the machine that everyone had seen far too frequently. “The AESIR project was designed for multiple target engagements with at least two units. The Skadi was incomplete and alone when it faced the enemy. Once the Njord is completed nothing will ever harm the Skadi.”

    “That’s some arrogance, Kitawara,” the Admiral commented. He held his doubts about the project, but knew in the end it had to succeed. With the AESIR they had no defense that could survive. “Remember that it is human beings in all of those machines. You can’t put a number to the human factor.”

    “The AESIR were designed specifically for the Potentials. The Potentials were specifically trained and selected because they are superior humans. It’s not arrogance when you understand the facts.”

    General Nornland raised his hand looking to an end to the debate. He fixed his sight on the engineer. “Just ensure the units are completed. With the enemy earlier than predicted we’ll need them all functioning.” Kitawara nodded to the General. The next matter made him look to his right at the table. “For now we’ll keep running with the story that it’s the work of Ragnarok. We always have trouble with them. So the public won’t think much of what they can’t see. If the public learned that millions of people living in space wanted them dead there would be utter chaos.” Everyone at the table nodded in agreement. They knew the truth proved to be more dangerous. A forgotten people did little for them.

    The communication panel in the room lit up breaking up the discussion. “Excuse me, but you requested to be informed when the new pilots were arriving.”

    “Yes. That is all.” The lights in the briefing room turned back on. The military officers stood up looking over to Kitawara with heavy expectations on him. After a long stare between them and the engineer they departed the room.


    On a highway tube from the airport, some of the crew of the Niphliheim rode into town. Shizuka got put in the front seat with Sheila driving. Behind them Captain Fin and Edgar sat in the back seats. They borrowed a rental car rather than taking the truck for a couple of reasons, making a good impression being the top one.

    Out of the window Shizuka saw the array of domed districts that made up Antarctica City. The newer and larger domes crowded out the older districts near the center. Numerous highways stretched out to wind between the domes connecting travel. Some sealed off while others left to the open environment. However, the open air highways tended to be less used and restricted to specific types of vehicles. While inside the tube highway she watched the snow being blown over the transparent material. ‘It’s been six years and the place hasn’t changed a bit… It’s all so…stagnant…’

    Their destination came up quickly in one of the outer domes. The H.O.P.E. Organization held all of the dome for their research and military base. Large buildings spread across the surface as well as housing complex for the employees and soldiers. The east edge of the dome held several runways that had special exits in the dome built for them.

    Passage into the dome came smoothly for them and directed towards the military complex. The building marked out on the map that Sheila kept referencing came quickly upon them. Shizuka felt the developing unease in her stomach knowing she soon had to face her father. She never said goodbye to him when she left. It made her wonder how he would react seeing her. A bit of hope that he would be a normal father and be relieved dwelled in her still. ‘…father…’

    “Looks like the place!” Sheila declared upon stopping the car. Captain and Fin and Edgar stepped out of the car taking in the view of a very large building with thick gates that ran up the entire length of the side of the building. It had an exit out into a road making it seem more like a hanger than the standard building around the base. Sheila looked over at Shizuka detecting the apprehension. “Time to go. Can’t keep puttin’ it off!”

    “…yeah…” Shizuka opened the door and searched around the area for anyone that might be meeting them. She seemed about to give up when doors from the building in front of them opened revealing two figures.

    Fin and Sheila escorted Shizuka out to meet with the approaching people while Edgar stuck by the car. As they closed distance the two individuals became a man and woman appearing to be about in their thirties. The man wore a suit while the woman dressed in a white lab coat covering up her skirt and blouse. She kept her blonde hair tied up leaving only a few strains of hair to fall against her face. Sheila motioned over to Shizuka to stand in front of them.

    Captain Fin carefully scrutinized them as they came to a stop a meter away. “Where’s the doc? I thought we were supposed to be meetin’ him for the exchange?”

    “Dr. Kitawara is inside. He sent me to handle your payment.”

    “I see.” He glanced over at Sheila picking up her attention quickly. “Ya stay with the girl until I confirm the payment.”

    The man lifted his hand up to deny him. “I’m afraid no unauthorized personal are allowed inside.”

    Fin and the man in the suit stared at each other. They measured off their opponent determining the seriousness of the other. But the woman stepped up between them. “Is the teenage boy by the car with you?”

    “Yes?”

    “He may enter. If that works for you.”

    “Huh?” Sheila and Fin said staring back at Edgar. They knew less of what was going on than they realized. It made them a little suspicious. Fin motioned over for Ed deciding that if they wanted the money it was their only option. A military base surrounded them with armed guards everywhere. They did not have much room to maneuver. “Yer goin’ with the girl, Ed. Don’t let her out of yer sight until I confirm the payment. Alright?”

    “What?! Why me?”

    “Didn’t I say she was yer responsibility?!”

    “…fine…” Ed looked over at Shizuka annoyed that he still had to escort her around even after giving her over. He did not like having to waste time with her knowing that he had to finish matters with the Niph before leaving. His last mission lasted far longer than he wished.

    The man escorted Sheila and Fin off to a separate building while the woman smiled politely at the two of them. “Hello Shizuka!” the woman greeted. She leaned over and bent down to meet her at eye level. “You probably don’t remember me, but I was a friend of your mothers. I’m Karen Stein!”

    “…hi…” Shizuka did not like the way that she acted familiar with her. The name seemed a little familiar to her, but it felt like the woman treated her like a child. She turned her head to look forward to the large building.

    Karen gave a bit of a perplexed expression to the reaction that Shizuka gave her. She tried a more cheerful voice than before. “You don’t have to be shy, Shizuka. Everything’s alright!”

    A cross expression came over Shizuka when she glared back at Karen. “Just because you introduce yourself as a friend of my mother doesn’t put us on friendly terms. You’re my mother’s friend, not mine.”

    The woman pulled back realizing how unwelcome her presence was for Shizuka. She hid her confusion at the response and started to escort them to the building. “I’ll take you to your father inside.”

    Ed stayed close to Shizuka following behind the woman a safe enough distance to keep her from hearing him talk. He tilted his head over to Shizuka to whisper towards her. “Do ya have to bit everyones ‘ead off?”

    Shizuka narrowed her features a little seeing that Ed did not understand anything. “When you get kidnapped tell me how you’d act towards the people that ordered it.”

    “It’s not kidnappin’ if it’s your father!”

    “It’s against my will. So yes it is!”

    “Whatever…”

    Once they entered into the building it became evident to them that the building was a hanger. The entire structure ran for more than thirty meters high and expanded well beyond. The interior was massive to behold with machines attached to the ceiling for lifting and machinery work. Up against the far wall stood two giants that made all of the people working around at their feet seem like children. No one came up past the height of the top of the foot.

    As Shizuka stared on closer in confusion she realized that robots stood before her. Much of the metal frame remained exposed with only a little metal plating covering up legs and arms. The robots appeared to look almost human from what she saw. “What’s all of this?”

    “The prototype ARMs AESIR Freya and Od,” a familiar voice declared from the distance. The man stepped out from the shadows of the machines and approached Shizuka. He glanced down at her quickly and over to Ed.

    Shizuka felt her arms shaking a little as she fought to control her emotions. She did not expect to see him in such a place or so suddenly. She was not prepared for it. “…father…”

    Kitawara turned back to gaze with a pleased expression upon the two ARMs. He stretched out his arms pointing at the machines specifically. “These will be yours. You’ll pilot Freya, Shizuka and Edgar Dubois the Od is yours.”

    “What?!” yelled Shizuka and Ed, together before looking at each other. They glanced between each other quickly. The expressions on their faces changed as they realized the meaning of her father’s words.

    To be continued…
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  5. #5
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    Re: Advanced Response Machine Aesir

    (Author’s Notes: I’ve been feeling in the mood for another episode. I keep thinking about it and I had the Christmas Break. So I figured that it would not hurt anything to get another episode in when I had the free time. Progress on Twin Moon is at the point where I can easily write for it now. So it will be getting picked up in earnest now. I don’t know the schedule it’ll have, but it’s planned to have more than 100 chapters. So it’ll be a few years before I can actually write in earnest for this. I hope this will make people happy until the next time I write.)

    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 3 – Unfamiliar Skies

    “What’s the meaning of this?!” demanded Shizuka. The sight of giant machines only started the path of confusion for her. She did not understand why her father stood in the hanger or knew such things. She did not even remember him being part of the military. He rarely came home or told her what he did, but she remembered her mother telling her he did important research. Research that would save the world one day. Shizuka never grasped the meaning at the time, she was too young. ‘Is this what she meant?’ The questions made her arms shake and her knees turn to jelly.

    Kitawara changed expressions quickly to bewilderment before reverting to jubilation. “These are your machines as I said already. You will pilot the Freya and the young man over there will pilot the Od.”

    “Pilot? What are you talking about? I’ve never seen this before.” Shizuka stepped away from them all starting to feel the atmosphere change, or notice the actual mood that she had not seen before. “I don’t even know what is it! If this is why you paid mercenaries to find me and bring me here then I’m leaving right now!” She turned on her heel and started to march towards the door they entered from.

    “You’ll be trained,” he commented to her, ignoring the stance she took. “You don’t have to be concerned about understanding it yet.”

    Shizuka growled through her teeth as she stopped to glare back at him. She did not know this man. “I’m not staying.”

    “Where do you think you’re going?” He motioned with his arm off to the guards standing at attention. They took immediate action in remotely locking the personnel door and then stood in front of it blocking Shizuka. She spun back around glaring at him. “You’ve seen the highest military secret just now. Do you think you can simply leave?”

    Ed gasped in surprise and only managed to utter two words before cut off. “Old man!”

    “Dr. Kitawara!” shouted Karen. She stepped out in front of the aging man. “She’s your daughter!”

    “Don’t start questioning things now, Dr. Stein. You know how things work here.”

    “You can’t…” Karen backed away from him. The look in his eyes made her shake. His unwavering resolve not clouded by any hint of hesitation pushed her away. She felt her presence shrink.

    He walked around the woman and made his way to Shizuka. Towering over her, he bled a commanding aura that she had never experienced before. “The moment you set foot on this base you became part of the military. The paperwork already had you enlisted. You’re the property of H.O.P.E. This is your new life.”

    Shizuka shook in front of her father. She questioned if he always appeared so dark. When she was younger, all her memories of him were fuzzy. He seemed distance and uninterested, but never so menacing. ‘Military? Enlisted?!’ She wanted to run away even if she knew that the guards would capture in moments, but her legs refused her. Her body froze. All she had was her mouth. Shizuka ground her teeth trying get back her courage. “You can’t do this! I have rights!”

    “I am your father. The decision has already been made for you.”

    “You were never my father!” She could not take it anymore and her body suddenly felt alive. Shizuka threw out her hands pushing past him. It was not enough to knock him down, but it did stagger him in surprise. She bolted for the opposite side of the hanger in hopes of an escape.

    Kitawara stumbled around, but recovered quickly and shouted at the guards. “Stop her!” They stared at him for a moment and then ran after her as ordered.

    Ignored by everyone, Edgar stood as a bystander. He had so many thoughts running through his mind. He thought back on the arguments he had with Shizuka thinking her spoiled for rejecting her father. The scene that they gave him made him feel a bitter taste in his mouth. ‘…damnit…what sorta father…forcin’ ‘er…I…’ He thought back to when they approached him.

    A couple of military types came to him with a request. They wanted him to join a special project. It meant being in the military, but the pay would be good and it would help the Earth. He never really gave much thought to the recovery of the Earth or even a life outside of the Niph. But the opportunity seemed like a perfect chance for him. ‘I ‘ad my re’sons, but least I agreed willin’ly…’

    Ed tightened up his fist to stop the shaking. He brought her here and took her away from her home. The reason she ran away from her father was his fault. The weight crushed his shoulders. ‘…s’not right!’ Edgar pulled his head up staring down at the hanger. Shizuka had the lead, but the two soldiers quickly gained on her. ‘Damnit!’ He sprinted from his spot blowing past Karen and Kitawara. They only had a few seconds on him, enough to close in time.

    One of the guards came into reach of Shizuka. He stretched out his hand to grab her arm, while the other tried to keep pace. However, in the last moments Edgar leapt down throwing his weight into the two men. With the guards running, the force was enough to send them down to the cement foundation. Edgar rolled over them roughly ending a little ahead of them.

    Shizuka heard the grunts from behind and turned to see what happened. She stopped in surprise to see Edgar in front of her and half on top of the soldiers. “Wh-what are you doing?”

    Rubbing his back a little from the fall, Ed smirked up at her. A low groan from behind told him that the two men were not completely out and even if he stopped them others would be coming. He jumped back to his feet and grabbed on to Shizuka’s pulling her with him. “Com’on!”

    “W-wait!” Everything happened so fast for her. She found her feet moving along with his pace not thinking about it. Shizuka dragged a little behind at the ends of their arms. She stared back at the floor where the soldiers laid. ‘Why? Why did he help me?’

    Rather using the open ground to get further, he pulled themselves between crates, metal plates and machinery placed on the opposite wall to the giant robots. He felt like they started get into a safer position however long it might last. The wrist he held suddenly ripped free and slapped him away. “Hey!” he whispered, as much as he wanted to shout.

    Shizuka clung to her wrist that Edgar grabbed. A minute ago, he was sending her to the gallows. “Why? I thought you wanted to be rid of me?”

    Ed gritted his teeth. She slowed them down with questions. They needed to keep running. “Does it matter right now?” He stretched out his hand to her realizing that he had to get her acceptance to keep moving.

    The offer made her take a half step back. How could she trust someone that accepted money to kidnap her? She turned her head toward a distance sound of voice, more soldiers no doubt. ‘I can’t…stay…’ Still holding onto hesitation, Shizuka reached out for Edgar’s hand.

    Southeast Asia – 4 km outside of Yokatomo

    Exposed wires sparked keeping the silence at bay. Removed plating punched large holes in the interior making it seem deeper and darker than normal. The low vibration of the engines rocked the ship as though trying to put the passengers to sleep. However, the condition of the ship was not the cause of the tensions high between the crew.

    “You can’t be serious!” shouted Lellecaucua back at the plan that Wells suggested. Rivers landed the transport outside of a large city on the coast. They hid in a small forest hoping to remain unseen while they completed the real repairs the ship needed. However, they had to get more than medicine for the Commander.

    Wells’ shoulders looked crammed with how tightly he pressed his crossed arms together. He stood at the entrance to the cockpit with the rest of the team looking at him. Rinn kept to himself leaning against the wall, despite being higher rank Wells was the second in command after Callein. “I don’t like the idea any more than the rest of you! If it could be helped I wouldn’t get any assistance from those demons.” He glared as casually as he could over at Rinn, who pushed plan on him. “However, the Commander needs more medical attention than we can provide with combat training.”

    Several of them looked over at Callein. Currently, he laid unconscious, but earlier he briefly woke up in pain cough up blood. He insisted that they carried out their mission and disregard him. None of them could turn their back on him.

    Noinae looked back at Wells still concerned about the risk of the dangers presented with taking the Commander in to the city. “But what about being discovered? We’re putting the Commander at risk doing this.”

    “I know that! We’ll figure out something.” Wells looked over at the empty spot in the transport. The images of the explosion from the Skin blowing up replayed for him. He tightened his fists staring down Noinae. “I’ve already lost one team member to those demons! I’m not going let them take another!” His words made everyone silent. They had mostly been not thinking about the loss of Rivers. They all knew the risks, but a death still did not come any easier. “If there are no more questions, the first order of business is obtaining a vehicle.”

    * * *
    Outside of the hanger, two soldiers escorted Captain Fin and Sheila back to their vehicle. After the completion of the payment, the man that accompanied them parted ways. Sheila voiced her concerns about the situation, but Fin kept her moving. At the vehicle, they stood staring back at the hanger. There was a sense of expectation of seeing Edgar for a proper farewell. Fin started to open the door feeling the atmosphere change.

    Sheila looked over at the Captain trying to keep her frustration with the military in control. “Ain’t we gonna wait for Ed?”

    Fin looked over the car door at the two soldiers watching them. They looked to be close enough to hear, but not enough too imposing. “Ed knows the way back.” He stepped in taking a seat to start engine.

    She grabbed a hold of the door before Fin could close it and leaned into the interior. “But he’s one us! For a lil’ while longer, anyway…”

    “Get in. I’m feelin’ a draft…” Fin glanced up to Sheila as she backed away from the door. He closed the door and waited for her to get into the car. The vehicle shifted a little with the weight. Once she finished, he set the car to drive putting the soldiers in the rear view mirror.

    “Cap’n? What’s wrong?”

    “Seems we ain’t welcome anymore…”

    Sheila looked back towards the hanger and the soldiers walking away. “But Ed’s still back there!”

    “They may be jackass military types, but I can’t ‘magine them not lettin’ Ed a chance for goodbyes.”

    “…I guess…” She pulled away to look forward at the gate in front of them. The guard checked their badge and let them out without trouble. They still had a lot of the base to travel around with all of the secrets hidden behind numerous buildings. “There’s som’fin unsettlin’ about this place.”

    Inside the adjacent building to the hanger, Ed managed to discover another door out. It only connected to the hanger and brought them into a different building, but it did mean they could buy more time. They fortunately had not run into anyone else working in the facility. So they could hide for a time. A storage room partially filled with boxes served their needs.

    Ed sat down on one of the boxes catching his breath. He did not run too far, but the danger of their situation made his heart pound and lung feel shallow. Once he felt a little rested, he turned to face Shizuka, resting on the tiled floor. She said something that he did not hear clearly. “Huh? What ya say?”

    A little bothered by his lazy response, Shizuka wrinkled her brow. “I said, why are you doing this?”

    “That ag’in?” He reached his hand up to pull on his fedora, a habit of his, but remembered he left it on the ship. Looking a little lost, he scratched the side of his head.

    Shizuka stood up taking him over in height and leaned in. “You go on the ship about not being humanitarians and being in it for the money! But then you help me!”

    The words pushed him a little back before she settled down. She looked a little calmer after getting it out of her. Unfortunately, Edgar did not have a good answer for her, but he knew she would not be pleased with a carefree answer. He did not entirely understand why he helped her. She annoyed him and made his life hell for the brief time he knew her, a skillful feat for anyone. She got on his nerves with her attitude and stubbornness. The thought of handing her over and not seeing her anymore made him happy. Yet he acted anyway. He needed an answer for her. “…responsibility…”

    “Huh?” questioned Shizuka. The notion that he had any sense of responsibility set her back a step. It did not even seem like a reason to help someone.

    “Well Cap’n said yer me responsibility.” He turned away from Shizuka thinking back to the words her father said. Ed could not believe that a parent would ever do something so cruel.

    Repeating his words did not clear things up for Shizuka anymore than the first response. She still stared back at him in disbelief that he acted on such an empty reason. “You can’t be serious! Your responsibility as a mercenary to protect your cargo?”

    “What?!” Edgar jumped back around at the accusation that she leveled at him. “That’s got nothin’ tah do with it?!”

    “Then explain it to me!” Shizuka stepped up to Edgar’s face demanding a proper answer from him. Her features narrowed with her stare.

    The nearness of her made him a little uneasy. Her fiery temper and tendency to act like a boy made him forget until that moment that she was a girl. His time on the Niph rarely afforded him the chances to meet anyone close to his own age, let alone actual girl. Shizuka’s face only centimeters from him make it all very clear, unfortunately she still smelt like sweat and dirt. A grunt from her that started to roll into a growl snapped Ed out of his distraction and let his emotions respond. “That’s not ‘ow a parent shuld act! Happy?”

    Shizuka backed away even more shocked by his answer. “…wha…?...” It felt genuine, but she did not expect him to actually something like that. She fought to regain her composure in front of him. His words agreed with her feelings, but she did not want to admit that to him. Seeing that she could not control her expressions, Shizuka turned away from Edgar and sat down on a box away from him. “…that’s how parents are…selfish…”

    Ed closed the distance between them. His emotions controlled his body. “No, its’not! It’s wrong!”

    “You should face reality,” laughed Shizuka in a rough tone, “That’s the adult world, self-centered.”

    “How can ya—“ Edgar grabbed Shizuka’s shoulder in anger, but cut himself off quickly. He felt her body trembling in his hand. His eyes widened a little. With his emotions expired, Ed no longer had any fight left in him. He backed away from her letting stay alone. Ed sat down on his box roughly.

    Back in the hanger, Dr. Kitawara addressed returning soldiers. They searched for the last twenty minutes trying to find two children and the failure started to get on his nerves. “How incompetent are you to lose two children? They can’t have gotten far! Don’t stop until you find them!” He dismissed them with his hand. Once they left he turned back to the two machines. “We’ll find them.”

    Karen kept her distance from the Doctor. The unease she felt left her unfocused and unable to work. Her hands just held the tools, but did not move. ‘Shizuka…I’m sorry…but…’ She knew the consequences and what needed to be done. Even knowing the truth, she thought that she had accepted all of the bitter poison, but some of it still lingered on her lips stinging her. She could not wash away the poison.

    * * *
    Southeast Asia – Downtown Yokatomo

    Gaining a truck took a little more time than they planned, but they managed across one taking the highway into the city. They felt fortunate that the cargo truck they found was empty and returning back. The room in the back gave plenty of space for the Commander and later supplies that they would need.

    In the front, Rinn drove with Wells seated in the passenger chair. Lellecausua watched over the Commander in the back. She kept him from shaking around on the bumpy road. While the city appeared new, the roads all looked poorly maintained. Much of the outer city had a shine to it as though recently built. While the deeper inside the more run down and older it appeared. Even the atmosphere of the people living seemed to change to reflect the difference.

    With no idea of where to find a clinic, they resorted to pretending to be outsiders and asking for directions. The first few stops gave them a direction, but nothing clear. They tried to keep from staying in one place long. The current stop had their truck parked an in alley with Rinn and Wells out getting directions.

    Wells came back to the truck looking as agitated as he had the last trip. He leaned against the truck waiting for Rinn to return. A low muttering kept himself from getting overblown. Nearby footsteps alerted him and snapped him back to attention, prepared. “Finally, you’re back!” he barked after determining Rinn’s approach.

    The Lieutenant gave a simple wave to him. He waited until getting deeper into the alley before replying. “You get anymore used to it?”

    “Damn, demons! They’re so annoying! Most don’t even bother to give you a second glance.”

    Rinn opened the truck door and pulled out two bottles of water. He tossed one over to Wells. “You need to cool off a little. The right approach will get them to talk to you.”

    Wells flipped his eyes towards the truck’s enclosed bed. Cal laid in pain and getting worse with each passing hour they wasted. Such thoughts made it difficult for him to relax as Rinn suggested. He looked down at the bottle. His hand tightened around the metal casing that surrounded the plastic container. “This frigid land pisses me off too much.” Wells snapped the cap off and emptied a portion of the liquid in his mouth.

    He rubbed his arms a little remembering the cold air. “Indeed, it’s rather cold. A little surprising considering the location to the equator. I think on their calendar it’s summer.”

    “Enough about the weather! We didn’t come here for a vacation!”

    “Lellecausua report anything about the Commander’s condition?”

    Wells shook his head after he glanced at the truck again. “No, Elle hasn’t said anything. You get a new direction?”

    “Yes, there’s a clinic nearby.” Rinn pulled himself up to the driver seat. As he closed the door, Wells jumped in from the other side. The engine started up and he shifted the truck into gear. He looked over at Wells making sure he was ready. “We apparently passed it on the way here.”

    ** ** **
    After their rest, Edgar and Shizuka went on the move again. Their search through the building that they hid in sent them down hallway after hallway with no doors to the outside. They had to avoid a couple of patrols as they reached an area with patrols. The soldiers searching had recently started expanding and growing in numbers. As it became more intense, the places they could hide narrowed. It had already been at least two hours since they fled.

    Their currently hiding spot was an unused lab. It looked set up with equipment for whatever they designated it for, but for the moment, it was free. They moved a cart away from the wall and hid behind it while waiting for the danger to pass.

    Ed looked over at Shizuka seeing her shaking again. Each time they ran she calmed down and became focused. However, during the pauses the trembling returned. He never thought about such things before, just seeing the whole of someone. Something had him watching her more careful ever since he realized how scared she was. “So…why were ya in tha village?” he asked hoping that a conversation might ease her nerves some.

    It took her a moment to hear his words, but she tilted her head towards him. “Huh?” Shizuka held her arms around her legs trying to keep still.

    “Ya ‘now tha place we found ya. How’d ya get t’ere?”

    “…oh…” Her response came delayed after thinking about the people from Welest. She leaned against the wall a little considering her words. “It was an accident when I was eight.”

    “…eh? How’d ya ‘ave an accident? Wit’ yer father?”

    Shizuka shook her head slowly. The events of arriving in Welest never were very clear to her. However, she always remembered clearly how she left her father. The yelling over a monitor screen because he could not be bothered to come home for another night. The cold air that blew down her neck in the apartment even though the heater blasted around her when she made the decision to change. She decided it was not worth staying any longer with a father that stopped loving her and let mother die. She remembered the dull mechanical locking of the apartment door behind her sounding louder than she thought possible. The white sky above the dome of the city felt distant and dead, nothing familiar or comforting. The crowded streets that never seemed to stop making noise drowned in silence to the point of being suffocating. Her last look back at the city that should have been her home and the moment she gave up any hope. “No, I left him here. I was alone when I went to Welest.”

    “Then ‘ow?”

    “It was just chance I ended up there. I was traveling on foot and collapsed outside of the village.” She had only read in books and seen on computers how to survive in the wilderness. The reality of her situation changed her quickly, but not before she made a lot of mistakes. Most of her supplies got lost and she wandered aimlessly. “They said they found me with extreme dehydration and malnourished. I got lucky, I doubt I had the strength to go on any further. Probably would have died if it wasn’t for them.”

    “Reckless even then, eh?”

    “Perhaps,” she agreed without an argument, “But I was desperate then. I didn’t want to stay another day with him. I rather be out somewhere else.”

    “What’d ya plan on doin’?”

    “I don’t know. I was eight years old and angry at everything. But when I woke up in Welest that changed. They had helped me and seemed to genuinely care that I was alive, unlike my father. They saved me and nursed me back to health. At first, I planned on leaving after I felt I repaid my debt to them, but after the months turned to years I found it to be comfortable. It felt like I had a…” Shizuka stopped suddenly having difficulty with her words. Her throat choked up and her eyes started to water. Imagines of the village people appeared to her. Her memories of them washed over her.

    Edgar turned his head away from her suddenly feeling a little awkward. He knew what she wanted to say without finishing. After hearing it all, he thought on his actions. ‘It’s no wonder she’d think we ‘nap’d ‘er…man…’ Ed slid down a little no longer feeling so well. He wanted to say something, but nothing came to his lips. His head collapsed to his knees for support. The bitter taste in his stomach did not go away.

    Shizuka caught a drop of tears on her hand and pulled away. She wiped her hands over her eyes. Her eyes scanned around the room trying to focus away from herself. She stood up and looked out the windows at the conditions. “Hey!” When no answer came, she looked back at the wall to Ed. “Hey! Dubois, you hear me?”

    “…eh?” Edgar popped his head up finally noticing Shizuka. She motioned to him and he sluggishly walked over to her. His head still swam with the thoughts of his actions.

    “I think we can make it out now.”

    “…yea…”

    Taking note of his slow moves, Shizuka grabbed his arm and pulled him with her to speed him up. It took him a little longer, but he caught up to her side. The empty hallway granted them access to several paths. Two of them turned before finding an end. The last stopped at a set of double doors with no clear signs as an exit. They weighed their options and took the chance with the doors. Even if not an exit, they figured it might lead to a different building and put them further away.

    Their exit at the double doors led to a medical wing, as they discovered from the plate on the wall. It had to have an exit they figured, being some sort of clinic or hospital. The unfortunate problem was that they saw several people in white coats walking through the halls. They stared at each other realizing that an attempt would make it easy to spot them. They had to turn back.

    However, two sets of footsteps came from behind them echoing around the hallway. The hall they stood in near the door had no rooms for them. A retreat back to the intersection meant risking being spotted. They looked back through the windows in the doors at the hall. No choice remained for them. They pushed the doors open and slowly walked along the side of the hall. Their effort in being small and invisible made it a few doors through the hall before they saw a nurse exiting a room. Ed pulled at Shizuka taking her into the room behind them. They pressed themselves up against the wall inside the room only looking at the entrance of the door waiting. Once the nurse passed out of sight, they sighed with relief.

    “Who are you?” a voice asked from the other side of the room.

    The voice made the two teens glue themselves to the wall pulling their heads back to the room. Thoughts of capture and punishment ran through their minds. However, after they focused back on the individual in front of them they changed their attitude. A young girl no older than them stood before them in a hospital gown.

    “Er…kid?” questioned Ed, trying to figure out the situation that they found themselves in. Someone still saw them, but not in the manner expected.

    Shizuka took a cautious step forward. “Who are you?”

    “I asked you the same question,” replied the girl.

    “Oh, I guess you did,” laughed Shizuka. She wiped her hand off on her dirty dress and extended it to the girl. “I’m Shizuka.”

    The girl took a step away from Shizuka measuring her up. “Aerona.”

    “Huh?” Her hand held out alone for a time until it became awkward. She retracted her arm seeing that the girl did not plan to accept her greeting. Shizuka noticed a distance that the girl placed between them with the intention of not approaching.

    “That’s my name.”

    “Nice to meet you, Aerona.”

    Ed noticed the warm smile on Shizuka’s face and leaned away a little surprised. He had seen several different sides of her in the short time he spent with her, anger, fear, sadness, even humble, but not a smile. ‘Girl changin’ e’ery minut’…’ However, he did not have much time to think to himself. A stare from Shizuka out of the corner of her eye aimed at him. She passed him a directional gaze to the girl that they met. “…er…yea…Edgar, that’s me. Ya can call me, Ed, if ya wont!”

    Shizuka cringed a bit at his use of language, but tried to move past it. She hoped an introduction would improve the atmosphere, but it remained as divided as it started. Her body wanted to move a little closer to try to mend the difference, but she felt it too great a risk. “Are you hurt?”

    “Negative, the doctors reported no abnormalities in my body.”

    The response made Shizuka tilt her head a little with utterly befuddled Edgar behind her. ‘A rather odd reply…’ Her voice sounded clinical almost mechanical at times. When she spoke, it felt like she was as distant from her own body as Shizuka was from her. Shizuka did not know what to make of the girl. It made her curious to know what sort of home she had. “That’s good! So why are you here then?”

    “I am in a diagnostic room to verify my physical and mental condition.”

    Another difficult response, Shizuka raised an eyebrow becoming more curious. However, she shook her head lightly. “No, I meant on a military base. Does your father or mother work here or something?”

    Aerona shifted her weight slightly away from Shizuka. “Negative, I have no parents. This is where I live and work.”

    Both Ed and Shizuka pulled back a little hearing her words. They did not completely understand what she meant by work, but their mood changed no longer feeling safe. It seemed a little impossible to them that someone their age would have any work on a military base.

    “What are you saying?” asked Shizuka, “You’re no older than us.”

    “It is the truth.” Aerona moved over to a metal cabinet on the other side of the exam table. “If you will excuse me I need to change.” Her finger pressed a button that pulled a curtain around the area separating them.

    Ed could see that the answer confused Shizuka. She dealt with too many traumas in a single day and it seemed that she started putting together the truth. Edgar did not consider himself very intelligent, but he had his suspicions about the girl. Her response only made it clear for him. While he might have not liked the idea anymore than Shizuka, reality seemed far different that either imagined. One truth still remained for them, escape. He could not let them catch Shizuka and be subject to a cruel future. Ed grabbed onto Shizuka to pull her back to reality. “We need tah go,” he whispered to her.

    “Huh? Oh…right…” Shizuka let him take her to the door entrance. She still felt a little out of it. The thought of that girl possibly being involved churned her stomach. That man already planned to have Edgar and her pilot strange machines. The girl’s speech and response added up in ways she did not want to finish connecting. ‘…this isn’t right…we have rights, don’t we? Isn’t this against the law to use children?’ Shizuka turned her head back towards the curtain where Aerona stood behind. She wanted to do something, but could not make her body move.

    The hall became too active for them to move. Edgar wanted to leave quickly, but the doctors moving around made it impossible. However, the worse sign for him was the sight of soldiers. They did not seem to be searching, but rather speaking with one of the attendants as the desk. The scene gave him a bad feeling in his gut. ‘…damnit…’ Each second that drained out for him watching the soldiers nervously from his hole racked his body. He wanted to move. “Com’on, we need tah go.”

    Shizuka looked at Edgar and then back to where Aerona was. “…yes…but…”

    “I advise you to remain here,” Aerona spoke from the curtain. Her voice made the two tremble for a second. The tone remained the same constant as before, but the air shifted to include a threatening presence.

    ‘She knows?!’

    Ed changed his stance quickly pulling on Shizuka. He preferred to take his chances rather than wait for them to catch him. “Let’s go!”

    “Soldiers have already been dispatched and are in the Private Medical Wing.” The curtain shifted with the noise of it pulling away to reveal Aerona. Both of them turned to see her standing in a military uniform. She closed the inside clasp on the collar locking it into place around her neck with a full single-breasted coat covering her down to her light blue slacks. “There is nowhere left to go, Petty Officers Third Class Shizuka Kitawara and Edgar Dubois.”

    “What?!” The added rank completely ignored Shizuka as the sight of Aerona made a greater impact on her. The uniform was the last piece that she needed to forcibly accept the fact. She even missed the fact that they had them surrounded. “It can’t be! Why?! Why would you work for them?”

    “This is my destiny, as it is yours as well.”

    Edgar pulled on Shizuka trying to get her to move out of the door while they still had a chance. Unfortunately, she became immobile and he stumbled. The time they wasted was enough for the soldiers to appear at the door. They started with Ed, who tried to fight his way through, but put him down to the ground quickly. They handcuffed him and raised him up. Shizuka was so lost that she gave no challenge to them and they arrested her quickly.

    Back in the hanger, Kitawara sat on the plated shoulder of the Freya machine making adjustments to the equipment in the cockpit. Wires and tubes ran from all sides of the head into the machine and through the entrance. All of the machinery and wiring covered up most of the head from sight. Around the machine work by the staff resumed in spite of the problem with the pilots flight. They still had a lot of work left to do before either machine functioned.

    A beep from a small communication device attached to Kitawara’s ear went off along with a light flashing. He subconsciously tapped it letting it expand around his ear partially covering it. “Yes? Tell me you have found them.”

    “We have, sir! We have them under arrest.”

    He fiddled with an electronic panel and removed a board from within the machinery. The device in his hand ran over it and touched specific points giving him back readings. “Good, put them in the brig for the time being. I’ll deal with them later.”

    “Yes, sir!”

    The line when dead after and the communication device closed up to the compact form clipped to the top of his ear. He slid the board back into place and attached the wires. A small window appeared on the only installed piece of the display screen in the head. It waited for a prompt from him. “Such selfish children…” He pulled back not giving the machine the answer it wanted. His free hand rubbed his head as he gave it more thought. “…guess it worked out. I planned on those two getting closer anyway. Their little escape has no doubt started to develop some bonds. Yes, if I consider it from this approach it is for the best. I need those two together…”

    ** ** **
    Darkness began to set on the city. Heavy shadows carried an oppressive feel through the rust and moss covered buildings. The coastal air brought in salt and moisture working its magic fingers on all of the metal. Old downtown did not receive the same maintenance as the newer parts of the city quickly feeling the effects in a few years. Those years long passed leaving the slow creak and groan of metal from passing trains pounding their still polished wheels into the elevated tracks. Each reverberating pound quaked into the sidewalk and street below belting out an awful baritone key. Residents of the slums ignored the screeching managing to filter it out of their daily lives.

    However, Wells had not become accustomed to the racket. The wait on the light to change and the rattling in the truck made its borderline temper push centimeters closer to the edge. Even life as a pilot stationed on a carrier did not make such a ruckus. Only his prejudice with the people prevented him from screaming out the window, secret mission or no. Surrounded by demons on all sides, he started to regret his decision to travel with them. “…bastards…”

    The light changed finally and the truck moved, but another train passed by for extra measure. Their stop to the clinic was only a short half block away. A small lot for cars did not give them much room for their truck, but they forced a spot anyway. Rinn’s finesse with ships seemed to transfer well to different vehicles. He handled the truck with ease and parked them. Tilting his head over to Wells, he threw a bag at him. “Come on. Time to change.”

    Wells picked up the bag with generic looking overalls inside. He then threw it back at Rinn and crossed his arms. “I’m staying with the truck. Take, Elle with you.” The tapping of his finger on his arm gave him the only outlet to release his emotions.

    “Fine.” They had little time to argument on the matter. Rinn opened the door and jumped down. In the back of the truck, he opened one of the doors and hefted himself inside. Not too far in, Lellecausua, known as Elle to those on the team, knelt at the side of the Commander. She looked up at his direction when he opened the door. “It’s just us.” He tossed the bag over to her. “I apologize for the lack of delicacy.”

    She picked it up and walked to the back corner facing away from Rinn. He turned away working on the bag in his hand. After they finished they exited their corners and came back. She lifted up Callein to her shoulder with Rinn coming up to help from the other side. He looked over at her and let out a small smirk. “Let me do the talking and just follow my lead.”

    “Understood.”

    He kicked open both doors letting them slam against the sides. The noise echoed around the street distracting a few of the people passing by. Rinn carefully approached the edge of the truck and took over carrying him while Lellecausua stepped out. Once they had the Commander down on street level, Rinn paused. He started to breathe heavily looking almost like he was out of breath from running a marathon. His hand ran through his hair ruffling it up and did the same to Lellecausua, who momentary protested. Rinn nodded to her to start moving with him. “Somebody help!” he shouted with all of his lungs, enough to knock Elle off balance again. “Anybody! Help!”

    Rinn steered them to the clinic and kept shouting as loud as he could. It seemed like his voice would run ragged at the pace he yelled. However, by the time that they reached the sliding doors of the clinic three people, looking as part of the staff, ran out in a panic. He had their attention. “Please help me! You’ve got to save him! He was nearly crushed!”

    A man looking like a doctor approached touching Callein. He motioned to the other two to come and help him. The doctor glanced back at Rinn. “What happened?”

    “We were delivering materials to a construction site…when one of the heavy loaders malfunctioned.” Rinn turned his head over to Callein pausing to take a breath of air. “He…noticed it before…the rest of us…” He turned back to the doctor leaning in towards him. The doctor looked a little unsettled by the proximity. “Please you have to save him, doc!”

    “W-well, yes…I’ll do what I can. Bring him inside!” The doctor ran back into the clinic shouting at the staff. “Get room D open now! Start up the body scan immediately! I need to know if there are broken bones or internal bleeding! Get Dr. Loo out here now to assist me!”

    Elle moved with the flow of the maelstrom that he stirred up with his performance. She took it a little by surprise the amount of acting that he put on. It made her question what sort of man they had as their pilot. She thought he was just a crazy daredevil looking for excitement, but the new side she saw changed it all.

    They handed over Callein to the nurses to start the examination. Some hesitation came before passing him off, but they knew they had to trust them. Rinn grabbed one of the nurses that stayed behind. “Hey, he doesn’t have any family here…but can she…” He turned the nurse’s gaze back to Elle. “Can you let her stay with him? At least until you operate? She’s…you know…”

    The nurse looked down at his pad as to consider it. He stared over at the woman seeing the confused look as worry. “I understand. She can stay for a little while.”

    “Thank you so much!” Rinn shouted, adding a smile and patting him on the shoulder. The nurse got a little uncomfortable with the attention and moved on to his job. Rinn grinned a little while the staff started to move about before turning back to Elle. “I got you inside,” he added passing by her.

    She turned back around in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

    Still within centimeters of each other, Rinn leaned close to her. “They might be doctors and we need their help, but I don’t trust them anymore than Wells does. So keep an eye of them and him. I’ll wait here.”

    “What did you tell them?”

    “Just another little white lie. You’re a woman and he’s a man. You can put it together I think.” Rinn stepped away and sat down in the waiting room chair.

    Elle stared slack-jawed at Rinn for several seconds. Even as he sat in the chair and returned to a concerned appearance, he never flinched for a moment. She could not believe him. ‘…the Commander…I can’t believe him!’ However, the nurse that Rinn spoke with came over to her.

    “We’ve started the preparation. The examination is going to begin soon. If you want to stand by him…”

    ‘Damn you, Rinn…’ She turned back to the nurse and nodded to him. Elle did not know how to act around them. She figured remaining quiet and just looking a little off would be enough. It seemed to work for her.

    ** ** **

    Antarctica – Antarctica City – HOPE Military Brig

    Dead silent. Not even the clicking of distant machinery or the muffled sounds of planes penetrated. Only a single light existed in the entire chamber that filled with an ooze of gloom that ran thicker than paint over all the surfaces and into even the cracks between plating. Barely enough illumination leaked out of the iron jaws of the fixture to draw out blurred lines for shadows as though the artist drank too much before starting. Draped within the very darkness itself, the two occupants appeared to have welcomed the void that surrounded them.

    Ed never knew why he acted to help someone he barely knew. He realized even before he acted that the entire effort was futile. Honestly, what could he have done inside a military base? While part of the crew of the Niph, they treated him as an adult, even if teasing him as a kid. However, he understood that he was still a teenager. As a teenager, he ruined someone’s life. Even as a kid, he could still make adult mistakes.

    He understood the likely outcome was the one where he sat, but he still wanted to change it. Edgar wondered if it was wrong to, naively, want to do the right thing when something was not fair and still ask to be an adult at the same time. It felt like asking for too much. He hung his head on his knees.

    Shizuka remained completely motionless since her arrival in the brig. She did not even realize that she sat in a different room. Her mind still struggled to deal with everything that happened. Once she knew that they caught her everything shutdown for her. The efforts she made to hold back her questions and disbelief about the situation came flooding in baring the full weight with them.

    Unaware of the door sliding open to the brig, someone stepped in it the chamber approaching the cells with the prisoners. They stood in the middle of the cells with an eye on both. The dim spaced erased most of the features of the individual. “You two have given us quite a bit of trouble. I guess considering that you spent your years on the outside rather on the inside, then that is to be expected. You lived unaware of your purpose or destiny. Today that changes.”

    “Who’s ya?” demanded Ed. He tilted his head over his shoulder trying to see who address them. “And what w’th tha fancy-pants spe’ch, eh?”

    “Such crude language skills. You’ll need to correct that.”

    “Lik’ hell I’ll do that!”

    “Petty Officer Third Class Edgar Dubois, you’ve accepted becoming a part of the HOPE Military, as such that means you will learn discipline, teamwork and respect. Additionally, you will speak correctly when addressing a superior.”

    “Eh? Who’s that?”

    He stepped back letting the meager light cast on his face so that Edgar could meet his gaze. The man that stood before him still looked very young, but older than him with a serious, disciplined form. His short dark blonde hair and light blue eyes showed someone that fought for professionalism, but still had a kind appearance. “I’m in charge of the two of you. I’m your direct superior as team leader. I’m Ensign Ansgar Toule.”

    “Anz-what?”

    “…Ansgar…” he repeated with carefully measured tone.

    “…eh? What’ver, think I’ll just call ya Ensign Tool. Sounds perfe’t.” Ed gave a bit of a smirk to him. He tried to pull on his missing fedora again, but stopped himself. The uneasy balance between control and emotional immaturity within Ansgar did not go completely ignored by Ed. He did not have the keen observational skills, but his gut never led him wrong.

    The Ensign struggled to pull himself together. Dealing with the ex-mercenary turned into a troubling issue. He began to regret agreeing to speak with him. As a move to establish his center, he shifted his position a little to look at the girl that remained still. ‘…the prize that Dr. Kitawara endlessly goes on about. She’s at least more human than Air, unfortunately she has a rebellious streak that will be just as troublesome. I don’t know why they decided to let these two into the world.’ Ansgar approached the cell for Shizuka, noticing that she still made no action to noticing him. He held his hand to the bar gripping it firmly. “Have you accepted your reality? I’m not very pleased with the manner that they went about things, but this is beyond my control. The least I can do is make things comfort for you.”

    Shizuka held still, but Ed grabbed on to the bars of his cell pressing against them. “Hey! What’s w’th tha fri’ndly talk fer ‘er? ‘Cus she a girl, eh?”

    Ansgar only spared a momentary glance to him. “No, unlike you, she didn’t sign any agreement or asked politely to come back. She was forced against her will. And by her own father, no less.”

    “He’s not my father!” snapped Shizuka, on instinct. She had awakened. Her eyes held fire within them once more. They carried a strong angry, all-consuming untamable fire. “I have no father.”

    “Considering what he’s done, I’m inclined to agree. However, family is still family, regardless how much of a bastard they are.” He backed away from the cell glad to see her alive again. ‘The reports from the soldiers did not understate her temper.’ Near the center of the room, he came to a stop removing a card from his pocket. He held it up between two fingers. Ansgar turned his head back to the two. “However much you feel you have been lied to about joining the military and however much you feel that you have been forced into the military, your situation’s are both the same. You are pilots of HOPE, like it or not. Now I’m going to let you out. You have two choices, run away to be caught again or follow me. Just remember, at least with me I still consider you human beings before pilots. Those in charge view you differently. So make your choice.” He slid the card over the panel triggering the locks on the cells. After the unlocking mechanics finished, the doors to the cells rotated open.

    Ed stepped out of the cell and stood up finally getting his measure of the man before him. While height did not mean everything, Ansgar did beat him. All of the speech giving bored Ed a bit, but despite the obnoxious attitude and composure, Ed did not feel him to be as bad as Dr. Kitawara. ‘I did make a promise, e’en if thay’re bastards.’ He turned to look over for Shizuka. Given what he went through with her, he decided that he would leave the final answer to her. He only acted because of her.

    The cell with Shizuka waited for her to exit. She stood just before the threshold staring down at the line it made between her and the outside. ‘What’s going to happen after I cross this line? Where will it take me?’ Shizuka grabbed a hold of the bars for support and stepped out with one leg. ‘Forced into military service…why? Why did he want me?’ She still had questions and fears. A lot remained unknown for her. The oppressive atmosphere made her feel sick. She wanted to leave. However, they stood in a military base meaning escape would be difficult. Shizuka finished stepping out of the cell.

    Ansgar watched the two of them for any signs, but neither budged from their spots in front of their cells. He felt a bit of relief. ‘I don’t want to imagine what sort of punishment they might have done if they tried again.’ His hand tapped the panel, still holding his code. The cell gates closed up. After finishing, he marched to the entrance. “Follow me, I’ll take you to your rooms.”

    Taken outside into the strictly controlled environment of the dome, Ansgar escorted Shizuka and Edgar to the base housing. Since the Antarctica Base was permanent, regular housing complexes lined the outer sides of the base. A few apartment buildings even stood on the grounds. However, as they noted, the Ensign did not lead them to the standard housing neighborhood. When they drove past the entrance, the sign to the two apartment buildings said “Special Projects Housing”. They came to a stop in the parking lot positioned in the middle of the two buildings.

    Once the engine turned off, Ansgar rotated around to the two in the back. “Alright, all personnel belonging to the highly classified projects of HOPE are stationed here. The west building is the male barracks and the east building is the female barracks. Remember that not all of the personnel are strictly soldiers. Engineers, work crews, scientists, researchers and staff all live here. In fact, the actual military presence here is very low, less than five percent have official military ranks. So be mindful of the other residents.” He opened the door and stepped out. His hand motioned to them to follow him.

    When they reached the sidewalk that ran between the two buildings, he stopped and turned to face them. He removed two cards from his pocket and handed them over. “These are yours keys to unlock your rooms. The number is also on the card. I will be back for you in the morning. You will find uniforms as well as civilian clothes already assigned to your rooms. The uniforms are mandatory, the civies was me trying to provide you some comfort. So take them or leave them.”

    A little hesitation came from Toule as he dug into his pockets again. He sighed a little knowing it was for the best. “One last thing. Put out your arms towards me.” Both of them gave him a suspicious and piercing gaze. “Come on. This is an order!” Reluctance turned to acceptance, though cautiously. He quickly removed the bands from his pocket and attached them to their wrists before they could question things further.

    “Hey, what’s tha me’nin’ of this?” Ed already began trying to remove the band from his wrist. If it had not been a seamless appearing strip around their wrist no thicker than string, it might have been mistaken for a watch. “Get this off meh!”

    “While I prefer to work on trust, the higher ups don’t agree with me. Since you’ve already tried to escape once this is something you will be forced to wear. It has a tracking chip inside it that sends out a signal to the monitoring station. If you remove them by force we will know about it, immediately. They’ve stationed guards at the apartments on a twenty-four hour shift to monitor you.”

    “Damn you!”

    Ed threw out his fist at Ansgar in rage. Expecting the reaction, he lifted up his hand easily catching his hand. “I may not like this anymore than you, but my orders are clear. Since you’ve already made your decisions not to flee anymore, this is should only be a minor inconvenience for you.”

    “…bastard…”

    Shizuka turned away and started towards her assigned building. She knew everything the man still was correct. She figured that they would take measures. Her hand rose towards her head to look at her wrist. ‘…a minor inconvenience…’

    After Shizuka’s departure, Ed felt a little out of place still arguing with Ensign Tool. He kicked his feet at the ground in frustration and moved on. The distance to his apartment had a bit of a walk. Ed did not feel like going just yet. He turned around noticing the Ensign already starting the jeep back up. Across from him, Shizuka walked away from him slowly. She had been very accepting the entire time since let out. He wondered what went her mind.

    Edgar ran his hands through his hair with frustration in his muscles. He sprinted over to the woman’s barracks with Shizuka still in sight. “Hey! Wait up! Shesu…She…Su!”

    The butchering of her name was enough to make her stop. She tilted her head over her shoulders giving him a very health glare. “What?” she asked in a tone that passed being curt.

    “…er…ya see…” Her stare and attitude that he was more familiar with seeing returned. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult for him to say what he wanted. His body stiffened up and locked his mouth. The words he wanted refused to come up. ‘…damnit…’ His disappointment in himself made his body start to shake. Ed dropped his head down losing sight of everything.

    Shizuka narrowed her eyes trying to figure out what he wanted. “If you don’t have anything to say then leave me alone.” She turned back and resumed walking to the building’s entrance.

    Ed managed to get his mouth to open, but no words came out. He pulled his head up realizing that she began to leave his reach. “…no…I-I-I…” He stretched out his hand to her, already beyond his hold. Edgar tried to get his legs to move, but they did not make any progress. Shizuka entered the threshold and the glass doors slid closed behind her. She was gone. “Damnit!” Ed dropped down to his knees. He failed. ‘I’m sorry!’

    ** ** **
    The hours passed in awkward silence. The clinic staff continued on, but watched the two seated in their lobby waiting. Uncertainty and tension for being within enemy territory came out mistaken as worry and concern. They both worried about their Commander, but during the operation, their minds continued to fall back to the idea they sat in the middle of an enemy city hoping nothing went wrong. Their mission still needed them and a single mistake would cost everything that hundreds of people worked tirelessly to achieve.

    Luck stayed with them however, the operation finished with none of the staff having any problems with them. Their identity remained safe and the doctor came walking out, still wearing the mask around his neck. He carried a hard plastic board with an electronic screen built into the thick material. His fingers tapped along the surface.

    Rinn stood up first, slowly followed by Elle. “Doc? Is everything going to be alright?”

    The doctor lowered the pad to speak with them unimpeded. “Yes, the operation was a success. He did sustain a few broken ribs that were pressing against his lung, but there was no damage to the lung. I did find a lot of internal bruises and ruptures, but we were able to tend to everything. He’ll be out of intensive care soon and able to rest. It’ll be a few hours until he wakes up.”

    Genuine relief showed on Rinn. “Thank you, doc.”

    “Umm…” The doctor began to look a little uncomfortable with his voice changing pitch. “This is never easy, but I do need to talk about payment. I understand that you don’t have any insurance.”

    “Er…yeah, can we talk about this later, doc? I promise we’ll pay you for your troubles. This is just a difficult time right now for us.”

    “Oh of course, I understand. We’ll keep him in our care for at least a week.”

    “…a week!” whispered Elle, thinking about the dangers.

    The man looked a little confused by her reaction. Rinn put his arm around her shoulder looking to be providing comfort. “Sorry, she’s just worried about being away from him for so long.”

    “You can visit anytime during normal visiting hours, naturally.”

    “Thank you, doc. If you’ll excuse me.”

    “Yes, of course.”

    Rinn helped her back out of the building and around to the truck. He pounded on the passenger door to wake up Wells. “Hey! Make room!”

    “Eh? Oh, how’s Cal?”

    “He’s fine they say. We’ll be able to see him soon.” He helped Lellecausua up to the front cab of the truck to share with Wells. Afterward, he quickly moved around to the drive side and jumped in. He kept the engine off. His hands rested on the steering wheel as he leaned forward, staring at nothing. “They want payment. I thought we had found a free clinic, but I guess a major operation like that can’t be free.”

    Wells turned his head over to Rinn a little bothered by the casual tone he had about their Commander. “We don’t have any money! Not like I’d pay those demons, anyway.”

    “Yeah, I know…means at some point we’ll need to plan an escape with the Commander.” Rinn pulled back against the seat and pushed the button to turn the engine on. He set the truck into gear and started to back out. “We still need to figure out our supply problem with the transport and do our actual mission too. So we should have some time.”

    ** ** **
    The room they gave Shizuka came fully furnished. If it did not have the military base surrounding it and protocols, it would have passed for a standard studio apartment with an attached kitchen and bathroom. The bed and couch functioned as one set changing to the desired need. An entertainment monitor provided limited channel access. The cupboards recently received a new store of food. They prepared everything for her, as Ansgar told her. It still felt empty and impersonal.

    Shizuka did not care for much of what she saw. After the day she had, she just wanted to sleep. She changed the couch over to a bed and dropped down. Sheets or changing clothes did not matter to her. She did not feel up it. All her mind focused on was the whirlwind of things that happened. The girl, Aerona, appeared in her mind. The thought that the girl lived on base and did not have a problem with it bothered her. Then the case of the Ensign, who seemed kind, but forced to do things he found distasteful. Moreover, she fell on Edgar and herself, tricked or forced into service. ‘None of this is right… This is not how things should be… Where people are forced to take orders, become used to military service while still a kid, tricked and forced… It’s not right…’ Shizuka narrowed her features as she stared at the ceiling. ‘I’m going to make sure this never happens again…’

    To be continued…
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  6. #6
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 4 – Of Pawns and Kings

    Southeast Asia – 4km outside of Yokatomo

    Night almost finished with its hold over the Earth by the time the truck made it back to the transport. Rinn kept them out of sight and placed caution on being followed. They could not risk a compromised mission by the wrong people discovering them. It meant a longer time back to the transport, but it was worth it.

    When they stepped out of the truck without the Commander it everyone left behind feel like the worst happened. Wells immediately made it clear that Callein was fine, but did not get into details with them. He seemed bothered leaving it up to Rinn to cover things. “That’s the situation with the Commander,” he concluded, after giving everyone a brief summary of the events at the clinic. “We’ll need to break him out at some point, but right now he needs to recover.”

    “What about the mission,” asked Schir. She shrank a little when she got looks from everyone. They all thought the same thing, but said nothing. The question gave voice to something none of them wanted to think about.

    Pushing forward, Rinn looked up at the transport, as they stood in the hanger. “We continue with the mission. It doesn’t stop without the Commander. There are two objectives we need to complete in the time before we get the Commander. The first is maintenance, repairs and resupply on the ship. Going through the atmosphere really trashed the ship, while we’re working in an alien environment and technology there should be something we can find to fix up the ship. Second is the primary mission assigned to all of us.”

    Tension filled the hold after Rinn’s last statement. They all knew it had to begin soon. The risk they all accepted for the mission. “Investigating and testing the defenses of Earth.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Antarctica City – Antarctica International Air Port Public Docking

    “Weren’t sure if we’d see ya again, Ed,” barked Sam, discovering their guest in the back of the open cargo hold. The only other crewmember with Sam was Nate, who was too far back to have noticed Ed or even heard Sam. Sam waved to Ed and slapped him with a hardy pat on the back, as he got close. “The way the Cap’n talk’d weren’t sure if those military bastards let ya out!”

    Ed stretched up a little and wrapped his arm around Sam’s neck pulling him down a bit. “Ya think I’d leave tah Niph without givin’ a prayer ta ‘er? Yer tah only pilot they’ve got now! I’ve gotta calm ‘er down a wee befer I turn ‘er ove’ ta ya!” He gave him a playful smirk.

    Sam pushed Ed off him and roughed him up a little. “I’ve been flyin’ this hunk o’ junk longer than ya been walkin’! She trusts me better than ya!”

    “Then why do I’ve more flight hours than ya since I’ve been flyin’?”

    “The Cap’n just feelin’ bad for ya since ya ain’t got anythin’ else on this ship!”

    “Sure it ain’t ‘cause he trusts me more?”

    The old door to the hold creaked open blasting an awful noise. It broke up Sam and Ed’s roughhousing. They quickly noticed the Captain’s figure filling up the frame of the door. Sam immediately straightened up, more than before, but still hardly professional. “Cap’n! Ed’s come back!”

    The distance between them made it difficult to read the Captain’s already tough poker face. “I heard from the port controller. Come for yer goodbyes and belongs, Ed?”

    Nodding, Ed started walking deeper into the hold towards the Captain. He tugged on his fedora, out of habit. “Yeah, I couldn’t leave without seein’ Niph one last time!” Ed worked up a smile for the Captain. The stairs groaned under the weight of his steps until he finally came near to the Captain. Ed glanced over at the old man, while pulling on the brim of his hat a little more. “I’ll be in mah quarters befer I see everyone.”

    Fin patted him on the back as he walked by. “Everyone’s still on board. So they won’t be hard to find when you’re ready.” While Ed continued into the hall, Fin’s eyes narrowed a little reading him. He waited until Ed went out of range. By then, Sam reached the door. “They’ve already changed him in a single day…”

    Sam looked a little bewildered by the Captain’s comment. He leaned around the doorway trying to get a look at the hall, though Ed already was long out of sight. “Huh? What ya talkin’ about, Cap’n? He seems the same ta me!”

    “That’s ‘cause yer a wee dim,” Fin replied. The atmosphere already shifted and Fin read it clearly on Ed’s face the moment he saw him. Years of dealing with all sort of scum and citizenry alike made it easy for him to see through people. Fin turned around and started out of the threshold. “Keep cleanin’ up the hold! Don’t know when ‘nother assignment will pop up!”

    “Aye, Cap’n…” The mysterious nature of Fin’s response left Sam confused. He wanted to know more, but trusted the Captain to handle things.

    Waiting what seemed like an appropriate amount of time, Captain Fin leaned in to Edgar’s quarters. Ed was still in middle of sorting through things and packing what was necessary for him. “What’s eatin’ ya, kid?”

    “What ya talkin’ ‘bout?” Ed replied quickly, without missing a beat in his motions. He went over to the shelf pulling down a snow globe holding a snowman inside. Errant thoughts passed through causing him stop. It made his fingers run over the smooth glass surface.

    Fin pushed himself a little further in the room. He crossed his arms watching Ed. “I’ve known ya long enough to know when you ain’t yerself. Something happen back at the base?”

    The question froze Ed as though the icy winds of Antarctica gripped him with unyielding strength. Images of Shizuka surfaced in his thoughts. “Ya ev’r do somefin ya regretted later?”

    “Too many times to count, kid.” Fin released a stifled chuckle. A whole day could be spent recalling all of them. “Nothin’ wrong with regret, Ed. Makes us human. Lets us learn from our mistakes.”

    “But what if those mistakes ‘fected someone else? They ain’t jus’ yer mistakes anymore.”

    “True enough, but ya can’t change what’s been done. Ya can only change what’s to come.”

    “Yeah, I know…” Ed turned and shook up the snow globe, needing a distraction. The flakes in the liquid shined and bounced bits of light on his face. He shifted his eyes over to the Captain. His hand showed him the globe careful. “This is tah only gift I’ve from mah ma. I dun ‘ave any memories of ‘er, just fantasies I’ve cooked up from stories dad told mah befer he died. I always ‘magined ‘er bein’ kind with smile tah could make anyfin better. She’d want only tah best fer mah and do anythin’ if som’one tried ta harm mah.”

    “She was a good woman, Ed.”

    As though judging the weight, Ed lightly tossed the globe into the air. It only went a couple of centimeters from his hand, but shook everything up. He kept tossing it a little higher, bordering on reckless. A strange smile came across his face as he looked over at Fin. “Yer folks are sa’pose ta protect their kids.”

    “Ed?” Fin started to take a couple steps into the room. The feeling he got from Ed put knots in his stomach. He did not like the look the kid had at all.

    Ed caught the globe, no longer tossing it. His fingers wrapped around the sphere tightly. “But that’s just a childish fantasy, ain’t it?” A dark shadow drew over Ed’s face as he spoke. It continued to taint his features. Wrinkles cracked around his eyes from buried emotions. “It’s all just a fantasy!”

    Still trying to carefully approach, Fin watched Ed. “We all need a little fantasy to keep reality at bay. Nothin’ wrong with it, Edgar. Reality is too harsh without a little.”

    Tired of the coaxing, Ed threw the globe into his bag. “Reality?! Reality ain’t harsh! No, that’s too pretty of a word!” Ed slammed his fist against the metal wall of his quarters. It shook the shelf off one fastener causing it to slide everything down into the corner. Everything dangled precariously on the edge in an uncertain fate. “It was pointless in tah end! I did nofin’! We’re just insignificant piles of dirt tah be stepp’d on.”

    The Captain rushed over to Ed hoping to calm him. He dropped a hand on his shoulder to connect with him. “Hey, it’s alright. Fate always hold’s back her worst hands, but you can’t lose hope! You saw something terrible, but you can’t let it stop you, Ed.”

    “Yeah, I’ve gotta soldier on…” The word made Edgar laugh uncontrollable. It did not make any sense to him why he laughed, but he could not stop it. His outburst released him from the Captain’s hold allowing him to fall back against the wall. A hand gripped at his face while he laughed. Then the laughing stopped, suddenly. Silence followed.

    He slowly lowered his hand away from his face. Edgar looked up at Fin. “Ya know she’s right. We’re just selfish. We didn’t even think about tah consequences. We never do! It’s just ‘bout tah money!”

    “Hey, Ed,” snapped Fin. He slapped Ed across the cheek to get his attention. “Listen, yes, we’re in it for the money, but I pick our jobs. I only pick ones that I feel are worth it, even with the consequences.”

    “So yer sayin’ ya knew what was goin’ to happen?! Bastard!” Enraged, Ed lunged at the Captain swinging. He missed Fin, but it still left the two struggling.

    Fin fought with Ed for a little bit, but found his age catching up to his stamina. Rather than lose, he went for something reckless. He gave Edgar a head butt that knocked him to his knees. “Get a hold of yerself, Edgar!”

    “Bastard!” roared Ed, trying to stand up, but too dazed to manage anything. The floor was too comfortable for him in his state.

    The Captain grabbed Ed’s shoulder to lock him in place. “Listen, kid! Picking the jobs is my responsibility and the results lie on me as well, not you! Ya can’t always pick the right job, sometimes ya get the wrong one without knowin’! This is how it works in the adult world.” His words seemed to have reached Ed on at least some level, as he relaxed. Fin pulled away no longer needing to restrain him. “As you’ve learned the adult world is nothin’ like what ya thought. There’s plenty of darkness out there enough to crush in the strongest person, but yer enterin’ it. Ya have to be strong, if not for yerself, but for the girl, right?”

    Edgar’s eyes widen a bit caught off guard by his words. He kept thinking about himself that he forget about her. It raged about himself without considering her. He needed to talk to her. “I need ta find ‘er!” he shouted, jumping up to his feet only to collapse once more.

    “Woah, kid, don’t get up too fast,” joked Fin, “Yer brains were scrambled pretty good there!”

    Grinning again, Ed looked up at the Captain. “I wonder whose fault that is?”

    -X- -X- -X-

    A rude morning or maybe an inconsiderate morning. It was one of them. Shizuka did not care which, both applied well to her mood. The rigid and simply designs of the apartment reminded her she was not safe, but trapped. A terrible thought to wake up to in the morning. However, such thoughts did not last for long. She knew why she was awake, something buzzed in her ear.

    Sleep hazed, Shizuka looked around the room trying to figure out where the noise came from. It seemed to hit her from all sides. Annoyed and uncoordinated, she stumbled out of bed and knocked around the unfamiliar room in search of the noise. Everywhere she went it remained the same tone and strength, never weakening or gaining.

    Just as the noise began to drill through her skull and rip apart the bone, it stopped. She sighed, but only to hear something just as annoying. A familiar voice broke the momentary silence and projected through the entire apartment. “Petty Officer Third Class Shizuka Kitawara, I’ve come to take you to your orientation.”

    Shizuka’s eyes narrowed a little as she recognized his voice. “The Ensign…”

    “Good you’re awake.” His response caught Shizuka off guard. She darted her head around expecting him to be in the room, but she remained alone. Then she realized he could hear her speaking from outside. “Are you ready to leave?”

    She considered several responses for him, but left it simple. “Yes.” Arguing at the point she was in served her no purpose. She had objectives and seeing what they had in store was important.

    “So you’re wearing your uniform?”

    “Two minutes,” she grumbled. She looked around for a closest or dresser, but found neither immediately. When she arrived, she did not spend any time acquainting herself with the room. So she knew where nothing was other than the bed. A search managed to finally turn up a narrow slit in the wall, which turned out to be the closet with dresser built into the space. Finding the uniform was easy; it hung on hangers, all identical and all prepared.

    The simplicity of it made it easy for her to figure out. She hated the thought of being berated by the Ensign for missing something. Shizuka did not want to give him anymore ammunition. She pulled out one set and threw it on the bed along with her dress. The sudden movements reminded her of the bandages and soreness, things she nearly forgot about. She stared at her body for a bit thinking about what to do about the bandages. However, she realized time was short. ‘I’ll deal with it later. I don’t want to hear him yelling at me to hurry.’

    Spread out into the separate pieces, Shizuka examined the uniform to understand how to wear it. It seemed as straightforward as she initially thought. The uniform consisted of a pair of slacks, an undershirt, a dress blouse in her case, and a single breasted blazer. It used a blue color scheme for the design motif with a light blue base surrounded in trim and detail work by medium and dark blues. ‘Looks similar, but different,’ she noted, to herself recalling the Ensign uniform, which was more white than light blue.

    Color or design did not matter to her. Shizuka put on the cloths quickly, tucking in the shirt into the slacks. The length of the pants were close enough for her, but she had to use the belt to keep them from falling down on her. When she put on the blazer it was loose around her waist and fit around her chest. She felt grateful she was starting to develop, but not enough to make it uncomfortable.

    Finished, Shizuka made for the door. It was just in time as well, since the Ensign was about to call her again. “Looks like you’re ready,” he commented. He turned away from her and started for the elevator. “Let’s go, Petty Officer Kitawara.”

    “Hiraoka,” she corrected, emphatically.

    Ansgar looked back at Shizuka, stopped in mid-step by her correction. He watched her for a moment reading her expression. It came clearly across it was something she felt was important. Tempting the mood, he pressed the issue. “Kitawara is the name on record.”

    Working up a glare, Shizuka stood firm on the matter. “Your records are wrong. I haven’t gone by that family name in six years. Hiraoka is my family name.”

    “Your mother’s family name, if I recall.”

    “Is that a problem?” The staring contest continued between them. It was unclear to Shizuka if the Ensign planned to give in or fight her on it further. “I’ve accepted your demands. This concession should be only a minor inconvenience.”

    Pursed lips were the only sign he gave her. ‘Stubborn one…’ He closed his eyes to cleanse the air around him. When Ansgar opened his eyes he refocused on Shizuka. “Very well, I’ll see to the change in your records.” After concluding discussions, he resumed his walk to the elevator. “Follow me.”

    The first stop they made was to the mess hall for breakfast. It ran smoothly for them and Ansgar gave her brief details of her day. He remained on a subject only long enough to insure she understood before moving on.

    Their real destination, orientation, brought them to a new wing of the base Shizuka had not seen. The plate on the door was blank with only a room number, 302, next to the doorframe as the only marker. The Ensign opened the door directing Shizuka inside. “This is where your orientation begins,” he informed, his hand extended out motioning to someone else waiting inside. “Lieutenant Noltz, sir!” Ansgar came to attention and saluted. “I’ve brought Petty Officer Third Class Shizuka Hiraoka as requested for orientation, sir!”

    “Thank you, Ensign Toule,” replied the Lieutenant, saluting him allowing him to return to an at ease stance. “Bring her in.”

    Shizuka stepped in fully to take in the whole space. It unlooked unremarkable to her eyes. White walls surrounded her on all four sides. The room itself was small, about the same size as her apartment. A chair and desk sat to her left while a tall thin cabinet fit into the right. They were the only decorations for the room.

    Waiting for her was the Lieutenant, already eying her up and down in a subtle manner, while still broadcasting it clearly enough so Shizuka understood. Lieutenant Noltz appeared to be young woman, likely in her late twenties. The uniform fitted to her as though part of her rather than something she had to wear. She had a close strict haircut, looking like she took her role as a career officer seriously and expected it from others as well.

    Not knowing the expectations, Shizuka opted to stand in the middle of the room waiting to hear their plans for her. ‘Hopefully, I get some answers. I need to know what this is all about. What is that man planning?’

    “Good morning, Petty Officer,” began the woman. A small thin device turned about in her palm as she approached Shizuka. She stopped half a meter away from her, staring down at the young teenager. “I will be your orientation officer. I will be familiarizing you with HOPE regulations as well as the AESIR Project, to which you’ve been assigned. To begin, you are part the military arm of HOPE, not the civilian arm, as such you are required to follow all military regulations. First, you acknowledge and address any superior officer you meet with a salute.” She demonstrated for Shizuka the salute. “Now you.”

    Shizuka considered various rebellious actions, but only considered them. She knew she had to play along with them. Following the woman’s motions, Shizuka gave her the desired salute. ‘I’ve got to work with them, so they trust me enough that I have the guards lifted. I can’t do anything with them around me.’

    “Very good. There’s a lot to cover. Take a seat over there and I’ll begin.” She looked over at Ansgar. “You’re dismissed. I’ll call for you when we’re done for the day.”

    “Yes, sir!” He left with almost no sound, leaving Shizuka to the Lieutenant. The lights dimmed a little and the wall facing Shizuka shimmered to life. Text appeared on the wall, a title page for the first of many lessons.

    Hours drained away in repetition on the various regulations required for military service and those in service to HOPE. It was all very dry and boring material for Shizuka. She felt herself losing it after an hour, but found a loud noise buzz in her ear the moment she trailed off. It felt like she was being watched at all moments, never allowed rest or chance for weakness.

    “That concludes the regulations. Any questions, Petty Officer, before I continue?”

    Shizuka had a lot of questions for her, but none of them valid to the subject material, save one. “Everyone keeps referring to me as Petty Officer, which from the information you’ve shown me is a rank. However, it’s not the lowest rank. Why is that?”

    “It’s because of your special status.”

    “Special status?” Different ideas came to mind. She considered it possibly something that man did, but she doubted it since Edgar was referred by the same rank. It still worried her the term, special status.

    Lieutenant Noltz nodded to her. She pushed the button on her device changing to a different slide. “This is related to your assignment to the AESIR Project. All pilots in the project are granted a higher rank than the standard soldier. The training you will soon receive is designed to make you an elite pilot with only the rest of your team as your peers. Thus your elite status grants you a higher rank. For now you’re only a Petty Officer Third Class, but when your training is completed you’ll be promoted to Warrant Officer.”

    “I see…” The answer was complete and full, but still left her with questions. The expectations placed on her weighed especially uncomfortable on her shoulders. She accepted what she had to do, but hearing a piece of it made her get a sense of what she was getting herself into with them. ‘Elite pilot? Why did they pick me? Certainly, there are far better choices than me. I’m just a teenager!’

    -X- -X- -X-

    Yokatomo Commercial District

    Morning presented itself with another chilly day for the out-of-towners. Crowds filled the streets with people going to work and getting a breakfast on the go. Everyone had a place to be and focused on it. Yet a polite warmth managed to carry through them. It had Rinn and Elle with a lot to take in as they watched.

    Broken into two teams, each team had different assigned goals. Terra Team One Alpha’s mission was to locate the necessary supplies for the transport. Rinn detailed a list of parts needed. Alpha Team was lead by Wells with Noinae and Schir. Bravo Team followed Rinn, accompanied by Elle, their task reconnaissance for their primary mission.

    While Wells took the truck into the port district of the city, Rinn and Elle walked on foot through the city. Part of a good recon was feeling out the environment and people, so Rinn claimed. Their mission provided them with several different sorts of attire. Rinn selected the jumpsuits, making them generic enough to fit in as work crews or maintenance staff.

    Eventually, they made it to a large park surrounded by the tall skyscrapers of the new part of the city. It gave them a good opportunity to sit and not look conspicuous. Rinn laid back in the grass, appearing very casual. “Come on, standing around is going to tire you out, Lellecausua.” He patted his hand on the grass directing her to the spot.

    She looked down at him with a bothered expression mixing with worry. “We’re on a mission! You shouldn’t be lying about!”

    “And you think I can’t investigate while lying down?” Reaching up for her, he grabbed her wrist and insisted on her sitting at least. He went back to relaxing once he got his way. “Look around, what do you see?”

    “People. People without a care in the world,” she replied, not even thinking about the response.

    Closing his eyes, Rinn grinned a little. “Really? I see something different. They’re struggling and fighting, they’re quite desperate. They want to live, probably harder than we do back home.” The hint of irony in his last words made him chuckle a little.

    A little disturbed by his analysis, Elle turned to look down at him. “You sympathizing with them? You know what they did.”

    “Yeah, I know.” Rinn dismissed her with a hand wave. “I’m just saying what I see, but you’re the one that brought it up. I was actually looking for a different answer. You saw before right, the difference that they have here. There’s an old part of the city and a new part of the city.”

    “So, that happens a lot.”

    “But examine it closer. You can see there is a difference in the technology, where the age changes. They don’t maintain the old, but they don’t destroy it either to rebuild. They just leave it. As though it was a reminder to them. The new part of the city has a significant difference in construction and technology, as though decades passed. What does that tell you?”

    “They like to waste space.”

    “It means that the old city was that way for a while and kept that way. It is still functional, but a recent boom in development came through in the last couple of decades. I would guess a hundred years ago, this was a small town, but you look at it now it is major hub. The port they went to is huge. There is traffic always going through.”

    “So you’re saying something happened to turn this from a meaningless town into a metropolis in the last couple of decades?”

    “Yes. That sort of development doesn’t happen naturally. There’s something very deliberate about it.”

    “But how is that going to help us?”

    “It means if it was deliberate then there was a lot of city planning done. So if there are any defenses it should be more uniform and less random. It makes our job investigating easier.”

    Elle stared at Rinn for a while in silence. Any retort she might have had for him disappeared after his last round. It was difficult to dispute such logic. She did not even look too closely at the city. They were looking for military defenses and level of technology, she never considered the city itself to be a clue. ‘Who is he? He’s not a normal soldier…’ She recalled how his fast-talking and impromptu acting got the Commander treatment. He was very good with words.

    Breaking the silence, Rinn stretched his arms releasing a long yawn as though having just awoke for a nap. “How’d you get your nickname?”

    “Huh?” It caught her a little off guard. He asked it as though it was nothing and the most natural question to follow in the conversation. Nothing in the way he spoke made it seem out of place, yet she knew it was random. It had no purpose in their previous discussion. She hardened her expression planning to end his casual advance. “I don’t believe that has anything relevant to our investigation.”

    Not even a flinch came from him. “Maybe, but we’re going to be stuck together in this foreign place for a while, living out of the hunk of junk that pretends to fly. I’m the outsider here along with your team newbie. Nothing wrong with me trying to learn about my comrades more, eh?”

    Point proven again, he was good with words. She ended up feeling like the one in the wrong for having snapped back at him. Shifting her eyes away from him, though he still had his eyes closed, Elle worked out the turmoil in her mind. The fact that he was a stranger to the group made it difficult for her to trust him. He acted too friendly for someone assigned as their pilot.

    Elle sighed, signaling her relenting to his inquiry. “The Commander, Polsen and myself have been together for a while. It was Polsen, he started calling me ‘Elle’ from the first day. He said my full name was a mouth full, so he shorted it on his own.”

    “You didn’t protest?”

    “I did, but he never listened.”

    “Sounds like him. How far back do you guys go?”

    “We were part of the Lyra 649th. Just regular enlisted soldiers.”

    A pause in Rinn response followed Elle’s answer. It was not clear if he was thinking or just a difficult line to continue. However, his silence did not last for long. “Lyra huh, so you were a Fed during the war.” Another pause, though he made it clear he was thinking now. “The war ended four years ago and given his age. So you guys came in near the end.”

    “Yes, we did not enter combat until the final year of the war. Most of the 649th was lost during the Battle of Cepheus-15. Only the three of us survived and only because the Commander’s heroics.”

    “Yeah, the stories of the Linebreaker and the White Ram are quite well known. It’s pretty crazy charging the Alliance’s Third Fleet to break the line their fleet formed and turn the tide of the entire battle.”

    Memories of the fighting flashed back for Elle. She pocketed them away in the safe spot she always kept them. War memories only served to dredge up sadness. “He only did that to protect the battalion. He wasn’t thinking about breaking the fleet formation.”

    “But it was the unorthodox methods that turned the battle. The war would have dragged on longer had things gone differently at Cepheus-15.”

    “The war ended soon after Cepheus-15,” she recalled. Lines of empty coffins filled her mind of the lost comrades. An entire battalion wiped out, people he knew since she joined. “He was promoted and given a command shortly after the battle. Ollane and Noinae joined the team then. We flew independent missions in the final days of the war. After the unification, we were part of the peacekeeping forces until this mission. Schir had only recently joined us before the mission. She’s never even sortied in real combat.”

    Pulling himself up, Rinn looked over at Elle. “You guys have quite the history.” Appearing as though well rested, Rinn began to lift himself up.

    “What about you?” Elle stood up and walked around in front of him. Plenty of questions about Rinn still remained. She only had guesses about him and reason for his selection. “I told you about us, how about explaining yourself a little.”

    The light-not-taking-anything-serious expression washed over his face as he stared at her. A difficult poker face to read. “So suspicious looking,” he sung, as though treating the whole thing like it was just a game. He started walking over to the path that cut through the park. A summoning finger beckoned Elle to follow him. It seemed he was willing to bite.

    When she caught up to him, he tilted his head in her direction briefly. “You must have theories. I’m curious what you think.” It was still game.

    She hated the look he gave her, but knew he was not going to start. It was up to her. Elle felt like he was trying to make her look like a fool by guessing first and then correct on what she got wrong. Almost as though he judged her based on her answers. “The way you said it, you weren’t on the Federation side during the war. So you’re likely an ex-Alliance officer. Since you’re still in the military after the unifications I’m guessing you had no problems with changes in the military under the Federation, as many Alliance soldiers left service after the surrender.”

    “It’s true that many Alliance soldiers disagreed with the methods of the Federation and refused to serve.” Their walk brought them near the end of the park. Traffic on the sidewalk increased as the day slowly moved on. Rinn directed them down a street as though he knew where he wanted to go next, despite being an unknown city. “But after such a lengthy and aggressive campaign, it is only natural to have people discontent with the outcome.”

    Elle glanced over at Rinn with a narrow look. “You didn’t say if I was right.”

    “True, but if there was something I wanted to correct I would have said.”

    An evasive answer. She did not like how he treated it, but she continued anyway. “You spoke like Cepheus-15 was something you heard about rather than experienced. So you were probably not on the frontlines, since the Alliance threw much of their forces into the battle. The way you act is casual as though nothing surprises you. Perhaps you’ve seen too much of the war, rather than too little. A little cynical.” Checking him for any signs, he kept walking them down the sidewalk.

    No reply or denial left her a little unsettled. She did not think she was so close. It felt like he was just playing her and leading her around. A terrible feeling settled inside her. “Your analysis and quick thinking at the clinic makes it clear you’ve got experience in this sort of thing. You’re used to lying to people, easily and quickly without a second thought. You read deeper into a scene than most would. Former military intelligence?”

    A slow clap came from Rinn, as though granted her a reward for her efforts. “I figured you get to the answer with enough thinking.” She glared at him knowing he mocked her. “You’re correct. I was a former Alliance spy.”

    “Why send an ex-spy from the former Alliance on this mission?” Silence from the ex-spy pushed her to come to her own answers, a loud. He kept nudging her, rather than reveal anything. “Your skill set as a spy makes sense for the investigation and analysis. But the mission was put together by the Federation Military and was an objective long before the unification happened. Including someone from the Alliance…” Her thoughts trailed off on her.

    She worked the problem up to the point she stopped, but hit a wall. The Alliance part stumped her. It did not make any sense to her. A mission with the sole resources coming from the Federation, not the member states, did not have any support from the Alliance. Thoughts started back up for her as her train resumed. “No alliance members are part of the project. It was all made up of individuals from the Federation. Everything was being solely dedicated by the Federation President, it was his campaign goal, this project. The former Alliance member states had no say in any of it…” She stopped again, but for a different reason.

    The annoying glow in Rinn eyes showed up again, as though telling her to continue. He egged her on like he was the teacher guiding the student to the answer. It was too smug. “Politics…the member states forced someone from their side on the mission.”

    Smugness turned to a grin. Rinn nodded lightly to her, while continuing their walk. “You’re correct, this is a political maneuver by them to have a hand in the project. If things go well, they’re on the winning side and have something to tangible to use for support. If not, well I’m a spy, it’s easy to disavow any knowledge of my existence. I’m invisible until needed.”

    “Don’t they know how important this project is?!” exclaimed Elle. Her voice caught the attention of passerby’s. She quickly quieted her voice and tried to look invisible herself. Once out of range and in a different crowd of strangers, she resumed. “They’re playing politics with something so dangerous.”

    Rinn have a shrug to her. “It’s all a game for them. They do this sort of thing all the time. If things succeed they profit, if things fail they point fingers.”

    “They’re so far away from the problem that they can’t even understand it. No one up there even knows yet. All of this, what we have here.”

    “That is why we’re here.” In front of them was a large skyscraper. A new target for them as their investigation began a new turn. “No one’s been here in over six hundred years. It’s time to see how different they are from us.” Rinn walked through threshold of the sliding doors with Elle following closely behind.

    -X- -X- -X-

    Concluding the first part of the orientation, Shizuka entered the classified details about the AESIR Project. The Lieutenant changed slides and presented blueprints of something that Shizuka did not recognize, let alone understand. She only made out the words “AESIR” and “Freya” from the slide, which sounded familiar.

    “Everything I’m about to tell you is highly classified information and does not leave this room. You are only allowed to speak about this information to those with clearance at or exceeding your level of clearance.”

    “How will I know who does and doesn’t have clearance?”

    “In general, pilots all have the same level along with the engineers and mechanics working on the machines. Work crews do not and are highly compartmentalized. Anyone else, it is best not to say anything unless they can provide you proof of their clearance.” Redirecting back to the slide, she activated a button on the device in her hand. The blueprints expanded and changed showing even more information about the previous slide. “I will be providing you the introductory material about the machine you will be piloting, the AESIR Unit 01, Freya. Further details on your machine can be found with the mechanics and engineers working on the machine.”

    “Lieutenant, what is the Freya, that machine I saw?”

    “The AESIR Project was created for the sole purpose of developing and producing the machines known as the AESIR. The AESIR machines are part the ARM Project, the highest-level project overseeing all related work. The AESIR are what we call ARM, Advance Response Machine. ARMs are designed for frontline response to threats that the general policing and military forces cannot handle. The AESIR, stands for All-Purpose Equipment for Self Interfacing Response, or highly specialized ARMs designed for human pilots to command and control.

    “As you’ll learn in the training, the cockpit of the AESIR uses neural links to aid the pilot in control. Much of the machine is still manually controlled, but lower level functions are managed through these neural links. Part of your training will be accustoming yourself to this so that it is second nature.”

    “Um…I don’t follow a lot of this, but this looks like a machine for combat, for war. What are we fighting against that these are needed?”

    “I’m told you saw them already. Elements of human society here still do not wish to work together for the betterment of the Earth and survival of the human race. They wish to destroy what we’ve achieved and will use any means to do that.”

    “Are you talking about the terrorist group Ragnarok?”

    “Though we don’t know how, they have been able to create ARMs themselves. Such weapons of destruction are a threat to the peace and stability of the Earth. The AESIR are meant to protect humanity.”

    “But I’ve never heard anything about this before. If they were using them, the media—“

    “You’ll learn that the media doesn’t know everything about the truth of the world.”

    “But is such power really necessary?”

    “It is only with overwhelming power will we prevent further conflicts from occurring.”

    “So we’re a deterrent?”

    “Once they understand the power of the AESIR they will not want to fight anymore.”

    Shizuka considered everything the woman told her. It all confused her. The battle she witnessed was very real. If the potential of more battles like the one she saw happened, more villages, innocents would be sacrificed. ‘If I don’t have to actually fight. If it is just a deterrent, but wouldn’t anyone do then?’ Pieces still did not add up correctly. “Why me? Why even use a human pilot?”

    “You’ll have to speak to the engineers if you want to know why a human pilot is required to control the AESIR. As for yourself, you will selected by Doctor Kitawara specifically for the Freya. He insisted it to be piloted by no one else other than you.”

    “So when he suddenly has a use for me, he comes calling. I’m otherwise forgotten, huh?” It did not really bother her as much as she thought. Such facts were accepted by her a long time ago. The reason she ran away was because she realized the facts, the truth about him. When he needed her he came and he needed her for his project. ‘He doesn’t think about anything other than his work and what he needs to complete it.’

    Answers came, but questions rode along with them. They were never ending. Most times the answers were not enough. The answers were only vague enough to keep one satisfied, but wanting more moments later. Always starved, always hungry. No real truth, just the convenient truth.

    The ‘truth’ ended eventually, followed up by the real part of orientation, physical training. Lieutenant Noltz began her explanation, “The first week I’ll be testing your physical condition and endurance. You will be required to be in peak physical condition at all times as an AESIR pilot. A specialized training regime has been created for you to get you in shape. It will be tough at the beginning, but you’ll adapt in time.”

    A hint of doom came out in her words, like an ill omen. Shizuka swallowed slowly a little concerned about what they would subject her to for training. She feared that they might use it as an excess to punish her for her escape and behavior.

    Whether a punishment or not, Shizuka never felt exhaustion like she had after the first day. It was something that she would never forget, yet never remember either. She was quite certain death was similar to how she was at the end.

    -X- -X- -X-

    Revived, Edgar returned to Base with his farewells concluded. He held a determined look in his eyes and a set course. However, it did not last for long before Ensign Tool spotted him. Ed tried to evade him, but failed, as he always knew where Ed turned. It took until caught for Ed to remember the band on his wrist. ‘Damn tracker!’

    “I adjusted your schedule so you could finish your business, Petty Officer Dubois, but your orientation is still happening today.”

    Tightening up his hand, he fought with his urges to snap at the Ensign. ‘I haven’t found ‘er yet!’ He fixed Ansgar with a stare trying hard to keep his emotions in check, but still failing. “I have one thing I need ta do and then ya can do what’ver ya want ta mah!”

    “I’m afraid you’ve already used up your free time.”

    Ed stepped forward losing the battle with his emotions. “Damnit! It’s just one thing! I dun even need ta leave tah base!”

    Ansgar read Ed’s face seeing the serious tone in his eyes. He quickly weighed things forced to make a fast decision. “You have as long as it takes for me to find your orientation officer and get things ready. But you must be in uniform!” His words had to rise as Ed already started off in his own direction. All he got in response was a hand wave to acknowledge. Ansgar sighed to himself.

    The answer put a smile on Edgar face. He sprinted over to the apartments not caring about how out of breath or sweaty he got in the process. The bag dropped carelessly at his side the moment he breached the threshold. Edgar was back out the door in seconds hopping on one leg with his pants while simultaneously fighting with his blazer. He finished his wardrobe in the elevator and bolted the moment it opened. ‘Where tah hell is she?! I dun have long!’

    His first location he checked was the female apartments, but the computer informed him that she was not back. It sent him off deeper into the base asking around in search of clues. A couple of people remembered seeing something that seemed like Shizuka, but gave him no good leads. Minutes continued to drain away from him the longer he went. ‘Damn, if I had ask’d Ensign Tool he probably would ‘ave known! Now I won’t be able ta find ‘er at all!’

    An empty hall in the middle somewhere looking like every other place Edgar came to a stop. He needed a moment to think. Everywhere he ran was already turning into a jumble within his mind. He could not keep one hallway straight from another. The bland military appearance left him confused. ‘Where is she?!’ He pounded his fist against the wall in frustration.

    Just as he began to walk away, he crossed paths with Shizuka at an intersection. He froze in place standing in her way, though not intentionally. Ed simply did not know what to say or how to act now that he found her.

    Contrary to how she usually acted towards him, she barely even flickered a moment of frustration at him. Her face looked like it wanted to sag and her shoulders curved down more than usual. Everything in the way she moved looked broken. The fire in her eyes was gone. Shizuka simply walked around Ed.

    A woman in uniform walked with her, an escort. Ed did not recognize her, however she stared at him briefly as though he did something wrong. The whole scene confused him. He had no words. His words were sealed with his lips, locked up tight.

    Shizuka continued her dead walk away from him. The further she got away the tighter Ed’s chest got. The paralysis finally snapped letting him stretched out his arm. “…Shu…Su!” It almost seemed like he was shouting unintelligibly. Only the woman glanced back at him, the one that noticed his voice. Shizuka made not response or reaction to him. Ed ran down the hall after her not willing to give up. “Shu…Shizuka!” He could not allow himself the moment of pride to get her name right. His eyes burned holes in the back of Shizuka waiting on her.

    The call of her name caused her to stop. For what seemed like an hour, Shizuka slowly turned toward the voice. Her responsiveness was still missing. Ed finally locked eyes with Shizuka, but he did not feel like she was actually looking at him. The dead expression prevented her from looking like anything more than a doll. Nothing was getting through to her and he knew it. He hung his head, unable to say anything more.

    Ed did not know when she left, he never heard the clicking of shoes against the polish floor. It was not until a hand grabbed him from behind that he returned to reality. Ensign Tool stood behind him, likely wanting him to leave with him for the orientation. Ed nodded vaguely at him and followed. ‘I missed my chance…but I have to keep trying!’

    An unfamiliar room swallowed him up. His daze made the passage of time hard to track. Before him stood a young man, older than the Tool, but still qualified in age enough to merit young. Ed did not even try to get a feel of the man. Nothing really mattered to him at the moment. Orientation likely happened, but he would have failed a quiz on it.

    His day ended with the same feelings he had the night before, multiplied.

    -X- -X- -X-

    A dark familiar room housed a gathering of the top brass of HOPE with the exception of one individual. Lieutenant Noltz joined them under request from the General. The three heads of the military departments seat on the commanding side of the table. Their faces held hard looks reading to judge and rip apart anything. Opposite of them was the nervous Lieutenant along with an ever unfazed Doctor Kitawara.

    Starting out the meeting, the General leaned forward pressing his hands together while his elbows rested on the table surface. He peered over his interlaced fingers to stare directly at Lieutenant Noltz. “Lieutenant Elizabeth Noltz, you’ve been brought before this committee to give your report on the first week training progress of your trainee, Petty Officer Third Class Shizuka Hiraoka.” The General glanced down at the screen confirming he read it correctly. His eyes turned to Doctor Kitawara briefly before focusing on the woman.

    “Yes, sir!” Dimming the lights, Elizabeth stepped forward to the table with device in hand. She brought up the physical records of Shizuka. A large “classified top secret” mark stamped the record, while the details outlined all measurements and tests performed on Shizuka. “These are the records run on Petty Officer Hiraoka at age one, then Potential #3294301.” She changed the slide to another record, a current one for Shizuka. It quickly transitioned into a graph comparing the results. “This is Petty Officer Hiraoka now after a week of training. While the physical training prior was not poor, she is not currently fit for the extreme forces placed on the body while piloting an AESIR. Her adaptability, logic centers and neural responses are higher than an average Potential. However, she has shown some resistance to the interfacing with the training simulator.”

    The Admiral leaned forward a little joining General Nornland. “What is your assessment of her then? Can she handle being a pilot?”

    Silence filled the room while the Lieutenant considered her answer. The longer she waited the worse it made her answer appear. She felt the eyes of everyone on her. “I do not believe she would make a good pilot, sir! She has the strengths of any Potential, but her environment for the last six years has not conditioned her for the rigors of military service. She has already displayed rebellious tendencies and if she were to continue forward in the Project she will likely resist.”

    “Thank you, Lieutenant. That is all, dismissed.”

    “Sir!” She saluted to the committee and then departure the room.

    Once the room was short one the atmosphere changed and redirected. Attention came to Doctor Kitawara. The Admiral pushed a little closer to the table working his stature to a commanding presence. “Doctor Kitawara, you’ve heard the report. Your daughter may be one of the best Potentials, but your disregard for her training has wasted her.”

    “Agreed,” nodded the Nornland, “You requested her to be a candidate, but like with the other one both are not suitable for the Project.”

    “I disagree,” Kitawara started, not that him disagreeing with them was a surprise. “I picked them because they were not part of the Project from the beginning. You think I’d just let my daughter go off and act like a rebellious selfish child knowing the importance of the Project?”

    “You’re telling us this is all part of your plan?”

    “Of course! I allowed my daughter to go, how do you think it was so easy for an eight year to just leave Antarctica City alone? I wanted her out there because of how it would shape her. Both of them will be far greater pilots than either of the two you handpicked. Besides, as head of the Project I’ve already had adjustments and specifications made to the Freya and Od for them. Unless you want the Project to go behind schedule and leave us vulnerable to their attacks, they are your pilots.” Kitawara stared at them in his usual unflinching matter. The look in his eyes lacked any sign of equality between them. When they had nothing more to add, he departed to leave them to their frustrations.

    As the door closed, the General slammed his fist down on the table. “Damn you, Kitawara! We need the rights pieces that will do as ordered and not think. He’s threatening our command.”

    “The man became less predictable after his wife died,” commented the Air Marshal, “He was a brilliant Potential and we needed him to get the Project back on course after the previous failures.”

    “Perhaps…he’s too brilliant. Unfortunately, the course has already been set. But we still have options.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    The passage of a week was barely anything for them. Covertly sneaking out parts for the transport and spying left the team little time for any stray thoughts. Only when night came did they get any rest, unless they had a heist to carry out on a warehouse. In no time, their deadline came fast approaching.

    That deadline was the reason they all gathered in the transport. Both Rinn and Wells took center stage. It seemed that the chance to cause trouble for the ‘demons’ improved his attitude, in addition to the time to let everything cool off.

    Starting things off, Wells had his fist in the air looking pleased. “We’ve finally got enough parts to fix the ship!” Their last run just ended before the start of the meeting. Everything already off loaded from the truck and packed around the Skins. It looked like an organized junkyard. The Skin almost looked bothered being in the presence of random parts, as though being considered junk.

    “You’re getting ahead of yourself,” Rinn reminded, placing a hand in front of Wells to curb his enthusiasm, “Someone still has to fix the ship.” He was not sure if he liked the new Wells with steam blown off.

    Adding shifting eyes towards the Lieutenant, Wells directed his words. “Someone will need to.” While not attempting to be subtle, it still looked like a failed attempt. However, not letting any of it linger, Wells refocused the topic to a new subject. “And thanks to someone, we’ve finish preliminary investigation of the defense of Yokatomo. We’ll need to move on to another city for a comparative analysis.”

    Shifting to a holographic projection of the Earth, Wells began a summary. Details of their recently acquired intelligence hovered in text next to the Earth. “Additionally, according the updated maps that we’ve managed to procure getting into Antarctica airspace is going to be difficult. Command believes the bulk of the military force and headquarters are stationed here.”

    “I was able to track back the direction the cargo transport that carried the giant Skin that attacked us.” Following up Wells, Rinn projected his information on the holograph. Several different flight paths appeared along with markers noting the engagement. “Based on flight speed compared to our arrival, their response time correlates with this theory that Antarctica is their base. Add to the fact, that we’ve yet to see any real military presence in the city would seem to imply they are centralizing their forces there.”

    “So we’ll need to get as much information on it as possible for Command.”

    Schir, the team newbie, stood up to call attention to herself. “Isn’t it strange for there not to be any military presence anywhere else in the world? Given they are united, wouldn’t it make more sense to have bases spread around the world for faster response times and global presence?”

    “They’ve been focusing heavily on terraforming the Earth,” replied Elle. They gained access to some historical records at a library. What they found started to piece things together. “According to their history, nearly all of their resources have been funneled to restoring the damage caused by the nuclear holocaust six hundred years ago. There has not been a single war in all that time. So it is likely that a military presence of any sort was deemed unnecessary. This H.O.P.E. Organization seems to run the restoration efforts and act as the central government.”

    Noinae spoke up, as the meeting turned into a group discussion. “But we know they have a military force of sort. The giant Skin that attacked us is proof enough of that.”

    “However, their official records state they have no *real* standing military, just a small group of volunteer enlisted soldiers. Everything’s handled by the policing agencies.”

    “Official records. Governments lie all the time.”

    “That’s right!” interjected Wells. He looked like he wanted to take command of the situation. “We don’t know what they have unofficially. None of our engagement made any of the media. Only some mention of an organization called Ragnarok from that day.”


    “Media manipulation,” noted Rinn, his arms crossed appearing deep in thought. “It’s a pretty common tactic for military or government agencies in hiding the truth. Like Lellecausua said, they’ve never known war and it’s been centuries since. I doubt they want the public to know we’re roaming about. It looks like this Ragnarok group is an easy fall guy for them, since they are a known global terrorist group. However, they can still attack us by labeling part of the terrorist group and the public won’t know any different. Not that we are planning on exposing ourselves anymore, currently.”

    “Do you think they have hidden bases then, if they’re going to all this trouble,” asked Schir.

    Neither of them had a good answer for her. However, Wells took it upon himself to give her one. “That’ll be part of the reason why we will keep searching other cities around the world. If it is hidden, it won’t be easy to find, but we’ll need to know about it.” Everything seemed settled. They still had many questions, but only time would reveal them.

    A graver air surfaced from Wells, despite the already serious atmosphere. It brought an awkward tension to the room. “We have one last order of business to discuss.” He paused for a moment, but everyone already knew where he was going with the meeting. It was the main reason they all gathered. The most important discussion of the night. “The Commander. We need to get a plan together for breaking him out of the clinic.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    After the weekly committee meeting, General Nornland returned to his office. A mountain of electronic devices covered his desk. He sat down in his chair leaning back, staring at the paperwork. The debate with Doctor Kitawara weighed on his mind. Their new pilots left him with too many concerns rather than assurances. Untested machines combined with unknown pilots, he did not like the direction things headed. All of the confident talk from the Doctor would not fix it for him.

    Catching his eye on something new on his desk, Nornland leaned forward tapping his finger on the screen. The pad was placed in the center of his desk, his assistant felt it was important enough to give it such a position.

    He read the highlights of the report as they scrolled across the screen. The report held the label of critical, hence the assistant’s placement. Yet most of it seemed very trivial, hardly anything important. It was simply company reports of stolen stock sent through one of his many intelligence agents. Yet it bugged him, he kept looking over it. The longer he examined it he started to see the reason. He went back and read the agents report thoroughly confirming his suspicions. “Rather sudden, these string of stolen supplies…”

    His fingers poked at his computer screen activating it. He ran the reports through some additional databases. “We’re going to need move carefully. Last time worked to our advantage, but this time they’re staying hidden.” Several strategies ran through his mind to handle the matter. While he thought, his fingers sifted through data on his computer form the recent day.

    A file on Edgar Dubois surfaced, a brief talking point during the meeting. He looked at the weekly report on Edgar. “Yes, this should work out. It’ll give the Doctor what he needs and it’ll work out for me.” The General activated a voice to text recording device. He prepared a reply for the agent. “Begin recording. I’ve got a team for you. They’ll handle this matter. Arrange the setup. Attached are all of the documents. End message.”

    To be continued…
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  7. #7
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 5 – Darkness of Reality

    Yokatomo International Air Port – Private Hangar 21

    Only the array of hangar lights shined into the dirty cockpit. The main doors held shut keeping the Niphliheim hidden. Neither of the crew in the cockpit had any interest beyond the thick glass-like material. They propped their feet up on the console without a thought to what they might be near. It was fortunate for them everything was in lock down mode or Sheila would have given them a fierce yelling to leave them deaf for a day.

    It was not like either cared about Sheila anyway. They could get away with such disregard, since she was not on board, same went for the Captain. It was the boring task ‘Guard the Ship’, but they accepted it. Negotiations were not their taste.

    Nate sat himself comfortably in the co-pilot seat. The departure of Edgar left the seat vacant and not normally filled by him. He barely fit into the seat. His part muscle and part fat figure had them making use of him in the cargo hold more than playing back-up to Sam. Most of the console was foreign to him, but he knew enough to keep the bird in the air, if forced.

    Leaning back in the seat made it groan painfully, wishing Nate would leave. He had nowhere else to go. “Sure am ‘cited ‘bout tah new job. Jes’ th’nkin’ ‘bout tah creds we’ll get.”

    Shifting his feet a little, Sam looked quite settled with his pilot seat. He wasted no time giving it his own personal touches with various pin-ups and shot glasses on top of the dash of the console. “I’m a lil’ uneas’d by tah ole th’ng.” His butt started to get a little numb from his posture, forcing him to move around a little. Sam made sure his feet stayed reclined. It was important.

    “Eh? Tah muney! Thunk ‘bout it!”

    “Ya, ya, I know what ja sayin’. Jes seems lil’ off all tha creds fer doin’ footwork. Dun seem like work if ya ain’t usin’ tah Niph.”

    “Ya jes wan’ ta h’ve a job tha makes mah work.”

    Sam laughed a heartedly at the thought. “Can’t say I’d disagree. M’re work ya might fit tha seat bett’r.”

    “Les see ya move tah goods w’th those sticks!” Nate threw up his thick arm at Sam proud of his body, despite not being the perfect sign of fitness. It was true enough he was the strongest physically in the crew. Any heavy lifting went his way.

    “These sticks keep ya from fallin’ outta tah sky! So ya might want ta give ‘em a lil’ mor’ respect!”

    “An’ these guns keep ya wallet full!”

    The two stared at each other for a long moment before laughing loudly. Neither had much to do with guarding the ship from nothing. It was not like anyone important enough cared about them. They had nothing to do. It was the only way to pass some time.

    Yokatomo Industrial District

    Another late night run on the freight stores became the routine. Wells led the night’s run. It gave him something to focus on that was easier to handle. He felt like he achieved something and could see the results from their work each night. The ship became more likely to fly again. However, tonight had them out for a different reason.

    Most of their supply raids for the ship ended. Anything else the ship needed would be when Rinn discovered they needed something else. No, the raid tonight was for another plan. They needed equipment for their rescue of Callein. Along with him was their newbie, Schir. “You good for this, Petty Officer?”

    Schir looked a little distracted. Her gaze set on the side window. Out of everyone, she seemed the most affected by Earth’s appearance. He knocked her chair to snap her attention. “Sir! Yes, sir!”

    A little suspicious of her focus, he questioned her. “You remember why we’re here, right?”

    “Of course! Sir!” Schir nodded becoming nervous after her embarrassing behavior while on a mission. She straightened herself up. “We’re here to steal one of the industrial molecular cutters.”

    “And a power supply. These things don’t just run remotely.”

    “R-right!” Internally, she berated herself for missing a piece. It was obvious. She could not believe she forgot it. The mission was in ways more important their primary objective. None of them said it out loud, but it was something that they all believed. Schir spent the least amount of time with them, however it did not take psychologist to figure out how important Cal was to all of them, especially Wells. She wanted to asked, but never found the time.

    Wells was not blind to her behavior. She was a rookie. He stopped the truck. “Look, I know this isn’t exactly what you signed up for. But everything will work out. They’re just a bunch of civilians, untrained and not looking for trouble. It’ll be a quick in and out mission.” He hoped the pep talk calmed her down a little. While hardly dangerous, he did not need someone highly strung when the moment required flexibility. These were hardly well planned missions. They only had a few hours to put a working strategy together.

    “It’s important though, we’re doing this for the Commander.”

    “Which is why it’ll be fine. Nothing is going to stop us from getting him back out.”

    Some uncertainty still filled into gaps of Schir’s heart. She had trouble with his optimistic outlook. “Yes, sir.”

    Set in a dark alley, their truck parked up against the perimeter fence. Barbed wire protected the top, while electricity pulsed through the metal. It seemed like high security to them at first, but found it to be the norm in all of the warehouses. Protecting the goods was important.

    Standing on top of the trailer, Wells and Schir judged their leap down to the inside property. Wells went first landing with a gentle roll as though the several meter distance was nothing more than a light step down. Schir remained back longer filling a little hesitant about the jump. She leaned forward a little judging it a second and third time. It felt like she needed more time to figure the distance.

    Already standing and looking up at her, the Ensign motioned to her to get down. As things delayed, he looked around to make sure they were still clear. “Get down here, Petty Officer!”

    She did not really want to make the jump. It seemed too far, but she was already committed to the mission. He needed her help and so did the Commander. ‘I hope I don’t break anything!’ Schir leapt from the trailer, but gave herself too much height than needed for a simple crossing. The mistake ruined her chances of a smooth landing, something she quickly realized.

    It was thanks to Wells’ quick thinking and reaction that saved her from injury. He leapt up to a nearby crate and grabbed her in midair pushing them both over the gap to land on another crate. A slight bruise on his shoulder was what he received for his trouble. “You hurt?”

    “No, sir! Sorry, sir!” She immediately got off him and stepped down to the ground. When she looked back up at the trailer, the distance did not seem as far.

    Straightening out his work uniform, he stepped down. “Remember, while the gravity is heavier than you’re used to in space you don’t need to over compensate as much.”

    “Yes, sir. You’re right. I won’t make that mistake again.”

    He motioned to her to follow him up against the wall of the nearby building. “Yes, you will make the mistake again. A life in artificial or zero gravity will affect you. All you can do is keep moving forward. Your body will adapt along with your mind.”

    “Yes, sir.” Nodding to him, she motioned their rear position for any signs of guards. Everything was still clear. ‘They’re very lax. They must trust their security.’ They had plenty of room to work with inside the property. “All clear behind still.”

    “Good. Let’s move out. Our target is several buildings away thanks to the poor position we had.” He leaned around the corner checking on any lights. It was well lit, but lacked any presence of life. It was like all the others he went to in the last week. “Just remember your training, Petty Officer,” he advised, before running out.

    Reaching the designated warehouse was a simple affair. The guards gave little attention to the interior allowing them to sneak through. However, they reached a different problem inside the warehouse. One that Schir had not considered. She looked over at the Ensign hopeful for an answer. “Where is it?” The warehouse was huge and being industrial goods, the crates were all large. Aisles of crates continued on until she only saw an exit at the opposite end. It was too large for them to search manually.

    Tapping away at the screen on his computer, he pulled up an image and serial number of what they searched for. “Everything is organized categorically and numerically. We need to find the fourth aisle from the left. It should be there.”

    She glanced over at the screen for a moment. “QR…382…” she recited, trying to memorize part of the serial number for her search. They went off following his directions to the aisle. The distance of the aisle still was intimidating for them. Schir could not believe the volume of goods packed away in the warehouse. ‘There’s so many. Is it all really organized correctly?’

    Such fears came to pass soon. When they arrived at the location where it should have been they found something completely different. It was not even in the adjacent shelves as a misplaced stack. “Sir?” Hesitation and uncertainty filled her voice.

    Wells looked down at the screen again, for the twelfth time. It did not matter how many times he looked at it. The results remained the same. “Just start looking. It’s here somewhere unless they messed up inventory.” He walked off looking up and down at the stacked pallets of crates no longer passing attention to Schir.

    She watched for him with some unease for a while. He kept pushing forward even with impossible odds of finding what they searched for. The warehouse was massive and it could be anywhere. Schir snapped herself out of her daze. ‘I’ve got to focus. If we don’t find it, it’ll affect the mission to save the Commander!’

    What seemed like hours passed before Schir stumbled upon what they sought. She checked the number on the plate several times not sure, if she had found it. It was stacked up in the wrong aisle. She ran down to where Wells stood calling him to her. “This is what we’re looking for right, sir?” There were only two crates and neither looked very large for what they needed.

    Even Polsen looked at it a little confused. He pulled up the specs on the computer to be sure they did not get the wrong information. “Yes, this is it.”

    “I sort of thought it’d be bigger. It’s mostly for construction, isn’t it?”

    “Yes, but I’ll check inside to be sure. Everything matches on the outside.” Putting away the computer, he retrieved another device from his one-piece overalls. He pressed it to the surface of the box. Suddenly, the lid lifted as the magnetized seal released. Pushing aside the lid, he looked inside. “This can’t be right.”

    “Sir?”

    “This is too small for the job. Did Rinn get the right one for us?”

    Schir borrowed his computer to check their information as well. She poked her head in the crate. It was so small that they could just carry it out. However, when she looked at the physical measurements of the device it matched up. “This must be it, sir. It says it’s only supposed to be 85cm by 40cm by 62cm.”

    He looked back at the screen Schir pointed out to him. It made him blink. When he looked at it before he thought he was just seeing it wrong. “This is insane. How can something so powerful be that small? I swear it’d be at least ten times, maybe even thirty times that size back home.”

    “It makes it easier for us, sir.”

    “I guess you’re right. I was expecting to need a lift to carry it out to the truck, but like this.” He pulled the lid completely off. “Take it out. We’ll carry it, they won’t notice it being missing for a lot longer.” Once Schir retrieved the cutter, he put the lid back on and activated the magnetized seal once more. They had one of their items from their list. “Now we just need to find the power supply that matches this.”

    “I hope it’s better organized than this was.”

    “Agreed.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Yokatomo Shopping District

    The nightlife of Yokatomo diminished significantly at the late hours. Almost dawn, barely anyone filled the streets. Most had things to be doing in the morning. Late nights were more of a luxury. It did not stop some from still roaming around either drunk or just leaving work. During the day, the shopping district would be lit with lights and packed with pedestrians. Only a few places remained open, mostly bars.

    An all hour diner was the selected meeting location. Captain Fin and Sheila arrived early. Well-traveled as they were, it was still an unknown to them. They needed survey it. When they arrived, only a few patrons filled the seats. At such an hour, it was hard to expect very many. The numbers only shrank the longer that they stayed.

    It was almost the meeting time. They had their coffee refilled for the third time. Fin glanced over at Sheila. “Remember, let me do the talkin’. Cops are a touchy bunch when dealin’ with our sort.”

    “Yea, I know, Cap’n. This isn’t my first time.” She rubbed her hands over the mug with a bit of annoyance.

    “Just sayin’ they’re likely to throw some insults and I don’t need you takin’ offense on my account.”

    “I’m a big girl. I know the importance of the job.”

    “Good.” He slid his eyes up towards the door, noticing two figures already approaching earlier. “They’re here.”

    The door chimed as the two men in suits entered. Fin only gave them a short look, enough to announce his presence. They scanned the restaurant for a moment before turning to sit down at the table. The waitress was quick to take their orders and disappear.

    Silence hovered around the table for minutes. The two suits stared at the rough, though cleaned up, Fin and Sheila in quiet judgment. It was their first meeting. Neither side actually spoke before the meeting. It was all a third party arrangement. Some decisions had to be made before the opening.

    When the coffee arrived, things looked ready to break. “Captain Fin, I understand you’re in need of a third party,” Fin opened, looking to watch how their reacted. So far they had been cautious, looking not wanting to show their hand immediately. A delicate game of give and take to keep strength and hide weakness. They already showed more weakness than they wanted by requesting their services.

    “You can call me, Mr. Stone, and my associate, Mr. Akai.”

    It raised a bit of his eyebrow. ‘Codenames. They’re protecting themselves. Already considering the possibility of backlash. Well, Mr. Vice Chief and Mr. Detective, I’ll play your games. A job’s a job in the end.’ Fin loosely motioned over to Sheila. “My second, Sheila.” He drank a little of his coffee before leaning in to get closer to the heart of the matter. “What is it that I can help you with?”

    “We need an outside contractor for an ongoing case.”

    “An investigation. What sort of needs do you have? I find it hard to believe you’d suffer for your pride to ask us something simple.” Fin grinned a bit watching how Mr. Akai flinched a little. He could tell he did not want to be in the same place as shady characters such as themselves. They were not quite criminal, but it was a muddy line.

    Mr. Stone kept his colleague in line quietly. He understood the importance of using people like Fin at times. His experience kept him in better control. “You’re right. We wouldn’t be involving someone like you under normal circumstances. But it’s a delicate situation.”

    “Well let’s stop dancing and get to specifics.”

    Stone motioned to Akai, who retrieved something from his bag. A small wireless transmitter, it was meant for only sending data over short distances. It had the benefit of being controlled for range and direction and did not need an acknowledged receiver.

    Understanding, Fin ordered Sheila to pull out their computer pad. The transfer went through immediately with the information already displaying on the screen. He leaned over at the data. “Thefts, huh?”

    “Correct, fifteen to be exact,” informed Stone. “All over the course of a week. And these are only the ones reported. We suspected there have been more unreported or unnoticed yet.”

    “Judging from your investigations, there is no specific company being targeted. Which implies they don’t care who they’re stealing from so long as they get what they want.”

    “There are still no leads on who this group is. But they are highly motivated, fast and likely professionals.”

    Fin looked over the smaller details quickly before facing Stone again. He already had a lot of questions about the whole thing. However, he had a good read from Stone to gauge the job. “You’re just wanting to know who this group is and where to find them.”

    “Correct, we’ll handle their captures.”

    ‘And the glory that comes with it. A little outside of your precinct’s jurisdiction, but I’m guessing you’ve got that all figured out already.’ Grinning a little, Fin tapped on the screen of their computer. “We’ll need ten percent upfront.” He got another small reaction from the inexperienced and young Akai. “Investigations aren’t cheap. I need a little goodwill on your side, Mr. Stone.”

    Stone kept a fairly stoic expression while silently ordering his subordinate down. He judged in silence for a moment Fin’s condition. “Very well.” A hand motion went out to Akai for the money transfer.

    Sheila flipped through the screens to reach their bank account. The quick exchange of information and transfer concluded their business. Stretching his hand across the table, Fin kept himself restrained. “Seems we have an agreement, gentlemen.” Shaking a little reluctantly, Fin and Sheila stood up to leave first. “Have a good morning.”

    Once outside of the diner, Sheila quickly moved out in front of Fin to stop him from walking away. “Is it the money?” She stared at him wanting an answer. It was an odd move for Fin to take. The money was good, but it was too good. It did not sit right with her.

    Fin started across the intersection. “Come on!” he called, motioning to her. It was a long way back to the ship even with their rental. He dropped into the car waiting for her to join him. Starting up the car, he pulled into the lane. “The money is hardly the reason.”

    “Then why?” She leaned a little in the chair to look at Fin.

    “While the money is good, what we hold at the end will be more useful. Havin’ someone on the inside will be of help in the future.”

    “Makin’ them owe us?”

    “Somet’ing like that. But there’s bigger things at work.”

    “Cap’n?”

    “I did a little lookin’ at our clients before their meeting. Did ya know that the Commissioner of Yokatomo’s retiring?”

    She did not follow completely. Her confusion set deeply into her nose. “The big-wig for the cops? What’s that gotta do with the case?”

    “Nothin’ directly. But they haven’t named a successor yet, there’s a few likely candidates, but they’re still deciding. And can you guess who one of those candidates is?”

    It started to come together for Sheila. Her eyes widened a little as the realization came together with more of the pieces. “Then we’re just pawns in all of this!”

    “Maybe, but pawns can be powerful.” Fin grinned a little thinking about the two suits back at the diner. “They see us as outta-towners, garbage from the South. They don’t think we’re aware of the politics in some Northerner city. Play our cards right and we’ll have a Commissioner to call on.”

    “But if they’re playin’ dirty, what makes ya think they’ll honor anythin’?”

    “The dirtier they are the more willin’ they are keep that secret.”

    “Wouldn’t they just try to kill us then?”

    “Possibly, but knowin’ that means we’re prepared.” They moved onto the highway with a direct line to back to the port. “Don’t worry, Sheila. The fun is just startin’!”

    “Yes, Cap’n…”

    Antarctica City – Shopping Dome

    Late morning made the streets overcrowded with traffic. The narrow streets already made vehicle traffic difficult, but the millions of citizens seemed also to be trying to fit into a single stretch of sidewalk. However, it was the shopping dome for the city. Anything could be found here, all one had to do was look hard enough.

    It only took Shizuka a minute to remember one of the reasons why she hated Antarctica City. While her father certainly sat at the top of the list, it was the people that made it right afterward. She only really understood it when she left and saw the North. Returning to the city gave her all of the comparison she needed.

    They all looked the same. There was a little different between each person, but they were all just going about things in the same manner. Everything they needed could be found. There was very little want in their eyes. She could not see any drive like she did on the outside. They just looked dead inside. It was a sickening feeling. No motivation or goals. Just continuing exists. It was a simple and carefree way about things. They were fine with it.

    However, she had a different problem to deal with today. The lack of concerns from the random citizens were something for a later matter. Next to her was Karen Stein, one of the women working on the Project along with Doctor Kitawara. She insisted on coming, in fact she insisted on the whole thing. ‘It’s better than being escorted by soldiers, but she thinks she can get close to me doing something like this. So annoying…’ Shizuka tried to hide her frustration with the whole situation, but everything around her made it difficult.

    It made her an easy read, though Karen sort of expected her not to be pleased by the idea. Their first encounter was hardly one to start a good relationship. “You alright, Shizuka?”

    “Fine,” she answered curtly.

    “Just because you introduce yourself as a friend of my mother doesn’t put us on friendly terms. You’re my mother’s friend, not mine.” Shizuka’s response still echoed her mind. ‘This is really not going to be easy. Being his daughter, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he hasn’t tried to patch things up with her at all. It’s only driving her away. If he wants her to actually be a good pilot, he needs to give her some love. It’s only going to twist her heart the way he’s going about it.’ It was her hope a girl’s day out would do Shizuka good. “We’re almost there, Shizuka. I’m sure you’ll be glad to get something to wear that’s not just a military uniform!”

    Karen’s motives were transparent to Shizuka. She played nice for the woman, sort of. But Shizuka had other things in mind. It was a perfect opportunity for her. She would not let the chance go to waste.

    Their arrival at the clothing store was only slowed by the thick traffic. Inside, it thinned out. Shizuka was able to get a place to rest. It was less physically exhausting and more mentally for her. Most of her life, what to wear was hardly a concern for her. Up North, she only had a few things to wear and before she always had it picked out for her. She did not need to think about it.

    Suddenly, she was being forced to pick something to wear. Shizuka could only take looking at cloths for so long. ‘What does it matter what my style is? If it fits.’

    The break did not last for long, when Karen popped out from behind a few racks. She carried a sundress and some pants with a small shirt. “You should try these out, Shizuka,” she smiled. It was the best smile she could manage for the stare that she received back. “I think these might be your style.”

    ‘That word again…’ Shizuka felt like punching the woman for not knowing any other words than ‘style’. Yet she tempered her emotions. She could really only play along with the woman for the time being. Taking up the offerings, she disappeared behind the curtain once more.

    After judging the sundress, she had the pants and shirt on still. She was hardly fond of either. ‘These are too small. Feels like it’s going to choke me. And the dress…’ Shizuka put them both away and returned to her military uniform. Stepping out, she handed the cloths back over to Karen.

    “No good?” she asked, though her expression looked more disappointed that she did not get to Shizuka in the cloths. She remained private about the try-outs.

    “No.” Shizuka went back to the bench to rest again. She wished to be back in her room. It was starting to feel like a mistake agreeing. ‘What was I thinking?’

    Karen moved in a little and sat down on the bench next to Shizuka. “What’s wrong? Tired?” She leaned over a little pushing a few strains on hair out of her face.

    The act irked Shizuka. She backed away in silence response. ‘She’s trying too hard now.’ It all needed to end. It was going to be the only way she could progress things. “No. Everything’s just too overdone. Find something simple.”

    “Oh is that all? Why didn’t you say so sooner?” Karen laughed bit and walked off in search of something that worked to her request.

    Shizuka walked over to the window of the second floor. ‘It’s all like isn’t it? It can’t be simple.’ She stared out at the people walking. They did look a lot like the cloths Karen kept shoving on her. She did not understand it. Who were they trying to impress? It’s pointless with such dead expressions.

    “How’s this, Shizuka?” called Karen from part way across the room. Her voice ended up getting the attention of some of the other costumers. It did not seem to matter to Karen, she looked proud.

    Sighing would do little for her. She did do as Shizuka requested. They were simple cloths. It would be enough. She did not dislike the way they looked. “Looks fine.”

    “Great!” Passing the cloths off to the cashier, Karen ran over to Shizuka. She grabbed her hand. “Now you just need some underwear! Now that I know what you like this should be a lot easier!” A bit of a giggle came out of her, a little odd for a grown woman in her forties.

    It was the first time all day Shizuka’s expression broke more than a grumpy scowl. “Wait! What?!” Her surprise in thinking it was over quickly was overrun by the thought of underwear. “I’m fine! Plain white is fine!”

    “Now, Shizuka that’s not what I mean.”

    “Eh?!” Dread started sink in fast over Shizuka’s face. She did not like where things headed. It was too fast and too unexpected. She did not plan for any of this. Shizuka tried to get out of it, but the woman’s grip was stronger than she expected.

    It was over. Finally.

    After finishing the shopping, Karen brought her to a small restaurant. Shizuka slumped into her seat after the ordeal. ‘That was more than I wanted to deal with today.’ She rested her head up against the wall needing a moment.

    “Guess you don’t have to worry about bras for a while, Shizuka,” Karen said cheerfully, with no regard for the public setting.

    Shizuka leaned forward trying to silence the woman. Shock filled her face up quickly. “That’s—“

    A finger stretched out to silence Shizuka instead. “You’re a growing a girl, soon to be a woman. It’s important to learn about these things. Here!” She tossed a hair tie that was a little fancier than Shizuka would have liked.

    Caught roughly between a couple of her fingers, she looked down at it confused. “Huh?”

    “Something to keep your hair back. It’s not military, but you get some special privileges. Every girl deserves something pretty.”

    Staring at her hands, she was not completely sure what to think of the gesture. She glanced back at Karen with a suspicious look. Was it just more of her attempts to win her over? Or maybe it could be genuine. The waters suddenly muddied significantly. Begrudgingly, she accepted. “Thanks…” Karen’s expression changed quickly. She looked happy almost pleased with herself. It annoyed her some seeing it. “What?”

    “I’m glad to you know have other expressions, Shizuka. I was a little worried that with everything that’s happened to you.”

    Shizuka glanced away. “I have emotions!”

    “Oh I know, I just haven’t seen you anything but angry or annoyed. It’s good to be happy or just surprised. It’s healthier for you.”

    “Whatever, just order some food.” She slumped back into her seat crossing her arms. The woman had played her more than she expected. It was frustrating. Shizuka narrowly glanced over at Karen while she ordered for them. ‘Though it might work out for the better. This might lower her guard. Embarrassing as it was…’

    Waiting until the food arrived seemed the best course for Shizuka. A conversation over food would be more casual. She could get her talking. When the food did arrive, it seemed edible and familiar enough. Military cafeteria food hardly had a good taste to it. Unfortunately, when she took a bit into it, it was just as nasty. A second bite actually made it worse. Shizuka coughed and choked from the surprise of how awful it was.

    Her outburst was enough to get the attention of the other costumers. They started at her with strange looks. It passed for them, but not for her. The taste lingered in her mouth. Only the tea could wash it way and even that was disgusting as well.

    Karen stopped eating to help out Shizuka. “You feeling alright?” She jumped over to the neighboring seat to pat her on the back.

    “Fine. It was just the food.”

    She looked down at Shizuka’s meal curious if it was ill prepared. “It doesn’t look like it’s under cooked.”

    “It’s disgusting. And I thought the a cafeteria was bad. I’ve never tasted something so horrendous before.”

    “I’ll admit it’s not a three star restaurant, but I didn’t notice anything wrong with the meal. This is actually one of the better cheap places in the area.”

    “There’s something wrong with your tongue then.” Shizuka pushed the food away from her unable to finish it. She glanced around the restaurant seeing that no one else seemed bother by the food. ‘Is it just me? What’s wrong with these people?’ It did not make any sense to Shizuka. But it was hardly something she really wanted to focus on at the moment. She looked back across to Karen, who returned to her side of the table. “Why did you join the Project?”

    Karen stopped in mid motion looking up at Shizuka. It was sudden, but she could see the look in her eyes. “I didn’t really make the choice. It was my assignment.”

    It was hardly the answer she expected to hear. After a few moments of consideration, it made sense when she judged her situation. “Why were you picked?”

    “I had an aptitude for it. Others might say it was destined.”


    “Did you want to do it?”

    “I don’t really have a choice.” Karen’s eyes went a little melancholic in thought. She saw the look that Shizuka gave her. “It has its days where it is exciting. I will admit that I enjoy finding solutions and I do believe in the work we’re doing.”

    The heart of the matter finally arose. Shizuka reached the point she wanted. “What is it that we’re doing? Why do they need me or in fact any of those things?” Someone had to have the answers.

    Karen stared out of the window. A distant look came across her face. “When you step into that chair you’ll understand, Shizuka. It’ll all make sense to you.”

    It was too vague. No answers would come from just a deliberately deflecting response. Shizuka leaned forward get a little out of her chair. “That thing is for war! What possible use could it have in such a time as now?! There’s no war!”

    She smiled softly at Shizuka. “Shizuka…you’ll learn in time there’s always war. Its shape just changes. The dusk of our times is coming.”

    “What do you mean? What is goin—“

    A flash of light interrupted Shizuka. Everything was silent for just a moment. Time seemed to slow down as she turned to look. She only managed to open her mouth in shock before the shockwave reached the restaurant.

    The explosion rocked the entire block. Glass shattered spraying across Shizuka’s face just as Karen leapt out in front to shield her. Screams were drowned out by secondary explosions. Chunks debris flew everywhere smashing windows and crushing the dense streets. Chaos quickly spread as the weakened building began to collapse.

    Shizuka felt reality return to her slowly. Her ears ringed loudly. It drowned everything out. ‘What’s going on?! What just happened?’ Another explosion jumped the ground under her feet. Several small quakes rumbled beneath her. It felt like the entire world was collapsing. She could not move. Something was on her.

    Looking up, she saw what stopped her. She froze up. Everything in her body shook. “N-n-no! No!” Karen’s body laid on top of her with blood dripping over her face and soaked into parts of her cloths. She did not move and Shizuka could not tell if she was unconscious or dead. Only her fears made her assume immediately the worse.

    Once Shizuka started feeling her body response to her requests, she tried to reach for Karen. The woman never budged no matter how much Shizuka tried to shift around under her. With her scrambling around trying to check on Karen, she found the situation to be even worse.

    In the woman’s back was chunks of glass shards and a part of the restaurant’s wall collapsed on her. Shizuka could see the wall torn apart from the proximity to the blast across the street. The building that used to stand blocking the view laid in a twisted pile of metal and cement. Neighboring buildings looked almost hollowed out by the blast and threatened to collapse at any moment.

    Shizuka could not move. Karen was too much for her to move with the wall on her. She tried everything. ‘Am I going to die here?’ Her head turned looking to see how the rest of the restaurant faired. The people that were just eating a few moments before were dead. Blood splattered and poured out everywhere. One or two were still alive crawling, but missing limbs ripped off from the explosion. She could only see their crying and begging faces, never hearing their voice. ‘So much…blood…everywhere…’

    The ringing still buzzed in her ears. Yet she heard screams through it out. They started distant, but grew closer to her. Pleas and cries went out to her. The voices were familiar. She knew who they were, but it was impossible. They were dead. Dead.

    Death covered her eyes. It was the villagers she heard. She knew them too well not to recognize them. They called out to her. They were all she could hear anymore.

    Shizuka screamed.

    Yokatomo Industrial District

    “Was it really a good idea to send those two, Cap’n?” inquired Sheila, sitting in their rental.

    The morning left quickly with Fin getting things setup. There was a significant amount of information to crawl over and leads to track down. It took until the later afternoon to start actually acting on any of it. He sent off Sam and Nate as part of the investigation. “Ya worried?”

    “’course I am! Those two idiots wouldn’t know how tah ask for directions to get across tha street!”

    Fin laughed a bit at the exaggeration. “Prolly, but it ain’t like I gave them something hard. I just want them talking to people, get things moving on the streets.”

    “Still a bad idea.”

    He shrugged back to her. More pressing matters were at hand for them. Most of the leads, or what should have been leads dried up fast. It became clear quickly to Fin why the police were having trouble. Staring at the chart of hit warehouses did not help him any. “These guys are very good or very lucky.”

    “The security in place where ev’r they go always happens to have malfunctions. Convenient for them, no cameras or charged fences.”

    Nodding, he looked out of the car at one of the warehouses. “Yea, they’re knocking out security and taking off whatever they want.” He had some hope just looking at the scenes would give him something. They were a clean and efficient team, whatever they were doing.

    A lot of it still did not make a lot of sense to him. He flipped through the reported stolen items. “Most of these ain’t that valuable, comparatively anyway. There were better things to steal. Still bugs me.” His finger tapped on the screen trying to find the pattern. All of the locations were random, so there had to be an answer elsewhere.

    Sheila pulled the computer back over to her lap. “There’s som’fin here, I think.”

    The rough treatment sent a bit of a frustrated look over at Sheila. However, he had his curiosity at what she might have discovered. He leaned over. It was the same list of stolen items. “See a pattern?” Fin wondered what she saw that he missed before.

    “Ain’t all of this a little odd?” She raised the pad to show it to him.

    “Well ya, I’ve been sayin’ that already.”

    “No, the things stolen. They’re all ship parts or equipment that could also be used for ships.”

    “Eh?” He narrowed his eyes and leaned in to check it over it. Surprised took of his face for a moment. He could not believe he missed it. They were all things that he should have been very familiar with. They ordered many of them for the Niph. “Still doesn’t make alotta sense.” He scratched his head trying to understand the reason for stealing such parts. “I could understand if it was black market, but they ain’t stealin’ quantities of this stuff.”

    Dropping the pad back into her lap, she stared at it for a while. Her fingers partly flipped through mindlessly. Most of her focus was away from the screen. “Somefin’ like this looks like they’re buildin’ a ship.”

    “Or repairin’ it,” Fin suggested, as Sheila came up with the idea. They both looked at her each liking the direction that they reached. It was a stronger lead.

    “Think the cops, figured that much out?”

    “Prolly, they ain’t dumb nor blind. How’ver, they’re lost now, meanin’ they prolly got stuck here. There’s no leads left they could follow.” Fin rubbed his chin in thought. He did not like the situation he found themselves in now. They hardly had the connections for the type of investigation needed. “They’ve prolly already checked the port, but it’s the only place to start. Though we’ve got the ‘vantage of bein’ able to look into the shadier side of the port without drawing as much ‘tention.”

    Sheila had a bit of an idea where he might be heading. “Cap’n?” It was not something that she was thrilled to be partaking in later, even if it was for a job.

    Fin flipped the switch on the car starting it back up. The chill of the outside started to leak in a little. “Sheila it’s time to put on your best smile!”

    She sank into her seat a little. “Afraid you’d say that…”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Several ARMs remained standing. The terrain was in their favor. They had high ground and rocky cliffs for cover. Matters were only made worse by the fact they had pillboxes and artillery fixed at the nearby ridge overlooking the position. A well defended position. They already made it difficult on him reaching the ground that he did.

    The warning screens continuing to run off on the right side of the monitor. It remained in his sight, annoying him. It just kept telling him that he no longer had a left arm and a malfunctioning right leg. Plus, half the cameras were damaged or destroyed. So he only had scattered visibility on the spherical monitor. Gray static was the color of the day. An annoying color to be sure.

    “Time tah charge tha line!” shouted Edgar. He grabbed a hold of the control sticks. His fingers tapped along the buttons lining the stick. Manipulating the speed with his feet pedals, he threw the machine forward into the hail of bullets, shells and particle beams.

    Warning screens started popping in front of his screen. A display of the Od appeared with the computer highlighting the newest damaged part. It was only a second before the computer corrected the information to say destroyed. “Damn!” Yellow and red lights flew up faster than Ed to read. His vision continued to reduce until he lost his head. All the monitors went black. “Yeah, yeah, up w’th it alre’dy!”

    MISSION FAILED

    The text displayed across the full monitor in giant red bold font. Ed slumped in his harness, the belts preventing much movement. “Like I care! Whatever…” He threw the sticks forward making them rock a little before tossing his hands under his arms. The scoring, damage and kills displayed on the screen. He received a failing grade of “F” for his performance. “Get meh outta h’re alre’dy!”

    A white seam appeared in the monitor drawing up from the bottom reaching out to the top. It turned to blinding light. Hissing of machinery escaped the cuts as the two hemispheres drew further apart. Stairs pushed in from outside granting a way down.

    Ed tapped insistently on the harness demanding its release. Eventually, he heard the dull click in his back. Freed, he stood up first to pull his hair back out of his face. He stepped down out of the simulator. Sweat stuck to his body making the room even more uncomfortable than it was to start.

    A scowl immediately formed on his face the moment he saw his instructor’s disappointed expression. He hardly cared at about the man’s interest in his combat performance. The sour taste of the whole place still lingered in his mouth. He could not forget Shizuka.

    Sitting down in the lone chair in the room, he tilted his head up to look at the man standing over him. “What?”

    “Petty Officer! That was a worse performance than your last simulation!” The man before him was his orientation officer and instructor, Lieutenant Richard Dolms.

    Nonchalantly, Ed rolled back in his chair almost letting his butt slide off. “So it was, ****.” Ed just liked calling him ****, because it seemed to fit, rather Lieutenant **** to be proper. It also made Ed’s day each time he got to see the stiff-ass Lieutenant get flustered and flip through his papers as though he was looking for something. Like he was at the moment. “Oh sorry, sir. Lieutenant ****.” The red in his face finally appeared. Ed smirked with sadistic glee.

    Struggling very hard from blowing up, Richard flipped through the papers faster. “I could have you thrown in the brig for insubordination!”

    Curious, Ed raised an eyebrow. “Fer what? It’s yer name.” He lifted himself back in the seat a little. “Thought ya mil’tary types w’re ‘spose tah be more disciplined. Losin’ yer cool o’er a name.”

    He barely had much of a retort left for Ed after pointing all of it out. His fingers flipped through papers faster, unable to do anything. Richard stewed in silence. “Your next simulation starts in thirty minutes. I hope you remember tactics better next time.”

    Ed clicked his tongue. “What’s it mat’er, jes a game.” The response failed to get any more out of ****. An end to the more interesting game, left Ed with little to focus on. He pulled out his comm. device and started flipping through the topics on the news. Nothing looked interesting to him until a new story popped up on the list at the top displacing many of the stories with companion articles. ‘Terrorist bombin’?’

    The first and only guess he had was that it was Ragnarok, the known terrorist group linked to numerous bombings throughout the world under their twisted belief that it was leading the lost back to heaven, or some such nonsense. ‘Ragnarok…Antarctica City?!’ He stood up to look around. The other assistants in lab coats seemed to stop moving as well.

    News spread fast.

    He stepped outside needing to breathe for a moment. The more he read in the article the grimmer the picture got. ‘Thousands dead…even more injured… The hell’s wrong w’th ‘em!’ A shaking developed in his hand blurring the screen a little. The sound of his heartbeat rang clear in his ears. His body started sweating even more thinking about it.

    A loud beep went off from his hand. Each sound seemed amplified for him. It was too loud. Ed looked down to see he had a new message. He tapped the screen feeling an odd sense of dread. His eyes stared for a moment before he dropped the comm. and broke down the hall in full run.

    Left behind on the floor, his comm. remained on the message.

    SENDER: UNKNOWN

    Room 213, HOPE Military Hospital

    Ed did not care about control or attention to others. He plowed through several officers that screamed at him. One gave him chase for a hallway before giving up. When a corner came up, he slipped and slammed into the wall trying to turn on the polished floor. His hands pushed off from the wall not caring about any of it. ‘Who is it?!’ repeated as the only thought in his mind. The thought became deafeningly loud in his mind. A mad drummer pounded away hitting those annoying crash cymbals repeatedly in his head like someone told him they were going to sell it. The noise rose until he crashed into the wall holding his hands to his head.

    He needed a breath, but he could not stop. Someone sent him a message. It was important. Who was in the hospital? It was the bombing, he knew it. It had to be the bombing. It was the only thing that made sense. Were they killed? Injured? Dying? What was it? Who was it in that bed? Edgar yelled at himself. His legs could not move fast enough for him.

    Halls disappeared one after another. The training wing opened to the research to command until he reached the hospital. The elevator was too much of a wait for him. He bolted for the stairs when he found them. Approaching the second floor, he heard a mob of voices. Opening the door, he found the halls packed with doctors and nurses running everywhere. “Tha hell?” Before he could even enter, a gurney rushed past him nearly taking his arm off.

    “213,” he repeated aloud. He pushed through craning his head around to get a look. The crowd made it difficult to move let alone see well. He was lost and panicked. Who was it? Who was in room 213? Edgar in his confusion bumped into a woman, she looked like a nurse maybe a doctor. None of it mattered to him. He grabbed them before they had a chance to fall. “213! Room 213!” The poor woman was too confused and frightened by his yelling to know what to answer. “Damnit! Where tha hell’s room 213?!”

    “Th-that way!” the woman uttered, managing to lift an arm to point it out.

    He tossed them aside and pushed through the crowd. Gurneys passed through, but it ignored them. A bump or bruise did not matter to him. His head was too focused on the room numbers above the doors. “213!” He found it finally, but the door was closed. Through all of the crowd he could not see the name plate.

    Edgar paused.

    Who was it? It was the only question he had. The message came to him. It knew he would know. Such thoughts worried him. Who was behind the door? ‘It’s someone I know. But who? Fin? Sheila? Are they e’en in port still? Who ‘lse?’ Their image came into his head. It was the only other person he knew. But why?

    ‘Can’t stand ‘round…’ Ed forced his way through the crowd to reach the other side. He thought about looking at the name, but could not do it. Knowing might cause him to want to stay away. All he could do was open the door.

    He pressed his hand to the open panel forcing it to slide open. There was a curtain up around one of the two beds in the room. He did not know which to check. Hesitation walked him around the curtain towards the second bed, hoping it was the wrong person and he could delay learning who it was just a little longer.

    No such luck. He recognized them immediately. They were the reason for the message. ‘Why? What happen’d?’ His feet dragged him over to their bed when the rest of him wanted to stay. A constant beep from the bed let him know they were still alive, a relief. Ed dropped a hand down the bed near to their hand. “Why? Why?! Why… Su…”

    He still did not know what was going on. Shizuka was hospitalized, but he did know how severe. Searching around, he found the call button. Ed slammed his hand on it without a second thought. He wanted answers.

    A nurse came running into the room. She pushed Ed aside to check her vitals. When she realized nothing was wrong, she turned back to him. “It’s supposed to be for emergency use only! Don’t—“

    “Like I giv’a damn!” He stepped up to the woman staring at her. He made sure she understood. “What tha ‘ell’s wrong w’th ‘er?”

    “I’m just the monitoring nurse. I don’t know the details.”

    Edgar saw she carried around a computer at her side. He grabbed her wrist with the hand holding it. Lifting the computer up to her, he demanded answers. “Find out!”

    The woman leaned back uneasy, but saw she was not getting out of it without giving up answers. She reluctantly browsed through the history for Shizuka. A minute passed in silence before she looked away. “It looks like she’s not in any life threatening condition. Says she has significant cuts and lacerations from glass and debris, but no other injuries to note. She’s been unconscious since arriving. Probably from trauma related to the explosion.”

    He could finally relax. A sigh came from his lips. Stepping away, he leaned against the bed a little. “Good.” He glanced over at Shizuka sleeping peacefully. “She’s be’n through ‘nuf.” The nurse was allowed to leave.

    4km Outside Yokatomo - Terra One Team Camp

    Wells arrived back in the truck with another delivery. He stepped out of the cab calling to the others. “Elle! Noinel! Help out the rookie!” They passed each other while he went into the ship. He slid a peek over at the Jiaolong’s lining the wall. The machines had an eager look in their eyes. It would have to wait still.

    Walking through the main hold, he did not find him. The side port was open, giving him the clue he needed. Wells popped out to see wires and parts scattered everywhere. “I see you’re hard at work, Rinn.”

    The Lieutenant stood up and wiped away sweat from his forehead. A lot of dirt and grease covered his work cloths. “Harder than it needs to be. None of these damn parts match without jury-rigging everything.” He killed a metal plate over in his frustration.

    “We can’t expect them to be using the same standard as us. We knew this would be a risk.”

    “It’s not that. The parts they make are too small!” He lifted up a couple of the stolen parts to show him. “What the hell am I supposed to do with this? It’s like trying to thread your finger through a needle.”

    A narrowed expression lowered into Wells’ face. It was something he brought up with them before during the raids for the Commander’s rescue. “It’s the same as I said before.”

    “Yes, I know. There’s nothing we can do about it. Their level miniaturization is on a completely different technological level than us. What’s worse is their output is even higher on most of these things. I’m having to run multiple redundancies just to make sure we don’t blow ourselves out.” Rinn stared down at the still broke port exhaust. “You know what this means.”

    Glancing back towards the city, Wells understood. It was a conclusion he was coming to already. “An ominous storm’s on the horizon. We’ll need to do everything to be sure we’re ready for when it hits.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Edgar took the next two days off from training. **** screamed at him for the negligence, but none of it mattered to him. He had to stay at her side. He wanted to be sure he was there when she woke up. Each time before he missed his chance to say what he wanted to her. He was not going to allow the chance to go away.

    However, he ended up falling asleep. It happened frequently and he would throw himself awoke when he realized it to check on her. Always she slept each time.

    Something pushed on him. He was only lightly asleep. So he noticed it quickly. It threw his head up. He finally saw it. A hand moved. She was awake. “S-Sh-Su…”

    “It’s Shizuka,” she replied dryly. She looked around the room trying to get her bearings. ‘A hospital room…’

    “…Yeah…” He forgot everything he wanted to say to her. He smiled with relief. Simply being there when she woke was enough for him. The rest seemed pointless.

    Shizuka saw the bandages over her body. Parts of her felt sore and tight. She could not move the way she wanted. The relief on Ed’s face drew her towards him. ‘Was he waiting here the entire time? He looks happy, but why?’ Something about the scene felt off to her. She lifted up her hand to Ed’s face. Stiffly, she poked his cheeks. “…you’re real…”

    “…Yeah…”

    “Why…are you happy?”

    “…cuz…”

    “…oh…” She did not know why, but she seemed to smile a little. Her hand rested on his cheek just being sure. Shizuka repeated it to herself.

    Across the compound, the scene of Edgar and Shizuka together in the hospital room played in real time on a small screen on a computer display. It rested propped up in the pilot seat. Doctor Kitawara looked up from his work behind the seat. He stared for the video for a while. “Excellent, things are progressing smoothly.”

    The video closed down. Behind it displayed equations and schematics. Kitawara picked up the computer and sat down in the pilot seat. He flipped through mountains of data on the terminal. Suddenly, he came to a stop. Edgar’s image appeared along with personal data. Simulation data from his training displayed in the corner. “This won’t do. Some stimuli might be needed.” He started to flip through data again.

    While searching through files a “CLASSIFIED” stamp appeared on some data. He lowered the computer down to his lap. “The council’s already made a move. I’m glad to see they aren’t completely useless. This should do perfectly. Just needs the right touch to finish things.” Between his fingers resting on the screen, the name ‘Yokatomo’ appeared.

    -X- -X- -X-

    It took a day for the doctors to agree to let her leave. The numerous cuts aside, she felt fine. However, they insisted on monitoring her after the trauma. They even sent her psychologists to talk to her. It was more of a nuisance to her. She just wanted to be free. It had painful reminders for her, ones best forgotten, stored away and lost. It was only sadness and she could not have its weight on her.

    Shizuka stood in the hanger housing the Freya and Od. Machine crews and engineers ran apart working on the incomplete machines. She was still convinced. It was a thing of war. She approached the one designated ‘Freya’, her machine. A mystery even exposed.

    “When you step into that chair you’ll understand, Shizuka. It’ll all make sense to you.” The last words she heard from Karen echoed her mind. She would never know what more she had to tell her.

    She rode up to the shoulders using the spare lift. The shoulder seemed to invite her. The head remained open with the cockpit visible and the chair waiting for its pilot. Shizuka stepped out onto the machine. It called to her. She was curious.

    The invitation to sit was too much bear for her. She accepted. Her hands rested on the side panels of the chair. All of the systems were off. She played her fingers over the buttons feeling out the machine. A strange feeling of awe washed over her. It seemed to suck her in. She rested her hands on the sticks. Shizuka looked forward at the machine. ‘What do you want to tell me?’ Nothing. She figured as much.

    Shizuka stepped out and returned to the ground. She looked down for a moment retrieving something. Pulling her hair back, she gathered it all up and tied it off. The hair tie was a little dirty and stood out with the strictness of her uniform, but Shizuka did not care. She added it to herself. She tilted her head back to the unfinished face of Freya. Her eyes narrowed in determination. ‘I’ll find out what you wanted to tell me. I’ll expose all of their secrets!’

    To be continued…
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  8. #8
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 6 – March Towards War

    Yokatomo City

    A chill leaked through the cracks on the truck. Metal groaned in the strong winds. The silent hymn of the city whispered through all the corners. Even through darkness, the outside could still be strongly felt. It had a presence that could not be forgotten. A foreign feel that always left them on edge and raw.

    The tension ran high tonight. Everyone gathered up for the most important mission that they had for them. The one that could not be failed. The one that they were never ordered on. The one that they would complete.

    The mission: Rescue Commander Callein.

    A simple mission overall. They had very little to be worried about. It was in a civilian clinic with no connections to anything with security. They were trained military soldiers. There was no chance of failure. But that did not make the tension drop any. Other risks still presented themselves. They were breaking their orders. Their work was meant to be only observation. No forceful means were meant to be taken. Those were their mission orders. They were going to be breaking them tonight. What that meant for their real mission had unknown and potentially long lasting impacts. But none of them cared.

    This was too important to all of them. They agreed on their mission. It was why they were all together.

    Wells and Rinn had the front and smoother ride in the truck. The others had to stay in the back. Each bump in the road felt three times worse. And every stop they made for a light felt like someone parked a vernier behind them and was doing test firings. If the part of the city they were in was considered run down, the truck they used would be considered broken. But no one wanted it and it still worked, somehow. It was only when left in the back that anyone realized how bad it actually was.

    Schir, the newbie, held onto her standard issue rifle as if it was her life line. While the weapon was fairly familiar to her, she had Basic of course, real combat was still unknown to her. And it was not even the real reason for her shaking. Not the foreign and strange city that demons supposed lived in. Rather, she worried over her usefulness in the mission. For everyone else, the Commander was someone they spent months or years with. She did not want to be the reason they failed, even if it seemed impossible for them to fail.

    Next to her, Elle put a hand on her shoulder. “If you’re too tense you won’t be able think straight,” she tried to comfort. They could all see without any real psychological training how wound up Schir was. They had confidence in their mission, but they all wanted her to feel at ease with the group. ‘It’s a rough first mission she had be put on. But she was the top of her class, a case of book smarts failing to meet with real world expectations.’ It not the first time she had seen someone lock up right before the mission. In fact, she saw it all too often during the war. They all knew the look.

    It was the look that got people killed, mostly just them. The paralyzing fear that all the training never prepared you for the real thing. The other side out there was ready and willing to kill without hesitation. It was a crippling fear. Fortunately, their mission had very little real threat to it. But it still was very important to them all. And the weight of their decision hanged heavy on them. It risked everything for one man.

    Easing her nerves was all they could. She had to get used to the reality soon, especially since it was only going to get worse in the future. What they were about to do was baby steps, insignificant compared to the future that they all had. The hellfires of Earth would eventually test them and she needed to be ready for that moment. Now, she just needed to be ready to use her rifle, if necessary. “You’ll be fine. Remember your training and don’t forget that you’re part of a team.”

    “A team,” she repeated. It felt a little like magic words that eased her heart. Maybe it was the calming way Elle spoke or the welcome looks for everyone on the team. They knew she was new, but they did not see her as useless. They brought her on the mission because they trusted her. “Right!”

    Noinel grinned a little back, pleased to see Schir looking a little better. “That’s right, he’s your Commander just as much as ours. Don’t think this is just our mission.”

    “I understand, sir!”

    “Good. You’ll do well!”

    “I’ll try!”

    A knock came through the metal in the front. Silence returned to the cabin in the truck. It was the signal.

    Mission start.

    -X- -X- -X-

    Yokatomo International Air Port – Private Hanger 21

    Dim light flickered with an annoying buzz that desperately wanted to be heard, so that it was going to be fixed. It had been that way for months and they all ignored it. So it blinked and buzzed as much as it could to be noticed. Nothing was going to be happening to it.

    Even in the silence stares around the table of the light, no one even thought about it. It was just part of the room. No, there were more important matters. Things had suddenly changed to make them all meet. It left him in silence on their decision.

    “It’s a trap,” Sheila commented finally. They were all thinking, someone needed to say it. After they received the message from an unknown and untraceable sender, no one had really said much of anything to it. Fin just called a meeting, but they all just stared at it.

    Flipping his hand out in agreement, dismissed it all completely not wanting any part of it. “Yah, ‘course it tis.”

    “But who sent it?”

    “Dunno, I aint got nuff tah track. Ran it thur all’em wares we gots, but nuffin.”

    Captain Fin sat in pensive silence. It was unclear to the others if he was listening to his crew finally start to debate their mysterious messenger or not. A stonewall expression was all that he presented. Though none of them too worried about the Captain as they argued in circles.

    After several minutes of arguing going nowhere, Fin’s large fist came down on the table. “Enough! I’m the Cap’n, I make the final call.”

    “Cap’n?” They all looked over at the table a little surprised to actually find him there. In all their yelling they had forgotten about him.

    “It’s untraceable an’ unknown, prolly a trap. Yer all right. But we’ve still got a job an’ this is the only lead in a week.”

    “But Cap’n!” Nate tried to protest, but Fin shut him down quickly with a glare.

    “Knowin’ it’s a trap means we can avoid it.” Fin stood up and looked at all them. They all have their concerns and worry. It was not the sort of job that took on, though they were a jack-of-all-trades sort. As long as the pay was good and it seemed on the level, they took it. But the whole thing never felt right with the team. Only the money really worked for them. “We’re goin’ to check the coordinates out.”

    “…Cap’n…”

    “Sheila, we’re goin’ by land. Nate get the Niph in the air. If things go south, I want the Niph as back up.” He started to walk out of the room. It was not really the convincing sort of speech that they needed. That was not really the sort of man he was, but they needed something more. “Y’all are the crew of the Niph! We take odd jobs all the time, this ain’t no different. But remember, we choose what happens, not ‘em. We’re not puppets, so if someone out there ‘as a trap fer us. We’ll give ‘em hell! Make ‘em regret messin’ with us. Right boys?”

    They all gave a cheer seeing that their Captain was still the same that they remember. It was not just the money. They all moved out to start their checks on the ship.

    Sheila followed up behind Fin as he made his way to the bay. “Makin’ speeches? That’s outta character.”

    “A little motivation.”

    “You don’t like this either do you?”

    “Hell no! This whole thing ‘as had a strange taste I ne’er really liked, but the money was too much to ignore. The Niph’s in bad shape, she’s holdin’ together, but she needs a lot of work. This job could finally put us back in our peak.” He pushed through the tight threshold into the bay. Their rental parked in the usual spot where they kept cargo.

    She came to a stop just before entering. “A gamble then.”

    Fin continued down the ramp into the main hold. “What’s life with a little risk, right? Because, I never planned on goin’ down without fightin’. Whate’er's goin’ here they’ll find things won’t work out the way they want.” His hand rested on the top of the car.

    Playing a little catch up, Sheila grabbed a few cases from the upper decks. She carried them down to the rental. It was not going to be the same sort of footwork the last week. “We’ll give ‘em hell, Cap’n.”

    “Ya better!” The back of the car popped open. He helped load in the items that Sheila brought. “I’m countin’ on everyone for this job. They’ve all been pretty stir crazy with the footwork we’ve been doin’. A little fire will clean up that edge on ‘em. Can’t have ‘em getting’ rusty.”

    “Right.” Pulling out her side arm, she gave it quick check. Everything was ready for them to head out. She then dropped into the passenger side as Fin went in. Looking over at him, there was one thing of speculation. “What if it’s not a trap?”

    “We’ll still need the guns. I doubt these sort are goin’ down without a fight.”

    “Besides that. What are they doing stationed outside of the city, if these are the real thieves?”

    “Prolly buildin’ that ship.” He flipped the switch on the car starting it up. “Which is why we’ll need the Niph. There’s a lot of questions and all we can do is come fully prepared for a battle. The gal’s old and rusty, but she’s still got plenty left in her punch.” The wheels spun up quickly throwing the rental out of the open bay and into the hanger. He floored it once they were out in the open making it for the highway.

    “Still you’re bein’ pretty reckless, Cap’n.”

    “Where’s your sense of adventure, Sheila?”

    “Back on the ship with ten centimeters of steel between me and those trying to kill me.”

    “Nate’ll have our backs. I need ya to have mine on the ground.”

    “Yes, Cap’n.”

    “Thirty minutes with traffic. We’ll find out what’s goin’ on finally.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Across the city, Terra Team’s truck sped away from their crime scene. Already on the highway and a short time away from safety once more. Everything went smoothly, within reason. They made more of a scene than necessary, but it was done. Those in the back gathered around their Commander.

    “Commander,” Elle whispered, glad to have him back finally. They already lost Rivers, she did not want to lose him as well. Hell was not going to steal anymore of her team.

    Cal still felt a little weak, but a week in the hospital certainly made a lot of a difference. He was not completely thrilled about living off the foreign land and their good graces, but he understood that they had no choice. “You guys are a bunch of idiots.”

    “Hey now, Commander, that any way to treat your rescuers?” teased Noinel.

    “You put me there to start.”

    “And we got you out as well.”

    “It was too much of a risk.”

    “No need to sweat the details. It’s already done.”

    “Right.”

    Out in cabin, Rinn focused on getting them back to the ship. It was not much longer. He only loosely monitored the surroundings. The lookout job was for Wells and his excellent sight that made him a deadly pilot. “How are we looking?”

    “No problems yet.” Wells leaned against the edge of the door staring at the horizon. Every few ticks he would switch to the back. The camera system they hacked together for the truck helped, but he felt better using his eyes. “We disabled their security and systems before we breached. So the best response they have is like thirty minutes.”

    He knew the timing as they all did, did not stop Rinn for worrying about it. Any plan could fly apart at a moment notice without any foresight. All they could do was be ready to react if it did. “Still, we haven’t really watched their civilian security. We aren’t fully clear how they’ll respond.”

    “It’s just civilian. The military isn’t even stationed here, so they pose no threat to us.”

    “We are supposed to be limiting our fighting.”

    “I know. It just goes with the risks.”

    “Yes. I’m aware.”

    The truck came to a stop. They finally reached the ship. So far, it seemed that everything was moving smoothly. All mission objectives had finally be reached. It seemed that they succeed with the best possible outcome.

    Wells jumped down from the truck and walked around the back. He met Rinn at the back. “You worry about the details too much.” They worked on the lock, which always had a little trouble opening.

    “It’s been the details that are important,” Cal responded, when the doors opened. Bandage and looking more like a mummy than a person, he stood in defiance of what his doctor probably said he should be doing. Injured or not, he did not let any of bother him.

    “Cal! Good to see you moving,” Wells grinned giving him a help down from the truck. “White sheets and nurses don’t suit you.”

    He smiled a little back to his old friend. He already berated him a lot while being dragged out of the clinic on their stupidity. So he did not really have much more to say on the matter anymore. He just had to accept the reality. Things were back. “What’s the status?” he inquired as he walked up to the transport.

    Wells followed in behind Cal pleased to see things back to the way they should be. As a friend, he would have told him to take it easy, but he was glad to see him walking on his own. He sort of worried he would still need to be lying down. “The Lieutenant got the junk of steel working again. The entry did a number on our systems, but we are fully operational.”

    The rest of the team rushed in hauling in all of their equipment. They already finished stripping the truck of everything that they had done to it. He nodded pleased to see that they were working smoothly without his commands. “Lieutenant, get us airborne. No doubt with the stir you caused in the city, we’ve over stayed our welcome. We’ll pick up in a different city.”

    “Yes, sir!” Rinn saluted and pushed through to the front. “Five minutes to full power!”

    “Understood! Run all system checks, I don’t want us to blow something in your repairs.” Wells handed over the reports to him on their work so far while had been hospitalized. “Looks like you’ve been busy.”

    “I wanted to kick back, but Elle was pretty pushy.”

    He skimmed through them quickly to see the summaries. There would be plenty of time later to get fully caught up. Looking away from them, he turned to the Jiaos. “Get your Jiao warmed up and in stand-by, Wells. If the local police followed us who knows what armaments they’ve got.”

    “On it!”

    Speeding a little over the limit, Fin pushed them to get to the site in time. They had the disadvantage with the Niph being deployed. It took longer to get started, but the travel time was significantly less. They would arrive roughly at the same time.

    A beep came through the interior signaling that the ship was trying to get in contact with them. Sheila popped the radio quickly.

    “Cap’n?” It was Nate on the radio.

    They looked at each other with a questioning look for why the crew was calling them. They had their guesses, but they did not have the time. Sheila answered for them. “What’s up, Nate?”

    “We’re in route, but radar is pickin’ up an energy signal at tha coords.”

    “So it is a trap.”

    “It’s weird. Tha size and signature looks like a ship, but it’s not in tha library. I ain’t ‘ever seen an’thin’ like this.”

    “A ship not in the library?” questioned Fin. He looked over at Sheila. A shared glance was enough for them to know what the other was thinking. Neither liked the sounds of it. “Start a full scan of the area! We need to know what’s going on down there!”

    “Right, though tha city is interferin’ w’th our equipment. We need tah get a lil’ closer.”

    “Tell Sam to haul ass! We need to know what’re we’re dealin’ with!”

    “Yes, Cap’n!”

    The radio shut off and left the two in silence for a moment. Sheila did not give it much peace. “I don’t like this at all.”

    “Yeah, I figured you wouldn’t.”


    “They’re were buildin’ a ship. New one it seems.”

    “Yeah, but why? What are we dealin’ with?”

    “Ragnarok? They have been more active lately.”

    “I don’t want to be thinkin’ that we’re going into a terrorist camp. All the guessin’ is getting’ us nowhere.” They really did not have any answers. It was all questions. All they could do was wait on Nate to get back to them.

    Which did not take long at all. Another beep came through the cabin and Sheila responded. However, she did not even get a chance and Nate’s voice interrupted her immediately. “Cap’n! It’s a engine start-up sequence! I’m getting’ no other heat signature in tha ‘hole area.”

    “Even small ones?” Fin asked, they needed to know what sort of numbers they were dealing with. If it was a trap there had to be enough to deal with them.

    “None, Cap’n! Just somefin’ that looks like a truck?”

    “Damn it!” The car suddenly jerked forward. All around them the squealing of the tires burning on the pavement whined in their ears. The car immediately jumped in speed, completely destroying any sort of limit or sense of restraint.

    “Cap’n?” both Nate and Sheila echoed.

    “Sam! Pedal faster!”

    “What’s wrong? It’s a trap,” reminded Sheila.

    “It’s not a trap! Our mysterious informant was actually tellin’ the truth.”

    “But—“

    “They’re escapin’! They aren’t plannin’ on stayin’. Whatever they were doin’ repairin’, buildin’, they had no plans on stickin’ around at all. If they skip town now, we’re gonna to be one step behind them again!”

    “How can you be sure?”

    “I just know!”

    Rinn flipped a couple of switches on the panel. He tossed the computer pad to the floor with the checks all completed. “We’re ready to take off, sir!” The ship did not exactly purr the way he would have wanted, but it worked. It made a terrible noise that annoyed him.

    “Good, Lieutenant,” Cal answered coming front. He sat down in the seat that he had rode into Earth on. It felt like an old friend in a way. He missed the smell, the blinking displays and nodes and the sounds. Well maybe not all the sounds, they felt like they were drilling into his shoulder and trying to rip apart all of the work the doctor did on him. But he was back. “Launch!”

    “All hands secure!” The roar of the engines rocked the entire ship. It jumped into the air with more force than he was expecting. Warning lights ran off throughout the panel. He gave them all a quick kick to shut them up.

    The power from the engines was more than he expected. It took him a little to adjust to the changes. It felt like the same ship, but it did not handle like the same one. He needed time to adjust, but that would come later. “Course, sir?” They were in the air finally.

    “I looked at the maps, seems there is another major city on this landmass about a thousand kilometers west. West Ridge, it seems to be called.”

    Running his fingers over the map screen on the flight panel, Rinn picked up the course. He had the new updated maps installed from their investigations. It made it a lot easier to navigate without six hundred year old maps. “Course in. With the new power in the engines, we should get there in half the time.”

    “Good, I want to leave all this behind us.”

    “Yes, sir!” The last coordinates were inputted and he pushed the engines to full power. Yokatomo City quickly started to disappear from the horizon. However, a blimp came up on their radar suddenly. It was still not fully programmed to pick up unknown silhouette, not to mention all of the air traffic. “Commander, we’re getting something that seems to be following us.”

    “Why are you only now picking it up?”

    “Yokatomo City has a heavy amount of air traffic. So it didn’t really look strange until it got closer.”

    “What is it?”

    “Best guess, a freight ship, but we have little information on Earth ships. Could be a warship for all I know.”

    “Can we outrun it?”

    “Probably, the upgrades we got should allow us to break away.”

    “Then do it. We’re not here to fight.”

    “Understood!” Rinn took control over from the ship and manually flew them.

    Fin and Shiela came to a grinding halt at the coordinates already too late as they discovered. Only a truck and deep impressions in the earth were all that they had. “Damn it. They got away!” He kicked the door of the rental leaving a new dent in it.

    “Cap’n!” Nate came over the radio again. “The ship is makin’ a break for it! Looks like they’re tryin’ tah lose us by flyin’ through the city.”

    “Stay on them! They’re the only lead we have and if we lose them we’re stuck!” Horrible swearing and yelling came unintelligentably through the radio in the sound of Sam. They could only listen to the sounds. There was nothing to do anymore.

    “Keep on ‘em, Sam!” Nate yelled, his feet up on the panels as though it helped to make the Niph fly faster. He might have been the co-pilot, but he really did nothing but read the computer. At the moment, he was completely useless.

    Jerking the ship around away from a skyscraper, Sam swore again at the pilot of the unknown ship. “Bastards! What crazy pilot is sittin’ in tha ship? He’s gotta have ice fer blood to be makin’ maneuvers like that!” A sharp three g dive followed up with a ninety degree near full speed turn left Sam fighting the Niph. She was never meant for this sort of work. “Damnit! Where’s Ed?!”

    Nate looked a little shocked at Sam to hear him actually wanting Ed to pilot. It gave him a clear sense of how bad the situation was. He saw the numbers on the screen and their distance. They increased and decreased rapidly. They were pulling stupid stunts through the city in ways that were pretty illegal. “Ride their ass!”

    “I’m tryin’! But he’s good! I’ve ne’er seen skills like this before!” Then the ship suddenly dropped off his visual sights. Sam had not been flying using the radar, it was too slow for what he needed. Only feeling out the movements was going to keep up, but now he lost the target. “Where?!”

    “Behind!” shouted Nate, but it was too late.

    “How the hell?! Shit!” A horrible crash of metal echoed through their ship and threw off sparks all over the cockpit. The ship tilted forward from the impact and at their speed it was nearly uncontrollable. Sam had to blindly flip switches, cut warnings and get the ship under control with the ground coming up on them quickly. “Shut up, computer!” He kicked the panel breaking the glass surface.

    “Sam?!”

    “Bastard! Crazy, shit, bastard!”

    “Sam!”

    “Shut up, Nate!” He fought with the feedback from the stick and felt the whole ship complain and groan. It was already injured and crying from being rammed. Now Sam demanded it to do something it did not want to do. But he yelled and screamed at it to listen to him. The ground was coming too fast. The people were starting to become distinguishable from the cars. “Damnit!”

    In the last moment, everything finally kicked in and responded. The Niph pulled back arcing back into the air and away from the city. But unfortunately, they had lost sight of their target. They failed.

    “Sorry, Cap’n. They escaped,” Nate reported over the radio. “All we have is a last headin’, but we can’t be sure that’s accurate to where they’re goin’.”

    “Damnit.” He kicked the rental again. It complained a little more this time. Then he sighed. “Return back to the coords. They’ve won this round.”

    -X- -X- -X-

    Two weeks after the bombing, the doctors were still requesting she come in for routine examines. She finished dressing herself after the most recent one. They might have been a break from her training, but she still did not like it. They were poking around her body when she was feeling fine. All of them seemed paranoid about her well being like they were her parent. But her parents were dead. She needed none, especially people pretending.

    She walked out of the room and down the hall, finding Edgar sitting waiting for her. He had been going to her medical visits with her ever since she recovered from her hospitalization. It did not make a lot of sense to her. They still bit at each other frequently, but it sort of made her happy. Maybe it was because he was the only one in the base that seemed to understand her situation. Maybe he was just feeling guilty about what he did to her. Feeling like everything that’s happened is his fault, indirectly or not. She had a lot of theories. Most them did not really matter though, she did not complain about his company.

    “Any probs?” he inquired, just like every other time. Ed stood up to join her side as they walked out of the wing.

    Shaking her head, she checked her watch quickly. “No, still fine like the last five times. I keep telling them it’s not necessary.”

    “Well ya did go back into trainin’ pretty much tha next day after ya woke up. After what happened to you, most would be still in bed.”

    They turned the corner. A couple of soldiers passed by them giving them momentary looks. Though they wore uniforms like them, they were still teenagers. The general military only accepted adults. Even with the special exceptions, it made the rest of the base a little awkward around them. “I have things I must do,” she answered. She was not going to let it bother her.

    “Thought ya hated all of this.”

    “I do, but I’ve made my decision. I hate it or not, I’ll play their games until I have what I want.”

    “An’ what’s that?”

    Their talking brought them to different part of the base than they have visited before. Still housed under the Project AESIR arm, it was a massive complex that still hid things that they never knew existed. The latest surprise was just a large chamber by any immediate glance. It did not seem any more special than the rest.

    It had an observation deck, but the bulk of the chamber was a gigantic space that easily went for more than twenty stories in height alone. Stepping into the observation room felt like being in a small high-rise building. The actual dimensions were not something that Shizuka knew, but it was large enough for what they needed.

    Inside the chamber, she saw the completed prototype AESIR machines Skadi and Njord. They had just been finished this week and all of the scientists that she heard talk were very excited. It was all of their hard work finally giving form. Some talked as though they had completed their life’s work. She did not know how long that they had been working it. Any of the general documents said a couple of years, but gossip around the base she got the impression that was a lie.

    Shizuka and Edgar sat down on the end of the first row of seats. The far right side had Doctor Kitawara along with several people she did not recognize in the second row. Judging from what little she knew about ranks in the military, they all seemed high ranked officers, but it was just a guess.

    She looked forward through the glass. Only the tops of the machines were clearly visible, even with the full floor to ceiling windows. Their position was near the twentieth floor compared to the test chamber. They had similar looks like the machine assigned to her, but still very different. They all looked different as if they had different purposes.

    Gripping the arm rests of the chair, Shizuka had a bad feeling about it. She did not understand the need for such things. Terrorist attacks aside, such weapons were not needed. “I will learn the point of all this.”

    “They say they’re fer defensive needs, since we don’t really have any real military force. As we expand more they want to be ready fer an’thin’.”

    “And you believe that line of crap?”

    “’course not, but it’s not like I have any idea what they’re tryin’ tah do.”

    “Exactly. This isn’t being done without purpose.”

    A warning siren blared over the speakers getting everyone’s attention. Moments later, a woman’s voice spoke. “Practical field test 1 for Skadi and Njord shall begin in one minute.”

    Inside the cockpit of the Njord, Ansgar tapped on the communication button at his fingertip. An image of Skadi’s interior with Aerona popped up in a window on his 360 degree display monitor. “This is just a test simulation, Air. So you don’t need to worry.”

    She looked blanked face at him, not understanding his intention. “I’m experiencing no apprehensive, sir.”

    “Right…” He sighed leaning back in the pilot seat. “Well I guess, good luck then.”

    “Luck, sir? Is there a risk of failure in this test?”

    “Never mind, Air. Just focus on the test.”

    “I understand, sir.”

    The comm window closed and left him just staring at the screen. Most of his view was filled by the earth of their stage for the test. The test was so deep underground that they did not actually focus much on actually making the walls. They just left the earth and rock, which sort of helped with the idea that they might be outside. Though their weapons were all just simulations from the holographic projectors in the chamber. Their weapons were far too powerful to actually to do any live weapons test for a sparring match. They did not want to damage their work. The machine was still real and that was what counted.

    Ansgar tightened his hands on the sticks seeing the countdown for the test to start finally hit fifteen. “Even if she’s not nervous. She’s at least piloted it for real before, even incomplete. I’ve only done simulation runs. The real thing is very different.”

    Inside the observation room, displays on the glass show the pilots, vitals and output readings from the machines. Ed stared at the Njord’s side. “Looks like EnsignTool is goin’ tah piss himself.”

    “Isn’t it Toule?” Shizuka corrected, having been the first time Ed mention him. She knew how much he hated the man that he did not like even bringing him up in conversation. Often he went out of his way to avoid him, going indirectly implying who he was talking about.

    Ed shrugged it off looking at her a bit confused. He had gotten so used to his pet name for the Ensign that he did not even think about it anymore. “Toule, Tool, sounds tha same tah me. Besides, it’s more accurate my way.”

    “I guess.”

    The commencement siren went off and the match began, Skadi against Njord in a test of their combat and general performance. All eyes were on the machines to see if all the money that was poured into them was with it. The Skadi’s poor debut had the entire project on edge. They could only say that it was not ready for combat to explain why it did not succeed.

    The match up looked almost imbalanced. The Skadi had a slightly thinner over all silhouette compared to the Njord, but it was still very large and bulky. Nearly all black, much of its details were lost due to the lack of a readable surface. And mounted on its back was the massive particle cannon in addition to the arm mounted small beam weaponry. It was a heavy weapon’s fortress. Both in teeth and appearance, it looked deadly against the Njord.

    While brighter and easier to spot as a light blue paint job, the Njord had an equally heavy appearance. The only notable design seemed to be its massive tower shield that extended from feet to head to provide complete coverage of the main body, but due to its size it would still take hits to its arms and legs depending on positioning. It only seemed to be carrying a particle rifle, which hardly seemed fair.

    From the start, it seemed that the advantage completely rested on Skadi. And without any hesitation, Air opened fire on Ansgar and the Njord the moment that the test began. Beams shot out from the Skadi’s arms in rapid fire. The output was low, but the sheer consistency made it frightening.

    Taken a little off guard by it, not all of the beams were blocked by the shield. Ansgar was not ready for her to start immediately. Signs of flashes and warnings blinked on his screens. Though, even through it all the Njord remained fully functional with no simulated signs of defects.

    Once he realized that Air was naturally taking the whole thing completely seriously, it snapped him out of his haze and he remembered his training. Loosening up his grip on the sticks, he let his body feel out the movement as he practiced so many times. “The Njord’s main advantage is the defensive power, but that’s not all I can do. I am meant to be a wall. The wall that protects!”

    Thrusters on the Njord’s legs and feet fired putting the heavy machine into the air and forward. It shook a little as the feedback in the simulations did not accurate represent the full weight and balance of the machine. Ansgar had to do more adjustments on the fly as he charged in for Air and the Skadi. “Simulations be damned! This isn’t the same at all!” He had overcorrected for what he had thought was needed to balance out the thrust. It knocked over the Njord on its side falling more than twenty meters away from the Skadi.

    Merciless as should be expected, Air capitalized fully on his failure and opened a full barrage on him. The output on the beams increased as she focused them and reduced the firing rating. More warning lights flew up across the screen for Ansgar. “You’re not going down from just that Njord! I know you can take it!”

    While he sat behind the shield doing as much to protect him, he ran through the numbers on the thrust output and stabilizers. “Damn, they made a mistake back on stage 3B. They weren’t using the proper weight and thrust geometry. I’m going to have to re-enter it all in.” He thankfully had plenty of training with the advanced systems in the OS to manipulate the variables, but it was not something he wanted to do in the middle of combat. “Who knew my physics classes would pay off like this…”

    “Man, he’s getting’ slaughtered,” Ed remarked watching it all. “Not much of a test if Ensign Tool is just takin’ it like a bitch.”

    Shizuka made low sounds under her breathing as she watched it all played out. She hoped seeing the machines doing what they were intended would give her a sense of what was going on. All it did was confirm her original thoughts. They were completely pointless in their world.

    “You’re making a lot of noises, Su. Something on your mind?”

    Ed’s slightly annoying nickname for her snapped her out of her own world. Her eyes refocused back on the screens. “He’s not finished yet. Look at the readings. He’s barely even taken scratch from everything that she’s done.”

    He had been mostly looking rather than seeing the simulation data from everything. “Damn, you’re right. What tha hell is that thing made of tah take that sort of beatin’? I mean the things she’s firin’ would be enough to toast tha Niph in a minute!”

    “But she’s not even using her main weapon.”

    “Damn, that’s overkill. Why does it need that much power?”

    “Why indeed…”

    Text ran across the screen of the Njord letting him know the progress. “Almost there. Only twelve percent damage sustained. Still functional, you’re damn solid Njord. I believe in you!” With the last few inputs, the computer took the new balance equations for the thrust.

    Responding to his commands, the eyes on the Njord flashed briefly as it started moving. Digging the shield into the earth, it took up a defensive position. All systems returned to nominal states. A hole slid open on the shield allowing the rifle barrel to push through to give it a covered position to fire behind.

    Targeting data came on screen for Ansgar as it locked onto the Skadi. “You’re a sitting target, Air.” He took careful time to aim as the shield took all the hits. “She’s making this too easy. You better be glad this isn’t real combat, Air. You’ve got a lot of learn.” Squeezing the trigger, a finely charged particle beam shot out of the barrel of his rifle. His target was in sight, the barrel of her own beam weaponry on her arms. Disabled, she’d lose her secondary weapons. Once down, he would be able to charge her without worry.

    It was right on target as he watched, but at the last moment she blocked it with the forearms of her machine. The simulation data still put a deep hole into the armor and ruined the functionality of the controls within the hands, but the weapons were still functional. “Damn, she knew what I was trying. No matter, I still have the energy and time to try again. She’s not going to be able to get through my shield with her output even at the max. “She’s only got one option…”

    And Ansgar assessment was correct. Air made the tactical decision that her secondary weapons were no longer an option. The primary weapon began rotating out into place. “I’ve been waiting for this.” He lifted the shield up and hit the thrusters again. This time they responded with the correct balance. The Njord flew forward with no problems. “She’s got too long of a charge up time on that to make it a practical weapon in a one-on-one combat. All she’s got is her armor to protect her during it.”

    However, he was suddenly under fire again. Warning displays ran off for incoming fire from the Skadi. It took him a moment to realize that she was only firing with one arm. The other was taken up in the mounting and operation of the weapon. She was still able to hold down cover fire. “That’s new. She’s getting more creative.” Then he got a new message complaining about his leg. “She’s got through my armor?!” As he thought back to before, he realized what she had been doing. “She wasn’t firing at random, but at a single point. One arm was random to keep me off balance, while the other was always hitting the same spot. Damn, you’re smarter than I gave you credit. I’ll have to apologize for underestimating you and the Skadi.”

    Ansgar grinned a little with the excitement. Everyone was counting that he was already going to be out, while he assumed that the fight was one sided towards him. He knew how the Skadi worked and the main design of its combat strategy. It was never meant to be alone, so in a solo fight, it should have been disadvantaged. Yet Air was doing a surprising job making up for her flaws.

    He had to be more careful and move more than he planned. The damage to his leg was minor and not enough to affect his thrust. But he had to keep shifting around his shield to compensate for the damage and force her to reacquire her target. In the end, he knew it was just a waiting game. She planned on finishing him off with her main weapon, the heavy particle cannon. At full power it was more than enough to take out the Njord.

    “She’s almost got ‘er trump card ready,” Ed gave as commentary.

    “Yeah, but it’s only good for stationary targets. I haven’t seen her move at all from that one spot. She’s not going to be able to hit.”

    “She wouldn’t be doin’ it if she didn’t have a plan, right?”

    “Probably, but I don’t know what it would be.”

    “What you got in mind, Air?” Ansgar asked rhetorically as he kept trying to take shots at her from a distance. If he was too close to her when it went off he would not have enough time dodge in time. “Damn, she’s built tough though. She keeps using different parts of her machine to take the hits and rotates just enough to turn it into a glancing blow. Her armor is meant to have some reflective capabilities in it, the fact that she’s actually altering her position to make those angles count. Damn, she’s not just good…”

    He had to stop giving her compliments and fight though. She would end up winning at the rate that they were going. Even without the main weapon, she had better firepower and accuracy than him. He had to stay on the move constantly just to keep from getting hit. It lowered his system’s accuracy significantly compared to her stable position, not to mention her target systems were the best between their machines. The Skadi was meant to destroy things and accurately. It was not his machine’s strength. The human factor had to take a lot of it into account.

    But the waiting game was finally over. Her weapon was finished charging and she was ready for him. Ansgar did everything he could to keep moving, but she skillfully setup him up where he had to run into the wall if he wanted to dodge. Played straight into her hands, he had to dodge exactly where she wanted him.

    The Njord entered into the firing angle of her particle cannon just as it fired. His chance to dodge was almost non-existent before the beam was on top of him. It completely washed out the whole air in the light of its simulation beam. Everyone started counting him destroyed. But the simulation data corrected everyone’s assumptions.

    To everyone’s surprise, the Njord stood just behind the Skadi with a massive physical sword in hand. The battle stretched up from under the Skadi arm and pressed against the chest of the machine. It was checkmate.

    “How tha hell?!” Ed exclaimed, trying to figure it all out.

    Appearing a little blank eyed as she stared, Shizuka explained, “He used the shield as a decoy. Before the blast hit, he left the shield behind and went into a full thrust jump to clear the attack and land behind her.”

    “Su?”

    Shizuka blinked and shook off the weirdness. “What?” She stared at him trying to figure out what he was looking at her so oddly.

    “Nothing…” He looked at the replay of the cameras from in the room. It confirmed what she had said. ‘I was watching the whole thing and I didn’t even see that happening. My reaction times and eyes should be better than her’s, hell I actually flew before.’ Edgar did not know what to make of Shizuka, but her staring told him to stop it. All he could do was agree.

    “Simulation complete,” the woman’s voice announced.

    Kitawara and the others from the second row stood up and walked out of the room. The General nodded to whispered talks to the others. “Impressive displays for a simulation,” he said, cutting his compliment down.

    “Now you can see what they are capable of and they will only continue to improve and grow as they adjust to the machines. But remember, the Skadi and Njord are meant to being a combat pair. The Skadi’s superior firepower on the battlefield is only possible with the Njord’s defensive capabilities protecting it. The Njord is meant for close range combat to keep targets off the Skadi while the Skadi does long range wide scale bombardment. Single combat is a poor example of their potential.”

    “Still it’s valuable information to finally seen what we’ve sunk billions into making.”

    The Admiral carried similar sentiments as they all did. It was a lot of time and money invested into something very unknown. “Are the Freya and Od still on schedule?”

    “Of course, they’ll be ready in time. We can’t exactly allow ourselves to be unprepared.” Kitawara tapped on his computer pad and slid over classified project information to the military staff. “Now that you’ve seen the AESIRs, we need to discuss the future of Project ARM, the Valkyrie Project.”

    They all turned a little stiff at the mention of it. “Get your prototypes finished and fully proven. Then we’ll discuss Valkyrie. For now, all you’ve proven is that they can move and fight each other. You need to prove beyond a doubt that you can defeat the enemy.”

    An unsettling grin came across Kitawara’s face. He tapped his finger on the screen to close out the documents. “But of course. Just give me the enemy and I promise you they’ll destroy them all.” Scrolling through his information, he pulled up more classified information. The Yokatomo incident that they all were aware of. “Perhaps you should find the enemy. I can’t kill the enemy without a target.”

    “It’s being handled,” the General replied trying to keep his calm with the man. Every discussion with him ended up with an uncomfortable feeling afterward. He knew too much, but was too useful. He was a dangerous man.

    “Good. I’d hate to not have a chance to prove the AESIR to you.”

    Still inside the observation room, Shizuka and Edgar stared at the related data on the fight. They were specifically seeing the energy levels from the Skadi final attack. Even seeing the general blueprints on the other machines it never really gave them a sense of what it could do.

    Shizuka had to default to Edgar’s expertise on the weapons, as she only had simulation combat. But it still gave her chills. “This much power…”

    “If it was real, there woulda been a hole through like half tha base.” He exaggerated a little, but it was still nuts. “That things got more power than like twenty Niphs all firin’ at once.”

    “Something like that can only be meant for one thing.”

    “Su? What’s wrong?” Ed stared over at Shizuka. He could see her shaking a little from what she was thinking. It admittedly made him want to piss himself a little as well. He knew from his simulations that his machine did not have that sort of firepower. None of the other machines had that sort of power. It was one of kind, like Shizuka said meant for only one thing.

    “That’s not defensive power. That’s nothing but pure overwhelming destructive power. Large scale destruction meant for…war.”

    “Hey wait a minute, Su! War? We ain’t at war with anyone!”

    “That’s not what this machine says. It’s a war machine you saw what it could do. It’s not to protect, but to kill. Simply as that. Can you really say otherwise?”

    “Well no, but there’s no war!”

    “No war yet…” Shizuka turned away and started back to the way they entered. ‘The secrets they’re hiding… Are they trying to start a war? What is the true purpose of these things?’

    “Hey Su!” Ed called out to her, but she was too focused already on her own thoughts. He ran up to catch up to her. “What did ya mean? Su?” She did not give him anymore of an answer.

    -X- -X- -X-

    The annoyed and ignored groaning the Niph ran without anyone listening. Sam and Nate sat monitoring the radar to their destination. Nate had a foul expression on his face, not much unlike Sam. Sam’s came from the fact that the assholes ram the Niph and left them with the repair bill, not to mention she never really flew the same again. Nate had been staring at computer screens and text for a month and was getting tired of it. He only did it because it was the orders.

    A ping came back from the tower in Casslin, their latest city they visited. It was a large metropolis positioned on the upper eastern side of the former South American continent. Like most major cities, it played an important role in the trade and connected to all of the smaller communities.

    Nate flipped the comm switch. “We’re two minutes out from Casslin, Cap’n!”

    “Keep an eye on the radar! They’ve had a two day head start. And they’ve only been stickin’ around fer two days. So they’re about to leave again!”

    “Yeah, yeah! I know!” He slammed the switch off again. “We’ve been through this how many times already? Globe hoppin’ all over fer some stupid job that’s not even worth it anymore.”

    “We’ll get them this time,” Sam muttered with complete focus. He did not have time or a care for Nate’s complaints.

    Seeing that he was not getting anywhere with Sam, he kicked the computer again. “You’re just mad they out smart ya and ya want payback.”

    “I’ll be damn if I let them get away with rammin’ the Niph!”

    “Yeah whatever.”

    Sheila finished putting together her rifle. Fin sat across from her looking over all of their notes. They had been chasing them for so long and always just a step behind them. All of the crew was on edge dealing with the job. But it had become something of a personal thing for several, which worried her. “You know this is out of league, Cap’n. They’ve hit nine other cities, but haven’t been doin’ anythin’ with that ship of theirs other than flyin’.”

    Putting down the pad, he looked up at Sheila. She was ready for an assault, like every time before. Always ready, but never able to actually do anything. “Yeah, this is a lot bigger and stranger than it looked from the start. It’s not really even about the money anymore.”

    “That gut feeling again?”

    “Yeah, we already agreed this didn’t sit right. After seein’ what they’re doin’. It’s more like they’re playin’ tourist almost checkin’ out cities. They do nothin’ that we can find and then just leave. Apart from the thefts and unregistered ship, they ain’t even doin’ anythin’ really illegal.”

    “So what is their purpose.”

    “It’s almost like they’re casin’ the place, like they’re plannin’ fer somethin’ big.”

    “You still think they’re Ragnarok? Huntin’ terrorists ain’t our job.”

    “Yeah I know. I don’t know if they’re Ragnarok or someone else tryin’ to be like Ragnarok. But somethin’ this big can’t be good. Bombin’s are becomin’ more frequent, if they have somethin’ huge planned…”

    “Cap’n, we’re merc not soldiers or even out for justice. We’re do this for the money.”

    He was reminded of their argument with the little girl that they picked up. It almost made him laugh that he was actually starting to sound naïve. People die, it was the way of the world. In a world that everyone had to struggle to survive, being selfish and self-centered was important. The world was a harsh place and the terraforming did not make it any less so, not by a long shot. “Yeah, but can ya really sit on the sidelines knowin’ somethin’ bad was about to happen and ya had the chance to do somethin’ about it?”

    “But we don’t even know what it is or if we can do somethin’.”

    “And we won’t know until we find them. My gut is tellin’ me that we need to find them and stop them or else something; really bad will happen. That’s the only reason we’re still chasin’ this stupid money.”

    Sheila aligned her knives and smaller side arms along her jacket and pants. Everything was adjusted and ready for the assault, if it happened this time. She had to be ready to jump immediately. “Sure it’s not some revenge for what they did to the Niph?” she teased.

    “Maybe a little of that too,” he grinned accepting that he was as human as Sam. They wrecked the Niph in their stunt to get away. Some payback for that was in order as well.

    The speakers in the room suddenly jumped to an annoying hiss as Nate came through. “We’ve got ‘em on radar! One minute out!”

    “Right, it’s time Sheila!”

    Rinn finished the launch procedures and started them into the air. A blimp went off on their radar, the documented ship that kept following them had appear again. “Commander, they found us again.” He looked over at Cal in the co-pilot seat.

    “They’ve been a thorn in our side. We’ve had to accelerate our scouting because of them.” Turning to the door, he hit the panel to slide it open. As always, he had a Jiao prepped, it was Wells this time. He looked over at Elle who met gazes. “Elle, open the hatch.”

    “Yes, sir!” She unbuckled herself and moved to the back of the ship.

    Once the door closed again, Rinn checked on the Commander once more. “Sir?”

    “Get us into the air, but keep us level.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Hitting the comm panel, Cal connected with Wells. “New orders, Wells. I’ve deemed the first objective of our mission has been completed. We will be moving to the next objective.” He looked at the radar indicating the range of the ship. “Shoot them down.”

    “Understood, sir!”

    A new warning came across the computer screen on the radar of the Niph. Nate flipped through the data trying to get a read on it, but it was not making any sense to him. He could only report it and get orders. “Cap’n! We’re pickin’ up a secondary energy signature from tha ship now.”

    “Secondary? Is it a weapon?”

    “I don’t know, it’s small, but it is getting stronger. Looks like they’re bringing something online.”

    “What are the visual detection cameras saying?”

    Nate went into full magnification scanning the ship. It had just finished the first pass while he was reporting in. The new data was changing everything. “They’ve opened a hatch! I’m seein’ som’fin inside it. There are multiple shapes almost humanoid lookin’. The computer doesn’t even know how to classify it.”

    Looking over the data, Sam’s eyes widened as he recognized it. It had only been briefly, but they all saw it. “Cap’n! It’s the same things that were at Welest!”

    “Oh hell! Sam get us out of here now!”

    The computer picked up another new energy reading even stronger than the last. Nate leaned in needing to see it to be sure it was right. “They’re chargin’ a weapon! Sam, move!”

    It already too late when Nate acted. The particle beam already left the barrel of the Jiao by the time he finished yelling. Sam pulled on everything that the Niph had to give to evade the beam. But they were already too close. The beam ripped through the port side of the Niph punching a hole completely through the hull and setting off explosions.

    Sam felt every part of the Niph cry and jump all at once. Time seemed to slow down in that moment thinking that he had escaped. The tension ran high and adrenaline pumped overtime to keep up with him. He had to get them free before the second round was fired.

    Unfortunately, the second round was immediately behind the first. Barely even a second pass and the second beam pierced the bridge of the Niph running through the entirety of the ship. The engine block took the hit. It was only seconds later before the entire thing went into melt down and exploded. Only shards and plates of metal remained raining down over the city of Casslin.

    “Target destroyed,” Wells confirmed. He returned the Jiao back to standby mode as the hatch closed. “Thought you could out run Dual Shot? My name isn’t for show.”

    Cal felt some of the tension finally disappear. An annoying fly was finally gone. But a different sort of tension grew up his back to replace it quickly enough. “Set course for Yokatomo City. It’s time to put their military power to the test.” He hit the switch once more to communicate with the back of the ship. “Everyone start running checks on your Skins. The first battle begins.”

    To be continued…
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  9. #9
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 7 – Blood Revolution

    It started out as just another day. A long one, but another day. The sort of day that makes you want to just fall over. Not out of exhaustion, but rather out of boredom. A routine that continued to slowly grind out with no progress. It was not even that the tunnel was too far away that it was only speck of light. No, rather there was no light at all. It was just a tunnel that ran endlessly, tight and unmoving. Only a single path allowed forward, but with no light and no direction there was no sense of progress.

    Stagnation.

    That was all it was end in that. That is what it felt like at least. Nothing improved and nothing gained. It was just repetition without the sense that there was growth. But it came out of a lack of motivation. All of the motion happened, but there was no desire to do anything with it. So it just stewed in a thick, oily mess that did no one good.

    This was Ed’s life at the moment. A routine that he repeated, but wanted none of it. Even though he agreed and signed up for it, he did not want to do anymore. He had trouble even remembering why he wanted to do it in the first place. Even that part had become hazy.

    Sliding open with only the softest of sounds, the door pretended that it did not even exist to Ed. Though not the case for Dick. Much like the repetition that never changed, Dick had the same thing to yell at Ed as he left. “You’re falling behind the training regime! You’re on a schedule, son! If you think just because you’ve been made an elite that you slack off then you’re dead wrong! We’ve got plenty of replacements!”

    Edgar did not even pause. ‘That’s a new threat. I dun ‘member seein’ an’one ‘lse like us.’ He dismissed all of the threats from Dick. It was not something that really bothered him. “If ya got other’s than git’em.” The door slid close before Dick had any more of a retort back. And he did not seem willing to chase.

    As he came to the intersection of the hall, Shizuka passed by him. “Hey Su!” he called out. A bit of light came to his eyes when she looked over at him. “How’d trainin’ go today?”

    Though she was not fond of the nickname Edgar granted her, it was better than watching him stumble repeatedly over her name. Not that she understood why it was so hard for him to say. “Well, I think. They don’t show me the reports and Ms. Trimlore doesn’t tell me much other than I’m doing good.”

    “Oh,” he replied, needing to take it all in for a moment. ‘She’s be’n alot more open in talkin’ tah mah lately. Still a lil’ weird. Still ‘member how she were when we first met.’ Ed walked with her down the hall as they regularly did after training in the simulator. “Still getting’ yell’d at by Dick.”

    “Are you having trouble with training?”

    “Nah, I ‘stand it well nuff. Jes ain’t feelin’ it.”

    “I see.”

    He was not sure what it was about the way she said that, but Ed felt there was something more that she wanted to say to him. It made him scratch his hat and readjust his fedora, which he still wore despite military orders otherwise. He treated it as the one exception granted to elites.

    Still the reaction and look that Shizuka gave him bothered him. He stared at her loosely out of the corner of his eye to try to not make it creepy. They keep things casual in their walking. Just two people passing by at the same time.

    ‘She seems pretty serious ‘bout tah trainin’ these days. Seems strange, since she were so ‘gainst it ‘fore. Whas chang’d?’ The more he watched her, the more he got the feeling that she was almost looking down on him for not being serious about the training. But it was not like he needed the training. They claimed to have a schedule, but he did not know what was happening at the end. It seemed like just they were going to be on standby the whole lives.

    They split ways when they reached the showers. The women’s stalls came first as Ed waved to Shizuka. She disappeared behind the doors leaving him with more thoughts than actual words.

    Hitting the showers himself, he passed by a few other soldiers that he barely recognized before reaching an empty stall. Hot water poured over his face attempted to clean out his thoughts, though only to partial success. ‘Jes dun ‘stand ‘er…’ Which summed most of it up for Edgar. She did not make a lot of sense when he met her and the longer that they knew the other he felt that any sense of understanding quickly changed. He only would discover something even more confounding that lacked any sense.

    Walking out of the stall, he grabbed his towel starting to dry off his hair. Through clumps of his bangs hanging over his eyes he stared back at himself through the mirror. ‘What ya doin’ Ed? Really…’ He had no answer for himself. Before he thought he found that answer, but he was not even so sure of that answer.

    Back in a light uniform, though he was technically off duty now, military regulations did not permit him out of uniform while in the main facilities. Only in the barracks, or apartments in this case, and non-restricted parts of the base was that lifted. They were pretty strict about very specific things.

    “Damn, can’t believe it,” a soldier in the lounge complained.

    Edgar hung his fedora loosely around his fingers until his hair finished drying. However, he set it down on the counter when he went for a bottle of water. He did not do enough he felt to take one of the supplement drinks.

    As he sipped on the cold water, feeling it chill his insides after the hot shower, he turned around and leaned against the counter. The lounge filled surprisingly tightly with soldiers and a few civilian contractors. “Eh?” He grabbed the sleeve of a passing soldier looking for a drink. “Whas goin’ on?”

    “You haven’t heard kid?”

    “What?”

    “Those damn terrorists attacked again. This time it was some civilian freight ship.”

    “Tha hell? Again!” Ed moved forward to the monitor running the news broadcast. He was finally starting to hear it over all of the chatter. ‘Can’t tell Su…’

    At the bottom of the screen the headline read “Ragnarok Strikes Casslin” taking Ed only a moment to place the city in the world. ‘Getting’ bold…’

    The female anchor began to recount the news explaining the situation. “At 12:42 local time, the anti-terraforming terrorist organization known as Ragnarok destroyed a civilian freighter over the sky’s of Casslin. The method of the terror attack is still under investigation by the local security force as well as H.O.P.E. specialists. Eye witness reports claim to have seen another ship nearby the freighter when it was destroyed. The unknown ship is suspected to belong to the terrorists, but its origin is unknown.”

    “Damn…them again,” cursed Ed as he remembered the attack on Welest. An unknown craft definitely had the makings of being the same group.

    “The civilian freighter Niphliheim was arriving in port still hauling cargo destined for the major trade hub. The wreckage of the ship scattered over a kilometer of the city endangering citizens on the ground. Search and recovery crews are working to map out the destruction, but it is unlikely there were any survivors.”

    Edgar staggered back unable to say a word. He bumped into one of the soldiers that complained, but he did not know what they said. He could not hear them. All he could hear was the woman’s voice repeating over and over again in his skull “…unlikely there were any survivors…”

    He fell through the crowd and stumbled to the floor finding that his legs were not functioning proper for him. His mind was still frozen not even processing it. It could not believe it. It repeated like a broken tape in his head trying to make him understand. But he refused. Even though he knew.

    The reaction he had once his body finally caught up to everything was to run out of the lounge. There was nowhere that he had in mind. His legs just took him away from it all. He knocked over several people in the hallway and crashed against the well-polished floor more than once. Even pain was not something that he seemed to notice.

    Edgar did not know where he was going or even where he ended up when he finally stopped. He was sweating and panting completely out of breathe despite it not being even that exhausting of a run. It was his body, it reacted to his mind and emotions. That was all it could do since he mentally was not doing anything still.

    But he started to run again. One building melded into another building. He was lost, but it did not matter. Escape seemed to be the thing that his body understood. Though escape was a pointless attempt. He had nowhere to go. He could not leave the base.

    Eventually, Edgar stopped again. There was no more that he could do to run. His body refused to keep going further. He had reached the fatigue and exhaustion point now. Not that he fully seemed to comprehend such things. The paralysis latched around his brain like a snake coiling tighter and tighter. All he did was drop down to the cold floor.

    It felt like he was completely out in the middle of where. He only barely seemed to be processing where he was and it did not look familiar. That was the limit of his capacity. He leaned back against whatever it was behind him.

    An hour passed perhaps, Ed did not have any concept of time. He even forgot when he finished training even though it was the same time as always. But it took that long for him to start to actually become consciously aware of his surroundings in a real sense. “Where am I?” he said aloud as his first natural reaction. It had a familiar and unfamiliar appearance to it. He recognized equipment and crate marked for use, but room was foreign to him.

    “You’re in the storage room,” a voice from above said.

    He pulled his head back towards the voice, but saw no one. It took him a moment to realize from the sound of the distortion that the person was not in the room, it was a speaker. The voice seemed sort of familiar, but not one that he immediately recognized. “Storage?”

    “That’s right. Camera picked up you about two hours ago.”

    “Two hours…”

    “Come on out. Probably could do better than the stuffy company of metal crates and blank screens.”

    Slowly standing up, Edgar realized that he had been using one of the crates for a back and that the room appeared much larger than it initially seemed. “Storage…” He peaked around the current row of lined up crates in search of the supposed exit. It was nearby from the light highlighting the exit. “Where’d I end up?” he wondered aloud as he worked on.

    The storage room double doors slid open greeting him to a sight that he had not anticipated on seeing. He immediately knew where he was now. “Tha AESIR…” In front of him where the pair of machines Freya and Od, Shizuka and his machines still under development. He knew what they would eventually look like based on the simulations that he ran every day. Seeing it in person reminded him how massive they were. It had been a while since the last time he visited. ‘Su says they’re fer war…’

    “I see you found your way out of the maze!” the voice from the speakers said.

    He got another surprise as he turned to find the last person he expected, Shizuka’s estranged father, Doctor Kitawara. “It’s you doc…”

    “It was quite the surprise when I found you just sitting in the storage room. What were you doing?”

    “…nuffin…” he answered, which remained pretty accurate while still dodging the question.

    “Did you come to see the Od?” He looked up at the giant with a look of admiration. “Sometimes I like to just stop what I’m doing and stare at it.”

    ‘Jes stare?’ Edgar did not really understand him. He was not acting like he had seen the last time. It was a little off putting for him. He almost seemed normal. “Why?”

    “It gives me perspective at times. Other times, I feel like I see the future in them.”

    “Tha future? They’re machines.”

    Kitawara shook his head and grabbed Ed’s wrist pulling him along with him. He guided him up to the feet of the Od. All around there were work crews assembling parts and doing checks on the electronics. So many people just to make a single machine meant for him to pilot.

    The doctor pointed up at the Od trying to get Ed’s attention. “They’re more than just machines. I wouldn’t be making them if they were just going to be machines.”

    “What ya mean?” Not making any sense started to make him feel a little more like what he was expecting. Yet he remained unsettling different from the last time. It left Edgar on edge around the man.

    “Each machine is specially made and I’ve given them their own soul.”

    “Eh?”

    “Not a real soul, of course. What I mean is that I’ve designed them with a purpose in mind. But more than that they’re also a guide.”

    Things quickly got lost on him. He knew machines and electronics well enough to know that the man sounded more like a crackpot than an engineer at the moment. Calling his expression a healthy dose of skepticism would be underselling it.

    Kitawara picked up on his doubt. He pulled him along to the lift alongside the Od. “I’ll show you a little of what I mean.”

    He hesitated a little, but found himself a little curious as well. All he knew about the machines was from the specs given to him and the simulations, which were supposedly complete reproductions of the cockpit. Edgar stepped onto the lift and rode it up to the shoulders of the machine.

    Doctor Kitawara walked over the shoulder completely ignoring the height, making it clear how familiar he was with the walk. The face of the Od’s head was open with the cockpit greeting anyone to enter. “This is what I mean.”

    “Ya ain’t makin’ sense, doc.”

    “The Od will make sense to you.”

    “Eh? How’s that?”

    “I believe every human has different codes that they follow, rules if you will. We each come up with different ideas of what we think and believe. It’s informed and created by many different sources in our life. But each is unique to the person.”

    “And?” He was quickly losing what the doctor was trying to get to with his little speech. It seemed to have even less to do with machines.

    The middle-aged man stepped into the cockpit and turned the seat to face Edgar. “I designed these machines with a similar philosophy in mind. While they might only look like killing machines on paper they are much more than that. You’ll understand once you’re in this seat.”

    “What yer point? Why tell me this?”

    “Because you looked lost when I saw you in the storage room. The Od will help you find your path, that’s what I believe.”

    “Mah path?”

    “That’s right. You have your own sense of right and wrong and different things you value to protect with those hands, right?”

    The question made him pause for a moment. It was not really something he gave much consideration to before. It was just not the sort of person he was. Though he would be lying if he did not believe in certain things. Things that he viewed possibly right or just. “I’m not sure.”

    “Well you’re still young and growing. What’s important to you and what you want to protect changes a lot. Do you have something you want to protect?”

    “Somefin tah protect?”

    “Yes, it’s very important to us humans to have something to protect. It gives us purpose and drive. It allows us to push past what we think are our limits. It’s very important in this age to know what you want to protect.”

    “Protect?” The thought made him pause again. He had to think about it. And with it made him think about what he had wanted to protect. It was the reason that he was lost. “I dun ‘ave anyfin.”

    “Are you sure? Everyone has something, someone.”

    “YES! I’m sure!” he snapped back. His voice rang clear through the hanger stopping all of work as people tried to figure out what was wrong. Edgar looked around the massive chamber seeing all of the eyes on him. “Whacha lookin’ at?!”

    His yelling sort of got everyone to turn away and pretend like nothing was happening. He walked back to the lift. Keeping his back to the doctor, he stared out into the hanger. “Doc, do ya believe in evil?”

    Doctor Kitawara leaned forward out of the chair a little curious by the question. He stepped out of the cockpit and stood on the shoulder. “That’s a complicated question. And not a very easily answered one.”

    “Before today…I’ve seen lots of things. Tha way tha world works ain’t pretty, but it made sense in a twisted sorta way.”

    “And today?”

    “I’m ain’t sure…maybe…I jes can’t believe it all.” He turned back around to meet the doctor eye to eye again. A thought came to him while talking. The purpose and reason for everything in his running. He tried to escape it all. ‘I need tah know…fer sure…’ Edgar locked in on the man with his features sharpening suddenly. “Can ya look in tah somefin?”

    He tilted his head a little as Ed added to his curiosity. “What you want to know?”

    “Tha truth.”

    Across the hanger with a room filled with computer terminals, Doctor Kitawara sat down pulling up a secure search in the H.O.P.E. network. He paused and turned to look over at Ed, who stood hovering over the monitor that was supposed to display the result. “You’re just wanting to know what H.O.P.E. has learned so far from the investigation of the attack?”

    “Yeah, everyfin ya can find.”

    “Should be easy with my clearance. It’s unlikely to be that heavily classified, a terrorist attack.” Flipping through menus and files, Kitawara search through much of the initial round of documents produced by the investigation. Like he said, it did not take long to find. “Looks like the investigation is still ongoing.”

    “But they’ve gotta have leads!”

    “Well yes, there are some initial reports coming out that are answering a few of the questions.”

    “Whacha got?”

    Passing off what he found to the main monitor, Kitawara summarized what he found. “Based on some of the wreckage that they’ve already recovered it was a high energy beam that hit the ship’s power plant. Critical mass was reached within seconds as the entire vessel was consumed in the explosion. Based on shattered and overall lack of substantial sections of the main hull the explosion either vaporized parts and torn apart the rest.”

    “Survivors?”

    “None. Such an explosion would have consumed the crew immediately and if they were shielded the fall of more than a kilometer would have killed them.”

    “But there’s a chance! Maybe they ‘scaped before!”

    “They are still searching on that off-chance. But that’s not a hope you should rely on.” An alert came up on Kitawara’s screen. He clicked through the window checking deeper about the results came back. “Looks like security cameras from the port were able to get some of the attack recorded.” Tapping on the panel, the video passed over to Ed’s screen.

    On the screen, the distance made it hard to make much out. “It’s tha Niph!” Though Ed immediately recognized the Niph, even if it might have been influenced by what he knew. He felt he could recognized her no matter the visibility. The other ship he did not recognize as well. However, his gut was already convinced of what it was. “Can ya fix tha image?”

    “This is already maximum zoom. It’s not like we have magic enhancement formulas. This is what you have to live with.”

    “Damnit!” he muttered pounding his fist on the terminal panel. The metal groaned a little under his force, but held up to him.

    The video continued on despite Ed’s complaining. The two ships moved around too fast for the cameras to always been keeping them in view. Every time they disappeared he leaned forward as though it would fix things. Then the moment came. It was fast, faster than he wanted it to be. A single thick beam of energy pierced through the entire Niph. It had no chance at all.

    His fingers pressed against the panel with his skin starting to run a little pale. It was all he needed to see and it was worse than he imagined it to be. The video came to a stop on the explosion. Seeing it stare at him only made it worse. He threw his hand in the air at the monitor roughly swiping it away. ‘Its those bastards!’ Edgar turned away from the terminal as the feeling of paralysis came back.

    “H.O.P.E. investigators have determined that it is indeed the work of Ragnarok. It also seems that the organization recently took credit for the attack as well.”

    He kicked the terminal at the base denting the metal a little with the force. “Bastards! They’re s’posed tah jes be suicidal maniacs and doomsayers. How tha hell they get ahold of weapons like that?!”

    Doctor Kitawara pulled away from the terminal as well, but gave Ed his space. He crossed his arms taking in all of the information. “Ragnarok’s has recently started stepping up their attacks. The attack at Welest was just the start.”

    “Yea…” he agreed, remembering that day very well. Though it was more his memories of seeing Shizuka freaking out that burned into his memories more than anything. He had forgotten that the reports from that incident turned out to be terrorists. “And tha bombin’”

    “They’ve become more aggressive as of late. They’re become more proof to the military here for the need of something to meet such aggression.”

    “Ya mean those machines?”

    “Yes. Originally, they were approved as purely a peacekeeping effort. The world is big and so much of the manpower and resources of humanity is focused on survival and recovery that we’ve got nearly no standing military. This base represents the entirety of the whole military power in the entire world. If something happened that our meager power couldn’t handle we’d be doomed. All of the work we’ve made fixing the Earth would be lost.”

    “So ya made tha AESIR.”

    “The original scope of the project was much smaller under my predecessors, but with the birth of a group like the Ragnarok it became clear we needed something more and the military requested for something that could meet any need. I was brought onto the project at that point we had a lot of set backs, but we’ve made a lot of progress now.”

    Edgar walked away from the terminal. “Ya don’t say…” The opposite side had thick windows allowing him to look into the hanger. “Powah huh…” He pressed his hand against the pane as his emotions swirled about trying to grasp onto what he was feeling. It processed better than when he first learned, but he still did not know what it was that he felt. It was strange. “What makes people do things like that?”

    Joining at his side, he stared out to the two machines. “Ragnarok you mean. Fear if I had to guess. Humans hold the unknown with a great amount of uncertainty. That uncertainty breeds fear. And fear is a terrifyingly powerful emotion to control people.”

    “Fear…but they kill ‘emselves and others.”

    “Humans are a complicated being. We can’t be easily explained as much as we try. Any answer I give you won’t give you the whole picture. It is something you’ll have to find for yourself.”

    “And that’ll help me, ya think?”

    “I know it will. It’s why I made them. There’s more to it than just pulling a trigger. Killing is easy. Knowing why you kill and for whom you are is the hard part. They are built to protect and show you the path that you believe is right.”

    “What I wanna protect? Ain’t so sure ani’more.”

    “You’re lost and confused right now. So it’s understandable. But you’ll stand up after this.”

    “Dun feel that way.”

    “Not right now. Give it time. But you’ll know what’s important to you and when you do the Od will be there for you to ensure you keep safe what you want so you don’t have to lose anything else.”

    “Anifin else…” Edgar turned away from the window and leaned against it. All of the heavy talking gave his brain something think about and that sort of hurt. He was not opposed to serious talk, but he was not really used to it. “I’ll think ‘bout it.”

    “It’s not something that’ll come to you immediately.” The door opened suddenly with one of Kitawara’s team appearing through the crack. The woman wanted him for something by the look in her eyes. He nodded to her and then looked back at the kid. “There’s still time. Think about what you should be doing with the time that you have now. Because it won’t last forever and trying to find yourself in the middle of a battle will only get you killed.”

    With that the doctor left and Edgar was alone in the room. “Weird man…notfin like before…” He spent a little longer in pensive consideration of what they talked about before walking out on this own. Since he was next to the AESIR hanger, he knew where he was on base.

    The day was over. In his mind anyway.

    5km Outside Yokatomo City

    Alerts came up on the screen overtop the view of the city in the distance. Now armed with their collected data, there was much more points of interest and strategic call outs made by the computer systems.

    Rinn motioned with this free hand removing much of the information noise. He wanted to see not be told were critical infrastructures. This city was familiar enough to him already thanks to their extended stay. “Two minutes out from drop point,” he reminded to Cal, already getting out of his seat.

    As the door into the bay opened, he found his team all standing at attention waiting for him. There were anxious and nervous looks spread across all of their faces. Aside from the newbie, Schir, they all had real combat experience which meant that they already accepted that the next sortie could be their last. Not that the confidence on some of their faces made it appear that way.

    Cal picked up his helmet, already suited up in is flight suit. “This is going to be a night raid. Remember this isn’t like space combat! Pay attention to gravity and your energy reserves. The solar reserves won’t last in prolonged combat and none of these Skins have been given real extended combat tests. So no chances out there. This is our first real sortie on Earth, not the last!”

    “Yes, sir!

    “Mission objectives have all been uploaded into your Jiaos so follow the mission. The data we gain will be important for the future! Dismissed!”

    Everyone turned sharply and marched out into the depths of the bay. Cal watched them jump up into the cockpits of their Skins. It had been a while since he had seen such a sight. He had not seen it since the war ended. It was a welcome and comfortable sight to behold for him. He could be at ease.

    Mounting his Peng Custom, he stood next to the cockpit at the chest while monitoring his team. He could feel the energy from the rest of them. They were all soldiers born in the war and hardened by combat. This sort of mission was an awkward one for them despite it being more to what they were suited for.

    He jumped into his chair with the power plant already at full military power. On his near 360 degree monitor, the countdown to drop displayed at forty-two seconds. The next phase was about to begin now. ‘In the lion’s den, let’s see how they react when we start throwing stones. Will they ignore it, make a quick swipe or go straight for the throat.’

    “Hope that monster Skin shows its face today!” Wells remarked over the speaker.

    “We’re here for recon, not revenge, remember that,” Elle commented.

    “They killed Rivers! Those demons!”

    “Cut the chatter,” ordered Cal, as the countdown just went under fifteen seconds.

    “Yes…sir…”

    Warning lights in the bays flashed as the alarm began its near head piercing cry, if you stood unprotected outside. Rinn came over the comm., “Five seconds to drop. Give him hell, boys!”

    “You know it!” Wells replied, already in line at the doors. Gusts of wind ripped through the bay playing with anything not firmly tied down. The countdown sounded off at zero signaling the start. “Polsen Wells, Jiaolong…launching!”

    Once all of his team departed to their mission drop zones, Rinn pulled the ship up into the sky. Unlike the Jiaos, his Peng was a little different. Though based off a Jiaolong production model, the Peng made some very important changes. It notably has a lighter frame and less plating along with three times the thrust. Identical appearance aside, it did have one other important difference. The equipment load out.

    Cal finished the last system checks of the equipment pack. During the first deployment, he did not really need to use it much due to the ground combat. However, he was going to be doing high attitude recon while the rest of the team remained on the ground. The Jiaos could not sustain prolonged flight. Normally, even the Peng would not be able to do so either.

    “Over the drop point, Captain!”

    He walked out to the edge of the ship. Below between the bay doors he could see the lights of Yokatomo. ‘Not much different than home…’ The jump siren continued to blare through the chamber. ‘A flying Skin…not much of a fan of the idea…’ Regardless of his feelings, he had to test it out. He stepped out onto the belts of the door as it evenly pushed him into the sky. “Callein Tulother, Peng Custom…launching!”

    Already in free fall, he saw the city below getting closer to him. The clouds already disappeared around him. ‘Time to start the mission…’ Flicking the control switch, the equipment pack on his Skin’s back opened up and expanded out a full flight wing. Interlocking sections at the base fixed the wings tightly to the Skin. While it worked, he hit the thrusts feeling his machine jump to life and throw him back into his chair. ‘Feeling the Gs now…’

    Not nearly as bad as when he pushed it to full thrust nearly blacking out and putting himself out of commission for a week, but the feeling was familiar. ‘I’m going to have to get used to this. The gravity makes the Gs all the more troublesome. Zero G training isn’t analogous. Damn…’

    Through the city the night went on as though nothing was happening. The arrival of Cal’s team gave them no warning. Warnings went off from the control towers at the port and security towers, but the ordinary citizenry knew nothing of what was about to happen.

    “I’m detecting activity at the port,” Rinn informed. From the ship, his mission objectives were limited to purely support. But it did give them a better sense of the field as the Jiaos did not have the system on board for such surveillance.

    Getting a better feeling of his Peng, Cal took a wide turn a kilometer above the port. His cameras zoomed in on the landing strips. “I can confirm that. No security so far, looks like their procedure seems to be securing the trade vessels.”

    “Probably don’t see us a threat,” commented Noinel.

    “Then let’s give the demons something to be scared of!” Wells eagerly added to the chatter.

    Cal funneled the command data from the ship into his Peng to give him increased range. The map of the area with his team appeared. Spread over several kilometers on different parts of the cities, they quickly moved to their mission objectives. ‘Now it begins for real…’

    An explosion in the industrial district was the first signal for those living in Yokatomo City that their lives were never going to be the same again. It lit up the night sky turning heads for kilometers around. People froze in the streets not sure what was happening. Whispers through the city of terrorists became the guess, but they had always been so far away. So none of them could believe it.

    However, they saw more explosions and flames shooting into the sky as the night went on changing their opinions. Minutes of strange and unfamiliar noises from above stretched on for hours in their minds. They had no words to fit what was happening. However, there was one that would not yet come to them.

    War.

    Radar alerts sounded off inside Cal’s Peng. He flipped over the new signals projecting it in a three dimension space. The onboard computer ran through the library, already indexing out the Federation’s known silhouettes. Their limited data stolen from computers in their recon missions only produced so much.

    He got a half match to something that they had found. It gave him at least an idea of what they were dealing with. “Stay alert, everyone! Looks like the automated sentry drones were finally deployed. Continue the missions as expected.”

    Wells came over the speakers adding his chatter. “Damn, these things look old. The library can’t even make full heads or tails of them. They’ve got to be at least four generations removed from their current productions.”

    Cal quickly pulled a couple of Gs as he turned to evade some warning fire from the drones, apparently programmed with a system to not immediately destroy. A feature that would prove to be a weakness as he easily shot down two.

    “You have to remember that Yokatomo is one of their older cities,” Noinel remained, “It’s likely that they have no need to upgrade with the state of the world. The worst they have to contend with is terrorist attacks.”

    “Then remind me again why we’re even worried this much about the operation in three months?”

    “Because we haven’t seen what their military is truly capable of. One monster Skin isn’t enough to judge their entire military force.”

    “Then bring them out already! I’m ready to earn a new nickname!”

    “Full military engagement isn’t the objective today,” Cal interrupted.

    “Yeah I know, Cal.”

    Testing out the flight spin on drones made for a casual exercise for Cal. The drones were easy and unmanned. Not a real test of the maneuverability, but he could work out the kinks before the real fighting started. “I know you’re impatient, just wait. If their black monster is anything like what we can expect from the rest of their military then you’ll have plenty of chances to prove yourself.”

    “Yeah, yeah.”

    Most of the drones had already been dealt with by the ten minute mark into the mission start. ‘They’ve got poor readiness… But like Noinel said it’s sort of expected. Later missions will be testing their adaptiveness.’ Cal looped back around the tower for a closer look at what they were going to do next.

    Minutes continued to pass by in the engagement. All of the targets that the team had marked were already handled and they were still waiting for the rest of their objectives. Wells noticeably became impatient. “They aren’t coming, Cal! Just call the mission already. We’re getting to the twenty minute mark.”

    “Callout energy levels,” ordered Cal.

    “15 minutes, sir,” Schir reported.

    “18 minutes, sir,” answered Elle.

    “17 minutes, sir,” Noinel replied.

    “5 minutes, Cal.”

    As the rest of the team blew up in surprise, Cal sighed knowing immediately the source. “You need to stop firing twice when one is enough, Wells. This isn’t space where have more solar recharge and you have to remember thrust burns more energy too in this gravity.”

    “It’s a hard habit to break.”

    “Operation time is thirty minutes, head back and sit the rest of this out.”

    Grumbling over the speakers came from Wells’ machine. But he knew there was nothing he could do if he did not want to be unable to return. It was his fault and he knew he would have to fix the error. “Yes, sir.”

    “Schir, fill in the gap by Wells and keep an eye out. You’re no longer partnered.”

    “Yes, sir!”

    Only a minute later, Schir came over the comm. once more with an update. “Sir, I’m seeing some movement on my sector.”

    Cal pulled his machine around to get an aerial view of the situation and sent a request back to Rinn to get more accurate readings. Diving down a little to get a better view on the camera, he could see Schir. Then sensor warnings flew up on his screen. “Looks like we finally stirred them awake.”

    “I’m getting multiple silhouettes on the radar, everyone,” reported Rinn. He fed back all of the data that he was getting to the other machines. “The computer is still tagging all of them through the library, but count looks to be thirty so far.”

    “Thirty?!” Schir exclaimed, doing a very poor job hiding her surprise.

    Lining up with the oncoming force, Cal got a good read on the machines. They were a mix of aircraft and something more advanced than the drones they shot down earlier. He ran his finger over the sticks feeling the sense of the battle coming. “Get your asses in gear! These are manned craft this time! They won’t hesitate to fire!”

    The rest of team had some distance to make up to reach the main force coming out of the port. Schir already had a set up position on the ground while Cal held the air. Together they waited until the enemy came into weapon range. Something that the inexperienced local security forces did not understand. The fall off on their beam weapons was already poor from old equipment and they lacked any sort of real combat training.

    They might have had numbers in their favor, but that was all they had. And numbers were not going to win the night for them against a superior and well trained combat team. Only two minutes into the engagement Yokatomo lost more than sixty percent of their fighting force.

    However, working against Cal and his team was energy. They had already been active for the majority of their operational time. He kept a close eye on his energy reserves, which dropped quickly now that he exchanged heavy fire with the enemy. His remaining flight time dropped faster than he expected and he doubted that it was any better for the others on his team.

    With no communication jamming, he saved his signal flares, as was his first reaction. “Primary mission objectives have been achieved. All units leave the combat space immediately!”

    -X- -X- -X-

    One long night passed for Edgar. Sleeping on everything stirring in his head did not really help things. He remembered all of the crew in his dreams and watched them die repeatedly in the explosion as he could do nothing to save them. The nightmare played endlessly in different ways as he seemed to be looking for the answer. The answer that he would never find, because it could not be changed.

    After he finished in the shower, he flipped open the news streams in his room quickly. “Maybe they found somefin or Fin and tha others…” However, it surprised him to find that they were not talking about attack in Casslin. Rather it was a new attack in Yokatomo City and he found himself staring at the report for longer than he realized. “Damnit, bastards! How many ‘ave tah die?!” Turning it off, he stormed out of his room not needing more bad news.

    It was hard to focus on his training with everything happening. Through the halls he heard chatter about the attacks. When he sat behind the monitors of simulated enemies it only made him imagine seeing those Ragnarok bastards shooting down the Niph. He could not escape it anywhere he went.

    By lunch, his scores were the worst that they had ever been. He leaned out the simulation chamber with his mind still spinning. ‘Ain’t tha same…’ Ed remarked about the cockpit. It did not feel like what he had seen in the hanger.

    Not noticing the atmosphere around Ed, Dick bravely marched up to him more pissed off at him than normal. “What the hell was that? Three kills and twenty-seven failed ops.”

    Glaring up at Dick, he tossed the helmet behind him into the simulation chamber. “Whacha goin’ do, Dick?”

    The direct confrontation took him by surprise. It was not the sort of reaction that he expected from Ed. However, he did not put any of that together to actually mean something. He was just being insubordinate. Put on the defensive, Dick returned with equal intensity. “You’re a disgrace to the other elites and this project! You’re doing nothing but wasting everyone’s time by being here!”

    Edgar stood up meeting the man eye-to-eye. “That right? Report me!” He then pushed the man out of his way. “Goin’ tah lunch!” He marched out of the room and nearly crashed into two passing soldiers. They gave him some looks and snapped at him, but he ignored them.

    A bad day had already started and it did not seem to be ending anytime soon. The call to lunch came a bit early for him since he left Dick. Though at the moment, neither was something that was on his mind. He just wanted to be away from all of it. There was nothing that did not act as a constant reminder.

    More focused than yesterday, he did not run around the base lost. Rather he left the facility and walked outside. He came to a stop just outside and looked up at the ceiling of the dome. Artificial lights gave the illusion of daylight, while it was still night beyond the protection. It was at least a different sort of view. Ahead, he could see edge of the dome only a short kilometer away. The base’s dome was one of the smaller ones not demanding the same sort of height or size for the city.

    He walked across the lot to the edge of the base. To his surprise, there was someone else there as well. ‘Su…what’s she doin’ out ‘ere?’ The pink dyed hair she had made spotting her almost too easy. He was not sure if he saw anyone else on the base with any unusual hair color. Eventually, she was going to lose all of it. He already noticed that her black hair was growing out at the roots and he some how doubted the military was going to allow her to keep dying it pink. The dye itself made him sort of wonder, though it did end up throwing them off in the search.

    “No, trainin’?” he opened as he approached.

    She did not turn to meet his entrance. “I finished early.”

    “Wow, don’tcha got more trainin’ missions than me? I can barely finish up half!”

    “They’re all pretty easy once I got the handle of the controls.”

    Edgar set up next to her leaning out the large window. The raised recreation area was part of the observation deck for the dome giving better viewing of the frozen continent. “Man! Ya sure ya ne’er done this before? It’s completely different from tha Niph or ani ship I practiced on before.”

    “Maybe because I’ve never done this sort of thing before there isn’t any pre-established ideas of how it should be.”

    “Gotta point there, I guess.” Staring at blowing snow was about as boring as he expected. Yet it did take his mind off what he did not want to be thinking about. “Why ya out ‘ere staring at tha white wastes?”

    “It helps me clear my mind and keep me focused.”

    “Focused?” It bothered him the whole situation with Shizuka. He did not get her and the change. After everything went down he got some stupid ideas in his mind about running away with her. And he had been certain she would do it. However, the look he saw in her eyes these days made him doubt that very serious. “Do ya want tah be ‘ere? Yer not wantin’ tah ‘scape?”

    Shizuka lifted her arm showing off the band that they both wore for their troubles in trying to escape before. Not that really answers all of his question. And she knew it. She kept her reasons to herself. But she felt ready to tell him. “I’m going to stay and see this through.”

    “What?! Why?”

    “Because this is wrong.”

    “Eh? Yer not makin’ much sense.”

    “I guess I’m not.” She absentmindedly touched the hair tie that kept her ponytail up. “Do you agree with what’s going on here? Training teenagers or children to fight, the machines of war, the lies.”

    “Well no…they’re right bastards.”

    “Exactly. I’m not leaving, because there’s something I have to do.”

    He was getting more lost the longer that he listened to her. The way she talked made it very clear how determined she was about her goals. Edgar tried to remember when she noticed the difference. It had been there for a bit. ‘Was it after tha bombin’?’ There was no way he could just ask her about that. He might have been blind and an idiot, but he was not that insensitive.

    “I’m going to get to the bottom of all of the lies and secrets. I’m going to expose them and make sure that they can’t do this ever again. They won’t ruin anyone else’s life.”

    “…Su…” For the first time since he joined her, he looked straight at her. It took her a moment to notice that he was starting at her. She tilted her head ever so slightly to meet gazes with him. The full impact of her commitment to her purpose came through in her eyes alone. Yet it extended through to her presence. He could feel it that turned his hair up on the back of his neck in a chill.

    She really was not the same person that she helped kidnap from Welest. The saucy girl with an attitude had almost completely disappeared. Before him was someone else that he barely could recognized as the same girl that he thought he knew. It was more than just her something getting serious or going through the motions, like he guessed it to be. She was not doing it because she had no choice. It was not because she was a prisoner on base.

    Unlike him, she had done it. She found it. Whether knowingly or in blind ignorant happenstance, she had discovered it. And he could see what that looked like. It was not what he expected. Traveling the world, he had happened upon that before, what she had. Before now he did not know what it was. He did not understand it. He did not even acknowledge it as anything. But he knew it now.

    “Ya found yer purpose.”

    “I guess that’s one way of looking at it. I haven’t really thought hard about putting it into such words.”

    Lost in his own thoughts, he continued to stare at Shizuka, though more blank faced. ‘Purpose…to protect… Like tha doc were sayin’…’ The longer that he thought the more he stared. It eventually reached a point that Shizuka became creeped out by it. She took a step back away from him.

    By the time that he snapped out of his personal thoughts, Shizuka had disappeared from his sight. “Su?” He turned around checking his flank and did not find her there either. Expanding his searching, he managed to find her walking back to the facility. It left him a little confused. But as he stared at her back, he became more convinced.

    He slapped his face getting himself awake. “’ead on straight, Ed!” Marching back to the building, his resolve started to form. There was some uncertainty about how it compared to what Shizuka had found, but it was not the same thing. It could not be the same thing. They were different person like the doctor said. He had different beliefs, circumstances.

    Edgar quickly rushed to the break room and raided the cupboards for a few things. He wrapped his arms around four water bottles, whatever his hand grabbed for protein and energy bars and something sweet. With all that under his arms, he marched back down the hall.

    Ahead of him, the door slid open softly granting him access. It was lunch so he was not really sure if Dick was going to around, but he did not really care. Off in the corner by the terminal was unoccupied. Edgar dropped off all of things in the cockpit and went over to stare at the terminal that Dick ran all of the simulations from. He tapped a few things to get into the menus, the genius left it unlocked. Unfortunately, he did not know where he was going.

    Ripping open the foil of the energy bar he grabbed, he tore off a chunk with his teeth to begin staring at it. “…more complicated than tha Niph fer sure…this? Or this?” He got some beeps in reaction out of the terminal leaving him a little uncertain what that meant. The text described a mission, but it was formatted in a way that was not plain English.

    At that moment, the door slid open and the surprised Dick yelled at him. “What do you think you’re doing?!”

    “Oh Dick! Yer back!” He tossed his second bar over to an empty handed Dick. “Eat up, we’re workin’ through lunch today.”

    “Eh?” An understandably confused Dick froze not really sure what to make of Ed’s actions. The door lost its patience for him though and close behind him pushing him completely into the room.

    Edgar walked over to the cockpit and clean off the seat. His snacks went to the floor while he searched around for the helmet he misplaced. “Hey, get tha trainin’ back up! Ain’t make heads ‘r tails of that thing!”

    Still lost about the change of heart, but not one to question it for too long, Dick rushed over to the terminal. He stared down at the work that Ed had done before he came in. “You put in a space simulation on the highest difficulty setting.”

    “Said I couldn’t figure it out! There ya are!” The helmet surfaced for him finally. He threw the rest of the bar into his mouth and chucked the foil behind him. Inside the cockpit the initial boot sequences began. Despite him not fully paying attention to them, the mission looked familiar to him just from the rendering already shown.

    Leaning out of the spherical chamber, he locked onto Dick. “Before that, load up tha movement test!”

    “What? But you already cleared that.”

    “Yeah, I know, but we’re goin’ back tah tha basics!” He got some doubt from Dick about what he had in mind. Motioning with his hand, he tried to dismiss the uncertainty. “Trust me. We’re doin’ this proper like!”

    “We still have the rest of the day’s schedule to complete.”

    “Ya got a hot date or somefin?”

    Dick immediately got flustered and turned a little red. “What?! No! What are you saying?” His fingers slipped off the terminal while accidentally clearing out the input. He frantically tried to fix his mistake still trying to comprehend Edgar’s motives.

    Ed smirked a little, though it faded away quickly as his mind did not stop him from forgetting. “Ya got to loosen up a little, Dick! We’re goin’ be ‘ere fer a while tonight!”

    “R-Right!” It was all still very confusing for the man. Everything seemed turned on its head. But he could tell the seriousness that Edgar suddenly seemed to have. While the simulation started up he looked over at the top of the terminal. His personal computer pad rested there still with a document open.

    Pulling up the device, he looked over it while Edgar began the simulation. He stared down at the internal cameras monitoring Ed. The subject line of the document read “Request for Termination”. As the movement test went along the performance data came across the terminal. Dick stared at it for a while still hovering over the written document.

    Edgar finished up the simulation with a personal best and already motioned for the next. Granting his request, Dick looked over the letter one last time. His finger hovered over to the delete button. A quick confirmation destroyed the letter. “Let’s see how long this energy lasts.”

    At the end of the day it had already become a new day. Edgar dropped out of the pod glancing over at Dick. His head was pretty much glued to the terminal with his finger pressed against the pane in a vain attempt to appear like he still functioned. Sweat soaked his flight suit and helmet with a horrible smell in it that even offended Edgar. He dropped the helmet to floor next to the pile of empty water bottles and foil wrappers.

    Startled awake by the noise, Dick leaned his head up to look over at Ed. He had it in his eyes begging to have it end. Ed gave him the thumbs up first to break it to him. “Good job, man! See ya bright an’ early!” Leaning down, he picked up all of his trash and started out of the room. Then he paused and looked back. “Oh, need a new helmet, thing reeks! And ya don’t look so good, get some sleep!” The door closed behind Ed leaving Dick alone and collapsing to the floor.

    He returned the next day before Dick even arrived. By the time his trainer did arrive, Edgar had already finished all of the pre-boot sequences. The new Edgar continued leave Dick having to step up his pace. Every time he expected him to fall into previous habits or act like he had been, he defied the expectations. It only confused him further.

    “Alright, take five while I get the next simulation prepped,” Dick said starting to get used to the new pace that Ed set. Even after the days past, it had not changed. It surprised him. He was actually having to stay focused and work, something that he found troubling that he should even be worried about such things. It should not have even been an issue.

    Hisses from released seal of the pod sounded off before the latch opened for Ed. He pulled off his helmet and set it down on the chair while he stood outside getting some clear air. “What’s the results lookin’ like?”

    “You’re continuing improve and set new personal bests. Though you’ve got a ways to catch up to where you’re expected to be.”

    “Right.” Ed tapped the seals around his wrist feeling a little antsy waiting. There was little to do, but wait. Lifting up his personal pad, he tapped through news articles. His lips thinned out with a grim expression building on his face from reading the headline “Day 5: Ragnarok Attacks Morriteaux”. Reading through the casualty and injured numbers only made the whole thing even more depressing.

    His hand clinched tightly to the back of the pad. ‘Everyday there’s more attacks…this ne’er lets up.’ It was hard to forget or even ignore when the reminders were everywhere. It was all anyone talked about anymore.

    Stewing in his thoughts, he did notice the time pass. It was not until Dick called out to him that he snapped out of his personal world. “Ready?”

    “That’s right. It’s all good to go.”

    Edgar dropped the pad to the floor and went back to the pod. He snatched up the helmet locking it back in place with his suit. “Finally…” One leg was already in the pod when the trainer spoke up.

    “Remember this one is a damage simulation. You’ve got only 60% thrust and a malfunctioning left arm.”

    “Got it.” He dropped into the seat letting the pod seal back up. Head-ups displays ran across the visor as well as over the monitors. Terrain began to generate along with blips for the enemies. His hands stretched out to the sticks taking firm hold of them. It started to become familiar to him like the Niph. Though he still had a long way to go before it that was comfort for him.

    The mission start countdown began as he start to run down the system checks. Red lights were already going off on the panels from the simulated damage he was supposed to have taken. They were not as annoying anymore having heard them so much. Mostly they melted into the background as something he knew and noted, but nothing that he needed to give his attention.

    His counter finally reached zero and control returned to him. “Alright, let’s go!” Ed pushed the Od forward already feeling the sluggishness of the machine from the controls and its respond on screen. It forced him to adapt and change his usual method. But the enemy was already coming in at him for two different angles of attacks.

    Sliding back on the thrust, he dodged the beam attacks and lined up for his attack. The enemy was in his sights. ‘No more… I will protect you! My hands will be the one that ends all of you!’

    To be continued…
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  10. #10
    The Quiet One Advanced Response Machine Aesir Andromeda's Avatar
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    The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world’s population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

    By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent’s harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

    The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

    The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

    The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

    HOPE had saved the planet.

    Episode 8 – The Two Devils

    Just like a pulled string, the tension on base came nearly to the breaking point. Each day twisted and pulled the string ever more than it needed to be. It still held up, the integrity managing to make up for the boldness. Yet, such determination could not be maintained forever. Something had to eventually give. It was only going to be a matter of time.

    While the base personnel had more concern over the matter of world events, Shizuka did not find them as distracting. She managed to focus on what was directly in front of her. It troubled her more the injustices occurring inside the base rather than a group of terrorists that believed they were living beyond the judgment day and there for should be dead already.

    Nothing about what happened in the world seemed to make any sense anymore. Her only hope was finding out the source and stopping it. That was going to be the only way to make sense in the world. And worse it seemed to be affecting Edgar now as well.

    It took her a little bit, but she finally picked up on the changes happening to him. He seemed the most resistant to everything happening that it surprised her to see him changing. Shizuka hoped that he would have lasted until she found out the secret that her father and the committee hid. But that was no longer an option.

    Rubbing her fingers over her security band, she stared out at the mechanics and technical staff working on their machines. ‘I can’t afford to wait now. But I can’t be putting my nose into areas I don’t belong…’ She felt there were better and faster ways of getting what she wanted, but being discovered was not an option.

    Those before her turned out to be next best option. She also had not talked to most of them. Locked up in a test cockpit learning how to pilot a war machine of destruction did not really leave her with a lot of outside spare time. That was what days off were for and being ahead of scheduled helped.

    The machine assigned to her rested in a different room. Main assembly happened there as well as the vast array of tests, none of which she understood in anything more than the most high level dumb down version. This room was meant for working on components for the machine and everything in it was exclusively for the Freya.

    Thanks to all of the simulations that she ran, she knew what to expect. Most of the components had more shape than she expected to find. Though much of it still sat in pieces or exposed for work. Each of the machines had a completely separate room that housed all of their equipment and spares. It was meant for specialized research and with each staff siloed as they were, it made her wonder how much knowledge made it between each other.

    Shizuka walked by the aerial fins of the Mardoll Mode. The scale looked less impressive up close, but she also noticed that they looked folded. They took up less space and allowed for room for the vast array of equipment. The Freya room looked more like an armory than research room. Various weapons for the Vanadis Mode lined the wall that contrasted the energy based Mardoll Mode. In the far corner looking the least far along was the Syr Mode, which she guessed was due to the theoretical designs intended for it. None of the extra equipment was necessary for the Freya, that much she knew. So they might launch her before everything was finished. Something that she worried about greatly due to the tensions around the world.

    Next to her was one of the technicians, someone of unknown importance to the project working on the thruster pack in the Mardoll Mode. They looked focused on their work, so she just poked around hovering as a sign of her interest. It look a while for them to look up and be more than a little annoyed by some little girl looking over their shoulder.

    A woman masked with grease and dirt hiding her age well, Shizuka could only make guesses, not that she cared. Only the pinched wrinkles of her forehead read well enough for her to know how annoyed she was. “There something I can help you with, Missy?”

    “I was curious.”

    “Got bored sitting around all day doing nothing?”

    There was more of a chip on her shoulder than she expected from the woman. “Eh?” If only this woman knew the sort of schedule they had for her every day, she might not being having such an attitude with her.

    “You elites sure have a nice. Can just take a stroll down here like’s it nothing.”

    Shizuka looked back at herself. “Elite?” It took her a moment to remember all of the military protocols. She did not have to exercise that knowledge as much. “Right, my markings.” Being stuck in such a hole did not help her, though she was not sure if there was a good way to dig out of it either. Especially since it appeared more like a trap than something she caused. “You might be misunderstanding a little. I’m Shizuka, I’m being trained for this machine.”

    “You’re a pilot?”

    “That’s right. They haven’t officially designated me as a pilot until I complete my training. But I’ve been practicing with this equipment recently.” By luck, it seemed that knocked some of the wind out of her sail. There still seemed to be a bit of boiling emotion, but much of it disappeared quickly. Shizuka pulled the course around hoping to get where she wanted. “I was told the real thing was here and I wanted to see it in person. A simulation can only tell me so much about something I’m supposed to be piloting. I thought those that worked on it would give me better insight than simulations worked up by others.”

    Playing to her vanity seemed to work as a proud smile came over her face. “You should have spoken up before then, Miss! Name’s Greentorn. I can tell you more about the true power of the machine than any of those empty computer simulations you run. It’s encouraging to see at least one of the pilots understanding the importance of knowing your machine from more than just a fancy seat.”

    Pushing the woman forward, Shizuka ended up regretting things. The woman loved her work, that much came out clear from just her opening introduction. That became abundantly clear as she lost two hours to technical specs that flew so high over Shizuka they should just be in space already. Worse, even if she wanted to steer the course differently it was not her craft to sail anymore. The woman strong armed into the command that she lost that right nearly immediately.

    Finding a word to insert proved difficult, but she finally succeeded after those hours of listening. “There’s something that I’ve been wondering. Nothing else like this exists anywhere, as far as I’ve been told. But I’ve gotten the feeling from looking over some of the documents that this is a very old project.”

    Miss Greentorn nodded in agreement with Shizuka. “You’re right about that. I don’t know all of the details myself. I was born for this role and studying it all. So it’s been around for as long as I can remember. The Freya was the original as far as I’m aware.”

    “Original? Even though the others are further ahead in construction?”

    “Well they said the Freya was built from an old prototype. So it’s been around the longest of any of the machines. But it’s also the one they use to experiment and test out designs before passing them over to the other machines.”

    “Experiment, is that why there are so many modules that the others don’t have?”

    “Yes, the Freya was designed to prove both the concept of the AESIR machine as well as the main equipment the others use. The other teams than push those to the extreme for specialized use.”

    “I see. I always found it strange that the Freya did not have a specialization like the other three machines.”

    “It’s designed to be combat adaptive and it also means it requires more from the pilot than the others. You must be something truly special for them to having you pilot the Freya.”

    “Special? I don’t know about that. The others have far more experience than me. I’ve only recently even started any of this.”

    “You all were born for these machines.”

    “I guess that’s a way to look at it. I know people sometimes say that when they’ve found the thing that fits them the best.” It felt weird hearing that she was born for piloting a war machine. Part of it reminded her of what her father told her. None of that sounded pleasant, not that she could tell the woman that. She could not spoil the mood with her contrarian view point. “But there’s something even older than the Freya?”

    “Oh, the prototype. It’s just rumors. The AESIR project has been active for about ten years, though even before that there were smaller scale developments. They say there are projects older than AESIR and that’s where everything comes from, but I’ve never seen any sort of documents like that. Everything we’ve created is from the latest technology and designed on this project.”

    “But there might be something even older than the Freya and other AESIRs.”

    “Even if there was, none of it is modern to today’s standards. So if you found it, it wouldn’t be of any use to you.”

    “I guess you’re right about that.” She paused taking in the bits of information. ‘It’s not a lot to go on. About all it really does is confirm my suspicions I already had, which is that they’ve been planning this for years. It’s not a reaction to the increasing global instability. No, this is for something else entirely, but the question still remains for what. A machine of war is only meant for one thing…’

    Across the base complex, Edgar stared at his news feed while the good Lieutenant worked on the next simulation, while at the same time logging and analyzing the previous run. And he wished that he stared at the confusing screen of simulation than the depressing news. Nothing changed, not that he expected it to do so. Not with a week straight of terror attacks. ‘Damnit…wha’ver gotten up their butts, innocents are payin’ fer it…’

    Suddenly, an alert came over his display that closed his news. It came from Command. “Orders?” he guessed, though with an unfinished Od it seemed unlikely he would be doing anything. Which only made him wonder why he was being summoned. “Hey, Richard!”

    “I saw it. Report to the briefing room.”

    “Right…I’ll be back!” Chucking his helmet into the cockpit, Edgar pulled out his hat and hurried out of the simulation room. An emergency call made it sound dire. ‘What’s gonna happ’n now?’ Fortunately, the run was not long. He arrived at the briefing room with only three others present, one that he did not recognize.

    A serious looking woman glared silently at Edgar as he stepped into the room. He looked a little out of place with his pilot suit, while Ensign Tool and the machine girl stood in uniform. “Petty Officer, where is your salute?”

    “Er…right!” While he tried to figure out if he had seen them before, he missed that they were a superior officer and if he had guess the reason why he was summon. After finishing protocols, he picked up a seat behind the two seated in silence. Any urge to ask them what the hell they got summoned for disappeared with the piercing gaze of the woman. He just leaned back in the chair. ‘Fer a briefin’ room it’s empty…’

    Whatever it happened to be was enough to wait on even Shizuka to arrive. She appeared in the doorway a full three minutes late. “My apologies, sir! I was across the base.”

    “Take a seat, Petty Officer.”

    “Yes, sir!” Shizuka picked a seat next to Edgar making glancing looks at him for answers. All he returned to her was a shrug, equally clueless.

    Clueless ended quickly. “Now that all AESIR pilots have arrived, I’ll be briefing you on the operation.”

    ‘Operation? But the machines aren’t finished,’ Shizuka thought.

    Tapping the wall screen behind her, the lights dimmed and a map of the Earth appeared with Antarctica at the center, like all maps. Dots appeared on the map with brief details on their events. “As you’re no doubt aware, the terrorist organization known as Ragnarok has been staging attacks across the world. Until now, we’ve been unable to take direct action against their mobile weapons.”

    A small square of the screen expanded to show gathered intel on the unknown machines attacking the cities. “As seen in the first engagement by Skadi, these machines are smaller, but more agile. They’ve seen been silent and only recently started to resume their attacks. Observation and combat data gathered from the previous appearances have been compiled into documents that have been sent to you. I suggest you review them for the operation I’ll be explaining will be to destroy all of these enemy machines.”

    Shizuka immediately tapped on her pad to find the data already sent to her. ‘So it’s begun…they’re going on the attack now.’ Scanning over the information provided, there looked to be a lot of specifics about gathered measurements. ‘Codenames have already been assigned for the model types. Ormt the land type and Kormt the flight type…’

    “Due to the conditions of the AESIR, only the Skadi and Njord will sortie.”

    ‘So why are we here then?’

    “The operation currently does not have a launch time due to this being a reactionary operation. We are unable to reliably track the enemy due to them flying outside of our detection range and the lack of satellites due to planetary conditions. So launch orders will be given upon detection of the enemy. Ensign Toule and Chief Petty Officer Diwalt will be on stand-by in your ARMs. Current military forecasts predict the enemy to appear again within the next eight hours.”

    She tapped on the wall expanding a location of one of the previous strikes. Combat analysis data and the courses of the enemy played in at double speed. “No attack by the enemy has lasted longer than thirty minutes, likely due to the operational time of their machines. You will launch from the base and engage them before they can pull out.”

    The woman pulled back on the display now showing a battle simulation of the operation planned. “With the advantage of the Skadi’s high powered long range weapons, striking the enemy before they notice you will be key. We can’t allow for any of the enemies to escape and continue attacking civilian targets. The Njord’s role in the operation will be support to keep enemy fire off the Skadi.”

    “Understood, sir!”

    More specifics on the operation’s plan continued, but since it involved neither Shizuka or Edgar, they faded out of the briefing. It seemed that they were brought in mostly on formality. But it did give her a worrying trend. They already attacked once and now with two of the AESIR completed, they were charging back out. ‘What’s the world going to be like tomorrow?’

    -X- -X- -X-

    Flipping a switch at the control sticks of the cockpit within the Njord, Ensign Toule sat bored. Checking the time, it had only been five minutes since the last time he checked it. All he had to pass the time was the count of loops they made around the former African continent, even that lost any sort of interest quickly. The thought of time not moving quickly enough made him sigh. He had his orders and he knew the time crunch that they were in. They had an entire continent to start to cover while circling around the highest probably area. Even with that, it would take time to reach the destination. They may not make it time and even if they did the attack would be under way. ‘We don’t have much time… Arriving out of detection and closing in under cover…’

    It surprised him a little that the plan was less flashy. He preferred something like that. They had an operational zone within a city. Anything not carefully planned would end up causing damage to the city and even killing the people he swore to protect. ‘I only hope this plan goes as well as they’re forecasting. We don’t truly know the full combat capabilities of these machines.’ The Skadi still survived the first engagement, so he doubted that they had any serious risk. However, the city would not be so lucky. If the terrorists decided to hold them hostage, they would not be able to do anything.

    Too many fears ran through his mind.

    3km outside the city of Torton

    A warm comforting hum of the reactors filled the bay. The five machines sang together building into a single unified melody. It was a thunderous and boisterous song charging quickly through the lines. The promise of peace dangled at the end unable to be reached with each refrain.

    Cal stared at the Skins as they neared the operational start. He stood up on the shoulders of his Peng while mentally going over the mission. Jumping into the cockpit, the operation time flashed before him. Still plenty of time remained for him to go through system checks.

    Chatter filled the tight cockpit as he heard Pol complaining. “These missions are getting boring. The demons lost their bite.”

    “I will admit it’s strange we haven’t seen anything more out of them from any of our attacks,” Noinel commented, feeling a little bit of an agreement with Wells. She did not have his eagerness to fight the demons like he did, but found the missions lacking and off putting. “We know that giant black Skin is still out there.”

    “Damnit! We’re going to leave before I can have my revenge!”

    “We all want revenge for Rivers’ death, Pol. But orders are orders, everything we have has to be delivered back to HQ before the operation. If they have nothing more to show we can’t be wasting time down here.”

    “But we’ve still got two weeks to the Op, we can spare some time demon hunting.”

    “I’m not sending anyone into the enemy’s den. We’ll get our chance for revenge during the next operation.”

    “Making me wait…”

    A beep went off in Cal’s machine signaling the end of their conversation. “Enough chatter, time to launch!”

    “Another exciting day of killing drones.”

    Across the center of the monitor a red bar expanded in front of Ansgar. His eyes opened quickly as the rest was over. Snapping his body back into action, he began to run checks on his system. Through the chair, he felt the machine vibrating signaling that the hanger began to move the transport into position.

    A small communication window appeared in the corner of his view, the woman officer from before. “Ensign Toule, Ragnarok’s been detected attacking Torton in the former African continent. Landing coordinates are point 4B of the AFD region.”

    “Understood, sir!” The window disappeared as the transport locked into place. He flipped the switch and navigated mentally to the transport’s channel. “Ensign Toule here, point 4B AFD.”

    “Roger and confirmed, 4B AFD. Let’s get those bastards today!”

    “I plan to…” Ansgar closed the line and changed to communication with the Skadi. “Air, the mission is a go.”

    “Understood, sir! The Skadi is fully prepared for combat.”

    “This is our first time sortie as a team, so keep the line open and follow my orders.”

    “I will, sir.”

    He minimized the window leaving the open line as only a wave. It was his first real time in command and first time partnering with Air. They only had simulations together for a brief time, so he worried about their teamwork. ‘Given what I know about Air, I won’t have to worry about her deviating from the plan.’ The rest of his team gave him greater worries, but he had to focus on the mission at hand. He needed success first with Air.

    Ansgar felt the pull through the transport as it banked sharply aligning with the new marker. Their destination of Torton gave them a fortunately ideal location. It sat fairly closely within their forecast region. And the time to reach the target would put them well inside the thirty minute time window that they worked under.

    Torton sat deep inside the continent and surrounded by vast fields. Unlike much of the other reclaimed landmasses, the old African continent had the best land for agriculture thanks to vast open plains. According the history books, the old geography was quite a bit different, but the less mountainous region became ideal for crops. Significant effort was placed in maintaining and managing the giant farms that made up more than seventy percent of the food production.

    There could be worse battle zones to be found, Ansgar knew this, but Torton easily made it up there. Due to being the agriculture hub, the traffic was notorious for being one of the worst in the entire planet. Only Antarctica could top it for volume. That also meant the city could be in complete chaos by the time they arrived. ‘I just pray the security forces have stopped all traffic. But they’re not used to dealing with this scale of attack…’

    Flipping through the menus on screen, several columns of data populated his monitor. He began mentally sorting each into different groups. To the sides were old data that might be of use while the more current and wider views filled the center. ‘Timestamp…a minute old…where’s the most recent…I want live if possible…’ The system filtered through the videos based on his criteria until it came up with the latest. Not all of the systems finished handing over control to the military. So he did not have all of the cameras for reconnaissance yet.

    The few given to him were enough though. He could get a sense of the battle from them. Once more came in he could make a more accurate battle plan for when they arrived. Swift and precise was their orders. ‘Looks like much of the traffic hasn’t ceased yet, though they’re being redirected around. So stupid, close the port. Business isn’t worth losing everything. Fortunately, it seems the terrorists aren’t attacking the civilian transports only the security forces. How long will that last though?’

    A comm. line back to Command opened with the communication officer. “This is Ensign Toule. I’m looking at a live feed from Torton and the trade port hasn’t been shutdown yet. Has the order been given to them?”

    “Torton Port has received orders, Ensign Toule.”

    “I’m still seeing them operating. They’re ignoring military command. It’s going to be chaos if we arrive in a civilian active air space.”

    “I’ll pass it along.”

    “We’re ten minutes out, Toule out.” He tensely gripped the stick. “Damnit! Don’t they realize this is a battle? Are we so unfamiliar with this that we don’t know how to react correctly?” All Ansgar could do was complain to the screen. Nothing changed yet. He prayed that the situation improved before he arrived. Trying to plan an attack around a populated city was bad enough, now he had to deal with a crowded air space.

    He tried to breathe and focus the plan. In the end, whatever happened with the port his mission remained unchanged. He had to destroy all of the enemy machines and finally secure peace once more.

    Making a plan based on camera and nothing more useful turned out to be about as challenging as he expected. The civilian radar that they used was ineffective on anything as small as the machines being operated. They just were not really prepared for this sort of situation. Thankfully, his on board computer could aid him in extrapolating locations and movement to give him a model to work from. He had five units to track and determine targets.

    Cal monitored the battle that played out between the security forces and his team. They began to reach the fifteen minute mark of the operation. ‘They’re slow at adapting. After more than a week of this, it doesn’t look like the cities are communicating anything with each other. There should be a central command organization working with the cities and changing their strategies, but nothing has really changed. They are really this bad or do they just not see us as a threat?’ He began to have his concerns about the value of their intel after the first few days of the combat readiness tests. He had trouble believing that any military was this poorly organized. While at the same time, their history showed six centuries of peace unlike their own personal history of endless war and conflict. Maybe they were just that different.

    “Report in. Any change.”

    “Eyes in the sky, Rinn here, nothing strange on long range scans.”

    “Schir reporting in, half of the drones in my sector are destroyed. Everything is normal.”

    “My sector is clean, sir,” reported Noinel.

    “Wrapped up the manned security ships now, returning to passive scans,” Elle replied.

    “Five dead demons. Getting bored, Cal.”

    “How’s that energy?”

    “Still got enough for ten minutes.”

    “You should have enough for thirty still.”

    “I’ll be careful.”

    “Pol get back to base. I’m going to have to talk to again about your energy usage.”

    An audible sigh came through the communication from Wells. It continued to be a problem for him more than the rest. Others on the team started adapting to the necessary changes needed to be made for Earth combat. Space combat created a very different sort of tactic and as veterans they were set in their ways. Wells remained the worst of them with his nickname turning into a weakness where it used to be a strength. “Roger.”

    Suddenly an eerily familiar massive blue beam shot through the city shattering glass, but otherwise missed any buildings. A red-pink explosion grew out of the skyline cover as the line with Noinel went dead. “Noinel!” shouted Cal futility. Grinding his teeth together, he ripped his Peng around in the direction of the attack as the cameras already began to zoom in on the source.

    Computer analysis took a bit, but he already recognized it. The Black Devil had returned and worse, it looked a little different than before. ‘Did they upgrade it since the last time?’ Analysis of the Skin quickly confirmed what he already suspected. The fire power was greatly increased from the last time and it looked even better armored.

    “You bastards!” yelled Wells over the comm. Hitting the thrusters, he jumped into the air clearing the buildings quickly getting a target in sight. However, the computer system had trouble actually getting a lock. “Damn, fine I’ll kill you with my eyes, you demons!” Quickly taking his signature attack, he fired two beams in rapid succession at the Black Devil only for a new Skin to appear before it absorbing the damage with a massive shield.

    “There’s two of them?!” Cal pulled back on his machine slowing down his speed to get a read on the rapidly changing situation. The computer tried in a futile attempt to search for a match in the database, but none existed. That much they all knew already. All the computer could do was confirm from the shape and external analysis that it had the same design and origins as the Black Devil. Even that was a pointless effort, Cal already knew as much.

    Tension wrapped around his arms and tightened to the control sticks. ‘Damn, we had enough trouble and I ended laid out just fighting one of them and now there’s two of them. And even worse, it seems that the blue one is playing defender for the black one.’ The only advantage they had came from numbers. The previous encounter with the Black Devil did not have all of their Skins out, but even with the olds of being five to two, he still had fears. ‘There’s something not right about these Skins…’

    While Cal tried to figure out what was happening Wells already closed in on the two Devils. But the Blue Devil took point in becoming the wall between Wells’ and his real target. “I don’t have time for you! Out of my way!” Firing the energy rifle nearly on top of the shield, flashes of light exploded over the camera screen blinding him from the wall before him.

    Multiple beams discharged and yet the shield remained completely unscathed by the ruthless assault. Cursing at the monitors for telling him what he did not want to see, he pulled out a short sword attached on his back. The physical weapon glowed with a green energy improving its cutting power. “Your shield won’t protect you!” Green energy splashed on the shield bouncing around from the reflective material coating the shield.

    Ansgar took the time to analyze the strength of the enemy machine. The computer needed better data than it had up until now. He played it more cautiously than he necessarily needed to for the fight. But he wanted to be smart and prove their worth. Once the computer gave the signal, he pushed back on the Ormt thinking it could cut through his shield. With enough room made, the Njord retrieved the rifle from the backside of the shield taking quick aim.

    “Pol!” shouted Cal, flying in to knock his Jiao out of the way as the weapon discharged leaving a smoking crater in the earth. Cal managed to lift Wells’ Jiao fifty meters away from the Blue Devil. His Peng immediately went into hover as his computer tried data collection on the machines. “Get your head out of your ass!”

    “Urgh…Cal?”

    “What are you doing acting like a fresh academy recruit? You know your way around the battle, so prove it to me!”

    Still getting his head on straight after the ringing, Wells started to focus getting snapped out of his rage. “Damnit…Noinel and Rivers…”

    “Yes, I know, they’re dead, but you can’t avenge them by being stupid! You’re better than this!”

    “Yes, sir!”

    With Wells rallied back to the course, Cal checked in on the rest of the team that remained. If they stood any chance against the behemoths they were going to have to work together smartly. “Schir and Elle flank around the enemy. You’re target is the Black Devil. Pol, we’ve got the Blue one. Rinn getting those particle cannons warmed up!”

    “The cannons?! You can’t be serious!”

    “Have you seen the data on that shield?! That’s going to be the only thing we’ve got to actually punch through it!”

    “Yes, but they haven’t even been tested with the heavy modifications made. They might not even fire.”

    Gripping the sticks tightly, it was time for him to roll those dice. “I think the Blue Devil will make for a suitable test firing.”

    “Damnit…this is insane! Using ship-to-ship weapons on a Skin…”

    Turning his Peng around on a flanking maneuver while Wells came in from the ground, they tried to split the pilot’s attention on two targets. However, the shield effortlessly flowed back anticipating both of them for it to block both. Sparks and energy jumped off the shield from the blocked weapons. “We can’t think of it as just a normal Skin. They’re in a completely different class than the Skins we’re used to fighting!”

    Schir and Elle’s Jiao attempted to take out the Black Devil attacking on two different sides, but the beams deflected off the armor. And out of the arm mounted barrels, return fire burned through the beam weapon and hand of Schir’s Jiao, only sharply pulling on the machine managed to save her from a direct reactor hit. Elle’s experience gave her enough reaction time that she evaded the beam fully. It quickly felt like it became a battle against a giant with only pebbles as their weapon.

    In the Command Room, Shizuka stared at the doors. She hesitated for a moment before stepping forward letting them slide open. The memory associated with Aerona’s machine and those unknown machines still easily ran to the surface. However, it was just going to have to be something that she pushed past. She needed to see what it was like, the real thing. On the ground was a terrifying experience, so she wondered if seeing it on a screen would improve things.

    “What are you doing here, Petty Officer?” someone to her left said before she even got an unobstructed view of the battle screen. They turned out to be an officer with the committee members and did not like her presence in the room.

    Shizuka pulled back a step and looked around the room quickly for any sort of chance. But there was no one that she could call on. She was alone. “I wanted to see the battle.”

    “You can watch the recordings after the battle. Leave before I have you reprimanded.”

    An annoying voice from in front surfaced. “I gave her authorization to be here, Lieutenant.”

    “Doctor…” In response, the General also gave a half hearted approval, mostly just wanting things quiet again in the room. At that point, the man did not have anything more that he could really do. His superiors countermanded him. “Sit over there and stay quiet, this is a battle.”

    “Thank you, sir!” She saluted politely and quickly made it over to the empty chair. Since the launch orders were given to Ansgar and Aerona, she waited for the signal of the primary objective to start. The stillness in the room painted a clear picture for her of the tension everyone felt. As she had seen before, there was a lot of effort and bets placed on these war machines that HOPE constructed. And they had largely remained unproven machines. All the simulations ran could not hold weight to real combat. Everyone wanted to know if it was worth it.

    She just hoped to see some answers about the truth of what was going on. In seeing the machines that they were being forced to pilot in action, she might be able to find more of the truth. It remained elusive for her no matter what tiny pieces she learned. Hopefully, this could change it for her.

    “Explosion detected, sir,” the surveillance officer reported. She let the computer finish processing the information to confirm. “One enemy machine destroyed, designated Ormt 3.”

    It surprised her to see how calmly they reported on someone dying, just a target on the screen to them. A few of the officers in the room cheered as the tension started to release. Strangely a warmth came across the air as a positive energy from everyone was triggered from the death of one of the enemy. They were pleased and they eagerly looked forward to the next confirmed death.

    Reports on the battle came out from the station as the situation updated. It did not take Shizuka long to understand the outcome of the battle. The Njord and Skadi clearly dominated the field. There was no longer any doubt about that. Even the stone walled face of the General cracked a bit of a grin watching the two AESIRs own the field.

    Shizuka clenched her hands together watching it as minutes ticked by. The unknown machines continued to take more and more damage, though seemed skilled enough to not be killed. Yet it felt like it was only a matter of time before that happened. She saw where it was heading. No one needed a computer forecast to see it. You would have to be blind or stubborn to see anything else. ‘Why are they still fighting? They know they’ll die. They’ve seen the power against them. Are they so fanatical that they would rather die than surround?’

    It was about all she could stomach from the room. The disgusting happiness and warmth felt so wrong. There was something very off about them. She did not understand it at all.

    “Damnit!” yelled Wells slamming the panel at his side in the cockpit. His computer threw a fuel warning at him informing him of his limit. At the side of that, system displays for the damage to his machine flashed red. Partially melted hand from just even a near miss from the Blue Devil’s particle beam left it completely malfunctioning. Warnings for errors in the drive shafts and hydraulics within his machine screamed for maintenance. “I’m not going down here!”

    The shield on the Blue Devil smashed forward as the Peng attempted to cut through in a weakened point made on the shield. Cal rocked around as his air bags blew out to protect him from the fall. His sword rained down in shattered pieces at the base of the unmoving shield. Once the bags drew back in and he could look out from his prone position, the Devil stared down at him for an easy shot. “Rinn are you ready yet!”

    “Quick rushing me! The crash fried most of the circuits and we never took the time to fix them. I’m having to re-route power through some dangerous places just to get them kicking!”

    Seeing the blue glow charging from the rifle, Cal ran out of time. “Stop complaining and just fire! You don’t have any more time left!”

    “If I die on this forsaken planet I’m coming back as a real demon to curse you all!”

    “Duly noted, now fire!”

    A pink beam stretched through the sky hitting directly on the shield of the Blue Devil, but the blast radius in front expanded rapidly. Earth ripped up and chunks flew away pelting the Jiao and Peng as they tried to find some sort of cover.

    The close range of the attack temporary overloaded his computer needing time to reboot. “Report! Main camera’s down!”

    “Energy and heat readings are still unclear and visual scans are impossible with all of the debris! Schir can you make anything out?”

    Getting more of a feeling of the battle flow, she managed to narrowly evade another beam. Unfortunately, each narrow dodge still damaged her machine. The armor completely melted away from the arm of her Jiao exposing the skeletal machinery underneath. She spun around quickly to get a view of the Blue Devil only to see clouds as well. “Unable to confirm anything. They’re too much interference still!” However, a blue glow suddenly came through the clouds as a beam particle ripped through the dust. She was unable to dodge in her Jiao time with it taking the shoulder off leaving only scraps of metal holding the useless arm together. “It’s still alive! I repeat, it’s still alive!”

    “Bastard! It really is a demon!”

    “Damnit…”

    “That’s impossible! How can it take a direct hit from a cannon?!”

    “It’s a monster…”

    Cal saw the reports coming to his machine as the commander for the rest of his team. None of them were in good shape and they were running out of power. Even though the combat with the twin Devils only lasted five minutes they had burned through at a rate of three times their normal amount. ‘We’ve lost this battle. They’ve completely out classed us in every way…’ He started to think about their future. With deadly machines like the two that they faced he started to have concerns over the success of the operation. ‘Do they only have two machines? How many more do they have back in reserve? We wanted to see their fighting strength, but this is unsettling…’

    A retreat was their only recourse. Watching the battle quickly fall out of their hands made that clear enough to him. ‘The long range on that Black Devil is worrying. We need to create an opening…’ He quickly looked at the battlefield and what his team had left. There was little work with, but he had to make due. “Rinn, I need one more! Can you do it?”

    “I fried half of the systems with that, you’re going to be lucky for us to fly out without swimming.”

    “But can you fire once more?”

    “I can give you one, not both.”

    “Fine, that’ll be enough.” Cal ran checks on the inventory as the plan came together quickly in his mind. “We’re going to need those flash grenades, Pol.”

    “What you got in mind, Cal?”

    “Our retreat.”

    “You can’t be serious! They’re right in front of us!”

    “Can you take one of them down as you are?” Silence came from the other end. Wells did not like it he knew, but he had to accept it. They all had to accept that they had lost. The first skirmish might have ended closer to draw even if it tasted like defeat, no question remained about this. “I’m sending over the escape route. Get your positions exact, any mistakes and we’re going to die here! I’m not allowing this damned planet take anymore of my team, you here!”

    “Yes, sir!” they all shouted.

    The twin Devils did not make it very easy on them, but the way they fought made it clear that they were not as experienced. They had power, but not good tactics. Sadly, they were woefully under prepared to fight something so powerful. ‘Next time will be different. I promise you…’

    The signal came from Cal with him flying the Peng in a wide loop evading beam attacks. In timing with his Peng pulling back around for a frontal attack, Wells tossed all of his flash grenades at the feet of the Blue Devil. Disrupting all of their machines equally, the Peng blasted through the blinding light smashing into the shield. Behind the machine at that moment, the transport fired one final shot from the cannon as micro explosions blew out along the length of the hull.

    Pink light carved into the earth digging a deep crater and cracked the foundation of the nearby building. The force from the Peng was not enough to budge the Blue Devil. Wells quickly realized more thrust was needed and jumped in burning his energy down. Together with the earth breaking underneath the Devil it fell.

    Across the field with the Black Devil, Elle charged by pulling its attention away from Schir long enough to close in the gap. She leapt up to the head of the Devil pulling its own damaged arm off just as Elle followed up with a beam attack. Stuffed with grenades in the hand, the whole arm exploded in an orange-pink inferno cracking the head armor.

    A loud ugly roar tore through the air above them as Rinn flew the transport into the combat space. Cal grabbed up the completely disabled Jiao of Wells to haul it into the transport as it flew past. Elle and Schir jumped with the remaining reserves in their thrusts to get them into the ship. Rinn quickly punched full power in the ship even as it coughed and complained leaving the combat space.

    Stunned by the surprise move, the Njord remained on its back as Ansgar stared out at the sky above. He had mixed feelings about the battle. But he snapped to seeing the alert from the Skadi. “Air, report! Air?!”

    Aerona coughed dazed from the direct assault on the head, which housed the cockpit. It struck her hard the explosion even with the dampening and air cushions. She heard Ansgar calling through the comm. for her. “Damage to the head minimal.” Her eyes still had a little trouble focusing, but the screen started to come into focus with the report on the Skadi. “Main camera down, secondary cameras still functional.”

    “What about you?”

    “I will live.”

    He sighed reminded how serious she was. ‘I’ve got to remember she spent a little too long in the Academy.’ Before he got anything more out of her, he saw above him the Skadi moving. The heavy charged particle cannon moved into place. ‘She’s going to try to shoot them down from here? With her camera damaged?’ He began moving the Njord to get it back on its feet. “Air, wait! Your camera.”

    “I can still target with a sixty-three percent accuracy.” She did not wait for the order from Ansgar. Energy build up in the Skadi rapid grew to critical. Much of the images from outside were delayed or gone, but she lined up the shot anyway. Energy flooded the barrel rapidly with the capacity hit and the trigger released. Blue light expelled from the barrel flying in a wide beam towards the escaping transport.

    “Incoming!” shouted Cal.

    “I already know!” Rinn pulled on the controls trying to get the ship out of the line of fire with the sluggish response. Alerts and sirens ran across every panel filling the cockpit with a red cacophony. He wanted to kick every warning to shut up so he could focus on the real problem, not dying on this damned planet.

    Out of the lower left corner of the window blue light rapidly engulf the view. It splashed over everything turning his space violet. The ship jumped into his hands rocking and kicking. He felt the Skins in the back throwing everything off. Yet he had somehow managed to make it through the attack getting more distance from the Black Devil.

    “Air! I told you to wait!”

    “I had the shot, our orders were to destroy all enemy units.”

    “If you had waited, I could have shared the Njord’s camera data so that you had a more accurate target solution.”

    “I see. I apologize for disobeying your order.”

    The Njord stopped next to the Skadi as their target left range of even Skadi. Command issued return orders for them bringing an end of the operation. “Let’s go back home, Air. It was a good maiden battle.”

    Their transport arrived quickly coming to a landing nearby. While he waited for the docking car to roll out, he stared at the city of Torton. Things already started to go back to normal for the most part, even with a battle having just taken place. It felt a little unnerving to see how casual they were all treating it.

    Though worse was the feeling he got from the battle. Analyzing the machines and the way fought produced many questions for him. ‘There was uniformity to the machines. The computer says they’re mass produced, which is a terrifying thought of Ragnarok having mass production capabilities of ARMs. However, I’m more worried about the fact that something just feels off with their attacks. They aren’t acting like how Ragnarok normally does.’

    Even before the battle he had his fears about it. Something about the whole thing just did not fit. Most of the public did not seem to be noticing or they were being fed the right information. A thing he noticed from being out in the field. ‘What’s been reported by the news is different than how they are in person.’ He expected some amount of information control by Command, but this did not feel like that. And worse, he had the worst possible thought imaginable come to his mind.

    ‘Are they lying to us?’

    Within the Command Room, Doctor Kitawara stood up from his seat to look back at the General. He walked to the back of the room waiting for the man to join him. Together they exited the Command Room to walk together privately. “Does this meet your expectations, General?”

    “It wasn’t a total victory, but it is acceptable.”

    “Only minor damage and against experienced pilots.”

    “They have a long way to go.”

    “Yes, but they do learn fast. That’s why they were picked. Each battle will improve their skills.”

    “Reports say time is short.”

    “You’ve got plans already in place for that.”

    “Will the other two be finished in time?”

    “They’re almost finished now. The combat performance test is schedule for next week.”

    “We need all four machines ready, Doctor.”

    “They will be ready.” Kitawara turned down the hall away from the General. “You’ll have your machines, I promise you.”

    After leaving the command room, Shizuka stewed on what she saw. Her mind tried to reconcile wht she saw with her feelings. Hours disappeared as she fell into thought. Eventually, she started to wander the building for a while until suddenly running into Edgar. She started to move past him, when he stopped her. “Hey, ya, ‘lright?” He poked his head looking up at her face trying to figure her out.

    Shizuka took a step back and then leaned up against the wall. A moment she pondered if she wanted to say anything to him. It tossed back and forth in her mind. She started walking away looking towards him still hesitating.

    The weirdness coming from Su made him follow her. She did not seem to be ignoring him or threatening him, as he thought she might. There appeared some willingness, he just needed keep pressing. “Some’fin on yer mind?”

    Down the hall, she came to a stop at the railing overlooking the hanger with the transports launched. Crews below them hurried about to receive the inbound Skadi and Njord ships. Cars already lined up on the tracks to pull the AESIRs back into the hangers for maintenance once they arrived.

    Seeing everyone move about focused left her thinking. She rolled back leaning her back into the rails with her arms supporting her. “Do you think we’re at war?”

    “Eh? War?” Ed thought about it for a moment, not really sure where she was going with it. It seemed pretty broad. He doubted there was a wrong answer right now. “I think it’s too small fer this tah be one.”

    “Too small? So there is a minimum scale needed for it to be called a war, you think?”

    “I guess? Ain’t thought too hard ‘bout it.”

    “True, I haven’t either. But what do we call this that we’re doing right now?”

    “Ya mean Airhead and Tool?”

    Shizuka paused for moment at his nicknames for them. Then agreed with him. “Yes, Aerona and Ansgar. They’re sent out to kill terrorists, what sort of mission do you call that?”

    ‘Now I’m confused…’ Ed leaned up against the railing next to Su. He hoped for something more from her to explain what sort of answer she wanted. She knew what they were doing as well as him. Which meant that she looked for something coming different than the obvious answer. He just did not know what she was searching around for between the words.

    As he thought to himself, the transports for the Skadi and Njord arrived. Warning sirens blared through the hanger at their arrival. Work teams rushed around as the transports slowly entered into their docks for unloading.

    Once they came to a complete stop the bay doors on the transports opened. Cars moved around linking with the AESIR car to pull them out. Out of the side of the ship, the pilots stepped out to roaring applause. Everyone on base already knew of the success. Though Ragarnok was not dead fully like Ed would have liked, one more was killed in the battle and they suffered heavy damage. Everyone treated it like a victory. He was not the only one in the base with lose. It was a sign for everyone of a positive direction towards finally ending the terror of Ragnarok.

    Then Shizuka spoke up, breaking their silence. “I saw it in the Command Room. They’re just like this.”

    “Whatcha mean?”

    “Cheering and handing out praise.”

    “That bad? They kill’d a terrorist. Been nothin’ but trouble tah e’ryone.”

    She rested her head on the railing looking closely at the two being surrounded by work crews. “Yes, but they’re still killing people.”

    “They deserve it! None of those Ragnarok bastards should be alive!”

    “And we just have the right to kill them?”

    “They’ll kill more if we dun’t stop ‘em!”

    “You’re saying we’ve got the right to judge them? Just kill them?”

    “Yes!” he yelled interrupting even those below them. Attention turned to them, as people tried to figure out what happened. All of the eyes on him made him pull away from the railing. ‘How can she not understand? They nearly kill’d ‘er. Doesn’t she feel a thing of hate against them?!’ The more he stared at Su it confused him. He could not find the same emotions that boiled inside him like he expected. She did not seethe with rage. Different things focused and refined them. He was not going to find the same thing from her.

    Edgar left Shizuka in silence with nothing more for her to go on. She stared at him as he walked away with any hope of an outside opinion. Below the crews started to get back to work as the celebration ended with Ansgar sneaking away.

    She stared at the two machines being pulled out of the transports. Crews jumped onto the Skadi examining the damage from the fight. Nothing from her view could be made out, but she still stared. ‘Edgar wants to kill them all. Does he also cheer for when they die?’ It was not as though she did not understand the anger people felt towards Ragnarok. That much she understood easily. She just did not know why they looked so happy and felt thrilled by it. Someone was dead. They killed someone. ‘Why would you feel happy about killing someone? Especially someone you don’t even know. They didn’t even see the face. It’s probably not even the same person that they blame for whatever act of terrorism caused.’

    Looking back at her exchange with Edgar, she realized some missteps. ‘He probably thought that I felt they shouldn’t die. Though I don’t know myself. They should be punished. It just feels strange being happy about it. I don’t get it…’

    Down in the hall beneath her, Ansgar kept a steady pace to get him out of the area of all the cheering. He pulled up the news feed to see what they were reporting. “HOPE halts Ragnarok terror wave…” he read from the headline. Scrolling through the text and videos pop outs, he put together a quick image of the scene. ‘They don’t have anything about the AESIR. Even the video of the battle doesn’t even show us. The only part of the battle shown was the one machine that Air destroyed. This is some very heavy information control. I guess being a secret project they’re not willing to reveal us to the world yet, but sending us out will only mean being discovered eventually.’

    However, the news still painted an image of terrorist attacks and innocents dying. They showed several buildings destroyed in the attack and people without homes now. Yet, he knew they were all being careful in the fight not to actually risk any of Torton. Even the enemy did not do that. ‘So what’s going on here? Why are they inflating the actual attack? What’s the point of this?’ Ansgar closed the feed and leaned up against the wall.

    Things only continued to be more confusing for him the longer that he thought about it. As a soldier following orders, he knew that he should not be questioning what his superiors did. But things just did not sit right with him. There was a point to all of it and he could not understand it. Something bigger was happening that he could not see. ‘I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I will find out the truth…’

    -X- -X- -X-

    As night fell, Cal helped in off loading all of their Skins. Rinn found themselves an isolated island far away from any routes to keep them out of sight. Each of the machines had a heavy amount of damage and need of maintenance. If this had been a carrier, they could have repaired their Jiao and Peng easily, but on Earth it was not going to be so easy. They carried no spare parts. Getting them all in top fighting form would be impossible. Everyone understood that, not that it changed any of their attitudes.

    Around a camp fire, Wells kept an eye on the food. It was the only thing keeping him from completely trying to tear apart everything in front of him or just flying Cal’s Peng out to Antarctica right now. Neither would have done any good, even if they would have felt good.

    Silence became heavy as his team loosely hung around the fire. They all saw what the Devils were capable of doing. Worse, they saw how little they could actually do to them. Everything about the operation burned up. Any sort of data and plans they had to hand over was meaningless now. Nothing that they tested against was of any use against those giant Skins.

    Which came down to what everyone already knew. The thing that Cal knew and had not said yet. ‘We’ve got to fight them again…for the sake of the future. We need better data…’ But even saying that meant sending his men to die. He knew that, they knew that. No one was saying it. ‘We joked about this place becoming our grave before accepting the mission, but it very well might be soon.’ It was hard to shake the unsettling feeling that the Devils inspired in them. He was the Commander and even he wavered in front of their power.

    But that was not the sort of thing he could show to his men. They needed direction and confidence from him. They needed to know that they had a shot to win. They needed a plan, a good one. But nothing was coming to him. He needed time. “Rinn, how long on repairs for the ship?”

    “It still flies, but half of our thrust is gone thanks to that last attack. I’m more familiar now with the technology around here, so incorporating it should be an easier this time. Find me the supplies and I can have her back in working order in a week.”

    “You’ve got five days.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Facing the fire, he stared at Wells. The need for revenge painted deeply into his face. Nothing else was chiseled into his features. Everyone had that cut into them painfully. “Our mission hasn’t changed. We’re still going to complete what we’ve been assigned to do. Fortunately, that means we need more data on those Devil machines. We can do the Federation the favor of eliminating them as well getting combat data on them. Those bastards will be making more of them if they haven’t already. So we need to be prepared. The next time we fight them, we’ll bring them both down! For Rivers and Noinel!”

    Wells stood up holding out a tin cup. “For Rivers and Noinel! From star dust you were born and to star dust you return!”

    “Rivers! Noinel!”

    Cal stepped forward with his mind starting to clear. “We’ll make them play our way next time! In one week those bastards will die!”

    To be continued…
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