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Megaman Phoenix





bond4154
Prologue

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

In front of him, the computer perched on the table that faced him, the screen displaying what he wanted to see.

Vincent Swan.

Rapidly typing through the secure channels of the encrypted servers, he struck through the system as he rapidly entered queries, causing the system to lag, and buying enough time to slip past the first firewall. Twenty-seven more to go.

The room was relatively dark and solitary, but Vincent liked that best, when he was alone. He felt secure, but vulnerable at the same time. He never understood why, never tried to understand, because he was that way. A sound of liquid dropping onto the ground sounded like a metronome, and Swan figured that he would like to listen to that, to keep his mind occupied for the time being.

He passed through the second firewall. Moving quickly, he didn’t even really think about what he was doing, just did it as though he didn’t care much about it. He was a Gemini after all…not according to his birth, but slang for a person who survived the Seventh Haven Assault. He virtually had two minds…one that concentrated on his hacking, the other on what he was truly thinking about.

About Eli. About cradling her body, that girl who had died in his arms, her usually white hair matted crimson with blood and brown with dust.

But it really didn’t matter what he was thinking about. Realizing that he was in secure enough to cause havoc, he repeated his process, overloading the server with pings. Afterwards, he inserted a less secure ping, one that will definitely be detected by the system. There would be chaos, fear, and a swift retaliation, but that was exactly what Vincent wanted. Besides, when the server can actually locate him, he would be completely gone.

Track this, you Neo Arcadian bastards.

Sighing, he stretched the collar of his shirt, an indicator that he was done for now. Shutting down his laptop, he quickly left the room, computer in hand, leaving without a trace, except perhaps only a dead body in the corner, the blood dripping from his pale corpse…

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

*****

Despite the harsh afternoon sun that shown down through the gardens of Aegis University of Second Haven, Lance Sigel rather enjoyed finishing the rest of his engineering papers outside of the main structures, allowing the cool wind to breeze past his face as he rapidly keyed in commands with his laptop, and charts, formulas, and words began to appear on the document before him.

“Lance!” Vincent called from the technology compound, walking over with his laptop in hand. Lance looked over his shoulder, watching his old friend approach from behind. Lance smiled as he was temporarily disrupted from his work, looking at his longtime friend approaching from the distance. Vincent’s return to Third Haven had actually been a surprise to Lance; after several months of not hearing from him ever since he had joined the militia, Lance had never expected to meet Vincent here once again, the two of them university students.

Lance Sigel was thin and lanky, but his fair face and deep blue eyes gave him a look about him that displayed an air of capability that he himself did not quite understand. He had his long blond hair combed back, cropped at the neck, unlike Vincent, whose messy white hair had reached shoulder length.

“Hey,” Lance smiled, motioning Vincent to sit on the bench with him. Vincent did so as he looked over at his paper.

“These graphs,” Vincent pointed almost immediately as he eyed the paper, “Did you do them with the software or an image processor?”

Lance laughed, knowing that Vincent would immediately start picking on his report. To help, of course. Vincent had been an older brother figure for Lance ever since they had first met. At times, it was embarrassing and irritating, but other times, Lance didn’t quite mind. “Actually, it was done with the software’s graphing feature. Some of the stuff I wanted wasn’t there, though, so I had to re-route certain channels to support the graphing, and the system registry also…”

“Using the two-two-seven command for the root override code?”

“Yeah,” Lance stifled a grin, trying not to show his amusement at Vincent’s seemingly god-like computer skills, “Just as you taught me.”

“Good,” Vincent smiled, sizing Lance up as he leaned back against the bench they sat on, “You’re getting better as I talk.”

“Well,” Lance laughed, nudging Vincent in the arm, “How can I not when you’re always around me? Where were you, anyways?”

“Doing some work for the professor,” Vincent shrugged, and brushed through his long, white hair, tossing them into the air, “I suppose he might call back for me soon, if I hadn’t done the blueprints well enough.”

“Unlikely,” Lance couldn’t help but grinning, “The professor will probably be the one making the inadequate blueprints.”

“Heh, is that so?” Vincent chuckled, and stretched.

Lance nodded silently and looked around the garden. It was his favorite place to do his papers, and it was peaceful here. Some students came and admired the flowers, but they never really disturbed Lance. Besides, the air around Third Haven was very nice in this particular region, so he often stayed here…exactly why Vincent knew exactly where his old friend was.

Lance turned to Vincent, “Oh, by the way, I’m going to have lunch with Aden and Mia today. You going to come along?”

Vincent recoiled in surprise. “Me?”

“Yeah, who else?” Lance laughed, watching his friend’s startled reaction, “What’s wrong with you? It’s not like we’re going to force you to pay for our bill.”

“Really,” Vincent joined in with the laughter, nodding, “Alright…I guess I’ll come. But I might leave soon.”

“Aw, come on,” Lance nudged Vincent in the shoulder, “If you do that, I’ll be sure to make you pay for the bill.”

Vincent laughed, and lay back against the bench, looking up into the sky. He was going to have to get Lance out of here with him when they came. Although no one else knew it very well, Third Haven was only safe for a few more moments…

*****

The Redemption set its rudder out to sea as the propeller hit full reverse and halted the ship to a stop just outside the border of Third Haven’s radar range. The side propellers turned as the Redemption set around at a full ninety degree turn and set the runway of the cruiser facing the island of Third Haven, just beyond the horizon of the sea.

“I know we’ve been moved here abruptly, but the brass back at Capital Eurasia wanted us on this place ASAP. It seems that Third Haven has been located northwest, in the middle of the Atlantic.”

The voice of Captain Atrium Svivern sounded soft, like the sound of a fine-tuned violin. But the five-man spec-op strike team knew better than to underestimate the deceptiveness of his voice; Svivern was the best there was…only short of Admiral because of some poor relationships with other field commanders. A rather sleek looking man that had been more than once described as a sly fox, he had a rather curious smile on his face that was enhanced by his fair skin and luxurious blond hair. He wore his Neo Arcadian uniform without a wrinkle in it, looking rather imposing and domineering, despite his usual sincerity in front of others.

The men all in uniform around him in the metallic briefing room before his podium were part of the 7th Special Operations Unit, specifically selected by Captain Svivern when the members had just freshly graduated from OCS. Although they didn’t exactly have a lot of combat experience, they were young, only in their teenage years. Exactly why Svivern chose them, so he could build his own unit up brick by brick.

At the head of the unit was Subaru Alto. A level-headed soldier, he was calm, decisive, and also very intelligent. However, Svivern had been hesitant about placing him at the head of the unit; he was reluctant to kill, despite the fact that he had taught him that enemies were enemies, with weapons or without.

Sakura Sonata, like Subaru, was most a pacifist. She relies heavily on intelligence and reconnaissance, and does not like to take risks. Svivern appreciated that at most, although she is sometimes looked down by others, mostly her fellow teammates, for her extreme cautiousness.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Pierce was more of an enigma. His hair cropped completely forward to almost completely hide his face, he was a mystery to his fellow teammates. He always kept his eyes closed, and could still see, or seem to see. No one even knew what his eye color was. He was cold, calculating, and intelligent, usually a step ahead of everyone else.

Meanwhile, Brandon Carter was violent and arrogant. He is calm at times, but at others, he goes berserk. He usually carries himself with supremacy, and will not hesitate to destroy anyone who got into his way. Two symmetrical scars ran from his cheeks to his ears, from an earlier battle wound. Brandon refused to have it removed.

Carol Allegro, however, was dangerous in her own way. She wasn’t as talented as the other when it came to fighting, but she was acrobatic, and seductive. Often used for covert missions where assassination was necessary, Carol had an obsession of keeping track of her victims. Svivern recalled her saying that she had already claimed seventy-four lives, although he was sure there had been an update.

“Third Haven,” Subaru nodded sternly, his analytical nature immediately surfacing as he assessed the situation, “What’s the method of approach?”

“The United Nations probably won’t try to fight us until we start to open fire,” Svivern cocked his head to one side as he switched the monitor to the map of the island, “You’ll be approaching from the southeast section of the island. While we’re hoping to avoid civilian casualties, you technically have no rules of engagement, although it is suggested that you do not fire upon innocents.”

“What the hell,” Brandon snorted, waving a hand derisively in the air, “You call them innocents? They’re the ones with the UN. Let’s just bomb the damn place.”

“You want to repeat Seventh Haven all over again, Brandon?” Subaru said dangerously, his voice calm but angered, “I remember quite well that it was our most successful sortie, as well as our most failed one.” Brandon reserved his silence, although he glared at Subaru furiously. Subaru noticed that Lloyd looked upset as well…upset was an understatement; he looked at the verge of exploding. His teeth were gritted together, and his eyebrows arched in an unmistakable glare, although his eyes were closed.

“You should meet almost little resistance,” Svivern continued, ignoring the little feud before him, “Most of the island is basically used for housing for the UN civilians. However, you will expect to meet disorganized military forces.”

“Is the intelligence reliable?” Sakura asked cautiously as she scanned the map, memorizing every detail, “I don’t want to be caught unprepared.”

“I’ve heard that they’ve sent recon planes lately,” Lloyd nodded almost assuredly in Sakura’s direction, “We should be okay.”

“It doesn’t matter that much,” Carol shrugged her shoulders, “Just blow them all to hell, like Brandon said.” Subaru ignored her. Carol had a tendency to side with Brandon most of the time anyways.

“We will be using the X33 Prototypes,” Svivern informed, “The armor should be adequate to keep you all alive. They’ll be launched via Leon Platforms, which you should dispose to engage in ground zero combat. The 24th Airborne Unit will be giving you backup and air support. One the side note, I’ve also heard that they’re modifying the X31 to implement automaton functions.”

The occupants of the room, other than Svivern, looked shocked.

“They’ve actually approved that?” Brandon growled after regaining his wits, “What do those bastards think we’re fighting for? We’re destroying the Reploid bastards, and they keep coming with more! Bastards!”

“Calm down, Brandon,” Lloyd said calmly, recovering from his shock early, and was now leaning against one of the walls.

“It seems that there is not much more to say,” Svivern shrugged, “I suppose we can get on with the mission. We’ll launch in twenty minutes. Be prepared for combat ASAP.” The five soldiers saluted, and walked briskly out of the briefing room. However, Lloyd lingered behind. Svivern caught sight of him.

“You sure this isn’t a trap?” Lloyd asked, “They said they caught a hacker from Third Haven and traced it to this location, but do you think they’d get that careless? The United Nations is trying to hide their islands from us after all…”

Svivern nodded. “I understand how you feel, Lloyd, but we have our orders. You can say that I’m only a messenger.”

Lloyd looked at Svivern, or seemed to look. He hadn’t opened his eyes, but merely nodded, acknowledging the fact, and walked out of the room.

The mission hadn’t started, but Lloyd already had a bad feeling about this.

*****

“…I mean, seriously, the Neo Arcadian military is practically swarming across the Eurasian continent, and we have no idea how many forces they have in reserve. If this place is ever discovered, we’ll be in some deep shit.”

Aden Hikari concluded his thoughts snappily, taking a bite of a chicken sandwich. Other than Lance, Vincent, and Aden around him, there was also Mia Elysium, all eating their respective lunches right outside a small café inside the campus. The summer sun that shone down on the plaza was only blocked by an umbrella that shielded their eyes from the intense light as they sat at the courtyard of the campus.

“Well,” Vincent shrugged, seeming calm about all this, “they’re going to call a meeting for the militia pretty soon, so we’re going to have to check in sooner or later.”

“I don’t think Neo Arcadia is ever going to find us,” Lance shook his head, “We’re pretty safely concealed in a place where Neo Arcadia doesn’t think there are inhabitants, and we’re pretty far from any shores. Besides, I don’t think they have any reconnaissance satellites yet. Who’ll think of looking here?”

“But imagine if they do,” Mia murmured, “I only chose to live in Third Haven because it was one with less military. Places like First Haven and Second Haven are basically overrun by soldiers. No schools, no parks, just miles and miles of military installations. I don’t even think they have stuff like housing over there. Full of barracks.”

“Well, look at the bright side,” Aden laughed, “Neo Arcadia is mostly after Reploids. We’re humans. Not to mention civilians, so they probably won’t torture you to death in some chamber.”

“You actually think it’s alright to say that?” Lance looked at Aden disapprovingly, “The United Nations functions so that humans and Reploids can live together, and yet you’re talking about them like we’re superior or something.”

“Whoa, whoa!” Aden slowed down, “No need to get all over my case. Wasn’t what I meant.”

Vincent nudged him slightly on the shoulder, laughing, “Don’t worry. Lance knows.”

“But I agree with Lance,” Mia nodded, “You should really watch how you talk. Don’t forget that half the population on this island is Reploid.”

“Gotcha,” Aden winked, and took another bite into his sandwich. Vincent smiled, but looked over the horizon, seemingly distracted by something. Squinting into the sparkling sea, he wondered how he was going to save the lives of his friends now…it should be okay if he could get them to a shelter, but he was going to have to find another way to get to the Phoenix.

But mostly, he could feel something else. Something coming.

And Vincent knew that whatever was coming for him probably was not going to welcome him with open arms.

*****

“All hands, secondary battle stations. Prepare for Leon Platform launch.”

Klaxons blared as the human soldiers rushed onto deck to secondary battle stations. Svivern watched silently from the bridge as the men quickly assembled to their positions, moving in unison. Technicians immediately went to their computers and prepared launch preparations. On the other side of the cruiser, boomerang-shaped Leon Platforms were being prepared for launch as they were unloaded through an elevator that was connected to the interior hangar of the Redemption. Used for aerial combat, the Leon Platforms were miniature hovercraft that could soar through the air at high speeds while maintaining a superior sense of maneuverability.

“Technician crew two through five,” the speakers blared out, “be prepared to receive launch subjects now. Identification, 7th Special Operations Unit.”

Svivern watched as the 7th Special Operations Unit ascended from the platform below the cruiser launch pad. They all wore identical blue and white X33 Prototypes, shaped with a metallic alloy that covered every part of the body except the face, where it was covered with a transparent reinforced glass. An internal chain gun was fixed in the internal parts of the armor on the wrist. They carried a wide variety of weapons, with Subaru and Lloyd carrying assault rifles, Sakura with a sniper, Brandon with a chain gun, and Carol with a rail gun. They checked their equipment, and Subaru gave a short nod. The rest of the team gave him the thumbs-up signal.

Ready.

Five miles away, Leon Platforms were seen being launched from another cruiser, the Junction. Apparently, they had been in the area when Eurasian Command sent the order to converge on Third Haven as well. Subaru checked his radar, and identified them as the 24th Airborne Unit from the FOF tags. Subaru nodded to his team, and they quickly boarded the Leon Platforms. The armor quickly locked onto the platforms, making sure that the occupant of the platforms don’t fall, and it whirred to life as it began to hover a foot above the ground.

“All hands, prepare for Leon Platform launch.”

Subaru watched the status display monitor on the right as the system made final checks. Once all green, the Leon Platforms would be ready to launch.

“All hands, T minus ten seconds to launch.”

Subaru gritted his teeth uneasily. Many accidents have happened with launches, and safety measures had not been applied with Leon Platforms yet. What would happen here could decide how this battle will play out. Looking at the monitor, Subaru watched as the status grid showed green all over. Weapons check okay, fuel canisters at maximum, backup energy intact, stabilizers ready, shields holding, reinforced armor in place…

“All green. Launch.”

Immediately, the Leon Platforms roared to life as it took off with a jet of wind around them, sending them soaring into the air. They spiraled in a circle formation for a second, then averted the engines to their destination, Third Haven.

“For Neo Arcadia,” Subaru whispered, knowing his teammates were probably swearing the same oath, and headed with his team into the fray.

*****

“All hands, this is Captain Miguel speaking,” the Reploid spoke into the Storm of Fire intercom, “Neo Arcadia forces have been detected seven miles south, near Third Haven. All hands to secondary battle stations, and prepare to defend Third Haven at all costs.”

Miguel clicked the intercom offline, and sighed as he shifted uneasily in his command seat. His co-captain, Lieutenant Helios, nodded, acknowledging their uneasiness. More than twenty Leon Platforms were detected in an inbound course to the vector of Third Haven. Despite the fact that Miguel liked to take chances, he was at no position to ponder whether or not he should intercept Neo Arcadian forces on route to Third Haven. The Storm of Fire may have been completed recently as a high-performance Dragon III Prototype, but that didn’t mean it was invincible.

The Storm of Fire was only recently sent on their test run two days ago. Having no combat preparations yet, going into a battle might be a problem. The Storm of Fire looked almost like a hovercraft, with a large body in the middle and two smaller bodies on the side that acted as two hangar bays, engine rooms, and weapons. The Storm of Fire sported eight M2 cannons, barrels that launched a 2.25 shell at high speeds, four Class-A SAM launchers against aircraft, four M99 chain guns, four anti-torpedo torpedo launchers to counter submarine attacks, six PTPFAF “October” missile launchers, and two 7AFPC2 heavy plasma cannons that could destroy just about anything in one hit.

Despite all this power, the Storm of Fire was the first of its class, untested, and Miguel had not yet gotten a “feel” for the ship so that he could come up with superior tactics. He would have to follow the general rules of naval combat, and, frankly, he doubted that would be enough.

“Move to course seven-seven-four,” Helios snapped briskly at the bridge officers, “Inbound vector to Third Haven, maximum speed. Charge up all weapon cycles, and prepare to launch the 3rd Airborne Unit if this ship is engaged with aerial forces. Contact surrounding ships for reinforcements.”

Miguel looked down at Helios. Although both were Reploids, Miguel never really understood why Helios was so uptight about so many things. While Miguel took his duty seriously, he was always relaxed in person…not like Helios, who was so stuck to military regulation and protocol. Most of his command crew were all Reploids, not because he had something against humans, but none seemed to want to apply into the military. Maybe they thought war was for the work of Reploids.

“Moving to course seven-seven-four,” the navigation officer, Major Phalanx, responded, “Inbound vector to Third Haven, maximum speed. ETA…fifteen minutes.” He shook his head in frustration, most likely trying to find a way to get the ship to move faster.

“Power has been diverted to weapon cycles,” the operation officer, Major Archangel, reported, “Reactor running at one hundred fifty percent. Preparing backup coolant.” She attended her job briskly, moving her eyes to every control panel in front of here.

“Weapons charging up,” the weaponry officer, Major Juno nodded, “Expected time of full charge is less than estimated time to combat range.” Checking again, she nodded, somewhat satisfied. At least they won’t be caught unprepared.

“No reinforcements nearby,” the communications officer, Major Cruz, scowled, “I’m sending a message over the Second Haven. I don’t think they can send reinforcements in time, but they have to know.”

Miguel nodded, and reassumed his stare at the monitor in front of him. Fifteen minutes…the battle could simply be over by then.
bond4154
Chapter One

“Like I said,” Lance shrugged, “Most people use Third Haven as a vacation spot, especially the military guys. Sixth Haven is the only other place with actual natural scenery.”

Still together, Lance, Vincent, Aden, and Mia strode down the road to the technology institute with their backpacks and other apparatuses, moving slowly as they took their time. It would be a while before the seminar began, and they wanted to take a stroll to work their digestive system. Other crowds of students walked either with their flow, or against theirs’, but it really was really was a matter of life, where everything belonged.

“Actually,” Vincent quipped randomly, “The scenery on Sixth Haven is artificial. They seemed to be artificially grown or something…some of them aren’t even real.”

“Have you been there?” Mia asked, surprised.

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded, and smiled, “I’ve worked some in the militia, so I got transferred around the network of soldiers quite a bit. Most of Sixth Haven is a military camp for VIPs, and big representatives of the military and such. Although they lack the firepower Second Haven has, it’s still pretty safe.”

“Honestly,” Aden gave one of his familiar devil-may-care grins, “It depends on what you mean by safe.”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded absentmindedly, “I suppose…”

His sentence was cut off by the sudden sound of an engine soaring overhead. The surprisingly sharp sound cut through the air, and the four involuntarily ducked. Looking up, they saw a boomerang shaped military platform soar through the air. A platform was used like a miniature aircraft, usually boarded by single infantry to dish out punishment. Very quick and rapid punishment.

“Is…” Aden frowned, somewhat confused, “…is this supposed to be a military drill?”

“They don’t get close to the university, do they?” Lance pondered along with him, “I mean, someone’s bound to complain with the…”

“Run!” Vincent snapped out of the reverie immediately as he grabbed both of them and hauled them along toward the technology institute suddenly, “That’s a Leon Platform!”

“What!?” Lance’s eyes widened in shock, realizing that it was of Neo Arcadian origin, just as six more Leon Platforms flew overhead and unleashed their missiles. The missiles soared over the campus and then detonated somewhere. They couldn’t see with the buildings covering their view, but the sound of the explosion was real enough for them. This wasn’t a drill; it was a battle.

“Come on!” Vincent shouted, immediately taking control of the situation, “We need to get to a shelter!”

“The nearest one is in the technology institute!” Aden agreed as his faced screwed up into an expression of determination, “Let’s go!” Aden quickly grasped Mia’s wrist and tugged her along speedily. Vincent nodded to Lance, who joined in with them running to the shelter. Already, Reploid UN soldiers were running to the scene, firing upwards at the trespassers, barely aided by the campus security guards.

Without a warning, a Leon Platform soared above them like a bird of prey. Lance looked up in time to see the occupant jump from the hovercraft and land a fifty-foot jump as the ground below him cracked, the occupant completely protected by the X33 armor. Lance ran in reflex, tripping along the way, afraid that the armor may shoot him down. But the X33 focused its attention on a group of United Nations Reploid soldiers that quickly honed in on the X33’s position. It didn’t take long for the X33 to dispatch them quickly as it raised one hand, and tore the Reploids to pieces with full automatic fire from an assault rifle.

Aden grunted as a bullet grazed his side and stumbled for a second, grasping his side. The cut wasn’t bleeding, although it did tear a thin hole in his shirt. Mia gasped as she dragged Aden behind a pillar as a burst of fire tore through the air where Aden had been standing just a second earlier. “Aden!” she cried, almost in hysterics, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Aden scowled, shaking Mia to bring her to her calmer senses, “Just a little singed. Thanks for the save. Get going!” He grabbed onto Mia again and ran along with her for shelter. Lance and Vincent tagged keenly along as four more Neo Arcadian soldiers, all in X33 Prototypes, landed onto the ground. They secured the perimeter quickly, attacking soldiers that came near, but they tried to avoid human casualties.

In response, the United Nations Third Haven Command Center activated automated defenses, but the airborne soldiers made rubble of it as they fired volleys of guided missiles and rapid Vulcan cannon fire. Holes appeared in the automated turrets, which erupted in flames shortly afterwards.

“In here!” Vincent bellowed, at the doorway of the technology institute, “Everybody get in! Shelter at the fifth floor basement! Everybody in!” Lance quickly guided the group into the institute, as well as other fleeing civilians.

“Is this supposed to be an attack?” one woman asked, more annoyed than frightened.

“Oh my god, oh my god…” another man kept muttering, lost in his own fear.

“We’re going to die!” a girl no older than Vincent screamed, sprawling to the ground and whimpering, crouched and hunched together in a ball.

“We’re not going to die,” Vincent growled, and lifted her up as if she was a kitten and shoved her toward the staircase toward the basement, “Now get moving into the shelter!”

Lance looked around to make sure Lance and Mia were still with him and called out to Vincent, “Come on! Stay together!” Vincent heard, and rushed up to Lance as they continued their escape.

The sounds of concussions continued as a rocket suddenly demolished the roof above them. The rubble crushed three men who attempted to reach the emergency staircases, and a combat armor landed down on the ground. Lance stared, wide-eyed, as the soldier inside positioned his assault rifle, looked around, then thought better of shooting humans who were evacuating. The combat armor then jettisoned into the air again, firing upwards. Shortly afterwards, a combat helicopter fell through the hole that the soldier had exited, which exploded shortly afterwards.

“Lance!” Vincent called, snapping Lance out of his trance, “Get the hell over here!” Lance ran over to the emergency exit as Vincent looked out, making sure there was no one else outside, and locked the door, shortly before the hall behind the door burst in flames that nearly licked the flesh of Vincent’s bones.

“Where to?” Lance asked as soon as Vincent turned toward him. Both of them were panting and sweating, the perspiration sticking onto their bodies like a second skin.

“We’ll need to get past the technology institute hangar bay,” Vincent breathed heavily, and looked around, “Aden and Mia have already made it ahead of us. We have to catch up.”

“Yeah,” Lance agreed, and quickly ran along down the staircases with Vincent. Both rushed rapidly. Between tiring themselves and losing their lives, they’d rather tire themselves, despite the fact that the emergency staircase they were in could withstand several bombings. But they definitely didn’t want to take a gamble when the stake was their lives.

They made their way down the stairs, panting. Moving down, they moved on the balcony ledge of the hangar bay, overlooking several equipments being designed by the technology institute, and many other vehicles as well, including aircraft and ground transports.

“Lance! Vincent!” Aden called from the other side of the hangar on another balcony, about fifty meters away “Where the hell were you?”

“We’re fine!” Lance shouted back, “Hurry up and get to your shelters! We’ll get the next one!”

“You better be careful!” Mia hollered over the sound of warfare above, “This place might not hold against…”

Her words were cut off as there was a sudden eruption above them, and the roof of the underground hangar caved in with rubble. Both Lance and Vincent screamed involuntarily, as Vincent tackled Lance to the ground just as a large piece of debris severed the metallic plating of where they were moments before.

“Goddamn,” Vincent whispered as he struggled onto his feet, “Lance! Lance, you okay?”

“I’m fine, as long as you get off of me,” Lance grunted, grasping Vincent’s hand as he helped Lance up. Looking the other way, he shook his head in dismay. The debris cut off their route to the nearest shelter. They were going to have to change course.

“This way,” Lance pointed, and Vincent nodded, agreeing.

“Move,” Vincent shoved past Lance, “I’ll lead. Just in case.”

“You don’t have to get all protective over me,” Lance mumbled, although he knew that Vincent’s tone of voice invited no discussion. Lance was glad though, that Vincent was being concerned for him.

They navigated down the balcony stairs and quickly rushed past several corridors leading to different balconies. Without losing his calm, Vincent looked at an emergency map posted on the wall in one hallway and nodded. “Shelter seventeen should be at that exit to the balcony of there,” Vincent pointed, “Let’s go.”

“Right,” Lance nodded, and rushed along with him. As the light of the fire that had made its way into the hangar bay grew larger, they stepped through the doorway that led to the hangar bay balcony. It was heavily lit by the fires that had scorched the area, and was terrifyingly blinding. Lance had to squint as he looked forward.

Lance’s eyes didn’t adjust quickly enough to the light, but Vincent’s did.

“Who are you?” Lance heard Vincent say, “What are you doing here? You should be getting to a shelter!”

Lance’s pupils narrowed as they adjusted to the intense light, and saw what Vincent was talking about. A white-haired girl, no older than either of them, was crouched over a balcony ledge over an instrument panel that seemed to be used to call cargo elevators. A hat was covered over half of her face to conceal her identity.

“Get away!” the girl shouted, “Get away now! Get to the shelters yourself!”

“What?” Vincent argued, “This isn’t the time to…”

A sudden creak was all the warning the balcony decided to give as it tilted and began to give away, in infrastructure of the building beginning to deteriorate as the abuse of the facility increased. Lance anchored himself onto the wall and reached one hand out to Vincent to grab him, but as he saw Vincent, he realized that Vincent suddenly focused himself one something else.

As the ledge gave away, the hat the girl was wearing flew off her head, and Vincent stared, wide-eyed, as the girl began to fall off the edge, falling into the dark abyss below, where a bomb had caved a hole in the ground to the balconies below.

Lance felt that the girl looked familiar, but he only heard Vincent whisper, “Eli?”

A heartbeat later, Vincent lunged out into infinity, both arms outstretched to the girl who now was officially falling, both feet losing contact of the platform.

“Vincent!” Lance screamed, and hesitated. Should he try to reach out for him now? He still had time, before it was too late…

But Lance was wrong. There was no time, it was too late as the balcony he stood on toppled completely, sending him to the abyss below, sending him tumbling along with Vincent, and the mysterious girl that Vincent was desperate on saving so suddenly.

“Vincent!” Lance screamed as he fell into the shadows below…falling…falling…

*****

“Goddamn,” Epsilon swore, and strapped herself into the cockpit of the Type-Zero. She didn’t bother taking a secondary check as she turned the ignition; things were blowing up, and it was now or never.

“Major!” one of the technicians in the hangar of the United Nations Third Haven Command Center shouted as he braced himself against the wall while explosions rumbled the building, “That Type-Zero isn’t ready! We can’t…”

“It doesn’t matter now!” Epsilon shouted back as he keyed in the command to close the cockpit hatch, “Get to your shelters before this place goes down in flames! You’re a human, you still have a chance against these bastards!”

“Major!” the technician protested as the Type-Zero purred, the engine of the fighter jet telling Epsilon that it was ready, and jettisoned itself out of the opening into the blue sky of the island. The Type-Zero was a miniature fighter jet, a V/STOL. Capable of hovering like a helicopter and flying like a jet, it was perfect against the Leon Platforms that swarmed the island like mosquitoes.

Immediately, machine gun gunfire tracked her as two Leon Platforms saw her fly out and followed her. “Track my ass…” Epsilon muttered, and fired the retrorockets. The Type-Zero shuddered as it suddenly halted in the air clumsily, but maintaining altitude. The two Leon Platforms flew past as their pilots gave bewildered stares. Epsilon quickly triggered the machine guns, and the platforms exploded in two puffs of smoke and fire.

“This is Major Epsilon, calling all United Nations forces in the area!” Epsilon keyed her intercom, “Are there any forces out there? Repeat, are there any other friendly UN forces out there?”

A pause.

“This is Captain Miguel of the Storm of Fire,” the speaker crackled and wavered unsteadily, “We hear you, Major.”

Epsilon gave a sigh of relief. So there was still someone out there…and with the Storm of Fire. If they could get here in time, Third Haven may still have a chance. At least they could evacuate everyone before the place swarmed with Neo Arcadian reinforcements. It was unlikely, but soldiers did not consider what was likely; they considered what they were supposed to do.

“Third Haven is currently under attack,” Epsilon shouted a bit louder than she wanted to, “We need as much reinforcements as we can get. Requesting immediate backup.”

“Roger, Major. Your situation is understood, and the Storm of Fire is making its way here at maximum speed. ETA…seven minutes. Can you hold out that long?”

Epsilon cracked a smile. “Yes, I can, Captain.”

“Understood,” the radio made out, crackled, then ended, “Good hunting.”

“Hunting?” Epsilon laughed as she killed the connection, “This isn’t even hunting.” Another Leon Platform attempted to shoot her down. Epsilon toyed with his aim for a while as the chain gun clicked away, hitting nothing but air, then allowed the Leon Platform to close in with the Type-Zero. She immediately did a full G turn. There was a splash of red as the wing made contact with the pilot standing on the Leon Platform, effectively skewering the pilot. With both projectiles flying at over five hundred miles per hour, there really was nothing to say as the body was nearly torn apart and dropped from the air into the sea. The Leon Platform flew a distance, then began to drop before it hit the waters.

“Here we go,” Epsilon whispered as she headed her jet toward the island once again, hoping that the Storm of Fire could make it in time…

*****

“Lance! Lance! Wake up, Lance!”

Lance grunted once as he struggled to open his eyes. At first it was dark…he couldn’t see anything but black. Was he dead?

“Lance! Can you hear me?”

No, apparently, he wasn’t dead.

Lance struggled to repair his memories, and suddenly remembered that he had fallen from the balcony of the hangar bay in the technology institute as Third Haven was being attacked.

Lance bolted upright and looked around. “Vincent?” he yelped instinctively. A pair of hands grabbed and steadied him.

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Vincent’s familiar voice made out, “I’m here. Don’t worry.”

He still couldn’t see himself, but he didn’t feel any pain. “We…we’re not dead?” Lance whispered. He felt himself over, but no pain.

“Luckily not,” Vincent smiled, or at least the tone of voice told him he was smiling, Lance couldn’t see, “We landed on some factory foam. I don’t where this is, but it’s caved in. There’s no way out.”

“You can see?” Lance muttered, “I can’t see a thing.”

“Your eyes will adjust in a moment. Just wait a moment or two.”

And Lance did. As Vincent said, the darkness fell away, and Lance could see…or at least, he thought he could see. The wall around him had been reduced to rubble and debris, but it was obvious that the blocks of rock had fallen around them, the area caved in. Lance winced.

“This is bad…” he whispered, then looked down at Vincent. Then he noticed the girl was next to him. The white-haired girl. The reason why they were stuck down here. She was unharmed, but unconscious. For some reason, Lance felt that she looked awfully familiar.

“Who’s she?” Lance asked.

Vincent shook his head. “I don’t know. I’ve tried waking her up, but she isn’t making a sound. She’s alive, though…”

“Why the hell did you jump after her?” Lance asked, bewildered, “I mean, seriously, that was somewhere near suicidal.”

There was a bit of silence. Lance couldn’t make out Vincent’s features very well, but by the pause, Lance knew that it was one topic he shouldn’t have brought up.

“I…I mistook her for Eli,” Vincent whispered.

“Eli?” Lance echoed, and then remembered, “You mean, your sister?”

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded, “She died in the Neo Arcadia attack on Seventh Haven. By the R-Bomb…” Lance laid a hand on Vincent’s shoulder, preparing to tell him that he was sorry, or at least he didn’t have to talk about this…but Vincent continued.

“But she…she really looked like Eli. For a moment, I was convinced that it was her. I mean…she…it’s like she’s right there.”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded quietly, “Now that you mention it, she does look a lot like her. But…is there a chance that it’s her?”

Vincent shook his head. “No. Eli had a birthmark on her right wrist. She doesn’t.”

Lance nodded slowly, looking away. “I see…” he whispered.

There was another moment of silence. Gunfire and explosions didn’t make it this far, but the room sometimes shuddered with the impacts on the surface.

“The fighting…” Lance whispered, “…it’s still going on, isn’t it?”

“Probably,” Vincent titled his head to look up, “Perhaps it’d be best if…”

There was another rumble, and before Lance could figure out anything, Vincent was on top of him as more rubble fell from the roof. The room thundered around them, with terrifying sounds that resembled death in some horrible way.

“The girl!” Lance shouted, noting that she was unprotected, “Get her!”

Vincent hesitated, so Lance gave him a good shove that sent him moving as he scrambled toward her, and began to drag her toward Lance. Suddenly, a piece of debris fell in front of Lance, and he screamed in reflex and tumbled back. He was alright, but cut off from Vincent. But there was another opening that had opened up. Perhaps there was a chance that it led to an exit…Lance rushed.

As he neared the opening, he saw something…something like oversized test tubes, with something in them. He didn’t quite get a good look, though, before something gave away at his feet, and he fell once again.

Lance had only opened his mouth to scream, to begin to scream, before something clamped onto his wrist and prevented him from dropping.

“Vincent?” Lance looked up, expecting Vincent there, trying to pull him up.

He saw something else entirely.

He wasn’t sure what it was at first, but it was definitely mechanical. A singular red eye in the middle of its head glowed intensely in the dark, and even through the dark, the armor gleamed orange. It had a strange variety of weapons on it, Lance couldn’t figure out what, before the thing suddenly yanked him up out of the hold…and opened up.

The thing had opened up so quickly that Lance never really knew what happened, before metal suddenly encased all around him. There was a quick jolt as something like electricity ran through his body…and suddenly, his body relaxed. His mind was calm.

But he was still very puzzled.

“What the…?” Lance started, surprised that he was suddenly in a standing position, and the orange mechanical thing was gone. He looked around, but realized that his eyesight was strangely digital. There was a strange feel about him as well, and it wasn’t just the fact that he felt like there was something obscuring his breath right in front of him. Then, he realized.

He was inside the armor.

“Welcome to UN A204 System Beta Three,” a voice chimed in his head, then a pause, “Interesting. You don’t seem to be my designated pilot.”
bond4154
Chapter Two

“What?” was all Lance made out. Apparently, things were not as obvious as they seemed.

“No matter,” the voice chimed again, still somewhat cheerful, a contrast to Lance’s current attitude, “My titanium alloy and neural conductors have now aligned with your biometric measures. You may initiate your run now.”

“My run?” Lance echoed, “What…what do you mean? Who are you?”

“I am Reploid-armor A204 Phoenix. Technically, I am a Reploid and combat armor at the same time. While I am capable of operating by myself, my alpha priority is to have a host inside me while I protect it, and the pilot of me is able to carry out combat operations. Due to emergency protocol UN7441, I have activated automatically because Third Haven is currently under attack. However, Odin and Neptune have not been installed with the same emergency measures. Should Neo Arcadia discover those two…”

“Wait, wait!” Lance nearly screamed, “Slow down! I have no idea what you’re talking about! I’m Lance Sigel, a civilian! I don’t know what the hell is going on, and why I am inside you! What is going on!?”

“Please allow me to explain,” Phoenix said with the tone of a skilled negotiator, “I am a weapon designed by the United Nations called Phoenix. Although I’m a Reploid, I can be used as an armor to protect the pilot, in which he can operate in combat sorties inside me. Basically, my goal is to protect my pilot and give it as much firepower as it can. Oh, don’t worry if you’re not supposed to be my pilot. I’ve never really synched up with him yet, so it really doesn’t matter. You’re free to move inside me as you wish.”

Lance was completely lost. “How…how do I move?”

“Simple,” Phoenix said, “My padding has linked up to your neurons, creating an electronic link between us. You simply think about moving, move as you would normally do, and I will intercept the signals in your neural network and move myself according to your signals.”

“Okay…” Lance hesitated. Walk…just walk. Like I’d normally walk.

He took a step. Another. Lance smiled inside the armor…it was easier than he thought.

He noticed something was adding to the weight of the armor. Something as if it was conducting the momentum of the armor. There was something on Phoenix.

“Ah,” Phoenix said, obviously reading his thoughts, “Yes, it is the armament of this Reploid-armor. By the way, you can simply call me Phoenix.”

“…You…you can read my thoughts?” Lance stuttered.

“Why, yes,” Phoenix replied cheerfully, “I am able to adapt to your neural signals, therefore understanding…”

“I’d prefer you not do that…” Lance interrupted him, “I mean…just…don’t read my thoughts. Is that possible?”

“Technically, that’s not possible,” Phoenix replied, “But I can delete them instantaneously before I can analyze them. Does that work for you?”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, “Good.”

“As you can see,” Phoenix said, and a hologram was projected directly into Lance’s eye, which shocked him for a moment, “This Reploid-armor is equipped with a MA71 assault rifle in your right hand, a SG-0 ‘Pinnacle’ beam rifle in your left hand, a RL-X4 five-barrel guided missile launcher that is under the shield on your left arm, and a B7A7 “Eclipse” short-range energy blade which you can draw from your back, a useful transition when you have exhausted your supply of ammunition of the MA71 or the SG-0. Understand?”

“Well…” Lance said, “…Why am I boarding this thing? I’m not even a soldier. I’m a civilian. Isn’t this something that’s supposed to be top secret or something?”

“Yes,” Phoenix was obviously pleased to be of service, “this Reploid-armor project is top secret, coded ‘Most Secret’ by the United Nations. Although…”

“Then why the hell am I in this thing!?” Lance screamed, “Let me out of this!”

“I’m afraid that goes against my programming,” Phoenix replied, still somewhat cheerfully, “I am not allowed to release my pilot in a combat situation, in which I have the ability to protect him or her, but I do not. Plus, once I have a pilot, I am technically not able to control myself, but rather, feed off your neural impulses. I…”

“Stop,” Lance shook his head, “Stop it. I don’t…”

“Wait,” Phoenix cut him off, “Detecting two thermal signatures. Average temperature at thirty-seven point three two degrees Celsius. Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent chance that the two thermal signatures are humans. Motion trackers and biometric radar online. Both thermal signatures are in fine condition, and…”

“Vincent!” Lance suddenly remembered, remembered that the debris had caught way between them, reminded that Vincent was still there…somewhere.

“Get me to them!” Lance ordered.

“I’m afraid I cannot do that,” Phoenix said, “I…”

“Just do it!” Lance screamed against his better judgment, “I don’t have time to listen to a lecture! They may be dying!”

“I cannot move myself. You have to move me. This is like armor. And they are not going to die. The surrounding perimeter has enough parameters to sustain life, and both biometric readings are fine. If…”

“Okay, just shut up,” Lance stopped him, “Just shut up. I’ll get to them. Is that better?”

“Yes,” Phoenix replied, and Lance detected irritation in his voice. He realized suddenly that this was a Reploid…another entity with feelings.

“I’m…I’m sorry about that,” Lance made out, “I didn’t mean…”

“Understood,” Phoenix replied, again in that happy voice, “Your neural readings are currently in state negative one anyways, so I understand your situation. However, it would be suggested if you proceed immediately. The infrastructure of this installation is currently collapsing…and you may wish to take some medication.”

“Right,” Lance said, “Uh…run.”

“You just have to think it, you know,” Phoenix pointed out.

“Uh-huh,” Lance replied, “So it’s like…whoa!” Lance was suddenly cut off as the armor moved automatically. His body was being moved, but he wasn’t tired or anything. It didn’t feel as though he was moving his body, but the armor was moving his body. But it still moved the way he wanted it to move, so the change was acceptable…almost pleasant.

“As you may have noticed,” Phoenix added, “Moving your body is not necessary. It protects the endurance of the pilot, in which the armor moves your body, not the other way around.”

“Understood,” Lance nodded, and looked around, “Um…which way do I go?”

“Here,” Phoenix said, and a NAV point appeared on his HUD, marked by a diamond, “This is where you need to go. Using the blueprints installed into me of this installation, I can point out the fastest route to your destination. Should I…” Phoenix didn’t finish as Lance broke into a run as soon as the NAV point appeared. Running through several open doors and cracks, he dashed through the corridors to the NAV point. When he finally stopped to what he thought was the destination, he suddenly realized that he had moved…very fast.

“Whoa,” Lance whispered, but averted his attention to the task at hand. He looked around, but saw no one.

“Where are they?” Lance asked, starting to panic.

“Alert,” Phoenix said, “Your mind is beginning to head toward stage negative two. It would be better if you reduce your panic. And if you haven’t noticed, the two thermal readings are currently in front of you. I conclude that they are under the debris. Possibility rate is currently ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine percent.”

“It can never be perfect, right?” Lance muttered as he looked around for something to help him. He didn’t see anything.

“So how I am supposed to get the debris out?” Lance asked, “Do I dig?”

“Negative,” Phoenix replied, “This Reploid-armor does not have excavation tools. And by analyzing the pattern of the pile, it seems I would need to exert a force of fifty-five thousand N to move this. Unfortunately, that is not possible.”

“Okay…” Lance said, trying to keep away from panic with all his efforts, “So what can I do?”

“Might I suggest that you attempt to crack the debris into smaller pieces first, then attempt to move them?” Phoenix asked.

“How do I do that?”

“As you can see, this Reploid-armor is equipped with a variety of weapons,” Phoenix informed as a list appeared in Lance’s HUD, “It has a MA71 assault rifle in your right hand, a SG-0 ‘Pinnacle’ beam rifle in your left hand, a RL-X4 five-barrel guided missile launcher that is under the shield on your left arm, and a B7A7 ‘Eclipse’ short-range energy blade which you can draw from your back, a useful transition when you have exhausted your supply of ammunition of the MA71 or the SG-0.”

“So what can I use?” Lance looked frantically up and down the list.

“The MA71 will do virtually nothing,” Phoenix explained, “and the SG-0 will only make holes in the obstacle. The RL-X4 may cause damage to all biometric readings in the area, and risk another collapse of the installation. It would be wise if you use the B7A7 to cut through the debris, and kick them away.”

“Will I hit them?” Lance asked carefully.

“Here,” Phoenix brought up thermal scanning on Lance’s HUD, and two heat spots appeared in front of him, “This is where the two humans are. If you should be in danger of hitting them, I will alert you.”

“Good,” Lance nodded, and looked at the weapons list still on his HUD. Locating it at his right shoulder, he dropped the MA71 in his right hand and drew the B7A7. He ignited it with a simple thought, and shoved the blade into the debris. The scrap metal began to glow orange and melt as he cut through it. Lance worked tediously; it didn’t wear out his body, but the tension was.

Cutting away the first piece, he kicked the part away, and repeated the process. Within seconds, he could see something…something moving. It was Vincent’s back, and it was moving. Quickly, he dropped the B7A7 as well and began to rummage through the debris as he pulled both bodies out.

“Vincent!” Lance cried, “Vincent! Are you okay? Wake up! Can you hear me?” He quickly supported Vincent’s back as he seemed to cough and straighten himself, looking dazed. However, his eyes focused quickly, and saw the Phoenix armor.

“This…this is…” Vincent whispered, staring with a combination of confusion and awe.

“I’m Lance!” Lance replied, “This…this is some sort of armor that…I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the time to explain either, but…”

Lance suddenly realized that Vincent was still staring at him. But something was wrong. For a moment, Lance thought Vincent was glaring at him with anger and hatred, and something flashed in his eyes…but he blinked, and instead, it was obvious that Vincent understood the gravity of the situation.

“Right,” Vincent nodded, “How do we get out of here?”

“There are two more Reploid-armors nearby, Odin and Neptune,” Phoenix said aloud for Vincent to hear, “While it is against protocol for civilians to board it, it is also against protocol for both to be captured by Neo Arcadian forces. I suggest you quickly board it.”

“Right,” Vincent nodded, “I think I know where it is. Give me a moment.” He quickly picked up the girl’s body, Lance suddenly remembered that she had been there, and ran toward an opening. Lance started wondering why Vincent knew the location of the other two Reploid-armors, but he immediately squelched those thoughts. They were not important.

Lance waited for a moment, thinking. Was everyone okay? What about Aden and Mia? They disappeared when the debris appeared on the balconies. Are they…

“Your friends have boarded both Reploid-armors,” Phoenix snapped Lance out of his reverie, “Opening COM channels now.”

“Lance!” Vincent’s familiar voice sounded through the clear COM channel, “Do you hear me?”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, “I’m fine.”

“This doesn’t seem good,” a new voice sounded over the channel, sounding extremely stern, “This is not my designated pilot. No change has been updated in registry. Theta shakedown incomplete. Violation of protocol…”

“That will be enough, Odin,” Phoenix said, “We’re currently running emergency protocol UN7441.”

“You mean Third Haven is under attack?” Odin snarled, “Yes…Neo Arcadian troops detected in the vicinity. This is…”

“Yes,” Phoenix seemed to sigh, “Violation of protocol UN5482. You’ll have to excuse Odin. He’s the AI for the ground-based Reploid-armor…and somewhat sticky to regulation.”

“Is that supposed to be a sin?” Odin grumbled.

“Well, it doesn’t matter now,” Vincent said, “We need out, and now.”

“Kind of easy for you to say,” another voice popped into the channel, definitely female, “My pilot is unconscious. This is definitely a run of protocol, isn’t it, Odin?” The voice said the last sentence mockingly.

“That’s Neptune,” Phoenix intervened before Odin could pop in with an insult, “Sorry, Neptune, but I’m afraid this is a bad situation here. Odin, Neptune does not have aerial thrust maneuvers at this point. We’ll have to give her an airlift.”

Odin hesitated, then said, “Understood. It’s your call…what am I supposed to call you?”

“Call me Vincent,” Vincent said, “The one in Phoenix is Lance. I don’t know who’s in Neptune, but now isn’t the time to find out. I’m heading for your position, Lance.”

“Right,” Lance nodded, and just a heartbeat later, Vincent appeared…using thrusters. Fire was streaming out from what had to be Vincent’s back before the armor stopped right before him. Lance noted that Odin seemed to have a more black coloring scheme, while Neptune was decidedly blue. Despite the obvious differences in color and weaponry, the three Reploid-armors looked relatively identical.

“Whoa!” Lance recoiled back instinctively as Vincent landed in front of him, “What was that?”

“That is Odin’s GS1 ‘Ground Skimmer’ thrusters,” Phoenix said, “Because I am an air-based Reploid-armor, my aerial maneuvering with the PW1 ‘Phoenix Wings’ are better than Odin’s, but his does work. However, Neptune’s AJ1 ‘Aqua Jet’ will not work anywhere but underwater. We’ll have to get her out of here. In your words, she’s a sitting duck.”

“Yeah,” Neptune muttered, “Lucky me.” Lance smiled a bit. Phoenix and Odin seemed much too specific, but Neptune had more personality than either of them. That reminded him of how human Reploids could be.

“Right,” Lance said, “Let’s grab on.” Vincent nodded as both of them grabbed onto Neptune, and activated their rockets. Lance was surprised; he didn’t really do anything but think about flying up, and the rockets ignited. Lance liked that. Flexibility, simplicity.

Lance also noticed that a pair of metal wings had sprouted from his back, like ones of a bird. He only had a second to realize that, though, as he was suddenly propelled into the air, soaring at speeds up to two hundred meters per second.

The three soared through the air, and without knowing it, crashed through a brittle layer of wrecked metal as light appeared through the cracks. Unfortunately, it was the light of an inferno.

“Get out of the way, Lance!” Vincent shouted as he raised his left arm. It was then that Lance realized Odin carried heavy equipment. A huge shield hefted in the left hand that had a G-Vulcan cannon and a twin-bladed energy beam blade installed into it, a chain gun on the right hand, and an eight-barreled missile launcher. It was quite a package rolled into one.

He raised his left arm, and fired. The force around him suddenly tensed as the force of the projectile flying out of the G-Vulcan’s barrel shifted the matter around it, and a round was sent at a speed so fast that there had almost been no time elapsed as a hole was suddenly blown into the hole of the hangar bay of the technology institute.

And daylight poured in.

“Out! Now!” Vincent screamed. Lance was keen to agree, as both jettisoned into the air and out of the hole, both holding onto Neptune. Blue light again surrounded them as they flew into the sky, and the familiar backdrop of the island appeared below them. Apparently, the battle had gone out without them; there were hardly anyone on the ground now, but fighter jets and several X33 combat armors were still doing battle in the skies,.

“Warning,” Odin said, “We’re being tracked by three, update, four Neo Arcadian units. Recommending evasive maneuvers now.”

Lance looked around, and saw four Neo Arcadian Leon Platforms shift their positions and firing guns at them. Lance stared, but Vincent quickly grabbed both armors and killed the burst of his rockets, allowing them to fall toward the ground momentarily as gunfire whizzed above them, before igniting them again to maintain altitude.

“That was impressive,” Phoenix said, with a tone of amusement, “This isn’t your first time flying an aerial armor, is it?”

“I’ve worked my way around the militia,” Vincent grunted as several machine gun rounds pinged off his armor.

“This is Major Epsilon of the United Nations Third Haven Defense Regiment!” a female voice crackled through the COM system, “I’ve detected three friendly units. Identify yourselves!”

“Major,” Phoenix replied calmly as he quickly identified the Type-Zero in the vicinity and marked it with a NAV marker for Lance to see, “This is Phoenix, AI of the Reploid-armor. We read you, Major. Confirmation that we are friendly units verified.”

They heard a sigh of relief over the channel, and continued, “So it was true. The rumors about the Reploid-armor projects…”

“This isn’t the time, Major!” Vincent said, “We need to get out of here!”

“Who are you?” the Major asked.

“I’ll explain later,” Vincent said, “Is there somewhere I can evacuate to at the moment?”

There was a pause, and Epsilon replied, “The battleship Storm of Fire is approaching. You can get there for now. Captain Miguel is currently in command. ETA to attack range of Third Haven is three minutes. You guys better hurry! I’ll provide covering fire.”

Lance looked around Third Haven and stared in horror. Almost the entire island had crumpled and caught fire as structure after structure exploded. The hapless Reploid forces were being slaughtered by the Neo Arcadian Leon Platforms, and there was nothing to do. Unless…

A Type-Zero soared past them, and Lance stared at it as the blur sped past like nothing he had ever seen before. “What is that!?” Lance screamed.

“That is a United Nations Type-Zero scramble-jet,” Phoenix replied, “It has been verified that Major Epsilon is currently piloting the aircraft. It is a friendly unit. Advise that you do not put her into any harm.”

“They’re all going to be harmed if I don’t do something!” Lance hollered as he killed the feed into his thrusters and let go of Neptune, allowing Odin to carry Neptune himself.

“L…Lance!” Vincent shouted, “What the hell are you doing!?”

“You take Neptune and go!” Lance shouted back, “I can’t leave this thing like this. If I do…Third Haven! It’ll be…”

“It’s too dangerous!” Vincent protested, “Major Epsilon is taking care of everything! I have a flight plan worked out toward the Storm of Fire! Just a little longer, and we’ll be with a United Nations cruiser!”

“Just go!” Lance screamed, inviting no negotiation, “I need to wrap things up here!” He keyed off the COM channel as he hit his thrusters at maximum burn, speeding ahead into the battlefield that was a stranger to him.

*****

“Subaru!” Sakura said over the COM channel as new targets appeared on her radar, “Three unidentified combat armors have been identified! Their model is unknown, but they’re definitely UN!”

Subaru shifted his X33 into the direction of the opposing forces as he reloaded his assault rifle. The Type-Zero was hard enough to take down; after a good five minutes of firing at each other, it was obvious that the pilot inside the jet was experienced and skilled. But now three combat armors? He didn’t even know they existed outside Neo Arcadia.

“Status on the enemy?” Subaru asked, and immediately jumped onto a Leon Platform nearby; the pilot that had been on it a crumpled and bloody mess a few meters nearby. The Leon Platform whirred to life and flew into the air.

“Two are escaping, but one is headed for us on a ninety-seven percent likely combat course,” Lloyd replied calmly from the air, “Should I take them down?”

“Allow the other two to retreat, but take care of the one that is headed into combat,” Subaru ordered as he quickly moved to regroup.

“That isn’t good enough!” Brandon shouted angrily, “The Redemption has picked up a United Nations cruiser nearby!”

“Damn, at a time like this?” Carol scowled, sounding annoyed, “Just when we thought that Type-Zero was getting annoying…!”

Subaru hesitated, and suddenly realized that an assault rifle was being aimed at him by an orange armor that encased the entire pilot. It had wings the resemblance of a phoenix…and they seemed razor sharp. Subaru wasn’t about to test to see if the wings will be able to cut through his armor…not with him in it. He jettisoned away as the rapid-fire burst missed him by meters.

“What is that thing!?” Sakura asked, startled, “Its energy readings are off the scale! I can’t get an identity match on that!”

“Whatever it is, take it down!” Brandon hollered, and dashed toward the Phoenix.

“Wait!” Subaru shouted, but too late. Brandon had ignited the thrusters on his X33 armor and aimed the chain gun at the Reploid-armor. He opened fire, but to his surprise, the bullets deflected right off.

“What the…!?” was all Brandon could make out. The armor turned, and raised its shield to block the incoming fire.

“Goddamn it!” Brandon screamed as he collided into the shield, allowing to Phoenix to remain immobile in the air for a second. Subaru narrowed his eyes, and fired the missile on his Leon Platform. Five missiles jetted away at the Phoenix. The Phoenix turned…but not in time, as all five missile collided into the armor. Subaru arched in the air, convinced that the target was destroyed…

Instead, through the plume of smoke that had surrounded the position of the Phoenix, another five missiles flew from the haze. Headed right toward Brandon.

“What the hell!?” Brandon screamed again as he jettisoned himself toward the right just in time to dodge the missiles. However, one missile exploded on a proximity detonation and damaged the X33. The X33 recoiled as the explosion rocked it.

“Damn!” Brandon scowled as electricity flowed out of the ripped section in his armor.

“There’s no way it could’ve survived that…” Subaru whispered, in awe at the show of raw power, then snapped back to reality, “We have to retreat now!”

“No way!” Brandon protested, “I’m going to kick his…”

“Your armor is damaged, Brandon!” Subaru shot back, “There could be a chance that he’ll destroy you entirely! We need to retreat, now! Most of the resistance at Third Haven has been obliterated anyways. We’ll come back later! We’ll have another battle to win when the fleet comes.”

Brandon hesitated, then spat with disgust, “Fine.”

“Then retreat,” Subaru gave the order, “Back to the Redemption.”

The four other X33 units hesitated, then hit their thrusters at evasive maneuvers as they escaped from Third Haven, losing a victory that should’ve been theirs.
bond4154
Chapter Three

“I think…I think we lost them,” Epsilon gave a exhale of relief as she leveled the altitude and outbound vector of her Type-Zero with Phoenix, then to the one in the Reploid-armor, “Hey, you okay?”

Lance’s voice sounded shaky. “Yeah…yeah, I guess so…I think so…”

“The armor’s integrity is holding at seventy-two percent after the missile impact,” Phoenix informed, “It is still in the green, Major.”

“Good,” Epsilon nodded, “Alright, we’ll have to work out a flight plan to get to the Storm of Fire. Don’t worry, just follow me.” She quickly turned the Type-Zero and flew toward an incoming cruiser that had appeared in Lance’s view.

“Lance?” Vincent’s voice crackled through the COM channel.

“Vincent!” Lance exclaimed, sounding surprised, then in an aggravated voice, “I see you! You’re at the shoreline! I thought I told you to escape!”

“I can’t leave you here like that!” Vincent snarled back as he jettisoned into the air, still carrying Neptune with the girl inside.

“I tried convincing him, but he wouldn’t listen,” Odin said, obviously as irritated as Lance was.

“What the hell am I supposed to do if you’re dead!?” Vincent shouted back at Lance. Lance was startled…and for a moment, there was silence on the COM channel.

Then, Lance laughed. A good laugh, an exhausted one, but a good one.

“Lance?” Vincent’s voice sounded hesitant as he rejoined Lance’s side by regrouping on his right side, “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Lance replied, smiling inside the armor, “I’m…I’m just glad that you were concerned for me.”

“Yeah,” Vincent’s voice said, and he sounded genuinely glad, “Yeah, me too.”

“I’m detecting a lifeboat out in the sea,” Neptune interrupted, “It is a civilian lifeboat, with the signature of Third Haven. Most likely one of ours, with some people. I recommend we salvage whoever…or whatever is inside, considering this is a day of finding way too many humans.”

“It isn’t really that much,” Vincent muttered, looking around, “What do you say, Major?”

“I’ll alert the Storm of Fire of its location,” Epsilon replied, “They’ll pick it up later.”

“You sure?” Lance asked for confirmation.

“Yeah. It’s against protocol for any United Nations vessel to not conduct search-and-rescue procedure for any lifeboats in the immediate aftermath of a battle. And I’m sure the captain of the Storm of Fire is a reasonable guy.”

*****

“It seems that Third Haven is out of harm…for the moment,” Helios briefed Miguel in the elevator to the deck of the Storm of Fire as he read his data from a handheld computer, “Major Epsilon had succeeded in driving them out of the area. However, it is likely that there is a Neo Arcadian ship nearby…and the fleet will be coming soon.”

“Damn,” Miguel shook his head in frustration and stood steady at the elevator as the double doors to the elevator opened, and two guards situated outside saluted. Helios returned the salute, and walked through the corridor that led to the main deck.

“We’ll have a lot of problems just escaping,” Helios added, “The bridge crew is fresh; they’re here only for the testing. We hardly have any more soldiers, only people who know how the ship works and such. And there’s the problem of the secret being uncovered. The three Reploid-armors.”

That was one subject that Miguel didn’t want to talk about at the moment. Taking care of four military secrets at one time, the Storm of Fire, the Phoenix, the Odin, and the Neptune, was a bit beyond his experience…beyond any of their experiences. And he wasn’t sure which protocols applied or not, something that Helios would pick up in a flash, but Miguel wasn’t necessarily sure that he wanted to hear that at the moment.

“Let’s see how this works out,” Miguel said as the door to the main deck open, “We’ll talk to the pilots first, and then we’ll see what happens after.” A cold sea breeze blew in as the doors opened, and Miguel and Helios stepped out onto the main deck.

The main deck was not used for anything in particular except for to hold the two Class-A SAM launchers on the deck, and two heavy 2.25 shell cannons, both which were used for anti-ship purposes. Honestly, the deck had not been used to land any troops; that was reserved for the two blocks on the two sides of the Storm of Fire. But that would have to wait. While Major Epsilon had already landed in the hangar bay, the three Reploid-armors chose to land on the main deck for whatever reason that Miguel could care less about. Already, there were crew members tending to the three newcomers.

“Sir!” a private quickly marched up to the two officers and saluted, “Three Reploid-armors have landed on deck. We apparently have on wounded, inside the Neptune.”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, and moved past him to the three Reploid-armors, Phoenix and Odin standing next to each other, while Odin held a seemingly limp Neptune in his arms.

To Miguel’s surprise, the two standing didn’t salute the Captain, even though his insignia stood out as bright as day at his chest. Still, he supposed it was combat fatigue…and Odin probably would’ve dropped Neptune if he tried to salute. Miguel did the favor of saluting them, however, which he knew Helios would disapprove.

“Well, gentlemen,” Miguel nodded as he dropped his hand from his forehead, “Welcome to the Storm of Fire. I’d like to thank you personally for that job…you’ve held out against the attack on Third Haven.”

Phoenix and Odin looked at each other. Then a voice, from inside Phoenix.

“We…did?”

Miguel was surprised; that voice sounded like one almost of a child. But he dismissed the thoughts immediately. He didn’t have the time to figure out all the small details.

“Yes, you did,” Miguel nodded, “And now, we’ll have to move on to the details. If you would disengage from your Reploid-armors, we’ll head for the briefing room, and I’ll give you a short debrief.”

Miguel noticed that both pilots gave very uncomfortable glances at each other. Their faces were masked, but body language gave it all away. Nevertheless, the locks on the armor whirred as they unlocked, and the armor opened up in the front.

Miguel was shocked. As was everyone else who watched the two pilots come out from the two Reploid-armors.

They did not have anything that resembled military. They were not dressed in any military uniforms that Miguel was familiar with, but rather, civilian clothes, one in a long coat, the other in a shirt. They were hardly out of their teenage years, looking more like university students than anything.

The crew stared for a strange amount of time where no one moved. No one knew what to say. Everyone just stared, at why two university students, two civilians, were able to fend off a Neo Arcadian attack, and why they had found the United Nations’ secret Reploid-armors.

Ironically, what brought them from their stares was the beeping on some sergeant’s watch. The crew snapped out of their trance, looking at the sergeant, who went red almost immediately. Their gazes then shifted back at the two.

It was Helios who said something. “You two!” he snapped angrily, “Who the hell are you two?”

“We’re….” Vincent made out, “…we’re university students. He’s Lance Sigel, I’m Vincent Swan. I’m…part of the militia, but technically, we’re both civilians…”

There was mutter throughout the deck, by Helios made quick work of hushing them with a glare that could freeze the sun.

“I don’t know how you found these…weapons,” Miguel sighed after a moment, finally speaking up and looking normal, “I assume it was some sort of accident or mistake. You definitely don’t look Neo Arcadian, and from the fact that you helped chase away the X33 armors, I think I can place a bit of trust in you. But this only further complicates matters…”

“…I would say,” a female voice sounded from behind the captain. Everyone turned to see a female Reploid in a United Nations jumpsuit walking toward them. She snapped a surprisingly sharp salute at both of them.

“Major Epsilon of the Third Haven United Nations Command Center reporting on the Storm of Fire,” she said, “I regret that I had been unable to do much to defend Third Haven. Much of our forces have been wiped out in the attack.”

Lance noticed that Epsilon looked surprisingly human. While she did have a crystal implanted into her forehead, she had a feministic beauty, with the short black hair that cropped down through the back of her head that made her look attractive.

“It’s alright, Major,” Miguel nodded, and cracked an amused smile, “You aren’t just a major, are you?”

“Sir?” Epsilon frowned, then straightened, “Yes…I’m not quite a major, sir.”

“First Lieutenant Epsilon,” Miguel smiled, “I’ve heard of you. You were supposed to be one of the pilots to pilot the Reploid-armors, weren’t you? The ace pilot of Fifth Haven…”

“In that, you’re mistaken, sir,” Epsilon shook her head, “I wasn’t a designated pilot of the Reploid-armors, but I was supposed to escort a frigate to bring all three to Second Haven. And…I can’t exactly call myself an ace pilot, either, sir.”

“Why did you call yourself a major?” Helios asked, cocking his head in one direction, “If you’re a First Lieutenant, you’re practically in the same rank as a captain.”

“I don’t get it,” Lance asked Vincent quietly, still standing there, watching the strange scenario unfold before their eyes, “I thought a captain had a higher rank than a lieutenant.”

“Captain basically means he or she is the leading commanding officer of a certain vessel,” Vincent explained, “You could be an ensign, but if you’re the highest ranking officer on the ship, you’d be addressed as captain.”

“It’s…something I don’t want to quite into at the moment,” Epsilon averted her eyes uncomfortably.

“Well,” Miguel shrugged, “There’s no one on this ship that is superior to you, so I guess you can keep to yourself, for now. But this is getting to be quite the situation here.”

“Sir,” Helios said, “I suggest that we place the civilians in the lifeboat that Task Force One has gone out to retrieve and leave them on Third Haven. They are humans, and civilians as well. Children. Neo Arcadia wouldn’t do anything to them…”

“Unacceptable,” Epsilon shook her head, “We can’t just leave them there. They’re going to be captured by the enemy…and they’re right here!”

“It is against the law for a civilian to participate in combat, and it’s also illegal for us to have civilians on this ship,” Helios pointed out.

“I am technically in the militia,” Vincent added in, “I am licensed to use a weapon.”

“See?” Epsilon shrugged, “It’s okay if he participates in battle if he’s part of the militia. As for the one about being on a military vessel, we can just let that one slide, can’t we?”

Helios shook his head. “Once we get to Second Haven, we’ll have to tell a hearing committee about our actions. What are we supposed to tell them? Why there are two civilians on our ship? It may be okay in our inner circle, but we’ll have to head for the United Nations Military Division Headquarters. What will they think?”

Miguel broke up their argument by clearing his throat, and said, “I think it’s very rude of us to talk about the two kids as if they aren’t there,” he looked over at Lance and Vincent with a small smile, “Let’s say we get them some rest first, and we’ll decide what to do.”

“We only have two hours, Captain,” Helios said, “Neo Arcadian forces will be moving in from the west very quickly…we’ll have to go halfway around the globe just to get the Second Haven.”

Miguel looked at Helios with a very hard glare. Helios stood, unflinching. No one was to blame…except for fate.

“I hate when this happens,” Miguel muttered, “Sometimes, I hate you to, Helios.”

*****

The room was somewhat bleak, but neither Lance nor Vincent complained. It was the crew’s cabin of the Storm of Fire, anyways, and they understood what stay put meant…especially under these circumstances.

“Man…” Lance scratched his head, “I have no idea what the hell is going on.”

“Makes the two of us,” Vincent grunted, lying on one of the freshly padded beds, “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Lance stared up at the ceiling, looking into infinity. “Just when I got know them…”

“Huh?” Vincent looked at Lance, confused.

“Them,” Lance shrugged, “Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune…” he chuckled, “Never mind. I was just being stupid.”

Vincent managed a smile. “You are a bastard, Lance.”

“Yeah, you too,” Lance laughed, “I wonder what’s going to happen to us now. And what about the girl? She was unconscious when they took her out of Neptune.”

Vincent shook his head. “I have no idea…”

“I hope she’s okay,” Lance said off-handedly.

“She’s fine,” a new voice said at the doorway. Both Lance and Vincent looked up to see Miguel standing at their doorway, alone. Both of them stood, and hesitated for a moment at something. Miguel knew immediately what it was, and laughed.

“Oh, forget the salute,” Miguel chuckled, “That can wait until later. Until then…we have something to discuss. Please, have a seat.”

“I’ll stand,” Vincent nodded his head. Lance didn’t say anything, but Miguel figured that he thought the same.

“Alright,” Miguel said, “I’ve talked with the officers on the ship…about regulations and protocol. Technically, this is the situation. Both of you have violated several military codes, including the sighting and the usage of military secrets, as well as participating in combat, even if you are part of the militia. Although it’s minor, it’s also technically illegal to land on the deck of the ship, although no one will make an issue out of it. Basically, there are currently two paths you can walk right now.

“The first road is you stay as civilians. We’ll give you your rights, but you’ll have to stay here on the Storm of Fire. You won’t be expected to do any work, but you’ll be expected to stay out of trouble. We’ll then bring you to a committee of hearing at Second Haven, where you will await trial.”

Miguel sucked in a deep breath, and said quietly, “The penalty they may pass is death.”

Both Lance and Vincent looked shocked.

“Death?” Lance protested, “Why death? This is…”

“At the current moment, the United Nations isn’t taking any chances,” Miguel explained, “You know our situation. Very few people in the United Nations military even know the coordinates of each Haven. Because if Neo Arcadia knows, we’re in trouble. And as the brass of Second Haven may put it, dead men tell no tales.”

Vincent remained quiet, but it was obvious that he was brimming with fury. A glare of hatred from him shocked Miguel a bit; he had never seen eyes like his before…and for a moment, his eyes glowed. He wasn’t sure, but it was there for a second…then it was gone. Miguel shook his head and guessed it was a hallucination.

“However, the other path is that you enlist in the military,” Miguel said, “If you enlist in the military, then all your other crimes are immediately dismissed. I’ll have our records show that you have enlisted before the battle of Third Haven, so that you will not have any crimes to respond to. However, you will be required to do work on the Storm of Fire, and participate in battle.”

There was a moment of awkward silence, and for a moment, Miguel wondered if the boys were thinking of their choices, or wondering if they should jump the captain. He held still, prepared to fend both of them off should they try to attack him.

“This isn’t fair,” Lance whispered.

“Life is never fair, kid,” Miguel frowned, “But we fight so we can try to make it fair.”

“Captain,” Helios’ voice rang through the ship’s COM system, “You’re needed at the bridge, ASAP.”

Miguel sighed, and looked at both of them with pitying eyes. They’re children, Miguel thought, and they have to contend with this…

“We’re guessing that a battle will happen in about one hour and thirty minutes,” Miguel whispered, “You…have that much time to make a decision, before we make one for you.”

*****

“Captain,” Helios saluted as soon as Miguel entered the circular bridge of the Storm of Fire. Computer screens coated every wall with officers at the walls, staring at different screens. The captain’s seat was set in the middle at a balcony, with the co-captain’s seat right next to it.

“At ease,” Miguel said, “Where’s Epsilon?”

“Here,” Epsilon called from behind Miguel, “Sorry, but I had been sending confirmations about repair on my Type-Zero to the hangar. I…don’t quite want to be caught unprepared.”

“Good,” Miguel nodded, “What’s our situation?”

“Enemy forces have been detected…reinforcements,” Archangel said from his console, looking at his screens, “This is looking very bad. I estimate about at least ten cruisers. And the first cruiser that we detected is headed in a slow inbound vector at us.”

“As much as I loathe to admit it, sir,” Helios shook his head slowly, “We can’t save Third Haven. The best we can do is to save ourselves.”

Miguel closed his eyes in frustration. Rubbing his eyes, he said, “How fast can the Storm of Fire escape?”

“At this point, we can outrun most of the enemy fleet, but it is extremely likely that the first enemy cruiser may try to deploy troops. That will slow us down, and…”

“I understand,” Miguel cut him off, “So we have no choice but to head toward North America, right?”

“Yes,” Epsilon nodded as she stepped up to Miguel, “And that’s Neo Arcadian territory. We’ll have to tread through some dangerous waters.”

“How’s the combat situation of the ship?” Miguel asked.

“Weapons cycles are up at maximum,” Juno reported, “Shakedown complete. Green across the map. This thing hasn’t undergone battle testing, but I think we can dish out quite a bit of punishment, still. Our M2 2.25 shell cannons are running. Class-A SAM launcher has been activated, and so are out M99 chain guns. I’m also diverting power from our 7AFPC2 heavy plasma cannons to our anti-torpedo weapons and our PTPFAF ‘October’ missiles.”

“Good,” Miguel breathed. At least they won’t be caught unready, “Do we have any other combat alternatives?”

“Unfortunately, that’s a not much,” Epsilon shook her head, “I can go out in my Type-Zero, but that’s about it…unless we intend to use the Reploid-armors.”

“But we don’t have anyone to pilot those,” Archangel said with a definite tone of dismay, “All our personnel know only how to operate inside a ship. No one here has gone through real combat…no one here is qualified to fly the Reploid-armors.”

“I was thinking,” Epsilon said, putting a hand onto her delicate chin, “What about the children?”

“Lieutenant!” Helios looked as if he had been shocked by a stun baton, “We can’t allow two civilian children to use our military secret weapons!”

“But we’re desperate at the moment. They performed well at Third Haven. I don’t think there is anyone else more qualified than they are. Besides, if we take them along to Second Haven, we’ll get the United Nations their Reploid-armors anyways. It won’t be too much trouble.”

“Lieutenant, we can’t allow this to happen,” Helios shook his head, “Should we really do this…imagine what would happen if they’re damaged or destroyed…the children don’t even know military protocol.”

“I guess that’s where they’ll have to learn. Trial by fire. Besides…if they enlist, that won’t be a problem. They’ll be part of the military, and using military equipment. Even if they are supposed to be secret weapons, they are still being used by the military. A hearing committee won’t be able to press charges.”

“Both of you are leaving out a very large variable…” Miguel interrupted them, staring at the floor of the deck uncomfortably.

“What is it?” Epsilon asked, looking puzzled.

Miguel hesitated for a moment, and responded quietly, “They haven’t agreed to enlist yet.”
bond4154
Chapter Four

Brandon looked around him, in the briefing room. Each of his teammates were unusually silent, and Brandon as well. He was disgusted. They had been caught off surprise, and the attack had been postponed.

“It wasn’t really postponed,” Subaru had tried to convince him, “We won that battle anyways.”

“Shut up,” Brandon had snapped, “I’ll find that bastard…and when I do, I’ll make sure I tear him apart before I’m satisfied.”

“Apparently,” Captain Svivern began his briefing as the map around the ocean of Third Haven appeared on the overhead projector, “The 2nd Neo Arcadian Fleet is arriving at our destination. Their target is Third Haven, but I have been given permission to pursue the United Nations’ new weapon…”

Brandon smirked at the news of that.

“We will be attempting to track their new ship, called the Storm of Fire, and the three new prototype combat armors they are using. Our goal is to either capture it or destroy it. Even if you intend to capture it, do not resist in damaging it. It’ll be better to wreck it and capture it later than try to capture it intact and get shot down.”

“Any special mission parameters?” Lloyd asked.

“None, really,” Svivern smiled, “This is where, I guess, you get free reign over your mission. Don’t get carried away, though.”

“Good,” Brandon smiled, “When do we sortie?”

Svivern looked at Brandon. “Unfortunately, Major Carter, you cannot launch now.”

Brandon tightened his jaw. “What!?” he protested, “But…why?”

“Your X33 is currently damaged and is still under repair. Should we launch you, you will be a vulnerable target, as well as a burden to your teammates.”

“Burden!?” Brandon gaped. He was obviously insulted.

“Let it go, Brandon,” Subaru said calmly, “We’ll have other victories to win.”

“Shut up!” Brandon snarled at Subaru, “Sir! I…”

“I understand your feelings, Major,” Svivern said in his calm, tenor voice, “But we simply cannot launch you in a damaged X33. Even if we manage to get an activation charge, the only real thing you can do is defend the ship from attacks. That is the current state of your X33.”

Brandon looked down at the floor in rage. Great, he had gotten the chance for revenge, that damn chance he had wanted, but now he was a sitting duck…this is just ****** great.

“We’ll sortie in ten minutes,” Svivern announced, “We’ll commence an air-to-sea attack with Leon Platforms. The ship will standby to give covering fire. Battle status has already been lifted to level three. I suggest you all get ready.”

“Sir!” Subaru stood and snapped a crisp salute, followed by the other members of his squad other than Brandon, who somewhat lingered behind in disgust, before they filed out of the door.

“This won’t be a milk run,” Lloyd quirked his eyebrows as he walked out, “We’re up against a prototype ship and three Reploid-armors. If the others were as good as the one we had fought earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of us ends up dead.”

“No one’s going to end up dead,” Subaru replied, and then said, “Sakura, I know you’d rather be in combat, helping us, but we need you to stay far away and analyze the data and combat situation of our targets. Our initial objective will be to assess the abilities of each target. We should try to preserve all our lives as much as possible.”

“Why not just destroy everything?” Carol shrugged, “We outnumber them quite a bit.”

“But we shouldn’t underestimate them,” Subaru pointed out, “At this point, we don’t know the full potential of every target. It would be really bad if we are completely outgunned without knowing it. And…” he made sure that Brandon was safely out of earshot, “I’m sure Brandon wants a shot at it. If we destroy them now, Brandon might be really ticked off.”

Carol laughed. “Amen to that.”

“Well, I get the idea,” Sakura nodded, and clung onto Subaru’s arm, “Guess it shouldn’t be much too hard.” Subaru and Sakura had gone along well since they had met, and Lloyd figured that they had a thing for each other. Something he could care less for, but amusing, nonetheless.

“We sortie in ten?” Lloyd asked.

“Nine now,” Subaru replied coolly as they stepped into the elevator to the launch bay, “Get ready. We’re going to give them hell.”

*****

“We only have five minutes,” Vincent replied quietly, facing Lance directly in the eyes, although Lance’s gaze was dropped to the deck of the barracks, “What do you say?”

Lance remained silent, as he had for the last hour or so. Vincent hoped he would snap out of it soon. Being stuck in a military situation was not something to be happy over, but it wasn’t something to be extremely melodramatic over either. But Lance hadn’t uttered anything, just sat there and stared at the ground.

Vincent sighed, and looked away. “If…if you won’t make a decision, then I will.”

No reply from Lance.

“Really, though. Where you go, I go.”

Still no response.

Vincent sighed again, and gazed down toward the floor for no particular reason, then wondered at what Lance might have found so fascinating that he had been staring at it for quite a while.

“I’m no choice-maker,” Lance finally managed to make out.

“Neither am I,” Vincent made out with a weak grin.

Another minute of silence.

The ship’s COM system on the wall suddenly beeped as the familiar face of Miguel appeared on the small screen on the wall. Lance didn’t bother looking up, although Vincent gave it his undivided attention.

“Alright,” the face of Miguel said sternly in the screen, “We’ve detected a Neo Arcadian cruiser bearing down on us. We don’t have much time to let you guys decide now, so it’s now or never, really. We have to hear your choice, and quickly.”

“Captain,” Epsilon’s voice said from off-screen, “I’m going to go to my Type-Zero. Leaving the deck.”

“Understood,” Miguel looked back at the screen, and said, “So, now, I gave you some time, and I hope you’ve made a choice. A large chunk of your future is riding on it.”

“Sir!” another voice crackled, obviously from the bridge’s COM system, “This is Task Force One! We’ve secured the lifeboat, but we’ve detected enemies at an inbound vector. There is no way we’ll make it back in time!”

“Is the lifeboat occupied?” Miguel asked the off-screen COM system.

“Yes, sir, two civilians. They’ve identified themselves as university students. Aden Hikari and Mia Elysium.”

Both Vincent and Lance froze at that, their eyes wide, and Lance finally stared at the COM screen with eyes as wide as a tennis ball…

Vincent had just started to say they agreed to enlist when there was a blur at Vincent’s side, and Lance darted out at tremendous speed out the door. Vincent hadn’t even realized that Lance had moved before he had completely disappeared.

“We’ll enlist, sir!” Vincent said into the COM system and snapped a salute, “We want to aid in the combat situation…and try to save our friends.”

Miguel shot Vincent a quizzical look. “Your friends?” Miguel whispered.

“Yes, in the lifeboat. Aden Hikari and Mia Elysium. They are our friends.”

Miguel rubbed his tired eyes and shook his head, muttered something like “****** fate” before looking up, “Alright, Vincent. We’ll…”

“Sir, this is hangar bay number one,” a voice said in the COM system, “The civilian child who we had picked up at Third Haven is demanding that he be able to pilot Phoenix. I know I shouldn’t bother you with this, but…”

“Get him in.”

There was a pause as the hangar crew must’ve hesitated. “Excuse me, sir?”

“Get him into Phoenix,” Miguel said quickly, “And prepare to sortie him. Expect another child soon that will board Odin. Sortie both of them. Is that understood, sergeant?”

Another pause. Then an unhesitating, “Yes, sir!”

“Alright, Vincent,” Miguel turned his attention back at Vincent, “You’ve heard our situation. The Odin is a ground-based Reploid-armor, so you can’t do much around here except stay on the ship and fire and defend the ship. And we don’t want to expect too much from you at the moment.”

“Understood, Captain,” Vincent snapped another salute, “Consider us part of the United Nations military now, sir!”

Miguel nodded, and with a smile, added, “Got it, soldier.” The COM screen went black.

*****

“Alright,” the technician nodded as soon as Lance was completely outfitted inside Phoenix, “Giving you an activation charge in three…two…one…now!”

A hum was heard as the system powered up, and his body automatically relaxed as the armor began to receive his neural signals again. The launch bay was somewhat dark, but rather large. The staff sergeant told him that it was used as a hangar bay, an engine, and a heavy plasma cannon. Lance was cool with that, but worried that it might blow like a box of firecrackers should this place take a direct hit.

“Ah, back, Lance.”

Lance wondered who was saying that, looked around for a moment, then chuckled softly. “Phoenix, huh?” Lance smiled.

“Quite right. Your state of mind is currently positive one. Not extremely impressive, but it is better than negative two…” there was a pause, before, “Interesting. I see we are currently in the Storm of Fire.”

“You know this ship?” Lance said.

“Prepare for launch!” the staff sergeant shouted to Lance as the technicians around him start to flee the area of launch. Behind him, Major Epsilon’s Type-Zero was preparing for launch as well.

“Yes,” Phoenix replied, “The Storm of Fire was the counterpart project of the Reploid-armor project. While the Storm of Fire specialized in major battles concerning secondary battle scenario situations, the Reploid-armor was a superiority weapon directly on the battlefield. Both were designed to be revolutionary equipment in the defense industry.”

“You sound proud.”

“Well, yes. I am outfitted with the latest state-of-the-art equipment…”

“But you’re using that equipment to take lives,” Lance cut him off, sounding somewhat agonized, “Even if you are doing that to save lives, you’re killing lives in the process. What good does that serve?”

There was a pause, before Phoenix replied, “Technically, the world suffers a great amount of loss, concerning economy, ecosystem, lives, but more lives are saved in the process of war, depending on the state of the winner.”

“And what if the winner is one that kills all who opposes or has opposed him?” Lance countered, “What if he won? Would that be saving lives?”

There was yet another pause. Finally, Phoenix replied quietly, “I loathe to admit you have stumped me on that one. I’ll keep your question in mind. We will launch in ten seconds.”

Lance nodded, and smiled. So Phoenix, even as an AI construct, did have conscience. He was already liking him more and more.

“Five!” the staff sergeant shouted as a status monitor screen showed green across the map, “Four! Three! Two! One!”

Lance braced himself for the initial impact of the launch.

“Launch!” the staff sergeant shouted, just as the launch catapult launched him thirty-degrees upwards into the air, headed for the open hatch doors that led to the open sky. As a reflex, Lance stabilized the launch with his thrusters, gaining balance in the air.

“Receiving COM channel frequency from the Captain,” Phoenix informed, “Opening broadcast now.”

“Lance,” Miguel’s voice breathed through the earpiece, “Do you hear me?”

“Yes,” Lance replied, “I hear you.”

“You’ll have to address him as sir from now on,” Helios reminded him sternly.

“We have a battle strategy worked out,” Miguel went on, “Vincent will handle the point defense on the main deck of the Storm of Fire. The Storm of Fire has quite a large area of fire in which we can hit the enemy with our weapons, but in any case, we’ll need you to chase and fire at the enemies in case they get into our blind spot…” then quietly, added, “I know this isn’t something I should say, but…I hope you’re ready to take lives.” The COM channel switched off.

“Take…lives…?” Lance breathed. It was such an easy thing, to take lives, yet something to be so emotional about. Take lives? He understood the Captain’s hesitation, and wondered if he was capable of killing, capable of taking…

“Four targets inbound,” Phoenix informed, “Identified as Neo Arcadian X33 multi-purpose combat armor prototypes. Advise extreme caution. Enemy cruiser is also closing in. Identified as a Harvest VII class.”

“Harvest VII?” Lance echoed.

“Yes,” Phoenix replied as a blueprint of a Harvest VII cruiser appeared on his HUD, “More of a stealth ship than a cruiser or a carrier, the Harvest VII…”

“Okay, okay!” Lance interrupted, and closed the blueprint with a simple thought, “I don’t need an explanation. I get the idea.”

“Fine,” Phoenix replied, although it was obvious that he was displeased. Lance didn’t feel like apologizing at the moment, though.

“Kid!” Epsilon’s voice rang through his headset, “I hope you’re ready, because we’re going to have a bit of hell here.”

“I can tell,” Lance nodded, and watched as Epsilon’s Type-Zero took off into the air, “Is…is there something I can do?”

“Keep yourself alive,” Epsilon replied, “As long as you’re there, there will be enemies trying to concentrate on you. Even if you can’t take them down, you can at least divert their attention so I can get to them. I hope we can get this over with and have some coffee with each other after this is done.” Epsilon said her last sentence with a bit of enthusiasm.

Lance was startled at first; a First Lieutenant that was actually concerned…he smiled. So there was someone who cared. “Yeah,” Lance smiled, “Thanks, Major…I mean, Lieutenant.”

“Call me Major,” Epsilon replied, “Let’s go!”

“Vincent at the deck,” the COM channel rang out again, “I’m at deck. Don’t worry about me; this shield is ready to take anything they send at me.” Lance was puzzled at first, then remembered the heavy shield that the Odin hefted.

“Understood, Vincent,” Lance replied, “Phoenix, what’s the status of the lifeboat?”

“It is still out at sea, although headed at an inbound vector. Although no Neo Arcadian forces are currently approaching it, I give an estimate of sixty-nine point seven-five-two percent that the Neo Arcadian forces will fire on it as soon as they are in combat range.”

“Damn…” Lance whispered as he closed his eyes slowly, praying to whoever happened to turn an ear in favor toward him, “Aden…Mia…hang on in there…please.”

*****

“There are four targets,” Sakura said as they skimmed the ocean, keeping a low altitude to minimize the accuracy of a computer lock-on by the enemy, “The cruiser, a United Nations Type-Zero, and two of the combat armors. I don’t see the third one.”

All of them donned in their respective armors and weapons, standing on Leon Platforms, they looked like war gods…and they were about to prove they were more effective than any warrior of mythology.

“Yeah,” Carol nodded, “Where’s the third one?”

“It’s either unable to sortie, or is hidden very well,” Subaru whispered, “I hope it’s the first one.”

“The Type-Zero and one of the combat armors is taking the air and headed at out vector in a likely combat course,” Sakura informed, “One of them is on the ship and seems like it intends to defend the ship.”

“Got it,” Subaru nodded, “Sakura, break out of formation. Lloyd, try taking the ship down. Carol, you head for the Type-Zero. I settle my score with the combat armor. Sakura, if you can manage, try to shoot down the combat armor on the ship.”

“Roger,” the other three replied in unison as they went to their respective positions. For a moment, Subaru considered asking Brandon about his status…he had insisted to don his X33, but was restricted to combat on the deck. Subaru decided not to; if he tried saying anything, Brandon would take it as an insult.

“Break formation and attack,” Subaru said, “Try to take them down, but don’t put your life on the line. Remember, this is officially a reconnaissance mission.” The X33s killed their thrusters as they dropped slightly and turned in the air, then fed power to them again as they jettisoned into the air at different directions. Lloyd jetted ahead first past the combat armor and the Type-Zero toward the ship at extreme speed. The Type-Zero turned, but the combat armor hesitated for a moment.

Subaru took that chance to fire the missiles on his Leon Platform as they arched lazily toward the combat armor, giving Carol covering fire as she sped toward the Type-Zero. The combat armor saw the missiles in time, however, but hesitated again, as if wondering how he should avoid them, but thrust himself toward the side quickly, allowing the missiles to fly past him.

“Damn bastard,” Subaru whispered as he flew past the combat armor and turned to make another run.

Meanwhile, Carol and the Type-Zero were engaged in heavy combat. While the Type-Zero was quite a large target for the X33, the Type-Zero always hovered at one place while the pilot shot at the X33, then jetted away before Carol could fire a successful counterstrike. While none of the pilots really hit each other, Carol was becoming extremely annoyed as the machine gun ammunition indicator on her Leon Platform ticked away.

Lloyd flew past the main deck, under one of the “wings” connecting the pods at the side to the main body of the ship. Chain gun fire and cannon fire missed him completely, although Lloyd saw a G-Vulcan cannon shell almost take his head off the X33. Lloyd scowled.

“Vincent Swan,” he whispered, “So you are here.” He jetted around toward the back side of the ship and fired his assault rifle at key structures of the ship, where he knew even the rounds meant to be used against infantry would do some damage against the ship. Moving quickly, he darted away before the chain guns could track him. Flying higher, he suddenly noticed that there were SAM sites installed onto the ship. He quickly dropped altitude, but no in time as five missiles were released from the SAM, followed by sixteen rapid-firing “October” missiles from the back. Lloyd grunted as he successfully weaved through the exquisite web of the missiles and began firing again. However, he knew he was completely outgunned. He got lucky, dodging twenty-one missiles at once. He knew it probably wouldn’t happen again, and immediately increased the distance between him and the ship.

Subaru and the aerial combat armor engaged in heavier combat. As Subaru ran out of machine gun ammo, it seemed that the combat armor had used up his assault rifle armor as well as he circled around the ship and dropped his assault rifle into the launch catapult of the ship before coming back and firing at Subaru with an energy rifle. Subaru dodged rapidly, although he knew the beam traveled at extreme speeds. Mostly, Subaru was safe by the inaccurate aim of the enemy, but if that beam made contact, it would go right through his armor…and his body.

“Using a weapon like that on a combat armor…” Subaru whispered in awe, “What are those United Nations fools thinking…?” He decreased altitude and circled the Storm of Fire. Rapid splashes of water traced his path as chain guns attempted to track him, although unsuccessfully. Subaru raced past the ship, then completed a full G turn as he headed for the combat armor again. Subaru held his fire as he neared the combat armor, and fired his missiles as soon as Subaru was close enough to the enemy. No matter how fast the combat armor was, the pilot would never dodge that in time.

However, the combat armor immediately protected itself with a shield, and the missiles exploded in a cloud of smoke and fire around it, concealing it in the shroud. A heartbeat later, five rapid-firing missiles arched from the smoke and headed toward Subaru. Subaru winced as the missiles made contact with his Leon Platform. Subaru bailed in time, just before the Leon Platform exploded in the air.

“Subaru!” he heard Sakura scream over the COM channel, just before he stopped falling.

“I got you, Subaru,” Lloyd said next to him, still on his Leon Platform, but catching him effectively, “I think that’s enough reconnaissance for now. I’ll say you’re too wounded to command. I’ll sound the retreat.”

Subaru opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. Lloyd was right; with him without a Leon Platform, he was only a burden to Lloyd. And if Lloyd couldn’t perform at top notch, the team couldn’t either. They needed to retreat.

“Got it,” Subaru sighed as the team quickly circled back toward the Redemption.
bond4154
Chapter Five

Lance heaved a sigh of relief as he expelled the breath of tension from his lips, closing his eyes as the Phoenix released him. He expected the Phoenix to stay as it was, like a suit of armor, but then, it closed up and began to move at its own will.

Reading Lance’s expression of shock, Phoenix laughed, something that shocked Lance even more. “Even if I do have the function of a suit of armor,” Phoenix quirked, “I am also a Reploid.”

“Nice one, kid,” Epsilon jumped out of her cockpit as she took off the helmet, “That was splendid work. I couldn’t have done better.”

“No,” Lance smiled weakly and shook his head, “I…didn’t really do anything.”

“And that’s already doing something,” Epsilon walked up to him and placed her hand on his shoulder, and Lance noticed how delicate looking it was, and yet how it was able to take so many lives, “Knowing that you haven’t done enough it doing something. And I’m damn glad you know about it.”

Lance managed another smile as Vincent exited from Odin as well, and Odin closed up before walking over to Phoenix, talking to him about something. Despite the fact that their faces basically consisted of titanium-A plating and a singular red eye, Lance could tell Phoenix wasn’t pleased to talk with Odin…maybe it was from the body language.

“What’s the current status of the ship?” Epsilon asked the staff sergeant.

“We’re currently holding up okay,” he replied in a gruff voice, “They punched some holes, but that’s basically it. Everything is running okay, but the captain wants to continue to run, even if the ship can handle the cruiser that’s after us. Says if we slow down, the entire damn fleet may catch up.”

“True,” Epsilon nodded thoughtfully, “Thank you, sergeant.” The sergeant saluted and walked away, barking orders rapidly to begin to store up the equipment and weapons.

“Personally, I don’t think we have any time to relax,” Epsilon shrugged, “It seems the enemy is really intent on destroying us. They’ll pretty much pursue us to the other side of the planet, if I have to guess. You should get as much rest as possible, though. It’s better for you.”

“Right,” Vincent nodded and smiled, “We’ll do just that. In the meanwhile…”

Lance suddenly tuned out as he suddenly saw that a lifeboat was being dragged into the hangar by a large mechanism. He stared, watching the lifeboat being placed down. The lifeboats were basically like shelters, completely encased. The occupants could not see inside, and the people outside couldn’t see the inside. But as Lance walked involuntarily toward the lifeboat, Vincent and Epsilon noticed that Lance’s attention was drifted toward the occupants he hoped were inside…

The lifeboat locks opened as two soldiers stepped out first, grunting about going out with their necks on the line for a lifeboat, then two civilians jumped out.

Aden. Mia.

Those were the only two words that came into Lance’s mind as he suddenly rushed toward them, ignoring the stares that were directed toward him.

Aden and Mia turned as he saw Lance ran toward them. “Lance!” Aden’s eyes went wide, then laughed as he braced Lance’s impact toward him as they embraced each other, “God! I…I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, you little…”

“Yeah, you too!” Lance laughed, and he was nearly crying…and as much as Aden loathed to admit it, Aden himself was coming toward tears.

Lance looked at both Aden and Mia, shook his head. “Damn, it’s good to see you two alive,” Lance said, as Vincent approached from behind him.

“Vincent!” Mia gasped, “You too! You’re all here…!”

Vincent cocked his head to the side quizzically. “Can’t be much help if I’m a corpse,” Vincent laughed and hugged Mia, which Lance found awkward. Nevertheless, he relaxed relatively…then tensed up again.

“Why were you two in a lifeboat?” Lance demanded angrily, the reunion suddenly cut short by Lance’s fury, “You should’ve gone to a shelter.”

“We tried,” Mia explained, “But the debris blocked the way to the shelters, and all the other ones were full…we couldn’t find our way to another shelter.”

Aden nodded, agreeing somberly. “Another group was rushing for the lifeboat on the beach, so we followed them…they were all gunned down. We are lucky we’re still alive.”

“Damn right,” Epsilon nodded, then sighed as she brushed her hand into her hair, “Well…I’m glad you’re alright, but the co-captain is going to freak when he finds two more civilians on this ship…”

“It’s not like we can help it,” Vincent sighed, looking at Epsilon, “I guess we have no choice but to allow them to enlist as well…”

“Enlist?” Aden echoed, “What do you mean, enlist? Lance?” Aden looked at Lance for an explanation. Lance looked away, down at the ground again.

“We’ve enlisted into the military,” Vincent whispered quietly.

“What!?” Mia stared at both of them, “Enlist? Why?”

“Do you think we had a choice?” Lance blurted, “Do you think we wanted to enlist?”

“We went over protocol and regulations,” Epsilon sighed, “Unfortunately…the rules are that civilians are not allowed in combat. Also, you’ve seen military secrets…stuff you’re not supposed to have seen, such as this ship.”

“But we weren’t involved in combat!” Mia protested, “We were just trying to get out…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Vincent shook his head in dismay, “We have no choice but to take you along toward Second Haven. And you two will be on trial before a hearing committee…they say the possible penalty may be death.”

Both Aden and Mia stared, mouths opened. Lance couldn’t bear to look at them, despite the fact that he had been like that himself only half an hour ago. He turned, and began to walk away.

“Lance!” Epsilon shouted, preparing to go after him. But instead, Vincent placed a hand at her wrist, pulling her wrist, shaking his head.

“It’s not a good idea,” Vincent whispered, “Lance needs some time to think…sir.”

Epsilon nodded, and turned back to Aden and Mia. “We’ve found a loophole around it, though,” Epsilon said, “It’s an unwelcome alternative, but you can enlist into the military. We’ll set the join date before the attack on Third Haven, and although you will still have violated several minor charges, no one will do anything about it. Won’t even show up on your records. After that…we’ll do our best to try to get you out of the military.”

Aden and Mia looked at each other uncomfortably. Mia settled herself next to Aden as he embraced her warmly.

“I’ll make whatever decision you make, Aden,” Mia whispered. Aden’s gaze dropped to deck.

“I hope you don’t end up regretting the decision…” Aden replied quietly.

*****

“So far,” Sakura reported, “We’ve seen the combat situation of four of the predicted five enemy targets.”

With all five of the squad in the briefing room, Sakura gave her report with digitalized models and recording, showing her team all the information she could provide as pictures snapped throughout the briefing screen.

“What we have found is that there is the ship, called the Storm of Fire. There is also a Type-Zero, and two combat armors. I have also found that the UN calls them Reploid-armors. They are next-generation weapons, supposed to be a mix between a Reploid and a combat armor. They are extremely efficient.”

Subaru nodded solemnly. He had been in battle with one of them and nearly lost his life. He never doubted that they were efficient, but now it seemed efficient was too mild an adjective. Amazing was what was more like it.

“The air-based one is called Phoenix,” Sakura continued, “and the ground-based one is called Odin. We have no information so far on the last Reploid-armor.”

Bringing a video picture of Phoenix onto the screen, Sakura explained, “This is what the UN calls Phoenix. It is an air-based Reploid-armor. As you can see, the wings on this not only helps in flight, but it may be able to cut through armor. We don’t know about that for sure yet, though, although we hope we won’t be testing that. Thrusters have been strategically located to maximize air superiority maneuvers, and the armor seems to be based on a neural-link padding. In other words, this armor is thought interfaced.”

“Impossible,” Brandon growled, “You’re telling me the pilot can control that thing with his mind?” Sakura nodded solemnly.

“This is bad,” Subaru noted, “If this continues, the United Nations continue to implant neural technology onto weapons…if that is possible, one day, we may have to fight cruisers with only a one-man crew…”

“The weapons on this Reploid-armor is also impressive,” Sakura continued her analysis, “It holds an assault rifle and energy beam rifle in two hands, and also has a shield on the left arm. Under the shield is a rapid missile firing system, which acts as an effective counterattack. As the pilot blocks the attack, he can also launch missiles from his shield, so we will have to be more careful after our attacks. Also, he has a beam saber on his right shoulder, which he can easily take…although the design has it that he would have to dispose one of his arm weapons first. Not a very good design itself, but…”

“We get the point,” Carol interrupted rudely, “Let’s talk about that Type-Zero. The bitch piloting it was so annoying.”

“We basically know the mechanics of the Type-Zero,” Sakura said, ignoring the insult, “Chain gun, plasma cannons, missiles. However, the pilot’s skill seems very exceptional. Unfortunately…I haven’t quite figured out what the pilot’s tactics are.”

“Quite the strategist you are,” Carol said mockingly. Subaru hushed her with a glare, although he got an ignorant look in response.

“Odin, meanwhile, is a ground-based Reploid-armor. While it also has thrusters that can propel itself into the air, it is mostly used for skimming the ground. It hefts an enormous shield that has a twin-bladed beam saber and a G-Vulcan cannon underneath. It is also equipped with an eight-barreled missile launcher as well as a chain gun. My hypothesis is that it can take much punishment and return the favor. Engaging this enemy at close range is not recommended.

“Finally, talking about the Storm of Fire. According to Lloyd…” a small nod of acknowledgement from Lloyd, “…and our videos, the Storm of Fire is extremely well built, with a wide variety of weapons at all the most strategic positions. It doesn’t have much of a weak point if we’re to attack it from the air. As you can see…” Sakura brought up a blueprint of the Storm of Fire and its firing range, “…it has basically all the outbound attack vectors covered. We can’t do much to it at all from the air without receiving fire.”

“Is there any way around it?” Carol asked, “We can’t attack a ship that can swat us out of the air.”

“One,” Sakura nodded, and a thin smile cracked across her face, as if she had been waiting the whole time to tell, “Most likely, the internal structuring of the ship has only room for anti-torpedo and anti-submarine torpedo launchers. However, most likely, they have nothing against a small marine strike team.”

“You mean you want do go out in Aqua Capsules?” Brandon asked, suddenly interested, “An attack on the underside?”

Sakura nodded. “The enemy has a poor defense vector at the underside, if I’m right, and they have nothing that can do any real damage into the water. And we’re pretty well concealed.”

“I basically approve for that,” Brandon chuckled, “So they can’t do a thing against us.”

“Hopefully,” Sakura nodded, “Although they can hit us with a lucky shot or two, the odds are on our side.”

“Good,” Subaru nodded, “But it would be best not to attack now. You all need some R and R, and I’m sure our attack would be much more effective at night. We won’t be seen, and the enemy won’t be expecting us from the underside…”

*****

“Good evening, Atrium,” the smooth, devious voice of the ship’s AI, Deviant, droned like an annoying mosquito by Atrium’s bed in the Redemption, “The Redemption is currently running at maximum efficiency. Subaru and his team have selected a method of approach, and I have approved of their selection.” Deviant then activated his hologram, a figure of light standing at the doorway. It was a hologram, but he had all the impression of a ghost, hooded and cloaked.

Svivern groaned as he turned over in bed, bare in the chest. His room was dark, but the hologram of the AI lit the room somewhat sufficiently. Despite it being a captain’s cabin, it was surprisingly bare, with little items to indicate comfort other than the bed and computer chair and desk. A small bookshelf nearby was stacked with books on protocol and regulations. The walls were bare white.

“You’re not here just to say that are you, Deviant?” Svivern chuckled as he lay on his back, covering his eyes with an arm.

“Quite right,” Deviant quirked, and his hologram stood directly next to Svivern, “I think we need to discuss some more…important matters.”

“I have a feeling that…”

“Hmm?” Deviant turned, as if he could hide his amused face.

“…I have a feeling,” Svivern said quietly, “that this has something to do with the Council of Salvation. I have the feeling that they have given me the order to return to Capital Eurasia. And I have a feeling you’re going to tell me about that damn plot again.”

“We’ve worked on this to the last detail,” Deviant snapped, somewhat annoyed, “The moment I can find another host, the moment I can work out all the troublesome members of the Council. I thought you’ve already approved several candidates. Seventeen, if I remember correctly.”

“They’re all dead,” Svivern muttered, “I had to kill them personally, because you leaked too much information out to them. Do you know how close I was to being caught?”

“It was for their own good,” Deviant said, obviously annoyed, “Now you’ll have to be responsible for finding new candidates, unless you wish to approve our plans without the proper tests.”

“Now is not the time,” Svivern sighed, “If we destroy the enemy ship, the Council will move to my favor. I’ll have a chance to get close to them…to every one of them. Even Omega will be yours.”

Deviant brightened at the thought of that, although his face was completely masked by the hood. “Now that seems promising,” Deviant chuckled, “But we’ll have to deal with the return order first?”

“Send a signal back,” Svivern ordered, “And forge a message saying the message had not been successfully delivered because of weather storms. We’ll continue our pursuit of the Storm of Fire…and Miguel…”

“Now, now,” Deviant made a rude sound sarcastically, “I’m sure that forging a message is against protocol, as well as lying to the Council, and neglecting a direct order. I’m also getting a message from the back of my head that forces are not supposed to be used for vendetta, and that you didn’t say ‘please’ to me. But considering that these are under different circumstances, we’ll let this one slide, won’t we?” Deviant made an insidious giggle.

“As long as you stop bothering in my sleep,” Svivern replied. Deviant nodded, and his hologram disappeared.

As soon as Svivern confirmed the troublesome AI was out of his room, he grunted as the pain returned to his body, the everlasting pain that struck him, his own body rejecting his own biometric reactions. He shuddered all over in convulsions, and toppled to the floor. A minute of this continued before he was finally able to regain control of his body, the sweat pouring off of him.

Damn Deviant. Damn Deviant, and damn what he has done to me…what I have done to myself.

*****

As Vincent had expected as the doors to Lance’s new quarters opened, he was lying on bed, face up toward the ceiling. His eyes were open, but Vincent could tell at first glance that they were not concentrated; they stared up to infinity.

“They’ve decided to enlist,” Vincent whispered. He had dressed into a military uniform with an insignia of a Second Lieutenant on his chest. Epsilon had laughed at the sudden promotion and jokingly added for him to watch his back; some guys wouldn’t be happy with a civilian getting such a high position. But mostly, it was because he and Lance were the only ones who could control the Reploid-armors…and Captain Miguel wanted to get things over with.

“Figures,” Lance replied bitterly, without looking at Vincent, “And you’ve decided to wear a uniform now, huh?”

Vincent cocked an eyebrow in surprise. He wondered how Lance had known he was wearing one without so much as glancing at him.

“They’re all on our side,” Vincent said, “The Captain, Co-Captain Helios, Lieutenant…Major Epsilon. They’re all trying to help us. It’s not really as bad as you think. We’ll make it to Third Haven, and…”

“And then what?” Lance scowled, sitting up now as he straightened up, “Then what? We get the Third Haven, then what?”

“They’ll try their best to get us out of the military,” Vincent whispered quietly.

Lance squinted his eyes in the attempt to mask his fury, but was doing a horrible job at it, like trying to cover the sun on a clear day. “You believe that? You honest-to-God believe that? I don’t think you do.”

Vincent avoided eye contact. It was his turn to stare at the metal floor.

“Tell me,” Lance hissed mockingly, “Tell me what you think. Tell me that we’ll be released from the military. If you really believe me, tell me, you goddamn ******.”

Vincent’s eyes flashed, like they had when he had seen Lance in the Reploid-armor, a suddenly flash like a glowing halo around the pupil of his eyes. Several muscles tightened in his body instinctively, and Lance braced for impact, expecting Vincent to punch him for being such an ******.

But Lance didn’t expect Vincent to move fast. Extraordinarily fast, that before either of them realized what happened, Vincent’s right hand was clamped around Lance’s throat, and raised his left fist as to punch him. Lance tried to pry his hands away, but noticed that Vincent was suddenly extremely strong. The hand didn’t budge. He stared up to Vincent’s eyes with intense hatred, glaring at him, and noticed that the glow was still in Vincent’s eyes, the halo around the pupils…they were scary in their own way, but they seemed almost beautiful…

Suddenly, Vincent’s expression changed, changed to one of shock as he realized what he was doing. The halo in his eyes flickered once, twice, before completely dying out in his eyes. He stepped backward suddenly, stumbling over the bed behind him, looking at his hands with a mix between shock and fear. Lance stood up, coughing, as his larynx began to clear up with air again.

“I…I…” Vincent stuttered, staring at Lance with an expression Lance had never seen on any human before, one of fright, such fright at such an extent that it was undreamed of, that Lance returned that same fright.

“It’s…it’s okay…” Lance whispered, “I’m okay…” No, Lance thought, I’m not quite okay. I’m drafted into the military and had my best friend that was choking me and about to beat the hell out of me, and now he’s staring at me with scared eyes that was glowing just a moment ago…that isn’t okay for me.

“Lance…” Vincent said, trying to brace Lance with his hands, but not quite making it, as if he wanted to help him, but not sure if his hand will try to strangle him again, “Lance…are you…are you okay? I mean…”

“I said I’m fine,” Lance said, shoving Vincent’s hands away, “I’m fine. Just leave me be.”

“I didn’t mean it,” Vincent said, standing right next to Lance, “I really didn’t mean it. It was just…I mean…”

“I know,” Lance nodded, although he was trying to concentrate on getting oxygen into his system, “Just…just leave me alone for a while. Please.”

Vincent hesitated, not sure what to do, whether he really should leave or to comfort his friend. But he made his decision, and unwarily saluted, although Lance was looking the other way, unable to see his salute.

“Then…” Vincent said uncomfortably, “I…I’ll see you later, Second Lieutenant Lance Sigel.” Lance turned to Vincent in an expression of surprise. He hadn’t known he had an actual rank in the military.

“Your uniform and insignia are in the locker room,” Vincent continued, still in an uncomfortable voice that Lance was unable to filter out with his mind, “You…you can get them any time you wish.” Vincent dropped his salute, and turned out, walking out of the room.

He paused just right outside, and added to Lance, “Aden and Mia…” he whispered, “They’re currently on standby duty, although they are supposed to back up the bridge officers. I suggest you talk to them sometime soon.” With that, he walked out of sight as the automatic door closed behind him.

Knowing he was alone, Lance lay down on the bed again, staring at the ceiling once again. But staring at a ceiling was no longer a method to keep him from his warring emotions, as he curled into a ball on his side, and cried, cried for himself, cried for Vincent, cried for Aden and Mia, and cried for the fate that had brought him into this.
bond4154
Chapter Six

“I’ve set the course as you wanted, Captain,” Phalanx managed a small grin as he looked up at Miguel, who was standing next to him by the view screen, watching the sun beginning to set under the sea, “The course takes us right through the Panama.”

“I might want to add,” Juno said worriedly, “The Panama technically belongs to Neo Arcadia. Although recent reconnaissance has shown that not many troops have been positioned there, if our intelligence it wrong, or if the enemy has posted troops there, our ship may be sitting ducks when we pass through. We’ll be too slow and too close to avoid enemy fire. Add that to the stealth cruiser that had been tailing us slowly earlier, and we’re not in a good position.”

“I’ll take note of that,” Miguel nodded, acknowledging Juno’s initial worries. She always worried about something, but most of the time, there was something to be really worried about. Miguel was glad she could keep the stress under control.

“What about the special package on the ship?” Helios asked Archangel.

“Staff Sergeant Mendez said that it’ll take a little more time to finally tweak up the juice and hook up the coolant,” Archangel replied, “But if they work on it all night, they should be able to get it ready by tomorrow morning.”

“Tell them to do that,” Helios ordered crisply, “And that we’ll replenish their rest hours later on.”

“Yes, sir,” Archangel nodded, and proceeded to secure a COM channel to the staff sergeant.

“I suppose that means we won’t get any sleep either, huh?” Phalanx chuckled to Miguel, who returned the favor with a smile.

“They say the early bird gets the worm,” Miguel grinned, “But looks like we won’t qualify with either early or late. Major Cruz, how’s the long-range communication system?”

“Not good at all,” Cruz shook his head in utter disappointment, “We never modified the system before we left for the test run from Third Haven, and to make it worse, the one of the X33 combat armors had damaged it in the last battle. R&D has volunteered to repair it, but…in reality, it won’t do any good.” Miguel stifled a small grin at Cruz’s personality. Always so pessimistic, always so realistic. Almost like Helios.

“Any news about Third Haven?” Helios asked.

“Well,” Cruz drew a thin line across his lips, “We haven’t received confirmed information, but if you would look here…” Cruz popped an image of radar readings from the Storm of Fire’s log files and sensor readings transmitted from Third Haven, “…it seems by the time we left, the enemy fleet had already approached.”

“So Third Haven would most likely have fallen by now…” Miguel sighed, and shook his head. First Seventh Haven…then Fifth Haven…and now Third Haven. The United Nations was running out of places to hide. Only four more Havens left…

“What about the two new recruits?” Miguel asked.

“The pilots or the ones we found in the lifeboat?” Archangel asked.

“The lifeboat ones. I think they’ve been promoted to…”

“Privates,” Archangel replied, “They’re currently at hangar one, repairing the ship’s equipment. They said they were engineering students, and could help with the repair on the communications dish, but like Cruz said, I don’t think it’ll work. I don’t doubt that they would know how to fix it, but the actual repairing would be the problem. We don’t have any extra resources, and neither do we really have the tools.”

“I see,” Miguel nodded, “Give them my gratitude. Meanwhile…what about the girl?”

“We’ve been holding her at the detention area ever since she had regained consciousness, sir,” Helios informed him, “I’ve interrogated her personally, but unlike the others, she refuses to reveal anything. She hasn’t said a word. We don’t know her name, her origin, we don’t know anything about her.”

“What do you think?” Miguel smiled, curious about Helios’ analysis, although he already knew what it was going to be.

“Are you asking for my opinion, sir?” Helios cocked an eyebrow quizzically.

“Quite right,” Miguel shrugged, “Speak as candidly as you want.”

“I think she’s a Neo Arcadian spy, sir.”

There was a moment of silence in the bridge, before Miguel burst out laughing. The bridge crew bit their lips to prevent themselves from laughing at a superior officer, although it took quite a bit of effort. Helios looked both puzzled and annoyed.

“Did I say something wrong, sir?” Helios asked.

“Oh, no,” Miguel managed to stop laughing, “I was just wondering why I already knew what your direct opinion of that would be.”

“Naturally,” Helios replied dryly without a smile, “I’ve been your subordinate for four years. That’s quite the time to know each other very well, captain.”

“Of course,” Miguel smiled and nodded, “But why the immediate conclusion that she’s a spy?”

“Her unwillingness to divulge any information marks my conclusion,” Helios replied, “She has not uttered a word, and refuses to cooperate in any way.”

“Has she been resistant? Other than verbally, that is.”

“No, sir.”

Miguel smiled again, and then said, “Major Cruz? See if you can find First Lieutenant Epsilon. Perhaps she’d be interested in trying the interview.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, sir,” Cruz replied, “First Lieutenant Epsilon has already filed in a report that reports her current state as unavailable. Her Type-Zero had taken some hits, and she’s trying to repair her jet as well as she can. However…” he touched his lip with a finger in interest as new information sprawled across his screen, “…Second Lieutenant Vincent Swan wishes to bring her dinner…” Cruz cracked a rare smile, “Talk about irony, eh, Captain?”

“Indeed,” Miguel chuckled, “Alright, grant him permission. Perhaps he’s more charming than Helios, eh?” Miguel looked back to see if Helios would be offended, but, as Miguel expected, Helios was somewhat glad that Miguel had said that. His eyes told Miguel everything; I’m a soldier, not a charmer.

“Aye, sir,” Cruz nodded, and commenced in typing down the orders.

“The sun will set in less than five minutes,” Helios whispered as the sun looked like an eclipse as it was almost completely hidden from the view screen, “I hope they don’t launch an attack now.”

“Unlikely,” Miguel straightened and sighed, “But I hope so too.”

*****

“There!” Staff Sergeant Mendez shouted to Aden from a balcony near the top of the entire hangar, “Put those torches there, would you?”

“Alright!” Aden shouted back as he walked over to the pile where they had laid most of their tools and set the box of torches down. He sighed as he wiped some of the sweat away from his forehead. The hangar bay was full of action, men moving around and moving equipment. Mia, however, was situated at another corner, working out some of the computer scripting and trying to repair as much as she could from the computer. Aden smiled, and looked around to see what else he could help with.

“Kid!” a Reploid female, the one he had seen with Vincent when he got out of the lifeboat, “Can you help me on this, please?”

“Gotcha!” Aden shouted as he ran over to her. She was in the cockpit of her Type-Zero, and Aden noticed that she looked very delicate, and seemed almost out of place…both in the military and in the Type-Zero. But he reminded himself silently that looks weren’t everything. Don’t judge a book by its cover.

“Here,” the woman said as she extended a hand to pull Aden up to the cockpit, and Aden suddenly realized that, even with her delicate build, she was strong…strong even for a Reploid. She was not created that way, but it was something that she had trained herself to be, not some product of superior engineering.

“Thanks, miss…” Aden hesitated with the name.

The woman giggled. “Call me Major Epsilon,” she replied, “Epsilon’s okay too. I don’t mind, but make sure you don’t say it when anyone else is around, especially the co-captain. He would make sure you obey every protocol down to every word.”

“Got it,” Aden smiled. He liked her; unlike the other people he had suddenly met around the ship, she was almost human, and she was humane. She treated him as both a child and an adult…she treated him seriously, but kindly as well.

“Here,” Epsilon said, pointing to her cockpit computer, “I heard you were an engineering student, so I guess you can help me. I’d call your girlfriend over there…” she pointed to Mia, “…but she’s busy with something else, so I called you. Sergeant Mendez says their nothing much wrong with the connections of my ship, but the computer reports a break in the feed of information between my chain guns and the computer. Can you check it out?”

“Sure,” Aden nodded, and popped into the seat as soon as Epsilon stood up. He looked at the computer, impressed. It was fast, for one thing. And it was a system Aden was familiar with. He quickly accessed the system, and realized that it was a problem with the updated calibration signals after the repair, so he immediately rerouted the signals to another bypass program, then hooked it up to the main computer. The chain guns showed green as soon as he finished.

“Done,” Aden said proudly, clapping his hands together.

“Thanks,” Epsilon winked, “Great help, man.”

“No problem,” Aden replied, “You can call me Aden. Aden Hikari. The girl over there is Mia Elysium.”

“Your girlfriend?” Epsilon grinned mischievously.

Aden turned red. “Well…not really…but…”

Epsilon laughed. “Eh, don’t take it seriously. Besides, nothing wrong with flirting with a girl, right?”

“Um…” Aden scratched his head, which made Epsilon laugh even more.

“Even as an engineering student, you’re still quite the kid,” Epsilon chuckled, and helped him down from the Type-Zero, “Thanks a lot.”

“No problem,” Aden smiled, and began to walk away.

“Oh, by the way,” Epsilon added, “Who’s your other friend? The name. I can’t seem to remember…I know Vincent Swan, but…”

“Oh,” Aden nodded, “Lance Sigel. Yeah, what about him?”

“Well,” Epsilon rubbed her chin thoughtfully, “He…um…he seems upset, wouldn’t you think? I mean, he isn’t too happy with the choice made.”

Aden managed a grin. “Tell you the truth, me neither. But I think he has it worst than I do. I’m not sure why, but…”

Epsilon quirked an eyebrow. “Because he has to fight. Right?”

Aden mused about this. “That possibility didn’t come to my mind.”

“One thing is that he doesn’t seem to have flexibility,” Phoenix suddenly joined in from behind Aden, startling him slightly, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No problem,” Aden nodded, and looked him over, “You’re not just a Reploid, huh?”

“No,” Phoenix shook his head, “I am a Reploid-armor. While I am capable of moving on my own, I cannot initiate combat measures without a pilot. Currently, Lance Sigel is my pilot, or as I may put it, my host.”

“Lance…Lance pilots you?” Aden sounded shocked, “I mean…well, yeah, I’m surprised at the technology, but…”

“It didn’t occur to you where Lance would use that…um…him, sorry Phoenix, to kill people?” Epsilon asked, and shrugged with a definite expression of pity, “Yeah, I’ve basically thought of that too. He hasn’t killed anyone, but…I think it may have to happen soon. It would be better for him to think of his enemies not as humans, but he would have a hard time living with it later on.”

“Is there any hope for him?” Aden asked.

“Well,” Phoenix replied, “I have tried my best in attempts to soothe him…but he is quite emotional, and is rather unstable.”

“He hasn’t been through basic training,” Epsilon added, her lips drawn in a thin line, “Doesn’t know how to cope with the fighting. And at his age, if he learns to cope with fighting, he won’t know anything else.”

*****

The doors opened to the detention cell as Vincent stepped into the small room. It was okay…had a bed and a toilet, but that was about it. The thing was, though, it was clean. Even if it was a prison, Vincent wouldn’t mind staying here.

Flicking on the lights, Vincent smiled as he set his eyes on the girl sitting on top of her bunk, looking away from the door. The jacket and hat she had worn earlier was folded neatly on top of the sheets, and she had a pair of pants as well as a T-shirt.

The first thing Vincent noticed about her was that she was lean, but muscular at the same time. Like Epsilon, she looked delicate, but if one looked closely enough, one would see that there were muscles almost hidden into her body, near-invisible lines that depicted her strength, like an acrobat.

Vincent smiled as he set the tray of military rations next to her, on the bed. “I’m glad you’re okay,” he said.

The girl turned with a puzzled expression, looking at him. Vincent figured that she hadn’t expected anyone to say that to her, especially when she was stuck inside this kind of situation. She tilted her head slightly to the left in question.

Vincent laughed. She looked like Eli, alright, and had her same habits as well. But while he was amused, he felt a stab of bitterness as well. There was too much of Eli in her…and Vincent wasn’t sure if he was ready to accept that.

“Are you hungry?” Vincent continued to ask, “Considering that you’ve blacked out for a while, you really should take a bite. Even if it’s military rations, it is food.”

The girl continued to be puzzled, and stared into Vincent’s eyes. Then, her own eyes widened as understanding seemed to dawn into her.

“You…!” she whispered, not quite believing what’s going on, “You are…!”

“Um…” Vincent scratched his head and was suddenly at a loss to say, “…Well…me. Um…”

“You were the one at the technology institute,” she whispered, and shook her head in disbelief, “I can’t believe you’re still alive…I can’t believe we’re both alive.”

Vincent managed a grin, a crooked grin at the side of his mouth. “Well…yeah, I guess both of us were pretty lucky…”

The girl looked away, her eyes blazing with a bit of anger and shame. “I’m…I’m sorry to have gotten you into the situation.”

“It’s okay,” Vincent said, placing a hand on her shoulder, “I probably would’ve ended up in the same situation I am now…”

“No,” she shook her head, “If I hadn’t been there, you probably would’ve made it to a shelter…” then she looked up with even more fury as more understanding came to her, “What are you doing here anyways? Why the hell are you on this ship? Were you military to begin with?”

Vincent was caught surprised. “No…” he shook his head, “I’m civilian…or at least I was civilian…”

“What is that supposed to mean?” she scowled, “You’re even wearing a uniform. Second Lieutenant. You’ve been in the ranks for a while, haven’t you?”

“No,” Vincent shook his head, “I enlisted, but I didn’t have much of another choice. Otherwise…I could’ve ended up in front of a hearing committee…my friend and I. Both of us would’ve probably ended up dead.”

The girl’s expression dropped to one of a pitying one as she nodded. “Yeah…” she whispered, “The United Nations trying to cover everything about the Havens…”

“But on the other hand,” Vincent’s spirits returned to one of an optimistic, “I’m glad you’re okay. I thought you’d fallen into a coma or something…I was kind of worried. Can I have your name?”

The girl hesitated, then replied with a smile, “Lei. Lei Loyola.”

Vincent smiled in returned, a boyish grin. “Mine is Vincent Swan.”

Lei nodded, then leaned back against the wall. “I’m glad to know you.”

“Yeah. By the way…what were you doing at the technology institute? You looked like you were calling an elevator or something…or is it something I’m not supposed to know?”

Lei looked away uncomfortably. “It’s…better if you don’t know about it.”

Vincent nodded understandingly, remaining silent.

“When the balcony fell…” Lei whispered, “You had a chance to escape. Why did you jump after me? I don’t think it’s just because you wanted to be a hero.”

Vincent looked away, and for a moment, Lei saw bitterness in his eyes…but that quickly turned to one of amusement as Vincent turned as laughed, “I’m not telling. Unless you tell me why you were there, anyways.”

“Oh, you…” Lei laughed, shoving Vincent slightly in the shoulder, but still looked away after their brief interval from the tension, “If you have to keep that a secret, do so. I have to keep mine.”

“I see,” Vincent nodded, added harshly, “You don’t trust me.”

“No, no,” Lei added quickly, “It’s not that…it’s just…I can’t say it. I’m sorry, but I just can’t. It would be better for you if you don’t ask. Better for both of us.”

“Is that so…?” Vincent looked away for a second, wondering what was going on…then noticed she hadn’t touched her rations, “You sure you’re not going to eat that?”

“Hmm?” Lei looked confused for only a moment, then noticed what he was talking about, “Oh…yeah.” She took something that looked like a cracker, and nibbled the corner of it, but nothing more. Both of them sat for another awkward and silent two or three minutes. During this time, Vincent was hoping that a guard didn’t come along and notice the door was open. At the same time, Vincent was hoping that Lei wouldn’t suddenly get the idea of jumping him. Although he hadn’t seen her in action yet, Vincent was somewhat convinced that she would be somewhat strong.

“I’ve heard you haven’t told anything to the captain,” Vincent noted, “You know, you’d get off a lot easier if you told him what you know…or at least lie. I know it’s not exactly a good thing, but…”

“I’ve told you,” Lei interrupted quietly, but sincerely, “I can’t tell anyone.”

Vincent nodded, wondering why this girl had so many secrets to hide, so many…

The area suddenly flashed with red lights as klaxons blared. The captain’s voice immediately rang over the ship’s P.A. system as Vincent stood in surprise. “Attention, all hands,” Miguel’s voice rasped, “We’ve detected enemy troops at an inbound vector. Enemy forces have yet to be identified, but all hands should go to primary battle stations immediately. Second Lieutenants Lance Sigel and Vincent Swan, prepare to board your Reploid-armors immediately.”

“You…!” Lei gasped, looking at Vincent, “You’re a pilot of that thing? Of the…”

“Sorry, now’s not the time,” Vincent replied, hardly paying attention to what Lei was saying, “I’ll come back later. I promise!” With that, he ran out the door, and the doors closed behind him.

Lei stared at the door. He was a pilot? He was just a civilian…and now he was forced to pilot that thing…

She suddenly noticed that she had dropped a personal COM microphone system on her bunk, one given to all high-ranking officers to contact other places of a certain ship without reaching a pre-installed COM system. Picking it up, she verified it was in working order. She might have to use it later…

*****

“I’m here,” Vincent nodded as he entered Odin and the armor encased around him.

“I see,” Odin replied, “All systems green. This is the current situation. Enemy forces have been detected, mostly thermal signatures. Unclear, but they are definitely here, and coming at an inbound vector. The speed is somewhat slow, but definitely faster than the Storm of Fire…” Odin hesitated for a moment, then asked, “This is your first time in a night operation, isn’t it?”

“First time,” Vincent nodded as soon as his HUD appeared, and he could see the outside of the armor. Epsilon’s Type-Zero roared to life as it took off into the air, out of the hangar bay, through the ramp, and up into the air.

“This is Major Epsilon,” Epsilon said into the COM system, “I’m in the air. It would be nice if someone can give me a few flares, if you can spare it. I can’t see much outside the cockpit window.”

“That’s not possible at the time, Lieutenant,” Miguel replied, “Our ship is not installed with flares, but we’ll try to track them as well as we can and give you a HUD target.”

“Alright,” Epsilon replied, “And please, Captain. Next time, call me Major.”

“This is Lance,” Lance whispered quietly into the COM system, “I’m in the air.” Vincent recognized a definite tone of depression in his voice, and winced. He still wasn’t out of his moody state. Vincent hoped it would change quickly.

“Alright!” Mendez shouted from the side of the launch platform as he motioned to Vincent, “We’re going clear! Launch in three! Two! One!”

Odin was thrust forward as the catapult launched the armor into the air, and Vincent immediately maneuvered them to the main deck of the ship. As Vincent expected, a night vision mode toggled onto his HUD, and Vincent noted that with satisfaction as the night became nearly as bright as day.

But he still couldn’t see the enemy.

“What’s wrong, Odin?” Vincent asked as he looked around, keeping his shields up, “I don’t see them. Is something wrong?”

Vincent could tell something was wrong, that Odin was worried as he paused and checked the surroundings.

“Checking,” Odin replied, “Checking thermal trackers…motion trackers…matching sound waves…confirmed. Lieutenant, they’re underwater.”
bond4154
Chapter Seven

“They’re what!?” Helios hissed.

“Yes,” Odin replied, “They’re underwater, Co-Captain. My detection system shows that they are using Aqua Capsules. Also, the stealth cruiser is gaining speed. Staff Sergeant Mendez said that you can crank up all the power you want, but even if we outrun the stealth cruiser, we will not be able to outrun the Aqua Capsules.”

“Damn,” Miguel muttered as he looked around the bridge, noticing his bridge officers’ nervous glances, “Activate underwater defenses. How well does this ship react to underwater targets?”

“You sure you want the bad news, sir?” Archangel asked. Miguel nodded slowly.

“Well,” Archangel replied, “We can’t track the underwater targets very well. Although we can detect where they are, that’s about it. We can’t track them precisely, like we can do to air targets.”

“Which basically means firing at them is firing blindly at them,” Juno added worriedly.

“What about our anti-submarines torpedoes?” Miguel inquired.

“Oh, they can track them alright, but the problem is that they’re meant for destroying submarines. They’ll have a hard time trying to hit the Aqua Capsules, which can outmaneuver them at every turn, not to mention that the enemy can destroy them without a whole lot of effort.”

The ship rocked violently as the Storm of Fire received a salvo of torpedoes at the bottom. Miguel braced himself for balance, and shouted, “Status!”

“Decks fifteen and sixteen damaged,” Archangel replied, “Evacuating personnel and sealing bulkheads.”

“Sir!” Helios cried, “If this ship goes down here, then…”

“I know,” Miguel nodded quietly, “What about the Type-Zero and the two Reploid-armors?”

“No good,” Archangel shook his head, “None of them can do much damage against underwater units. If we get either Phoenix or Odin into the water, they can fire some missiles…but they may not be able to come back up again.”

The ship bounced again as the ship was hit by a second salvo. Helios grunted as he was thrown slightly off his seat, and grabbed onto his chair before he could slam into the wall. Miguel sat down, so that he would not be thrown off his feet.

“Damn,” Miguel replied, “Isn’t there anything we can…”

“Sir!” Cruz interrupted, “I’m receiving an urgent COM message from inside the ship…but the personal COM system is showing Lieutenant Swan’s signal!”

“What?” Helios squinted his eyes in confusion.

“Put it on the horn,” Miguel said, “I hope this is something good.”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz nodded, “Doing it now…done.”

“This is the Captain,” Miguel forced himself to sound calm, “You…aren’t Lieutenant Swan, are you?”

“No, Captain,” a female voice replied, “I’m the prisoner you have aboard this ship. Please, Captain…with your permission, I would like to board the Neptune and fight the enemy. I know they’re underwater, and it may be the only choice we have.”

“No way!” Helios snapped furiously, standing up, “Why should we trust you? You could be a Neo Arcadian spy! What do you want to do, sink us?”

“Please!” the voice begged, “Whether I’m a spy or not, if you don’t let me go, this ship has no chance of standing against the…” she screamed suddenly, and Miguel braced himself as the torpedoes hit again. Miguel felt the ship tilt…then right itself again as Phalanx struggled with the controls.

“All normal, sir,” Phalanx breathed, “But that may change…soon.”

“Captain,” the girl began again, “Please look up United Nations Personnel Record 7741205-LL. My name is Lei Loyola. Please consider your choices…”

“Sir!” Helios hissed, “We can’t listen to her! We don’t know who she is, and…”

“Major Archangel,” Miguel interrupted Helios, “Look up the record. 7741205-LL. Tell me what you find.”

“Aye, sir,” Archangel nodded, “Checking now…” he paled, “Sir! This…this is…!”

“Put it on screen!” Miguel demanded.

“Yes…yes, sir,” Archangel swallowed and grimaced as if it hurt, and brought the identification file on screen.

“This is…!?” Helios whispered in awe. Miguel lost his breath as well.

The picture on the screen was no doubt of the girl they had picked up, with the name Lei Loyola. But in addition, she was a special agent of the United Nations Intelligence Division, with the rank of Commander…her ranking wasn’t as high as the lieutenants, but she was definitely superior to one of the majors. And they hadn’t expected this to happen either.

“Please, sir,” Lei begged, “I’m with you, part of the United Nations. I’ll do my best to protect this ship.”

Miguel pondered about this, and looked at Helios. Helios just looked back at him solemnly, clearly telling him Helios would abide to any decision Miguel made.

“Alright,” Miguel replied, “I’m sending someone to get you to the Neptune. You better be careful, Lei. Because we’re trusting you to protect this ship.”

“Yes, sir,” Lei’s voice replied confidently, “I won’t let you down.”

*****

Lance looked around in the air, watching torpedoes explode by the hull of the Storm of Fire…and unable to do anything about it.

“Damn it!” he screamed, “Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“If there was, I would’ve been doing it!” Epsilon replied, “But we can’t just shoot blindly in, and…”

“Hey, boys,” a female voice said into the COM channel, “Sorry I’m late, but I’ve finally gotten approval from the captain and got my pilot ready.”

“Neptune?” Odin mused, “So it seems you’re fine now.”

“I was fine,” Neptune droned, “It was my pilot that was not.”

“Your pilot?” Vincent gasped, “You mean…”

“Hey, Vincent,” Lei’s voice said over the COM channel, “Sorry I haven’t helped much, but I guess I’m here now.”

“You know him?” Lance asked, surprised.

“Not really,” Lei replied, “We just met. My name is Lei Loyola. It’s nice to meet you, Lance Sigel.”

“Um, no problem, I guess,” Lance replied, “But what are you going to do?”

“Neptune is an underwater Reploid-armor,” Lei replied, “Basically, you just stay there and allow me to mop them up.”

“But…” Vincent hesitated, “…Are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want me to board Neptune instead of you…?”

Lei laughed. “I’ll be fine. Don’t look down on me just because I’m a girl.”

“It’s not that,” Vincent added quickly, “But…”

“Then there,” Lei cut him off, “It’s settled. I’m going in.”

*****

“Sonar activated,” Neptune said to Lei as soon as they dove into the water, “The bad guys are in Aqua Capsules. You do know their specs, right?”

“Yeah,” Lei replied. The Neptune was leaner than any of the other Reploid-armors, but it was an interesting design. There was a pack attached to her back that acted as powerful aqua jets. Not only that, it was large enough to cover her back, allowing it to become a shield or camouflage from eyes looking down. It also sported a chain gun that was the same one used by Odin, and a variety of SAM and torpedoes.

“Warning,” Neptune alerted, “We’ve been detected, and they’re changing course to get to us. I think we should get ready.”

“Right,” Lei nodded. She had seen the specifications of the Neptune before her launch. The specifications of the Aqua Capsules was comparable to the Neptune, but the Neptune was still much more superior.

Swerving around, she immediately dodged the first salvo of torpedoes launched at her. The Aqua Capsules looked like nothing but capsules, miniature combat submarines. Lei simply brushed past them at high speeds. Before they could turn, she fired a rapid salvo of miniature torpedoes from an eight-barreled torpedo launcher on her wrists. The torpedoes tracked their targets as the Aqua Capsules attempted to dodge. However, the torpedoes found their targets as the water shifted around them, and the torpedoes exploded. Two of the Aqua Capsules were heavily damaged as they slowed and smoked. One of them had been completely destroyed, and only the pilot with his X33 Prototype remained.

The remaining four began to retreat, but fired a large salvo of torpedoes at the Storm of Fire. Lei wouldn’t be able to move in time to use her back to shield the ship from the torpedoes.

“If that salvo hits the ship,” Neptune warned quickly in a worried tone, “the Storm of Fire will be torn in half. I hope you have a card up your sleeve, Lei…”

“I do,” Lei replied calmly, “It’s right up my sleeve.”

Instead, she activated her chain gun mounted onto her right arm and fired. Armor piercing rounds shot through the water as they made contact with the torpedoes, and concussions resounded through the water as Lei felt the impact slam into her, but through the shielding of Neptune, that didn’t feel like anything at all.

“The salvo was intercepted,” Neptune said, coupled with what sounded like a sigh of relief, “The Aqua Jets are retreating. I don’t recommend that you pursue; you might get too close to their main ship.”

“Alright,” Lei replied, her turn to sigh in relief, “Thank you, Neptune.”

“No problem,” Neptune said, then added playfully, “You owe me a drink.”

*****

“Commander Lei Loyola of the United Nations Intelligence Division,” Miguel nodded as he looked at Lei’s complete file, with Lei standing directly in front of Miguel’s office desk. Both Helios and Epsilon stood at either side of the room, watching both of them. Miguel’s cabin consisted of a bed and an office desk. Many bookshelves were installed there with books from military regulations to works of literature and books on psychology that Miguel enjoyed reading.

“Yes, Captain,” Lei said quietly.

“No wonder you didn’t reveal much to us first,” Miguel smiled slightly, “Although I never would’ve expected you to be part of the Intelligence Division.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Lei replied, “I have specific orders from the Intelligence Division not to reveal any aspects of my mission.”

Miguel’s smiled broadened as he became amused. “Is it just that, Commander?”

Lei opened her mouth as to contradict him, then closed it, and replied simply, “Yes, sir.”

“So what were you doing on Third Haven?” Epsilon asked, “It isn’t common for a secret agent to come to Third Haven all the way from Second Haven.”

Lei hesitated, then answered, “We had heard rumors about a black project here on Third Haven, conducted by the United Nations Military Division. Although we didn’t know the details other than about the ship and the three Reploid-armors, I was sent in to investigate. It was pure coincidence that the Neo Arcadian attack came at the same time.”

“And so you were rendered unconscious during the attack,” Helios nodded as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place, “As Second Lieutenants Lance Sigel and Vincent Swan found you on their way to evacuate, they managed to stumble upon the three Reploid-armors. Vincent put you in Neptune, to protect you.”

Lei looked surprised. “He did?” she asked, then whispered, “I never knew that…”

“You were unconscious the whole time,” Epsilon laughed, “It isn’t your fault. But Vincent was pretty brave, to protect you the whole time.”

Lei blushed.

“Well,” Miguel nodded, “I know I’m asking too much of you, but I would appreciate it if you would be the new designated pilot of Neptune…at least, until we reach Second Haven, that is.”

“Yes, sir,” Lei saluted, “I’d be glad to do it.”

“Well, then,” Miguel stood up, concluding the meeting, “I guess that wraps things up. Let’s go and grab some coffee.”

*****

“Why didn’t Lei know about the Reploid-armors?” Lance asked as a portion of the crew, Vincent, Epsilon, Phalanx, and Juno, sat in the cafeteria later, “I mean, they’re all United Nations, right? And Lei’s rank is pretty high up.”

“It’s because the Military Division and the Intelligence Division has been peeling apart lately,” Phalanx replied casually as he munched on a cold beef sandwich, “There is a pretty big lack of trust between them two.”

“But shouldn’t they be together a lot more?” Vincent shrugged, “I mean, they all fight one common enemy.”

“It falls with jurisdiction,” Juno sighed, “Both sides are constantly vying for more political rights. And their approaches to matters are different too. The military guys want a strong and rapid response, and the intelligence guys want a quiet but precise investigation. None of them are willing to budge an inch.”

“So not much of passing the peas around the table,” Epsilon laughed, and turned to Phalanx, “Pass me that ketchup over there, would you?”

“Yes, sir,” Phalanx relied and tossed Epsilon the bottle of ketchup.

“Thanks,” Epsilon smiled, “And you don’t have to call me sir around here. It’s okay if something’s up, but I think Epsilon suits fine in this situation.”

“Hey, guys,” Aden suddenly appeared behind all of them with Mia holding his arm, “It’s our break, I guess. Mind if we sit in?”

“No problem,” Juno smiled, and scooted over a bit to let the two sit together.

“Hey,” Vincent smiled at the both of them.

“Hey, man,” Aden smiled, “Nice job you did out there. I didn’t think we’d make it. You had no idea how badly it was shaking at the bottom of the ship.”

Vincent chuckled. “Really, it wasn’t us who helped; Lei did most of it. We can’t do a whole lot to underwater targets, unfortunately.”

“But we’ve heard from the Sergeant Mendez down there,” Mia winked, “You guys were amazing! I was surprised that you guys would do so well.”

Lance turned red. “Well,” he laughed, “It was really Vincent and Major Epsilon doing all the work. I’m too stupid to do anything.”

“Now, come on,” Phalanx laughed, pointing his chunk of a beef sandwich at Lance, “You shouldn’t look so down on yourself.”

“It’s a good thing you’re humble, though,” Juno added, winking, “Makes you a better human. Although that doesn’t mean you’re a better soldier.”

Lance looked at her, and suddenly realized that there was a large line between being a human and being a soldier…their philosophies were so different, but so correct at the same time…it was another problem that Lance couldn’t get out of his mind, another problem that…

“We’ll reach the Panama tomorrow,” Phalanx added eagerly, “You think the Captain’s going to allow…”

“No way,” Juno shook her head, “The Captain wouldn’t do that. He did talk about it, but he’s probably just going to sail through.”

“You think so?” Phalanx laughed, “I think we might have to…”

“I don’t think it’s time to talk about it now,” Epsilon said, “You have any idea what time it is? It’s time for some of us to get some shuteye. I know our shift is over, Lance, Vincent. You guys are up on stage now, Phalanx and Juno.”

“Got it,” Phalanx nodded as he tossed the remained of his sandwich into his mouth, gave Epsilon a high five, before leaving the cafeteria with Juno.

“Well,” Epsilon smiled at Lance and Vincent, “You two did some amazing stuff today. You guys should get some rest. Plenty of it. We may have to rely on the both of you to get to Third Haven safely.”

*****

“Shit!” Brandon screamed as he kicked a random locker, which bent inwards on impact, “Goddamn it! We had that thing! We had that goddamn thing until that bitch showed up!”

The 7th Special Operations Team was dressing back into the officer’s uniforms. Subaru and Lloyd had already finished changing, while Brandon was still in his flight uniform. Carol was still halfway through her uniform, and Sakura had finished taking a shower, holding a towel around her. In the military, there wasn’t much segregation between genders, and they had all seen the opposite sex undress before.

Subaru watched silently from a corner as Brandon vented his anger by constant screaming and swearing. He didn’t blame Brandon; they had failed three times in a row to destroy that ship, and their morale was beginning to sag. Although Lloyd had virtually no personality to begin with, Brandon was furious, and Carol was extremely upset. Even Sakura, who was normally optimistic, was silent the entire time.

“What now?” Carol asked, aggravated, “We’ve tried both an aerial approach and an underwater approach. And now that new underwater Reploid-armor has to show up. They beat us everything. Land, air, and sea.”

“Damn it!” Brandon roared again, and kicked another hole in the locker.

“Are you going to pay for that, Brandon?” Subaru said to Brandon.

“What did you say?” Brandon growled as he moved toward Subaru at a dangerous speed, “What did you say to me?”

“I asked if you were going to pay for that locker,” Subaru made his voice as even as possible, “You’ve been kicking and denting quite a lot of lockers.”

Brandon glared at him, but didn’t do much more than that. Brandon wasn’t a coward, but he judged it was unreasonable, both an unreasonable situation and an unreasonable time, to hit Subaru.

“What can you do by being angry like that?” Subaru asked.

“It makes me feel better, how’s that?” Brandon scowled.

The doors opened to the locker room, and Svivern stepped in, in full captain uniform. The team saluted, even Sakura, and the towel dropped, showing her bare body. Subaru kept his salute rigid, although he wondered if his face was turning red.

“At ease,” Svivern replied, and to Sakura, “You might want to cover that up, Major Sonata. Next time I intrude while you’re like that, you will be exempted from saluting. All of you.”

“Yes, sir,” Sakura replied, and picked up her towel as she wrapped it around her again. Sakura caught Subaru staring at her, and both looked away, blushing. Subaru thought he saw Brandon and Carol snicker, but after a second glance, he saw he was wrong. Besides, the two probably weren’t in the mood to snicker.

“Are we catching up with the ship?” Brandon asked immediately, “And what is our next method of approach?”

“Calm down, Major Carter,” Svivern replied, his voice sounding too reasonable and unreal, “All in good time. First, I’d like to debrief you on the situation.”

Brandon groaned.

“The mission resulted in one destroyed Aqua Capsule, two heavily damaged Capsules, and two lightly damaged ones. So far, the X33 Prototypes are okay. No heavy damage seemed to be indicated. However, this now rules out underwater combat. As long as they have Neptune, we won’t be able to launch an underwater sortie.”

“Great,” Brandon muttered.

“Our ship has stopped so far, but we have alerted reinforcements to gather at the Panama. Also, we’re modifying the ship’s engines so that we can gain some more speed. If I’m correct, we can catch up with the enemy ship tomorrow morning.”

“Trap them,” Lloyd nodded, understanding, “Enemies in front and behind. Being stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

“Basically correct,” Svivern smiled, “For now, it would be recommended that you all get some rest. There’s nothing you can do now.”

Under any other situation, Subaru would’ve recognized that last remark as insubordination, but he knew Svivern meant otherwise. There really was nothing Subaru and his team could do with their current equipment.

“By the way,” Svivern added, “I’ve asked you to give me specifications on your X33 Prototypes before the attack on Third Haven. Those specifications have been considered, and your X33 combat armors are currently under the state of modification.”

Everyone was surprised at that.

“Good,” Brandon smiled, a sadistic smile, “So next time the bastards won’t get so cocky when I go out there…”

Subaru looked at Brandon disapprovingly, and saw Sakura shake her head. Even if the X33 armors meet their specifications, it doesn’t mean they were better. It just meant that they had a new way to combat…one that they hoped would bring down the enemy.
bond4154
Chapter Eight

Vincent sat on the rear deck of the Storm of Fire against the railing, as the wind fluttered against him, the loose military uniform fluttering with the current of air. Staring across the endless sea, he didn’t see anything that was coming their way…at least, not yet. Dawn had only reached its birth, and it was still dark, but light enough for Vincent to see the surroundings.

Eli. The girl that he had spent most of his childhood with. Eli. The girl that died in his arms in Seventh haven. Eli. The girl that was now reflected through the girl on this ship, the girl he tried to save because she seemed so much like Eli…

“Vincent?” a voice came from behind him.

“Eli?” Vincent whirled around, snapped out of his reverie. He caught himself, and realized he meant Lei. But it wasn’t her either. It was Epsilon.

“Sir!” he saluted rigidly.

Epsilon laughed. “Seriously, everyone is so uptight around me…” she stepped in front of Vincent, said mockingly, “Do I look scary to you?”

Vincent laughed and dropped his salute. “Not at all, Major…I mean, Epsilon.”

“Don’t worry,” Epsilon smiled, “Take it one step at a time. Some things are hard to shake off, I’ll admit that.”

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded.

“You come out in the morning often?” Epsilon asked.

“I’m an insomniac,” Vincent replied, “I don’t spend much time sleeping, so I sleep late and get up early. It doesn’t help trying to sleep again. I just can’t.”

“Something that bothers you?” Epsilon asked.

Vincent nodded. “Like you said, some things are hard to shake off.”

Epsilon laughed again and patted him on the back, “Right on, Vincent, right on.”

Vincent chuckled as he looked at the sun that had just began to rise. “What about you…Epsilon?” Vincent caught himself before saying Major.

“I sleep early and wake up early,” Epsilon replied, “It’s good for the body, whether it be Reploid or human. We all need some sleep, but it’s better to wake up early.”

“Really,” Vincent smiled, and looked at the sea, beginning to sparkle with the sun’s elegant rays.

“Well, I just came out here to catch a breeze,” Epsilon said as she turned, “So I’ll have to get to the bridge now, alright? The captain wants you there as well in a few minutes.”

“Right,” Vincent said back, and heard the doors open as Epsilon stood in front of it. He didn’t, however, hear it close.

“What did you call me when I came?” Epsilon asked.

Vincent froze. So she’d heard. But there was no point in lying. Epsilon didn’t look like she would inquire much further.

“Eli,” Vincent replied without looking back.

Epsilon nodded, and walked into the ship. Vincent heard the door close behind him before whispering softly, “Eli Swan.”

*****

This doesn’t look like my ceiling, Lance thought as he woke up for the first time on the Storm of Fire. He looked around, puzzled.

“Where…am I?” Lance whispered, sitting up. Then he remembered.

Lance sighed as he stood up. He hadn’t undressed out of his uniform when he lay down on the bed of the Storm of Fire, just slumped onto the mattress. He shrugged as he walked out of his room and into the well-lit hallway. He headed for the restroom to perform his morning chores.

Walking in, he looked around for a place where they would place toothbrushes and toothpaste. Then, he scorned himself silently for not looking inside his room in the first place, a likely place where it would be stashed. Fortunately, Lance found a locked with a newly labeled plaque on the wall reading “2nd Lieutenant Sigel” between one that read “2nd Lieutenant Swan” and “Commander Loyola”. Opening his locker, he found another pair of the uniform that he wore, and a toothbrush, a cup, and a towel. Taking them all out, he closed the locker behind him.

He moved to the sink, and looked for the controls for it. However, he was puzzled by the layout. There seemed to be only an on and off control. How was he supposed to adjust hot and cold water?

The shower door at his side opened, and a figure stepped out. Lance quickly turned red and around. Lei was behind him, not necessarily nude, but with a towel around her. Either way, Lance had no idea how to react.

“Um…” Lei said, “I think I’ll go over to that side so you don’t see me. How’s that?”

“Fine with me, ma’am,” Lance stuttered, and, five seconds later, wondered why he called Lei “ma’am”.

“I’m sorry about…” Lance started.

“It’s okay,” Lei replied calmly, and she sounded amused, “You didn’t know I was there, and I was supposed to tell you before I came out. Really, though, I expected Vincent.”

“You did?” Lance sounded surprised.

“Well, not really,” Lei laughed, “I heard someone outside, and I thought it was Vincent. Oh well, it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“No,” Lance replied, and turned around, noting with satisfaction that Lei was no longer in Lance’s line of sight, “Um…how do I use this?”

“You mean the faucet?” Lei asked.

“Yeah,” Lance replied.

“Just hit the on and off button.

“But…how do you control the temperature of the water?”

There was a pause before Lei burst laughing. It was a quiet type of laugh, the kind that Lance knew belonged to girls who were shy and reserved, but the laugh was genuine, nevertheless.

“Did I say something wrong?” Lance asked.

“Hmm?” Lei giggled, “Oh, no, no. It’s not that. It’s just the military doesn’t put a temperature control on their faucets. The water that runs out in the bathroom are always cold.”

“Cold?” Lance echoed. He wasn’t sure he liked that.

“Well, it’s not freezing, but it’s around room temperature. It’s definitely not warm, but it isn’t freezing either.”

“I see,” Lance replied slowly, and looked at his towel, wondering if he should wash his face. He hated cold.

Lei stepped out from behind the lockers. She wasn’t quite wearing her uniform, but rather, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. She looked a lot better than having nothing but a towel, though, so Lance felt a bit more comfortable…even relieved.

Lei seemed to have figured what Lance was thinking, and smiled, “What? Do I look that good?”

Lance laughed at that, and blushed. He had no doubt that Lei was the shy type, but she definitely knew how to strike up a conversation, unlike other of the socially-challenged shy girls he knew back at university. Yet it was so awkward around girls like this…Lance assumed it was something in the military that he simply needed to get used to.

Suddenly, Epsilon appeared at the doorway of the locker room and peered in. “There you guys are,” Epsilon said, and pointed at the both of them, “The captain wants you guys on the bridge as soon as possible. I’m going to find Aden and Mia as well. Dress up and get yourself cleaned, because you might want to see this.”

Lance sensed hesitation when Epsilon said “might want to see this”, but he saluted, nevertheless. “Yes, Major,” he replied.

Epsilon smiled, and left muttering, “Why do they always have to salute in front of me?”

“She’s a humane one,” Lance smiled as the door to the locker room closed.

“Yeah,” Lei nodded in agreement, “She takes us seriously, and is so kind of us at the same time.”

“Well,” Lance shrugged, “Might as well get washed up.” Turning on the cold water, he splashed the water in his face, then stumbled backwards. It may not have been freezing for Lei, but it certainly was freezing to him.

*****

“I want to see if we can avoid detection if we move through Fifth Haven,” Miguel said to Phalanx, who sat in front of the navigations controls of the Storm of Fire, “Try to get through the debris, but don’t take any unnecessary risks as soon as we get into the perimeter. Understood?”

“Aye, sir,” Phalanx nodded, and looked nervously out the view screen. The other bridge officers were doing the same, giving each other uneasy glances.

The rear doors to the bridge opened as Lance, Vincent, Lei, Aden, Mia, and Epsilon stepped into the bridge. “Sir,” Lance saluted, “Reporting to the bridge as…” he stopped, and the tension around the room increased, with all of them staring at the view screen in indescribable awe and fear. Epsilon merely looked down to the floor, concealing her true feelings of sadness.

“Sir…sir,” Lance whispered as he stepped involuntarily toward the view screen, “What…what is that?”

Miguel nodded slowly and sadly, understanding their fright, and replied, “When the United Nations was first chased off the mainland by Neo Arcadia, they developed seven Havens. The first time Neo Arcadia did battle with the United Nations off the continents was here at Fifth Haven.” Miguel looked uncomfortably back at the view screen.

The Storm of Fire was now only a kilometer from the shores of Fifth Haven, and they saw everything clearly. Fifth Haven was completely destroyed. The land around it had been pounded by explosives and artillery, and wrecks were scattered all over the place. Many of the buildings had toppled to the ground, and the ones remaining intact had massive damage to their structuring, holes, dents, everything.

Destruction lay all around the island. There were wrecks of vehicles, from military vehicles to civilian cars. All laid in black, unrecognizable heaps of junk, them being burnt black and scraped. Like the buildings, they were all blown apart, shot to pieces, even a few sliced in halves.

Not only that, but there were massive wrecks of cruisers from both United Nations and Neo Arcadia. The unmistakable shapes of cruisers lay on the shallow waters as black bulks of smoking wreckage with fires that had never distinguished. They sat on both land and water in their twisted, wrecked state.

But what was most frightening was the bodies and blood. All lay dead, severed in some way that they could only imagine. Shot, sliced, burnt, who knew? And who wanted to know?

Mia screamed as she shut her eyes and buried her face into Aden’s chest, who squeezed her, but wasn’t quite able to take his own eyes off the view screen. Lance, Vincent, and Lei all stared at the view screen, seeing the destruction that they had only heard of with their own ears. It wasn’t good enough to hear it; they had to see it for themselves. They learned the lesson right at the moment.

“The United Nations won the battle,” Miguel whispered, “But they lost nearly everything. The remaining men had to retreat before they were overwhelmed by swarms of Neo Arcadian reinforcements. This showed that we had a chance to beat them…but not without cost. And this battle was where Lieutenant Epsilon made a name for herself.”

“It wasn’t that,” Epsilon shook her head in shame, and Lance noticed that she was crying. She hadn’t made a sound, but she cried, Lance was sure of that, the tears streaking down her cheeks.

“You…you had fought here?” Lance whispered.

Epsilon slapped the tears away from her cheek, and nodded. “I had fought here. Lost them all.”

“She was a heroine here at Fifth Haven,” Miguel said, “A true flying ace. She was promoted immediately to First Lieutenant, and was heavily decorated. That was why she had the important mission of guarding the Reploid-armors earlier…because she was the best.”

“I wasn’t the best,” Epsilon whispered angrily, “I was a coward. My comrades…they were all shot down in battle, and I ran…they only called me a hero because I was the last pilot in the air, and their air force had been destroyed.”

“That isn’t true,” Helios protested, trying to comfort her in some way or the other, “Your records showed that you had picked off many enemies. Your flight took down much of the enemy, and boosted the morale of the United Nations. If anyone deserved to be called a hero at Fifth Haven, it should be you…”

“That’s not true,” Epsilon shook her head, “Not true.”

“Lieutenant…” Helios whispered, but Epsilon waved a hand at him, telling him to leave her be.

Lance watched her from a distance, feeling her pain, pitying her, and not knowing if she was the heroine as Helios had described her as or the coward Epsilon had called herself. And yet, he wondered, wasn’t that what she had done for him only yesterday? Felt his pain? Pitied him? Life turned a very unusual circle.

Lei noticed that Miguel and the other bridge officers have all stood and were saluting the view screen, saluting to all the heroes, alive and dead, that had served in the Battle of Fifth Haven, a battle that would be recorded eternally in history…

Lei nudged both Lance and Vincent, and the three of them saluted together, snapping their hand to their forehead. Aden did the same, although Mia herself was crying…crying out of fear and sadness…

“To the heroes of Fifth Haven,” Miguel whispered solemnly so that the entire deck could hear, although Lance saw that the COM system was open to the entire ship so the entire crew could hear, “The ninety-nine hundred thousand people that had sacrificed their lives in this battle alone. We will honor these men and women, these soldiers, forever and ever. Amen.”

Lance was slightly surprised. He had not known Miguel was Christian…he wasn’t even sure if what he meant was really Christian, but it struck up an interesting note in his mind, one that Lance hoped he wouldn’t forget soon. The entire bridge crew was saluting now, including Mia and Epsilon, who finally brought themselves to look at the horrible images flooding into the view screen.

Suddenly, a beeping sound was heard from Phalanx’s computer. “Sir,” Phalanx informed as he quickly checked over the data, “We’re approaching the Panama. ETA, five minutes.”

“Understood,” Miguel replied, and finished the salute. Everyone finished along with him, although they continued to stand there, watching the images on the view screen, as Phalanx quickly plotted the course to the Panama.

Suddenly, an alarm blared on Archangel’s computer. Everyone glanced toward the source of the sound as Archangel struggled over the data displayed on the computer. “Sir!” Archangel shouted, “The enemy stealth cruiser is on rapid approach! I had no idea why we didn’t detect them earlier, but they’re headed at an inbound vector at extreme speeds! ETA until they are in their firing range, three minutes.”

“Damn it,” Miguel whispered, “At a time like this?”

“All hands,” Helios shouted into the COM system, “This is Co-Captain Helios speaking. Enemy stealth cruiser detected at an inbound vector. Anticipate battle in around three minutes. All hands to primary combat stations immediately.”

“It’s time for us to go,” Epsilon said to Lance, Vincent, and Lei, and Lance noticed that the tears were gone from her eyes, although watery trails still sparkled on her cheeks. Lance nodded silently as he followed her out, toward the hangar.

He had learned what it was like…what it was like to win, and what it is like to lose. And sometimes, the two weren’t so different.

*****

“What’s this?” Brandon scoffed, “Does Svivern want to engage the ship head-on?”

The team sat in the ship officer’s cafeteria, watching a screen on the wall that showed camera views of the outside of the ship. This section of the ship was limited to high-ranking officers, such as the Captain and themselves. The team wasn’t hungry, but they were interested in how Svivern intended to destroy a ship they themselves were unable to.

“What do you think?” Subaru asked Sakura, seated closely next to him.

“I don’t know, really,” Sakura admitted, “The Redemption isn’t as well-armed as the Storm of Fire, but it is a stealth cruiser. It’ll be hard to lock-on with weapon system. If the enemy doesn’t turn around to fire at us, they’re restricted to only firing at us with three cannons and several ‘October’ missiles.”

“What are the odds?” Carol asked.

“Based on the information we have now,” Lloyd added.

Sakura pondered about it for a moment, then said, “Sixty percent that we’re going to win. But I think the enemy has more than one trump card in their hands. I think I’ve missed something.”

“Let’s hope you did,” Brandon chuckled, “Not that I don’t want the enemy destroyed, but I want to destroy them myself.”

Subaru ignored him, and continued to stare at the view screen. The ship was making great speed, and easily catching up with the Storm of Fire. They were only two minutes away from a point where the two ships would exchange fire, and four minutes away from reaching the Panama, where they would receive a heavy blow from land forces that were rushed into the Panama. Surely they’d win this time.

*****

Miguel watched as the Type-Zero, Phoenix, and Odin were all jettisoned into the air by the launch catapult before the Type-Zero swerved around the guard the ship’s rear while the Phoenix flew at a higher elevator to protect the fore. Odin took its regular position on the ship’s main deck. Neptune dove into the water as it swam away from the Storm of Fire, headed for the enemy cruiser.

“Alright,” Miguel said into an open COM channel, “I really want all of us just to do defense. There’s no real choice in trying to take out the enemy at this point. Commander Loyola, you try to slow the enemy cruiser down a bit, but be sure to return in three minutes. Really, you just need to launch a few torpedoes before coming back. I just don’t want the enemy to think we’re easy prey.”

“Three minutes,” Lei repeated, “You sure?”

“The torpedoes might not be that accurate if we simply travel for one minute toward the enemy cruiser, and then two minutes back,” Neptune added, “I don’t see the waste in torpedoes for this one.”

“It’s okay,” Miguel replied, “Just spare a few torpedoes, and come back. Clear?”

“Roger,” Lei replied.

“Sir!” Lance shouted, “I see ground forces at the Panama!”

“Damn!” Helios swore, “They’re here?”

Miguel winced as the Panama began to clear up on the view screen, the land mass completely in sight. The Panama Canal allowed the ship to travel through the thin pathway between North America and South America, but they would have to slow down considerably…slow down so much that they’ll be easy targets to ground forces. They couldn’t just waltz through.

“Major Epsilon,” Miguel asked, “What do you think?”

“Yeah, I see the enemy,” Epsilon replied, “They’re going to be hard to take down. I don’t think Lance or I will take much damage, but actually doing considerable damage to them might be hard. And Vincent will have a harder time trying to defend.”

“Odin,” Vincent said, “Can it be possible that you set the missiles to detonate at a specific height so the explosions can intercept enemy missiles fired at the ship?”

“Possible,” Odin replied sharply, “Would you like me to do it now?”

“Yes, please.”

“Understood,” Odin said, paused, then added, “You don’t have to say please next time. And alterations done.”

“Good,” Vincent replied, “And don’t worry about the please. I just like using the word. Captain, we’re ready any time you are.”

“Right,” Miguel nodded, and then to Archangel, “Major Archangel, is our special package ready?”

“Sergeant Mendez said it’s been installed and fixed,” Archangel replied, “It may be shaky, but that’s the best he can do.”

“Should I manage the point navigation with the package, sir?” Phalanx asked hesitantly.

“Yes,” Miguel nodded, “I trust you can do this.”

“Are you sure you’re going to do this, Captain?” Helios asked below Miguel.

Miguel nodded and activated an open COM channel to the entire ship. “All hands, this is your Captain speaking. At the moment, we’re about to pass through the Panama Canal. However, we have ground forces in front of us and a cruiser behind us. There’s no need to panic however; your captain has one more trick up his sleeve.”

Miguel paused, and looked at Archangel, who nodded. “Package ready and awaiting activation,” Phalanx mouthed.

Miguel nodded and, to the COM system, said, “All hands prepare for aerial maneuver.”
bond4154
Chapter Nine

Chain gun rounds scattered and whizzed around Lance in the air, but Lance wasn’t worrying. Phoenix was monitoring and continuously updating the movements of the chain gun emplacements, tracking their field of fire, and displaying them on Lance’s HUD as red cones. Lance weaved through the web of fire without much effort.

What he was worried about, though, was that the ground troops seemed to have packed a bit of firepower on the thin land mass known as the Panama. He saw artillery, tanks, and special ops infantry standing by at the Panama Canal. Not good for the Storm of Fire.

“We look outgunned here, Phoenix,” Lance whispered, “Tell me what you think.”

“The weapons on the ground are mostly anti-ground and anti-naval batteries,” Phoenix replied coolly, “While they probably won’t hit the Storm of Fire while the ship is traveling at the current speed, it will have to slow down as it enters the Panama. The batteries will be able to hit the Storm of Fire, and infantry can also attempt to land on the main deck and move into the ship. However, I believe Lieutenant Swan and Odin should be able to hold them off. It isn’t us I’m worried about, though; they don’t have much for anti-air. It’s the ship.”

“Yeah, my thoughts exactly,” Lance nodded, and dove as even more rounds were concentrated at him, “Can we take them out?”

“Unlikely,” Phoenix replied, “They are scattered well enough to avoid serious damage should we use our explosives. Unless the Captain wishes to use the 7AFPC2 heavy plasma cannons to destroy the Panama, I don’t think he can navigate through this.”

“What will happen if he destroys the Canal?”

“No serious damage will be done, really. There are no civilian settlements detected around. However, it may sink the ship when the water floods over. We are on the lower side of the Panama at the moment, in the Pacific Ocean.”

“Damn,” Lance cursed, and fired a volley of missiles at an annoying pair of chain gun emplacements. The missiles streaked their way toward the targets and exploded as they made impact, tearing down a chunk of a cliff as well.

“We have to hurry,” Phoenix urged, “We only have one minute before the ship enters the Panama Canal.”

“I wish I could,” Lance whispered, wishing that time was on their side.

*****

Miguel looked at Archangel with an expecting nod. Archangel looked at his computer quickly, scanning the data rapidly.

“All systems checked,” Archangel nodded, “All systems green. Activating package.” The ship rumbled as gears moved, and the ship began to change…it was not visible to them yet, or anyone on the outside, but if there were any submarines that had been looking up at the ship, they would’ve seen.

“Navigation software updated at my console,” Phalanx said, “I’m ready to get us through this thing.”

“Sir,” Cruz said, “Commander Loyola has landed on the ship. She reports the enemy cruiser is approaching at full speed.”

There were two dull thumps around the ship as the ship rocked slightly, where Miguel instinctively held onto his seat.

“What was that, Major Archangel?” Miguel demanded.

Juno replied instead, “Sir, the enemy cruiser has entered a firing zone. We can now fire at the enemy, and they at us. All weapons green. I’m ready to input firing solutions on your order, sir.”

Miguel nodded. “Alright. Keep the chain guns hot, but don’t fire them. We’ll be doing nothing but wasting ammo at this range. When I tell Major Archangel to activate the package, I want you to fire all the October missiles in our first salvo package, both on the left and right, at the enemy cruiser behind us. With our M2 cannons, aim at the enemies in front, but don’t damage the Panama. Divert energy from the heavy plasma cannons and SAM launchers to the other systems; we’re not going to use that now.”

“Aye, sir,” Juno nodded, rapidly clicked across the keyboard, then nodded, “Firing solution ready, sir. On your order.”

“Aft camera,” Miguel ordered, and shortly after, the view screen showed the rear view of the ship, with the enemy stealth cruiser catching up. It was black and sleek, like an oversized stealth bomber in the water. It didn’t have as much weapons as the Storm of Fire, but it was definitely hard to hit.

What Miguel was waiting for, however, was them to fire first.

He waited three heartbeats before he saw two flashes as the enemy cruiser fired another salvo of heavy rounds at the Storm of Fire.

“Major Archangel, now!” Miguel hollered. Major Archangel tapped only one button on the computer, and suddenly, the ship roared as the engines flared, and the ship lurched. The only thing uncanny was that the engines were at the bottom of the ship, and the ship lurched upwards.

*****

Gliding dangerously close to the ground, Lance dashed through the enemy lines as they fired inaccurately at him, leaving all the damage in his wake. He ascended again before the enemy could track him, and fired his last salvo of missiles at the enemy before the missile launcher behind his shield ran out of ammo.

“We can get back to the ship for more ammunition,” Phoenix suggested, “However, we will need to be quick enough to…” Phoenix paused and did not continue.

“What?” Lance asked, surprised that Phoenix had stopped, “What is it?”

“Lieutenant!” Phoenix exclaimed, the first time that Lance had heard Phoenix sounding surprised, “Look! The Storm of Fire!”

Lance’s heart gave a lurch. Was the Storm of Fire destroyed already? Did he fail?

Lance turned around, and he gasped. The soldiers on the ground also froze, incapable of movement, watching the phenomenon occur in front of them.

The Storm of Fire was gaining speed as it began to cross the border between North and South America. The only problem was that it wasn’t going through the Panama; it was going over it.

The ship now had engines at the bottom, previously hidden by titanium-A battle plate. Now they had revealed themselves, and were roaring at full strength as the ship went upwards, and missiles flew from the back toward the enemy cruiser behind it, and firing its cannons at the troops in front. The ship dodged two shots fired from the enemy cruiser, and was making good altitude at extreme speeds.

“This…this is…” Lance whispered, unable to really make out a coherent sentence. Phoenix understood him, although he too was surprised.

“This aerial propulsion system doesn’t show up on any of my data entries,” Phoenix mused, “Interesting. They kept it even a secret from me. Saving information now. I’ll have to look this up myself later with Sergeant Mendez.”

*****

“What the hell!?” Brandon stood up and gaped at the view screen as the Storm of Fire ascended into the air, “It…it can’t be!”

Subaru was standing as well, remaining silent, but in awe that the Storm of Fire, such a colossal cruiser, was now in the air and going over the Panama Canal. He had seen the list of reinforcement units that the Neo Arcadian base up in Mexico had sent down, but he knew now that the Storm of Fire was making good speed and in the air, there was nothing they could do to it.

“Brace for impact,” Lloyd warned calmly, but urgently, as he grabbed onto the table and braced himself. Subaru had no idea what he was talking about…until he saw the plume of smoke behind the Storm of Fire. At first, he thought it was the two 2.25 shells of the Redemption that hit the Storm of Fire…until sixteen “October” missiles arched lazily in sixteen trails of smoke at them.

“Everyone get down!” Subaru shouted as he grabbed Sakura and anchored both of them to the carpeted floor. Brandon did likewise with Carol. A heartbeat later, the ship shook violently as the sixteen “October” missiles made contact. Sixteen large concussions rocked the ship like a cradle as the ship became suddenly hot.

“Are you all alright?” Subaru asked. Lloyd looked like nothing had happened before. Sakura and Carol both looked shaken, and Brandon gave Subaru a stare that was sick and furious. His anger wasn’t directed at Subaru, though, but rather, at the enemy.

Subaru went over to the wall as he hit an open COM system that monitored the chatter on the bridge.

“Fires through decks two through fourteen!” a panicked voice rasped through the COM system, “Reactor overheated…meltdown in three…pumping coolant…reactor damaged, but stabilizing.”

“We’ve lost control for our weapons system!” another cried, “Red across the map! It’s not responding!”

“Reactor is no longer diverting power to navigation,” a calmer voice, but a stern one, said, “We’re dead in the water, sir.”

“Sir,” a shaken voice said, “We’re receiving a transmission from Neo Arcadian Fleet Seven. They’re coming with reinforcements…and we’re received a return order from the Council of Salvation. They’ve asked you and the 7th Special Operations Unit to appear before a hearing in Capital Eurasia. They’ve sent a transport chopper to our position to pick you and the unit up.”

Subaru switched off the COM system and shook his head in disgust. There was no way they could pursue the Storm of Fire now. Even the reinforcements would not catch up; they’d spend much of their time going through the canal, and by the time they got to the Atlantic Ocean, the Storm of Fire would be far away, by air or by sea.

“Sir!” Brandon was suddenly screaming into a COM system to the bridge, “I’m requesting that the 7th Special Operation Unit go on Leon Platforms and intercept the enemy!”

Sakura whirled Brandon around, a bit harder than he had wanted to, but it surprised Brandon enough for him not to hit her back. “We can’t stand up against that thing with Leon Platforms,” she snapped, “We’ve tried that approach before, and were nearly whittled to little pieces.”

“She’s right,” Carol said and placed her hands on both of Brandon’s shoulder, “Don’t worry. We’ll get them another day.”

Brandon shrugged off her hands violently with a swing and stomped out of the cafeteria. “Another day my ass,” he muttered as he walked out. Carol looked at the door as Brandon disappeared, looked at Sakura with a murderous glance, then followed Brandon out of the room, leaving Subaru, Sakura, and Lloyd.

“Well this should be fun,” Lloyd shrugged, and his eyes probably would’ve shown amusement should he have opened them, “In front of a hearing committee. Imagine how the Captain must be feeling now.”

“He’ll feel the same way we are,” Subaru replied, and sighed, sitting down in a seat, “I was hoping we could finish it before things got too crazy, but it looks like that is one wild horse the UN has got there.”

Lloyd made a little smile, effortless and somewhat genuine, but definitely unnatural on his face. Sakura sat down next to Subaru and set her head against his shoulder.

“I think I’ll be an annoyance here,” Lloyd quirked his eyebrows, seeing that they needed time together, and began to leave, “I’ll see you on the chopper later, sir.” With that, Lloyd threw a salute, which surprised Subaru, before walking out of the cafeteria.

“What do you think?” Sakura whispered as Lloyd left the room and the door closed behind him.

Subaru looked at Sakura, looking into her hazel eyes that were partly hidden by her long black hair. Subaru managed a small smile.

“I think this is going to be hell,” Subaru replied quietly, and embraced her warmly as chopper blades were heard above the ship, killing their silence and signifying their return to Capital Eurasia, the center of Neo Arcadia.

*****

“Well, well,” Vincent smiled to Lance as they stood, leaning on the railing on the main deck of the Storm of Fire and out of their Reploid-armors, “Isn’t this a surprise. This big chunk of junk flies.”

Lance returned the smile as the wind blew their hair backwards, sending them in wavy patterns behind his head. The endless sea lay before them, a path that remained unpredictable of what it hid.

“What do you think?” Lance asked, “What other secrets do you think this ship has?”

“Well,” Vincent laugh, “It was a secret ship after all, so I figure that I don’t want to know about it. The more I know, the more likely it seems I’ll get discharged from the military.” It was then that Vincent wished he could’ve taken those words back, but they had already left his mouth.

“Is that so?” Lance suddenly became quiet as he looked at nothing, and Vincent saw Lance’s hands clench into fists. Vincent edged slightly away from Lance, knowing that he needed some room to vent his anger. It proved unnecessary, though.

“I’m going to go get some rest,” Lance said without looking back, leaving the main deck abruptly, “See you around later, Vincent.”

Vincent nodded silently, watching Lance becoming moody again and leaving the deck for the door that would bring him to the elevator leading to his quarters. Vincent sighed, and wondered when Lance will ever snap out of it. He hoped Lance would; he was their only real defense now, as they were currently in the air. More importantly, he hated it when a friend agonized and Vincent was there.

“Is he okay?”

Vincent turned around, quicker than he had expected, and caught himself as his hand grasped the railing. Behind him was Lei, out of her jumpsuit that they wore inside the Reploid-armors and now inside what consisted of the UN military female uniform, a clean white shirt with blue stripes and a black skirt. Vincent noticed with amusement that she was wearing high-heels.

Lei followed Vincent’s glanced and laughed, emitted a small giggle. “Co-Captain caught me trying to wear my normal clothes in the locker room,” Lei explained, “And he insisted I should be in military dress code, even if I’m in the Intelligence Division.”

“It looks very good on you,” Vincent nodded and grinned.

“I hope you were joking,” Lei smiled and stood next to Vincent as she set both arms on the railing, “So…I don’t think Lance is in the best of all moods, huh?”

“Yeah,” Vincent’s face turned into a grave one, “He’s emotional, but for a good reason. He doesn’t want to be any part of this, but we really don’t have much of a choice in this situation. And I don’t think Lance has the intention to kill someone.”

“Has he done so yet?”

Vincent shook his head. “I don’t think so. There were a few times where he came close. The closest time ever was taking out a few gun emplacements. Really, all he tried to do was to distract their attention. Used himself as a living shield.”

Lei nodded, understanding Lance’s moods. “Poor Lance.”

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded quietly and deliberately stayed silent, to avoid further pursuit of their topic. Lei changed it, but it wasn’t one that Vincent was looking forward to either.

“I’ve never really had the time to ask you,” Lei said, “But now you know why I was in Third Haven. With me being an agent and all.”

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded and grimaced. He already knew what was coming.

“Well, now you know my secret. May I know yours now?”

“Which one?” Vincent asked, playing dumb, trying to defuse the situation. Hopefully, Lei would become embarrassed by mentioning the time he tried to save her, and kill the topic right there. It didn’t happen.

“The time where you tried to save me,” Lei whispered, “You…you have a secret behind that one, don’t you?”

Vincent sighed, and turned around, placing his back on the railing now. Instead of talking, however, he drew a picture from his jacket pocket and handed it to Lei. Lei took it, and gasped.

“This…this is…” she whispered, “It isn’t me, is it? I don’t think we’ve met.”

“No, we haven’t,” Vincent replied quietly, “The girl in the picture isn’t you. Her name was Eli.”

“Oh,” Lei blushed, glanced at the picture one more time in awe that a girl could look so much like herself, and passed the picture back to Vincent.

“Your girlfriend or something?” Lei asked, “You thought I was your girlfriend and tried to save me?”

Lei looked at Vincent, thinking that he would nod. Instead, she saw him throw her a particularly angry glance, and something flashed in his eyes…but it was gone before Lei could get a second look. Vincent defused his anger efficiently though, as he turned away and looked toward the horizon.

“Eli…” he whispered, “She was my sister.”

“You sister?” Lei’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded, “So in that case, I thought you were Eli…thought you were my sister.”

Lei nodded in understanding, and then laughed, “So, you must think I look cute if you like your sister that much, huh?” She laughed at her own joke, and blushed at that. It wasn’t often she talked to a boy like that.

Instead, Vincent threw another angry glance, and it surprised Lei even more…she didn’t pay attention to the glow in his eyes this time, but rather, the furious and agonized expression on his face.

“The word is ‘liked’,” Vincent whispered, “Eli dead.”

“Oh…” Lei whispered, putting her hand to her mouth, realizing she had been saying all the wrong things, “I’m…I’m sorry…for your sister and for you. I…I really didn’t mean to say all the things…”

“It’s okay,” Vincent cut her off with a weak smile and a wave of the hand, “You didn’t know anyways.”

Lei looked away uncomfortably. “She must’ve been precious to you,” she whispered.

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded, “So that’s why I’m fighting. That’s why I can fight and not complain about it. Because while Lance has nothing against Neo Arcadia, I do.”

“You mean…” Lei looked up at Vincent, “Neo Arcadia killed your sister? Eli?”

Vincent nodded slowly. “What made it worse was that she was never a soldier. She was just a civilian. Got killed while going around university grounds.”

Lei scowled and pounded her fist on the railing. “Damn Neo Arcadian bastards,” she growled, “They say they’re saving humanity, and they do something like that! How are we supposed to trust them like that?”

Vincent looked away, with Lei venting her anger and Vincent venting his sadness. What an unusual combination, Vincent thought.

“So they just murdered her?” Lei asked, now a bit too angry to be tactful, “Killed her just like that?”

“No,” Vincent shook his head, paused as he took in a shaky breath, “Well, maybe you were right. But you can ask them why they attacked Seventh Haven.”

Lei gasped, even more shocked than she had been. “Seventh Haven!” she whispered in awe, “The R-Bomb!”

Vincent nodded, becoming angry himself, “They dropped the R-Bomb there. Just boom, and the whole island was gone. There was nothing I could do to protect her…”

Lei grimaced, and looked out to sea. Lei was surprised; the pain was fresh, the freshness of a pain that one had just started to settle, and yet he could contain himself so well. Vincent was so amazingly charming, calm, and gentle…but inside, it was all filled with grief…filled with sadness.

“It isn’t just that I’m fighting Neo Arcadia,” Vincent laughed, suddenly becoming bright again, which shocked Lei, “I really think Reploids should live in this world, share it with humans. Beside, X is a Reploid too. I don’t know why he decided to turn against his kind and found Neo Arcadia, but for all I’m concerned about…a Reploid could be as human as we want them to be…it really depends if they’re ready to accept that gift.”

Lei nodded in agreement, although she said nothing. Talking about a deceased sister then becoming so bright again, Lei thought, Vincent is an amazing person…an amazing human.

“I’m glad I got to know you, now that I start thinking of it,” Lei smiled, placing a frail hand on Vincent’s shoulder, “A person like you is not easy to come across.”

Vincent smiled and turned to face Lei, touching the hand on his shoulder. “It’s not everyday that I find someone who looks like my sister…and gives me the same impression as well.”
bond4154
Chapter Ten

Subaru looked out the window of his room in Capital Eurasia, his bags settled in the corner of the room, his blue and red officer’s uniform still on him. He hadn’t bothered to unpack or change when he reached home; he knew he would be abroad again after two days…maybe even three.

Subaru missed the view from his own window. His room was mostly composed of a bed, a desk, several bookshelves, as well as a chair. He had in possession many different kinds of books, and also some other toys from his childhood as well, such as a toy model car, a Ford Model T that sat on his desk. He smiled as the memories came to him. The park directly outside his twenty-fourth story window had been planted with even more flowers, giving the small block a warming look. He intended to go down there and have a walk…maybe with Sakura. It’s been a long time since he had been down there. Too long.

“Subaru,” the door to his room opened, and Subaru’s mother stepped in with a hot cup of tea. Subaru took it with both hands gently, and smiled up to her mother as she took a seat in the chair and Subaru sat on his bed. He could tell that his mother had diligently and regularly cleaned his room while he had been away.

“Thanks,” Subaru smiled as he sipped from the tea, “For both the tea and maintaining my room.”

“It was nothing,” his mother smiled and caressed him in the cheek, “Look at you. It’s only been two years and you’ve grown so much. You look so much like your father now.”

“Father’s at work, isn’t he?” Subaru asked.

“Yes,” Subaru’s mother replied as she looked out the window, “But he says he’ll manage to squeeze in some time for us to have dinner together tonight. At Mike’s place. What do you think?”

“Awesome,” Subaru grinned, a boyish grin that his mother recognized so well.

“Oh,” she laughed, “That little grin of you hasn’t changed at all. That devil-may-care one. I still like it, but it annoys me like mad.”

“Can’t help it, mom,” Subaru laughed along with her, “So, how have things been around here?”

Subaru’s mother shook her head, and her smile changed to one of cherish to one of pity. “They’re all enlisting,” she whispered, “You remember Julian next door? Last month, he joined the service too. They’re all leaving one by one, young and old, man and woman. And the casualty rates we’ve heard from the news have been just awful. It’s reached one million now, hasn’t it?”

“I think the press has been misinformed,” Subaru whispered quietly, “The real figure is nearing two million. If we count both sides, it would near five million. The UN is taking much more losses than we are.”

Subaru’s mother shuddered. “So the press has just been making it good for the family audience, aren’t they?”

“They have their reasons,” Subaru sighed, “I wouldn’t want to read a paper that reported such high casualty rates. And their editors would’ve killed it, not to mention that the government would intervene.”

Subaru’s mother nodded quietly, understanding. “Well,” she smiled, “Look at the bright side. You’re still alive. I’m quite glad of that. Major too, isn’t that right?”

“Commander of my own unit,” Subaru smiled.

“Yes. Speaking of which, how has Sakura been? I didn’t see her when I picked you up at the airport.”

“Oh,” Subaru finished his tea and set the warm cup in his hands, “Her family had picked her early. But don’t worry; I think we’ll meet again before we leave Capital Eurasia. Hopefully with you.”

“Hopefully,” she smiled, “But if not, please send her my regards. If there is anyone in my opinion more suitable to be your wife, it would be her.”

Subaru turned red and nearly choked. For one thing, he was glad the tea wasn’t in his mouth. “Mom!” he said, like a young boy being told about girlfriends and wives, “Seriously, you don’t have to get in that far!”

Subaru’s mother laughed and clasped her stomach as it went in and out. “You still don’t take that thing like an adult,” she laughed, “It seems you have quite a long way to go.”

Subaru smiled, still blushing, but at least he wasn’t as uncomfortable as he had been ten seconds ago. “I suppose that’s true,” Subaru laughed, “I’ll admit that the military has been bringing us closer together…I’m not sure if you’d take it as a good thing, but you know how in the military, both males and females…”

“Wash together, I know; your father has told me much of the time,” his mother nodded, and said with a grin of her own, “Hopefully you don’t get any wrong ideas.”

Subaru laughed this time, and nodded. “I’ve been fine, mom, don’t worry. But when I think about it, being close doesn’t really mean being better with each other…it seems we’re getting better as comrades, but not necessarily as humans.”

“I’d bet that your father would put up an argument on that,” she laughed, “He thinks the military is like a heaven or something.”

“So dad hasn’t changed,” Subaru laughed, “I guess we still won’t be uncomfortable meeting each other.”

“Yeah,” his mother nodded, “Do you need some rest? You’ve been out for so long, fighting. I imagine that you need some rest, for both body and soul. You know I’ve never really approved for you to sign up in the service. The idea of you killing just freaks me out.”

Subaru sat silently, staring at a picture of him and Sakura together, before they had joined the military. “It’s like that,” Subaru admitted, “We have to kill sometimes. But we kill for a better tomorrow. No progress without sacrifice…” Subaru smiled at his mother, “I’m not that naïve.”

“Sometimes, I wish you are,” his mother laughed, and placed both hands on his shoulders as she laid Subaru down on his bed, “Now have a rest for a while, and make yourself at home. You’ll need it. I’ll wake you up before we leave.”

“Alright,” Subaru nodded, and passed his empty cup to his mother, “Thanks, mom.”

“No problem,” she smiled, paused at the door, then said, “Maybe it should be you that I thank for keeping me safe in Capital Eurasia.”

*****

“Sakura!” twelve year-old Takumi ran up to his older sister as soon as she entered the door.

“Takumi!” Sakura laughed, opening both her arms and picking him up in a warm embrace, before settling him down, “Look at you! You’ve grown so much! So heavy now! I don’t think I can lift you up like that anymore!”

Takumi laughed. “Now, really. It’s great you’re back.”

“Certainly is,” Sakura’s mother laughed as she entered the door and closed the door behind her, “Go on, Takumi. Get you sister the present.”

“Present?” Sakura laughed, “Mom, I didn’t need…”

“Oh, don’t get all generous on me,” Sakura’s mother laughed, “Besides, you’ve been away for a long time. And I had happened to find it yesterday, anyways.”

“Sakura!” an older voice boomed from the living room doorway, as Sakura’s father appeared, and Sakura ran up to him.

“Dad!” she laughed, and hugged him, swinging around him.

“Whoa, whoa!” her father laughed, “Watch out! Takumi’s getting heavy, and now you? Look at you. You’ve gained as much strength as any soldier of Neo Arcadia. I’m glad to see you’re still looking fit though. The military rations been alright?”

“Yeah,” Sakura smiled, “They’ve been better than last year. Mostly because instead of just crackers, they’ve finally gotten some fruits, and actually placed a bit more minerals inside the crackers. And being with Captain Svivern has its own privileges; we really get some food, cooked fresh.

“Is that so?” her mother laughed, “Then that’s one thing I won’t have to worry about.”

“Here!” Takumi came running downstairs with what seemed like a large envelop in his hands, but was really something wrapped in gift paper.

“Careful with that!” their father laughed, “It’s your sister’s present!”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Takumi replied, “You don’t have to get all over my case. Here, Sakura.” He handed the envelop over to Sakura. Sakura held it, and felt a frame.

“Oh, I know what this is,” Sakura laughed, “It’s either a photograph or a painting, isn’t it? You still know I love this kind of stuff, even if it has been two years.”

“Well, open it,” Sakura’s mother smiled, gesturing to the envelop. Sakura did so, and pulled the frame out. She gasped as she saw the top of the painting, nearly dropping it in her shock.

“Oh my god,” she whispered, and laughed, “I…I don’t believe it! I didn’t think this actually existed anymore!”

“Only seventeen of these oil paintings are left,” Takumi smiled, “We’ve managed to buy one of these at a shop that sold it at a pretty good price…” Takumi winked, “I did some research on the internet.”

“But…wow!” Sakura laughed as she tore off the rest of the wrapping, “I mean, this is unbelievable!”

Ever since the initial ban of religion in Neo Arcadia, paintings such as those had been restricted, but years later, when Neo Arcadia found that they were unified enough for everyone to have their own beliefs, they allowed religion to roam again, but finding a painting such as this one was hard enough, considering many of them had been disposed. Which was the reason why Sakura was so surprised at holding one of the seventeen oil paintings of the Last Supper left in the world.

“I’ll admit it cost us a fortune,” Sakura’s father laughed, “But I think it was well worth it.”

“I love it,” Sakura laughed, and hugged her father again, “Thank you so much, dad.”

“Hey, hey!” Takumi shouted, vying for his sister’s attention, “There’s one more!” Takumi handed her a smaller envelop, too small for it to be a painting or a photograph. Sakura hugged Takumi, then opened the envelop.

“Hey!” Sakura laughed as she took the booklet inside out, “Is this what I think it is?”

“I thought you’d like it,” Takumi smiled and scratched his head, “Bought it with my own money too. Mozart wrote a whole lot of concertos, but this was the only booklet I found at the bookstore near my school that had that many of his works in it.”

“You’re the best,” Sakura smiled as she bent down and kissed Takumi. Takumi blushed.

“Okay, okay, thanks, but lay off the kissing,” Takumi muttered as he took an uncomfortable step backwards. They all laughed, watching Takumi wipe the kiss away, or attempting to.

“Now, now,” Sakura’s mother said, “Watch yourself, Takumi.”

“What about you play this?” Sakura’s father asked, “I really want to hear how it sounds.”

“Come on, dad,” Sakura gave a small smile, “It’s been at least a year since I’ve touched a violin. Do you think I’d be as good as I was?”

“Yes,” Sakura’s father shrugged, and chuckled.

“Alright,” Sakura laughed, “I’ll be down with my violin in a moment. Takumi?”

Takumi sighed, and said, “Yes, Sakura, I’ve promised to clean and keep your violin safe, although two years is a bit too much for fifty bucks to do that.”

The family all laughed as Takumi threw one of those “oh please” looks, and Sakura held onto the handrail to the stairs to keep herself from toppling over. “Don’t worry,” Sakura smiled, “How about I give you another fifty bucks later?”

“Make that sixty,” Takumi winked.

“Watch it, Takumi,” Sakura’s father laughed, “What if she decides court-martial you?”

“Fine, sixty,” Sakura agreed, “I’ll go tune up my violin. I’ll be down in a moment.”

*****

“Quite the mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” Deviant quirked annoyingly in Svivern’s private shuttle as it made its way on auto-pilot toward the Capital Building of Neo Arcadia, “Now you’ll have to admit your humiliation before the Council, hmm? Looks like getting me close to them is going to have to be on the to-do list, isn’t it?”

“Why is it that you don’t have an on-off switch?” Svivern asked coolly, watching the towering Capital Building loom ahead, “That way, I wouldn’t have to listen to you all the time.”

“But you already know what I have to say,” Deviant shrugged, “Really doesn’t matter that much, don’t you think?”

“Certainly,” Svivern nodded quietly.

“So what will you say before the Council?” Deviant pressed, “Tell them about how you nearly lost a Harvest VII stealth cruiser, failed to capture or destroy the Storm of Fire or the Reploid-armors after four attempts?”

“The Council will believe my story,” Svivern replied coolly, “Their anger will be directed at the United Nations. I’ve already personally selected pieces of video clips that will surely get them to realize the full power of the Storm of Fire, and the captain that commands it.”

“Hmm…” Deviant droned, “I don’t quite know Miguel the way you do, but it seems he is an exceptional ship captain. Superior to even you.”

“Don’t push my temper,” Svivern warned without raising his voice or changing his tone.

“Whatever you say,” Deviant piped, “But I’ll do have to remind you that while you’re away, Captain Bonaparte is taking your place. Imagine what the outcome will be if he successfully destroys that ship.”

“He won’t. He doesn’t know Miguel like do. Now that I know his ship, I know his every move, every instinct. Next time, he won’t escape so easily.”

“Next time,” Deviant chuckled, “Always next time. Imagine if you don’t have a next time, Atrium. Then what will you do?”

*****

“That was very good,” Sakura’s mother applauded as Sakura bowed with her violin, “Even if it has been for a year or two, you’re skills are still top-notch.”

Sakura blushed, facing her family in the living room as they all sat on sofas, and her standing in the middle. “I’ve really kind of lost part of the feel,” Sakura admitted, “But it’s coming back pretty quick.”

“I don’t think anyone would notice,” Takumi grinned.

“Honey,” Sakura’s mother said to her husband, “You haven’t forgotten that…”

“Oh, yes,” he nodded, and looked at his watch, “Takumi and I have to go for his parent-teacher conference,” he said to Sakura, “Don’t worry. We’ll make it back in time for dinner. Where should we eat tonight?”

“We’ll see about that later,” Sakura smiled, “Have a good time, Takumi.”

“Have a good time?” Takumi scoffed, “Yeah, right.”

It was a full five minutes as both of them prepared their items before they finally left the house. By then, Sakura had changed into her own clothes, a skirt and a T-shirt, and helped herself with a bottle of soda.

“Sure hasn’t changed much since I left,” Sakura nodded with satisfaction as she sat down with her mother on the sofa.

“So it seems,” her mother nodded, “How has the military been?”

“It’s okay,” Sakura smiled, “We’ve won quite a number of battles. Besides, the United Nations is down to only Four Havens, and there is news that they’ve already located Fourth Haven. I don’t think that we will lose this one.”

“I see,” her mother said, “So all’s going well. How has Subaru been?”

Sakura smiled shyly. “Well…we’ve been together for quite a while, now that we’re in the same unit. Before, we have been in the same crew, but now that we basically sortie together, we really spend a lot more time with each other. He’s leader of our unit now. The 7th Special Operations Unit.”

“That sounds good,” Sakura’s mother smiled, “Is he doing well?”

“Well…” Sakura gazed up at the ceiling, “Now that he’s been promoted to leader, a lot of the stress has been laying him down…like how to deal with Brandon Carter and Carol Elysium. Those two are a bit of a problem. With their attitudes, really. Subaru’s still sweet and kind and caring…but now as a leader, he seems like he can’t afford to spend any moment of his time being weak. I mean, no one really wants to be weak, but it’s better if he shares some of the pain.”

“I understand his feelings…he has to be a role model, but he doesn’t quite want to be. Is that the case?”

Sakura nodded sadly, wondering if Subaru will ever be the same Subaru she knew when they were children. “I don’t know what you think…” Sakura whispered without quite looking at her mother, “but I don’t care which side wins the war anymore. All I want is for someone to win.”

Sakura’s mother moved over to Sakura and placed both hands on her shoulders, embracing her daughter, her only the daughter, the child of man, the daughter that she loved. “Same here, hon. Same here.”

*****

The taxi stopped in front of Evan’s Field Cemetery as the occupant stepped out and gave the required fee to the driver without a word. The cabbie drove away quickly, not quite too comfortable with the eerie aura around the graveyard, around the dead and their silent cries of death.

Brandon didn’t mind it.

With a bouquet of flowers in his hands, he stepped through the abandoned gates of Evan’s Field Cemetery, the black and insidious gates that used to scare him as a child, but he was no longer the child he had been when he first visited the grave he came to every year. No longer afraid.

Evan’s Field Cemetery had been long abandoned after all the space was used up for the graves, and now the dead were being relocated to Dark Plateau Cemetery, while Soldier’s High Cemetery was being constructed somewhere in the south of Capital Eurasia.

Moving among the graves of the soldiers that had lost their lives in war, he didn’t bother to look at either side. He had come here often enough to remember the names along the graves of the path that he walked past to get to his destination. Those names that meant nothing to him, and meant everything to him at the same time…their cries that echoed in his mind, and did not echo in his mind.

Stepping somewhere near the middle of the Cemetery on the west side, he stopped before a grave. It didn’t look much different from any of the other graves, but for Brandon, he could’ve spotted it if another million tombstones were put around it. It was simply unique for Brandon, special.

On the tombstone was inscribed, “Mary Carter; Born September 17, 2183, Capital Eurasia; Died June 21, 2214, Station Artemis; May God Have Mercy on the Souls of Soldiers.”

Brandon had memorized the words, but he forced himself to read it again, as painful as it was. Every word had a meaning to him…every word.

Mary Carter had died at Station Artemis, the first time the United Nations had attacked Neo Arcadia from Seventh Haven. They sent troops that completely outnumbered the Neo Arcadians, but they fought valiantly, holding out until reinforcements came, although they were all killed. In response, Neo Arcadia dropped an R-Bomb on Seventh Haven.

But it wasn’t enough to balance the odds, Brandon thought with extreme hatred, Mother was killed.

He set the bouquet of flowers before his mother’s grave. His father’s grave was also in Evan’s Field Cemetery on the north side, but it was one grave that he never visited. He hated his father down to his last bone, and didn’t even know what was inscribed on his tombstone; he didn’t even go to his father’s funeral.

Kneeling before the grave, he muttered a small prayer before opening his eyes again, staring at the name of his mother as if she were there.

“It’s been a while, Mother,” he whispered, and wiped his eyes, although there were no tears, “It’s been a year since we’ve met, but…I’m back. And I’m still fighting.”

The dead did not respond.

“I’m sorry that I haven’t completely defeated the United Nations yet…the damn bastards have been eluding even the most experienced of leaders. Don’t worry, though. We’ll win, Mother. I’ll make sure of it.”

He smiled as tears streaked down his insidious grin, a fearful mix of both sorrow and hatred, the sickest of all fears, the sickest of all expressions.

“And next time, I won’t come with just a bouquet of flowers. I’ll put the heads of your enemies here. The crew of the Storm of Fire…and the pilots of the Reploid-armors. You’ll have them all.”
bond4154
Chapter Eleven

The Shadow Platform sailed quietly through the air as it flew at maximum altitude, above the clouds, invisible to even the combat choppers below. It flied solo, as the pilot always enjoyed, being solo.

He looked downwards. He couldn’t necessarily see through the clouds, but he felt that he was right above them, that it was time for him to dive into action, literally. And most of the time, he was always right.

The Reploid had a muscular build as lines of muscles showed in the less armored parts of his black and orange armor, representing waves of fire through the darkness with blue orbs on various parts of the gear. A ponytail fluttered in the wind behind him like a flag, but the Reploid wasn’t concerned with it.

He looked down once more, and jumped backwards from his Shadow Platform, falling through the air in freefall.

Falling, falling, falling…

As he soared past the clouds, layers and layers of white zoned past him, but the Reploid kept his eyes closed, being completely natural. He was more concerned about what would happen after he lost the cloud cover.

Three seconds later, he made it past the clouds, and, as he had expected, three combat choppers were right below them, acting as the second wave of Regent combat choppers at an inbound vector toward the Storm of Fire.

They weren’t really choppers. They had no blades, but they maneuvered like them. Mostly, they relied on rockets that rotated around the gunship, allowing quick and controllable movement.

They were also notoriously easy targets for the black Reploid.

He performed a flip in the air as his feet dropped first, and landed…on the cockpit of the chopper. The glass of the cockpit was technically bulletproof, but the Reploid had been traveling at a speed faster than a normal round. Although the glass slowed his descent, he also cracked through the cockpit and smashed the pilot with his boots. The pilot crumpled into a bloody mess as the body halted the Reploid’s descent.

Aiming left, he quickly shot an armor-piercing round, a thin projectile that was sharp enough and fast enough to pierce even bulletproof glass. It drove through the cockpit of the helicopter on the left and through the head of the startled pilot. The pilot’s head dropped forward as he was instantaneously killed. Before the chopper could start drifting away, the Reploid jumped toward the helicopter, but not before kicking the control stick for the middle chopper, the one that he landed on. Just as the Reploid landed on the left chopper, the middle one had collided into the one on the right, and the Reploid fired gattling gun rounds at the chopper, which exploded in flames, bringing its counterpart down with it as well.

Ripping open the glass of the cockpit, the Reploid threw the body of them pilot out as he sat into the seat, in front of the controls of the Regent combat chopper.

It wouldn’t take him long to reach the Storm of Fire. He hoped the cruiser could hold out for that long.

*****

“Why aren’t we out there?” Epsilon demanded into the COM system, “We should be out, fighting the enemy! Didn’t you detect the three Regent choppers headed inbound?”

“We’ve detected them Major,” Helios replied from the bridge, his expression stern on the COM screen at the hangar next to Epsilon’s Type-Zero, “But they shouldn’t be anything we should worry about. We’re near Second Haven now, and the chain guns should make short work of the helicopters. They weren’t like the X33s we’ve faced earlier.”

“Underestimation is the thing that will get us killed if you’re not careful,” Epsilon growled, but the COM channel flicked off as Helios cut the connection at his end. Epsilon shook his head as she looked around her, with Lance, Vincent, and Lei all in jumpsuits and standing around her.

“They’re not launching us,” Epsilon sighed, “They say the ship can handle them on their own…I would agree, but imagine if those choppers had some sort of surprise. We’d be screwed.”

“I’m sure the Captain has his reasons,” Lance shrugged and smiled slightly, “I guess he doesn’t want the enemy to know too much about our secret weapons.”

“They’ve seen them in combat four times,” Epsilon frowned, “At the moment, they aren’t much of a secret anymore.”

“I’ll have to add,” Odin said from behind them, “that the Captain probably doesn’t want us harmed. We are only prototypes. Second Haven will obviously wish to mass produce our models, and perhaps create superior ones.”

“You sound so happy about that,” Neptune said mockingly, “Seriously, more of us? That’d be pretty bogey, unless we’re the only ones that can act like a Reploid. You know the combat armor used by Neo Arcadia? They don’t have AI constructs, like us.”

“Well,” Vincent laughed, “I guess one thing we’ll have to look forward to. More Odin and Neptune models, the more we get to see them mocking each other.”

“Are you sure that’s good news?” Lei pointed out, and laughed. They all did, even Odin and Neptune joining in, despite that they didn’t really have mouths, and they weren’t programmed much to laugh.

“Oh well,” Epsilon said, still with an occasional snort of laughter, “Let’s see if we can end this, and quick.”

*****

“Chain guns prime,” Juno nodded, and gave Miguel the thumbs up signal, “Ready whenever you are, Captain.”

“Alright,” Miguel nodded as he stared at the view screen, which now displayed a radar, “Wait until they get close enough, then fire at them. We want to shoot them down, not waste ammo scaring them away. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Juno nodded, and concentrated on the weapons system.

“We’re near Second Haven already,” Helios stepped up to Miguel and cracked a rare smile, “I guess it’s good to say we’re safe.”

“Closer to safe,” Miguel corrected, but smiled nonetheless. It was good to see his subordinate smile, because when he did, it was really something to smile about.

“So let’s take care of…” Helios began, but was cut off by Archangel.

“Sir!” Archangel shouted, “There is another Regent attack chopper approaching from the same course as the first three, but it is broadcasting an UN signal! Confirmed by a triple check; our systems are not malfunctioning, and the signal has been confirmed to be an authentic one, not forged. We have someone inside one of their choppers, sir!”

“Try to hail him,” Helios ordered, “See who he is.”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz nodded, and rapidly clicked on his keyboard before nodding, “We have the pilot on the horn, sir.”

“This is Captain Miguel of the Storm of Fire,” Miguel said calmly as the view screen displayed the red words of “Sound Only” on a black background, “If you are truly part of the United Nations, as our radar is reading you, please identify yourself.”

“Lieutenant Colonel Fireside,” a crisp and sharp voice replied almost immediately, surprising even Helios, “Identification number 4327025-F, part of the United Nations Military Division, with an unspecified battle group. I’m a friendly, Captain Miguel. Good to hear from you. Second Haven was beginning to lose hope.”

“It’s good to hear from you, Lieutenant,” Miguel smiled, “I hope you’ve got something special because you’re riding in a Neo Arcadia chopper.”

“Yes,” Fireside replied, “It would be recommended if you do not fire. I’ll bring them down.”

*****

Fireside watched as the Regent choppers split apart and turn toward him in a stand triangle formation of the Neo Arcadian chopper squads that Fireside fought here and there. Mostly, he had done most of shooting them down from the ground. This was the fourth time he had actually boarded a chopper in actual dogfights.

He didn’t like the change. He would have to depend on the strength of the helicopter, not his own strength. That was something he would have to get used to if he intended to protect the Storm of Fire. But Fireside had always been creative in thinking of ways to kill his enemies.

He weaved through the triangular bursts of chain gun fire from the three helicopters as he swerved past his formation. Before he completely passed them, he let out two pairs of missiles from his missiles pods. They tilted slightly as they attempted to track the enemy choppers. The pilots in there didn’t see them, though, as the missiles darted forward for the first hundred meters. After a specified length since firing, it would then activate its rockets and head for the target.

The three Regent choppers completed a full turn as they chased Fireside’s combat chopper. What was blocked by the chopper in front of them, though, were the four missiles that had kicked up the juice to its rockets and turned immediately to track them. One second elapsed before a flash was seen, and four projectiles suddenly appeared from in front of the Regent choppers. The pilots didn’t have time to scream as the missiles detonated in front of the choppers, turning their Regents into wrecked metal that sailed through the air before bouncing on the surface of the sea and sinking afterwards.

“This is Fireside,” Fireside hailed the Storm of Fire as he passed the wreckage to make sure his adversaries were all dead, “Area cleared.”

*****

Fireside stepped out of the elevator doors and was saluted by a guard, who saluted while staring at him, in awe of the hardware he brought along with him…or on him. Fireside ignored him. He was used to having most people stare at him.

He had modified his armor and had it made out of reinforced synthesis titanium alloy, which was even more powerful than battleship plating, although less thick. His expression was basically humorless, and even had a bit of hatred in them…but that was mostly mixed in with his seriousness. He had dual beam sabers that hung loose on his belt, and his left hand was able to shift into a powerful gattling gun that could easily bring down even fighter jets.

Fireside walked steadily along the corridor before reaching the door to the ship. The door slid open as soon as the motion sensors detected his presence and verified his identity instantly. Fireside stepped through.

The first thing he noticed was that the ship was amazingly well built. While other ships were rather old and bleak, this ship looked new, and rather nice. It also had an impressive use of space. While most walls had computer screens, others were plated with reinforced synthesis titanium. Whoever designed this must’ve understood and acknowledged the necessities of the battlefield.

The second thing was that there were five children, for some reason. They were all in military uniform, but they couldn’t have been older than twenty. Fireside threw them an inquiring glance, which didn’t change much from his normal expression, before his eyes immediately darted for the captain of the ship.

“Reporting to the bridge as ordered, sir,” Fireside snapped a quick and sharp salute as soon as the captain had turned from a computer screen to meet his eyes.

“At ease, Colonel,” Miguel nodded and smiled and extended a hand to Fireside, “Welcome aboard the Storm of Fire.”

Fireside stared at the hand, and it became apparent that he was not quite used to the gesture. Nevertheless, he took the hand and shook it, squeeze, up, down, release. Miguel suppressed a smirk; Fireside was all business, like Helios. He appreciated it, but wished he would meet less people like that. They really no longer knew how to be human…or be Reploid.

“You made quite the show out there, Colonel,” Miguel smirked, “It seems you’ve been in the business for quite a while.”

“Yes, sir,” Fireside replied indifferently, “Thank you, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir,” Miguel replied, “Technically, we’re in the same rank. Lieutenant Colonels. Mostly, lieutenants. Do we need to check you out? Get you a medic just in case? It isn’t easy bringing three combat choppers with one.”

“It was five,” Fireside corrected, then shook his head, “Anyways, I’m fine. It really should be you who should check your head. You’ve made it all the way from Third Haven to Second Haven. If you ask me, you were either a heroic genius or a lucky idiot.”

Miguel froze, surprised by Fireside’s remark, before he burst into laughter. Phalanx looked like he had a chunk of beef stuck in his throat as he hacked the laugh out of his throat, and Juno nearly collapsed on Archangel’s chair in her fit. Archangel mostly smiled, as well as Cruz, who wasn’t quite known for his sense of humor. Lance, Vincent, Lei, Aden, and Mia looked like they’ve heard the funniest joke of their lives. Mostly, Fireside held a stern expression, although it was obvious that he had meant to and enjoyed cracking a joke, but Helios looked at Fireside disapprovingly, despite the fact that Fireside was a superior.

“Oh, man,” Aden laughed as he braced himself against Vincent’s shoulder, “Now that’s the funniest one I’ve heard from a soldier.” However, Helios silenced them all simply by standing up from his command chair, and everyone on the bridge stopped…although they still gave an occasional snort of laughter.

“Quite lucky for us that Epsilon isn’t here, huh?” Lance chuckled, “If she had, the entire crew would know about in less than an hour.”

Fireside gave another inquiring glance at the five, then turned to Miguel. “Captain,” he said, “I…wasn’t informed that there would be children on board.”

Miguel turned only slightly, and nodded solemnly. “Yes,” Miguel nodded, “They’re still children, but they’ve enlisted.”

Fireside squinted his eyes. “If I had to guess, they got caught in the fighting, and you decided to make them enlist so they won’t have to face a hearing committee. Isn’t that the case, Captain?”

Miguel smiled. Aside from being humorous, Fireside was also intelligent. He looked back to notice that Lance wasn’t looking too bright again. Vincent placed a hand on his shoulder, but Lance shoved it off. It was obvious he still hadn’t gotten over the feeling. Vincent had told Miguel earlier, though, that Lance was handling it better than he had earlier. Miguel didn’t know whether to worry or take comfort in this.

“Quite right, Colonel,” Miguel nodded, “I suppose you’ll keep this secret for me?”

“Not much of a secret of someone thinks about it,” Fireside replied, cocking his head quizzically to the side, “But I’ll keep my mouth zipped.”

“Thank you, Colonel,” Miguel nodded, then turned to Phalanx. “Settle us back in the water, Major Phalanx. No point in wasting extra fuel, and I’m getting airsick.”

“Yes, sir,” Phalanx nodded, and inserted the coordinates for a smooth landing down to the water, “Settling her down now.”

“Sir,” Archangel said excitedly, “We now have visual contact of Second Haven. Bringing it on screen.”

The screen flickered, and again, everyone stared. This time not in fear, though, but in awe of the majesty that lay before the view screen.

“Second Haven…” Mia whispered, “I never thought it would be that large…”

Looming ahead was a large island, but it hardly looked like an island. Instead, it looked like an oversized platform on the water. There were buildings and structures all over the island, making it a huge urban jungle in the air. Lance immediately located its many shipyards and airports, located at the outer rim of the island. Around it, on smaller rocks, defensive measures were installed, like cannons and radar. Onto the smaller islands that fitted the required size, there were also smaller shipyards and airports, to act as the first line of defense.

Mostly though, it was the interior that was awesome. Like a many faced glass prism, Second Haven sparkled like the sea as glass and metal met in what was the match of any downtown in history.

“This is Second Haven,” Juno explained the children, “Although First Haven heads most of the diplomatic situations, Second Haven is the headquarters for the United Nations’ defense against Neo Arcadia. It’s well hidden in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and also has enough technology to foil recon satellites, with holographic emitters to cover the island. Many detection systems warn us in advanced before Neo Arcadian forces can establish visual contact of the island.”

“Sir,” Major Cruz said excitedly, which was rare for that particular officer, “We’re being hailed. It’s…it’s Admiral Wallace! He would like to congratulate you personally on bringing the Storm of Fire to Second Haven.”

Miguel smiled the news went through. “Alright,” Miguel nodded as he sat on his command seat, “Give the Admiral my regards and tell him I’ll meet him ASAP.”

“Receiving a flight plan from Second Haven Traffic Control,” Phalanx said, “The ship will be in contact in water in four…three…two…one…”

The ship shook slightly as the Storm of Fire’s bottom met water once again. It bobbed as the engines gave away, once, twice, then it was calm again as the propulsion kicked in and brought the ship forward into a steady course that headed for one of the secure naval ports in the interior of Second Haven.

“New heading at five-four-seven at an inbound vector to Port Thirteen,” Phalanx announced as he typed in the commands into his computer diligently, “Making immediate course corrections and factoring all variables. Confirming this with Traffic Control…done. We’re going in.”

The ship glided through the water as one of the huge metal bulkheads to the shipyard opened, and Lance saw that the bulkheads were huge…four cruisers the size of the Storm of Fire could easily make its way through at the same time. The bulkheads didn’t completely open, but gave the Storm of Fire enough room as the ship passed through the two metal gates, and became engulfed by the island, like a krill into a whale.

“Decreasing speed,” Phalanx said, “Coming to a full stop in fifteen seconds. Verified with Traffic Control. Bulkheads one and two closing now. Five seconds. Releasing all locking systems for stabilizing. The Storm of Fire has come to full stop. Storm of Fire locked in with port, and has been verified by exterior systems. Bulkheads one and two closed. Captain, we’re in the green.”

Miguel gave a sigh of relief and nodded, tired, but definitely happy. “It took us a while, wouldn’t you think, Helios?”

Helios gave a slight smile. “Remind me next time to suggest you not to do anything like that again, sir.”

“I’d agree,” Fireside nodded, and to Miguel, “I’ll have to report to my superiors now. I’ll have to leave the ship immediately.”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “Thank you, Colonel.”

“No problem,” Fireside shrugged, and left the bridge.

“Well?” Helios asked, watching the doors close behind Fireside.

“I think we all deserve some good R and R,” Miguel laughed, “After all the paperwork has been settled, we’ll see if we can get a week’s vacation. How’s that?”

“Music to my ears, Captain,” Archangel smiled as he powered down his console. Miguel noticed, however, that Lance, Vincent, Aden, and Mia all seemed tense…and worried.

“What’s the…” Miguel began, then caught himself, remembering. In the next few hours, they’ll be finding out whether they could be discharged…or stay.

However, a fatal question struck out at Miguel. Even if they were discharged…where could they go?

*****

“Well, kid,” Epsilon smiled as she entered Lance’s room, finding him sitting on his bed, “What do you think? Second Haven…” She paused looking at Lance, realizing that he was doing something on a piece of paper.

“What’s that?” Epsilon asked, sitting down next to him, “Letter? Journal?”

As Epsilon looked, she saw it was neither. It was a sketch.

“Hey,” Epsilon smiled, “I didn’t know you drew.”

“Me neither,” Lance admitted with a smile, “I just decided to pick up a pencil and start drawing on this.”

“Sure doesn’t look like it,” Epsilon laughed, “Your strokes look like you’ve been in the sketching business for a long time. Either you’re lying, or you’ve got a lot of talent. What are you drawing?”

Lance blushed, then smiled weakly, a smile that told he was being foolish, but couldn’t help it. “I’m drawing Phoenix,” he laughed, “I…I don’t know. He was good company, and talked with me quite a bit. I was thinking if I left, I probably won’t be seeing him again. So I’m drawing this while I still remember what he looks like.”

“That may be confiscated if they find the drawing in your bag,” Epsilon said, admiring Lance’s strokes on the paper, “But if you tuck it in well enough so they don’t find it, you shouldn’t have any problems. You haven’t forgotten that the Reploid-armors are military secrets, have you?”

“Not at all,” Lance smiled, then turned to sketch for another five seconds or so, before stopping.

“Major…” Lance whispered, which took Epsilon by surprise, “Why do you fight?”

“Huh?” Epsilon frowned.

“Well, I mean,” Lance looked up to meet Epsilon’s eyes, “It’s just that I’ve asked Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune about why they fight, but the only thing they reply is because it’s in their programming, and technically, they can’t fight. It’s their pilots that use them to fight the enemy. I haven’t asked anyone else…but I’m asking you.”

“You’re placing quite a bit of trust in me, huh?” Epsilon laughed, then toned down, becoming serious again, “Maybe…maybe it was because of Fifth Haven. A lot of my friends were lost in that battle…and a lot of people I didn’t know. But I thought if Neo Arcadia could wipe out that many people at once, then I should do something about it.”

“But you were already doing something about it before Fifth Haven, weren’t you? I mean, you had been with the UN for a while, I can tell.”

“Well,” Epsilon shrugged, “I suppose that’s it. I’ve been with the UN before Neo Arcadia was actually formed.”

Lance nodded quietly, staring down at his sketch again, but not drawing.

“You shouldn’t ask me,” Epsilon giggled, “Don’t listen to me when I blabber nonsense. Someone you should ask is Vincent, or Lei. Maybe even the Captain or the Co-Captain. I wouldn’t suggest asking Helios, though; he might think you’re attempting mutiny.”

Lance laughed at that, and placed his sketch and his pencils down on his desk as he stood up. “I suppose so,” Lance whispered, then smiled, “I guess I’ll finish this later. Major?”

“Hmm?” Epsilon looked at Lance.

Lance walked to the door of his room as it opened and exited the room. Before he stepped out, he turned, and smiled once again. “Thanks. Thanks a lot, for everything.”

“No problem,” Epsilon replied with a smile, before the doors shut between them.
bond4154
Chapter Twelve

“It’s only been a day since you came back,” Subaru’s mother stood in front of Subaru, in front of his gate to the transport that would ferry them back to the Redemption, “And you had to spend so much time in front of the Council of Salvation. I’ve heard they’ve decided to take drastic measures against the United Nations, haven’t they?”

Mostly, the people crowded around them were soldiers, but they were either on patrol duty, or getting to places where they needed to go, providing all the privacy Subaru needed with his mother. It was a hard thing for them to go…but Subaru knew, and his mother knew, it had to happen, sooner or later. Until this war ends.

“Their decision is considered classified,” Subaru smiled as he brushed a hand through his hair, “Technically, it’s illegal to tell you, even off-handedly.”

Subaru’s mother managed a smile. “Always being true to the country, aren’t you, Subaru?” she laughed, and placed both hands on his shoulders, “You’re a soldier, but remember, you’re still my son, and you’re still human. Be true to yourself.”

“Yes, mom,” Subaru smiled, and allowed his mother to kiss him on the forehead, although he had to bend down slightly; he had already outgrown his mother by the time he had entered the service.

“Subaru!” Sakura called, dressed in full military uniform as she made her way to the gate, “Good thing I saw you here. And you too, Mrs. Alto,” she did a formal Japanese bow to Subaru’s mother, although it was technically unnecessary.

“Hello, Sakura,” Subaru’s mother smiled as she placed a hand on Sakura’s cheek, “My, I thought only my son had grown. Look at you! You’re so big now…no longer the child that attended middle school with Subaru. Where’s your parents, and Takumi?”

Sakura made a weak smile as she liked slightly away. “Takumi’s at school, although he desperately tried to convince mom to let her send me to the airport. All he got was have me send him to the door. My mom and dad dropped me off outside…” she laughed, “They said if they come in and stay with me any longer, they may not want to let me go.”

Subaru’s mother laughed. “Well, like us, we all have pains parting, especially when the situation is like this…but I’m glad you’re fine. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn’t see you, to at least say hello and goodbye…” she noticed the violin case in her hand, “My, are you bringing that along?”

“I needed something to keep me company if Subaru isn’t around,” Sakura laughed, “And Takumi had bought me a book full of Mozart’s concertos.”

“Well, it’s good to hear,” Subaru’s mother nodded as she glanced over her shoulder, “Subaru, why don’t you come over here? Don’t try to hide now that she’s here.”

“I’m not hiding, mom,” Subaru replied, but he was obviously looking away, now shy at the prospect of his mother seeing Sakura and him together.

To both Subaru and Sakura’s surprise, Subaru’s mother took both of their hands and placed them together. As Subaru’s mother predicted, both of them blushed instantly. Subaru’s mother made a great effort not to laugh. “Both of you make such a good pair,” she smiled, “Sakura, please take care of my son for me. And you watch over Sakura too, Subaru. Both of you mean the world to me.”

“We will,” Subaru and Sakura said in unison, looked at each other, and smiled.

“Well,” a new voice said behind them, “A surprise to see you here, Major.”

Subaru and Sakura both whirled around to see Brandon behind them, alone. He gave a small smile as he saw Subaru’s mother. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Alto,” he said coolly, “It’s my pleasure seeing you here…with both Subaru and Sakura.”

“Same here,” Subaru’s mother replied, “I’m glad that you’re well.”

“Thank you,” Brandon gave another smile, although this one was a bit more crooked, “If you excuse me, everyone, I’ve been requested to meet with Captain Svivern early, so I will be boarding the transport first. Adieu, everyone.” He turned, and walked into the gate, flashed his ticket quickly to the attendant at the opening, and disappeared.

“That must be Brandon Carter, yes?” Subaru’s mother asked, watching him leave.

“Yeah,” Sakura nodded uncomfortably, “He’s the real problem in our unit.”

“Why aren’t his parents here?” Subaru’s mother asked as she turned to Subaru.

“Oh…” Subaru started, and looked slightly toward the floor, “I don’t know, really. I don’t know much about the guy. Maybe he ended up in the same situation as Sakura.”

“Maybe,” she shrugged, then smiled, “I suppose you have to go now, yes?”

“Yes, Mrs. Alto,” Sakura nodded politely, “We will have to hurry now.”

“I won’t delay you,” Subaru’s mother nodded, and waved, “Goodbye, both of you.”

“Bye, mom,” Subaru smiled as he picked up his bag and gave his mother a small kiss before leaving. Sakura gave her own polite version of a farewell before both of them turned for the gate. Flashing their tickets to the attendant, they were allowed in and boarded the craft.

“I’m glad I caught some word with your mother,” Sakura smiled, “She’s such a pleasant woman to be around with. Like you.”

“Thanks,” Subaru nodded, “I really haven’t been around her much…neither of us have, huh? Too much business to wrap up…”

“Yeah,” Sakura sighed, and held onto Subaru’s hand, which surprised Subaru. But he welcomed it, nevertheless. Just because something was uninvited doesn’t mean it was uninviting.

*****

The doors opened to Admiral Wallace’s office as Miguel, Helios, and Epsilon all passed the security checkpoint, and made their way into the room.

The Admiral’s office was enormously large, with an office desk at one end and a group of sofas in the middle, concluding the layout with a large screen system at the other end of the wall. The floor was carpeted with the blue and white colors of the UN with the insignia in the middle, right in front of the Admiral’s desk.

Admiral Wallace was standing right at the window overlooking much of the downtown area as he stood. He was human, full name Cornel Wallace, and although he was old, he was also extremely dedicated into his work, with a reputation of being reasonable and intelligent. He had lost his left arm in a battle against Neo Arcadia, but that hadn’t hindered his efficiency in the least.

“Captain Miguel, Co-Captain Helios, and First Lieutenant Epsilon,” Wallace turned and smiled as the three entered the room, “It’s good to see you all.” He walked forward as they stopped on both sides of the UN insignia on the floor.

“Thank you sir,” Miguel smiled as the three of them snapped a salute. Wallace returned that salute as he pointed to a trio of chairs that had been prepared for them in front of the Admiral’s desk as Wallace sat into his own. They all took their seats quietly.

“When we had heard about Third Haven,” Wallace admitted as he reached for the bottle of cognac on the left side of his desk, “We thought Neo Arcadia had discovered everything…the Storm of Fire, and the Reploid-armors. The moment I heard that the ship was coming to Second Haven, I personally made sure that Fireside was there to escort your ship in. He’s the best of the best, as you might’ve found out.”

“Yes, sir,” Miguel nodded, “He was extraordinary. I’m glad that he was there to cover our backs.”

“Me too,” Wallace smiled as he cracked open the bottle, “Cognac, anyone?”

“Please,” Miguel nodded as Wallace poured the cognac into four separate cups, and handed three of them to each of the officers of the Storm of Fire. Both Miguel and Epsilon sipped gingerly at the drink, but Helios didn’t drink, just held the cup in his hand. He wasn’t the kind to drink; he disapproved of alcohol and tobacco, as well as nicotine.

“I’m afraid that under the circumstances,” Miguel whispered, “We had to reveal much of the Storm of Fire’s ordinance…weapons, and the flight maneuver. We also had to use the Reploid-armors in combat…it was necessary for our survival, but I am ready to take all responsibility for any charges that will be placed upon the entire crew and myself.”

Wallace waved a dismissive hand. “You’ll get more trouble from a hearing committee than you’ll get from me, but don’t worry. I’ll make sure the hearing committee won’t bring any charges on you; I’m relieved that you brought the ship here in the first place.”

“Thank you, sir,” Miguel nodded, relived.

“We’ll get you all the R and R we can stockpile up for you and your crew,” Wallace said after sipping at his glass, “But I’m afraid that won’t be long. We’ve detected Neo Arcadian movement going hectic at the moment, especially around North and South America. Looks like your little flight over the Panama shocked the shit out of them, huh?”

“I’m afraid that they’ll be mobilizing their troops in their attempt to destroy this ship,” Epsilon replied worriedly, “Very soon.”

“Yes,” Wallace nodded, “But they won’t do a thing as long as this ship is in Second Haven. I doubt they could even get past the first layer of defense. Now…I believe there are some things that we need to take care of…the aftermath of everything.”

Miguel grimaced and stiffened in his chair.

“First, we’ve received confirmed reports that Third Haven had been completely taken. It wasn’t as bad as what happened on Fifth Haven and Seventh Haven, we can thank god for that. They knew about us this time, and tried to preserve as many human lives as they could. As for the Reploids…” he didn’t go on.

“I understand, sir,” Miguel nodded.

“What about the confidentiality of the weapons?” Helios asked.

“Well, Neo Arcadia basically knows about our capability now. We’ve downloaded all the data from the Storm of Fire and the Reploid-armors, so as soon as we get the time, we’ll start construction on those. Mass production. For the meantime, we’re not going to stash a secret weapon in the cellar as the enemy knows about it. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to send it out, but it’s going to aid in the defense of Second Haven. Meanwhile, your crew is going to stay on the Storm of Fire, along with some other men. You’ve deserved it.”

“Thank you, sir,” Miguel nodded.

“Now,” Wallace became uncomfortable again, “As we all well know, there was a Intelligence Division agent poking her head around where she wasn’t supposed to be, isn’t that right?”

Miguel nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. Her name was Lei Loyola…a commander inside the Intelligence Division. Apparently, she was there to investigate the rumors of the Storm of Fire and the Reploid-armors, which we kept a secret from them.”

“We’ll have to secure our networks again,” Wallace shook his head, “If the Intelligence Division learns our stuff as easily as that, then we’re in trouble.”

“But we’re both on the same sides,” Epsilon shrugged, “With a due respect, sir, there is no true reason why both of you are fighting each other when you have a worse enemy to fight. Neo Arcadia.”

“True, but they want everything. Weapons, information, power. They’re trying to make a joke out of us all.”

Epsilon doubted it was so, but she kept her silence.

“We’ll pressure the Intelligence Division for us to put her under our jurisdiction, but that may not happen at all, even if we want her for some questioning.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Miguel said, “It doesn’t seem as if there is any need for that. She fully cooperated with us later on and revealed the details of her mission. In addition, she assisted in protecting the ship with Neptune.”

Wallace stroked his bearded chin thoughtfully.

“I agree,” Epsilon nodded, “We treated her like an officer afterwards, and she treated us as if she was part of this crew, not something superior to it.”

“Alright,” Wallace nodded, “I won’t get hard on her, but I want her for questioning, just for the record, nothing serious. But I think the more pressing issue is…the children on board your ship.”

All at once Miguel wished he hadn’t brought this up. They all visibly stiffened, even the Admiral.

Miguel pressed his lips together in a thin line. “Well, sir, the children…”

“The records show that they had signed up with you a day before the battle. Am I supposed to judge this as pure irony?”

“No, sir,” Miguel shook his head, “The truth is that they had found the Reploid-armors and boarded the ship on accident. You know how the hearing committee may pass their sentence about the children. They were all part of the combat, saw three secret Reploid-armors and the Storm of Fire, while two of them piloted Phoenix and Odin. Now that we brought them here, they also know the coordinates of Second Haven. If they were still civilians at that point, well…”

“I fully understand, Captain,” Wallace nodded and finished his cup of cognac, “I’ll keep your secret. We’ll insist that the children enlisted a day prior to the battle, and that they are now officially part of the Military Division.”

“On the other hand, sir,” Miguel added, hesitated, then said, “I don’t want to sound to pressing, but…I’d like to discharge the children from the military.”

The Admiral cocked an eyebrow.

“I had promised them to try my best to relieve them from duty,” Miguel admitted, “I had no intention in placing them in true combat, only to get them through the ordeal. They all performed beyond our expectations in them, sir. But…I still don’t believe that these children, without even basic training, belong here in the ranks.”

“I have to agree with the Captain,” Epsilon nodded, “They are not ready for war at all. They’re physically, but mostly, emotionally, incapable of combat. There’s no point in putting them into the front lines unless we want them to die.”

Wallace nodded, quiet for the most part. “I understand your situation,” he whispered, “But unfortunately, this is a decision that is out of my hands. Both my superiors and the hearing committee had already gone through this. The children have seen secrets of the UN. Too many of them. They know the full capabilities of the three Reploid-armors, the Storm of Fire, and the coordinates of Third Haven. Imagine if the children should decide to go to Neo Arcadia and relay the information there.”

“Sir!” Miguel stood, beginning to protest.

Wallace placed a hand up calmly. “I know what you’re going to say. And I agree with you completely; these children do not belong on the battlefield. But a question I can ask you is where do they go now? Out of the Network of Seven Havens, only four are left. Their home in Third Haven is gone. If we don’t keep them with us, do you expect us to send them to Neo Arcadia?”

Miguel bit his lip, frowning. So the Admiral had seen the same folly he had seen. And the thing was that he had no answer to that question. The Admiral’s question. Miguel’s own question.

“Now,” the Admiral nodded, standing up, “I think we’re done here, for now. Like I said, I’d like to congratulate you all on a job well done and personally thank you. Like I said, I hope you all get some good R and R…” he looked at them all sadly, and sighed, “I’d hate to be the one to break the bad news to the children.”

*****

After being transferred from the Storm of Fire, the crew of the Storm of Fire had been given permission to get some R and R at the Hotel Gloria. Hotel Gloria was mostly for military veterans. It wasn’t really a hotel, but a government-run resort for soldiers. Every soldier’s dream after a battle. White sheets, good and cooked food, swimming pools…

Lance didn’t necessarily have anything to do, so he followed the crew. Vincent, Aden, and Mia naturally tagged along. The Captain, Co-Captain, and Lieutenant Epsilon had went to debrief, so he heard, so they weren’t coming until later. Lei also had to report to the Intelligence Division, so she wasn’t there either.

Mostly, Lance had kept himself from the others. Twice Vincent tried to talk to him, Mia thrice, and Aden about seven million, but Lance ignored them completely. They all understood his pain and tried to do something about it, but Lance was convinced there was nothing they could do. He had erected a fortress of solitude around his heart.

A room had already been reserved for him, an officer’s room, “the least I can do for you”, as Miguel had said. But he wasn’t looking forward for a good room that resembled a first-class hotel, the food, or the company of the crew that seemed to be having a good time and trying to share it with Lance; he wanted to be by himself where he could think.

He lay in bed, still in uniform, his room dark, him thinking to himself as he stared up to the white ceiling above. An audio system was nearby, but Lance wasn’t in the mood to listen to anything. Five times his friends tried to call him through the intercom before Lance got sick of it and unplugged the entire thing.

There was a soft knock on the door. Lance didn’t bother to answer it as the knocks repeated themselves. Lance figured it was Vincent, Aden, and Mia. The knockings persisted until whoever was outside gave up and the room was silent again.

He remembered his conversation with Phoenix earlier that day.

“Phoenix,” he had said as he was outside Phoenix, Phoenix being his Reploid self, “If you could have anything in the world…what would it be?”

Phoenix, like a computer, paused, before replying, “I don’t know.”

“Anything you want,” Lance persisted, “It can be an item or something…I don’t know. Wouldn’t you want peace?”

“Unfortunately,” Phoenix replied, and Lance knew if Phoenix had a face, he would’ve shown one of sorrow, “I am built to bring peace, but I do not want peace.”

Lance was shocked. “Why?”

Phoenix looked at Lance. “Look at me,” Phoenix said, “I’m a weapon. Every part of my existence was made so I could fight.”

Lance nodded, understanding.

“As long as there is war, I have a point of being around. I have a purpose. But while it’s like that, I’m just equipment. Very few people look at me as a Reploid or a human, but a weapon. You are a rare one. You look at me like a friend…but very few people like that come around. Sure, they take good care of me, check me every so often, but they check me not because they care for me personally, but they care for what would happen if I was not okay, because if I wasn’t okay, there’s a chance we’d lose this war.”

Lance listened, regretting that he asked, not wanting to listen all of the sudden.

“And what if the war ends?” Phoenix continued, “What will happen to me? Will I have a purpose then? It’s the same with Odin and Neptune. Odin doesn’t mind, or at least pretends to not mind, but Neptune knows it full well. When the war ends and we’re still here, we’ll be stashed somewhere…I don’t know. We may be there again for drills…but imagine should they put us into full production. The thing, Lance, is that I am not unique. I can be easily replicated. Unlike you humans, you have something you call souls, and you’re all different. Not like me. Some of the Reploids around here were built to be companions; they were built to be different. But I am a weapon. I am no different from the MA71 rifle you’ve been using for the past two days. They’re all the same. So am I.”

Lance was breathing hard, and tears stung at his eyes…they didn’t come out, but they were there.

“We’ll reach Second Haven soon,” Phoenix said, turning to Lance, “So I have to go to my theta shakedown now. I think this is our last time meeting each other. Even if you don’t get discharged from the military, I’m confident that you won’t be the pilot of me anymore. That’s something I regret…as Neptune regrets as well. Because both you and Lei treat us like humans. Vincent does too, only Odin doesn’t notice it.”

Surprisingly, Phoenix stuck out a metallic hand in front of Lance. Lance looked down, surprised, and not knowing what to do.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” Phoenix nodded, and Lance thought he saw a smile unfold out of nowhere…but it wasn’t there. Yet it was there at the same time…even if Lance couldn’t see it, he knew it was there.

He grasped Phoenix hand, squeezed it. “Same here, Phoenix,” he whispered.

Another set of knocks persisted at the door, snapping Lance out of his reverie.

“Lance, are you in there?” a female voice asked, “It’s Epsilon. Are you there?”

Lance got up, getting to his feet. If it was his superior officer, he didn’t really have much of a choice. He got to the door, unlocked it, and opened it. Epsilon stood in front of him, smiling. Lance returned the smile weakly.

“Do you want to come in?” Lance asked.

“Yeah,” Epsilon winked, “I think I’ll come in and have a look-see.” She stepped through the door as Lance closed it behind her.

“Nice,” she smiled looking around at the considerably large room, “This is Lieutenant-class rooms, what I get. Of course, all personal around Captain and above get suites, but this is pretty nice. You didn’t expect yourself to end up here, did you?”

Lance shook his head. Epsilon smiled.

“Where’s Vincent and the others?” Epsilon asked, “Shouldn’t they be with you?”

“No,” Lance shook his head, “I…I was tired, so I decided to get some rest first.”

Epsilon nodded, not quite believing him. “That isn’t just it, is it?”

Lance looked at her.

“You don’t want to see them right now,” Epsilon said, “Isn’t that right?”

Lance looked away, nodded as Epsilon was looking at the side of his face. “Seeing them isn’t something I want right now,” Lance whispered, “They’re kind of happy about it…coming to Second Haven. I…I guess I’m still a bit emotional…” Lance laughed suddenly, “Maybe a bit immature.”

“Lance…” Epsilon whispered.

“Anyways, it doesn’t matter,” Lance smiled, “We made it safely here; that’s one thing I can be grateful about.”

“Yeah,” Epsilon smiled, then pointed to the audio system, “You want to hear some music? They got some nice stuff here.”

“Maybe later,” Lance replied, and invited Epsilon to take a seat. Instead, Epsilon settled Lance down into a seat, and she remained standing. Her expression turned into that of a serious one.

“Lance…” she started.

“Hmm?” he asked, not quite looking at her.

“I’ve told Vincent, Aden, and Mia…” she whispered, “…I haven’t told you, but…”

“You don’t have to go on.”

Epsilon looked at Lance, bewildered.

Lance looked up, smiled weakly, though he was crying. Tears streaked from his eyes, but Lance didn’t bother wiping them away.

“I already knew what you were going to say when you were at the door,” Lance admitted, “All the other stuff you said was a feint. To get me comforted. Isn’t that right, Major? Isn’t that right?”

Epsilon wanted to tell him it wasn’t, that she meant everything, but she felt like slapping herself for even thinking that. He’s not just a child, Epsilon thought, Lance knows…he knows.

“Well, it doesn’t matter…” Lance laughed and reclined on the sofa, “I guess I’ll be getting to know you a bit longer, Major. I’m not discharged from the military.”
bond4154
Chapter Thirteen

Lei looked at the computer screen inside her small office. It was nearly bare; she didn’t have much luxury of having things in her office. Most of her time was work and work, including searching around databases and look for anything she could tie a lead to…

When the word had reached her that Vincent and the others weren’t going to be discharged, she pounded her fist against the table. They didn’t deserve to be in war…they deserved better. And yet, now they have to fight. Lei was a year younger than Vincent…but she had her own reasons of fighting, and she was willing. More importantly, she thought she didn’t deserve anything else but fighting.

Her office was completely dark except for the blue glow of the computer screen; she didn’t feel like turning on the lights. Clicking across the keyboard, she filled in countless reports to every section of the Intelligence Division. She swore that it was the Division’s rebuke of having her operation discovered. Normally, she would’ve just used copy-and-paste, but the software didn’t allow that. They wanted every report to be specific.

Lei sighed as she finished up her work after what seemed like long hours. She was confident that it was night now; she didn’t have a window in the underground lairs of the United Nations Intelligence Division Headquarters. But there was one more thing nagging at the back of Lei’s head…she knew it was foolish to do, but she wanted to do it, even if her request was rejected. If the children were going to be sent into action, there could at least be something she could do…

Of course she wasn’t going to be as foolish as to reveal secrets about the Intelligence Division to anyone. She knew she was better than that, and her superiors knew it too. But she wanted to do something. While she had the chance.

Quickly, she brought up another document, and filled in the report, before sending two copies to both the leaders of the Intelligence Division and Admiral Wallace of the Military Division. She reclined in her chair, closing her eyes, exhausted.

What she had filled out was a form that requested permission to enlist into the Storm of Fire.

*****

“Still no word from Lance?” Aden asked as Vincent walked up to him in the swimming pool, them sitting at the edge of the pool in swim shorts. Vincent shook his head.

“I think he unplugged his personal COM system,” Vincent sighed, “He really wants to be alone. I’ve tried about, what, five million times? He won’t answer. I’ve knocked at door too, but he wouldn’t answer.”

Mia swam up to the both of them, and joined in their conversation. Mia was a good swimmer, and she had intended to enjoy the luxury of a swimming pool of a high-class resort. Not an easy thing to do when your friend’s feelings were virtually at rock bottom, though.

“So not a word from him?” Mia asked. Vincent shook his head.

Aden sighed. “Man…this is bad. If he doesn’t snap out of it soon, he might never do that…”

“Has anyone talked to him?” Mia asked.

“Major Epsilon told us that she would pay Lance a visit…” Aden whispered, “It already sucks to have him like this. If he hears that we’re not going to be discharged, he’ll freak.”

“Yeah…” Mia whispered. The three were silent for a while.

“Well,” Vincent smiled, “At least I have a reason to fight. They’re all good people here. I’d hate to seem them get killed when I have a chance to do something, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Aden winked and smiled, “Major Epsilon’s amazing. You’ve seen the videos of her kicking the enemy’s ass, right? I haven’t seen her skill anywhere, not even in the movies. Wouldn’t you think, Mia?”

Mia nodded in agreement, smiling. “She’s good as a mentor too. For some reason, I wish she was my older sister or something.”

Aden laughed. “Don’t we all.”

“Well,” Vincent smiled, “Duty may not be as fun without piloting Odin, but what the hell? I think I may like this new life.”

“Hey, kids,” Mendez suddenly showed up behind them, his hairy chest exposed with only swim shorts, “You’re wanted on the COM channel. The Captain’s on the line.”

“Thanks,” Vincent smiled as he got to his feet, followed by Aden and Mia. They walked up to the COM system on the wall and hit a button.

“This is Lieutenant Swan, with Privates Hikari and Elysium,” Swan said clearly into the microphone, “Did you call us, Captain?”

“Yes,” Miguel replied over the speakers, and Vincent was surprised to hear that he sounded concerned, “I…well, you’ve heard…”

“Yeah, we’ve heard,” Vincent nodded, “We aren’t discharged. But don’t worry, sir. We’re ready to serve the United Nations Military Division.”

Miguel paused, and sounded happy as he said, “Well, I’m glad you guys are taking it well. Lance…he’s not…”

Vincent’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Not really, sir.”

“Well,” Miguel’s voice cleared, “Vincent, you are being wanted at the Tesla Technology Research Complex. I know you don’t know where it is, so dress up into whatever you want, as long as you bring your identification, and I’ll meet you down at the lobby. If you can, get Lance. He’s wanted as well.”

“Understood, sir,” Vincent replied, and the COM system snapped off.

Aden placed a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. “This isn’t good, is it?” Aden whispered.

“I don’t think so…” Vincent sighed.

*****

“The traditional saying is that I have good news and I have bad news,” Svivern smiled as soon as he stepped into the briefing room where Subaru’s men have already occupied, “But this time, I think there is a dramatic change.”

Subaru’s team had already been transported to the Redemption. It still looked damaged, but Svivern was convinced that the ship will hold. Mostly, it still ran well, but several minor systems were damaged, as well as part of the hull. However, Subaru knew it should be Svivern who should be concerned about it. Subaru should be concerned about his men.

“This time,” Svivern continued to smile, “We have good news, and we have even better news…in Major Brandon’s case, anyways.”

The crew straightened in their seats, surprised, but eager to hear the news.

“Apparently,” Svivern said, “We’ve tracked the movements of the Storm of Fire. We now know where the location of Second Haven is.”

Subaru gasped, as did the rest of the crew other than Lloyd. After years of satellite surveillance, they had not been successful in finding any of the Havens other than Fifth Haven. Now that they knew where Second Haven was, they could strike directly at the heart of the United Nations.

“We won’t be able to attack them head-on,” Svivern continued, “Their defenses are superior to our attack force. Even with a fleet, it’ll be difficult to attack Second Haven, not to mention that much of their facilities are underground.”

Subaru nodded quietly. Second Haven, at the surface, already looked like a formidable fortress. But they also knew that an even larger portion of the installment was located underground, where there were rumors of a hallowed out portion in the earth below.

“The even better news is that we won’t tell anyone else about out little secret.”

Svivern’s last comment surprised Subaru. Why wouldn’t they alert Neo Arcadia? If they did, then the war would be over quickly. They’d send the entire fleet to Second Haven, and then surely the war would be over…

Brandon understood it perfectly, though. “Thank you, sir,” he smiled and saluted. Subaru stared at Brandon. He saluted…but only because the wind was blowing his direction. And why was the wind blowing in his direction?

Then it hit him. Of course. What Brandon wanted more than anything else at the moment was to destroy the crew that they had failed to defeat for four times in a row. If they ended the war right there, Brandon would never get his chance. He wanted his revenge to be personal.

“Now,” Svivern said, “We won’t be able to attack them directly, but luckily, we’ll be able to get you through the security system where you can then spy on them.”

Spy? That was an operation that Subaru’s team had never really done before. They had mostly just killed their enemies, but they’ve never really engaged in espionage.

“While intelligence on the area has been scarce, we have detected an opening in the area, where it is considerably easier to sneak in,” Svivern explained as a map appeared on the briefing screen, and a triangle marked their entrance point, “There is a small beach here that has hardly been maintained. You will swim off the Redemption with scuba gear. The enemy should not be able to detect you. You will also be supplied with UN uniforms, with the rank and ID of Majors. You can use your own names as well. The security systems will acknowledge your card, and you can flash them by other places as well. However, if there are extensive identification checks, it would be best you do not attempt to get past.”

Svivern looked around. “Any questions?”

“What is the main objective of the mission?” Sakura asked immediately.

“This mission has a lot of free rein for you,” Svivern smiled, “While your main objective is to spy on the enemy, you can spy on just about anything you wish. Meanwhile, you are to report in everyday through a special personal COM system that our engineers have designed. It cannot be traced by anything other than the computers we have on board the Redemption. We’ll keep in touch there.”

“What if our cover is blown?” Brandon asked.

“Then you will attempt to reach the Redemption. The Redemption, however, cannot advance any further other than the drop-off point, or we may be detected. Meanwhile, if anyone is taken prisoner, you are to attempt to rescue him or her, but not at the expense of another captured team member. If you are unable to reach the Redemption, you are to remain in a position where you will not be easily caught. If that is the case, we’ll work out the plan from there, considering the situation.”

“Well isn’t this a risky mission,” Lloyd muttered from the corner of his mouth. And Subaru agreed with him. Minimal planning on minimal information…he certainly wasn’t Sakura, but he already knew that they were going into a sticky situation.

*****

Doctor Jerome Jacob looked out his laboratory window as the elevator moved to the hangar outside the entrance to his lab, situated underground. His lab was located at the corner of the hangar for a precise reason. It was a special lab for the head scientist of Tesla Technology Research Complex, and the hangar was the testing grounds for all his experiments. He had all the room he needed.

A bearded man in his fifties, Jacob was still into his job with dedication…he was certainly serious, but he was definitely dedicated to his work, although slightly less enthusiastic than he was twenty years ago. He had never really liked the idea about Reploids, although the decision completely out of his hands. He didn’t like the idea about machines that think. Humans already had that burden, and now they wanted to share that with machines.

What a character of human folly.

“Are you finished, Doctor?” Fireside asked from the corner of his room. The rear part of his helmet was open, with wires sticking into the socket. He seemed proficiently impatient as he sat there with almost nothing to do.

Jacob moved over to a computer and glanced at the data. Nodding, he hit a button as the wires released themselves from Fireside’s head, and the helmet sealed at the back of his head. Fireside nodded, satisfied.

“I’ve added another dose of the vaccination,” Jacob informed, “But as you know, your infection is special. I’ve never seen a Maverick infection as bad as yours…you seemed to have been infected with the original version of it. I have no idea how that got into you, but it’s possible. You are quite the antique, after all.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Fireside grunted.

“I meant it as one,” Jacob shrugged, and handed him to capsules, “These are emergency vaccines. They can only subdue the pain and prevent the spread of the infection, and their effect can only last for an hour. The rest is completely up to you.”

“Can’t you just delete the virus?” Fireside asked, irritated.

“I think I’ve told you for the seventeenth time,” Jacob replied calmly, “The virus has implanted itself permanently onto your mainframe. Should I delete the virus, you will go down with it, and there will be no way to repair you.”

Fireside growled and looked away. “Goddamn it. I hate this.”

“I understand your pain,” Jacob said sternly, “I wouldn’t want to get down here everyday either to have two wires stuck into the back of my head. Trust me, I know how it feels like. However, you remember what happens if you don’t take the vaccination. That incident when you were a Hunter. You nearly had both you and X killed.”

“Huh,” Fireside muttered, “Too bad X isn’t dead. At least there wouldn’t be a Neo Arcadia. Damned Maverick virus…”

“The key to this is prevention,” Jacob reminded, “If you know when to administer the virus, you can keep it from spreading.”

“I know,” Fireside nodded, and allowed his system to warm up again after a shakedown. Meanwhile, the doors opened to the lab, and Miguel, Lance, and Vincent walked through the door.

“Miguel,” Jacob acknowledged him with a curt nod, “Good to see you again. I’m glad you’ve been taking good care of the Storm of Fire.”

“Of course,” Miguel smirked, “Otherwise, I think you’d kill me. Lance, Vincent, this is Dr. Jerome Jacob. Jerome, they are…”

“Second Lieutenants Lance Sigel and Vincent Swan,” Jacob finished, stroking his beard, “I know. The two children who piloted Phoenix and Odin. The third…Lei Loyola…she’s at the Intelligence Division, yes?”

“It appears so,” Miguel nodded.

“No wonder it was so hard to get a hold on her,” Jacob shrugged, then nodded, “Well, I suppose I’ll find her soon. Anyways, if you’d give me a minute, there’s something I need to wrap up here. Miguel, it’ll be alright if you leave these two with me. I understand that you have something more important to do.”

“Right,” Miguel smiled, “I’ll see you all later.” Miguel walked out the door. Lance watched him disappear behind the door before looking back at the lab, and noticed that Fireside was sitting in the corner, watching them with indifferent eyes. Lance gave him a weak smile, which Fireside returned with a mere nod.

Vincent looked at Lance. He was taking it better than Vincent had expected, but Vincent figured his emotions were still mixed up inside. He sighed silently, watching as Lance approached Fireside.

“Lieutenant Colonel Fireside, right?” Lance smiled as he approached Fireside.

“Yeah,” Fireside nodded indifferently, “Technically, you are supposed to address me as sir. But I don’t care that much about military protocol. To me, it’s just a means to get this damn thing done. The war, both my war and their war.”

Lance frowned as Fireside prepared to stand up and leave. “You don’t harbor much loyalty to the United Nations, do you?”

Fireside scoffed. “Of course not.”

“So why did you side with the United Nations?” Lance persisted.

Fireside turned toward Lance with an annoyed expression. However, he was not annoyed at Lance, but rather, at the question he asked.

“Do you know who destroyed the Maverick Hunters HQ at the end of the twenty-second century?” he asked.

“Well,” Lance scratched his head, “The Hunters mismanaged an explosive that blew up the headquarters, but…”

“That’s the propaganda that the UN fed the public,” Fireside replied, then stepped up to Lance, motioning for him to sit down, and Vincent the same.

He looked around, then said to the two of them, “I don’t think any of the UN brass would like me telling you this, so keep your mouths shut and pretend you’re stupid in case you’re asked. The United Nations was the one who destroyed Hunters HQ. Somehow, they had gotten X to betray the Hunters, and he destroyed the HQ. Later, he turned against the United Nations and founded Neo Arcadia.”

Vincent shook his head in confusion. “Why would he do that?” Vincent whispered, “Betray his own kind…”

“If there is anything X loves most,” Fireside growled, “It is humans. He founded Neo Arcadia so that he could protect them. And because we’re in an energy crisis. Before X founded Neo Arcadia, there was a huge energy crisis as we were running out of energy. However, they found the energy source we’re using today…”

“Gaia,” Lance whispered. Fireside nodded.

“Gaia will never run out. However, its amount cannot increase, nor can it decrease. It can only be used on the planet, like a life force. The point is that we’re running out of Gaia as well. The solution to this is that we destroy things that use Gaia. Then it’ll free up more energy. And X has decided that by destroying Reploids, he’ll free up more energy. That’s why Doctor Jacob’s niece, a girl called Ciel, is conducting research on a new energy. But you don’t need to know that much. You understand me so far?”

Both of them nodded.

“Now back to the main question. You asked why I don’t harbor much loyalty to the United Nations. I’ll tell you candidly. There are two sides that I can choose to join. One side is a group that tried to destroy my kind, and another is a group that is destroying my kind. Kind of a bum choice I’ve got there, huh?”

Lance nodded, understanding. Vincent was less demonstrative about it, but his expression showed that he knew exactly what Fireside was talking about. When you have two choices, it’s always best to pick the better one, even if it was a bad one.

Fireside stood straighter, and nodded. “My time is up here,” Fireside said as he turned and walked through the door, “I hope I see you two again sometime…hopefully not on the battlefield.” He walked out, but stopped at right outside the door, grunted slightly, so quietly Lance almost missed it, as if Fireside was in pain, then continued to walk on.

“I’m ready for you two now,” Jacob said as he finished something on his computer. Lance stepped up to Jacob, Vincent right behind him.

Jacob turned to him with his mysteriously blue eyes, motioning to have a seat beside a massive variety of computers. They did so, and Jacob stand down in front of them, studying them, then nodded. “I assume I have you two…or three, including the other Intelligence Division agent…to thank for keeping my Reploid-armors safe.”

Vincent quirked an eyebrow in interest. “They were yours?” Vincent asked, surprised.

“Quite right,” Jacob nodded, “I was supposed to get to Third Haven to supervise the testing of the three Reploid-armors on the day of the attack…I suppose I was lucky not to be caught inside the action. You two, however, seem to be quite the different story.”

Lance looked away, uncomfortable. Vincent sensed the change in the air, and placed a hand on his shoulder, but Lance shrugged it off.

“At any rate,” Jacob continued, “It interested me quite so when the United Nations Military Division had hoped to take the Reploid-armors away from you…they wanted to put their own veterans into using the system instead of three children who haven’t even grown out of their teenager years…” Jacob smiled in amusement, “Interesting. What is an eighteen year-old girl doing in an office position inside the Intelligence Division anyways?”

“It makes them less suspicious,” Vincent said casually, “Who would ever expect children to become involved with military affairs?”

Lance and Jacob both looked at Vincent in amusement. Vincent blushed, then laughed, “It’s just something I heard from the Captain.”

“Is that so…” Jacob muttered, then continued, “Well, this morning, I was running tests on Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune…”

“They’re still around?” Lance asked in surprise.

“Oh, yes,” Jacob nodded, and pointed at a screen, showing Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune, hanging in a rack, deactivated. And Phoenix’s words struck Lance with hard brutality…if there was no need for fighting, there was no need for them. Lance flinched involuntarily.

“They were quite the beings I created,” Jacob nodded, “Each of them has a different personality, if you have noticed. Each of them was custom made…almost like the Cyber Elves that many people had used earlier.”

“Cyber Elves?” Lance echoed. He had heard of that somewhere before.

“Yes,” Jacob nodded, “Species of what we called Cybernetic-Neural Secondary Objective Artificial Intelligence. Their job was to provide help to anyone in need…mostly soldiers. They have been restricted, however, ever since we’ve started this war. But, it doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that I have been conducting tests with the three Reploid-armors this morning. Three candidates boarded the three Reploid-armors, but the neural-link system would not respond to their signals. They rejected them.”

Vincent frowned. “Was it damaged?”

Jacob shook his head. “No, it was not damaged. However, we detected biometric measures coming in from the new synthetic titanium we’ve mixed in with the neural-link system. We checked it, and found that the readings were different than the original readings which were taken before you boarded the Reploid-armors. We’ve adjusted the neural-link systems, but it didn’t make a difference. Then, we tried using the neural signals using your genetic samples, taken from medical tests upon your arrival to Second Haven, and fed the signals to the three Reploid-armors. To our surprise, they accepted the signal completely. Although the three Reploid-armors detected no true error or solution to this problem, I think I can sum up the problem quite accurately. Your genetic coding is imprinted onto the three Reploid-armors. It cannot be changed. In other words, you two, and that Lei Loyola, are the only three that can pilot the Reploid-armors now.”
bond4154
Chapter Fourteen

Lei could obviously tell that her superior, Director Jim Anderson, did not want to hear this. Most vehemently did he not want to hear this. Of course, he knew well enough that Lei would not do anything as stupid as to reveal anything about the Intelligence Division; she was too dedicated for that. No, what he really didn’t want to hear was one of his best agents to be cruising along with the Military Division.

Standing in front of his office desk was Lei, completely erect and still, looking at Anderson directly. It was a habit that Lei kept meaning to change…and didn’t quite get to it. But the habit really wasn’t that bad. At least it showed she had the bravery to look into a high-ranking man’s eyes.

“You know my opinion to this, don’t you, Commander Loyola?” Anderson asked quietly, “I think you know exactly how I feel, and how I want to react.”

“Yes, sir,” Lei nodded, trying to suppress the urge of swallowing. It wasn’t the time to look nervous in any way.

“Joining the Storm of Fire puts you under the direct command of Captain Miguel, whom I do have a respect for, and also under the command of Admiral Wallace, whom I do not have a respect for. Do you understand my point, Commander?”

“Yes, sir,” Lei nodded again.

Anderson sighed. “They will undoubtedly press you from time to time for information, and you will be roughhoused sometimes just for it. You know what you’re up against, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Lei replied, “I’m ready for it. I have a few people I know rather well on board the Storm of Fire…people who can help me. And as you said, Captain Miguel is someone who you have a respect for. It’s the same case with me here, sir.”

Anderson stared at her. “Those friends of yours…they would be Second Lieutenants Sigel and Swan, aren’t they?”

Lei tried to catch herself, but it was too late as she whispered, “Yes…sir.”

Anderson stood up, and looked at a picture hung up on the wall on the left side of his office. He had no idea who had painted the painting; he had always meant to check it up and never found the time to.

“Well,” Anderson sighed, “There’s not much I can do about it now. Captain Miguel has signed his agreement, and so has Admiral Wallace. Wallace has even sent a copy to a hearing committee and had them side with him. Even if I tried to make you stay here, it wouldn’t do much good. I think you know my opinion is that you should’ve went through me before you made your decision, Commander.”

“I apologize, sir,” Lei replied, not quite looking at Anderson’s eyes anymore.

“Well,” Anderson said, “I’ll approve your transfer to the Storm of Fire. I don’t think I need to remind you to watch your back, Commander. And on board the ship, and around the Military Division, you will be addressed as Second Lieutenant. I’m not sure if that counts as a demotion or not, but…I hope you can cope with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Lei saluted, “I will, sir.”

Anderson sighed again, and looked at Lei intensely in the eyes. “You’re one of our best, Loyola, don’t ever forget that. When this is all over…I hope to have you back in our division again.”

Lei nodded, instead of saluting this time. She didn’t feel if it was proper to salute. Besides…Anderson was almost like a second father to her, and Lei a second daughter to him. She didn’t know how things may come out if she had saluted.

“Yes…” she made out slowly, “…Thank you…sir.”

*****

“We’re…the only ones that can pilot them,” Vincent made out shakily with his breath.

“Yes,” Jacob nodded, “At the moment, Phoenix can only be piloted by Lieutenant Sigel, Odin by Lieutenant Swan, and Neptune by…that Lei girl. After twenty-three successive tests, results have shown the same. The neural-link system has sufficiently adapted to your biometry, and cannot be changed without permanently damaging the suit. Because of this, our current data is also flawed. This has been a considerable problem, concerning both the military and for us.”

“Why?” Lance asked, not quite catching on.

“Simple,” Jacob replied, “The Military Division is fully intent on using the three-Reploid armors, now that Neo Arcadia knows about them. However, if no one can use it except you, you will be ordered to pilot them. And this proves a setback to us as well, meaning the three does not work in full order. In other words, you three will have to pilot the Reploid-armors again.”

There was a pause, in where Lance considered this. Vincent seemed to be completely shocked, and Lance assumed Vincent didn’t want to pilot Odin any longer…wanted to put the fighting aside. But Lance wasn’t so badly put off…Phoenix wasn’t bad company, and Lance certainly wished to know him a bit longer.

“You mean we’ll have to pilot it from now on?” Lance asked, a bit more enthusiastically than he had expected or notice. What the hell, they had to fight, anyways. Jacob raised an eyebrow in interest, and Vincent gawped at Lance.

“Well, yes,” Jacob shrugged, “We certainly can’t stash them away…”

“Then I’ll do it,” Lance shrugged, “I’ll pilot Phoenix.”

“Lance!” Vincent finally regained his senses, “Are you insane? You want to fight in Phoenix? What is up with you?”

“We have to fight anyways,” Lance shrugged calmly, “Might as well do it with Phoenix. Besides, it would be a good thing. He’s good company, anyways, and…”

Lance suddenly paused as he noticed that Vincent’s eyes started glowing again, and instinctively, he ducked, just in time to evade a punch sent by Vincent’s full force. Lance saw the speed, and knew he wouldn’t have dodged the blow if he had been looking for that punch alone. Vincent’s eyes gave him away.

Lance rolled backwards, and stood up out of reach of Vincent, who was safely on the other side of a lab table Lance had stood behind. But Vincent reared his legs, preparing to jump over the thing. For a moment, Lance hesitated. He didn’t think Vincent was serious; he certainly couldn’t jump over a lab table if he tried…

But before things could get any further, Jacob had stood up, and calmly walked over to Vincent as he placed a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. Vincent jumped at the same time…but Jacob pushed him down. Vincent fired a fist in reflex at Jacob…and Jacob did something neither Lance nor Vincent expected. His eyes flashed as well, making his own eyes identical with the halo-glowing eyes that Vincent sported.

Jacob caught the punch calmly, then pushed Vincent into his own seat. The seat tilted backwards, as if about to fall, then righted itself. Lance counted down the seconds, one…two…three…before it was all over, and both Vincent and Jacob’s eyes went back to normal.

“Please keep in mind that there are very expensive and irreplaceable equipment in here,” Jacob said calmly, no change in the tone of voice he used only thirty seconds ago.

Vincent glared at Jacob, and for a horrible second, Lance thought Vincent may go berserk again…but Vincent simply nodded calmly as all the anger, both at Lance and Jacob, went out of him, and said, “I’m sorry, Doctor. And to you too, Lance.”

“Apology accepted,” Jacob nodded, and motioned for Lance to sit down next to Vincent. Lance stared at Vincent, but Vincent gazed down at the floor, unwillingly to look at anyone.

“It is interesting to see that you are a Gemini as well,” Jacob mused as he took his original seat in front of the two boys.

“A Gemini?” Lance repeated. He had heard of the term before, but never quite placed a finger on it. He knew it was a constellation and also a member of the Greek Zodiac, but he knew there was another meaning…just didn’t quite know what it was.

“It’s slang,” Jacob nodded, “Slang for the people who had survived the R-Bomb radiation on Seventh Haven and made it out alright. People such as Vincent and myself are Gemini’s. Most people who had survived the R-Bomb radiation had many problems in later years, such as diseases of cancer, mutation, although in most cases, they were eye problems and brain problems. However, it is a different case for Gemini’s. On the Greek Zodiac, the Gemini’s are represented as twins. That is what we are. While we are one person, the R-Bomb has effected us in such a way that our minds are often more advanced than others. It is as though two people are working inside one. We can do two tasks almost simultaneously, and do a good job at it. Also, Vincent is also extremely gifted, as am I, in the field of sight. Unlike others, we can virtually see in the dark, adjust to much visual difficulties immediately, and will never have any problems with short-sightedness or long-sightedness. Also, when a Gemini has a surge of emotion, his eyes tend to light up like Vincent’s. In addition, our bodies are capable of reaching unpredictable reaction times. I suppose it is the secret to my success here at Tesla Technology Research Complex.”

Lance looked at Vincent, who in turn looked at the ground. That was something Vincent had never told Lance before. Neither did he really tell him that he had been at Seventh Haven when the R-Bomb exploded. I don’t have his trust, Lance thought as he frowned, I’m going to have to change that.

“Well,” Jacob replied, “I suppose this subject is getting painful for the both of you, so we’ll save the rest tomorrow. If I’m informed correctly, you have R and R for the rest of the day, courtesy of Admiral Wallace and Captain Miguel, so I suggest you take it well. You’re free to go to the areas that are not restricted to you. You may want to tour the streets of Third Haven. Even if it is a militaristic island, it does sustain a civilian population, meaning that it is still an active city. Perhaps it would be nice if you went to a mall, or a garden, or whatever, to soothe your feelings.”

“Maybe the bed is better,” Vincent replied coolly, “I think I…need some time to cool down.”

“You sure you’re not coming?” Lance asked, reaching out for Vincent.

“No thanks,” Vincent shook his head and retracted his hand out of Lance’s reach (Vincent’s turn to do that, Jacob noticed), and stood up as he headed for the door.

Lance hesitated, deciding whether or not to follow. “Thanks for your time,” Lance said quickly to Jacob, before quickly catching up with Vincent.

As the two left the lab, Jacob watched them board the two elevators out the window.

“Those are two remarkable boys,” Jacob said, “Wouldn’t you say, Techno?”

A holographic figure drifted out from behind a computer, looking around this way and that, before fully revealing itself. Shaped oddly like a bird, Techno managed security and data processing of the lab, a Cyber Elf.

“I’d say,” Techno agreed, floating a meter and a half above the air, “Both of them exhibit a certain amount of humility and confidence…things I find rare in humans nowadays. I’m right, eh?”

“Most certainly,” Jacob replied, and got back to his computer, “What about data rearranging for Fireside? Have you finished that yet?”

“Done…”

“And your results?”

“Same as always. Fireside has a percentage ratio of zero point zero-zero-one percent of having the Maverick virus removed from his mainframe. That, is basically, impossible…at least, impossible at the human comprehension.”

“So the only hope he has right now is from the vaccinations.”

“Yes.”

“What about the status on the Reploid-armors?”

“Well, I haven’t told them about it yet, but Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune still insist that the reason for this seeming failure of the neural-link system is beyond their comprehension. I have to agree with you, though. Statistics are on the side of your opinion.”

“Not just statistics,” Jacob added wryly, “Your own personal instinct as well.”

Techno have a strange smile with its beak. Unlike other Cyber Elves, Techno had a pure mind, making him more like human, and being more human means he could explain things in the human way, not a computer calculated way.

“Well,” Techno shrugged, which was hardly visible, “If you must put it that way, then so it be.”

“The correct usage is ‘so be it’,” Jacob corrected.

“Noted,” Techno gave a curt nod.

“And what about…him?”

Techno hesitated. He had never liked the idea about Doctor Jacob’s new project…new black project. “Doctor,” Techno started, hesitated, then began again, “It’s going good. But Doctor, with all due respect…are you sure you want to do this? It’s not too late to…”

“Techno,” Jacob cut Techno short, “If the United Nations fall to Neo Arcadia, the only hope that Reploids have left will be with my niece and her Resistance. When that time comes, if it has to come, I want to make sure she is ready for it.”

If Techno had a mouth, he would’ve pressed it into a thin line. He didn’t like how the Doctor wanted things to be…certainly he could’ve done something else? Of course, he was in no position to argue with his creator, so he simply said…

“Yes, Doctor.”

*****

Dressed in civilian clothes and with UN uniforms in their backpacks, Subaru nodded to his team as they disposed of their scuba diving gear, hiding them in a concealed alcove. Walking into the vicinity of the downtown, they seemed like cadets who had newly joined up with the service and had wanted an run on the beach.

“I think we should start out downtown,” Subaru said, “We’ll split up later, once we have a lead or two. Everyone brought their personal COM systems?”

Four nods from his team. Subaru nodded, satisfied.

“We’ll use these walkie-talkies for now,” Subaru held up the civilian walkie-talkies that had been provided, “It broadcasts a public signal, but it isn’t really monitored. However, don’t sound too conspicuous, because it may be intercepted by coincidence. Questions?”

“If we split up, where do we meet?” Carol asked.

“There is a military resort in downtown called the Gloria Hotel,” Subaru replied, pointing at a tall building a mile away, “Recon from the Redemption had picked it up, and suggested it would nice to hear up chatter from there. We’ll start small, however. We don’t know what kind of identification checks they may have in their, so we’ll have to gather some more info first.”

“Rules of engagement?” Lloyd inquired.

“We’re only carrying concealed pistols, but don’t fire unless you are in the imminent danger of being captured. If you create a ruckus early on, the entire mission will fail.”

Subaru assessed his team again, nodded. “Alright. Remember, try to make it back from this mission in one piece. I don’t want anyone killed.”

His team saluted, and they split up slightly, walked on both sides of the streets, with Subaru and Sakura on the right, Brandon and Carol on the left, and Lloyd lingering behind, just as they had planned.

Subaru hoped that a mission inside enemy territory was just as easy as any other mission they had done. Because if they were discovered…they might never make it out alive.

*****

Alone on the streets of Second Haven, Lance looked up at the sights. Towering skyscrapers, soldiers on the ground…it looked like a beautiful downtown, but it still didn’t really bring any comfort to Lance as he walked on the streets of Second Haven.

He walked past stores and malls, as well as other civilians living in the area. There was also a substantial amount of soldiers who walked, policing their weapons, all with safeties. They did their patrols, and talked casually to passer-bys. Lance felt a bit more comfortable with that; it convinced him that everyone did have a life.

Vincent had gone directly to Gloria Hotel as soon as they had left the complex. Lance asked if he should go with Vincent, but Vincent said that he should do as Doctor Jacob had said, take a view of the sights. “It’ll help,” Vincent shrugged as he stepped onto the transport that would take him to his current residence.

What was wrong with Vincent? Why did he not look forward to piloting the Reploid-armors? Certainly it had nothing to do with Eli, his sister. No matter how he thought of it, Lance couldn’t get a match. Nothing fit in. Nothing had ever fit in with his life since he joined the crew of the Storm of Fire. He wasn’t sick of it…but he knew how to basically unlike the situation he was in.

Life is funny, Lance thought, because you’ll never know where you’ll end up if you don’t watch it.

Then, it all happened quickly as he looked up. The traffic lights changed as two people, couldn’t have been much older than he was, crossed the street at the last minute just as the cars started to accelerate. The male made it past okay, but…

The female tripped on something, Lance couldn’t see what, but she fell alright. The male didn’t notice it until the lights fully turned red and he had reached the other side. He turned, gasped in shock, and shouted her name…

Lance didn’t hear what it was, because he had already began streaking toward the intersection.

The girl screamed as the car was only a split-second from turning her into something other than whole before something picked her up…and knocked her to the other side of the road, although she was already down. She and someone else tumbled to the curb before they finally stopped against the sidewalk. Someone shielded her quickly as the car went by where they had been a second or two ago…the screeched as the driver finally realized what happened as the car skidded to a clumsy halt, then pulled quickly over to the sidewalk so that he wouldn’t interfere with traffic.

“Hey!” the driver shouted out the window, shaken, irritated, and concerned at the same time, “What the hell was that? Are you okay?”

The girl didn’t reply; her eyes were still wide, but Lance checked her over quickly. She didn’t looked hurt in any way, just a scratch of where she fell on the asphalt on the knee. She should be fine.

“She’s fine,” Lance replied, “Sorry about that…”

“It’s okay,” the driver replied, relieved, “Watch the road next time, man.” With that he drove away.

The male had quickly ran up to her, and picked her up from Lance’s arms. “Are you alright?” he kept saying, “You okay?”

Three more people finally joined them. The girl finally nodded, regaining her senses and conscious once more.

“I’m…” she whispered, “I’m fine. I’m okay. You can let go now.”

The male let go, although reluctantly. Another male stepped up.

“You sure you okay?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” the girl replied, now beginning to get irritated, “If you’re done looking over me, I have someone to thank.”

The group took a step back around her as the girl looked directly at Lance, more or less to the sides. “Thanks,” she gave a smirk, “Thanks for saving me right there.”

“Um…” Lance scratched his head, and completely looked to the side, “No…no problem at all.”

“We owe you for that one,” the second male said as he smiled and approached Lance, taking a hand out as a gesture for a handshake. After accepting Phoenix’s handshake, Lance didn’t feel very awkward as he took the male’s hand into his own and shook it slightly before letting go.

“What’s your name?” the male asked.

“Me?” Lance asked, then replied, “Lance. Lance Sigel.”

The male smiled, and replied, “The girl you just saved is Carol Allegro. My name is Subaru Alto.”
bond4154
Chapter Fifteen

Miguel sat in his own office desk as Helios flanked his side. In front of him was Lei, once again, in front of him.

The second time in a day that she had wound up in front of someone and was separated by a desk.

Miguel looked calm, impassive, and almost glad that Lei decided to come along for the ride. Helios, however, seemed almost worried and suspicious, and Lei wasn’t surprised in the least. Someone like Helios always had his suspicions about the Intelligence Division.

“I don’t know what sparked your motive to join the Storm of Fire, Lei,” Miguel smiled, “But I’ve seen the paperwork, I’ve signed it along with Admiral Wallace, and it seems Director Anderson has signed his part too. So you can now consider yourself as a member of my crew, Second Lieutenant Loyola.”

“Thank you, sir,” Loyola replied, dressed in full uniform, as she snapped a salute.

“According to the papers,” Miguel shuffled through a massive pile of paperwork stacked on his desk that both he and Helios had attempted to go through earlier, “You will be stationed on Second Haven until tomorrow, September 21. We will assist the Second Haven defenses my securing the perimeter around Second Haven on patrol. Your position, as the pilot of Neptune, seems to be pretty straightforward. You have heard of the news from Doctor Jacob, right? That you’re…”

“…The only available pilot for Neptune,” Lei nodded, “I know.”

“Don’t interrupt your Captain,” Helios reminded sternly.

Lei stiffened. “I apologize, sir,” she said quickly.

Miguel laughed. “Not a problem. Well, then, Second Lieutenant. Dismissed.”

“Sir!” Lei flashed another saluted before she turned (notoriously difficult on high heels), and walked calmly out of the door.

Helios looked at Miguel uncomfortably. “Sir,” he said, “It would be a good idea to put her under heavy surveillance first…”

“It’s too late for that,” Miguel sighed, irritated at Helios’ hesitation, “And don’t call me sir all the time. We’re not on board the Storm of Fire anymore.”

“But it allows me to insult you, then cool you down by calling you sir,” Helios replied with a completely straight face. Miguel couldn’t help but to curve a smile on his face. That was as close as Helios got to making a joke.

“Just call me Miguel,” Miguel shrugged as he stood up from his desk and moved over to the glass wall of his suite in the Gloria Hotel, in a special office that had been reserved for him. Other than just being a hotel, the Gloria Hotel also acted as a second office for officers, forming the bridge between work and rest.

“Anyway, my concerns about the girl, sir…Miguel,” Helios continued, “I don’t understand why she would want to join the Military Division other than the intent to gain information for the Intelligence Division. If that is the case, we can at least try to know what she’s getting from us, or make her tell us what she knows about the Intelligence Division…”

“Unacceptable, Helios,” Miguel cut Helios off again, “She’s part of my crew now, and will be treated the same as all the others.”

“Sir,” Helios countered, completely forgetting about calling him Miguel, “Putting your men under surveillance is acceptable by protocol, and is even recommended if you have your suspicions about a certain officer.”

“But I don’t have any suspicions about her, Helios,” Miguel replied, watching the seagulls fly unusually close to the skyscrapers, “I believe that she wants to help us, to fight along with us. Personally, I don’t care if she’s trying to get any information from us, so long as she does her part on my ship.”

Helios slammed both his palms onto Miguel’s desk. “Captain!” Helios exclaimed, “If we do this, they may gain more information about the Military Division, and the tensions between the two Divisions will greatly increase! Even the civilians are starting to take sides with either Division.”

Miguel turned around calmly. “Even if I don’t want her on my ship, Admiral Wallace has already placed her on my crew. Now that I’ve signed my papers, it would cause a large amount of trouble to say that I don’t want her anymore.”

“But you can watch her, and see if she pulls any moves. I can easily arrange for several crewmembers to take shifts in watching her movements and schedule carefully. At least we’ll be prepared when something happens.”

Miguel faced Helios directly. “Helios, if you were in her situation, would you like to be watched like that?”

Helios stiffened uneasily. “If you didn’t trust me, I wouldn’t have a choice.”

Miguel sighed and smiled. It wasn’t easy trying to change the mind of his friend…or his own. “Well,” Miguel replied, “Don’t forget that she is the only one that can pilot Neptune now…and we need her help. If we give her too much stress…worse things can happen than just a prejudice between the Military and the Intelligence Divisions.”

Helios began to protest, but Miguel quickly added, “That was from your captain, not your friend.”

Helios frowned and glared at Miguel, but said nothing. If Miguel had to put it that way, Helios didn’t have much of a choice.

“Yes, sir,” Helios replied slowly and quietly, although it didn’t come out quite even.

Miguel broke into a smile. “What do you say? Dinner tonight at Gloria?”

Helios’ expression didn’t change in the slightest. “Whatever you say…Miguel.”

*****

Lance’s information was extremely useful. Despite the fact that he was the enemy, Subaru couldn’t help but like him. And he noticed that Brandon could tolerate him, whereas he usually doesn’t tolerate anyone. Maybe it was because he had saved Carol’s life, but Subaru was quite pleased with the change.

Passing the check-in, Lance logged all of them in, although there were problems with their cards at first, but Lance easily fixed that. Subaru noticed that he was seemingly skilled with computers.

“This hotel doesn’t have much for charges,” Lance explained when they were all alone in the elevator, “Basically, it all depends on rank. You have certain access to certain different stuff…like the food around here is free, and so are the services. The taxes pay for all of that, and the entire facility is basically funded by the military.”

Subaru nodded, taking note of every word. Even if he forgot, he could always ask Sakura, who was making notes with notebook, and Lloyd, who had a near permanent memory. Brandon and Carol paid more attention to personnel, and Subaru figured they wanted to see who were their targets…the brass of the United Nations. None of them really came up, though.

“You’re Second Lieutenant, right?” Subaru asked. Lance stopped, surprising everyone as they nearly walked passed him. He looked down at the floor, and didn’t quite respond.

“Did I say something wrong?” Subaru asked.

“Maybe he got demoted or something,” Brandon whispered to Carol, low enough for Lance not to hear.

“No…” Lance shook his head and continued walking, “Nothing.”

Their expressions were all puzzled, other than Lloyd, who had no expression at all. Lance ignored them, however, as he guided them to the main dining room. “I suppose you’re all getting hungry,” Lance said as he stopped, “This is the main restaurant inside the Gloria. Although they aren’t serving much right now, they’ve got some dessert at the moment, and they’ll serve dinner in another hour or so. You guys want something to eat?”

“We’ll take another look around,” Brandon said, placing an arm around Carol’s shoulder, “We’ll be back.”

“I’m not hungry, sorry,” Lloyd shrugged.

“Alright,” Subaru nodded, “I think I’ll grab some eats. What about you, Sakura?”

“I’ll stay,” Sakura replied, “Why don’t you join us?” she asked Lance.

“Me?” Lance looked around, as if she could’ve been talking to someone else, “Well…I’m not hungry, but…I have nothing to do anyways.”

“Well, then,” Subaru smiled, “It’d be nice if we have someone to talk to, unless you have something else to do.”

“I’m okay…I guess,” Lance shrugged.

“Alright,” Subaru nodded, “Brandon, Lloyd, Carol, we’ll meet downstairs in an hour. Feel free to tour around until then. Stay in the hotel, though.”

“Got it,” Brandon nodded, and the three left, turning into the hallway and disappearing behind the door.

“Well,” Lance shrugged, “I guess I’ll go get a seat for you two, and you guys can get some dessert.”

“Awesome,” Subaru smiled, and when he and Sakura came back with their load of desserts (Subaru a bowl pudding and Sakura a cup of ice cream), they found Lance sitting by the window at a table for four, staring outwards.

“Thanks,” Sakura said as she and Subaru sat at one end of the table. Lance looked up, startled; he had obviously been thinking about something else.

“Oh, yeah, not a problem,” Lance gave a smile in return.

“You sure you don’t want to grab anything?” Subaru asked, “All that stuff looks very appealing.”

“I want to save some room for dinner,” Lance replied, “Thanks anyways.”

“Something bothering you?” Sakura asked as she began to take a bite in her ice cream. Subaru winced; he had hoped Lance begin to get comfortable before they would start talking about this, but Sakura had jumped the gun. Lance showed his own signs of discomfort, and looked out the window again.

“Nothing, really,” Lance replied.

“Don’t try to fool me,” Sakura laughed, “I can see your pain. You’re troubled. Can you tell us what? Maybe we can do something about it.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Lance shook his head with a polite smile, but one of pity, “You’re all Majors, right? If a Second Lieutenant like me can’t do anything about it, then you won’t be able to.”

“Does it hurt telling us?” Sakura implored.

“Sakura…” Subaru intervened, wanting her to stop.

Lance sighed as he settled his eyes on the table this time. “There…were some really bad choices that I had to make. They were all pretty bad…I know even if the situation sucks, I’m supposed to pick the better one, no matter how bad it is. But…I still don’t quite know if I’ve picked the right one.”

“It’s about the war, isn’t it?” Sakura continued.

Lance gave a dry smile. “I’m only Second Lieutenant for a special reason…a reason I can’t tell you. But…I wish I wasn’t a Second Lieutenant. I wish I wasn’t in the military at all.”

“You don’t want to die,” Subaru whispered.

“It isn’t that,” Lance corrected, “It’s that I don’t want others to die…I know it’s impossible, but what I really mean is that I don’t want to make others die. Sometimes, I have no choice…if I don’t kill my enemies, they’ll kill me. So if I have to protect those that I love, I have to make others die.”

There was a moment of silence between them…a silence that was filled only by the chatter of the others around them. But they paid no heed to it as Lance’s words sank in deep into their minds.

Finally, Sakura spoke up. “I’m…” she started, then shook her head, thinking those words weren’t too convincing, then decided to go with the usual routine, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t…well, you know…”

“It’s okay,” Lance smiled, “I…I’m getting used to it, I guess.”

“Have you taken any lives yet?” Subaru whispered.

“Thank god no,” Lance laughed, “I think I would’ve killed myself should the need arise.”

“So you want the war to end,” Sakura nodded.

“But I can’t do that, can I?” Lance dropped his gaze out the window again, “No matter how much I kill…I can’t stop the war like that. I didn’t really enlist in my own will, either. I really don’t care whether I side with the United Nations or Neo Arcadia…it’s just I think Reploids should be given another chance.”

Both Subaru and Sakura stared at Lance.

“I don’t know what I am anymore,” Lance whispered, “Am I a soldier or a human? Am I good or bad? They tell me I’m good, because I’m fighting Neo Arcadia…but the Neo Arcadians think I’m bad, because I fight against them. Where do you draw the line between good and bad? What does it take for everyone to accept me as who I am?”

Subaru and Sakura continued to stare. Lance looked at them with a puzzled expression, and laughed. “I’m sorry,” he chuckled, “I…I was just speaking out my mind. I really shouldn’t have said that.”

Subaru placed a hand on Lance’s shoulder and smiled calmly. “Lance,” he said quietly, “I may only have met you for an hour, but…if there is anyone that deserves to take lives…it should be you.”

Lance’s eyes widened in surprise, staring at Subaru, and then at Sakura, who gave him a smile and a nod. Lance smiled calmly, serenely. “Thank you…Subaru.”

“Lance!” a voice called from the entrance. The three turned around and saw Aden and Mia, walking over.

“There you are,” Mia smiled, “We’ve been looking for you for a while now.”

“Sorry,” Lance smiled weakly, “What’s up?”

“The Captain wants you back in the hangar ASAP,” Aden replied, “He says we’ve got equipment to handle before dinner.”

“Alright,” Lance stood up, and waved to Subaru and Sakura, “I’ll see you both later.”

“Bye,” Subaru nodded as Lance, Aden, and Mia walked out and disappeared behind the bend.

“You really meant that, didn’t you?” Sakura smiled as soon as they turned out, “That he was one who deserved to kill?”

Subaru smiled and stroked her hair softly. “Of course I did,” Subaru nodded.

*****

The ringer buzzed as Epsilon and Archangel lined up on the shooting range, beginning their marksmen exercise.

Both had pistols in their hands, P85, or simply called Eight-Fives. Powerful and accurate, they crack through some body armor, and have a spring-loaded feedback mechanism that cuts recoil, providing more shots at the right places.

The first targets showed up, cardboard representations of Neo Arcadian X33 armors. Archangel fired two rounds into the two in his sight, while Epsilon waited for her two targets to align, then pulled the trigger, allowing the bullet the go through both targets.

More cardboard figures moved around, and this time, they moved like real X33 armors, flying in strange formations. Archangel drove rapid rounds into his targets, easily making short work of the targets as they were all covered with holes. He reloaded quickly, while Epsilon shot accurately through the head of each target.

Another group of enemies appeared this time, Neo Arcadian tanks. The commander of the tank was seen peering through the peek-hole of the tank, and the objective was to attempt to shoot through the peek-hole. Not an easy thing when the target was fifty meters away, the target moving, and the peek-hole about one inch in height and three inches in width.

Archangel fired rapidly as he hit the spots around the peek-hole before nailing the pilot with his sixth shot. Epsilon aimed carefully, and just before the tank disappeared behind a representation of a building, she struck right through the peek-hole.

“You don’t have to be so conservative on ammo, you know,” Archangel chuckled as he pointed, “Snipers this time.”

At the end of the shooting gallery were smaller targets, what represented snipers. They were easier to hit than the peek-holes, but harder to spot as they came through what looked like windows on the wall.

Archangel waited until a flash came from a certain window, indicating that the sniper had fired and gave away his position. Archangel averted his aim, and dug a trio of bullets that struck the sniper immediately. Spotting the sniper wasn’t a problem for Epsilon, however. She had to undergo vigorous visual tests before becoming a pilot. For her, it was much harder to spot a fighter at long-range in the open seas than finding a sniper. She found her target easily, and fired four times before hitting her target.

The buzzer buzzed again, concluding their exercise. Both of them locked the safeties on their Eight-Fives and took off their safety goggles as they looked at the screen overhead. For the short exercise, Archangel had eleven hits out of seventeen bullets fired, and Epsilon with seven out of ten shots fired.

“Damn,” Archangel chuckled as he holstered his Eight-Five, “Still not good enough for the master, huh?”

“I’m only an expert at aerial combat,” Epsilon laughed, and did the same with her weapon as she logged out both of their identifications and weapons from a computer nearby, “You were impressive, though. I should’ve used more shots…even with Eight-Fives, those X33 armors don’t crack easily.”

“Nah,” Archangel grinned, “You’re in your prime.”

Epsilon opened her mouth to reply, but she was cut off by a sudden siren ring in the shooting range as the klaxons blared and the red lights went off.

“Riot detected at Seventh Street of Main Haven!” the klaxons blared, “All available combat personnel, please report to subdue riot! Repeat…”

“Goddamn,” Archangel hissed, “This has got to be another Military and Intelligence feud!”

“There’ll be hell to pay,” Epsilon replied with hesitating as she buckled on a bulletproof armor on her and tossed one to Archangel, “Seventh Street is only a block away. Let’s go.”

*****

Phoenix looked around, as Odin and Neptune stepped into the Storm of Fire along with him. The surroundings were familiar, but he didn’t quite expect to get out of their shakedown that quickly…it seems the United Nations wanted them combat ready as soon as possible.

“Prepare yourselves for standby as soon as we reached our designated positions,” Phoenix said, with a nod from Odin and no reaction from Neptune.

Phoenix looked around, and saw no sign of Lance. He figured that he was at Hotel Gloria, probably enjoying himself…Phoenix sighed, a strange ability for a Reploid without a mouth. It wasn’t Lance’s fault, although Phoenix would rather have him for a pilot…

Doctor Jacob had said something about calibration errors earlier…and Phoenix couldn’t understand why. They had done some testing with other neural signals, had many candidates come into him to test…but no matter how Phoenix tried, his neural-link system simply rejected the signal. Phoenix had no idea why. Perhaps he would never know why. Science had its own reasons, not ones that Phoenix could comprehend…or ones that he wanted to comprehend.”

“I’ve got something on Priority COM Channel Beta,” Odin suddenly stopped and snapped, “There…there is a riot going on at Seventh Street.”

“Oh, boy,” Neptune grumbled, “Another one of those Military and Intelligence feuds, is it? We have enough of the UN brass going through with their petty differences, and now civilians are taking sides? This is so bull.”

“UN personnel are now sent in for peacekeeping efforts,” Odin said grimly, looking at both Phoenix and Neptune, “But damage and casualties have already started.”

“Great,” Phoenix mumbled as he logged himself into Priority COM Channel Beta as well. Indeed, he immediately got surveillance clips of what was becoming a full-scale riot as civilians became mobs, with sticks and guns…fed on by propaganda from both the Military and Intelligence Divisions. Both sides produced viable solutions, different, but viable, to the war that they were losing…and the civilians decided to take matters into their own hands.

“Are we going to do anything?” Neptune asked, just as the doors suddenly opened behind her. In ran a Second Lieutenant as he rushed toward Phoenix. Phoenix turned, and nearly gasped in surprise.

“Open up, Phoenix!” Lance shouted, dashing toward Phoenix.

“W…what?” Phoenix didn’t quite get the situation yet. The truth was, Phoenix had extreme doubts as if he would even see Lance again. Yet there he was, running toward Phoenix, in life and in reality.

“Now’s not the time,” Lance panted for air, stopping in front of Phoenix, “There’s a riot going on at…”

“…Seventh Street,” Odin finished for him, nodding, not too surprised, although he didn’t think he would see Lance either.

“They called all available personnel to get to the scene,” Lance smiled as he looked up at Phoenix, “I…I thought I may be able to help.”

“Lance…” Phoenix whispered, then nodded with determination, “Alright,” he said, opening up so Lance could get in, “Let’s rumble. Odin, Neptune, you two stay here just in case Vincent and Lei come as well.”

“Roger,” Odin replied as Phoenix closed up just after Lance stepped in. Lance allowed his body to relax as the neural signals linked up with the armor’s neural-link system. It responded actively.

“Strange,” Phoenix mused, “It…it shows not problem with your biometric signals. How can this…”

“I’m the only one that can control you now,” Lance smiled, “Or that’s what Doctor Jacob says.”

Phoenix hesitated, not sure whether or not to believe him, and replied, “So you believe Doctor Jacob too…” he added pleasantly, “I hope what he’s saying is true.”

“Yeah,” Lance laughed, “Me too. Now come on. We have lives to save.”
bond4154
Chapter Sixteen

“My god…” Archangel whispered as they surfaced on Seventh Street, attempting to track the mob…and observing the destruction.

Seventh Street now looked like a war zone. There were fires, and bodies on the floor; Archangel counted seventeen. Epsilon stepped right up to him and hissed.

“Goddamn,” she whispered, “This is so screwed up…”

“And it’ll continue unless the Divisions can stop their petty little war,” Archangel muttered as he heard gunshots on the corner. Archangel and Epsilon pressed themselves against the wall, then attached their silencers, as well as activate their laser targeting reticule and stun mode, firing a less-than-lethal round. Military hardly ever described a stun round as non-lethal; a weapon is not classified as anything else, and even air guns could kill at point blank range.

“Optic-wand,” Epsilon whispered as Archangel passed her the “optic-wand”, a small instrument that was basically a mirror attached to the end of a stick, which allowed them to recon certain situations without exposing them to direct threats or detection.

Epsilon moved the mirror slightly out to see civilians and riot squads engaged in combat…although it was mostly civilians versus civilians. Even after arrest of many suspects, the United Nations never fully understood exactly how these fights and riots start…they simply know they do start, given the right incentive.

“Three civilians in my sights, engaged with an unknown number of other civilians and riot squad members,” Epsilon whispered, “Their backs are turned to us. We can take them out easily.” Archangel nodded, and leaned past the wall slightly, along with Epsilon. Two red dots appeared on one of the backs of the civilians, crouched behind a wrecked car and firing at the riot squads. Both Epsilon and Archangel fired…and the guy dropped. He wasn’t dead, but he dropped, alright. The stun rounds were loaded with enough tranquilizer chemicals to knock out an elephant in seconds.

The other two took notice and looked up, predicting a sniper. This made them even easier targets for Epsilon and Archangel as they each took a target, and ejected a round into each of them. They slumped to the ground, looking like they had fallen asleep listening to a lullaby.

“Move,” Epsilon nodded as she and Archangel crouched low and moved up to the position where the three civilians had been before. Reaching them, they quickly policed their weapons and restrained them, to prevent further chaos.

Suddenly, a sound of rockets echoed through the urban jungle, resounding and resounding. Epsilon and Archangel ducked as they covered their head with their hands, expecting some sort of rocket strike…

Instead, something landed right next to them as he fired a trio of rounds that resembled the distinct sound of the MA71 rifle…

“Lieutenant!” something said in a mechanically amplified and altered voice, “You too, Major! It’s good to see you both here.”

Both Epsilon and Archangel looked up. Their jaws dropped.

“L…Lance?” Epsilon whispered.

“Sorry if I’m late,” Lance replied calmly, and ducked under the car as a round pinged off the trunk of the car. Lance fired another burst back, missing the target, but it caused the civilian to duck back.

“Is there some sort of non-lethal setting on this thing?” Lance asked, looking around his rifle for a switch or something.

“The correct term is less-than-lethal,” Epsilon corrected, although she was still in a state of shock. Like everyone else, she didn’t expect that she would see Lance pilot Phoenix again, and that he would be involved in this fight.

“No, there isn’t,” Phoenix replied, “This MA71 rifle is mainly used for combat, not for riot control purposes.”

“Damn,” Lance whispered, “You mean if I shoot, I have to kill?”

“Not necessarily,” Phoenix answered, “If you shoot less vital parts of the body, such as the arms and legs, it will be less probable that you kill them.”

“Right…” Lance whispered as he ignited his rockets once again, and involuntarily spread the metallic wings on the back of Phoenix. The mob took notice, didn’t fire yet, not knowing which side it was on, Military or Intelligence. Lance couldn’t quite tell which was which…but he was certain that he would bring an end to this fight.

Landing in the middle of the crowd, he quickly gripped his rifle, but didn’t fire. Hopefully, by seeing him, they would run…by intimidating them, of course.

It worked, slightly. Most of the civilians ran, thinking it was some sort of new weapon used by the riot squads. The problem was, other civilians remained defiant as they concentrated their gunnery at them, and the riot squads weren’t sure what to do either.

“Warning,” Phoenix quickly said, “I’m detecting that there are some machine guns that they have in hand. They shouldn’t do any damage to the armor, but I wouldn’t suggest that you stand around either, unless you intend to use your shield.”

“Understood,” Lance replied as he placed his thrusters on full burn and armed a different set of weapons…missiles.

Jumping into the window of one building to shield himself from incoming fire, he fired a volley of missiles near the civilians targeting him. Naturally, it wasn’t aimed directly at them; he had already cut off the lock-on module for the missiles that would’ve tracked its way to the center of the victim’s body and torn him apart so fast there would be no remains should it be activated.

The missiles worked like a charm. A loud enough sound and large enough cloud of dust basically scared the urine out of their bowels as the rioters immediately scrambled out, some with the audacity to return fire at the riot squad, not much in appetite for aiming at a Reploid-armor with the sufficient firepower to take out a battleship.

“Phoenix,” Lance quickly said as he soared out of the building and regained his air, “Get me an updated report on where those riot squads are moving. I don’t want to hurt them, but I want to get them into the right hands. Can you do something like bring up a map to show me where our guys are moving up?”

“Yes,” Phoenix replied immediately as a transparent map showed up at the bottom-right corner of his HUD, and Lance studied it before nodding, acknowledging his new strategy. Hitting his thrusters, he gained speed across the street as he quickly cut off the route of an empty street as riot squads began to rush in to handle the prosecutors, pelting the rioters with stun rounds. Lance greatly envied the fact that the riot guards had less-than-lethal MA71 rifles, and wanted to trade his own for theirs, but he knew it wasn’t the time.

*****

“No way,” Brandon scowled as he took cover behind the pillar of the Gloria Hotel, moments before a streak of bullets nearly scraped his chest, “A fight in the middle of a street in Second Haven? This is supposed to be the UN headquarters. I can’t believe the United Nations is so divided against each other.”

Subaru didn’t answer as he stood next to him, but nodded in acknowledgement. The moment the team of five had left the hotel, a mob had suddenly opened fire on another group, and now the freedom to bear arms has gone to its worse as the street was turned into an urban warfare scenario.

In their excitement, the team had drawn their pistols, but didn’t fire. Right now, they wanted to remain in a low profile, and they didn’t want to jeopardize this mission over a little civil unrest.

The sound of rockets soared overhead, but they heard no explosions, other then the initial impact that they had heard with another roaring of rockets were heard. Originally assuming that the UN was using the employ of rockets for simple crowd control, they now ruled out that possibility.

“Carol!” Subaru called out, “Take a look and see what are those rocket sounds I hear.”

“Got it,” Carol nodded, and peeked only slightly behind the pillar. She looked around, waited for about ten seconds.

“I…I can’t see anything,” Carol called back, “I don’t…oh, my god…” she suddenly paused.

“What?” Subaru demanded, immediately tensing his grip on the pistol, “What is it?”

“Its…” Carol exclaimed, “It’s him! It’s Phoenix!”

“What?” Brandon hissed, and Subaru could immediately see Brandon both become tense and excited at the same time. Brandon truly looked alive…but he didn’t know that the odds were completely against him.

“Wait!” Sakura screamed, but she wasn’t nearly quick enough. Brandon had already darted from his hiding place and brought his pistol up to level with the Phoenix as he hit the pistol rapidly. He emptied all eight rounds from his bullet within two seconds as six of them made direct contacts to the head.

There was no scratch on the Reploid-armor.

“What the hell?” Brandon gasped as the pilot of the armor turned in reflex, shocked from his body language, and fired a round, the barrel of his rifle aimed directly at Brandon as the flash seemed to engulf the entire world…

“Brandon!” Subaru screamed and lunged forward.

But Carol got there before he did.

Carol stepped in front of Brandon as she took the round, grunting slightly as it seemed to make contact with her chest. She tumbled backwards slightly as Brandon’s expression portrayed one of shock.

“Carol!” Brandon screamed as he went forward to grab Carol.

“It’s okay,” she grunted slightly as she regained her balance, “I have body armor.”

Brandon let a sigh of relief. “Good…” he whispered, “I was getting worried…”

“Get back here,” Lloyd said calmly, but urgently, as he pulled both Brandon and Carol back into the pillar. However, Subaru observed that the Phoenix seemed to have froze there…as if he was shocked at what he had done. Killing had obviously not been the pilot’s intent; it had been a reflex, and now the pilot, whoever it was, wished he hadn’t done that.

However, a female Reploid First Lieutenant immediately rushed up to him. “Hey!” she shouted as she placed an arm on his shoulder (a dangerous action, Subaru noticed, considering the pilot of Phoenix could’ve accidentally shot her too), “Admiral Wallace has an urgent order for you to get out of sight! This is a secret weapon, and we can’t afford to let people know!”

The armor froze there…but then, his attention snapped back to the Lieutenant shortly, and he nodded. Phoenix immediately flew away, while the Lieutenant ran for cover, firing rounds at those who seemed suspicious as she rolled out of sight.

“Here!” Sakura called from a bus nearby, which had been abandoned during the shootout. The engine was still on, though, and it was intact, other than several shattered windows, “Get in!” The other four quickly ran in without hesitation, boarding the bus as Sakura hit the accelerator. The bus lurched slowly forward just as the doors closed, and she quickly drove away from the shootout.

“God…” Subaru whispered as he slumped on a seat, staying below the window, though, “I do not want to get into something like that again.”

“Agreed,” Lloyd replied indifferently, although Subaru wondered if Lloyd even saw half of what Subaru himself had seen.

“Oh, my god!” came a sudden cry from the end of the bus, so sudden and so naked in tone that Sakura nearly hit the breaks and sent the four flying forward. They all turned to see Brandon kneeling over Carol at the back seat. Carol was sprawled over the back seat, coating her blue uniform with a dark shade of crimson.

“Carol!” Subaru shouted, and made his way quickly toward the rear with Lloyd right behind him. Sakura stopped and prepared to get up, but Subaru turned around and shook his head fiercely.

“No,” he snapped, “Get back driving. Get us out of here, now!”

Sakura was taken aback by Subaru’s response, but quickly understood the gravity of the situation as she sped them out of there. If they stopped, they could be caught in the shootout…and that would result in a worse ending than Carol having a bullet wound.

“No…” Brandon whispered, watching the blood gush out of a hole in Carol’s chest and awkwardly trying to bandage it, “No…no, Carol, don’t do this to me. Please, don’t die. You’ll make it, I promise you’ll make it. Just hang in there, you’ll be fine…”

Subaru knelt by Carol and supported her head, her breaths now raspy and abrupt. Subaru could immediately see Brandon was trying to deceive himself. From the speed of how the blood is gushing out, Subaru could immediately tell that Carol had no hope. He turned slowly back to Lloyd, to see his reaction. His face hadn’t changed from the grim expression he always wore, but Lloyd shook his head slowly.

Carol was going to die, and they couldn’t do anything about it.

“I’m…I’m not going to make it,” Carol chuckled through wheezy breathes, “You…you know that…don’t you…Brandon…?”

“Come on, you’re going to be okay,” Brandon whispered, almost near tears, “You’ll be fine. Just stay with me. Breathe. You’ll be…”

“Don’t lie…to yourself,” Carol smiled, “It…it won’t make you feel…any better.”

Now the tears really came out of Brandon’s eyes, and he slapped them away quickly. “You…” he whispered, “You lied…you said you had body armor…”

Carol laughed as she choked on her own blood and splattered crimson on Brandon’s face involuntarily. “Sorry…” she whispered.

“Don’t be sorry,” Brandon replied, “Don’t be sorry…because…” he swallowed, flinched as if it hurt, and now he started to cry and break down, sobbing and closing his eyes, “Why did you lie to me!? You…you said you had body armor!”

“Fool,” Carol smiled, “I…was your body armor.”

The team was basically left speechless as Carol’s dying breaths slowed in tempo, reduced to nothing but soft gasps.

“Don’t forget me…Brandon…” she whispered, caressing Brandon’s cheek. Brandon didn’t answer, but nodded with tear-filled eyes slowly, as he touched her hand, her cold, shaking, dying hand.

“United Nations…” she scoffed with a laugh, “…Bastards…”

Her head tilted to the side as her breaths completely diminished, completely leaving the bus silent of human sounds. Lloyd noticed with amusement that they all had held their breaths while Carol would do that forever.

Subaru stayed there…he couldn’t leave, not with Carol dead in front of him, and not with Brandon in such a state. He couldn’t do anything but stand there as a leader, watching Brandon sob as he cradled Carol’s bloodstained body, rocking back and forth.

Subaru turned around to look at Lloyd. His expression basically told Subaru everything.

Leave him be.

Brandon continued to sob, before screaming at the top of his lungs in a tear-choked voice, “PHOENIX! WHOEVER PILOTS PHOENIX, I’LL KILL YOU, YOU BASTARD! NO MATTER WHO THE HELL YOU ARE, I’LL RIP YOU APART! YOU HEAR ME, YOU BITCH!? YOU’LL PAY FOR CAROL!”

*****

“Hey,” Epsilon smiled as he watched the crew and equipment assemble through the hangar, “Looks like management and company around the Storm of Fire is going to become better than usual.”

“Yeah,” Archangel nodded, smiling, standing right next to her as seven jets were loaded into the hangar of the Storm of Fire, “The 22nd Air Interceptor Squadron is joining us, and so are security teams. They’re pretty green, but they’re the top out of the Academy, and we’ve got several security captains coaching them, and they’re pretty much veterans.”

“Good,” Epsilon watched as seven pilots quickly assembled in the hangar from the hangar’s main entrance as six stepped into line and another faced them, forming two parallel lines. They saluted, and turned to Epsilon.

“Um…” Epsilon asked Archangel nervously, “Why are they looking at me?”

“You’re their new CO,” Archangel laughed.

“Me?” Epsilon gasped, “I…I can’t just, well…”

“You’re the best pilot in the damn UN,” Archangel laughed, “Of course they’re under your wing now.”

“But…” Epsilon began to mumble, then realized that half a dozen pilots were staring at her. She tried to look serious as she cleared her throat, studied the pilots over.

“Well,” Epsilon gave a smile, “It’s good to see you all aboard this ship. This isn’t a spit-and-polish job, as you all know it, so…” she looked at Archangel for help as to how to go on (she knew her introduction was pretty cheesy), but Archangel merely smiled, “So keep your heads up, and we’ll give the enemy hell should they come. You got me?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” they snapped in unison, saluting.

“Well, then,” Epsilon nodded, “Dismissed.”

“You heard the lady!” the lead member of the squad said, “Double time, back to the barracks! Meet there, and we’ll assemble for briefing.”

“Sir!” the pilots saluted once again, and marched out of the hangar.

“I don’t want to do that again,” Epsilon sighed as Archangel laughed and passed her a can of Coke.

“Nah,” Archangel laughed, “You did fine. Considering that we’re leaving tomorrow morning…not in humorous spirits, huh?”

“Yeah,” Epsilon chuckled, ruffling through her hair, and looked around, “So where are we going to go?”

“Just a patrol route between Second Haven and Fourth Haven,” Archangel shrugged, “They’re pretty close together. Everyone’s pretty busy at the bridge for a blue milk run, though. Kind of gets on my nerves.”

“Shouldn’t you be down there?” Epsilon inquired.

“Nah. My shift’s over. Aden’s taking over for me, and Mia’s taking over for Cruz. Those two are more useful than I’d ever expect them to be.”

“Yeah,” Epsilon smiled, “We’re going to go over to Gloria for dinner today. Everyone…well, almost everyone, is coming along. I know the Captain is, although I’m not so sure about the Co-Captain. But I’ve basically invited everyone. You know, bridge guys, the hangar crew, even the kids.”

“They coming?” Archangel raised his eyebrows.

“Well,” Epsilon sipped her Coke, “Vincent says he’ll come, and Aden and Mia are looking forward to it. Lei says she’ll be there when she gets her work aside…”

“Talk about Intelligence Division spooks, huh?” Archangel chuckled, “What about Lance?”

Epsilon’s smile faltered, and she sighed. “He…he’s concerned over something else.”

“Hmm?” Archangel frowned, “Concerned over what?”

“The riot,” Epsilon whispered, “He said he had accidentally shot someone…he wasn’t sure if he had killed her, but…”

“Damn,” Archangel grumbled, “These damn vendettas between Military and Intelligence…it’s driving me insane. It’s driving us all insane.”

“Well,” Epsilon shrugged, “We won’t have any Intelligence spooks around this dinner tonight. Lei’s part of the Military Division now. The captain has arranged it so that we get the ballroom for ourselves tonight. We’re not going to party, but he wants the entire crew in one room.”

“Good,” Archangel nodded as Sergeant Mendez’s crisp and sharp commands cracked through the air like gunshots.

“I noticed they’re using Type-Zeroes like you,” Archangel chuckled, pointing at the jets at the end of the hangar, “Trying to imitate you, if I had to guess. You’ve become quite the celebrity around here, Lieutenant.”

“Oh, come on,” Epsilon sighed, “They all call me the ‘Ace of Fifth Haven’, but you all know it’s not true.”

“I know it’s true,” Archangel sighed, nudging Epsilon slightly on the shoulder (he didn’t want to nudge too hard, considering Epsilon was his superior officer), “I’ve seen video clips, records, everything. Don’t fool yourself, man. Just because the entire battle group was nearly destroyed doesn’t mean you screwed up. You taught those Neo Arcadians who’s boss of the skies. And now Lieutenant Sigel is taking a lot of advice from you. You’re becoming quite a mentor for him, huh?”

Epsilon smiled slightly. “I just give him advice on how to be human in war,” Epsilon whispered, “The rest…he’ll have to learn from himself.”

*****

The computer logged onto the internet, it wasn’t hard for Vincent to easily adjust the modem to his liking. Easily reconfiguring the ping signal from a more secure and rapid channel, he had converted his normal modem into a local area network that basically broadcasted one thousand one hundred megabytes per second. Suited for all his hacking needs.

Logged onto the Neo Arcadian military network, he quickly searched the military records. Mostly, he knew his searches couldn’t be too exact, or if someone bothered to track the signal, they might find out what was really going on. Instead, he started out with the naval forces of Neo Arcadia, than narrowed his search to a Harvest VII class stealth cruiser. Information sprawled across the screen of all Harvest VII stealth cruisers in the field of action, but Vincent easily spotted the Redemption, which was basically near the top of the list.

He didn’t care much for the captain of the ship, Atrium Svivern, although he had heard his combat tactics were nearly unmatched. Instead, he observed the crew list of the ship, until he found five names.

Carol Allegro. Subaru Alto. Brandon Carter. Sakura Sonata. But to him, the most important one was Lloyd Pierce.

His teeth clenched, his jaw twisted as he double-clicked on his file. The file had his picture classified, but everything else was there…or at least, there to his access privileges. The security around his file had been so tight that it was difficult for even Vincent to get in unless he wanted to risk the possibility of having Second Haven discovered. But Vincent wanted this file down to permanent memory. Before…

The door opened to his room suddenly opened, and as an automatic reflex, Vincent quickly logged off the connection under a Neo Arcadian proxy signal to minimize chances of a trace and killed what was on the monitor feed.

Lei stepped in.

“Vincent?” she asked, stepping into the room quietly, then spotted him at the computer, “Sorry if I came in uninvited,” she smiled shyly, “I knocked, but you didn’t answer, and the door was unlocked…”

“It was?” Vincent asked, smiling and looking surprised. He probably didn’t hear it, considering his concentration on Lloyd’s file.

“Yeah,” Lei winked, “Are you going to come along for the dinner tonight? I know it’s an hour from now, but I want to get there as soon as possible, before someone piles more work on me…”

Vincent nodded as he closed his computer. “Splendid,” he smiled.
bond4154
Chapter Seventeen

“I can’t believe I’m wearing a tie.”

Those words left Aden’s mouth as his disembarked from the elevator in Gloria.

“Shut up,” Mia replied as she took Aden out of the elevator, using some force, “It looks good on you.”

“Only because you were the one that put it on me,” Aden grumbled, half dragged across the elevator hallway, “And why did you have to put a suit on me? It’s only dinner.” Indeed, Aden was dressed in a tuxedo, which Mia had practically dumped on him from the hotel closet. Mia herself was dressed in an exquisite dress that suited her perfectly.

“Oh, come on,” Mia laughed, “We look good enough for this occasion.”

“Yeah,” Aden continued to mumble, “Until we find out everyone else is in uniform…”

Fortunately, for Aden, that wasn’t the case. Cruz walked out of the other side of the hallway in black-and-white as gave a slight nod and smile to the two. Mia waved back. Aden just looked like he was about to get sick, fast.

“Stop being so immature,” Mia sighed, “You look like a kid.”

“I concur,” Cruz chuckled softly, “Although the truth is you both are kids.” Aden continued to mumble. Mia squeezed his arm hard, and Aden stopped…momentarily.

The three walked into the ballroom of the Gloria Hotel restaurant, located pretty high up above the actual restaurant itself. It overlooked much of the city, except for a few other government held buildings. Miguel had worked his way to book the ballroom for tonight’s uses. It was only dinner, but he wanted the entire crew to be together.

The ballroom was splendid in its own way, although Aden already had expectations of what it would be like. Tables and tables around a dance floor, which had been converted into a buffet table. Three overly large chandeliers loomed above them, which even Cruz found impressive.

“Hey,” Juno walked over from the side as she spotted Cruz, “Nice to see you around. Looking good.” She smiled, eyeing Cruz in his tuxedo. Juno was still in uniform.

“I see you’re either lazy, or you prefer to be addressed as Major,” Cruz gave a crooked grin as he looked her up and down.

Juno laughed. “I tried the dress, but didn’t liked how it looked on me. Makes me feel so awkward.”

“You are awkward,” Cruz muttered, but loudly enough for Juno to hear him as Cruz quickly walked away, purposefully whistling a tune to irritate Juno.

“Idiot,” Juno scoffed and chuckled at the same time, before placing his eyes upon Aden and Mia, “Well, aren’t you two the couple? Suit and dress.”

Aden looked away, his face now red and continuing to mumble something like “I hate when this happens”. Mia laughed. “I had to force this onto him, literally,” Mia said, “You should’ve been in the room. It was a total war zone.”

“I wish I was there to see,” Juno laughed, “That would be amusing.”

Aden changed the subject. “Where are the others? You know, bridge crew, and the pilots.”

“Well, the Majors are all here,” Juno smiled, “Now that Cruz has joined us, anyways. Vincent and Lei arrived pretty early. They’re over there,” she pointed to a table near the corner, spotted them talking to each other, “I don’t think they’re talking about Intelligence Division secrets, but…” she emitted a little laugh.

“No sight of Lance?” Mia asked.

Juno shifted uncomfortably.

“Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard of what?” Aden asked.

“She’s talking about the riot on Seventh Street,” Mia nudged Aden, “Even outside the Gloria Hotel, the place looks like a battle.”

“Huh? Oh, I know about that. I thought she was talking about something else.”

“Well,” Juno pressed her lips together, “I don’t know the details, but Epsilon says that Lance is under a lot of fatigue. He thought he killed someone or something.”

“He did?” Aden asked, surprised. Mia shared his expression.

“Not sure,” Juno shrugged her shoulders, “We’ve got all the bodies, but none of them have been hit when MA71 rounds. I think he didn’t kill anyone, though. Epsilon told him, but he doesn’t feel any better.”

“Damn,” Aden whispered, “Just when I thought he could let loose…”

“Well,” Juno laughed, “I don’t want to be hugging your time when there’s food out there, so I’ll leave you alone.”

“Haven’t you ate?” Mia asked.

“I’m waiting for the Captain,” Juno winked, “Bridge crew doesn’t eat without the Captain and the Co-Captain present. Technically, the entire crew isn’t allowed, but I won’t tell anyone…” she dropped her voice to a whisper, “Don’t tell Helios that I said that, though, or he’ll take my hide.” She laughed and walked away.

Aden and Mia took a glance at each other for a moment, and laughed as they headed for where Vincent and Lei were. Navigating through the tables, they noticed that about half the crew was there…and more were coming, considering new personnel were coming aboard. They had been informed that there will be more security teams and seven more pilots of Type-Zeroes. They also have an extra Type-One, which was an heavily-armored defense aircraft that is slow, large, and easy to hit, but can take more damage than battleships and carries more ordinance than a bomber.

“Hey,” Aden waved as they sat themselves down on the table, Mia right beside him, “Look here. Two ace pilots of the Reploid-armors.”

“You flatter me,” Vincent chuckled as he shifted in his seat. Unlike everyone else, Vincent wasn’t in uniform or in a certain kind of suit, but in his casual trenchcoat. Aden greatly envied him for this, but didn’t show it.

“Really,” Mia laughed, “You two were pretty amazing. I guess I have you two to thank for the reason why I’m going to spend tonight on clean white sheets instead of the rocky bottom of the sea.”

“I don’t think so,” Lei shook her head, “We really didn’t do much, in reality. It’s thanks to the Captain that we’re here.” Lei was dressed in military uniform, probably wanting others to know that she was part of the Military Division now, not Intelligence.

“You guys grab some food yet?” Aden asked, “My mouth’s watering.”

“Use your tissue,” Vincent joked, then said, “No, we’re not hungry at the moment. And Lei’s thinking about waiting for the bridge crew to start first.”

The conversation passed for another ten minutes or so, very uneventful. The ever-aware Mia did pick out certain signs of a possible blossoming relationship between Vincent and Lei, but she thought better of that. Vincent was the kind of calm type who didn’t like all the attention. Maybe it was kind of one-sided…but Mia was never too sure now. Everything she had learned through experience seemed to have been jettisoned ever since she joined the military.

Finally, the Captain and the Co-Captain came in, flanked by a single security team. One glance at Miguel’s expression showed that Helios had insisted that they would not go into the ballroom without an escort. Vincent, Lei, Aden, and Mia laughed at that as Miguel and Helios made themselves to a center seat near the dance floor and buffet table. Both were dressed in suits, and didn’t seem so badly put off.

Several hands moved to salute, but Miguel stopped them with a single wave of the hand. “No salutes, okay?” Miguel laughed as he saw their arms begin to arch up, “I know it’s military regulation, but for now, regulation has been jettisoned from this room. No one calls me Captain or sir, just Miguel.”

There was some laughter and nods of appreciation around the room, despite Helios giving Miguel a particularly disapproving look. Archangel, Cruz, Juno, and Phalanx made their way to Miguel’s side, giving what seemed to be an awkward un-militarized greeting before taking their seats around the table.

“Hey, kids,” a familiar voice chuckled behind them as the four turned around to see Sergeant Mendez.

“Hey,” Aden laughed, “Sergeant. You made it here too.”

“Didn’t you hear the Captain…I mean, Miguel?” Mendez corrected quickly, “You don’t call me Sergeant no more. And the name’s John Mendez. No Mister Mendez for me, okay?”

“You can bet on that, John,” Vincent winked, pointing at Mendez. They had their share of laughs before Mendez joined another table on the other side of the ballroom, most likely the hangar crew.

“So,” Lei asked, “How’s the latest news? I mean, other than the riot we had earlier, is there anything new on our situation? You guys were on the bridge, so you two should be in the know.”

“Well,” Aden explained, “As of the moment, the ship has completed all repairs and personnel transfer, as well as equipment transfer. We still have a bit more refueling to go, however, and the tech guys are trying to alter the specifications on our ship so that it’ll store more fuel and use less of it at a certain time. Also, I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but you two are still piloting Odin and Neptune.”

“Yeah,” Vincent nodded, “We’ve heard. Lance is still piloting Phoenix, and he isn’t so badly put off about it. Speaking of which, where is he?”

Aden and Mia exchanged uncomfortable glances, and Vincent saw from something right there and knew it wasn’t good. “Forget it,” Vincent cut in quickly, “I’ll find out for myself sooner or later; I guess now isn’t a good time to talk about it.”

“Anything about the enemy?” Lei inquired.

“There were rumors about spies inside Second Haven,” Mia replied, “But we’ve ruled out that possibility, because if that were the case, Neo Arcadia would’ve already sent a fleet in. The Intelligence Division sent a recon probe out too. They didn’t see anything.”

“So we’re basically in the green,” Vincent smiled, satisfied.

“That looks like a good omen,” Lei laughed.

“You know something?” Aden said, with the expression of a shocked individual, “We haven’t grabbed any food! How insane is that?”

And so, another five minutes was spent on grabbing food, as Mia watched Aden disapprovingly as he piled his plate up with everything that resembled good food, which was virtually about everything. Finally, they made their way back to the table.

“I was thinking,” Lei said, “Well, you were all university students at Third Haven, right?”

Nods from around the table were given.

“Well,” Lei continued, hesitated, then said, “I might be bringing up a bad subject, but…don’t you have any family? People who’d be worried about you?”

Aden laughed at this, which brought more relief to Lei than shock; at least they weren’t all melancholy over this.

“The reason why Mia, Vincent, Lance, and I are so close together is because we’re all orphans,” Aden smiled, “Our parents died in one way or the other, although the vast majority of them died because of the war. Lance’s mother was, what, Vincent? You remember? I think it was something like a heart attack, or a blood clot…”

“It was a stroke,” Vincent answered, “That crippled Lance pretty badly, because she just died in front of him, without a chance to say goodbye. Just…stuttered to death in front of him. I think we had it better; our parents knew that we might never see again, so we had said our goodbyes ahead of time.”

“Gee…” Lei whispered, looking away, “I’m sorry…I…”

“Don’t be sorry,” Aden said as he stuffed a mouthful of chicken into his mouth, “or you’ll lose your appetite. Don’t waste good food.”

Mia laughed. “Well, I understand his enthusiasm,” she said, “This tastes a lot better than our regular rations.”

“Hey,” Aden suddenly asked, “Why did you decide to join the Military Division? I mean, you’re pretty high up, right? Commander.”

Lei looked away as Aden and Mia continued to stare at Lei. Mia had decided that it wasn’t the time to talk about it and had just opened her mouth to speak when Vincent got there first. “I think like the topic about Lance,” Vincent cut in, “we should talk about this some other time. She’ll definitely be getting a lot of pressure around here, and I don’t want to add any more of that.”

He used the word “I”, Mia noted quietly, Vincent is taking quite a lot of burden when it concerns Lei.

“Well,” Mia smiled, “She’s a Second Lieutenant now. One of us. Of course, we’ll have to address her as ‘sir’ from now on.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Lei laughed, “I get enough people calling me ‘sir’ in the Intelligence Division; I don’t need anyone else adding more to that count.”

“Hey,” a new voice suddenly said as the owner of the voice sat down in front of them. The group’s first initial shock was that they hadn’t noticed him approach; of course they haven’t, they didn’t expect him to come. But the real shock came as they all looked at the newcomer.

It was Lance.

“Um…” Mia started, but she couldn’t help but to pause and hesitate, even if she was the most tactful out of the five, “Well…hey, Lance.”

It took a full four seconds for everyone else to pass their initial surprise before Vincent finally smiled. “Hey,” Vincent nodded, “It’s good that you’re here. You missed a lot of the food; you want to go get some now?”

“Nah,” Lance shook his head quietly without a smile, and his head was down, his own eyes meeting the floor, “I don’t feel like eating.”

“You sure?” Lei asked, “You look like you need some.”

“I said I’m fine,” Lance insisted, a bit of annoyance tingling in his voice, just barely detectable, but Vincent and Mia did fine at that. Vincent placed a hand on Lei, basically telling her it wasn’t wise to press on the topic.

“We were talking about the situation about the Storm of Fire and such,” Vincent changed the subject, “You want to hear?”

“No thanks,” Lance shook his head, left, right, back to center, “I’ll get the news sooner or later. I’ll have to know about it when I board the ship anyways.”

“Everything else has been taken care of, right?” Vincent inquired, “You know, Odin? Phoenix? Neptune?”

“Yeah, just about,” Lance shrugged, “They seemed to be fine. Almost happy to be aboard the ship. I guess they’re looking forward to the fight.”

“That’s good,” Lei smiled.

“Hey,” Aden said, “That was a really good job at Seventh Street you did…”

Both Vincent and Mia, one understanding Lance and one understanding tact, turned to mouth something to tell Aden to stop with a frantic expression, that he was ruffling the wrong set of feathers. But Aden didn’t get it, and it was too late by any case.

Lance suddenly stood up as he shoved Aden backwards, sending him tumbling off his seat and rolling onto the floor. Aden halted on his back, staring up at Lance with eyes as wide as tennis balls, with Lance returning the glance with one of extreme hatred. The entire ballroom turned to look at Lance, who was breathing hard as he continued to stare down at Aden. Vincent and Lei stood up slowly and approached either side of Lance to stop him in the case he decided he wanted to tear Aden apart, but that never happened.

Lance looked up, half aware that the entire room was staring at him; some people didn’t notice first, perhaps they had thought someone had tumbled after drinking too much. However, now the entire ballroom was dead silent, with every pair of eyes laid on Lance. In the center table, Miguel quickly whispered instructions to Epsilon, probably to tell her to go and calm Lance down, while Helios and the bridge officers were still overcoming their shock. Epsilon nodded as she made her way quickly toward Lance.

“Excuse me,” Lance muttered, and walked out of the ballroom. The occupants gave him wide berth, both humans and Reploids, although most of the Reploids in the room could’ve easily defeated him. But his demonstration of frustration and aggravation proved to be beyond much of their experience, and not many of them had retained their senses. Mia stood up to help Aden, but Aden had helped himself to his feet. Lei walked toward Lance, perhaps to attempt to calm him, but Vincent quickly grabbed her hand to stop her. Lei looked back at Vincent with an expression of incredulity, but one look at his face told her everything.

Lance needed some time to vent his anger.

Lei nodded quietly as her gaze returned to Lance, who had made his way successfully to the exit, without any security guards halting him. Epsilon was still behind him, trying to chase him, but Vincent didn’t try to stop her. Even if Lance wanted Epsilon gone, Epsilon was a superior, and she would hold out pretty well should Lance want to get into another fight.

He hoped it wouldn’t get to that.

*****

“Lance!” Epsilon made her way to Lance down the elevator hallway, half wanting to whack the living daylights out of Lance for causing such a scene, half wanting to hug the guy and try to get whatever was eating him from the inside out.

Lance ignored her completely as he turned into the elevator as it arrived, stepping into the elevator. Epsilon followed, but Lance simply kicked a dustbin over. Although Epsilon was a Reploid and impervious to such damage, Lance’s intention was for her to be harmed by the laws of physics. Epsilon slipped on the cylindrical dustbin as she fell onto the floor, landing on her back.

The elevator doors began to close as Lance keyed the close button, but Epsilon shoved her slender arm in quickly enough her hand got stuck between the door, and the door stopped, and started to reopen. Lance had thought if Epsilon, as slender as her arm was, would break under even such little stress, but no such thing has happened. The elevator doors opened as Epsilon stepped in. Lance’s expression looked indifferent, almost hating…and Epsilon just wanted to throw a punch across his face. However, she gave some time for both their tempers to vent as she turned around and closed the elevator doors, hoping to make as less of a scene as possible and to save some face for Lance. The elevator doors closed, and she hit the floor for Lance’s room as she finally caught her breath and turned around to meet the Second Lieutenant.

“Okay,” Epsilon said sternly, more angry than Lance had ever seen her, “What was that all about, huh?”

Lance didn’t as much as flinch. He stood there, not replying, but glaring at Epsilon. His eyes didn’t glow like Vincent’s, but it was scary in its own way, nonetheless.

Epsilon took a breath, to calm herself. “Okay,” she composed herself, and made out in the most reasonable voice she could muster, “What happened?”

“I pushed Aden,” Lance replied simply.

“And what was the brilliant motive behind that one?”

“I don’t know; I’ll tell you when I find the answer,” Lance said bluntly.

“It was about Seventh Street, right?” Epsilon sighed, “Look. Let it go. Admiral Wallace has already bypassed your charges of revealing Phoenix to the public. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Of course I have something to worry about,” Lance replied brutally, “Do you know what it is like to kill someone? Huh? Do you have any idea?”

“Of course I do,” Epsilon whispered, “It’s my occupation. I am a pilot. I have to take lives.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to worry about if they’re dead or not…”

“Yes, I do,” Epsilon snapped.

“But you worry if they’re dead. Not alive. That’s what makes us different, Epsilon. You from me, soldier from civilian.”

Epsilon stood there, shocked. They did not say a word until the elevator dinged and the doors opened.

“Excuse me, Major,” Lance whispered as he stepped out of the elevator to his room, leaving Epsilon standing there as the doors closed and the gap between the two sealed.
bond4154
Chapter Eighteen

Subaru didn’t look sideways the team’s workout session started. Instead, he held the ping-pong paddle in hand, and faced Lloyd. Subaru had always wondered how Lloyd could play with his eyes closed, but considering that Lloyd could fight with his eyes closed, Subaru knew it would be wise not to underestimate him in the least.

Sakura and Brandon were at opposite sides of the table, sitting on chairs. But while Sakura was watching the match, Brandon stared out the window, completely lost in his thoughts. Subaru wondered how Brandon was holding up.

“After you’re finished wondering how Brandon is,” Lloyd whispered quietly, just soft enough for only Subaru to hear, “You can catch my serve.”

“Oh, sorry,” Subaru nodded, and posed himself in a position. Lloyd served the first ball, slicing it across and creating an arch in the air, allowing the ball to curve. Subaru countered it by mimicking Lloyd’s move, making the ball counter-spin. Lloyd responded by hitting the ball upwards, which really wasn’t much, considering the ball was spinning, but it made it past the net, nevertheless. However, Subaru quickly sliced forward, and the ball quickly hit the corner before Lloyd could catch it.

“Nice one,” Lloyd complimented as the ball bounced off the wall and he bent down the pick it up.

They had boarded the Redemption two hours ago. After Carol had been killed, Subaru quickly ordered a retreat back to the Redemption. They reequipped their scuba gear and swam back to the Redemption after confirming the coordinates. They had intended to report this to the Captain immediately, but the Captain was off cycle, and so they told Deviant, who told them that he would “inform Atrium as soon as he was finished dreaming about hookers”, which Subaru considered to be nothing but part of his devious personality.

Subaru found the AI construct’s name very amusing…and very suiting.

“Your serve,” Lloyd tossed the ball over to Subaru. It bounced once on Subaru’s table before Subaru noticed what was going on, and nearly flinched in reflex. He didn’t, however, and simply nabbed the ball out of air.

Subaru didn’t feel much like playing, however. He had came here in hopes of releasing his spirits a bit, but he really didn’t feel like it was doing any good…Carol’s death still haunted him, although it probably didn’t haunt him as much as it haunted Brandon, who stared out into emptiness. They had already sent Carol’s casket to the bottom of the sea. The only thing Subaru was glad about was that he was quiet, for once.

Subaru had given explicit instructions to both Sakura and Lloyd not to even try to give him any condolences. “He’ll take it the wrong way,” Subaru had explained, “And when he goes berserk, he’s good enough to tear you apart…and himself, for that matter.” Sakura had been hesitant about that; she wanted to help Brandon, despite the fact that he had always looked down on her. Lloyd had probably seen the big picture before Subaru did, and Subaru thought telling Lloyd was like repeating what Lloyd had had in mind.

“I do not wish to be rude, but are you going to serve?”

Subaru snapped back to his attention, staring at Lloyd with his face in Subaru’s direction. His paddle was still up in the air.

“Oh…” Subaru said, then shook his head, “No. Sorry. I…don’t quite…”

“…Feel like playing,” Lloyd nodded, “I know the feeling.”

“Sure you do. Sorry,” Subaru placed his paddle and ball down on the table, and walked toward a seat in the side of the room, “You want to play him, Sakura?”

“Nah,” Sakura shook her head as well, “I…don’t quite feel like it.”

“Oh, well,” Lloyd shrugged as he placed down his paddle, “Looks like our cycle is over, although we’ve only played for about three minutes. What do we do now, sir?”

“You don’t have to call me sir,” Subaru shrugged, and looked over at Brandon. He was still staring out the window into the blackness of the night, completely lost in his thoughts. Subaru thought maybe it would be good for Brandon to make a choice…good for all of them.

“Brandon,” Subaru called over the room, “What do you think we should do?”

Watch his reactions carefully, Subaru thought, and make your choice there.

But Brandon didn’t respond, continuing to stare out of the glass. Subaru walked over, said again, “Brandon.”

Brandon remained silent.

Subaru, wondering if Brandon was ignoring him on purpose, walked over right behind him, placed a hand on his shoulder. Brandon flinched and turned around in reflex, placing a hand on his chair to stable himself. Subaru noted it was slightly exaggerated. He had known Subaru mentioned his name, but probably didn’t know that Subaru was calling for his attention.

“Yeah?” Brandon whispered quietly. His eyes were no longer crying, but they were watery and shiny…the eyes of a man who had finished his share of crying.

“I was asking if there was something you wanted to do in particular,” Subaru said simply.

Brandon gave one of his “why the hell do you have to ask me” looks, which was a weird combination of the look of a drowning man…one drowning in his own sorrow. “I…don’t know. You’re the leader. You decide.”

“Well,” Subaru shrugged, “I guess I want to go around in a turn. Sakura already suggested the library and Lloyd here. You choose one this time.”

Brandon looked away. “I’ll pass.”

Subaru sighed, then walked away. Brandon wasn’t going to move for a while, so Subaru didn’t have to bother trying. He looked at Sakura and Lloyd, positioned across the room. Subaru shook her head as soon as their gaze met his. Sakura and Lloyd got up, and walked toward the exit along with Subaru.

“Sakura,” Subaru said as the doors to the gym closed behind them, “Please check up the condition of the armors for me. I know R and D has already finished upgrading our armors, but I want to make sure they’re all green. Can you run op checks over them? Hopefully three times with an alpha scan.”

“Alright,” Sakura nodded as she left for the left exit of the ship.

“Lloyd,” Subaru turned around to face Lloyd, “I’ll need to talk to you.”

“What is it?”

Subaru looked around the small corridor, and said, “I think this place is a bit too uncomforting for my tastes. Why don’t you come over to my room?”

Lloyd shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

They passed the near empty corridors of the Redemption. Most of the crew were asleep this night; Svivern had insisted that the majority of the crew, including some in night shift, get some nap. Subaru had informed Svivern of news that the Storm of Fire would launch tomorrow, and Svivern wanted the crew battle ready before tomorrow morning.

Entering Subaru’s room, Lloyd noticed it was his first time here. Subaru’s room was lightly furnished, with much that represented comfort, including a picture of his family, mother, father, and son, right on the desk next to the bed. On the desk were reports, both filled and empty ones, and a computer. Mostly, paper written reports were rare, shunned, and tedious. Most people around the ship didn’t even carry pens around with personal COM systems that can easily fill in reports.

“Have a seat,” Subaru said, pulling up a chair in front of Subaru’s bed. Lloyd did so, and Subaru sat right in front of him on the bed after activating his computer.

“Sakura brought something to my attention yesterday,” Subaru explained, his face looking completely serious, “She had operated a check-up on our upgraded armors the moment we got back. She wanted to make sure there was nothing important that we missed on the backup procedure before we purged the system and began second stage upgrades.”

Lloyd nodded. “Go on.”

“Well, Sakura was looking around the audio files, which basically recorded everything that we have said in the armors, hopefully gaining some tactical data that would help us with our next encounter. She looked into your armor, and found something interesting.”

“Enlighten me,” Lloyd replied. Subaru nodded and tapped a button on his computer. A voice recording, scratchy, but the unmistakable voice of Lloyd, played back.

“Vincent Swan,” the voice sounded through the speakers, “So you are here.”

Subaru observed as almost every muscle in Lloyd’s body tensed. In the two years of knowing Lloyd, and it was quite a long time in the military, this was the most Subaru had ever seen Lloyd emotional and tense. His eyes, however, remained closed. What frightened Subaru the most was that he had no idea how Lloyd would react…he had seen him many times casually, many times formally, and many times in battle, but in all that, he had been calm, calculating, and even polite. Now, he seemed on the verge of fury.

“If I had to guess,” Subaru made out in a reasonable voice, trying not to push Lloyd off the edge, wherever the edge was, “You know this Vincent Swan…very well, I presume, if you were able to know it was him even though he was encased in armor. I don’t know the man, so I’ll have to defer to your judgment. The point is that I want to know what you know about this Vincent.”

Lloyd relatively relaxed…Subaru noticed he relaxed because he wouldn’t have to reveal the whole truth; Subaru had worded the question in a way that Lloyd found he could hide something from Subaru, but Subaru didn’t want to press to hard.

“Well, there’s no point hiding it from you,” Lloyd shrugged, “Where do you want to start?”

“Anywhere you want,” Subaru replied.

“Anywhere…” Lloyd whispered, “Well…Vincent Swan was part of the United Nations militia…kind of a drifter. We met after Seventh Haven, but it seems he boarded the Reploid-armor Odin after the Third Haven incident. I really didn’t know too much about him, but he was pretty battle hardened. He fought several battles against Neo Arcadia, mostly skirmishes in the middle of the sea, many which both of us were part of.”

“You’re lying,” Subaru shook his head, “You know him better than that. You identified him despite the fact he was completely encased in titanium-A plating and he was barely moving. You seem to share a very strange bond with him, Lloyd.” Subaru quickly realized he was being too harsh, and reminded himself to stay back in his next approach.

“Well, not really,” Lloyd sighed, “Vincent was a rogue, and he had been here and there…his loyalties kind of wavered, as if no one, including himself, really knew where he was supposed to be. I had seen his fighting style, however, and it is calm. Calm and precise, has its own knick to it…something I can’t quite explain, but I can feel.”

“Instinct,” Subaru whispered.

“Instinct,” Lloyd agreed, nodding.

Ten seconds of silence passed between them.

“Well?” Subaru cocked his head sideways.

“Well what?” Lloyd frowned.

“What else do you know?”

“What else…” Lloyd tilted his head back, “Nothing, really…other than the fact that he’s an exceptional hacker.”

“Hacker?” Subaru echoed.

“Right, hacker. I think he can get pass any Neo Arcadian firewall like getting pass the kitchen door. He can make any connection work like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and knows every damn trick.”

Subaru flinched at that. “Every Neo Arcadian firewall?”

“It doesn’t matter how much encryption you add, how much security, how much firewall. You can coat your network with proxy nets, for all I care, and he just breaks through them without you knowing it. I’ve seen him do it. And he can do it to just about anyone.”

Subaru shuddered. He wasn’t necessarily sure he liked that.

“Don’t worry too much about it,” Lloyd chuckled, “There is only one thing we need to worry about, and that’s when he will strike…if he will ever strike. Unfortunately, I think circumstances may call for it one day.”

“Is that all?” Subaru asked. Lloyd nodded.

“Alright,” Subaru sighed, “I guess that’s enough for today. Get some rest, Lloyd. We’ll be up early tomorrow.”

“Yes, Major,” Lloyd nodded, standing up and saluting.

“You don’t need to do that,” Subaru laughed as he swiped the hand away. Lloyd gave a smile and walked out of the room.

“Vincent Swan…” Subaru whispered as the door closed and Subaru landed on the bed on his back, “This should be interesting.”

*****

“Well, well, well,” Deviant droned annoyingly next to Svivern as Svivern watched the information flash before him in the computer screen. The room was almost completely dark, lighted by the dim blue of the computer screen in front of him.

“I think one ‘well’ is enough,” Svivern replied coolly as he scrolled through the information quickly. Scanning it, Svivern nodded in satisfaction.

“Subaru’s reports are quite accurate,” Svivern smiled, “According to what the information on recon shows, this should be Miguel’s approximate path…” Bringing up a map on the computer, a red line curved through the map, an arch that stretched through the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

“And you suppose that’ll lead us to the location to the next Haven?” Deviant scoffed, “Please, Atrium. You know the probability of that is low.”

“Do not question me on strategy, Deviant. You may have calculations, but I have experience. I have been assigned to this post for a total of seven years, four months, thirteen days, seventeen hours…”

“…Eighteen minutes, and thirty-two seconds,” Deviant finished with a definite tone of annoyance, “I do know, as a matter of fact. And in case you have forgot your place, it is you who would better not question me. You may have the higher ranking in the Neo Arcadian military, but do not forget I am the original.”

“No,” Svivern chuckled, “You are the second. The original had been deleted by you quite a long time ago. Now patch me a channel to the Council of Salvation, before you come up with anymore annoying banter.”

“Excuse me,” Deviant muttered, and worked on bringing up a communication channel to the Council, “I’m bypassing the main security codes. Accessing channels to all available members of the Council…done.”

Four windows appeared on the screen, each with a face of a member of the Council of Salvation. There were a total of seven, but three weren’t available for several reasons…and Svivern could easily expect that the leader of the Council, Omega, didn’t feel as though this was something that was worth his attention. Still, he got a good majority of the Council, and they didn’t include the two idiots he heavily disliked in the Council, Mina Richardson and Gerald Hotchkiss.

“Captain Atrium Svivern,” Mark Howell nodded, “I suppose there is something of great importance, considering that you have contact the Council directly…”

“Yes,” Svivern nodded, “According to our reconnaissance sources, we are being led to believe that we have located one of the Havens in grid thirteen by seventeen in the Atlantic Ocean.”

“Why didn’t you tell the Neo Arcadian Naval Command about it?” Elaine Stanton asked, “That would be the usual method, yes?”

“Yes,” Svivern agreed, “However, should I send a report about this to Naval Command, the admirals will easily spend days debating whether they should follow this information or not…and fearfully, debating over a bottle of whisky.”

Some laughter and chuckles through the Council were heard before Jimmy Hammersmith said, “And can I ask how reliable your sources are?”

“Very reliable,” Svivern nodded, “We had sent…” Svivern paused slightly, then quickly covered the gap his speech up, “…hackers to check out the security database, and recon drones to monitor the position of a certain special ship, that we expect will aid in the defenses of the enemy.”

“Is this ship the Storm of Fire?” Stanton inquired.

“Yes, ma’am,” Svivern replied. Svivern easily identified their uneasy glances. Svivern smiled. The Council was in his pocket.

“Well,” June Lee sighed, “Isn’t this quite the situation. Since the Captain has gone all the way here to tell us about it, I don’t see much of a reason to refuse his request. Right, Mark?”

“Agreed,” Howell nodded, “Captain Atrium Svivern, you are authorized to use any means necessary to find the next Haven in grid thirteen by seventeen with the permission of the Council of Salvation. We will send the 2nd Armada to the coordinates and engage battle there.”

“Thank you, sir,” Svivern nodded with a crooked smile.

“One more thing,” Lee inquired, “What will you do with the Storm of Fire?”

“I will sink it, sir,” Svivern replied casually, “There really isn’t another alternative.”

“Quite right,” Hammersmith whispered, “If something like the Storm of Fire becomes commonplace in the United Nations military, then we are going to be very likely to lose this war. Do not fail, Captain.”

“I won’t, sir,” Svivern replied. Nods from the Council were seen before the connection was cut off. Svivern relaxed in his chair, satisfied.

“So that did go well,” Deviant chuckled. He had hid all the time inside secure channels…ones that were protected rather well, but ones that no one would bother looking in. Deviant considered them great hiding places.

“Sooner or later,” Svivern smiled, “you will get your wish, Deviant. The Council will be yours. And don’t forget about my part…”

“Yes,” Deviant replied immediately, “The reunion with the Beta Standby Program. I’m looking forward to that…and what you have promised me.”

Svivern smiled, before choking and gagging on his chair, coughing as he convulsed and twitched in his chair, and fell to the floor. Svivern clutched at his throat as he made inhuman noises of pain and shook on the ground uncontrollably.

“Boy,” Deviant sighed, more annoyed than worried, “I thought we had this problem solved already?”

Svivern didn’t reply; his throat was too choked to breathe, much less than something else. The pain continued to last for another minute before it finally died down, and Svivern was left lying on the ground, breathing hard, sweating hard. He grinded his jaw against his upper teeth.

“This is a problem that needs to be solved immediately,” Deviant said, in a much serious tone than his usual voice, “Should anyone discover that you have these problems with your body, the Council could easily rate you as unsuitable to command.”

“I know that, Deviant,” Svivern rasped, reaching for a bottle of painkiller under the desk. Swallowing the tablets, he fell from his feet onto the bed in the corner of the office, panting. This was getting even more bothersome than he had been originally led to believe.

Deviant made the sound of an artificial sigh. “This body is getting very annoying, Atrium. Do something about it.”

“Whatever you say,” Svivern whispered, “I need some privacy.”

“Right…” Deviant shrugged as his hologram faded out.

Reunion with the Beta Standby Program…that was the thing Atrium wanted most, as soon as he settles another matter…

*****

“We have orders from the Council,” Captain Montague Bonaparte said as he entered the bridge, “Navigations, place coordinates at grid thirteen by seventeen.”

The bridge crew paused for a second…under the usual circumstances, Captain Bonaparte never gave that prompt of a command at the immediate start of a cycle, but the navigations officer quickly plotted a course to the required destination.

“Weaponry,” Bonaparte resumed his rapid-fire pace of commands, “Charge up all weapons on the ship, make sure we are combat ready at a second’s notice. Operations, divert primary power to engines and secondary power to weapons. Communications, tell the 2nd Armada that we will be at the rendezvous point in approximately two hours.”

Rapid clicking of computers were heard before the officers gave their reports.

“Course plotted sir,” navigations replied, “Engines pushed at best speed.”

“Weapons charged,” weaponry said, “We’re all green.”

“Message sent to the 2nd Armada,” communications reported, “They say that they will speed up to breach through the first defenses, and give you a smooth ride in.”

“Reactor stable, and pushing power at maximum charge under safety measures,” operations nodded, then turned to Bonaparte, “Sir, what is this all about?”

“The Council has confirmed reports that a UN Haven is located at grid thirteen by seventeen,” Bonaparte replied, his expression grim, “We’re to rendezvous with the 2nd Armada at the Haven for immediate combat.”

The bridge paused for the second time in a single minute, then returned to their posts quickly, giving each other inquiring glances, but they all knew that the Captain wasn’t telling the entire truth…or, more likely, the entire truth wasn’t told to the Captain.

Bonaparte stared at the radar screen as the icon of his battleship, the Valiant, moved toward a representation of a checkpoint at grid thirteen by seventeen.

“This is how you play the game, Svivern?” Bonaparte hissed below his breath through clenched teeth, “Bypass through military protocol and reach the Council directly? You are going way over your head, Svivern…”
bond4154
Chapter Nineteen

Major Eudora strode leisurely through the hangar as the warm aura of the engines went through her nerves, bringing her all the comfort she needed in the cold sea. She looked from the distance as her Type-Zero was being maintained by Chief Mendez’s men, and watched in admiration as they did a good job at it, doing things they were supposed to do.

Eudora smiled as she saw a child sitting on top of a box over a laptop and inputting information into the laptop, which was hooked up to one of the Reploid-armors, Phoenix. Eudora assumed he was on of the hangar crew. In reality, Eudora didn’t look any older than the child, nor was she any older. She was a newer Reploid, and her characteristics showed one of a teenager.

“Hey,” Eudora smiled as she leaned toward the computer, watching the boy continuing to type information across the computer, “What are you doing?”

The child turned around, and Eudora saw his features well. He was definitely a bit older than Eudora, being human, and had a strange feature to his face…but it was mostly his expression, a combination of happiness and hatred. It was quite the shocking expression, but Eudora assumed so far, the happiness inhabited most of his mind.

“Oh,” the child smiled, “I’m just…managing the statistics of Phoenix, that’s all…” he looked up at Eudora’s breast as he scanned the insignia stitched onto the uniform, “Major Eudora…you’re one of the pilots for the Type-Zeroes, aren’t you?”

“That’s right,” Eudora laughed, and noticed the child had no insignia. Probably too young to get one, Eudora thought.

“I’m done here,” the child said to Phoenix as he shut down his laptop, “I’ll come and see you a bit later, Phoenix. Meanwhile, I think it’ll be better if you get into your shakedown cycle.”

“Got it,” Phoenix nodded as the wires that had been connected to him ejected, and he walked toward some sort of chamber that Eudora wasn’t familiar with.

“Sergeant Mendez!” the child called to the Sergeant on the balcony above, “I’m done with my cycle! Thanks for lending some space to me.”

“No problem, kid!” Mendez called back, temporarily turning from his work, “You keep up the good work, you hear?”

“Hey, watch up, Sergeant!” one of the crew members laughed as Lance walked away, “If the Co-Captain hears you’ve been calling the Lieutenant a kid, he’ll screw your ass for sure!”

“Lieu…Lieutenant!?” Eudora gaped at Lance, who had turned around in surprise as he saw Eudora’s awed expression, “You’re…” she visibly stiffened, being embarrassed, and stood rigid as she saluted, “Sir! I’m…I’m sorry I addressed you as…”

“It’s okay,” the child smiled, “I probably wouldn’t have known I’d be Lieutenant either a while ago. And I haven’t got an insignia yet, I know. I’ll have to get it sooner or later…or I’ll have more people mistaking me for Privates or something…” the child emitted a soft laugh…one that didn’t quite come out well, “And please, don’t address me as sir. Call me Lance. Lance Sigel.”

“Yes, sir…I mean,” Eudora corrected as she dropped her saluted, “Lance.” She looked completely out of place. They both looked completely out of place.

Lance smiled. “It’s the first time I’ve talked to someone who’s not quite my superior that way…” Lance laughed slightly, “It’s funny…now I know what it feels like to command…thanks.”

“Um…” Eudora smiled shyly, “No problem, I guess. You…you’re the pilot of Phoenix, aren’t you?”

Lance nodded somewhat sadly, but happily at the same time, which allowed Eudora to notice his emotions were not stable…much like her own emotions. “Yeah…I pilot Phoenix. Why did you ask?”

“Well,” Eudora scratched the back of her head, and lit up, “I’ve seen the combat records of you on Phoenix, recorded from the Storm of Fire. Admiral Wallace released them to raise the morale of the UN troops. You were amazing! I’ve never seen anyone outmaneuver those X33s like that!”

Eudora continued to shower Lance with compliments while Lance patiently waited Eudora out, and when Eudora finally stopped, Lance whispered, “Are you done yet?” His expression was not quite as cheerful anymore.

“Um…sir?” Eudora whispered. Now that her superior was not pleased, it was best not to call him by his first name.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” Lance laughed uneasily, “I…I’m not quite used to this. I don’t like the idea of piloting Phoenix…I don’t think of him as a weapon, but as a friend…”

“You think of Phoenix as a friend?” Eudora frowned, “He’s…well…”

“He’s a Reploid, like you,” Lance cut her off curtly, “And he deserves every part of my respect. Unless you’re saying that all Reploids don’t deserve my respect, which isn’t true, I’ll treat him as a friend.”

Eudora swallowed and grimaced.

Lance laughed. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to throw you off balance. Trust me, even if I’m Lieutenant, I won’t do anything to you unless I really have to. So talk to me as candidly as you want. Please. Don’t make me feel like a Lieutenant.”

Eudora watched the strange flicker of emotions cross Lance’s face. What an interesting human he is, Eudora thought, I…like him…

“I will,” Eudora smiled, and winked, “Sir.”

*****

Helios stepped up to his command chair as he buttoned the collar of his uniform and sat down for morning duty. They had departed from Second Haven only an hour ago, but something else had called for Helios’ attention, mainly, crew. Even more specifically, was Second Lieutenant Lance Sigel.

After Epsilon had failed to get the message to Lance, Helios had attempted to accomplish that task. Hearing retold accounts of what happened, even seeing it for himself with security camera playbacks, he could only describe what had happened yesterday was incompetence. Yet, today, he was already up and early, had been the first one of the crew of the Storm of Fire to be on the ship, in fact, and was already doing data rearranging for Phoenix.

Helios didn’t have much of an idea what was going on.

“Good morning, Co-Captain,” Juno saluted over from her seat as she watched Helios sit down at his chair.

“Good morning, Major,” Helios nodded, “Status report.”

“We don’t have much to report right now,” Archangel shrugged, “Mostly, our situation is the same as that of thirty minutes ago. So far, we don’t have any great concerns to be notified about. All green across the map. The techs back at Second Haven had even completed upgrades on the aerial system.”

“How about the heavy plasma cannons?” Helios asked, “We never had a chance to test them out yet.”

“Neither did the tech crew,” Juno admitted, “They say it should be running fine, and they reinforced the armor around the area, but suggests not to fire it too rapidly or push it too hard, or the titanium around the area may melt.”

“Acknowledged. Major Phalanx, has their been any alterations from our original course?”

“Had there been, I would’ve told you,” Phalanx replied, “We’re still headed for the airspace of Fourth Haven, where we will arc back toward Second Haven after achieving a one-mile distance from Fourth Haven’s airspace.”

“Good. Major Cruz?”

“Nothing to report,” Cruz replied, then reconsidered, “Actually, there is something Archangel forgot to add. The long-range communications has been installed, but it’s still not quite the best that I would rather have. Prototype, not something reliable. They say it’s just as sturdy, but I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Either way, I hope we don’t have to be in a situation where we’ll use it in a hurry.”

“Me neither,” Miguel replied, stepping onto the bridge. Helios snapped a salute as Miguel sat down in the chair on the balcony above him, “I guess there won’t be much to do right now, then. However, Major Archangel, I would appreciate if you would scan along regions approximately one mile outside of the firing range of a Harvest VII. Focus the detection system there, and alert me should you find so much as a lifeboat.”

“Yes, sir,” Archangel nodded, keyed in the command, and turned back, “Done, sir. May I ask what this is for? I may be of better assistance if I know what to look for…”

“You’re looking for a Neo Arcadian Harvest VII stealth cruiser known as the Redemption,” Miguel replied slowly, “It is being commanded by a man named Captain Atrium Svivern. He is the one who caught us by surprise at the Panama, and the ship he commands carried the five X33 armors that had attacked us during our escape from Third Haven to Second Haven. I know he’ll try to come after us again, and I want to know the moment he decides to stick his ugly ass around again.”

There was another pause on the bridge as everyone stared at the Captain, wondering how the hell he knew that much…and who exactly was Captain Atrium Svivern.

Phalanx spoke up, in both a humorous and a curious tone, “Captain, should I get you the ship doctor?”

In such tension, adding such a comment blew the gas, and the crew burst laughing, even this time, even Helios chuckled a little at the end before trying his best to hide the expression with a solid face.

“I think I’m fine, thank you,” Miguel chuckled with an amused expression, then got serious, “I knew Atrium Svivern through countless of engagements with him…and he’s not only an exceptional ship captain, but an excellent pilot as well. That’s why I want you to keep an eye out for him. Understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Archangel nodded as he kept his eyes peeled on the radar screen.

“Sir,” Helios asked, concerned, “Shall I raise the battle alert just in case? You sound genuinely worried.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” Miguel nodded, “As long as we…”

“Sir!” Archangel cried, and the heads of the crew immediately turned toward Archangel, with Juno almost falling out of her chair “I see…wait…” he turned red in embarrassment, “Sorry, that was my mistake.”

“Man!” Juno sighed as she composed herself, “You scared the hell out of me.”

“My bad,” Archangel laughed, scratching the back of his head, “Sorry.”

Miguel didn’t quite take it as a mistake, though, as he immediately got up from his command seat and stood right behind the Major. “What is it?” he demanded.

“No, no,” Archangel shook his head, “It was nothing…”

“Tell me, Major.” Miguel’s voice invited no further discussion.

Archangel swallowed at Miguel’s suddenly hard voice, and reported, “I picked up something one mile out of a Harvest VII cruiser’s firing range, but it had to be something like a aqua current or something like that…”

“What makes you think that?”

“Well, I picked up something here…but it kind of faded away from the radar screen the moment it entered the scan area. Kind of like a wave. Probably just a glitch. I’ll let Sergeant Mendez know, if you want. He can tweak it up or something like…”

“Major Cruz,” Miguel snapped immediately, cutting Archangel off, “I want the entire crew on secondary battle positions immediately, yellow alert. Major Archangel, aft camera, now.”

“Aye…aye, sir,” Archangel fumbled at the controls, steadied them, then got the aft camera on the view screen. Nothing was there except sea.

“Nothing there, sir,” Archangel shrugged, “I don’t think we need to be worried about much.”

“No,” Miguel shook his head, “Major Juno, arm all weapons. Major Phalanx, turn us starboard one hundred and eight degrees, then drive us toward Fourth Haven in reverse.”

The bridge officers, Helios included, exchanged glances, and this time, they hesitated for five seconds. Unacceptable, Miguel thought.

“Now!” Miguel shouted, snapping them all to attention as they regained attention on their tasks.

“Major Archangel,” Miguel demanded at a frantic pace, “Focus detection grid at previous settings, minus fifty feet in altitude.”

“Yes, sir,” Archangel nodded, keying the commands. At this point, the ship began to turn starboard as Phalanx turned the ship around and started to drive the ship backwards.

“Nothing, sir,” Archangel reported.

“Give me another fifty feet,” Miguel demanded. Again, Archangel hesitated, but this time, only for two seconds, then decreased the settings by fifty feet.

“Still, nothing, sir,” Archangel replied.

“Another fifty.”

“Sir,” Archangel sighed, until the computer console beeped, which nearly made Archangel jump out of his seat as he turned toward the computer, “Sir! Detected something approximately one hundred feet under us, a mile away. All readings confirm that it’s a Harvest VII…but sir! It’s underwater!”

“Damn,” Miguel whispered, then bellowed, “Raise the alert to red, and call for primary battle stations immediately! Major Juno, arm all anti-submarine weapons, and prepare chain guns for point defense! Charge up the plasma cannons as well!”

This time, no one hesitated as they performed the commands at a frantic pace. The red alert was sounded as the bridge turned slightly red with the computer screen at the sides blaring the words “RED ALERT” on the side before fading back to port and starboard cameras.

“Sir!” Archangel shouted, “Four X33 armors have been detected, coming inbound on Leon Platforms!”

“Tell Lieutenants Epsilon, Sigel, Swan, Loyola, and the 22nd Air Interceptor Squadron to engage the enemy now!” Helios barked out rapid-fire commands.

“Fighting us like this, Atrium?” Miguel growled, his hands clenched into fists, “You really want one of us to see an early grave…”

*****

Subaru watched as the Storm of Fire came into range, and noted with pleasure that the tactical computer immediately acquired the status of the battlefield. There was a radar display, and the status of all his team members. Targets appeared in red on the HUD.

Their armors all had codenames now. Subaru was Renaissance, Sakura was Enlightment, Lloyd was Restoration, and Brandon was Revolution. Although there was no designated pilot for Carol’s X33, it was officially called Proclamation. They had almost the same equipment, only their X33s were different now. Their armors were now reinforced, with heavier plating, and they no longer required the assistance from Leon Platforms to fly, although the armors’ air maneuvering system still didn’t compare with the Leon Platforms.

Subaru watched the first two Type-Zeroes being launched from the two hangar bays of the Storm of Fire and realized that the Storm of Fire had been refitted and was now twice as dangerous. “Sakura,” Subaru said over the COM channel, “You and I take the Type-Zeroes. Lloyd, take out the ship. Brandon…” Subaru hesitated, rethought it over, then finished, “If they launch the Reploid-armors, they’re yours.”

“Thank you, Major,” Brandon replied through the channel, both sarcastically and gleefully.

The first Type-Zero arched in the air and lined up its chain gun firing line with the Leon Platform and opened fire before it was in firing range. Subaru easily outmaneuvered the Type-Zero as if flew past at blinding speed.

“The pilot is green,” Lloyd whispered, “Some idiot firing blindly like that…wasn’t the pilot we chased from Third Haven.”

“Yeah, I can tell,” Subaru nodded as the second Type-Zero attempt to flank Lloyd, but without much success as Lloyd returned fire and bullets ricocheted off the armor. His assault rifle wasn’t going to do much about Type-Zeroes, but if they persisted long enough, even Type-Zeroes had to fall to simple assault rifles…and by no means was his assault rifle normal. It was formatted to take out heavy emplacements, exactly why he felt confident in taking on a superior number of enemies. Not overconfident, though.

“Eight Type-Zeroes detected in all,” Sakura reported, “No sign of Phoenix, Odin, or Neptune.”

“What do you say?” Lloyd asked, “Take them all on?”

“Yeah,” Subaru nodded, “Let’s hit them.”

The team quickly split as the eight Type-Zeroes quickly aligned their chain guns with the team, and fired rapidly as the team easily dodged the gunfire and targeted two Type-Zeroes at once. The fight was mostly a stalemate, though; none of the Type-Zeroes weapons did much to the Type-Zeroes, while the X33s were too fast for the Type-Zeroes.

“Delta maneuver,” Subaru ordered over the COM channel, and quickly, Brandon formed up on Subaru’s right, while Sakura and Lloyd flew to Subaru’s right. Carol should’ve been right behind Brandon, but Carol wasn’t there anymore…

The Type-Zeroes also flew into formation quickly as they completed a full G turn and aimed their nose at the X33s. Their distances drew shorter, until…

“Split!” Subaru ordered as he opened fire with his assault rifle, and jettisoned himself upwards. Meanwhile, Brandon and Sakura opened fire, jettisoned themselves to the sides, while Lloyd went downwards after shooting. The Type-Zeroes flew straight past them, while one of them caught fire at the fuselage and tumbled toward the sea.

“I see them,” Lloyd nodded as he pointed toward the Storm of Fire, “The Reploid-armors have been dispatched. All three. Maintained in battle formations as last time. Neptune in the water, Odin on deck, and Phoenix in the air.”

Subaru looked as he flickered on his X-ray scanner. He spotted Phoenix and Odin easily as green dots on the visor, and Neptune…shortly before she disappeared from the scanner, hidden by the ocean.

“Alright,” Subaru nodded, “Go after them. The Redemption will take care of Neptune. Lloyd, you take care of the ship and Odin. Brandon, get Phoenix. Sakura and I will take on the Type-Zeroes.”

“Roger,” Brandon and Lloyd said together as they changed their flight patterns and jettisoned toward the Storm of Fire.

*****

“Two targets headed inbound!” Vincent heard Archangel shouted as he saw two X33s close in rapidly, “Get ready, Lieutenant Swan!”

Vincent nodded as Odin immediately highlighted both targets with a red icon on the HUD. “Both X33s have seemingly been modified,” Odin reported, “I detect enhanced and reinforced armor, and thrusters on strategic parts of the armor. If you wish, I can give you a full…”

“No thanks,” Vincent interrupted, “I think I’ll watch the changes myself.” Vincent dropped to one knee as he raised his shield right below his shoulder-mounted chain gun and his head as he adjusted the targeting reticule on his HUD, then began to calculate at a rapid pace. It was an eight-barreled fusion gas propelled chain gun with a barrel extending at one and a half feet, making the accuracy about reasonable within distances of only fifty meters.

Which meant, against aerial targets, the chain gun would be good for use within one hundred meters in range. The cannon on his left arm would have no hope of hitting the armors, and he would have to raise his shield to fire, exposing him to enemy fire.

So, another very good option was the RALW multi-rocket launcher, which was virtually built to combat air targets.

Vincent played dumb and fired his chain gun at a distance of one hundred and fifty meters, and the X33s didn’t even have to dodge for the chain gun rounds not to hit them. The tracers sliced through the air, and the X33s changed course, presenting their sides to Vincent. He immediately fired four missiles at once, two pursuing each target. The missiles didn’t get a direct impact on the armors, but they hit close enough. But instead, they were mostly unscathed. Vincent mused about this. The armors underwent some serious improvements; even as one of the Leon Platforms malfunctions, the X33 used its boosters to navigate the air before landing on the deck of the Storm of Fire.

“Damn!” Vincent cursed soundlessly as he aimed his chain gun and fired. If he used his cannon or his missiles, he could risk serious damage to the ship itself. The rounds flew out like a swarm of insects, but the X33’s movements were fluid smooth, dodging the bullets quickly.

That’s when Vincent realized who was inside the X33.

“Lloyd!?” Vincent gasped, shortly before the X33 made one meter in front of Vincent, waking Vincent out of his shock. The X33 slammed the barrel of the rifle on Odin’s head, but Vincent knocked it away with his enormous shield just as the X33 opened fire. The X33 dashed backwards, then drew his beam saber, just as Vincent ignited the twin-bladed beam saber attached on his cannon.

“Vincent…” Lloyd snarled quietly, for only the both of them to hear, “Vincent Swan. I never thought I’d be so lucky as to find you again. What, Phoenix this time?”

“That’s none of your business,” Vincent replied coldly, “And you know you need me alive…or you’ll never be whole.”

“That’s why it’s going to be fun,” Lloyd whispered, then dashed up toward Vincent, blade raised. Vincent parried the first blow with the left part of the blade, then blocked the second blow as he spun around and blocked with the other blade. Vincent used the gap between the attacks to fire his chain gun, Lloyd sending short bursts with his assault rifle at the same time. It looked much like a martial arts dance with swords and guns.

“Give it up!” Lloyd grunted as he pressed his blade against Vincent’s own, “I never said I’d kill you when I’m done with you. You come along with me, and I’ll make it as short as possible, and you’ll be back under the open sky again. Isn’t that what you always wanted, Vincent? You’ve been working all these damn years to get Eli her revenge…but I am your perfect substitute. All I need is…”

“Shut up!” Vincent screamed as he pushed forward with his saber, chain gun firing at the same time. Lloyd tumbled backwards as he lost balance, but somersaulted quickly as he flew upwards again, off the deck of the Storm of Fire.

“Bastard…” Lloyd spat, realizing Vincent wasn’t going to be coaxed along.

*****

“Come back here, you bitch!” Brandon screamed as Phoenix jetted past his firing range, easily evading the bursts that Brandon aimed at him. But in an air-to-air battle, Phoenix was still the superior as he circled around Brandon, almost playfully.

“He is swearing quite profanely,” Phoenix quipped as Brandon passed them again.

“You can hear what he’s saying?” Lance asked, surprised.

“Yes,” Phoenix replied, “He’s saying that you are a bitch, and that you were responsible for killing…”

“Okay,” Lance interrupted, “I think I get the idea…a whole bunch of swearing. Don’t try to stress on it.”

“Perhaps you’d like me to put it on the speakers?”

“No, thanks, we…”

“Lieutenant!” Phoenix suddenly exclaimed, interrupting and surprising Lance, “Receiving an alpha-priority transmission from the Storm of Fire…Fourth Haven is under attack by Neo Arcadian forces!”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty

United Nations Military Division Alpha-Priority Channel Broadcast
From: Fourth Haven United Nations Command Center
To: All United Nations Military Division Forces In Fourth Haven Territory (Shortcut Address Code UN000)
Relay Signal: 77421-12214-59492-82937
Security Measure: RED
Subject: Neo Arcadian Detection At Fourth Haven
Attachments: file001.rdr, file002.txt

Fourth Haven United Nations Command Center has detected an unidentified number of Neo Arcadian warships at an inbound vector toward Fourth Haven (vector at grid fourteen by seventeen north; see file001.rdr for exact enemy movement and operations).

All United Nations Military Division forces are to postpone all operations immediately and gather at Point Zeta at best speed (grid thirteen by seventeen; see file001.rdr for exact coordinates). All United Nations Military Division forces are to purge navigational data immediately (per United Nations code 7743-28C; see file002.txt for exact protocol file).

*****

Lei watched the message scroll across her screen as she dodged chain guns rounds that sliced through the water, generating traces of red and orange light through the aquatic surrounding from the Redemption.

Fourth Haven was under attack? How had Neo Arcadia found the island anyways? Then, a sinking possibility came to her.

“It seems like the Harvest VII had already traced us here,” Neptune said worriedly, “You think they followed us and alerted the Neo Arcadian fleet?”

“One thing I know for sure,” Lei whispered as she turned around and weaved through the tracers as she fired her own set of torpedoes at the Redemption, “We’re going to be flanked very quickly.”

The torpedoes zoomed their way toward the Redemption. A good many of them were detonated by the chain guns, but Lei had been keen to attack from the bottom of the ship, where the point defenses were the weakest. The torpedoes grew smaller and faded from view, before they detonated into orange bursts in the ocean. She jetted away like a bullet before the chain guns tracked her and began to fire.

“How many minutes before we reach Fourth Haven?” Lei demanded.

“Ten minutes,” Neptune replied, “Five if we are to leave the defense area of the Storm of Fire, but…wait! Incoming torpedoes from the Harvest VII.”

Lei turned as she saw two torpedoes arching toward her as they propelled through the sea. Lei mounted the chain gun on her shoulder as she fired at the torpedoes. Concentrating at one at a time, she brought down one torpedo and it detonated in the water. Then, she attached herself to the torpedo as she pressed herself against the torpedo. The torpedo could no longer detect her, and ran wild in the water, searching for the nearest aquatic target.

It turned for the Redemption.

The Redemption’s chain guns clicked and fired, but Lei was already too close for them to launch any true counterattack. Shortly before impact, she pushed herself off the torpedo. The torpedo detected her, and began to turn…but not before it slammed into the hull of the Redemption, shaking the ship as a hole was blown into the side. Air leaked out rapidly, shortly before the bulkheads sealed, and the pressure was balanced.

“Very interesting tactics, Lei,” Neptune laughed, “Still, I wouldn’t try that again.”

“Me neither,” Lei smiled as she began another pass for the Redemption.

*****

Epsilon quickly headed the squadron of Type-Zeroes as they swiveled around to track the X33s, shortly before jetting toward them as they passed by.

“Fast little bastards,” one major muttered as he attempted to hit the X33s with his missiles, only to have them destroyed by the sniper in the X33 with a direct hit in the warhead, “Damn it…they’re way too coordinated…even if it’s two people.”

“The less people there are, the more coordinated they are,” Epsilon replied, “Break formation, and try to surround them. Give them less maneuvering room.”

“Sir!” the other pilots replied as they split and surrounded the X33s. One of them fired a sniper round and struck one of the Type-Zeroes’ cockpit. It went through, and Epsilon turned in time to see a splash of red inside the cockpit shortly before it broke formation and headed upwards.

“Lucifer!” Epsilon shouted as his plane drifted uncontrollably upwards as his engine refused to adjust to the atmosphere pressure without manual configuration, and the nose tilted down and crashed into the sea, erupting as a ball of fire on the endless blue.

“Lucifer!” one of the pilots, Eudora, screamed.

“Don’t leave the formation!” Epsilon hollered, doing so a second too late as Eudora spun after the falling jet. One of the X33s trailed her, firing his assault rifle as the rounds tore scrap metal off his tail.

“Maintain formation!” Epsilon shouted, making sure none of the pilots made the same mistake as she turned to attempt to get the X33 off Eudora’s tail, “I’ll get her!” Epsilon turned her jet around as she maneuvered through the other Type-Zeroes speeding past her and aimed her nose at the X33.

Unlike the other pilots, Epsilon knew when it was a reasonable time to fire, and when it was a waste of ammo. She closed in behind the X33 before hammering the trigger. Although they didn’t quite hit, she was too close for the X33 to acknowledge the situation by dropping out of shock, and effectively got the X33 off Eudora’s tail.

“Don’t fall out of formation!” Epsilon snapped at Eudora.

“But…!” Eudora began to protest.

“He’s gone, okay? Gone! We can’t do anything about it. If you don’t want anyone to die, get back into formation!”

But it was too late by then. Suddenly, more X33s showed up on the battlefield, scattering the rest of the Type-Zeroes. Epsilon wondered why there were more of the enemy…until she saw Fourth Haven.

Fourth Haven was not by any means a true fortress. Instead, Fourth Haven was a storage Haven, used for storing weapons and equipment that couldn’t be assessed by the other Havens. Fourth Haven was extremely open to invasion, and that was why Fourth Haven had immediately requested assistance.

But Epsilon could see everything easily from her altitude. The water was filled with battleships on the horizon from every direction, Neo Arcadian from the north, and United Nations from the west, east, and south. Epsilon did a quick mental estimate of all of them, and shook her head in disgust. The Neo Arcadians outnumbered the United Nations fleet by two times. And the Storm of Fire was closing into the battlefield at an extremely rapid pace, already engaging the aerial enemies who had reached the battlefield first to break the United Nations frontline.

“Disperse and attack!” Epsilon bellowed, seeing no chance in getting the squadron back into unison, “Take out as many of them as you can!”

It was not an easy task to do for rookies. While Epsilon had engaged over hundreds of X33s, including those in the Battle of Fifth Haven, she knew X33s were hard to hit. Their maneuvering made Type-Zeroes look like mosquitoes, although they weren’t quite as fast. In addition, they were small, and came in swarms.

They only had one advantage. As they progressed further into the battlefield, the X33s became bunched, thus limiting their movement. Epsilon figured even if she fired wildly into the crowd of armors, she would still be able to hit something by a lucky shot. Perhaps if she launched a missile, it would take out two or three.

Epsilon dropped altitude as she skimmed the water, making her seemingly faster, then pulled up as she fixed herself into a desired position, pulling ninety degrees upwards from the sea. The X33s tracked the veteran as she flew upwards, only to find the sun blazing in their eyes. As their HUD displays finally adjusted to the light, there was nothing to see, as Epsilon quickly shot them down with precise shots of the chain gun.

The other pilots didn’t fare as well. They flew wildly and shot wildly, making no progress as the X33s easily returned fire. Yet another two Type-Zeroes caught fire, as one plummeted toward the sea, and the other attempted to retreat, before exploding into a ball of flame and debris in the air. There were only four Type-Zeroes other than Epsilon left in the air.

*****

“This looks bad…” Archangel whispered as the fighting appeared on the view screen. Dotted with explosions, warships, and aircraft, the battle raged on like a fire, unending, unforgiving, relentless. Warships burned in the sea while aircrafts plummeted toward the ground in the chaos, while the island took direct artillery damage and flared with an orange flash every time it was hit.

“Patch me a channel to Fourth Haven United Nations Command Center immediately, Major Cruz,” Miguel snapped on the bridge, his lips pressed together in a thin line.

“Attempting to hail them, sir,” Cruz said in a scowling voice, which Miguel was glad to hear, since it meant he was concentrated and all business now, as he usually always was, “No response, sir. It seems they have communication problems. I will attempt to locate the warship with the highest-ranking officer in the vicinity. I’ll alert you immediately when I find him, Captain.”

“Good,” Miguel nodded, “Archangel, status report.”

“The Storm of Fire is holding at ninety-eight point seven-five-two percent integrity overall. The 22nd Interceptor Squadron is taking heavy losses, with only five Type-Zeroes in the air now…make that four…we just lost another one.”

“Is Lieutenant Epsilon still there?” Helios interrupted.

“Yes…yes, sir,” Archangel breathed softly, but everyone heard it fine.

“Good,” Miguel let out a sigh of relief, “Continue, Major.”

“The United Nations is being heavily outnumbered, and are attempting to use Fourth Haven for cover. Most point defenses on the island have been rendered useless. Second Haven is sending reinforcements, but they’re going to be too late, if I had to guess. Meanwhile, all the reinforcements in the vicinity have been alerted to this position. Harvest VII is still behind us. All Reploid-armors intact.”

“I see,” Miguel nodded, then said, “Major Juno, I want you to begin to warm up all our weapons immediately. Everything we can muster. Major Phalanx, prepare the package if we have to. Major Archangel, alert us if the reactor is going critical.”

“Sir,” Cruz snapped, “I have Captain Aurora of the Hellfire online. She is the command officer for the Fourth Haven defense fleet. Putting her on screen now.”

The image of a female captain immediately formed on the screen, with a very serious and exasperated face that told Miguel immediately the battle wasn’t going well…perhaps that would be an understatement.

“Captain…Captain Miguel of the Storm of Fire,” she rasped through the speakers, the signal being somewhat unclear, “God, it’s good to see you, sir.”

“We’re here now, so we might as well lend a hand,” Miguel nodded, “How’s the situation on your side, Captain?”

“Not…not good. We’ve already lost about thirty warships already. Watch out for those X33s…they’re real nasty buggers. We’ll handle them the best we can…hold out as long as we can. But once the battleships get here, we won’t stand a chance.”

“We’ll take care of that,” Miguel replied, “Don’t worry about it, Captain Aurora. We’re not giving in without a fight. We’ll try to hold out until reinforcements arrive.”

“All weapons charged and ready,” Juno reported just as Captain Aurora’s image snapped off the view screen.

“Good,” Miguel nodded just as the first Neo Arcadian cruiser came into firing range, “Fire the heavy plasma cannons, Major.”

*****

“Javelin!” Eudora screamed as yet another Type-Zero erupted into a ball of flame as a blackened piece of debris flew out the other side, darting for the ocean. Her concentration was momentarily distracted as she watched in horror the Type-Zero take a death plummet toward doom.

Only she and Epsilon remained in the air now.

The tracers of machine gun fire trailed through the air from the X33s. They scrambled around the jet, like a beautiful fireworks show…only this one erupted next to the jet, peeling away at her armor and rendering the jet useless. She watched the integrity of her plane fall as the jet blared countless warnings that annoyed her beyond comprehension in this situation.

“Damn it!” Eudora screamed as she blindly fired her chain gun into the fray, her own tracers streaking the air ahead of her. A few lucky shots rendered several X33s useless, but it did no real damage against the true juggernaut of Neo Arcadia, as the rest returned fire, and one of her wings ripped apart. There was a sharp sound of metal giving away as the wing tore from the jet, being battered and ripped apart by the assault rifle fire. Eudora’s jet began to tilt and descend. It was her turn to fall into the sea.

“Damn it…” she whispered, slumped against the control panel of her Type-Zero as inevitable doom took its course, “Unable to do anything…again…”

Something large struck the underbelly of the Type-Zero, and at first Eudora assumed it was a missile or something…until her Type-Zero began to change course. Only she wasn’t doing a thing.

“What the…?” she looked around, surprised. Her jet was now headed for hangar two of the Storm of Fire.

“Major Eudora!” a familiar voice called out, “Are you alright?”

“Sir!” Eudora cried, recognizing Lance’s voice, “It’s…I mean, I’m fine, sir!”

“Call me Lance!” Lance grunted as he asked Phoenix, “Phoenix, tell me when it is the approximate safe distance to exert the maximum strength for a throw of a Type-Zero to allow it to skid across the hangar without damaging anything. Plot out the best possible flight path for me, and alert the hangar crew for impact!”

“Doing, doing, doing, done,” Phoenix said playfully, “Course plotted out, hangar crew alerted, and I’ll warn you when to throw the Type-Zero, which is about…now.”

Lance gave out a cry as the Type-Zero swung around, and Phoenix exerted such a force that the Type-Zero lurched toward the Storm of Fire and onto the ramp of hangar two. It landed abruptly on the ramp, then skidded towards as the darkness engulfed the jet, the hangar blocking the sunlight, and the Type-Zero skidded to a halt after leaving a long trail of sparks.

Looking over herself, she assessed her condition, marking herself as fine. She gave a sigh of relief, and keyed the COM channel.

“Thanks, Lance,” Eudora whispered.

“You’re welcome,” Lance replied, “You stay safe.”

*****

Lei’s sonar went off the scale as it flashed completely red just as Neo Arcadian warships dumped their arsenal of torpedoes into the water and Aqua Capsules swarmed the sea like mad. Her motion sensors overloaded and shut down pretty quickly. It was already rather hard tracking movement under water; coupling that with the battlefield made the motion tracker impractical.

“Neptune,” Lei complained as seven different warnings blared through her ears as rapid pings and beeps, “Turn all those alarms off so I can concentrate on my work.”

“We’re severely outnumbered here, Lei,” Neptune said, sounding worried, a strange asset for an AI construct, “Perhaps we should consider getting out of the water?”

“What are you worried about?” Lei snapped back, “This is the water! This is our world. Going into the air or ground would be virtually death for us. This is where we can survive, understand?”

Neptune made what sounded like a stutter, or perhaps even a gulp, before she managed a difficult “Yes, ma’am.”

Lei laughed. “Now what’s up with that? You sound like a child.”

“Close enough…” Neptune mumbled as the warnings snapped off and the sounds of water drifted back to Lei’s ears.

“Well,” Lei grunted, “Let’s get back to this.” Three Aqua Capsules turned and headed toward her, firing torpedoes, but Lei outmaneuvered them easily, careful not to crash into any other torpedo by mistake, and disappeared behind the swirling water currents, shortly before three torpedoes struck each of the Aqua Capsule, each detonating in a ball of orange in the water, before the explosion died promptly and there was nothing but debris. But another three easily took its place as it joined in the ensemble of attacks.

“Damn it!” Lei cursed, “So many of them!”

“I told you we were outnumbered…” Neptune whispered.

“Are you going to act like a coward?” Lei demanded, somewhat irritated.

“No, but I have two alpha-priority programming sequences and objectives,” Neptune shot back, “One is to defeat the enemy, but the other is to preserve the life of my pilot.”

Lei was surprised at the sudden outburst, as three seconds passed. When Lei regained her senses, she was surprised that no one had killed her in her time in hesitance, and jetted away before chain gun fire tore away at where she once was.

“Sorry about that,” Lei smiled, “I should’ve been more thoughtful.”

“No problem,” Neptune replied, sounding grateful, “But shouldn’t you get out now?”

“I understand your concerns, but…” Lei immediately swerved out of the firing range of a submarine and thrust her torpedo gun through the launch tube of the torpedo, then jetted away immediately as the torpedo exploded, and detonated a chain reaction of explosions inside the submarine, “…right now, we should focus on defeating the enemy instead of worrying about my survival. When the armor integrity reaches twenty percent, tell me.”

“I don’t think I’d have time to tell you that…” Neptune muttered, but kept her silence other than that. The submarine Lei attacked finished exploding as it turned into a blackened piece of debris, sinking down the depths of the ocean.

*****

Chain guns flared as Brandon flew through the delicate web of tracers that were formed by the eight chain gun installments in strategic positions on the Storm of Fire as he crossed over in between the left hangar and the ship itself. Stopping at their blind spots for only a moment to catch his breath, he quickly ignited his thrusters again as the pilot of Phoenix tracked him and fired his MA71 rifle at him, where he was thus forced to flee and return fire.

“Die, die, DIE!” Brandon screamed, audible even over the explosions and gunfire from all around him, as he triggered the chain gun on his arm wildly. His shots made but poor market for Phoenix’s thrusters, which easily outmaneuvered his aim, but with his improved X33s, he wasn’t easy to shoot down for Phoenix either.

Swerving around, he quickly avoided another calculated burst from Phoenix as he continued to trigger his chain gun. The number of rounds he had left was a thousand. While that seemed deceptively plenty, he had to remind himself that his chain gun fires twenty rounds per second, and if he kept firing, his ammo was going to be used up in a mere fifty seconds. He grunted in frustration as he stopped triggering the chain gun, and rather, quickly rapped the controls on his Leon Platform as a holographic targeting display popped up in front of him.

“Lloyd!” Brandon shouted through the COM channel, “Distract Phoenix for me while I target him with my missiles!”

There was a pause as he saw Lloyd, recognizable through the swarm of X33s as one with more armor, as he quickly avoided missiles from Odin, on the deck of the Storm of Fire, before he heard his reply, “Roger, Brandon. Headed your way.”

Phoenix quickly aimed again at Brandon, but before he could fire, assault rifle fire struck his back, catching the pilot’s attention. Phoenix quickly swerved around as he hovered in midair, searching for his assailant, leaving his back vulnerable to Brandon’s lock-on. The thrilling sound of two beeps from the targeting system excited Brandon as a red target cursor was placed on Phoenix, and Brandon triggered the missiles. The missiles flew out from both sides of the Leon Platform, dropping at first, before the rockets fired, and they headed on route toward Phoenix.

Brandon cursed as Phoenix somehow noticed there were four missiles headed his way, and ducked downwards as the missiles attempted to track him, failed, and went past him as the missiles lost the lock-on.

However, they didn’t detonate in midair. Rather, they headed for Fourth Haven.

Brandon didn’t notice it at first; there wasn’t much to notice about missiles that went astray, but he knew suddenly that his missiles exploded pretty deep into Fourth Haven. There was a sudden glow inside the underground warehouses as it seemed as if all light in the universe came from that source, and the sky went almost black, before a concussion on such a large scale was inflicted upon the battlefield, so massive that it seemed the fabric of space seemed to tear itself.

Brandon’s missiles struck the nuclear storage area of Fourth Haven.

As the mushroom cloud engulfed the battlefield, and the combatants stopped temporarily to see apocolypse right in front of them, Brandon could not feel the smile that formed crookedly in his mouth, but he could feel the glee that built up in his mind.

“More…” he whispered, but in an excited tone, “More…”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-One

Miguel watched in horror as the mushroom cloud grew in size, taking his breath away. Everyone on the bridge stared, and their attention was only diverted as the view screen turned darker to prevent eye damage, and the bulkheads sealed to prevent radiation. That was all Helios needed to regain control of the bridge.

“Major Phalanx,” Helios snapped, “Check all radar readings and…” Helios noticed Phalanx was still staring at the explosion, so he gave a shout that sent Phalanx flinching, “Major Phalanx!”

“Sir…sir!” Phalanx stuttered as he regained his senses.

“Scan the region and plot an exit vector for us,” Helios said, “We’re retreating.”

“No, we’re not!” Miguel whirled around and countered his subordinate, “We’re fighting until the very end.”

“This battle is lost,” Helios snarled, the first time he had contradicted a superior officer violently on duty, “We have no ground support, and half our numbers have been taken out by the nuclear blast. We can only salvage what we have, and save it. Don’t forget; Second Haven is still counting on our return, including the three Reploid-armors.”

Miguel opened and closed his mouth in fury, but couldn’t talk back. Helios was right. In this case, duty prevailed over honor. He sat down, sighing and exhausted, slumping in his command chair.

Helios noticed the entire bridge crew was watching, so demanded loudly, “Major Phalanx! Have you plotted out the exit vector yet?”

Phalanx flinched again, then nodded, “Yes…yes, sir. I’ve scanned the region, and the Neo Arcadians are approaching from the north, south, and west. The only exit vector is the east, where we will be pursued until we reach the Red Sea. Then, we’ll have to fly into the deserts of the Middle East…and that’s where our supplies runs out.”

“Can our ship land in the desert?” Helios asked, surprised.

“Yes, sir,” Archangel turned and nodded, “One of the ship’s main designs is that fact it can maneuver through air, land, and sea. While it cannot move on land, it can at least land on it, provided there is a clear landing. In this case, we should be fine with a desert, but we might…”

“Shut up, I don’t need a lecture, Major,” Helios interrupted, “Is it possible?”

Archangel seemed to consider for a moment, then nodded, “Yes…yes, sir.”

“Captain?” Helios turned toward Miguel, as though asking him for permission, although his voice basically noted that he was going to make the bridge do it even if Miguel refused.

“Go for it,” Miguel sighed as he straightened up in his command chair again, “Recall Lieutenants Epsilon, Sigel, Swan, and Loyola immediately, and engage evasive maneuvers. Alert the crew.”

“Yes, sir,” Major Cruz nodded, and immediately began composing a quick message that would get the soldiers back into the ship.

Miguel looked out the view screen to see the Neo Arcadian wipe out the ships that were still attempting to resist, or those who were too slow on escape. Many used the cover of the nuclear explosion to flee as the radiation interfered with radar as they escaped. The Neo Arcadians could not pursue those who fled, so resorted to punishing those who did not instead. In this case, it would better that they flee.

“Course plotted,” Phalanx nodded, “We’re ready to get out of here on your order, sir.”

“All units have been recalled,” Cruz confirmed, “We’re in the green.”

“Sir!” Archangel exclaimed, “I have a Neo Arcadian Harvest III cruiser headed toward our position!”

“Major Juno,” Miguel ordered in a crisp voice, “Prepare the heavy plasma cannons. Major Phalanx, turn to get us into a good firing position.”

“Yes, sir,” the two majors replied in unison as the ship swiveled around, and it grew slightly hotter on the bridge as the reactor pumped energy to the plasma cannons. And the view screen grew brighter. It would be much different in the hangars, where the crew was virtually next to the plasma cannons and would be feeling and seeing the heat and light right at ground zero.

“They’re in my firing range,” Juno reported as the Harvest III was directly in the middle of their view screen, and beginning to fire its shell cannons.

“Fire, Major,” Miguel snapped.

There was a pause, then a tremendous burst of light appeared from both sides of the Storm of Fire as the plasma cannons seemed to engulf the view screen with a blazing green and white that enveloped the entire screen. For a moment, there simply was nothing there on the view screen but a pale light, shortly before the cannons stopped there firing…and nothing but the sea was on the view screen anymore.

“Good Lord…” Juno whispered in awe of the weapon’s power, “Good Lord Almighty…”

“Let’s hope we’ll never use that again,” Miguel said, and continued, “Major Phalanx, get us out of here.”

“Yes…yes, sir,” Phalanx replied as the engines accelerated, and the armor on the bottom opened up again. The reactor fed power to the thrusters below, and a deafening roar overtook the bridge before the Storm of Fire rose again, fleeing to the Middle East.

*****

“Area secured,” the ops officer aboard the Redemption reported, “The last of the enemy has been wiped out. Fourth Haven is ours.”

Deviant, who had been in control of the operation after temporarily labeling Svivern unsuitable to command due to his biometric reaction (still unknown to anyone but Deviant), nodded in his holographic form. “Excellent, Ensign,” Deviant hissed with all his programmed arrogance and deviance that made the skin crawl on the bridge officers, “Any reports on the Storm of Fire we had been pursuing earlier?”

“Scanning,” the ensign said again, waited three seconds, then turned around and shook his head, “No, sir, no sign of the Storm of Fire. I think they escaped.”

Deviant mused this in contemplation, as he accessed the map files installed aboard the Redemption and scanned them. The area was enclosed by Neo Arcadian forces on the sides of north, south, and west. Reading the hastily filled reports from other captains of the Neo Arcadian fleet, he immediately concluded that the Storm of Fire had not breached the blockage, but had retreated eastward.

Well, going east would give quite a large space for them to grope around. He immediately requested reinforcements from the regions nearby in Africa, Asia, and Europe to be on alert for the Storm of Fire, but he knew it wasn’t enough. If they planned on sailing east, they would bump into Europe, Asia, or Europe.

They wouldn’t dream of heading into Europe, because Capital Eurasia was in the vicinity, and the continent was well-entrenched with defenses, making even skimming the outskirts of the land mass suicidal. So Europe wasn’t a possibility.

Well, it could be possible they head into Africa, but Deviant didn’t think it was likely. Africa was home to many guerilla fighters that support Neo Arcadia, not to mention that the Storm of Fire probably doesn’t have enough supplies to make it past Africa, forcing it to land somewhere in Africa…and most of the continent was covered with dense jungles, making a landing impossible.

So, he considered the Middle East. Lots of deserts to land in, and the land had been basically ignored for two centuries already. Not a lot of forces in the area, and the natives there support neither Neo Arcadia nor the United Nations. Which means they probably won’t have much problems there except for supplies. But while they’re there, they can hold out for a while, and getting supplies through the black market wasn’t difficult…it may be against regulations in the United Nations, but he was ready to gamble that survival was more important than regulations at the moment.

And if they didn’t land in the Middle East, where could they go? Well, they can go into somewhere such as the Mediterranean Sea or maybe the Black Sea, or maybe even head into a few rivers around the region. That was really the only choices for a competent captain. If he had landed anywhere else, Deviant wouldn’t have to pursue. The captain’s ill choice-making skills will lead himself into doom.

“We’ll head for the Middle East after we are finished with supplying,” Deviant droned his commands, “Be prepared for action until then.”

*****

“You okay?” Lance asked Phoenix as Phoenix resealed when Lance stepped out, and Lance looked him over, “I think you took a few hits.”

“I am capable of taking quite the amount of punishment,” Phoenix nodded, and gestured at the repair chamber on the other side of the hangar, “If I have experienced minor damage, the auto-repair chamber will easily fix that. You should worry more about yourself, Lieutenant.”

“I’m fine,” Lance smiled, “Thanks for everything. I don’t think I could’ve made that one without…”

His speech was cut short as a sob came from the other side of the hangar, and Lance turned to see Epsilon embrace a crying Eudora, and Lance suddenly realized that the toll of the war set in. Everyone from Eudora’s squadron had died; she was the only one left.

“I think you better go check on her,” Phoenix said in a half-mischievous half-concerned voice, and Lance could’ve swore Phoenix would’ve winked had he a pair of human-like eyes.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lance sputtered as Phoenix walked away, amused with himself and his pun.

“It means,” Vincent said as he walked up right behind him, surprising Lance, “You should see how she is. I’ve heard you’ve already met…I’d like to help her, but we haven’t even met.”

“He’s right,” Neptune said, shortly before she opened up, and Lei stepped out of the armor, and Neptune closed up again, “Fatigue gets into everyone, but you should do your best to cheer her up. Right, Odin?”

“I am supposed to agree or to contradict you?” Odin asked in a bored voice; he had obviously not been paying attention to the entire conversation.

Neptune sighed, “Never mind, just pretend I didn’t say anything…” as she walked over to the repair chamber, with Odin giving an indifferent shrug as he followed Neptune.

“Oh,” Vincent added, seeing Odin walking away, “Thanks for protecting me, Odin.”

Odin turned around, his features were indistinguishable, but anyone could tell he was flustered when Odin said, “Lieutenant, I believe I have said you do not need to thank me after combat.”

“Well,” Vincent smiled, “I like to. And you can’t stop me.”

Odin gave something like an incredulous sigh that covered his gratefulness, as he walked away with a quiet “You’re welcome”.

“He’s cute,” Lei smiled, looking over Vincent’s shoulder and watching Odin march away, “He’s the soldier type, alright.”

“Well,” Vincent said, putting a hand on Lei’s shoulder and led her away, “The show’s all yours now.”

“Yeah…” Lance replied, half distracted, before realizing what Vincent meant and whirled around, “Wait! What do you mean, the show’s all mine?”

“You have a girl to watch over,” Lei winked as she quickly dragged Vincent out of sight, before Lance could reply to that. Lance gave a muffled groan and scratched the back of his head, but there was no avoiding what he had to do now. Sighing, he walked over to Epsilon and Eudora.

“…all my fault…” Lance heard Eudora sob as he got within earshot, “They all died because I screwed up…I ****** up, and…”

“That’s not true,” Epsilon patted Eudora’s back and soothed her, the way a mother would soothe a young daughter after she had accidentally broken a glass vase with a stray ball. But this was no glass vase they were talking about; they were talking about six other lives.

“Major,” Lance walked over and saluted. Eudora didn’t look up; she was still crying. Epsilon couldn’t salute with both hands around Eudora, just nodded, and her eyes seemed to transfer the message “don’t salute for now”. Lance dropped the salute and watched as Eudora slowly looked up, and gave a very shaky salute at Lance as she sobbed, her body flinching, and her eyes full of tears. Lance did the favor of returning the salute, and they both relaxed…slightly.

“It’s okay, Eudora,” Lance whispered, and surprising all three of them, embraced her with his arms, the way Epsilon had done it, “It’s okay…you’re here now. I’m here now. We’re here now.” Epsilon took a step back, but Lance showed no signs of awkwardness anywhere; sympathy and sorrow had taken his heart. Eudora only continued to sob against his chest, despite that if she had been standing up straight, he would’ve been no shorter than Lance.

“It’s okay…” Lance repeated, “It’s okay…”

*****

“You’re clear,” the technician said over the loudspeaker, and Subaru stepped out of the airlock, a chamber that had been rigged with numerous sensors and scanners. Bare-chested, Subaru stepped onto the cold metal deck as cooling methane flowed out of the open chamber, and Subaru took a breath of fresh air.

Beside him, Sakura, Brandon, and Lloyd stepped out from other chambers, all bare-chested except for Sakura, who wore a shirt. Subaru doubted they had needed to do this; after all, the X33s did protect the pilot from radiation. However, Deviant had persisted that they check if they have been afflicted with the aftereffects of nuclear radiation. Seemingly, this was not the case.

“Please return to your stations, Majors,” the technician said over the loudspeaker again, and it went dead as the technician keyed it off and began to save the data into some database. Subaru motioned for his team to follow, and they headed for the locker room.

Brandon was unusually quiet, but also unusually excited. And why not? He had blown up Fourth Haven completely, leveled it, with only a few stray missiles. Sure, it might have been stray, but it easily bought them the victory of the battle, and he had been awarded the Medal of Valor almost immediately from an admiral they were not quite familiar with, and the fact that the blast annihilated much of the Neo Arcadian 2nd Armada was dismissed almost immediately. Besides, bloodlust was always Brandon’s middle name.

It wasn’t just Brandon. It seemed everyone was somehow quiet. Lloyd never strung up much of a sentence anyways, but he and Sakura were also quiet. He wasn’t sure that they were quiet because they were quite glad they won the battle; rather, he was pretty sure the both of them were appalled at the atomic explosion. Surely the battle didn’t need to have gone to such an extent.

“It would’ve happened sooner or later,” Brandon laughed in the locker room as they dressed in their uniforms, “The cruisers were bombarding the island like mad. I just got lucky and bought us an early victory. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s those UN ******, putting their nuclear weapons in areas as insecure as those.”

He and Sakura had doubts about that, but they knew better than to contradict him. Lately, Brandon had always been in a melancholy mood; the change in attitude was welcome, although it wasn’t exactly toward the right source. But it didn’t matter anyways. Soon, Subaru knew, the Redemption will locate the Storm of Fire, where it will finish the crew, with a loss of supplies and men.

As Subaru had expected, the cat’s nine lives were just about used up.

*****

The sun had not yet set on Second Haven, but the sky was a dusky red, and Admiral Wallace stood by the large window of his office watching the sunset, the great ball of fire sinking down beneath the horizon before the sky would turn a dark black. The sunlight cast new shadows to his face that were not quite visible during the day, making him twice as imposing.

There was no knock on the door, just a sound of a door creaking open and slammed shut as a heavy pair of boots descended on the carpeted floor. Wallace turned around to find Lieutenant Colonel Fireside at his door, in a salute. Wallace returned the salute, and Fireside dropped his.

“Have a seat,” Wallace said as he sat down behind his chair.

Fireside looked disapprovingly at the seemingly fat couch before the Admiral’s desk, and shook his head. “I’ll stand,” he replied.

“Fine,” Wallace shrugged as he looked into Fireside’s eyes, “I suppose you have an idea why I called you?”

“Fourth Haven,” Fireside hissed slowly, “And the Storm of Fire.”

“Right,” Wallace nodded, “I don’t know where it is right now, only that our sources confirmed it was retreating from the battlefield. It was headed for the Mediterranean Sea before we lost track of it. Now, we have had no news on it. And that’s why we’re sending you into the Middle East.”

Wallace stood up, and stared closely at Fireside, as if daring his courage. “Find the Storm of Fire,” he said slowly, “and bring it back, wherever it is.”

*****

Hours past when the secondary alert had finally been put down, and the crew was at relative ease…not complete ease, but it was great relief that they were out of the battlefield, for the moment.

“Anyone on our trail?” Miguel asked, for what seemed like the seventeenth time.

Archangel checked his sensors again, attempted to match it with all files in the data library, and shook his head, “No, sir. Nothing around us for a fifty mile radius.”

“Visual isn’t going to work well if we tried,” Juno remind, swiveling around in her seat, “It’s getting dark…I think it’s well around ten o’clock around this region.”

“It’s twenty-two hundred hours, Major,” Helios snapped sharply, taking Juno by surprise and causing her to blush in embarrassment, “Have you received anything from any UN forces for the past few hours, Major Cruz?”

“None,” Cruz shook his head and scowled, “Ever since we entered the Mediterranean Sea, we didn’t so much as receive one byte of information from the communications dish. Either it’s broken, or there’s no one around us that will even use communications around here.”

“Good,” Miguel sighed in relief, “That means we’ll be safe for a while…give me a sonar visual on screen. And has Lieutenant Sigel come back yet?”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz nodded, “Lieutenant Sigel has reported he has not spotted anything around the desert after a scouting cycle of one hour and seventeen minutes with Phoenix. He confirms that we are clear.”

Miguel nodded, and shifted his gaze to the view screen. Spotting a considerably flat part of land in the distance, Miguel quickly located the coordinates on his computer before sending the coordinates to Phalanx’s console with the commands, “Try landing here.”

“Roger,” Phalanx replied, and the ship turned slightly as the retrorockets fired and the rockets below and behind dimmed a bit, allowing a descent in speed.

Miguel sighed as he rubbed his tired eyes and leaned back against his command chair.

“It’s probably going to be the few moments of peace we’ll ever get in this war,” Miguel whispered, “Hope it lasts long.”

*****

Night had reached its peak of darkness when the Storm of Fire finally landed on the flat dunes of the desert in the Middle East. It was a nameless desert, only called Death by those superstitious about the unexplored, and they were not too far off. Death was indeed what surrounded all four sides of the ship…endless plains of death.

There was little leisurely talk as Mithrandiel quickly led his commandos through the desert sands, their smooth motions making them like the sand themselves, complete with brown leather cloaks over their flesh and armor, a mixed company of men and Reploid. Under the normal circumstances, the radar of the ship would’ve detected the intruders, but Mithrandiel and his commandos were able to move through the desert without making recognizable traces. Although it was an exercise seldom used for a practical purpose such as a raid, it was second nature to the ones in the darkness. Moving under the detection parameters of the enemy radar was nothing to them.

“Remember,” Mithrandiel said after he had looked over his commandos and assessed the situation with the binoculars he hooked onto his belt, “We want them all alive. Tranquilizer rounds only. Understand?” He took out a pack of tranquilizer darts in case someone didn’t hear him and waved it deliberately slowly in the air.

Nods from his group, a company of around twenty, nodded. Invisible even to Mithrandiel was another group that had been stationed on the other side of the ship on a large bed of sand, and they would commence their attack first, through the Storm of Fire’s hangar one, then lead up to the bridge to capture the command crew and the command officers of the vessel. Meanwhile, Mithrandiel will enter through hangar two, and then raid the rest of the serviceable decks.

Mithrandiel watched silently and intently as his eyes scanned the dunes, and finally spotted the first group begin to move. Mithrandiel nodded, and quickly skidded down the sands, his commandos following him. United Nations soldiers had been stationed around the ship in shifts to keep watch, but with their brown cloaks and fluid motions under the cover of the night, they were as visible as the wind shifting through the desert sand.

Mithrandiel aimed his rifle at a soldier who seemed to hear them while running, a long black barrel out of the brown surroundings, took aim, and fired. The UN soldier had heard something, but mistaken it for the wind, although he was still suspicious as he looked around hesitantly.

As expected, the round struck a guard, who tumbled onto the ground without a sound in an awkward position, unconscious, but unharmed. Mithrandiel gave quick hand gestures, and one of the commandos quickly ran up to him and bound the wrist and ankles of the soldier with ropes before policing his weapons. He then dragged his body to the side of the ship, against one of the hulls of the Storm of Fire, where they would gather the prisoners later. That was the way they fought. Disarm them and render them immobile. Then you had complete control.

These actions repeated around the ship as they stealthily overpowered the enemy, and Mithrandiel moved faster in order to prevent discovery. He quickly motioned for his team to head on over to the other decks, while he would go to hangar two…

*****

Lance, still encased in Phoenix, waited impatiently for the second airlock to open. Because of the thermal differences of the ship and the desert, Sergeant Mendez had insisted that he wait for the airlock to open and receive him from his scouting run of the region. The first airlock door had opened and closed, but now he was stuck between the two doors.

“What’s taking them so long?” Lance asked, but Phoenix didn’t wait. Sensing Lance’s impatience, Phoenix had already quickly accessed the airlock controls inside hangar two and sent an automatic query into the computer, which was basically an emergency override signal. The second airlock door opened.

He took a strange look around. Unexpectedly, no one was there. Not a shadow of any of the hangar crew was present, only unmanned equipment and what seemed like an empty chamber. He moved cautiously, with his weapon raised. He didn’t want to be caught unprepared. Moving toward the door that would lead him to the main body of the Storm of Fire, with his back against the wall to prevent a back attack.

Moving to the door, the automatic door slid open as Lance stepped up to it, and he stood in shock as he saw what was in front of it. A formidable Reploid was in front, with seemingly tanned alloy armor and cold, indifferent eyes. His body resembled that of a beast, and outstretched from his hand were gigantic claws.

Lance didn’t need to think twice for him to know it was an enemy.
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Two

“Target unidentified,” Phoenix said calmly, “Confirmed to be a male Reploid. Consider him to be unfriendly.”

Lance didn’t need Phoenix tell him what was unfriendly and what wasn’t. Lance had first mistaken the Reploid in front of him as something else; he looked too scary to even be Reploid. But whatever he thought, he definitely knew it was wise to stay back, especially with the silver and sharp claws that were outstretched from his knuckles.

Lance jetted himself backwards with retrorockets just as the Reploid slashed at where Lance had once stood before. Instead, the Reploid merely slashed apart his rifle. Lance grunted as he watched his trusty assault rifle tear apart into four pieces. Lance thought of the Reploid almost as a monster, especially his fighting style. Leap, tear, destroy, all with blinding speed. But there was something brimming with cunning and intelligence in it all, something that he couldn’t pick out, but it was there. The genuine thing.

Lance continue to zigzag backwards with his retrorockets as the Reploid slashed at him with blinding speeds, the claws on his hands turning into blurring slashes, so fast that even Phoenix’s tracking system was having a hard time keeping track of it. Lance pulled an unorthodox move as he killed the feed to the retrorockets and thrust himself forward instead, allowing the Reploid in front of him to make a serious miscalculation and allow Lance to knock him down to the ground. However, the Reploid merely somersaulted up and regained balance. But it bought Lance some valuable time as the Reploid made his distance from Lance and decided to wait for Lance to attack first.

Lance pulled out his SG-0 “Pinnacle” beam rifle, something that he had never used in his time flying Phoenix. Mostly, it was because he felt rather safe with the MA71 rifle, but now the Reploid had sliced it into four pieces, Lance didn’t have much of another choice.

He triggered the rifle, and there was no recoil, but he nearly had to squint his eyes as a super-focused beam of pure energy sliced out of the barrel, so fast that Lance didn’t even quite see it come out of the barrel. He flinched, missed as he stumbled backwards in awe. The Reploid, seeing the sheer power of the weapon, leapt backwards cautiously, and jumped upwards.

Except that he jumped forty feet up into the air and landed on the rigging of the hangar.

Lance watched in awe as the Reploid landed gracefully on the rigging silently, and stared down at Lance with menacing eyes, those eyes cutting into his own…

“That’s enough, Mithrandiel.”

Both Lance and the Reploid stared at the entrance of the hangar. There, a female stood as open as day, looking up at the Reploid up in the rigging. She had brown hair that reached to her shoulders, partially covering one of her eyes, and dressed in a pink long-sleeved kimono.

The Reploid, Mithrandiel, obeyed her without hesitation. “Yes, Mistress,” he said as he jumped from the rigging and landed right in front of her, the belligerent violence completely out of him. The entire armor landed on the ground without a sound. The girl smiled as she walked past Mithrandiel and looked at Lance. Lance wasn’t sure who she was, but Lance suddenly felt uncomfortable of keeping his rifle up. He lowered his aim to the ground.

“Welcome to the desert,” the girl smiled, slightly tilting her head to the side, “It seems that you are quite the warrior, who can stand even up to Mithrandiel.”

“Well, uh…” Lance scratched his head, not quite sure of what to say, “I…”

“I’ll make sure that Jihad and his men do not restrain you,” the girl nodded, then turned to Mithrandiel, “May you please relay the message, Mithrandiel?”

“Yes, Mistress,” Mithrandiel nodded, and disappeared into the hallway through the entrance. The girl turned back to Lance.

“You are welcome here, as long as you do not interfere with Jihad’s work,” the girl said, “We will receive you as a guest. The people around here seem to respect people with proficient strength.”

“Jihad’s work?” Lance asked, “What about my friends? How are they holding up?”

“Your friends are currently detained and being held in the detention cave. That is where the Elders will decide what to do with them.”

“But…” Lance sputtered, “We…we don’t mean any harm! You can’t just arrest military personnel like this!”

The girl smiled. “I understand what you mean. I haven’t lived all my life here in the desert, and I know that you think anyone that isn’t Neo Arcadian can’t detain UN forces. But in fact, we are a neutral group. While I don’t mind the tiffs they have once in a while, I’ll make this clear for you. The people around here do not trust either the United Nations or Neo Arcadia.”

Lance looked down to the ground. He knew enough that what he said wouldn’t change anything. He had known what it was like to try to convince someone…and after successive failures, he never felt like doing it again.

Instead, he asked another question.

“What’s your name?”

The girl replied gently, “My name is Stephanie Crendor.”

*****

“I can’t believe we’re stuck in this mess,” Aden muttered as Vincent was roughly thrown next to him against the cave wall. All of them were bound at the wrists and ankles to prevent mobility. The detention cave, or whatever the natives called it here, had gotten full, so they crowded on the hallways outside the detention cave. He saw several people here and there, but none that were really his superiors. Out of the corner of his eyes, Aden spotted the bridge officers, Archangel, Phalanx, Juno, and Cruz, being tossed several meters away.

“Did you see the Captain?” Vincent inquired, “Or Lance and Lei?”

“Didn’t see the Captain or Lance,” Aden shook his head as he struggled against the bonds, only slightly, though, “I saw Lei being pushed into the cave earlier, but that was about it. Besides, they’ve dug in an underground complex here, and it’s a mess here.”

Vincent nodded as he watched more prisoners were being placed down along with them, all restrained. “Tell you what,” Vincent said, “Want to place bets? See if we get out alive or not?”

Aden made a soft chuckle. “At this point, the only thing I want to bet is our lives. Who are these guys, anyways?”

“Natives of the Middle East,” Vincent answered, “They’re not all Middle Eastern, though. Many of them are also around the international community, and have come here because they despise both the United Nations and Neo Arcadia.”

“It’s kind of hard to believe someone would hate both,” Aden shrugged, not succeeding very much with arms pulled behind him, “Their goals are almost completely opposite.”

Vincent nudged him, though, trying to gain his attention. Aden looked the direction Vincent was staring, and the sight surprised him. There was Lance, with a girl in a kimono that couldn’t have been much older than him, grabbing him by the wrist and pulling him along the hallway, although no sign of violence seemed to be bestowed upon him. The natives merely acknowledged him, and one of them even offered a smile, one which Lance did the favor of giving a weak one back.

“What the hell is going on?” Aden whispered, “Why is Lance with them…?”

Lance caught sight of Vincent and Aden, and looked around quickly, as though making sure no one was looking at him. Vincent watched him purposely lean to the right and trip over the boots of a UN soldier. He cried as he sailed through the air, but at the same time, his right hand reached for his pocket. Landing on the ground, he slid right next to Vincent and Aden, and pulled a movement so fast that Vincent probably wouldn’t have seen it had he blinked. But he didn’t blink, and caught everything, alright. Everyone else seemed to only notice Lance trip though.

“Are you alright?” the girl asked, bending down to help him up.

“I’m fine,” Lance smiled, and picked himself up, “Sorry about that.”

The girl smiled, and continued to lead him down the hallway, until they took a turn and were out of sight.

“What was that all about?” Aden whispered, still keeping his gaze at the turn, but Vincent nudged Aden again, with a sly smile on his face as he motioned for Aden to look down. Aden saw the handle of Lance’s pocketknife under Vincent’s leg, and gave a quiet chuckle.

“Well, well…” he snorted, “Speak of the devil…”

“Devil help us now,” Vincent smiled, “Now move backwards. We can’t start this all at once, so stay back for now. We’ll wait for our moment to strike.”

*****

“Um…” Lance looked at himself pathetically, dressed in a loose garment that seemed almost like a robe for wanderers and nomads Stephanie made him put on, “Really, I don’t need this…”

“You’re going to dry up in that jumpsuit,” Stephanie said as she looked Lance up, “There. This seems to be a good fit for you. Not only in size; you look quite good in it.”

“I sincerely hope you’re joking,” Lance muttered under his breath, but it seemed Stephanie could read lips.

She surprised him easily by saying, “I’m not. This will be your living quarters for the while…you are free to go anywhere you wish and communicate among the members of our tribe, but we forbid you to anywhere near your friends.”

“Why not?” Lance asked, although he already knew the answer to the question. But asking it would make it real to him.

“Because it could be mistaken as an escape attempt,” Stephanie answered compassionately, “And while we do not wish to harm you, we will if we must. Do you need some rest? I can send for some food and blankets, even at the late hour.”

“No, thanks,” Lance shook his head, surprised that people who have captured his friends could be so generous to him. He had indeed forgotten it was dark; after a scarce look at the underground complex, he immediately knew it was extremely well-lit with torches, and had holes that led to ground level to let in air.

To Lance’s great surprise and shyness, Stephanie sat down next to him, and Lance suddenly noticed that she was extremely attractive in her own way. “If you’re not going to rest, why not tell me about yourself?” Stephanie inquired.

“Um…” Lance scratched the back of his head, not quite knowing where to start, and was greatly relieved when Mithrandiel walked into the cave, giving a bow to both his mistress and Lance.

“Mistress,” he acknowledged, “Although I believe you already know, Jihad would wish for me to remind you about telling the child of staying away from the United Nations soldiers while he interrogates the commanding officers of the vessel.”

“I see,” Stephanie nodded, smiling, “Thank you, Mithrandiel.”

“You’re welcome, Mistress,” Mithrandiel bowed again, and left the room.

“His name is Mithrandiel, right?” Lance asked.

“Yes,” Stephanie turned to face Lance, who dropped his gaze to the floor almost immediately, “He’s a strange one…he appeared out of nowhere, only a few months before I joined this tribe. He insisted that I was his mistress and that he was my servant. He has served me loyally, although I do not know why. He has never failed to answer my questions, even ones about his past. But even though I have asked him questions, there are many pieces I cannot quite fit together myself. Mithrandiel…a very fancy name, don’t you think?”

Lance nodded, “Yeah. You don’t see a lot of Reploids these days that have such a long name.”

“I’m sorry to have changed the subject,” Stephanie giggled as covered her mouth with the sleeve of the kimono, “I apologize for interrupting you. You were about to tell me about yourself?”

You didn’t interrupt me, Lance thought quietly, you merely asked for me to tell you about myself. However, he did not voice his thoughts, so Lance explained, “Well…I don’t know where I should start. I was always an orphan, raised on Third Haven. I’m a…no, I was a student at the university there for physics and engineering, then we got into a path that got me into the service…and here.”

“Why don’t you elaborate?” Stephanie pressed, intensely curious.

Like hell I’m going to, Lance thought, and suddenly realized he was going to do so. “It…it’s hard to explain. I didn’t really understand the chaos on Third Haven except that we were under attack, and we were supposed to head to a shelter except we didn’t quite make it, and we met a girl called Lei on the way…well, we being Vincent and I. Then, we found the Reploid-armors and boarded them so we could get out of the situation we were in, and found ourselves on the Storm of Fire.”

“The Storm of Fire?” Stephanie echoed, not familiar with the term.

“Oh…it’s the vessel that you have captured. The ship.”

“Oh,” Stephanie nodded, “It has a very interesting design…I didn’t quite believe that a ship made of titanium-A plating that should’ve exceeded the limit of seven Albatross thrusters combined with a Halcyon reactor could possibly even allow the thing to hover in midair, much less than fly.”

Lance was lost. “Um…what?”

Stephanie giggled. “Do you not know that your ship is being powered by a UN Halcyon reactor and being propelled by seven Albatross engines, three at the back and four underneath?”

Lance shook his head, “No…I’ve never quite paid attention to that…”

“I see,” Stephanie nodded, as if understanding, then added mockingly, “So much for studying engineering, huh?”

Lance blushed at the rebuke, and, for once, went back to the subject as he had wanted to, “Afterwards, we were being chased by Neo Arcadia from one place to another, and I got drafted in the United Nations military. Lei had been in the United Nations Intelligence Division, although we never quite knew. Just this afternoon, we had fled from Fourth Haven…it was attacked and destroyed by Neo Arcadian forces. That’s how we ended up here, I guess.”

Stephanie smiled and nodded. “There’s one thing I like about you, Lance,” she said, “You’re very trusting…overly trusting, I might add.”

Lance frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You still don’t quite know if I’m a spy or not. Imagine if I had simply wanted to use you to get information from you. You divulged quite a bit of information, information that can be easily used against you.”

Lance recoiled backwards involuntarily in surprise, and realized his folly. Stephanie, watching his reaction, giggled again. “Don’t worry,” she comforted him, “Your information is safe with me. I live with the tribe, but I’m still quite true to myself.”

Lance was immensely grateful of this, and for a second, wondered what would’ve happened had Helios known about this. He shuddered at the thought, and settled back down to the ground. Surprisingly, it was somewhat comforting sitting on the rock. Indeed, it was hard, but it was anything but uncomfortable; the swirling patterns of the stone made very comfortable arches to sit and lie on.

“Do you believe in God?” Stephanie asked.

The question surprised Lance. Many people have told him that in a public discussion, especially with people whom you’ve just met, it would be wise not to talk about subjects relating to sex, politics, and religion. Yet, right out of the blue, she wished to talk about God. A perplexing situation.

“I…I don’t know,” Lance shook his head, “I’m not sure what I believe in. Not after what I’ve gone through.”

“In the Book of Job, in the Old Testament,” Stephanie smiled, “There was a man named Job that suffered much misfortunes because of a mere gamble between the Lord and the devil. However, he remained righteous to the Lord, and was rewarded in full for his faith. His suffering is probably more than what you have experienced.”

“I’m not Christian,” Lance pointed out blankly.

Smiling again, Stephanie stood up and gave a traditional Japanese bow, although to Lance, she didn’t look quite Japanese. “It seems you still have much to learn,” Stephanie nodded, “Worry not. We’ll meet each other again soon.” She walked out of the room silently, her heels making no sounds against the rock ground.

“Stephanie Crendor…” Lance laid down against the rock as he whispered his name, “She’s a strange one…Crendor…”

And it seemed to him that something about that name seemed familiar.

*****

The Captain, Co-Captain, and First Lieutenant had the luxury of not having their arms and legs restrained, but it was not like it made any difference. Sitting down in front of a long table that separated them from what seemed like a leader or an interrogator on the other side, they were under the surveillance of two guards with seemingly formidable weapons, although none of them could make out the model in the shadows of the room, only lit by two small candles on either ends of the table.

The interrogator seemed like a somewhat gruff looking male Reploid, although he seemed to have a bit of conscience glittering inside his eyes. Around his head was a bandana, and he wore a desert cloak that almost all the inhabitants around the area wore.

“Captain Miguel,” the interrogator read from the crew roster that had been downloaded off the ship, “Co-Captain Helios. First Lieutenant Epsilon. It seems you three are the top-ranking crewmembers here around the Storm of Fire. I suppose you already know that’s the reason you are here.”

The three looked at each other, stiffened visibly, and allowed the Reploid to continue.

“My name is Jihad,” the interrogator said, “I’m the leader of the tribe around here, the tribe that has your men detained. This area is our territory. We have the right to know what you are doing here.”

“We have the right to land in this place,” Helios spat, “This land belongs to neither the United Nations nor Neo Arcadia.”

“It belongs to us,” Jihad said evenly, “Just because it isn’t United Nations or Neo Arcadian doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to anyone. We are living.”

Helios prepared to say something else, but Epsilon pressed a hand down on his shoulder, and motioned toward the guards, who were pretty tense to begin with as their hands tightened on their weapons. Helios grunted in frustration and loosened up…slightly.

“We are here because we are short on supplies and needed a place to land,” Miguel said calmly, “We do not mean any harm.”

“Would you allow a Neo Arcadian warship to dock in United Nations waters should it enter your territory?” Jihad asked, quirking an amused eyebrow, “I don’t think so.”

“We are in the middle of a war,” Epsilon pointed out, “That makes two different circumstances. We’ve never as much as fired a bullet in your direction.”

“No, you haven’t,” Jihad mused, “You’ve only thrown several nuclear missiles in our direction. Test firing, is that the term? You test your new toys here in the Middle East, unaware that you’re killing us.”

“Are you going to bitch about…” Helios started again, but this time, it was Miguel who silenced him with a slight wave.

“We aren’t here to talk about this, are we?” Miguel said calmly, “We’re here to talk about airspace and territories. One thing for sure is that we meant no harm. We couldn’t land anywhere else but here.”

“And why here?” Jihad quirked his eyebrows, “You seem to take advantage of what you call the minority.”

Miguel resumed silence as he waited for what Jihad had to say.

“You notice that I’m not completely Middle Eastern. People that live here are people who refuse to live with either the UN or NA, simply because they know the truth about certain things, knowing that both sides are nothing by hypocrites. ‘A plague o’ both your houses’…I believe that was the dying line of Mercutio, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And that’s how it is, isn’t it? Two warring families, with no regards to what happens in between.

“And how many more secrets will both of you hold up? Let’s just start with the UN. How many secrets have you hid from the public? The fact that the UN convinced X to destroy the Hunters, protect the humans, and found Neo Arcadia? That the UN had secretly supported Team Lancer, despite the fact that they were later eliminated for security purposes?”

“We do not dwell on the past,” Miguel stated simply.

“And do you mean that it is your excuse to repeat such errors? You condemn it, but do so again and again.”

“Can we just get to the bottom of this?” Epsilon sighed as she placed her hands on the table, palms downward, “The point is that you want something from us, don’t you? We really don’t want to waste time talking about this, and I can suspect you don’t either.”

Jihad gave Epsilon a thoughtful look, before responding simply, “Production data for the Storm of Fire and the Reploid-armors. If you give them to us, we will release your crew, and provide you all the supplies we can.”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Three

Fireside squinted as the smoke came into view, and not mistaken as a storm or anything, but rather, the remnant of a battlefield. Gliding low across the ocean surface on his personal Shadow Platform, he knew that the Neo Arcadian battleships that had begun to take measures against the ruins of Fourth Haven had probably sighted him, but Fireside couldn’t waste any time trying to go around them. Every second spent was every second lost, so Fireside intended to utilize every one of it.

The Shadow Platform gave a roar as Fireside pressed a button that hooked the engine up with a more volatile fuel than what would be normally given to him, and the Shadow Platform seemed to lurch forward as the engine, which had been giving him a steady stream of speed earlier, seemed to be propelled by a chain reaction of explosions.

Trails of tracers flew around him as the Neo Arcadians opened fire, but Fireside didn’t have to worry about that. He was reinforced with enough armor to survive a massacre, and his Shadow Platform was outfitted with about the same strength. A few bullets pinged off his armor, but Fireside hardly even knew about that. He also carried a special backpack on him, something that he had asked Dr. Jacob to outfit him with before he went on this adventure.

As soon as the first battleship was in range, Fireside released a charged buster shot from the center orb of his buster, unleashing a thin trail of energy. It impacted against the side of a battleship, and for a moment, nothing happened. But then, the black metal began to glow red, then exploded violently as a huge hole was torn through the entire ship. Fireside jumped upwards as he propelled himself fifty feet above his Shadow Platform, and the Platform itself went through the newly formed hole through the battleship and continued to speed on.

From the air, everything was sitting targets to Fireside. Almost instantly, Fireside rained a hail of ammunition on everything he saw, ripping X33s that almost seemed to move in slow-motion to him, and tearing apart the turrets on the battleships that were attempting to track him. Nothing was safe from his bird’s eyes view. A X33 ventured too close to him, and Fireside simply knocked him aside with an arm, and the X33 went spiraling through the deck of another battleship.

Fireside tore away the backpack on his back, and threw it into the air as he engaged the lock-on program in his helmet and immediately, a specially designed HUD appeared on his visor, and he easily targeted ten targets, all battleships. He gave the signal through his COM system, and immediately, the backpack exploded as ten rockets blasted apart from it, creating an arc of smoke in the air as it descended onto the unfortunate warships. The missiles made easy work of the battleships as the battleship rocked violently before it was torn into two.

No one saw the extra package that simply dropped onto the ocean surface from the backpack.

Fireside began to descend from his flight, and became closer to the Shadow Platform that he had left alone for a while. Noticing that he was slightly off course, he pulled a grenade and clasped it to himself, shortly before disappearing in a ball of smoke. But he wasn’t about to be damaged by something like that, as the concussion pushed him toward his destination, and he easily landed on the Shadow Platform streaking across the battlefield before leaving it behind completely.

Of course, he didn’t quite forget the last surprise package that he had left floating in the middle of the Neo Arcadian 2nd Armada as he pressed another button on his Shadow Platform.

The 2nd Armada were given their second nuclear explosion since their arrival to Fourth Haven as the sky detonated into a column of white fire, and the sea around them ripped apart into another mushroom cloud.

*****

Perched on top of the edge of a cliff, Lance sat dangerously near the edge of the abyss, the border between life and death. He wasn’t concerned much of it; he had already been through both sides of the border. There really wasn’t much of a difference anymore, as he dangled his feet into the chasm, the cloak around him fluttering with the calm desert wind.

“The wind isn’t always like this,” a voice said behind him, startling Lance and nearly sending him falling down the chasm had he caught himself as he turned around to look and saw Mithrandiel, “The sandstorms around here can get pretty vicious. But many people have forgotten how bad it could be. I think we’re the only ones who know.”

“Is that so?” Lance smiled, watching Mithrandiel’s unsmiling face, but eyes full of wonder and determination. Mithrandiel stepped up to Lance, and sat down beside him, not quite so close to the edge as he was.

“How was your meeting with Mistress Crendor?” Mithrandiel inquired.

“Huh?” Lance asked, and for a moment, wondered if Mithrandiel had some sort of love for Stephanie, and wondered if he was in danger of a strange love affair, “Um…nothing, really. We just talked about our situation here.”

“She’s more delicate than she seems,” Mithrandiel said coolly, “If she ever gets into trouble, tell me.”

“Are you her guardian?”

Mithrandiel shrugged. “In a sense. I was never quite appointed as one, although it was the road I chose to take. It doesn’t matter, though. If something were ever to happen to her, I don’t think I can forgive myself.”

Lance smiled, and continued to look across the endless dunes. “Tell me…” Lance whispered, “Why did you decide to devote yourself as her guardian?”

“I think servant is the right word,” Mithrandiel corrected, and paused for a while.

“If it’s something you’re not comfortable saying…” Lance started, sensing a moment of awkwardness.

Mithrandiel shook his head. “I have no intention of lying or keeping anything from you, under most circumstances. For this, I can only tell you as much as I can.”

Lance nodded, listening.

“I suffer from a memory loss. I don’t know when it happened, but I am unable to remember my past. It is that way with quite a many of Reploids. You call it amnesia. As for us, since we cannot contract viral disease, we simply say that it is a memory loss. There are several things I remember, although many of them are insignificant. The most significant is the name of my creator, Michael Crendor.”

“Michael Crendor…” Lance breathed, “…Crendor…as in Stephanie Crendor?”

Mithrandiel nodded solemnly.

“I think I’ve heard of him before…” Lance mused.

Mithrandiel whirled around, hope glittering eagerly in his eyes. “You have?”

Lance scratched his head, “Not too much…I’m sure I’ve heard of his name in history class back in junior high. If I remember correctly, he was one of the most respected robotic engineers during the twenty-first century, although that’s just about the only thing history knew about him…either that or I’ve never paid too much attention to history.”

“Is that so…” Mithrandiel whispered, slightly disappointed, but only slightly.

“So you’re thinking Stephanie is your creator’s descendant or something?”

“Possible. I don’t know if it’s certain…Crendor probably isn’t an uncommon name. But want to make sure. She hasn’t shown any signs of knowing exactly who I am, but…well, I suppose I’m an optimist.”

Lance laughed at that, and Mithrandiel gave him a look before his stare went back to the open sky.

“By the way…” Mithrandiel added, “Sorry about last night. I hadn’t aimed to kill you, but that Reploid-armor of yours certainly looks very dangerous. Phoenix, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, “You know?”

“Jihad, our tribe leader, is going to ask your superiors for the production data of the Storm of Fire and the three Reploid-armors. I don’t think the information will be kept from you should you get in contact with your superiors…you are a Second Lieutenant, after all.”

Lance grimaced and looked away. “I don’t really quite want to be called that…” he whispered, “I don’t like the idea of being known as a soldier.”

“I didn’t think so either,” Mithrandiel said indifferently, “Drafted?”

“Just about.”

“I thought so. You look too young as a volunteer. If I had to guess, you probably haven’t even finished university yet. And you don’t look like the one who wants to get into a fight. There’s one thing I might add, though. You look the one who is hard to drag out of a fight.”

Lance’s adrenaline spiked. What the hell did he mean by that?

Mithrandiel caught Lance’s expression and knew what he was thinking immediately. “That duel between us two…” Mithrandiel whispered, “…Before I saw you out of your armor, I thought that you were a kind of a vicious killer…professional, silent, and effective. Your movements tell everything. You may not realize it at first, but once your instincts come to it, you’re pretty much a perfect soldier.”

“Don’t say that,” Lance breathed hard, his eyes turning into a glare.

“Sorry,” Mithrandiel shrugged, but he wasn’t going to be afraid. His claws were still at his hand, and Lance was unarmed. But the apology was genuine, and Lance calmed down quite quickly.

“Well,” Mithrandiel stood up as he walked back toward the entrance of the cave network, “Have a good time here, that’s all I can say to you. And I happen not to be there, please watch over Mistress Crendor.”

“Y…yes,” Lance nodded, watching Mithrandiel disappear from view.

*****

There was a moment of silence as the words sunk in, and more logic prevailed than intelligence…especially for Helios’ case. Seeing Helios about to whack the living daylights out of Jihad, Epsilon immediately put a strong grip on her Co-Captain, preparing to take hits in case something bad happens. Helios must’ve detected Epsilon’s silent warning, though, and made a swift job of calming himself.

“Are you kidding?” Helios made his voice soft, but not necessarily reasonable, “As you most likely know, the Storm of Fire and the Reploid-armors are the UN’s secret. Do you expect for a moment that we will hand production data over to you?”

“It’s for the best,” Jihad shrugged, “As time passes, we must innovate new ways to protect ourselves. And be reminded that we are kindly asking you for the production data and the chance to get out alive. We can kill all of you and then download the production data from your ship afterwards, including navigational records, information databases, and such. I believe I am offering you a very reasonable deal.”

Miguel, Helios, and Epsilon all exchanged very uncomfortable looks as they attempted to read each other’s minds with their expression. Miguel looked pretty much convinced that going by their deal was the only way out, Epsilon was reluctant, and Helios was pretty much enraged. All of them, though, saw the big picture, or at least most of it.

“What do you intend to do with the production data?” Miguel asked.

“The reason is simple,” Jihad stood up and paced the room, “It is the fact that we need to defend ourselves. But as both of you deploy stronger weapons, we simply have to adapt. Because we wish to live peacefully should we have weapons, only because others have weapons. The Middle East does not meddle with the affairs of others.”

“So you’re just trying to benefit from others?” Helios scoffed, “You make yourself sound a lot better than you really are.”

“Who doesn’t?” Jihad shrugged, “Both the United Nations and Neo Arcadia do the same. Has humanity ever changed? The United Nations’ greatest folly, creating Neo Arcadia through their struggle for power from what they called the secondary government, the Maverick Hunters. Neo Arcadia, hiding from their civilians what they do to Reploids, despite many of them are not Maverick. It is possibility that exists within every realm, and every side exercises that possibility to a dangerous extent.”

There was a moment of silence that elapsed in the room that was already silent and bleak to begin with, before Jihad said, “We will give you some time to consider this problem. You will be given an indefinite amount of time to think over it to the extent where you have reached a decision, and be ready to accept to our terms.”

The doors opened, and Jihad stood at the doorway, motioning for the three leading officers to leave the room as the guards marched forward, ready to escort them to specially arranged rooms for them, where they would be kept as political prisoners.

*****

Mithrandiel ran up the cliff at an abnormally swift speed, scraping past the rock column like a hare. Quickly reaching the surface of the cliff, he dropped to his stomach and crawled to another comrade, who was also on the ground with a pair of binoculars and looking toward the horizon of the desert. Lance was right behind them, not quite as fast as Mithrandiel, but able to get up quickly enough without Mithrandiel complaining that he was too slow.

“Definitely Neo Arcadian,” the human next to Mithrandiel whispered as he focused his binoculars, “It’s an airship. Probably an Archangel class…nothing too hard to take care of. Approaching from the west, and probably about seven miles away, altitude of…five hundred feet. Velocity is relatively normal for an Archangel class, approximately eight miles an hour.”

“Good job,” Mithrandiel patted him softly on the back, “Retreat when it closes in to five miles. Lance, come with me.” Mithrandiel stood up and ran down the cliff, Lance watching in admiration as Mithrandiel maintained perfect balance. Lance stumbled down the cliff himself, but was keen enough not to trip.

Upon reaching the cave entrance, he ran a single bell in a certain pattern, signifying a certain alert. Whoever was inside the cave ran another bell, and another one inside would ring his or her bell as soon as he or she heard it, until the entire cave network knew about the Neo Arcadian presence. The system worked much like the torches used by the Chinese in the Great Wall of China, Lance noted with admiration.

“Lance,” Mithrandiel said as soon as shouts from the commandos began inside the caves, “Go find Stephanie, and have her get you to Phoenix. Tell her that I am calling you into combat.”

“Combat?” Lance frowned, looked back toward the sky in which the Neo Arcadian airship was soon to appear, then nodded, “Right.” Lance quickly dashed into the caves.

The commandos rushed out quickly to join Mithrandiel as soon as Lance darted inside. Mithrandiel assessed their numbers and situation and nodded as he gave swift hand signals that signified their course of actions. Their orders were simple. They were to hold fire until Mithrandiel gave the signal, and strike the airship down from the air. If anyone survives the crash, they were to capture him or her.

Then Mithrandiel noticed a significant problem. The Storm of Fire. The desert men exercised their invisibility, and always covered equipment unable to be placed inside the caverns with a brown sheet that provided slight invisibility, and then covered the sheet with sand to maximize the effect. While they had covered the Storm of Fire with the sheets, they had not finished covering the entire thing with sand. If the Archangel class ventured too close, it would be possible that they spot the failed attempt at hiding.

Which meant they would have to take it out pretty quickly if the Archangel class got too close. Mithrandiel figured the odds were pretty high.

The commandos dispersed to their positions, rendering themselves invisible in the sand as they covered themselves with their brown cloaks and lay stomach down on the sand with their weapons and equipment. Many of them seemed to even dig into the sand and hiding under the dunes.

Of course, they weren’t really dunes.

An armored figure quickly approached him, and Mithrandiel turned to see Lance, complete in Phoenix. “I’m here,” Lance nodded.

“Good,” Mithrandiel said, “Do you know where the communications dish is on an Archangel class?”

“Um…” Lance paused for a moment.

“Here,” Phoenix said as a hologram, emitted from the side of the helmet, appeared in the air with the blueprints of an Archangel class, the communications dish marked red, “The communications dish is located on the top of the Archangel class, twenty-two point five feet from the bridge.”

“Good,” Mithrandiel nodded, then said, “We’re going to take the Archangel class down. Here’s the deal. You grab me, and fly into the air at best speed. Our first objective is to disable the communications dish before they have a chance to send an alert to get reinforcements or relay their coordinates to the enemy. Our second objective is to have you drop me onto the Archangel class, where I will disable their perimeter defenses, and possibly hijack their airship. If that fails, I will jump from the airship, in which you will pick me up from the air. Is that good with you?”

“Um…yeah,” Lance confirmed, “When do we start?”

“As soon as the Archangel class is right above us.”

“Got it.”

“One more thing,” Mithrandiel said as he motioned for Lance to get down on the ground, “The next time you engage in combat, make sure you where the cloak we are wearing. It makes you less likely to be spotted.”

“Sorry,” Lance muttered as he crawled on the sand.

The roar of the Archangel class’ engines came soon enough, and Lance saw that it was roughly shaped like a whale in the air, except with several rough angles. It was considerably large, just a bit smaller than the Neo Arcadian battleships that Lance had fought only yesterday. Invisible to them was the communications dish, which Lance knew he would see soon enough.

Mithrandiel grabbed onto Lance’s shoulder. “Now,” he whispered.

Lance triggered the thrusters immediately, and he and Mithrandiel shot up into the air, abnormally fast. Lance made sure that he was making the best speed possible; if they were just a second too slow, they would give everything away to the Neo Arcadians.

Before the automated defenses could even detect his presence, Lance immediately drew his SG-0 “Pinnacle” pulse rifle. Last time, in his duel with Mithrandiel, he was not prepared for the power of the weapon. This time, he would not make the same mistake.

Lance pressed on the trigger, and a thin pale light shot out through the barrel, aimed at the communications dish that lay exactly twenty-two point five feet from the bridge. The beam went through and made a small hole in the communications dish, before the area around it glowed red and damaged enough circuits to allow it to explode. The Archangel-class won’t be calling for reinforcements now.

“Drop me through the bridge,” Mithrandiel said, and Lance quickly aligned himself to face the nose of the Archangel-class, using the top deck of the vessel as a runway for Mithrandiel’s descent. The machine guns finally tracked him and began to fire, but Lance maintained his flight path as he raised his shield, and bullets ricocheted off his barrier.

Mithrandiel let go of Lance’s shoulder, and made a distance in the air before sliding on the deck, scraping away some of the battle plating. The machine gun turrets began to turn, but Mithrandiel was like a beast, extending his claws and slashing at each one as he jumped from one to another at blinding speed, making sure that after he slashed each turret, the buster between his claws was aligned at another turret that was too far from reach, and the tactic allowed him to destroy many of the turrets with little time.

“Here goes!” Mithrandiel shouted as he dashed toward the window of the bridge and shattered it with the impact of his body against the glass frame. The transparent wall split apart as Mithrandiel went through it, and quickly assessed the situation. All the bridge members in the rectangular bridge were unarmed, and mostly shocked. There was a good chance that he could throw a few tranquilizer darts and capture in the entire crew…

No, his chances were not that good. He was fast, but even with him, he couldn’t keep track of everything at once. And more than likely, security would come bursting in the moment he was trying to disable them all. No, that simply wouldn’t do. He was going to have to do something more destructive, and hope someone would survive the impact.

Mithrandiel gave a shrill war cry as he lobbed a fist against the floor with such force that the ground below him gave away, and he dropped a single deck downwards, landing on what seemed to be crew quarters. There was no one there; all crewmembers were on primary battle stage…or trying to get there. Mithrandiel quickly extended his hands as his arms emitted what looked like blades as they radiated immense energy, shortly before the blades extended, launching the energy beams at curved angles as they annihilated everything in their path.

Fire, explosions, and smoke came afterwards like a tidal wave. Several alarms blared at once, and the ship lurched downwards as the reactor began to fail.

“Shit…” Mithrandiel whispered as he looked around, “Looks like I did too much…and I wasn’t even trying.” Grunting, he quickly set his buster’s blast radius on maximum as he aimed for the wall and fired. The blast penetrated three walls before exposing the blue sky outside.

“Time for a pickup, Lance!” Mithrandiel shouted as he lunged into a sprint and ran toward the exposed hole in the hull of the Archangel-class and quickly jumped out, shaping his body as aerodynamic as possible to gain speed and possibly avoid any retaliation. Besides, no matter how fast he dropped, his descent speed was nothing compared to Phoenix’s flight velocity.

Looking upwards, he turned just in time to see Phoenix darting toward him. His radar must’ve picked him up as soon as he jumped out, and Lance was keen to follow. A hand quickly clamped around his shoulder in to a firm grip as Mithrandiel’s descent as averted, and Lance quickly moved toward the dunes as he dropped Mithrandiel off there. The sands cushioned his impact as Mithrandiel slid down the hills, but his primary concern was his trying to pull a grenade from his belt. Unlatching it, he pulled the pin and threw it into the air, where it exploded shortly.

It was the signal for his forces to open fire.

Suddenly, the desert around him exploded as the sand blasted away, and from the haze of dust were turrets that the commandos had crawled into from the surface. They had been covered by the sheets, but now they became visible as they served their purpose. Chain gun rounds, rockets, and explosives lobbed upwards and struck against the already dying Archangel-class. The Archangel-class erupted with fire, smoke, and debris as its crash course became one that was plotted nearly straight down.

“We’re going to have to work a bit tonight…” Mithrandiel grunted as Lance landed next to him, the humming of his thrusters dying, “So get ready for a restless night.”

“Work?” Lance turned his head toward Mithrandiel in surprise, “What work?”

“Work of hiding the Archangel-class, of course,” Mithrandiel shrugged as a pillar of dust erupted into the sky, the Archangel-class pounding its weight against the sand with a resounding impact that shook the ground, “Look for survivors, and we’ll begin cutting the ship apart after we download information from any undamaged databases.”

“Roger,” Lance nodded, and before Mithrandiel could warn Lance not to use the thrusters to attract attention in the case there are enemy reinforcements, Lance had already jetted away, skimming just above the surface of the ground.

“It can’t be helped…” Mithrandiel shrugged, and chuckled, “He’s still a kid.”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Four

The three officers looked at each other in the uncomfortable silence in their confined cavern, which had been prepared for them as a temporary cell of a sort. While they had already been here for half an hour, no progress had emerged. None of them were comfortable with the prospect of violating such serious UN protocol, but they all figured there was no other choice.

“You know,” Epsilon interjected the silence, “I think that Jihad guy is right…this may be our only way out. There isn’t much of a fight we can put up here.”

“But if the superiors know about this, we’re probably going to feel the flames of hell anyways,” muttered Helios, “We’re basically stuck between a rock and a hard place…or in this case, a forest fire and a flamethrower.”

“Where did you get that strange metaphor from, Helios?” Epsilon looked at Helios incredulously, half-interested, half-bewildered, “A forest fire and a flamethrower?”

“Don’t ask,” Helios grunted, “Language was never my strong suit.”

“Well,” Epsilon sighed as she reclined on the arched cave wall, “I’m with you no matter which road you take, sir. I think we’ll have a smooth start if we go with their terms, but…you know the possibilities of the UN finding out. But we can always tell the crew to keep our secret, huh?”

“We can’t force everyone to commit treason for us,” Miguel corrected, “We’ll have to request the crew to keep our secret, and the rest is up to them. If they choose to, we’ll have no problems. If they do not, we can’t do anything about it. We put ourselves in this position to start with.”

Epsilon nodded. Helios just looked away in contemplation. Miguel had never seen Helios so nervous. It was not his life he was concerned about, but treason.

“We’ll just be in a much worse situation if we don’t follow their path,” Miguel sighed, “And besides, there’s no need to tell the crew every detail. I’ll try to cover as much as I can, with my job, if necessary, to save you two.”

“We’re not talking about your job,” Helios interrupted, “We’re talking about your life. If word gets out, you’re going to be in front of a judiciary hearing committee faster than you can name every five-star general in the United Nations Military Division. And I don’t think the committee would hesitate to give you the life sentence…or the death sentence, for that matter.”

Miguel glared at him, and Helios reserved his silence, but he was unwavering, his eyes locked onto Miguel’s own.

“Irony…” Epsilon chuckled, “The name sounds different, life and death, but they’re still pretty bad things, nonetheless.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Miguel shook his head, “We’ll hand over the production data for now…and we’ll see how this endless soap opera unfolds.”

*****

Lance watched as the commandos tore away the scrap metal from the skeleton of the Archangel-class with furious precision, tearing them into manageable pieces, then quickly transporting them to the caverns where they could be used as resources, or burying the parts that were too damaged to be used. Helping with them in their efforts, Lance wanted to wipe away the sweat on his brow, but was unable to because of the armor. Although Phoenix easily maintained the air conditioning inside Phoenix, it was his inner body that was working up the sweat.

Mithrandiel walked up to Lance as Mithrandiel surveyed the work around. “Did you find any survivors?” Mithrandiel asked, looking around.

“Two,” Lance replied, “One of your guys killed one of them when the soldier tried to fight back. He was armed.”

“The other?”

“Your guy tried to kill her, but I intervened just in time…she wasn’t armed anyways. I think they’ve brought her into interrogation.”

“Her?” Mithrandiel blinked, then chuckled, “Gee…I am such an old-man. Still not expecting more females to show up in the service. I guess I should catch up with the modern era, huh?”

“You’re in your prime,” Lance smiled, “Anyways, we’re still getting to work getting this ship hidden. We’re estimating it should be done in an hour, but if I’m allowed to use my saber, I think it’ll be faster.”

“Not acceptable,” Mithrandiel shook his head, “Your saber could be the perfect beacon for any radar in the vicinity, and we’ll simply be sitting ducks. Besides, the hull should be weakened enough for the ship to be torn apart by hand. Speaking of which…”

“Hmm?”

“I don’t think you’ve heard, but Jihad and your superiors have worked out a deal together. I’m not allowed to tell you under the circumstances, but you’re crew is being released.”

Lance looked at Mithrandiel in surprise. “Released? I thought we were just…”

“I know. Like I said, I’m not quite supposed to tell you, so don’t force me to. At any rate, the deal should elapse when we get you the supplies you need to get out of here…it shouldn’t take long. I suppose that’s when we’ll say goodbye, right?”

Lance looked away, lost in his thoughts. Most of him wondered what Miguel, Helios, and Epsilon had worked out, and why they’re leaving. He had been restricted from most of the information that was going around; he hadn’t even heard rumors. So now that the crew was being released, did it mean they would have to fight Mithrandiel and his men now? No, unlikely. Miguel was the kind of person that would not do anything dishonorable like that. So the thing would be resolved peacefully?

His attention was diverted as the wreckage suddenly exploded, a pillar of dust rising into the air that immediately captured everyone’s attention as heads turned in the direction of the concussion. As the shroud cleared, a shadow of a cube was visible, a large cube that seemed to be a large container suitable for containing two Type-Zeroes.

“What the hell is…” Mithrandiel started, but didn’t finish. The container suddenly opened, and approximately forty blue flashes jetted out of the box like endless arrows. Lance stepped back in reflex, and reached for his SG-0. The flashes stopped for a moment, as if assessing the situation, and Lance saw what they were.

“X33s?” he whispered.

“No,” Phoenix interrupted, his voice in an uncharacteristic snarl, “Something’s wrong with them. There aren’t any biometric readings from the X33s.”

“Does that mean…” Lance asked, but was cut off as the X33s launched into the air and positioned their rifles downward as the hailed gunfire downwards. Lance quickly grabbed Mithrandiel as he covered the both of them with his shield. It was unnecessary; Mithrandiel was doing an adequate job of deflecting the bullets with his claws. Nevertheless, it was a relief seeing Mithrandiel safely under his wing.

“A surprise attack, huh?” Mithrandiel growled, “Not like the Neo Arcadians…”

“Mithrandiel,” Lance panted, “You take your men and flee. I’ll fight them.”

“I’m not about to let you take all my kills, Lance,” Mithrandiel chuckled.

“But your men need to retreat! There’s something wrong with those X33s, and your commandos may not be ready for them. If they’re not under your leadership as they flee, they’re all in danger!”

Mithrandiel hesitated only for a moment, and a smile that looked more like a grin surfaced on Mithrandiel’s face. “Thanks…didn’t think of that. Alright, I’ll leave this up to you. Expect reinforcements soon.”

“Right…” Lance nodded as he concentrated on the X33s, then suddenly realized he hadn’t completely understood what Mithrandiel said and turned around, “Wait, Mithrandiel! What reinforce…” he was cut off as machine gun rounds hit the ground around him, and he quickly jettisoned himself into the air.

“Forty targets,” Phoenix reported, “They’re moving in eight formations, five each squad, but there’s no match with previous encounters with Neo Arcadian troops.”

“So they’re different?” Lance asked.

“Definitely. Advise extreme caution.”

“Noted,” Lance nodded as he quickly pulled out a replacement MA71. But the X33s moved uncharacteristically fast, as if the armor was their body, not a type of second skin. They moved with such coordination that they seemed to be almost inhuman, something Lance found quite frightening.

“Targeting module activated,” Phoenix informed as a new set of icons appeared on Lance’s HUD.

“What’s this?” Lance asked, staring at each icon as they seemed to move around with the X33s, but not quite on them.

“This is a new targeting module, a new feature installed back on Second Haven,” Phoenix answered, “While I had not enabled it to you since I didn’t figure it was needed, these enemies seem exceptionally fast. This module adjusts with your weapon. The icons show the approximate location of where you need to fire a round ahead of a certain X33 in order to hit it, not behind it.”

Lance smiled as he turned to avoid a hail of incoming fire. “Gotcha,” he smiled. Immediately, he aligned the laser targeting of the MA71 with the targeting reticule, and quickly aligned it with the diamond shaped icon on his HUD. He quickly fired, and several holes opened up in the armor’s side before it exploded, and tumbled toward the ground in a trail of fire.

“Pretty bad odds for you…” Lance whispered as he quickly adjusted his missile launcher and fired a volley of five missiles at once, sending give projectiles through the plume of smoke as they arched through the air and quickly found five targets to seek and destroy. The missiles exploded in a series of explosions, and another five X33s went down. But the other X33s quickly swarmed around him with machine precision, forming what seemed to be a net around him.

“Damn it!” Lance cursed as several rounds pinged off his back, and Lance could feel them as the plating absorbed the damage. He was severely outnumbered, as three X33s quickly drew what seemed like batons with sparkling bolts of electricity around it. The others leveled their guns for cover as they fire rounds around Lance, limiting his movements as the X33s with the batons loomed closer. Lance drew his saber as he braced himself for close quarters combat.

“Lance…Lance!” Phoenix sounded alarmed as he scanned Lance’s mental readings, “You’re entering mental stage negative seventeen, thirty-two…Lance! It’s off the scale! Can you hear me? Your mind will collapse like this! Lance…!”

Lance wasn’t listening at all. Lance couldn’t listen. Because all Lance could do now was suddenly focus on a battle as his posture became that of a sleepwalker. The X33s did not take heed of this, though, and charged in.

There was no more than a flash as the five X33s that had batons suddenly paused in midair. Suddenly, they split apart, falling toward the ground, with Phoenix right behind it, with the saber in hand. Without wasting any time, he jettisoned himself toward the X33s shooting at him. Effortlessly dodging the rounds, he threw his saber into the one of the X33s and kicked one next to him into a random X33 before shooting them both with his MA71 rifle, and pulling the saber out of the stunned X33 before slicing him in half completely. Less than two second elapsed.

Lance didn’t notice that the X33s showed no sign of shock whatsoever as the rest of the twenty-six X33s prepared to aim and fire. But a row of chain gun fire quickly distracted their attention as six X33s were knocked out of the air.

Lance didn’t pay any heed to the chain gun fire from the ground as Vincent gave him support with Odin, staying low in the ground and sending an answer volley of chain gun rounds up into the air as he swept the air with his gunfire, taking out anything that was in the path of his firearm.

“Lance, this is Vincent,” Vincent hailed him over the COM channel, “Get out of there; I’ll take care of the rest of them.”

“It’s no use!” Phoenix cried, “Something’s wrong with Lance! His mental stage is completely off the scale! I’ve tried stabilizing it, but it’s not working!”

“What!?” Vincent whispered, shortly before the X33s concentrated their fire on him. However, Lance quickly swarmed through their formations as he incorporated practically every weapon he had. He unleashed his rapid volley of assault rifle rounds as he fired his missiles in the meantime, sending the X33s into a pillar of fire, while he slashed at those who came close enough with his saber. In the air, he looked much like a dancer as he twirled in the air and eliminated the rest of the enemy.

“Lance!” Vincent shouted, “Get a hold of yourself!” He had now figured Lance wasn’t his usual self as he maintained a battle stance even as the battle was over. Instead, he maintained a low altitude, and flew toward Vincent with his assault rifle.

“Stop him, Phoenix!” Vincent screamed as he ducked for cover.

“I can’t!” Phoenix replied, “My neural-link system cannot control him! He…”

“Fine,” Vincent grunted as he stood his ground, and Lance drew his saber, “Can you estimate the path in which he will slash? If you can, send the data to me.”

“O…okay,” Phoenix nodded, “Data sent.”

“Data received,” Odin reported as a red arc on Vincent’s HUD appeared and Vincent saw the approximate area of the predicted slash, “I hope you know what you’re doing, Second Lieutenant Swan.”

“Odin,” Vincent said, “Make sure you don’t exert a force where I would kill Lance in the next move.”

“I can’t control it, but I’ll do my best to suppress the pressure.”

“Understood,” Vincent replied, and added, “Thanks.”

“You know I hate it when you say that,” Odin said without muttering or showing any signs of annoyance.

“That’s why I say it even more,” Vincent grinned, purposefully annoying Odin.

Phoenix closed in quickly as Lance thrust his saber forward and slashed in an upward direction as soon as he got to Vincent…as predicted. Vincent easily dodged the slash, and concentrated a fist at Lance’s head. The punch connected, and Lance reeled backwards in flight shortly before he crashed into the dunes, spiraled in the air, and skid several feet before coming to a halt. Vincent kept his reflexes sharp, in case Lance could recover, but Phoenix quickly contradicted that idea.

“Checking vital signs…” Phoenix quickly scanned Lance over, then reported in a relieved tone, “He’s alright. He’s unconscious, but all his vital signs are stable.”

“Good…” Vincent gave a sigh of relief, then moved over to pick up Lance’s body as Phoenix opened the armor as to eject Lance, and Vincent took a quick look over him. He was definitely unconscious; a trail of blood leaked from the corner of his mouth.

“God…” Vincent whispered as he quickly picked up Lance in his arms as Phoenix resumed his Reploid form, and both of them quickly jetted back toward the caves, hoping his friend may open his eyes to see the next daylight.

*****

Miguel and Helios entered the Storm of Fire’s medical bays, where UN doctors were performing the last of the treatment on Lance, as Lance lay unconscious and bare-chested on the medical bed. Both of them looked over at Vincent, who was seated in the corner where he could watch over Lance, then back at Lance.

“He went berserk, you said?” Helios asked as Vincent stood up to salute the two superiors, “To what extent?”

“I…I’m not sure,” Vincent admitted, “Phoenix said his mental stage was uncharitable…it had already been down to negative thirty-two, which is basically impossible for humans…most soldiers, even under the worst injuries and fatigue, don’t get below negative four…something snapped inside, I guess.”

“What is the analysis on him?” Miguel asked the doctor.

“He’s fine,” the doctor nodded as he began packing up his tools, “There are no signs of dangerous aftereffects. No real physical injuries…a bruise that came from the punch from Second Lieutenant Swan, but that’s just about it. As for mental injuries, he’s okay, just in somewhat of a coma…it isn’t even serious enough to be called a coma. Let’s just say he’s unconscious, but he’ll be fine soon enough.”

Miguel nodded, then rested his eyes on Lance again. He looked strangely peaceful, and noted it was the first time this particular Second Lieutenant had been injured bad enough to be hospitalized. Miguel hoped it wouldn’t happen again; he had already reluctantly accepted having him at the frontlines. He didn’t want to make it any worse for him. The doctor finished packing, and left the medical room.

“Perhaps I should label him unsuitable for combat?” Helios asked. Miguel turned in surprise, as did Vincent. A moment past, in which Helios was probably oblivious to the awkward stares at him, before Miguel emitted a small chuckle, which surprised Helios.

“Well, well,” Miguel smiled, “That’s one thing I would never had expected from you.”

“You’re quite the liar,” Helios gave a small smile as well, one that took more effort than it seemed, “Sir.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Miguel laughed, then focused his seriousness again, “Are you thinking about his injuries or the possibility that his mind might be unstable?”

Helios paused for a moment, searching for the best answer to the question. Finally, he shrugged and said, “The latter, I guess.”

“I thought so,” Miguel nodded, “I suppose that may be the case…we won’t be seeing a lot of the enemy here anyways. Mithrandiel told me that they confirmed the Archangel-class did not make any transmissions in time.”

“Has that been confirmed?” Helios asked.

“It’s from the Neo Arcadian officer they captured,” Vincent informed, “They pumped the information out of her, and there’s not much of a point to doubt her. She passed three lie detector tests. Her information should be reliable; she’s an Ensign, assigned as a bridge weaponry officer.”

“Well, that settles it,” Miguel nodded, “Until we can run further medical tests, we’ll have to suspend him from the field of combat. Also…I believe there was something you wanted to tell me, Second Lieutenant Swan?”

“Sir?” Vincent paused for a moment, then straightened, “Yes, sir. It’s concerning the forty X33s we encountered just an hour earlier.”

Miguel and Helios turned toward Vincent, giving him their undivided attention.

“When we first went against them, Phoenix and Odin noticed that they assumed a formation not yet recorded in the library of previous recorded information from the battlefield. It would be logical that they could’ve formed a different formation, but their movements were precise…too precise. They moved almost like swarms of insects or something, and they moved as if the X33s were their bodies, not like some sort of armor. This develops a very disturbing development in combat.”

Miguel and Helios grimaced.

“Just twenty minutes earlier, when Mithrandiel informed me about the communications information, he also added that the X33s we defeated…there were no pilots inside. In fact, the X33s were built in a way that they were not supposed to be accommodated for a pilot. What they found were just mechanical parts inside, with a bit of reinforced armor, and much more energy generating equipment.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Helios asked, impatient, and wanting to get to the point. But Miguel got their first.

“My God…” he whispered as he involuntarily took a step backwards, “They’ve developed automated X33s…”

“Quite the irony, huh?” came a chuckle through the door. Miguel, Helios, and Vincent turned to see Mithrandiel standing with another one of his commandos. The commando had a smiling face that seemed almost cruel, and long unkempt hair. He also wore a dark trenchcoat with a shade of brown.

“They say Reploids are the new hazards of the twenty-third century,” the commando continued as he walked inwards with his incredulous smile that seemed quite annoying, “And yet they develop new weapons in the form of automatons. Soon, they’ll be replacing all their human soldiers with Reploids.” He gave a sharp laugh sounded somewhat evil and insane.

“Mind your tongue, Giordano,” Mithrandiel sighed, then turned to Miguel, “I apologize, Captain Miguel. This is one of my best men, Giordano Mendel. Trustworthy in combat, but quite a reckless fellow, especially with his tongue. He finds irony in almost every situation and knows more truth than tact…”

“It’s understandable,” Miguel smiled, “You came specifically for a reason?”

“Well,” Mithrandiel straightened, “Jihad said that they’ll find supplies for you tomorrow, and you guys are welcome to eat with us if you would like to…I guess you found some end to the deal, but I’m not supposed to talk about it. At any rate, I doubt Second Lieutenant Vincent Swan hasn’t told you about the X33s…”

“We’ve just heard it,” Giordano shrugged with a smirk.

“Shut up,” Mithrandiel cut in, sharper than his demeanor would usually permit, “Apparently, we’ve heard that the new automated X33s are called X Droids…but before we get there, I think there’s another matter to bring to your attention, consider where you’ll go after you get out of here.”

Giordano unfolded the world map as the group quickly gathered around it. “This is where we are now,” Mithrandiel pointed at a remote region in the Middle East, practically in the middle of it all, “Obviously, escaping west isn’t an option…the Neo Arcadian 2nd Armada is still there, not to mention there will probably be more forces looking for you, sweeping from the west. North is suicide, because that’s where the center of all Neo Arcadian operations are, in Europe, Capital Eurasia. South you may stand more of a chance, but there are guerilla fighters there, supported by Neo Arcadia because they detest Reploids. East is through China…Neo Arcadia had neglected that area for a while after the Saint Insurrection, but intelligence has been short on that lately. Neo Arcadia has suddenly secured the region, and nothing has been able to get pass. If you’re lucky, there may be nothing other than Neo Arcadia’s hopes of installing more military bases there…if you’re not, you’re walking into an ambush.”

“In other words,” Giordano gave a dry smile, “If you really want to put yourself to the test, go south. If you want to do the old heads-or-tails, take east.”

Miguel and Helios looked at each other uncomfortably. “What terrain suits you, Lieutenant?” Helios asked Vincent.

“South is mostly jungles…” Vincent pressed his lips together, “Odin can last a while in that, but it was meant for open warfare, such as an urban setting, or a desert like this. Mountain terrain is okay…not everything is guaranteed, but it’s a lot better than the jungle. And if Lance can recover, it’ll be better for him too…if we go south, Phoenix will have problems firing through the jungle canopy. Neptune is okay either way, with rivers and all, but other than a few transport barges, there should be nothing in the rivers for east or south. Any competent seaman knows a river is the worst place to engage in naval combat.”

“What if the seaman isn’t competent?” Giordano gave a smile that surprised everyone, “Don’t forget. Most people around Africa are rebel guerilla fighters, and I don’t think they have too many plans for China either. Honestly, even if they tried something concerning naval tactics, or even military tactics in general, I wouldn’t be too worried.”

“What do you say, Captain?” Helios looked at Miguel stiffly.

“What do I say?” Miguel shrugged, “I say we owe China a visit.”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Five

Under the normal circumstances, the United Nations would’ve neglected all communications with these Middle Easterners. They had held them captive, and were pretty much ignorant with their beliefs, but their Captain’s requests for social approaches and their own hunger got the better of them, and at last there was a point where they could at least socialize. Of course, they naturally shunned politics, religion, and military, in which they were almost completely different about.

“Ey mak goo jiken,” Aden said through a large bite as he greedily hobbled down a large chicken leg.

“What?” Mia looked incredulously at him, both of them sitting in the café of the Storm of Fire, where the Middle Easterners had placed food in the kitchen for them to grab. They were nearly alone; very few people shared the same shift as they did.

Aden swallowed in his attempt to clear up his voice, then choked on the meat as he hacked on it, clutching as his throat. Mia gave an impatient sigh and pounded on his back as a deep gasp told Mia that her job was done, and Aden quickly grasped for a cup of water and gulped it down quickly.

“I said,” Aden rasped, “They make good chicken.”

“Hasn’t your mother ever taught you not to talk with your mouth full?” Mia sighed, rather annoyed, passing him a napkin.

“I thought you were my mother,” Aden smiled jokingly.

“Not funny,” Mia grumbled as she proceeded to grab Aden by the head and wipe his mouth forcibly with the napkin. Aden made strange gurgling sounds along with struggling somewhat playfully.

“Is that how teenagers without some sort of ranking in either the Intelligence Division and the Military Division act?” Lei asked with a smile as she sat down parallel to them, watching Mia finally letting Aden go as Aden rubbed his mouth, trying to comfort himself from the earlier pain.

“Aden never grows up,” Mia sighed, then gave a weak smile, “I guess that’s why I love him.”

“Strange couple indeed,” Lei laughed, then watched Vincent enter the café, not quite gloomily, but somewhat concerned.

“Vincent,” Lei smiled, and moved over to allow Vincent to sit next to her. But rather, Vincent looked at the seat uncomfortably, and shook his head.

“I think I’ll stand,” Vincent said, his lips pressed together.

“What’s wrong?” Aden asked, still chomping on his chicken leg.

“It’s about Lance,” Vincent looked into infinity as his head turned sideways, “He’s in something like a coma, after I punched him in the earlier battle.”

“You punched him?” Mia asked, bewildered, her face full of innocent shock.

“It wasn’t hard…” Vincent began.

“How do you know if it wasn’t hard?” Lei shrugged her shoulders, “Odin was the one that threw the punch, not you.”

“Yeah, well…”

“Seriously,” Aden interrupted, “What happened?”

“If you guys will be quiet,” Vincent sighed, “I’ll explain. He went into some sort of trance while fighting the X33s only yesterday.”

“Yeah, we know that,” Lei nodded, sounding disturbed, “And if I’m informed correctly, they’re automatons, right?”

“Robots…” Mia whispered, placing a worried hand to her chin.

“They were being called X Droids by the Private you guys captured after destroying the Archangel-class airship,” Aden said quite seriously, then added, once seeing everyone staring at him in amazement for him knowing the information, “I was there when they were doing further interrogation. Giordano managed to convince Mithrandiel to let me take a look. All you have to do is ask him nicely.”

“Anyways,” Vincent explained, “He went berserk or something…started attacking me. He should be okay now, but he’s being labeled as unsuitable for combat so far.”

“Is that a good idea?” Mia asked, looking around at everyone’s expression to see if he can discern anyone’s thoughts, “I mean, what if the enemy attacks? I know you’re pretty formidable alone, Vincent, but without Lei helping you, you’ll be a single target.”

“But on the other hand, what if Lance goes berserk again and starts attacking me? What if he attacks the Storm of Fire?”

Mia pursed her lips together in silence.

“Well,” Aden smiled, pushing concerns aside immediately, “They say he should be okay, right? Then let’s not worry so much and eat. What’s that in the corner, anyways?” He pointed to something that looked like a large box, the size of a car.

“Oh,” Lei smiled, “That’s kind of a training simulator of some sort. It’s built pretty much like a video game, but the Military Division spent a lot of money on it to make it what they called it a ‘state-of-the-art virtual reality training simulator’. In the end…” she gave an incredulous sigh, “…It’s still a video game.”

“Hey,” Aden nudged Vincent, “Why don’t you take a try? You’re the ace pilot of Odin anyways; I bet you’d kick ass on that simulation.”

“It’s just a video game, as Lei put it…” Vincent started, but Aden was already dragging him there, while Lei and Mia watched and giggled as Aden forcibly pushed Vincent down to what was the replica of a Type-Zero’s cockpit and turned on the power.

“I don’t even know how to pilot a Type-Zero,” Vincent muttered as the monitor started up, and Vincent somewhat reclined on the seat.

“Don’t worry,” Mia winked, stepping up behind Aden, “Besides, your life is not on this thing. Just have fun with it, right?”

“Oh, well,” Vincent shrugged and smiled as the screen lit up, “Fine.” Grasping the mock controls of the simulator, he started.

*****

Sitting beside Lance’s medical bed, Eudora stared into Lance’s unconscious form as the medical instruments beeped every once so often for some sort of biological reading that Eudora never cared much about.

Eudora tried to figure out exactly what had happened to him. How can someone such as a Lieutenant go berserk? For that matter, how did he suddenly turn on Vincent? The medical reports said he should be fine when he gains consciousness, but there were too many puzzles that needed to be solved.

For that matter, though, Eudora would care less. What she cared about was her superior, this particular Lance Sigel. He had saved her in the Battle of Fourth Haven, and therefore, would make her indebted to him. Not only that, but she secretly harbors a liking to this young officer and pilot, who was not so much older than herself. She would nurse him back to health if she had to; the only problem was she didn’t quite know where to start.

Struck with an idea, Eudora took off the necklace around her neck and looked at it. It was a gift given to her by a good friend before she joined the service. That particular friend had died when the United Nations assaulted Artemis…but Eudora now felt that it was time charity was demonstrated again.

Eudora fastened the necklace around Lance’s neck, not quite knowing that the doctor would’ve disapproved. Taking the shape of a silver orb, the new ornament rested on Lance’s chest, without him quite knowing it.

The door to the medical bay suddenly opened behind Eudora, and Eudora turned around in reflex to see a girl, probably around the same age as she was, standing at the door. Dressed in a kimono, Eudora found it puzzling that someone like her would stay in a godforsaken place such as this.

“Oh,” the girl placed her hand to her mouth, “I’m sorry. Am I intervening in an examination?”

Say yes, Eudora urged herself, wanting the girl gone, but reflex and truth got there first. “No,” she shook her head.

“Oh,” the girl smiled, and walked in as the automatic door closed behind her, “You must be one of the soldiers onboard this ship.”

“Pilot,” Eudora corrected, and formality got the better of her, “I’m Private Eudora of the United Nations 22nd Air Interceptor Squadron. Nice to meet you.” She stuck out a hand for a handshake before she realized it.

Stephanie smiled and took Eudora’s hand, both of their hands disappearing in Stephanie’s long sleeves. “My name is Stephanie Crendor,” Stephanie said, before she withdrew her hand.

“So…” Eudora pursed her lips, “Why are you here?”

Stephanie smiled as he looked at Lance. “I came to see how he is,” Stephanie replied, oblivious to the fact that Eudora visibly stiffened when she said that, “I heard he was injured…much of the injuries are mental, not physical. But mental scarring is worse than physical wounds, in my opinion.”

“I see,” Eudora nodded, wishing this bothersome girl gone.

“What about you?” Stephanie turned to ask her, “Did you come to see Lance too?”

That’s none of your business, Eudora thought, but rather, she said, “Yeah. He’s my superior, and saved my life at Fourth Haven…so I thought I should at least see if he’s not critical or anything.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Stephanie smiled, “So it’s a comradeship thing?”

I hope it will carry itself further than that, Eudora said to herself. “Yeah, I guess. A lot of things are still a mystery to me.”

“Same thing here,” Stephanie giggled.

This clueless girl is getting on my nerves, Eudora thought somewhat angrily, not realizing much of her irritation is coming from her thinking Stephanie was trying to take Lance away from her.

“Is that his?” Stephanie snapped Eudora out of dreamland.

“Huh?” Eudora jolted awake.

Stephanie pointed to the necklace around Lance’s neck. “I was asking if that necklace was his.”

Eudora opened her mouth to tell her it was hers, then checked herself, answered, “Yeah. He’s been wearing it for a while.”

“Looks like something a girl would wear,” Stephanie giggled.

Well obviously, Eudora thought, I gave it to him, and I’m a girl, damn it. “Maybe his girlfriend gave it to him as a present or something, before he went to war,” Eudora shrugged, bringing up a false point.

“You don’t know him very well, do you?” Stephanie turned toward Eudora, “He probably didn’t have time to say goodbye to his girlfriend when he joined the military. He was drafted in under the most hectic circumstances.”

Eudora cursed under her breath, and responded, “It’s not our nature to ask too many questions about our superiors. It gets awkward, and we have to demonstrate a certain extent of respect to them.”

“I see…” Stephanie nodded, and turned away, leaving both of them in silence for a while.

Impatient with the idea of Lance and Stephanie in the same room, as Eudora had already ridiculously labeled her as a threat to the relationship between Lance and Eudora, she stood up and said, “You know, maybe we should leave Lance alone for now. He might need some more rest when he regains consciousness, and I don’t think we should be here to distract him.”

“You’re right,” Stephanie nodded, and stood up along with her as Eudora guided her out of the room. Eudora looked back at Lance’s reclined form, before completely leaving the room, allowing the automatic door to close behind her.

*****

“You have quite the area planned out,” Miguel said with a low whistle as he, Helios, Epsilon, Mithrandiel, and Giordano stepped into what they called the Database, with computers blazing with images of various maps of China, “I thought Neo Arcadia restricted information from China ever since its takeover, although it has done practically nothing with it.”

“What makes us unique is that we have information that you don’t,” Giordano smirked, “Information that you’ve hid from the public. Not only you, but Neo Arcadia, of course.”

“Save the compliments for later,” Epsilon sighed, “Let’s figure out how we’re supposed to get through this first.”

“Right,” Mithrandiel nodded, and quickly brought up a map between the Middle East and Western China on the main screen.

“This is your situation,” Giordano explained, “Currently, we’re locating supplies to refuel and reequip your ship. You don’t need to know the details on that, and we’re not going to tell you anyways. At any rate, when we get your stuff, you’ll have to find the nearest body of water, which would be past the mountains on the Western part of China, then begin your voyage through the Yangtze River.”

“Which should be pretty straightforward for that part,” Mithrandiel explained, “After Stephanie had checked the entire specifications of the Storm of Fire, the Storm of Fire is strictly meant for naval combat. Its weapons systems, other than the ‘October’ missiles, is somewhat ineffective in the air. Even the M2 cannons are hard to aim in the air.”

“Your point is understood,” Helios cut in, annoyed, “Now let’s get on with it.”

Giordano let out another annoying laugh. “And I thought I was awful at tact.”

“Mostly, though,” Mithrandiel interrupted, hoping an argument won’t start out in front of them, “It’s because you will stand more formidable ground, including the fact that you won’t be in danger of being pursued by submarines.”

“Which means we’ll have to cover much more air and land along the way,” Epsilon frowned, “It makes it especially difficult, now that we’ve labeled Lance as unsuitable for combat. Vincent will probably hold out okay, but even if they’re pretty much invincible on the battlefield, I’m not about to turn up a dime for this one.”

“What you guys should worry about is when you’re in the mountains, and even in the open desert,” Giordano tapped his foot and leaned against the wall, “You guys are really vulnerable in an open attack at those points. They can easily swarm you in the open desert, and not to mention your movement is extremely limited within the realm of the mountains.”

“It’ll be the same thing for the enemy, though,” Epsilon pointed out.

“Until they send in all-terrain vehicles or those X Droids again,” Giordano pointed out, “Those X Droids may be prototypes, but so far, Neo Arcadia has been pretty damn persistent in wiping your ship off the world map.”

“Speaking of which,” Helios changed the subject briefly, “About that Neo Arcadian prisoner. What are you going to do with her?”

“You want her, don’t you?” Giordano smirked, then, realizing that his point was not taken in the way he wanted as Helios’ face turned as dark as thunder, added, “For interrogation purposes, of course.”

“Yes,” Helios glared, “I know you’ll probably say she’s under your custody, but it would be a great benefit to us if we can pump some information out of her.”

“And why should we give her over?” Giordano smiled, “Not that we won’t, but why should we?”

“Enough, Giordano,” Mithrandiel snapped, then turned to Helios, “Yes, we have no more need of the prisoner. You may put her under your custody. We have already learned what we needed.”

“Sorry,” Giordano grinned, and ceased in tapping his foot.

“We’ve plotted out something that’ll seem a bit closed for the Storm of Fire,” Mithrandiel explained as he opened another file on the main screen, and showed a curving red line across a map of a mountain range, “This was the best course the computer could pick out with the priorities of fuel, safety, speed, and stealth.”

“It’s also dangerous when you’re exiting the mountains and entering the Yangtze,” Giordano added, “At that point, the mountains which acted as cover is gone…you’ll have to adjust your tactics quickly, or you’ll be turning into a falling ship, not a sinking one.” Giordano laughed as his poor excuse for a joke.

“Anyways…” Mithrandiel continued, “To fight within the mountains in aerial combat, and possible ground combat, we’ve reequipped your ship with several bombs, and slightly rearranged the positioning of the chain guns to counter possible X Droids for point defense. Your M2 cannons can also fire projectiles at a much faster speed, and we’ve increased the number of missiles that your ‘October’ missile launcher can fire in a single salvo.”

“Wait,” Helios squinted his eyes, his voice full of distrust, “Why are you doing this for us?”

“It’s part of our deal,” Mithrandiel shrugged, his voice indifferent, “You may see us as barbarians or something of the sort. But we are just people who do not wish to rule or be ruled. We give a helping hand to those in need, and a striking fist to those who abuse us. That’s something that no UN report will tell you.”

“Because they want you to think everything non-UN is shit,” Giordano shrugged.

“And we’re supposed to believe that?” Helios asked before Miguel could tell him not to implore any further.

“We expect no favors from you,” Mithrandiel said simply, “We simply live with the fact that you assist me and I assist you. It doesn’t matter how many times, as long as both sides are always ready to help each other.”

“Then we accept your beliefs,” Miguel nodded, and motioned for Helios to do the same. Helios reluctantly gave a curt nod.

“Accept beliefs that neither you nor Neo Arcadia practices?” Giordano laughed, slightly ticking the UN people in the room, then softened them with, “I guess that’s a major improvement already.”

“I was just thinking,” Epsilon said, “What kind of forces is predicted on our road path?”

“Mainland China has been long since abandoned since the takeover by Neo Arcadia,” Mithrandiel explained, “China has been inhabited by few numbers of Neo Arcadian military forces, most of them somewhat scattered and ineffective. Little air force, no naval forces at all. However, in the Middle East and the mountain ranges are large numbers of Neo Arcadian forces, especially the ground and air force.”

“No naval forces because there are no waters there to begin with,” Giordano shrugged, “Anyways, the guys there are people who want to attempt to locate and hunt us down, us and the Enlightment thinkers up in the mountains of Tibet.”

“What do they want with a whole bunch of monks?” Miguel asked.

“Enlightment thinkers have always been the opposition against powerful empires,” Giordano shrugged, “Powerful empires want control. Enlightment thinkers wish for humility. Those two do not make a stable combination. And what makes it worse is that many of them are beginning to spread their ideas. This is thanks to several networks we’ve set up around her that sends data through illegal channels to those who bother to see what they have to say.”

“Of course,” Epsilon chuckled, “They can’t be in either the United Nations or Neo Arcadian, can they?”

“Actually,” Mithrandiel corrected, “Some are. Very few numbers, of course, and most of them aren’t really in the military. Most of the people who tapped into these channels are people outside the realm of control of both the United Nations and Neo Arcadia. However, many of them are civilians inside both networks who have ways of slipping past information security.”

“Back on subject,” Helios implored further into the original topic, “We’re mostly up against weak, scattered, and mostly disorganized Neo Arcadian forces, other than the mountain ranges, right?”

“Yes,” Mithrandiel nodded, “I can send a message to the Enlightment thinkers ahead of time and ask that they give you covering fire as you pass by in the case Neo Arcadian force should appear. Since both of us have quite good relationships, I don’t think it’ll pose too much of a problem. Remember, however, that these guys are monks, not soldiers. What support they give you is probably not adequate in your terms, but in your position, I’d say you’re desperate enough to receive any kind of help you can get.”

“Just about,” Epsilon gave a weak smile.

“You know,” Giordano suddenly said, “I was just thinking. Neo Arcadia should know that you escaped here, right?”

“I think so,” Miguel nodded, “I mean, our retreat was pretty obvious, because our maneuvering options were pretty limited.”

“The prisoner said that they were supposed to look for your ship,” Mithrandiel added.

“There might be a large variable in your plan,” Giordano smacked, “Most likely, a lot of the Neo Arcadian forces should’ve been alerted to your position. You maneuvering options are still limited. You can either escape east or south. That means you’ll probably attract the attention of Captain Corrigan.”

*****

The glare of the overhead lights made Lance wince at first when he first opened his eyes, but his eyes quickly adjusted to the lights as every one of his senses returned to normal, or tried too. His vision was kind of blurry, but it had always been like that whenever he woke up. He attempted to get up, but was somewhat too weak to do so. He felt tired…he figured it was some drug they gave him or something.

Then he noticed there was something dangling around his neck. Reaching for it, he found an orb-like ornament around his neck, a necklace. He frowned; this wasn’t his, so why was it around his neck.

Suddenly, he realized that there were people next to him, and they were talking feverishly. Among them were Lei, Aden, and Mia. Lance also recognized what seemed like a doctor. The problem was that they were not crowded around him, but around the bed next to his. Aden’s body was blocking his view, and he could not see what they were looking at. His ears couldn’t discern anything coherent from their speech, but the tone sounded worried.

Then, just as Lance was about to turn his head and prepare for another rest, Aden moved slightly out of the wall, and Lance realized that there was someone lying on the bed next to him, full of sweat and unconscious.

It was Vincent.
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Six

Miguel turned in alarm. “Corrigan? As in Captain Elliot Corrigan of the Neo Arcadian 5th Independent Defense Force?”

“You study your stuff pretty well,” Giordano laughed, somewhat impressed, “You know him?”

“Yeah,” Miguel nodded, “Most Captains of our age graduated out of the same United Nations Naval Academy before Neo Arcadia was founded. So you can say we know each other…such as how I know Atrium Svivern.”

“Does he present a considerable threat?” Helios asked.

“Elliot is amazing,” Miguel admitted, “He has served just about every branch in the military, and knows every work situation in there, meaning he was twice as effective as any other leader, because he knows what it takes to do a job. He leads the 5th Independent Defense Force, where he is basically allowed to patrol anywhere he wishes in Neo Arcadian territory with his team. He’s so effective that Neo Arcadia virtually gives him free rein. Knowing him, his team is probably trained to their peak point of efficiency, and Elliot is a superb fighter as well. Also an exceptional tactician.”

“And his current patrol is just right within the mountain ranges of which you must cross,” Giordano smiled, “And that will make the fight twice as hard.”

“Three times, in my opinion,” Miguel said grimly. Elliot Corrigan…Miguel had hoped that he would never have to fight him again.

“Can we wait him out?” Epsilon asked.

“Waiting will take a long time,” Giordano smiled, “Corrigan is trying to eliminate one of the Middle Eastern factions…not us, anyways. Those guys are hiding pretty well, though, and forcing a stalemate on him. No victory if there’re no fights to begin with. But he’s pretty determined, and if either side wins, I’ll say it’ll take four months, minimum. And besides, you’ll have Neo Arcadian forces coming in from both Capital Eurasia and Africa soon, right?”

“I’m afraid so,” Miguel nodded, “The Neo Arcadians have been pretty persistent in destroying the Storm of Fire…especially Atrium.”

The doors suddenly opened behind them, and Major Cruz stepped in, saluted. “Sir,” Cruz started, paused, then decided it would be better if the information was kept at a low profile, and whispered it in Miguel’s ear. Miguel’s eyes went wide as he comprehended what Cruz said to him.

“Second Lieutenant Swan?” Miguel turned around, shocked, “How? What did he do?”

“What happened?” Helios demanded.

Miguel turned to face Helios. “Second Lieutenant Swan…he’s unconscious and is currently under medical attention.”

Helios groaned. “So now two of our Reploid-armor pilots are out of commission?”

“Is he alright?” Epsilon implored worriedly.

“He’s not in critical condition,” Cruz confirmed, “Apparently, he had fainted while…” Cruz paused, considering whether he should apply the word “use” or “play”, then decided it was better to use the former, “…using the virtual simulation in the café of the Storm of Fire.”

“Were there any witnesses?” Helios asked.

“Yes. Second Lieutenant Loyola, and Privates Hikari and Elysium.”

“Instruct them to give me a full report immediately. And I’m afraid we’ll have to label Second Lieutenant Swan unsuitable for combat as well.”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz saluted, then prepared to turn out of the room, before he paused, and turned to Miguel, “Captain. There’s something intriguing tugging at the back of my mind that I would like to check out. Do you mind if you lend me a cycle? At our current situation, we’re not going to be doing anything related to communications anyways, especially with the fact that you forbade the use of microwave communications, as it can be detected by enemy forces.”

“Granted,” Miguel nodded, “Do whatever you wish.”

“Thank you, sir,” Cruz saluted again, and marched briskly out of the room.

“What does he want to do?” Mithrandiel asked as Cruz walked out.

*****

“I don’t know…” Lei admitted, sitting on a chair in between Lance and Vincent’s beds, “He started to use the simulation, and was doing remarkably well at it…he shot the targets faster than they could appear.”

Lance, still bare-chested and still lying on the bed, looked at Lei as she attempted to explain exactly why Vincent was unconscious. “Maybe he went berserk?” Lei asked, “Perhaps what both of you had was some sort of contagious syndrome? Maybe that’s why he was doing so well on the training simulator…”

“No,” Lance shook his head, “That isn’t the case. He’s a Gemini.”

Lei’s eyes widened in surprise. “He is?”

Lance nodded. “Have you ever seen his eyes light up? Like there was a halo in his eyes?”

Lei recalled all the times she had been with him, and remembered several incidents in the beginning of their acquaintance that she had seen Vincent’s eyes turned bright…that particular part where she had mentioned Vincent’s sister. “Yeah…” Lei nodded, “But I never thought that he was a Gemini…”

“I didn’t either,” Lance admitted, then said, “It’s hard to think about meeting one, especially with the fact many of them never survived the R-Bomb.

“I can tell…” Lei smiled.

“When did he pass out?”

“I don’t know,” Lei whispered, “He was screaming in the middle of it…at first, I thought it was just some sort of sound effect, but then I saw him screaming and shooting wildly at this target that dodged his shots…I really don’t know what happened.”

“I see…” Lance nodded, not quite understanding either, then asked, “Hey, Lei…do you know who this belongs to?” Lance held up the necklace that hung around his neck.

Lei looked at it. “Doesn’t that belong to Private Eudora?” she asked, “I’m not sure. I saw her wear something like this, but I’m not sure it’s the same one. Why do you ask?”

“This seems to have been put on before I regained consciousness,” Lance whispered, then shook his head, “Oh well. I guess I’ll talk to her later, when I can actually get off this medical bed.”

Lei smiled and stroked through Lance’s hair. “Recover soon, Lance. We need you and Vincent to protect us.”

“Yeah,” Lance smiled and nodded, “Yeah, I know.”

*****

The tubes connected to the port side of the Storm of Fire as the steady stream of fuel came into the ship, and Major Archangel immediately displayed the status of the refueling process. Meanwhile, the cargo doors were open, and the supplies were coming in through transport buggies that came along with the cargo of the Storm of Fire. Among them were missiles and ammunition, as well as rations and water.

“Captain,” Archangel swiveled around in his seat and saluted as Miguel and Helios stepped onto the bridge.

“At ease,” Miguel nodded, then looked at the main screen, “So the refueling process has just started?”

“Yeah,” Archangel nodded and turned around, his fingers dancing rapidly across the keyboard, “They’ve already completed the upgrades on the missiles, and they’re also helping along with the upgrading of the M2 cannons. But…sir…” Archangel turned around with a frown on his face as he faced the Captain, “…do you trust them? Why are they doing this for us?”

“I trust them,” Miguel shrugged, “They’re probably just paying back the favor when Second Lieutenant Sigel helped bring down the Archangel-class. And they don’t seem to wish us any ill intentions.”

“Is that so…” Archangel muttered doubtfully, and slowly returned to his tasks.

“Where are Majors Phalanx and Juno?” Helios asked.

“It’s not their shift,” Archangel reminded his Co-Captain, “And don’t forget that we have no use of navigations and weapons at the moment, now that we’re kind of stuck on the ground, literally.”

Helios looked slightly flustered. “Forgot about that…” he muttered.

“How long do you think it’ll take before we can get back into the air?” Miguel asked as he stood next to his own computer console and scanned some of the new updates that he should be informed about as the information sprawled across his monitor.

“ETA three days, although the Middle Easterners say they can get it done in two,” Archangel replied as he restarted the readings to the fuel chamber and reconnected the status links to the hangar bay, “Mostly, they’ve done a pretty good job at it. Sergeant Mendez got suspicious and opted to take a look around their work, but he didn’t find anything inconspicuous so far.”

“I see,” Miguel nodded and deactivated his console, preparing to turn around, “If there are anymore updates, please inform me as…”

Suddenly, the doors opened as Miguel turned around in time to catch a stumbling Cruz in his arms, and almost sent Miguel toppling over. “Whoa!” Miguel steadied him, “Be careful, Major.” Miguel frowned, seeing Cruz in such a panicked state. Cruz was usually never panicked, and never did so unless there was a good reason for it.

“S…sorry,” he stammered, quite out of breath, as he checked himself, saluted, and talked incoherently for several seconds in great speed and confusion, in which no one understood what he said and exchanged bewildered glances. Reading their puzzled expressions, Cruz sighed, collected himself, and concluded simply…

“Sir…you’re not going to believe this.”

*****

When Vincent Swan first opened his eyes, his adrenaline spiked almost immediately as he suddenly bolted upright in bed and, unaware to him, sent the medical officer that had been bending over his reclined body to take his blood pressure sprawling over the floor. He gasped as he looked around, his entire body suddenly glistened with sweat as his eyes flickered with light once again.

“You’re going to have to learn how to control that thing,” a voice said gently as the owner of the voice helped the doctor to his feet. Vincent turned to see Lance, in a medical robe, as he assisted the doctor in getting up. Vincent suddenly realized that he was in the medical bay of the Storm of Fire.

“I’m sorry,” Vincent apologized promptly as the doctor stood up, prompting Vincent to guess what happened, “I didn’t mean it.” The halo in his eyes flickered once more before dying down completely.

“Of course you didn’t,” the doctor replied, and gave somewhat of a friendly smile. But that smile was covered with a slight distrust, and Vincent guessed it was probably because the doctor had figured out he was a Gemini. Vincent was used to it. Most people feared people like him, because their heightened abilities made them different…that, and a false rumor given that they still emit particles of radiation from the R-Bomb.

“You feel alright?” Lance asked as he stood next to Vincent.

“I’m okay,” he nodded slowly, “How about you? You were pretty much out the last time I saw you.”

“I’m fine now,” Lance smiled, “But I can’t leave the medical bay without permission at the moment. And we’re both currently labeled as unsuitable for combat.”

“Is that so…” Vincent whispered, then chuckled, “I wonder if that’s a good or bad thing.”

There was a moment of silence between them, until Lance broke it just as the doctor finished taking the pressure, “By the way…how did you get up there?”

“Get up where?” Vincent asked, somewhat confused.

“When we were fighting those X33s, I didn’t expect you to come.”

“Oh,” Vincent nodded in understanding, “It was the pocketknife you passed me. Aden and I used it to rack up a bit of trouble, but in the end, the commandos told me to get into Odin, and I was basically given enough of a briefing to get me out there and cover you,” Vincent gave a smirk, “Looks like I just saved your ass again.”

The door to the medical bay slid open as Miguel and Helios appeared behind it. Lance and Vincent both saluted, although their salutes were rather weak, given their condition. Miguel turned to the medical officer with a wave of a hand.

“We require privacy,” he said. The medical officer nodded, saluted, then quickly packed up his supplies and fled from their presence as fast as he could permit himself. The doors shut behind them, and Helios inputted a code that automatically sealed the room from outsiders. Lance and Vincent exchanged concerned looks.

“I hope you’re alright, Lieutenant Swan,” Miguel gave a stiff smile as the doors closed.

“Yeah, I’m feeling a lot better than before,” Swan gave a wry reply in return, “Is there something I need to know about?”

“It’s about your unconscious lapse,” Miguel nodded, and motioned for both Lance and Helios to sit down. Lance did so, but it was clear from Helios’ body language that he would rather stand, so Miguel pulled up a chair from the wall and sat down on that. Looking directly at Vincent, he hesitated for an uncomfortable moment, where Lance immediately picked out the fact that something was wrong, and not just wrong, but severely wrong. Lance grimaced in reflex. Nevertheless, Miguel pressed his lips together, then began.

“When we got news that you were unconscious,” Miguel explained, “Major Cruz was somewhat suspicious of a particular element of all the pertaining evidence that was present, and therefore, asked for a cycle to check something out. Evidently, he had went to check the flight simulator.”

“You mean the one in the corner of the café?” Lance asked. Helios gave a frown of disapproval for interrupting the superior, to which Lance cringed, but Miguel gave an affirmative nod.

“Yes, that one,” Miguel nodded, “Although it does ridiculously resemble a video game, much research was actually spent on creating it. The simulator houses a library of all previous battles, with data recorded from every Type-Zero on their movements and the enemy movements, and the enemies recorded from previous battles are then presented on the simulation, and mimic their movements. In a sense, the majority of the enemies that you face on the simulator basically run the path given by the computer from data of earlier battles.”

“So instead of making it like a video game,” Vincent nodded, “They’ve actually incorporated the use of real data to simulate the most realistic simulation to date. Kind of like a video player.”

“Basically,” Miguel nodded, “Major Cruz knew very well of this, so he decided to check on the simulator. He checked the enemies that appeared in your simulation, and found the one which, according to Second Lieutenants Loyola and Privates Hikari and Elysium, you started screaming the moment it appeared.”

Lance had kept his eyes on Miguel earlier, but when he turned to Vincent, he suddenly saw that Vincent’s face was beyond grim; it was almost savage. Lance flinched back in surprise as he saw a vein stick out from behind part of his hair on his forehead, and Lance could’ve swore that Vincent’s eyes would light up any moment now, only it didn’t…at least, not yet.

“We found the enemy to be a X31 armor, with its data recorded from the Battle of Seventh Haven. While we do not have much information on the pilot pertaining to his existence or regiment, we do know from the data that it was the X31 which dropped the R-Bomb on Seventh Haven.”

Lance’s eyes went wide. So that’s what happened. Naturally, knowing that the X31 was the one who dropped the R-Bomb on Seventh Haven, Vincent would undergo a sort of nightmare of what had happened with his sister, and what almost happened to him. A Gemini…Lance had almost thought of it as a blessing, with heightened reflexes and abilities. Rather, it seemed almost like a curse now.

“So…” Lance whispered, “…that’s why Vincent went unconscious? But I think the better question is that this isn’t all, is it? I don’t think that really explains why both the Captain and the Co-Captain of the ship have come to pay a visit to a Second Lieutenant.”

There was a sudden tense moment in the room as all of them fell awkwardly silent, except for Helios, who immediately drew a pistol from his jacket pocket. While he kept the aim down at the floor, Lance backed away from it as much as possible, away from the instrument of death. Seeing Lance’s reaction, Miguel gave Helios a glare that told him to put it away. While Helios agreed reluctantly, Lance knew this was a serious matter.

“Good point,” Miguel nodded, “If it were me, I probably would’ve stopped my research there. However, Major Cruz did not. He checked which Type-Zero had recorded that data. Apparently, a Type-Zero from the disbanded 37th Air Interceptor Squadron had recorded the data at Seventh Haven.”

“Disbanded?” Lance echoed.

“All the members in the squadron had gone either KIA or MIA…which basically means killed in action or missing in action. Killed in action, I don’t think I need to explain to you. Missing in action basically means a soldier is dead, but no one is there to confirm it. Of course, it also means AWOL, absent without leave, meaning that the soldier left the military without permission…basically meaning a desertion.

“However, what struck us most surprising is the pilot of the Type-Zero who had recorded the data. If I’m correct, Vincent, I should be calling you Lieutenant Colonel Swan, former leader of the 37th Air Interceptor Squadron.”

Lance stared. Helios was pretty much convinced that Lance’s eyes couldn’t have gotten any wider than they were before, but now they were almost as though his eyes were going to bulge out, and Helios stiffened at the sight involuntarily. “Lieutenant Colonel?” Lance whispered, not quite believing what Miguel was saying.

Vincent was no longer looking at anything but the metallic white floor of the Storm of Fire, is teeth gritted in fury, his two eyes nothing but a dim glow under the shadow cast by his hair. Helios tightened in alarm and kept his hand under his jacket to where the pistol was, but did not draw it.

“I was surprised too,” Miguel admitted, “But you’re virtually in the same rank as I am, a Lieutenant Colonel…and not in the militia, as you told me, but the United Nations Military Division.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Vincent whispered in a monotone voice, one that surprised all because it did not sound anything like his normal tone, “I’m AWOL, right? I’m sure Co-Captain Helios can give all the details about how to deal with soldiers who left the army like that.” Lance stifled a smile that probably would’ve came out naturally if the situation hadn’t been so serious. Luckily, it was an urge that passed away quickly, much to his relief.

“Actually, the current file we have about you classifies you as MIA…” Miguel started again, “Which means you disappeared right after you fought the Battle of Seventh Haven…and was infected by the R-Bomb. You would be welcomed as a war hero if you went back…”

“A war hero of a lost battle?” Vincent glared. Miguel flinched slightly, detectable by everyone in the room, “Not a welcomed hero, in my opinion. Rather, they’d probably place me before a hearing committee and pump all the information they can out of me, about the battle, about the R-Bomb.”

“It figures…” Miguel whispered.

“Pardon me for asking…” Helios began, then hesitated, before adding, “…sir, but…did you really desert the army?”

“No,” Vincent shook his head, “The Military Division merely had other plans for me because I became a Gemini, and I was classified as MIA to keep myself from the public for their convenience. I don’t think I should be talking about this, but I told you, just so that you know.”

“After the battle?” Lance whispered.

“It was two years ago…” Vincent said, in a far more reasonable voice that before, “I had just left Third Haven that day, telling Lance that I was going to Seventh Haven to help with the defense of Seventh Haven with the other members of the militia who had come from Seventh Haven to begin with, because they had attacked Station Artemis. The moment I got to Seventh Haven was the moment my team and I scrambled, because the enemy was already there…”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Seven

“Alpha Leader, watch your left.”

Vincent turned his Type-Zero around as he killed the feed to the rear thrusters and the X31 armor’s aim went wild, the bullet barrage going straight ahead of Vincent’s jet. Before the X31 could recover, Vincent sent a missile his way, and the X31 disappeared behind a ball of fire and smoke.

“Thanks, Alpha Four,” Vincent gave a smile as he thrust himself back into the battlefield, with two X31s on his tail.

“Anytime, Vince,” Alpha Four replied on the COM channel, and Vincent concentrated on the battlefield once again. Careful not to allow the X31s to aim at an angle where they would hit Seventh Haven should they miss, he flew up toward the sun, where the pilots would have a hard time seeing him. The X31s paused and hesitated as Vincent’s Type-Zero disappeared behind the intense light…then the X31s didn’t see anything anymore as rapid chain gun fire tore them apart.

“Ooh,” Alpha Two laughed as he watched Vincent perform that maneuver, “Who’s going to clean up the mess?”

“I think you,” Vincent smiled, “Alpha team, sweep and secure the north part of the city. Beta team, you’ll secure the south. We’re going to make sure nothing hits Seventh Haven. Leave destroying the enemy to the real cavalry.”

“Understood,” Beta Leader acknowledged, “Beta team, as Alpha leader said, let’s move. Don’t let any of those bastards get through the city perimeter.” Beta team, a team of five, jetted away toward the southern area of Seventh Haven. Strictly a Haven for housing civilians, Seventh Haven had been the worst place to start the UN attack of Station Artemis at. But Artemis was part of the foundation of the Neo Arcadian juggernaut, and the UN saw its chance. The attack was successful, but now there was hell to pay.

Battleships raged on in the sea as the shelling grew more and more intense. The United Nations outnumbered the Neo Arcadians in the number of battleships, especially with the lack of reinforcements because Artemis was destroyed, but they had swarms of X31s, which the military’s mainstay of Type-Zeroes were having a hard time cleaning up. Vincent and the 37th Air Interceptor Squadron were to eliminate any enemy forces that breached the city perimeter.

“The Virgo and the Midsummer Night’s Dream has been sunk,” Alpha Two alerted, “Beta team is out of a place to land.”

“Look,” Vincent snarled, “Our job is to try to eliminate the enemy. Leave that stuff for later, alright?”

“Vincent,” Alpha Four said, his voice soft and sincere, “I’ve just received news that your sister is already on her way to the shelters. She should be fine.”

Vincent gave a sigh of relief at the news. “Thank God…” he whispered, then somewhat cheerfully, added, “Thanks, Charlie.”

“Anytime,” Alpha Four chuckled, and moved to intercept a pair of X31s that had slipped past the hole in the formation after the Virgo had sunk. Alpha Four crunched one X31 as he rammed his jet through it, then launched a missile that tracked the other. The X31 fired at the missile, and the missile exploded in midair. However, Vincent came in from the behind and slammed the X31 with his wing. A spray of red coated his wing, looking like war paint.

“Ouch,” Alpha Four laughed, “Hey, better to clean that up yourself when we get back.”

“I’ll make you clean it,” Vincent laughed, “Now watch those…”

“Sir!” Alpha Three shouted, “X31 coming in, two o’clock. It’s a X31 alright, but it’s carrying something weird.”

“Get me a visual,” Vincent ordered as he turned to the coordinates that Alpha Three provided him. Immediately, the HUD blasted a hologram onto the screen, and a ghostly image of the X31 appeared. It was an X31, like Alpha Three said, but it was carrying two huge packs on its shoulders, almost like two storage packs.

“Shoot him down,” Vincent ordered, “Try not to shoot the boxes. If those are nukes or something, then we’re in trouble.”

“You’re asking way too much,” Alpha Two grumbled, but went to engage, firing a pair of missiles and his chain gun. However, the X31 easily shot the two missiles out of the air, then used the cloud of fire in midair as a method of misleading the thermal trackers as the X31 flew close to the explosion, and it disappeared from the radar of the squadron.

“Shit, I lost him,” Alpha Two swore, “I…”

Suddenly, Alpha Two exploded as the X31 appeared from behind the explosion, with his machine gun blazing as it shot key parts of the Type-Zero: fuselage and cockpit. Alpha Two’s Type-Zero spun out of control as it crashed into a skyscraper of Seventh Haven.

“Tyrone!” Alpha Three screamed, “You son of a bitch!” Alpha Three quickly launched all his missiles at once, firing at the X31, before Vincent could say anything. He fired his chain gun wildly, giving his all at the X31. However, the X31 merely flew toward the missiles, and the missiles streaked past them. As they arched to turn, the missiles collided into each other and exploded violently, blinding Alpha Three temporarily, but he would never see again. The X31 aimed at the cockpit, and Vincent turned in time to see Alpha Three’s cockpit turn crimson before it too plummeted toward the ground.

“My turn,” Vincent growled as he fired his chain gun, and incorporated the use of his VSTOL engine as he zigzagged through the air, making him a hard moving target. To his surprise, the X31 did the same as both of them fired wildly into the air, only to miss each other. However, both boxes on the back of the X31 opened, and two instruments dropped out, only dots from what Vincent could see.

“Alpha Four!” Vincent shouted, “Scan those targets. Tell me what they…”

Suddenly, the X31 withdrew, and there was a blinding flash of light, before all darkness disappeared from the world as a second sun appeared. A straight column of blue light erupted from the island as it engulfed it whole, and everything disappeared from sight except for that blue light that seemed almost like a beam that stretched toward heaven onwards and onwards, as everything grew warmer, and what seemed like an eternity passed as Vincent fell unconscious to the comfort of it all…

*****

There was a strange amount of silence as Vincent woke up, and at first, Vincent wondered if he was dead, or he was in heaven. A soldier’s instincts were not easily trifled by sleep, and once woken up, there is no lapse of which one wonders where he is, but rather, whether or not he is alive and can fight the enemy.

But as Vincent opened his eyes, he could tell he was not dead. The scenario around him was neither heaven nor hell. The sky was an usual gray, and so was the city, devoid of color. Like the color of the sky which had been swept by a storm, thus was the remains of Seventh Haven, where neither color nor life remained.

Supporting himself weakly, he looked around, somewhat dazed, and with realized with a sudden jolt that his eyes were burning. They stung and hurt, and tears came to his eyes. His eyes were burning, with the pain that could not be shaken away. But he could still see, so Vincent assumed it had to be an aftereffect of his crash…

Suddenly, he looked around. He did not get up from his Type-Zero, but from the ground. He quickly assumed that he must’ve fallen out of his Type-Zero while in mid-flight, or the automatic ejection system had kicked in. So he was alive…that was what mattered.

Looking around at the bodies, he noticed that the people were all dead around him, but there were no wounds. Something happened to them, perhaps some sort of biological weapon, or radiation…

Looking around, he scanned the area for survivors, but none seem to be there. “Hello!?” he shouted out, feeling that his call was unlikely to be heeded, “Anyone out there?” There was no reply.

He heard what sounded like frantic shouts nearby, but he was too dazed to know whether or not they were shouts of attempted organization or shouts of agony. Lumbering across the wreckage, he looked from side to side, noting all the bodies around. An UN soldier who was seemingly torn apart by an explosion, a X31 that had holes in his chest, a body with white hair covered by a pile of debris, a…

White hair, Vincent suddenly realized, she has white hair!

“Eli!” he cried as he forcefully moved the debris aside. The metal wiring cut his hands, but he was beyond feeling it. Eli was inside!

Moving the last piece of debris aside, Vincent took his last look at Eli alive. She was a horrible sight to see. Her usually gleaming white hair was matted with a coat of dark crimson and some gray from her own blood and the dust of the wreckage. Most of her body was intact, but blood oozed from cuts that were inflicted by the debris. But what was killing her was something from the inside…some he couldn’t quite understand, but it was there, alright.

“Eli!” he shook her body as he cradled her in his arms, “Eli, wake up!” He quickly felt for a pulse. It was there, but weak.

“Medic!” Vincent shouted, looking around, but seeing mostly blurs, “Somebody call a medic! We have injured!”

“V…Vincent…”

Vincent looked down at Eli, realized that she was looking at her now through half-opened eyes. “Eli,” Vincent breathed frantically, “Hold on in there; help is on the way. You stay alive, you hear me? You stay…”

“It hurts…” she whispered, and that’s when Vincent saw her eyes glow…something that looked like a halo in her corona. It was there, then gone again. His eyes hurt too, but Vincent dismissed the pain, without quite knowing that his eyes were glowing as well.

“What?” Vincent asked, then shook her again, “Come on, stay with me!”

“My eyes…” she whispered, then cried out, “It hurts…”

“It’s okay, it’s probably just shrapnel. We’ll get it out of you in no time…”

Something tugged in the pressure, then Vincent realized that Eli’s head dropped downwards. Vincent’s heart skipped a beat as his hand flew to her neck. There was no pulse, no sign of life.

“Eli…!” Vincent gasped, shook her body again, “Eli, come on! Answer me! You’re not dead…you’re not! This isn’t a good time to be playing games…!” his desperate cries became sobs as he realized the inevitable truth, and buried his face inside Eli’s shoulder.

When the survivors of the R-Bomb finally came, all they found was one last survivor…with two halos burning intensely in his eyes.

*****

“R-Bomb…” Miguel whispered as Vincent finished his story, and realized that Vincent was in tears, “Short for radiation-bomb. Uses atomic slicing to inflict the same type or radiation as the nuclear bomb. Emits a high-level or radiation that can only be resisted by few biometrical measures…you’re biometric measures must be really strong, Vincent.”

“The R-Bomb releases such high-levels of radiation that the atoms move three times as fast as the radiation from the nuclear bomb,” Helios nodded, his voice no softer than usual, “Instead of the effect where hardly any signs of leukemia are detected, the body basically rejects its own biometric measures with the immediate change, causing rather rapid death. However, the survivors were mostly affected in the eyes…that has become rather evident, with you in our crew.”

There was another awkward silence as everyone ran out of things to say. Lance studied each face, the face of Vincent in his twisted agony, the usual expressionless face of Helios, the reasonably compassionate face of Miguel…each engraved a certain memory in Lance’s mind. And he realized again that Vincent didn’t trust Lance as well as Lance had thought…was he really that unworthy of Vincent’s trust?

“I’m sorry to lie to all of you…” Vincent whispered, looking up and giving a weak smile, “Especially you Lance, because I’ve known you the longest…but it was for my own…no. That’s a pitiful excuse for a reason. There’s no explanation to what I’ve done. I’m sorry.”

Helios broke everyone’s tension with the most unorthodox and unexpected reply. “It’s okay, sir.”

“Sir?” Miguel smiled, “It seems that we’ll have a hard time trying to adjust around a new Lieutenant Colonel on our ship.”

“That’s right,” Lance smiled, and placed a hand on Vincent’s shoulder. Vincent looked at Lance, somewhat stunned with Lance, and gave a smile.

“Thanks…” Vincent whispered, “Thank you, everyone.”

“God…” Helios sighed as he brushed his hand through his kempt hair, “Why do these things always have to happen to us? First an Intelligence Division officer, now a Military Division Lieutenant Colonel? These things never end.”

*****

“Port thrusters!” Miguel screamed, “Evade the missiles!”

“Too late!” Phalanx grunted as the missiles slammed themselves into the hull of the already battered Storm of Fire. The Storm of Fire shook violently as the screens filled with white, and it was noticeably hotter on the bridge. Below, the rocket buggies pursued as they zoomed through the landscape, firing through the forests that effectively shrouded them, while having the Storm of Fire in their sights.

“Damn it!” Lance swore and fired his volley of missiles down at the forest while using his assault rifle to shoot down the missiles. But his missiles were fired blindly, and the enemies’ missiles were small. Each one of them struck with an explosion that shook the teeth in the combatants’ mouths.

“Status report!” Helios demanded.

“Hull integrity is down by forty-seven percent!” Archangel screamed, slightly panicked, “Casualties rates up to seventeen percent!”

“Plasma cannons offline!” Juno cried out, frantically working on her keyboard, “Chain guns offline! October missiles launchers offline!”

“No response to the call for reinforcements!” Cruz scowled, “It’s just us, sir!”

“We’re practically dead in the air…” Miguel hissed, his hands clenched into fists.

“Sir,” Archangel alerted, “Aircraft approaching from both sides! Putting visual onto the main screen!”

Three pairs of aircraft approached from the left and right of the Storm of Fire as Miguel looked in time to see twelve plumes of smoke as the aircraft launched their missiles, and broke formation. From off screen came chain gun fire as Vincent, on deck, fired his chain gun in the attempt to destroy the missiles. He destroyed quite a bit as explosions dotted the sky, but the majority of the missiles made it through and hit the Storm of Fire.

“Reactor two damaged!” Archangel shouted as more than a dozen alarms blared at once, “Coolant pipes seventeen through twenty-one non-responsive! We’ve lost contact with the second maintenance team!”

“Change formation!” Miguel shouted, “Lance, take point defense! Vincent, engaged the rocket buggies on the ground!”

“Roger!” Lance and Vincent replied in unison, and they immediately switched position.

“This is Lei, in Neptune!” Lei said through the COM channel, “Sir, please give me permission to engage the enemy!”

“Absolutely not, Lieutenant,” Miguel snapped, “Neptune is strictly for underwater uses. You’ll only be a living target for the enemy.”

“I can at least divert the attention of the enemy, draw them away as bait. And I have a eight-barreled missile launcher meant for air targets.”

“Permission denied, Lieutenant. I cannot risk something as reckless as that.”

“Captain!” Cruz informed, “Incoming transmissions, live video feed. It’s from the enemy! Should I…”

“Put it on screen,” Miguel demanded. Immediately, the main screen showed the image of a strikingly handsome man in his mid-thirties, with a confident expression on his face. He was lightly mustached, with slightly unkempt hair that Miguel was confident Helios would pick on should the man be in the UN and be a subordinate of Helios.

“This is Captain Elliot Corrigan of the Neo Arcadian 5th Independent Defense Force,” the man said sternly, then, almost as if by an afterthought, added, “It’s been a while, Captain Miguel of the UN…I’m sorry. I’ve never quite remembered which armada you were in command of.”

“At the current situation, I’m just in command of this ship,” Miguel replied, and added, “Yeah, it’s been a long time, Elliot.”

“It’s very unfortunate,” Elliot whispered, “It seems every time we meet, fate seems to put us on opposing sides. Last time it was the account for my treason, now I’m with Neo Arcadia.”

“So you really did betray us that time?” Miguel squinted his eyes in anger.

“No choice,” Elliot looked away, slightly ashamed, “It was a different situation than you thought it was. It’s not that I dislike Reploids…you know I’m better than that. But I had my doubts about the United Nations in the first place, and they were soon confirmed. I didn’t want anything the likes of the United Nations to take control of the world, so I joined Neo Arcadia. For that, I’m sorry.”

“I guess I shouldn’t know about this, should I?” Miguel whispered.

“No, you shouldn’t,” Elliot shook his head, “Because you are a Reploid. Knowing you, if you knew about what I know, you wouldn’t want to stay in the United Nations any longer. But you’re not human, so you can’t join Neo Arcadia…so if I told you, I’d make things twice as hard for you.”

“So that’s why we’re fighting here?”

“I guess…” Elliot nodded sadly, then resumed his expression of seriousness, “As Captain of Neo Arcadian forces, I must ask for you and the crew of your ship to surrender to us unconditionally. You will land, and allow Neo Arcadian forces to board your ship for a complete takeover.”

“What do you intend to do with the ship, Elliot?” Miguel asked.

“My superiors want the ship’s data…that, and the assurance that the United Nations can’t use your ship. If you surrender, I can drop you and your crew unharmed outside United Nations waters with a lifeboat, where you will be able to escape. I can assure all of you your lives.”

There was a moment of silence as the two captains looked at each other with intense concentration, before Miguel sighed and said, “Thank you, Elliot. However, I cannot accept your request. My duty forces me to jeep this ship away from all Neo Arcadian takeover and inspection…therefore, I must be your enemy.”

“Then…” Elliot drew a breath in, then let it out, “I’ll have to destroy you, Miguel.”

“Sorry,” Miguel whispered, and broke the COM link.

And that was when Lei opened her eyes and realized what she had seen was simply a dream. She did not quite awake with an upward jolt, but she gasped the moment she woke up, and took a second or two to realize that she was in her bed in the barracks.

“Did you sleep well?” Vincent asked with a smile. Lei turned to find Lance and Vincent sitting on another bed, seemingly playing a game of cards. Both of them seem deprived of their earlier illness, although both of them seemed somewhat gloomy…no, they were simply tired.

“Yeah,” Lei lied, then gave a smile as her slender frame rose from bed, “How about you two? Looks like you’re fine now.”

“Fine enough,” Vincent emitted a weak laugh, then walked over to Lei’s side and sat down next to her, placing a hand around her shoulder. Aden and Mia walked in at that precise time.

“Hey, hey!” Aden laughed as he stood at the doorway, “Nice couple. Do you two need some time alone? Mia and I can always go somewhere else and…”

“Actually,” Vincent interrupted, his voice somewhat hesitant, “I have to tell you all something…except Lance. He already knows.”

“Well,” Lance sighed and stood up, “If it’s going to be that, I’ll go down to the hangar and check on Phoenix, alright?”

“Alright,” Vincent nodded, “See you later, Lance.”

“Yeah, you too,” Lance smiled and waved as he exited the barracks. Aden and Mia sat together on the adjacent bed.

“So…” Aden asked, “What’s this about?”

“It’s…” Vincent whispered, “…about my past. First, I want to say I’m sorry that I lied to you all…”

*****

The elevator doors opened to the hangar, and Lance walked slowly out, looking at the crew moving supplies in. Food, water, equipment, ammunition. Lance smiled as he watched the familiar machinery do their work. I’ve been away from this place for too long, Lance thought. He always found comfort around machines.

Striding through the stretching balconies overlooking the hangar, he leaned over the handrails as he listened to Sergeant Mendez bark orders at each man, telling them to make sure those hooks were secure, and help those Middle Easterners to load in the supplies through the second gate, while those two keep an eye on…

“I see you’re awake now.”

Lance turned around to see a smiling Eudora behind him, in full military dress. Lance gave a smile in return. “Yeah,” he nodded, “Doc said I should be fine now. I didn’t honestly have any problems in the first place. So I guess I’m fine now.”

“Thank goodness,” Eudora laughed, and stepped over to Lance as she leaned over the railing along with him.

“Oh…” Lance snapped to attention, “By the way…” he reached to his neck and pulled out the orb-shaped necklace, “…this is yours, right? I found it when I regained consciousness. I think I should return it to…”

“It’s okay,” Eudora smiled as she placed a hand around Lance’s hand where he kept the necklace, “Keep it. I want you to have it. Let it remind you that there are people who care for you out there…like myself.”

Lance looked at Eudora with extreme curiosity, set his gaze back at the necklace, then smiled, tucking the necklace back in the collar of his uniform. “Thank you…Eudora,” he smiled.

*****

“You summoned me, Mistress?”

Stephanie smiled as she led Mithrandiel to her own private quarters and motioned for him to come in. Mithrandiel did as he was asked, and walked into the darkness of Stephanie’s room. Except for a green computer screen, the room was not lit by even one candle, and the shadows cast onto the walls were as haunting as those from a haunted house.

“This is…?” Mithrandiel whispered, looking at the large computer screen.

Stephanie smiled again. “I always knew your purpose when you have come here, Mithrandiel,” Stephanie said, “I have to admit I’m sorry for making you serve me for so long, without quite getting what you’ve always wanted.”

“I do not mind, Mistress,” Mithrandiel shook his head.

“Well, then,” Stephanie motioned for Mithrandiel to sit down, and Mithrandiel did so, “I’ll tell you the truth. Yes, it’s true I’m a descendant of your creator, Doctor Michael Crendor. The data you wish to seek was left in his will to his son, who then passed it on to his son, who passed it on to…”

“You,” Mithrandiel finished.

“Correct,” Stephanie giggled, placing a hand over her mouth, “Well, then. This data has been kept here for a while…I never quite understood what it was until you showed up, honestly. This is the data,” Stephanie handed over a small disk, which Mithrandiel immediately took. Stephanie smiled and motioned for Mithrandiel to input the disk. The back of Mithrandiel’s head opened up, and Mithrandiel jammed the disk into his head. There was a moment of silence or two, where nothing moved, before Mithrandiel gasped and stood up so quickly that Stephanie almost missed seeing Mithrandiel get up.

“The power…” Mithrandiel gasped, as both of his hands clasped his forehead, then let out an insane laugh, “The power!”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Eight

“Mithrandiel?” Stephanie asked hesitantly, after being shocked by Mithrandiel’s initial laugh. It was cold in its own way…and it was evil. Mithrandiel was still clasping his forehead, so his expression was hidden behind his hands and the shadows. But Stephanie immediately wished that she did not see Mithrandiel’s face. The expression of one who had protected her and kept watch over her for so long turned into one of a villain as an insidious grin spread across Mithrandiel’s face, and his eyes were as cold as steel.

“So this is it…” Mithrandiel chuckled quietly, “This is the power endowed to me by my creator…behold!” Suddenly, the blades that had extended from the arms of Mithrandiel the time he had destroyed the Archangel-class airship suddenly extended again at the back of his arms, while huge metallic wings shaped notoriously like ones of a vampire spread from his back. His body morphed as his armor became that of a strange blue metallic alloy that curved in elegant shapes that looked like works of modern art. High levels of energy radiated from his wings as he sent beams shooting in all directions, as if letting off the power that overwhelmed him. The caverns shook violently as Stephanie screamed and sprawled to the ground.

“This is incredible!” Mithrandiel cackled as the cave began to collapse due to the enormous amount of energy Mithrandiel let out.

“Please stop it, Mithrandiel!” Stephanie cried out, “You’ll destroy the caves!”

Mithrandiel set his eyes upon Stephanie, hovering four feet above the ground. Smiling, he said mockingly, “Yes, Mistress…or should I say, Stephanie. Honestly, do you think I need to listen to your orders now that I have become the most powerful entity in the world? Don’t be a fool. The only thing you can hope for is that I will be merciful to you because you were the one who gave me this data, the one that Doctor Crendor created just for me.”

“Think again!” a voice suddenly shouted as an orange blur streaked right over Stephanie, and Stephanie disappeared. At the same time, three rounds struck Mithrandiel’s armor, and Mithrandiel reared in slightly surprise. Now standing before him was Lance, in full Phoenix armor, grabbing Stephanie in one arm.

“Go!” Lance shouted at Stephanie as he released her, “Get out of here!”

“But…” Stephanie protested.

“Your life is what’s important now!” Lance bellowed, and gave her a forceful push out. Once started, Stephanie did not stop as she ran out, telling everyone to quickly evacuate because of a reason that was created by no fault but her own.

“Be careful, Lance,” Phoenix warned, “Mithrandiel is releasing energy readings that are off the scale. I can’t even begin to calculate the possibilities of his power.”

“Well, well,” Mithrandiel laughed, “Lance Sigel. In full Phoenix armor too. I guess I should say I’m quite honored by your presence, especially because of your skills…the perfect killer, I should say. It wouldn’t be such a shame to die by your hand…had I been in my earlier form. Just by curiosity, how did you come in time?”

“Detected high energy readings here,” Lance growled, “Never thought it would be you.”

“I see,” Mithrandiel smirked, “Well, you’ve always been competent. But you’re nothing but a nuisance now. Die.”

“High energy levels coming from Mithrandiel!” Phoenix alerted, “I suggest we retreat.”

The same idea had occurred to Lance as well, and he quickly jetted back just as Mithrandiel’s wings glowed with an eerie blue light, and the air between Lance and Mithrandiel blew up, the blue energy becoming bolts of plasma from Mithrandiel’s wings and blasting the cave apart. Lance screamed as the explosion propelled him backwards, and Phoenix slammed into a wall, or what seemed like a wall.

“Here!” Phoenix shouted and plotted a path marked by a jagged line on Lance’s HUD, “Fly this way! It’s an escape route!”

“Right!” Lance grunted as he jetted his thrusters and flew into the air and through the dust. Thermal and light amplification didn’t penetrate the dust very well, so Phoenix switched the view to a sonar, and everything seemed like a live X-ray as Lance guided himself through the crumbling cave. Following the line Phoenix gave him, he quickly left the cloud of dust as he once again reached the midnight air, into the night. Already, the UN and the Middle Easterners were placed on high alert, noting that the underground network had just been blown into pieces.

“You think Mithrandiel got buried in there?” Lance gasped for air as he looked down at the dissipating cloud of dust.

“Unlikely,” Phoenix replied, calculating all the odds, “He could easily blow apart the debris and…”

A beam of light suddenly came from the ground as it reached for the sky with an immense amount of energy, splitting the night sky into two as the ground exploded beneath, and winged death came from below.

“Where are you going, Lance?” Mithrandiel cackled with glee as his wings spread outwards, creating an immense effect of intimacy with its size, making Phoenix seem like almost a miniature version of Mithrandiel. Lance grimaced as those wings began to glow again, and about eight different weapons appeared from behind Mithrandiel’s main body, which was bad news either way to Lance.

“Get me a channel to the bridge!” Lance shouted as Mithrandiel began to fire his beams, a network of light as they spiraled this way and that, making the air seem beautiful in the way, almost like fireworks…only Lance knew if he was hit by one of those, he’d probably wouldn’t see anything too beautiful, or rather, wouldn’t be seeing anything at all.

“Got it,” Phoenix replied, “Captain Miguel on the horn.”

“Lieutenant?” Miguel rasped through the speakers, “What the hell is going on?”

“Sir,” Lance grunted as another beam came close to striking his legs, “Mithrandiel has gone berserk. Repeat, Mithrandiel has gone berserk. His current energy readings is uncharitable, and should be considered hostile. All United Nations forces and Middle Eastern occupants of the area are advised to retreat. Sir, I don’t think even the Storm of Fire can stand up to what Mithrandiel has become.”

There was a pause, almost as if Miguel was considering his possibilities, then replied, “Understood, Lieutenant, we’re retreating. Try to buy us some time. Don’t get carried away, now. I want to see you again.”

“Got it, sir,” Lance replied, and killed the feed just as he drew his pulse rifle and aimed at Mithrandiel. A concentrated beam like that should be able to harm Mithrandiel, especially since the “Pinnacle” basically used raw power. Lance pulled the trigger, and everything seemed to suddenly bend. The laser of the pulse rifle slowed for some reason and curved this way and that, but Mithrandiel’s lasers did the same thing. The beams struck wildly as they snaked around the air before hitting something, or simply curving up to the sky.

“What was that!?” Lance gasped as he nearly dropped his pulse rifle in surprise.

“Thermal convection,” Phoenix replied hastily, “As you know, most UN personnel use projectile firearms instead of energy firearms, because the use of it hasn’t been perfected yet. Except for the ‘Pinnacle’, no UN weapon has been utilized using pure energy, not even the Busters that older Reploids use and the plasma cannons on the Storm of Fire…”

“Can you hurry it up!?” Lance screamed as he fired another beam, only to get the same effect, with two beams frying the Middle Easterners attempting to escape from the ground, and one almost striking the Storm of Fire.

“Alright,” Phoenix sounded like he gulped, “In other words, the energy emits a heat source that bends the beams in the surrounding perimeter because of the heat differences. Which means as long as both of you continue to fire, your beams will bend to that effect, other than Mithrandiel’s, who’s beams seem to be designed to bend anyways.”

“How does he do that?” Lance asked, then, before Phoenix could go into another lecture, added quickly, “Forget it, I don’t want to know right now.”

“Alright,” Phoenix confirmed, “I’ll…Lance, watch it!”

Lance looked in time to see that Mithrandiel had curved in a laser from behind. However, Lance knew he could not move in time to dodge it, nor could he fire in that direction to make the beam bend. There had to be another plan he needed to think up, one that can change the odds…

There was a sudden whack from above as Lance felt himself go downwards at a rapid speed, but it wasn’t the work of his thrusters. He looked down to see that he was now standing on a black Shadow Platform. Riding along with him was…

“I had hoped I wouldn’t see you on the battlefield,” Fireside grunted as he had one hand grabbed around Lance’s shoulder.

“Fireside!” Lance whispered, just as Fireside dodged three beams aimed at his directions and flew upwards, before dropping Lance on the hangar of the Storm of Fire, then said to him on the COM channel, “Better get out of here, Second Lieutenant. I’ll take things from here.”

“R…Right!” Lance nodded as he quickly skidded inside the hangar to tell the Captain they needed to retreat in full speed.

*****

The Shadow Platform soared ahead as Fireside leapt off and landed on the desert sand. Already, he didn’t like the battlefield scenario as he almost slid on the dunes. And it was pretty open, with the enemy having pretty massive firepower.

Mithrandiel looked at the Shadow Platform incredulously, as if wondering how something as small as that could hurt him. Mithrandiel simply stared at the Platform as it zoomed closer to him. He was oblivious to the fact, though, that Fireside held a detonator in his hand.

There was a single click, and the Shadow Platform unleashed all its firepower with missiles and bombs, before detonating into an ball of fire. The explosion itself wasn’t nuclear, but the effect was almost as large as the orange sphere grew in size, enveloping the entire angelic form of Mithrandiel.

“You’re not dead yet…” Fireside grunted, just before two massive wings thrust the fire apart, revealing Mithrandiel’s virtually undamaged form, “Well…far less from dead than I had expected.”

“You!” Mithrandiel snarled as his colossal wings began to emit radiation once again, “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” Fireside shrugged, “I’m trying to blow you up.”

“Won’t happen!” Mithrandiel screamed just as the wings let out two huge beams in the shape of Mithrandiel’s wings shot itself at Fireside.

“Shit,” Fireside swore as he leapt through the gap between the two pillars of light, and the two beams swept right past him on both sides. There was a second’s pause before the ground beneath Fireside exploded, sending virtually everything flying into the air, Fireside included. And that was what he anticipated.

Jetting out of the dust cloud, a visor emerged from his helmet and aligned with his eyes as a zoom function immediately popped into his HUD. Raising his Buster, he waited for the targeting reticule to align with the zoomed image of Mithrandiel’s head. The beeping sound of the HUD told him it was time to fire, and he triggered the Buster just as a thin line of light, much like the beam from the SG-0, shot out of the center orb of his Buster and headed for Mithrandiel’s head. The problem was, just at that time, Mithrandiel fired his own series of follow-ups as eight different beams arched in Fireside’s direction. Every beam immediately went their different ways and spread from their intended targets.

“Damn,” Fireside whispered as he landed on the sand again. Mithrandiel continued to send continuously generating beams at Fireside as if they were a swarm of insects, and Fireside followed up with his gattling gun, with all twelve orbs on the sides of the Buster firing rapid amounts of energy, weaker than that from the center orb, but effective, nonetheless, as more of his rounds made it to Mithrandiel, and were able to divert much of Mithrandiel’s firepower away from him. Much of Fireside’s shots merely scratched Mithrandiel, though, and both stood their ground as they hailed firepower at each other.

“Final blow!” Mithrandiel suddenly screamed as he used both wings to propel himself higher into the air, and the lower part of his main body turned into a massive cannon as metallic parts shifted around to reveal the huge barrel of the Enigma cannon, “Enigma!”

Fireside watched in surprise as the huge barrel of the Enigma cannon glowed as the energy charged inside it, creating a field of electricity around it. “He’s installed the Enigma to himself?” Fireside whispered, shortly before the Enigma fired.

*****

“What’s the status?” Miguel asked immediately as he marched briskly onto the already hectic bridge. Helios was already there beneath Miguel’s balcony seat, and saluted as he came in. The atmosphere on the bridge was tense as Miguel sat down on his command seat, in complete military dress. He looked at the main screen to see more of the night desert before him and the ship.

“We’ve lost contact and visual with Lieutenant Colonel Fireside and Mithrandiel,” Archangel informed, “Reactors running fine.”

“We’re moving out of the combat area,” Phalanx informed, “Making good speed.”

“Weapons have been charged and have been running hot for the last ten minutes,” Juno said, “Should I turn down the power? Maybe we’re far away enough…”

“Keep them running,” Miguel snapped, “We don’t know if Mithrandiel might catch up or not. Major Cruz, anything on the COM channels?”

“We had some earlier, but none now,” Cruz answered, “They were just from the panicked Middle Easterners. They were escaping, but judging from the battlefield conditions, I don’t think the majority of them made it. They never really had a chance.”

“I see…” Miguel whispered, then in a concerned tone, “What about our personnel?”

“They managed to make it,” Archangel replied, “No one seems to be missing.”

“Second Lieutenant Sigel?”

“He’s currently escorting the ship from the outside. Should I call him in?”

“I thought we labeled him unsuitable for combat,” Helios scowled.

“We’ll make an exception this time,” Miguel replied, “He’s bought us our lives.”

“You make an exception for everything, sir,” Helios frowned, but Miguel paid no heed to it, but rather, said to Cruz, “Call him in.”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz replied, and began to compose his message, just before he suddenly turned around and said, “Sir, Second Lieutenant Sigel has detected a neutral reading headed for the Storm of Fire. He’s attempting communications now.”

“Do we have it on radar?” Helios demanded.

“Yes, sir,” Archangel replied, “Neutral reading…seems to be an armor. Attempting to get a visual.”

“Sir,” Cruz said slowly to Miguel, “Second Lieutenant Sigel is saying that the unit is a survivor of Mithrandiel’s attack, and is requesting permission to land on the Storm of Fire.”

“Visual obtained,” Archangel said, “Putting it on main screen now.”

The main screen snapped on as a picture of what seemed to be a modified X33 armor hovered alongside with the Storm of Fire, close enough to be noticed and far enough to be away from weapon range. While it sported a quantity of weapons, it didn’t seem to be in a combat position. In addition, it was carrying something, a human, not in armor, but rather, in a kimono.

“He’s hailing us, sir,” Cruz informed.

“Put him on speakers,” Miguel demanded.

“Aye, sir,” Cruz nodded, and rapped the keyboard twice, then nodded again to signify that things were as Miguel wanted them.

“This is the UNS Storm of Fire,” Miguel said clearly into the microphone as he stood up to face the screen that read “AUDIO ONLY”, “As an unidentified neutral target, I assume you were hailing us?”

There was a second’s interval, interrupted by a voice, “Yeah, we were hailing you, Miguel. It’s Giordano Mendel. We need somewhere to land. Mind letting us take a stop?”

“Please hold, Giordano,” Miguel said, and to Helios’ extreme displeasure, called the hangar crew, “Hangar crew, this is your Captain speaking. Do we have space for another landing? Is there any damage to the hangar?”

“No, sir,” Mendez’s voice came through the loudspeakers, “Something wrong? We heard something about another guy coming in…?”

“You learn stuff a lot faster than we do,” Miguel chuckled, “Prepare the way as soon as possible.”

“Sir!” Helios stood up once again in protest, just as Miguel expected, “We can’t allow them onto the Storm of…”

“Excuse me, Helios,” Miguel turned on him, “But didn’t we let them in when we were stranded on the ground? They believe that we should help each other when the time called for it. I will heed to their call for help.”

Helios winced at the obvious rebuke and glared at his superior, but sat down afterwards muttering something, then said bluntly to Miguel, “So we’ll make another exception, huh?”

“Just about,” Miguel sighed, wondered if there was something he and his closest subordinate can agree on, then said to Giordano through the COM system, “Alright, Giordano, you’re clear for landing. Please enter through hangar two on the right side of the Storm of Fire.”

“Acknowledged, Miguel,” Giordano replied, then, in a slightly more cheerful tone, added, “Thanks, man.”

“This is Second Lieutenant Sigel,” Lance said through the COM system, “Escorting Giordano to hangar two.”

“Understood, Second Lieutenant,” Miguel nodded, “Thank you, Lieutenant. You’ve done a splendid job so far.”

“You’re welcome, Captain,” Lance replied, and the link shut off.

*****

The armor landed in hangar two right beside Lance as the thrusters minimized their propulsion to provide a smooth landing. As Giordano landed, Lance suddenly saw who Giordano was carrying. An unconscious Stephanie was in Giordano’s arms, with several lines of blood coming from her arms. Giordano quickly called for a few mechanics, who quickly took Giordano’s burden from him as they took them to the medical wing.

“What happened?” Lance asked Giordano as he stepped out of Phoenix.

“She got hurt,” Giordano pointed out bluntly.

“I think he was asking for a more specific answer,” Phoenix shrugged, an uncharacteristic usage of his metallic shoulders.

“Tell you the truth,” Giordano grunted as his armor unfolded in a slightly different way the Phoenix, and Giordano stepped out, “I’m not too sure either. I found her unconscious, and I figure I needed some medics to help me. Besides, everyone else is dead.”

“What?” Lance hissed.

“Judging by Mithrandiel’s power,” Phoenix said slowly, “I’m not too surprised.”

“She’s not critical,” Giordano said, “She’ll be fine, even if given the worst of all medical attention. Any idiot doctor can bandage wounds. She’s just unconscious, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”

“Interesting design,” Phoenix suddenly interrupted. Lance turned around to see Phoenix studying Giordano’s armor. Lance looked at the armor and found it to have familiar lines and curves to that of a X33, but should he not be standing so close, he probably would’ve been unable to tell.

“You think so?” Giordano chuckled, “This one’s called Requiem. Doesn’t have an AI like you fancy Reploids, but it’s a good one, nonetheless. Took out an X33 intact and redesigned it myself. It’s lightly armored, but the thing’s based on elusion. It’s energy powered, meaning it can fire a whole bunch of beams at once, giving an intimidating effect…and keeping me from the sights of the enemy.”

“Giordano Mendel,” Miguel’s voice rang out from the side of the hangar as he and Helios walked in through the main entrance.

“Captain Miguel and Co-Captain Helios,” Giordano acknowledged, “Thanks for the call. I’ve got one wounded, who has been taken to your medical wing. Just thought you might want to know.”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “We’re basically fleeing from the combat area…but we’re also following the same path we’ve arranged earlier, cutting through Tibet, then through China…”

“So your next destination should be Sixth Haven, right?” Giordano smirked.

“How do you know where Sixth Haven is?” Helios squinted in suspicion.

“I’m not blind,” Giordano laughed, “Please. There are only so little islands that you can hide Havens in, and obvious places in strategic locations. It’s not hard; just depends which idiot finds them. After all…you only have three Havens left. First Haven, Second Haven, and Sixth Haven.”

“Seventh Haven after Artemis,” Miguel whispered, “Fifth Haven after that…Third Haven before Lance, Vincent, and Lei joined our crew…and Fourth Haven just before we met.”

“Just about,” Giordano smiled, “Not very fun, huh? Having your Havens eliminated one-by-one.”

“So,” Helios scowled, his voice dangerously low, “What do you want?”

“Well,” Giordano sighed, “Our clan is dead, after Mithrandiel went berserk. I have some I need to take care of. We really don’t have many places to go. Despite how weird this sounds, I’d like to enlist in the UN Military Division.”
bond4154
Chapter Twenty-Nine

Subaru saluted smartly as he stepped into Svivern’s private quarters, and the automatic door closed behind him. Dressed in full officer’s uniform, his fingers flew to his forehead, stating loudly, “Major Subaru Alto of the 7th Special Operations Unit, reporting as ordered, sir!”

“At ease, Second Lieutenant,” Svivern smiled and dismissed the salute. Subaru blinked, being slightly taken aback.

“Sir…?” Subaru cocked his head slightly to the side.

“The brass from Capital Eurasia have read the reports of your team, and are very impressed with your results in Fourth Haven. They’ve already given promotion to your entire team to Second Lieutenants. That is, of course, unless you do not wish to accept your promotion.”

“Sir!” Subaru saluted again, “Thank you, sir.”

Svivern smiled again, then dismissed the second salute with a second wave. “Well, then. I suppose I’ll need some time to adjust calling you Lieutenants instead of Majors. Paperwork will follow when you return to Capital Eurasia, but it’ll probably be a long time before you can return…I imagine your father, Colonel Alto, would be very pleased to hear the good news.”

“Yes, sir,” Subaru nodded.

“Well,” Svivern motioned for Subaru to come closer, in which Subaru did as he was ordered, “I came here to tell you that…and one other thing.”

“What is it, sir?” inquired Subaru, who stood no more than two way away from the Captain, one who he respected and admired…but one who was so dangerous beneath the skin, a deviousness that even Subaru could not distinguish.

“A simple test,” Svivern smiled, “To see if all your training has paid off. As of yesterday at eighteen hundred hours, each Captain of the Neo Arcadian fleet had been given an order that selected ships in the fleet assemble at coordinates in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Apparently, Neo Arcadia has found Sixth Haven.”

Subaru attempted not to show any surprise, but his eyes widened in reflex. Sixth Haven! Within the course of only two weeks, they had already captured two Havens. It took them so long just to find Fifth Haven and Seventh Haven, but now everything was speeding up. Subaru was convinced that the war would be over soon…and victory was tilting in their direction.

“However,” Svivern continued, eyeing Subaru, studying him as to discern anything Subaru might be thinking, “Those coordinates are not the location of Sixth Haven. In other words, we are grouping up in a location that is not in Sixth Haven. Can you tell me why?”

Subaru contemplated this for only three seconds. “Rumors have it that Sixth Haven is the second-most fortified United Nations Haven within the Network of Seven Havens,” Subaru spoke quickly and clearly, “By assembling the fleet at one place outside the reach of Sixth Haven, we will be able to launch one massive attack at Sixth Haven at once, instead of sending smaller numbers of ships against superior numbers at once and expect them to wait for scattered reinforcements.”

“Very good,” Svivern smiled, showing his obvious delight, “However, unlike what Deviant had notified you earlier, this ship is not headed for the Middle East. I expect you already now that.”

“Yes, sir,” Subaru nodded, “We’ve only passed refueling in India yesterday.”

“Correct. Now…instead of us going to the coordinates applied to us, we are going to first wait one hundred and forty-seven miles west of the rally point over here…” Svivern activated a holographic image of the world map, and a marking immediately showed where Svivern intended to wait. Subaru leaned forward and saw that Svivern wanted to wait in the middle of the South China Sea.

“The South China Sea?” Subaru frowned.

“Correct,” Svivern nodded, “We’ll only be here for one reason…this problem will be harder than you imagine.”

Subaru required a thirty second thought process before replying slowly, “The Storm of Fire?”

Svivern clapped his hands together once in bravado. “Well done, Lieutenant,” he smiled, “It seems your mind is sharper than ever. Deviant had already predicted that the Storm of Fire has escaped into the Middle East, and will attempt to flee eastwards, through China. Although I assume Captain Elliot Corrigan will eliminate them before they even make it here, I’m just hoping he can at least leave us some scraps…such as the Reploid-armors.”

Subaru narrowed his eyes. The Reploid-armors, the three-man team they had failed to defeat after so many times. So it wasn’t only him who wished to destroy them.

“Well, that’s all Second Lieutenant,” Svivern nodded, “Good job. Dismissed.”

“Sir!” Subaru saluted again, and exited Svivern’s cabin as the automatic door slid open and close to his position. Subaru sighed in relief. Although he trusted Svivern, all superior officers like him exert an aura where you needed to fear and respect him…it was an unnerving experience.

“So,” Brandon chuckled, right next to the doorway of Svivern’s quarters, surprising Subaru, “Good news, huh?”

Subaru turned on Brandon in astonishment. “You were eavesdropping?”

Brandon sighed and smiled. “Come on, don’t go senile on me now. You know well enough that the door is soundproof.”

Subaru laughed weakly at that as both of them walked down the hallway at a leisurely pace. “So,” Brandon yawned, “Pass the good news, Major.”

“It’s Second Lieutenant,” Subaru smiled, taking Brandon off guard, “We’ve all been promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant. Which means it’ll take us some time trying to adjust to that.”

“Hell yeah!” Brandon laughed and clapped on Subaru’s shoulder, “You’re getting to be a better bastard day by day, huh?”

“Whatever,” Subaru chuckled and pried Brandon off his back.

“Well, well,” Brandon smiled, “Looks like I’m going to have to treat you with a bit more respect.”

“Hopefully you can do that with Sakura and Lloyd.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Brandon grinned, “What else?”

“We’re going to the South China Sea, where we’re hoping we’ll be able to intercept the Storm of Fire and the Reploid-armors, and then make it in time to assault Sixth Haven.”

Brandon’s eyes widened in amazement, then narrowed in fury, completely ignoring the news of their finding of Sixth Haven. Without as much as thinking it over twice, Subaru already knew his comrade’s anger was concentrated on his nemesis, their nemesis, the Reploid-armor Phoenix.

*****

“Enlist?” Helios echoed, his voice edged with suspicion.

“Accepted,” Miguel nodded, surprising and displeasing Helios immensely, not for the first time, of course. Giordano smiled at both the acceptance of his request, and the awed expression of fury by Helios.

“Captain!” Helios started, then realized that Miguel had sighed and said “captain” along with him, marking that he had already known what Helios’ response would be. Helios didn’t realize a blush was sneaking upon his face.

“Helios,” Miguel cocked his head at Helios, “We’re short on men. We’ve only retreated from Fourth Haven days ago. Our supplies are not complete. And there’s no telling if Mithrandiel is going to chase us. And we’re anticipating a large battle ahead of us against Elliot Corrigan. We’re desperate under these circumstances. I know how you feel. I know you don’t want to accept him as much as I didn’t want to retreat back at Fourth Haven. But like last time, we have no choice.”

Helios closed his eyes and sighed, almost frustrated at his stubborn and sympathetic superior, but surprised Miguel by saying, “Yes, Captain, I understand. You are correct in doing this…I apologize.”

Miguel smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “We work out pretty well as checks and balances, don’t you think?”

“You’re the Captain,” Helios stated with a completely straight face, “Seems more like a monarchy to me, once you’ve made up your mind.”

Miguel laughed. “Just about, Helios.”

Helios nodded, unsmiling, then added on an unpleasant note, “However, I have to add that Giordano will not be able to participate in combat.”

Miguel frowned, displeased that Helios would make such a declaration, although he figured Helios already thought about some UN regulation.

“In accordance to military code,” Helios explained, “Newly enlisted members of the United Nations Military Division must be sorted by a commanding officer in charge of reassignment before participating in combat. This act is to prevent any newly joined forces to enter the area of combat and risk the possibility of betrayal.”

“You did not stop us when we acquired the three Reploid-armors,” Miguel pointed out.

“The three Reploid-armors were military black projects,” Helios replied, with a completely unwavering voice, “It is not applicable to standard military code, for obvious security reasons.”

Miguel looked at Helios intensely. “Sometimes,” he said as he sucked in a breath, “I hate you.”

“Same thing here, Captain,” Helios replied, except it was his turn to smile.

Miguel didn’t reply to that, but rather, turned to Giordano and nodded, “Well, you heard him. Unfortunately, we can’t put you in the field of combat at the moment, which means we’ll have to put you on standby, and confiscate your armor, for now.”

“Fine with me,” Giordano shrugged, “So long as I get it back at some point.”

Miguel opened his mouth to say something, but the ringing of his personal COM system interrupted his speech. He quickly snatched the phone-like apparatus from his pocket, said, “This is the Captain.”

“Sir,” Cruz’s voice said through the phone, “You asked me to alert you when we are entering the airspace of Tibet…”

“Yes,” Miguel nodded, “Thank you very much, Major. Please raise the alert of the entire ship to secondary battle alert.”

Cruz didn’t hesitate. “Yes, sir, sounding the alert.” The blares of klaxons quickly overtook the usual noise of the ship, along with quick orders from Cruz with the authentication of the Captain on board.

Giordano flashed an admiring smile. “Getting ready for Corrigan?” he grinned.

“We have to be ready for him, if he’s going to show up here in Tibet,” Miguel said grimly as the hangar crew rushed to their battle positions, which really wasn’t much of a difference from their usual positions, but meant they were ready to initiate repairs and launches a lot faster.

“Well, then,” Giordano shrugged, “I guess I’ll be waiting until you need me…” Giordano paused, then added slyly, “…sir.” Knowing he was bound to annoy Helios with his attitude, he quickly retreated without receiving the order to be dismissed, and before Helios could tell him of that, Giordano was away from earshot.

“The more and more I see him,” Helios muttered, “The more and more it seems I cannot trust Middle Easterners like him.”

“Well,” Miguel sighed, rubbing his eyes and just wanting to get up to the bridge to contend with the larger threat other than Giordano annoying Helios, “We have Corrigan to deal with. Let’s get this over with, get to Sixth Haven, and we’ll do what we want there.”

*****

“Will she be okay?” Lance asked the doctor as he stood next to the unconscious figure of Stephanie in the medical bay. The doctor finalized the readings and turned around, nodded, much to Lance’s relief.

“She’ll be fine,” the medic replied casually, “She just got knocked out. Wasn’t as bad as you guys had; you and that Vincent’s mind were really screwed up. She got nothing but a whack in the head. We already disinfected the wound and all, and she should be up in no time.”

Lance nodded as the doctor packed up his instruments and left after he finished, and Lance noted with irony that this doctor always seemingly disappeared after his task was finished, as if he didn’t exist elsewhere except for the medical bay, but he didn’t always stay there either.

“You okay?”

Lance turned around, seeing Vincent behind him as the door closed, and Vincent pulled up another chair to Lance. Lance smiled, nodded, and an idea came to him, one that was sure to take Vincent by surprise. Lance stood and saluted. “Sir!” he shouted, causing Vincent to flinch slightly at the sudden motion and crescendo of voice, “I’m fine, sir!”

Vincent winced at that, probably not wanting to be acknowledged as a Lieutenant Colonel in the first place, but he smiled weakly and returned the salute, with a comical, “At ease, Second Lieutenant.”

Lance laughed and dropped the saluted as both of them sat down on the chairs laid out in the medical bay. “How did they take it?”

This time, Vincent caught on to Lance’s incomplete questions without further inquisition, and nodded, “They were shocked, but most of them took it pretty much okay. Aden called me ‘sir’ for fun, Mia mostly told me she was impressed…and sorry at the same time for Eli. Lei’s reaction was pretty funny; she was acting like I’m suddenly her immediate superior or something…”

“You are,” Lance smiled, “I’m not the leader-type, and I don’t think Helios trusts Lei…which means you’re basically Mr. Leader.”

“Don’t call me that,” Vincent laughed, but was hushed a bit too late by Lance, who pointed at Stephanie, who had been unconscious, but not anymore. Apparently, the noise had woke her up, and Vincent noted the damage before Lance did. Lance seemed to be oblivious to it before he opened his mouth to talk, perhaps to scold Vincent, but Vincent motioned for him to turn around, at which Lance discovered Stephanie was waking up.

“Stephanie!” Lance whispered, gliding from his seat to Stephanie’s side as Vincent quirked his eyebrows, amused at the wicked irony. Stephanie made a quiet groan as she attempted to sit up, her eyes seemingly unfocused as she rubbed them with the balls of her knuckles.

She took a look a Lance, and it was clear that Stephanie’s vision had not completely returned as she whispered, “Mithrandiel?”

Lance shook his head, and tried to place her down, but she didn’t move as her eyes squinted, a sign that the room’s lighting was a bit too bright for her. But her eyes focused this time, and she took a startled glance at the person in front of her. “Lance?” she gasped.

“Lay her down,” Vincent said from behind Lance, now standing up in front of Stephanie, “It’s better for her.”

“I’m fine,” Stephanie replied defiantly, settling her back against the propped end of the bed, “Where am I? Where’s Mithrandiel…?” then the cold truth came into realization as her skin paled, and she settled her hands over her mouth, “Oh…oh, no…Mithrandiel…”

Lance looked away, suddenly feeling uncomfortable being close to Stephanie, knowing that she’ll implore him about what happened…and he might have to discern the tragedy, or whatever this irony was supposed to be called.

“Where’s everyone?” Stephanie asked, “After Mithrandiel went…Is everyone safe? Did everyone evacuate?”

Lance looked away, somewhat ashamed, but Vincent blocked Lance’s distressed look as he blocked Lance from Stephanie’s view, and nodded, smiling, “I’m sure they’re all fine. One of our guys stayed behind to handle Mithrandiel, and I’m sure he’s bought enough time for everyone to escape.”

“Really?” Stephanie said, looking hopeful, although it was said in a skeptic voice.

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, picking up the ball and rolling it, “They’ll be fine. You’ll be fine too. The doctor checked you up and said you don’t have any serious problems.”

“Where…am I?” Stephanie asked, looking around.

“This is the UNS Storm of Fire,” Vincent explained, “Giordano took you in after…” Vincent stopped, and realized his folly. There would be no reason of why Giordano would take Stephanie here on the Storm of Fire…unless everyone else was dead. Lance winced visibly, while Stephanie tried to hide her obvious grief, but not doing a good job at it as her eyes went wide and she looked another direction, mouth open. Vincent grunted, thus noting to Lance that perhaps it was better that he leave. Lance nodded, and Vincent left.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” Lance whispered, “For your friends, and for lying to you…”

“No,” Stephanie said in a quiet, monotone voice, “You wanted the best for me…I’m grateful of that.”

Lance looked away. Grateful? Grateful for receiving a lie? Perhaps it was better not to know the truth sometimes…perhaps it was sometimes better to lie. It wasn’t something that Lance didn’t know, but it wasn’t something that he could think up of consciously and immediately…until now.

“Mithrandiel had always been good to me…” she whispered, starting to break down as Lance spotted tears, and suddenly wished Vincent was here in his place, “…I just don’t know why he…” she stopped there, seemed to attempt to gain control of herself, before the door opened again, and this time, Giordano walked in casually.

Seeing Stephanie in this condition didn’t seem to bother Giordano in the least. “Well,” he chuckled, “Glad to see you’re up. Couldn’t help but eavesdrop on your conversation. Got to admit, the girl who never seemed to feel any threats suddenly realizes the world isn’t so friendly after losing so much.”

Lance turned on Giordano at that. “How can you say that?” he frowned, standing up, as Stephanie continued to look away, lost in her own world of sorrow, “Can’t you see she’s breaking down right now? Do you want to make her feel worse?”

Giordano gave a short laugh. “Well, I know as much tact as a…never mind. Sorry, if that got on your nerves, or should I say, Stephanie’s nerves. In that case, I guess things should be safer if I leave, huh?”

Lance kept a glare on Giordano, and Giordano laughed at his childish nature as he turned to leave, then added, “In a way, I envy her.”

That caught Lance by surprise. “…Envy?” he echoed. Behind him, Stephanie also turned in surprise as she stared at Giordano, giving him her severed, but undivided, attention, as Giordano tilted his head backwards slightly.

“Yeah,” Giordano nodded, “Because she had something to lose. By losing it, she realized how hard it was to gain in the first place…and that makes her a better person. But I…I had nothing to begin with. I can never become better. So in a way…I envy her.”

Lance stared at Giordano, surprised and amazed at his philosophy. Not only did it make sense, but he expected that kind of talk least from Giordano, especially since he had just almost sent Stephanie on the verge of a complete breakdown.

Giordano noticed both of them were looking at him, dumbstruck, and laughed again. “No need to stare at me like that,” he smiled, “Don’t take it too seriously, or you’ll get in trouble like that.”

He began to leave again as he stepped through the automatic door, but just before it closed, Giordano turned around the second time and said to Lance, “Well, joined up with the United Nations Military Division. Guess I’ll have to call you sir now; I’m a Major.” With that, he gave a funny salute, one that was so casual that Lance probably would’ve laughed under different circumstances, before the door closed between them.

*****

The Midnight Falcon glided through the low mountains of Tibet as Captain Elliot Corrigan stared at the radar screen in the pitch darkness. The Midnight Falcon was a state-of-the-art stealth fighter bomber, with an average crew of three, speeds to match any fighter jet out there, armor that outclassed the most advanced bombers, and jamming devices to thwart any lock-on or radar signatures.

“That ship…” he said to one of his lieutenants, posted at the pilot seat, “The Storm of Fire, it was called?” There were typically three positions onboard the Midnight Falcon. One manned the fighter, and fired the primary weapons of the ship. The second managed weaponry, including bombs and heavier weapons. The third was primarily the operations console, where most commanders were suited, such as Elliot. But Elliot has always given his crew much flexibility, and changed positions often.

“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied, “Capital Eurasia has been informing us to watch out for this particular United Nations ship. It has also sent over tactical data on previous encounters, most of them having been recorded by Captain Svivern.”

“That Svivern guy, huh?” Elliot frowned. He didn’t like Atrium Svivern much…it was his deviant manner and his tendency to get things done his own way that annoyed him. Atrium wasn’t a bad captain, but Elliot certainly disliked him. He looked over the tactical data provided…Fourth Haven, the Panama Canal, Fourth Haven, and various encounters in the open sea. Studying them, Elliot frowned a second time. “Brilliant,” Elliot muttered to himself, “Simply brilliant.” Looking over the data given, the Captain of this ship, the Storm of Fire, must’ve been a very exceptional one. Mulling over the strategies that the Captain used, he limited the possibilities, and thought about how he was going to confront this enemy. Finding several ways, Elliot suddenly realized that he had come up with similar solutions against another battlefield Captain. His name was…

“Miguel…” Elliot whispered. Could it be possible that the Captain of this United Nations ship be Miguel? Elliot mulled this over for several seconds, then snapped crisp orders to his crew.

“Alert Alpha Team and tell them we’re moving out. Have Beta Team prepare an ambush at the Yangtze, and I want the rocket buggies on Alpha Team to be situated at the forests before it. Alert the crew to ignore all transmissions, whether they come from friend or foe. No one picks up the phone, not even if it comes from Capital Eurasia.”

The last order was more than confusing, but the crew had seen their direct superior officer bend the rules more than once…and achieved exceptional results that earned everybody’s praise. “Aye, sir,” the lieutenant nodded, and went to his orders.

Elliot leaned against his chair and sighed.

“Miguel…”
bond4154
Chapter Thirty

Staring through one of the few windows on the Storm of Fire, Epsilon gazed out from the aerial view of Tibet, staring at the mountain ranges that seemed to stretch on forever, like the sea that Epsilon had been acquainted with only a week ago. In her hand was a cup of coffee she managed to get from the café.

The window was one of the few located on the Storm of Fire, on nonessential decks. It was no surprise that glass broke easily, and therefore, most engineers allocating any form of glass onto their designs. Although the Storm of Fire was designed to bring a form of command and luxury, the usage of windows were still shunned. Hydraulics were placed at strategic places to cover the hull in the case the deck would be breached, and the gates to the deck were airlocks that easily protected those outside the deck from the change in air pressure. Although it was mostly built to the design of vacuum, Epsilon doubted it was needed; it wasn’t like they were going to space.

“Major,” a voice said behind her, and Epsilon turned in surprise to see Lance behind her, with a salute and a weak smile in hand. Epsilon returned the smile, hiding her slight concerned of the lack of enthusiasm in his expression.

“At ease, Lance,” Epsilon replied, then crossed her arms, careful not to spill her coffee in the process, “I thought I told you not to salute to me unless the occasion really calls for it.”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, and then looked out the window, “Sorry.”

“Hell,” Epsilon after she sipped her coffee, which had begun to grow cold, “Nothing to apologize to me about.”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded again, and subconsciously, said, “Sorry.”

Epsilon frowned. “Hey, you okay? You said that just a second ago.”

“Huh?” Lance jolted as he turned to look at Epsilon, as if he just snapped awake, and had not listened to anything previously.

“I said,” Epsilon pursed her lips, “you seemed dazed. You apologized twice.”

“Oh…” Lance whispered, looking slightly embarrassed as his ears turned scarlet, “…I guess I was just tuned out. Sorry.”

“There you go again,” Epsilon sighed, “Apologizing all the time. Shouldn’t you get your mind checked with the medic? I think something snapped up there.”

“No,” Lance smiled weakly (weakly, Epsilon noted with further concern), “I don’t really want to bother him anymore. I’ve already troubled him more than once.”

Epsilon laughed. “Hey, look, the doc on this ship is paid to heal us. It isn’t whether or not he is bothered or not, it’s whether or not you’re okay.”

“I think I’m okay,” Lance nodded, and looked out the window again. His gaze didn’t look concentrated, as if he needed to think, and merely used the scenery as blank space, as if he simply needed the scenery to keep part of his mind occupied. After all, it was best that one lets of a bit of steam when thinking too much.

Epsilon didn’t try to carry the conversation further. She was somewhat angry that this was happening, mostly angry at herself. She thought this was going to happen, no, knew it was going to happen. You thrust a kid into the battlefield, ask to much of him, and his mind snaps down. What began with a life of school, fun, and hoping weekends can come just a little faster becomes replaced with life, death, and a gun in your hand. The mind goes under strain, and one begins to lose his personality. Soon, he’ll get used to it. And Epsilon didn’t want that to happen. She wanted to avoid that from the moment Lance came under her care, tried to prevent it, except she didn’t do enough.

Well, Epsilon thought silently in her mind, you ****** up again, Epsilon.

“Hey,” Lance suddenly added, “Isn’t it…secondary battle alert?”

Epsilon was surprised as she snapped out of her daydream, and tried her best not to show it. Studying Lance’s expression, she deduced that Lance didn’t notice her lapse of distraction…or pretended not to notice. “Yeah,” Epsilon nodded, “Technically, we’re supposed to go down to the hangar and stand by at our vehicles, or in your case, Phoenix, but pilots like us are given us pretty loose secondary battle alert statuses. Most of the strain comes when the alert becomes primary.”

“Well, then,” Lance said, pushing himself away from the window, “I’ll be going to the hangar and report in.”

“You don’t need to,” Epsilon intervened as Lance turned toward the door and began to leave.

“It’s fine,” Lance smiled as the double automatic door opened in front of him, “I think it’d be for the best.”

“You should rest,” Epsilon insisted, not wanting him to leave, “Especially when you just had a rough time getting us out of the Middle East.” He goes into the hangar, Epsilon thought, and he’ll think it’s time for duty again.

“I’m not tired,” Lance smiled, “I’ll see you later, Major.” He walked toward the door, walked passed it. Epsilon thought desperately for a decent way to stop him, thought about snapping an order for him to come back here. Then realized that it probably wouldn’t be any different from letting him go to the hangar. She snaps an order, and that sense of duty comes back into his mind. It’s no longer reason for him, no longer why he’s fighting, but rather, that he’s fighting.

To Epsilon, it became rather evident that Lance, like so many soldiers before, has fallen into their own trap: the mind.

*****

“Why would you want to wait?” Deviant demanded heatedly, floating around the quarters of Atrium, “This is the perfect opportunity! With the Council of Salvation making continued public appearances to boost the morale of the soldiers and the hasten the takeover of the rest of the three Havens, they are the most vulnerable now!”

Atrium ignored him, typing on his computer as quickly as possible, continuing to allow the Neo Arcadian satellites to update the position of Elliot Corrigan’s forces. His room was unusually well-lit this time, instead of the usual darkness with the computer screen as the only source of light.

“Are you paying any attention to me?” Deviant snapped, noticing that Atrium continued to look at the GPS map on the screen in front of Atrium.

“Of course…” Atrium whispered, then turned to meet the gaze of Deviant with a devious smile, “…not.”

Deviant gave a frustrated sigh. “I was saying…”

“I’m joking,” Atrium cut him off and placed his eyes on the map again, “I heard everything you said.”

“Well, then,” Deviant growled, “You should know exactly what I’m talking about. But rather than join up with the rest of the Neo Arcadian navy immediately, you choose to wait for that Storm of Fire. For all I’m concerned, I think you have your priorities mixed up.”

“As long as the Storm of Fire exists,” Atrium contradicted him, “Our takeover will never be secure. It’s better to take care of the closer threat first. Besides, when we fight First and Second Haven, the battle will be long and drawn out. Remember the photographs Subaru and his team took? The defenses of Second Haven will take the entire Neo Arcadian army to fight. At that point, that’s when the Council of Salvation is the most vulnerable. The only question I have in mind is whether or not Omega will be there to command the armed forces personally.”

“Probably not,” Deviant snipped, “Omega’s more of a politician now. Which all soldiers seem to hate.”

“Speaking of which,” Atrium added coolly, “We haven’t decided how to branch down the control. Obviously, either one program will have to control each of the members, or we may have to restart every program and enact the entire neural-link process. And that reminds me…what if they end up having a body like mine?”

Deviant mused this along, but dismissed it with a wave of a hand. “Those problems will be dealt with later.”

“I’m the one suffering, Deviant,” Atrium growled softly, “If you’d like my cooperation, I’d suggest you do something about it quickly.”

“Was that a bargain?” Deviant whispered dangerously, “A threat? Because I can easily ignore you altogether and get another captain, one more obedient, to take your place. Delete the Beta Standby Program along with that to add to your misery.”

“Perhaps you have forgotten that most of the plans have to be executed by me,” Atrium smirked, “And also not many other captains have unrestricted access to the secure networks. And also that it doesn’t make much of a difference if you decide to integrate a Gamma Program into him.”

Deviant scowled, obviously aware of the stalemate forced upon him. He continued to hover in the air, and decided to annoy Atrium in tiny little ways by humming while thinking, although in reality, it brought upon no real effect. Atrium kept his gaze glued on the computer screen. To his surprise, about a minute later, Atrium started laughing, which greatly surprised Deviant. Not that Deviant didn’t expect Atrium would laugh in such a hysterical way, but that he chose the absolutely wrong time to laugh, when Deviant was at the peak point of his annoyance.

“What is it this time?” Deviant snapped, feeling as if his artificial patience was about to burst into pieces.

“It’s Elliot,” Atrium attempted to control his laughter, although he was failing miserably, “He desperately does not want Miguel to get through China. In fact, I think he knows we’re here to take out the Storm of Fire in case he fails.”

“Trying to build up his reputation, is he?” Deviant sniffed, “It’s expected, when you’re one of the least welcomed Captains in the inner circle of the navy, especially with your arrogant manner…”

”Like you aren’t arrogant?” Atrium chuckled.

Deviant chose to ignore the remark. “At any rate, if Corrigan wants to make another kill, let him do it; we’ll finish off Sixth Haven as soon as possible so we can commence with out plan, and…”

“No, no, Deviant,” Atrium swiveled around in his seat to meet the ghostly floating form of the AI, “You are wrong. Elliot doesn’t want to build up his reputation by killing Miguel. He wants to save him.”

*****

Phoenix detached the cables that connected the to the batteries on his back as they fell away with a hissing of gas, mostly coolant. The batteries were hardly used, as Phoenix was able to be run by an independent generator that basically supplied more energy than what was needed on a conventional battlefield, but the batteries also allowed his performance to be greatly enhanced, not to mention it could be hooked up to the SG-0 when the pulse rifle was out of energy. Phoenix stood up from his reclined shakedown form as the new information sprawled across his circuitry.

“Did I do it correctly?” Lance asked beside him as the laptop in front of him produced positive results, although he himself was uncertain of whether the computer data was accurate enough.

“Most likely,” Phoenix nodded and looked himself over, mostly through the data that came to his CPU, “Calibration has been updated. I believe we’re finished here. Thanks for checking me over, Lance.”

“No problem,” Lance smiled, and stored away the laptop, “I’ve also completed system checks on Odin and Neptune, and they all seem to be in calibration.”

“Isn’t that going a bit over your head?” Phoenix asked, “Personally, I’d think that Vincent and Lei would deal with that.”

“Well,” Lance shrugged, “Vincent basically knows this programming stuff better than I do, but I suppose since I’m here, I might as well do it for him. Can save him a lot of time if he decides to do a little this and that later.”

“You’re quite generous,” Phoenix said in an amused tone, one that sounded unusual from a metal-clad Reploid such as him.

“No,” Lance laughed and began to roll up the wires into neat bundles, “I don’t need any compliments like that. We’re all on one boat, after all.”

“Humility,” Phoenix quirked, “That is something that has a tremendous shortage in the military. I’m glad I see it in you.”

“After you shower me with praise,” Lance said without looking up, “Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell Odin and Neptune that the shakedown status should be over, and they should be able to exit standby mode now.”

“Composing message…done.”

“Thanks,” Lance nodded, finishing up with the wires and placing them away.

“Attention, all hands,” the familiar voice of Cruz resounded through the COM system as it echoed in the chamber of the hangar, “This is the bridge. We are exiting the area of Tibet, and we will now stand down the primary battle alert. Please report to your usual positions and resume your tasks.”

“What was that about?” Lance asked.

“The Captain was anticipating an attack in Tibet,” Phoenix replied, and a holographic image of the map of Tibet, as well as several regions around it, appeared before the both of them, “That’s why we were in secondary battle alert when we entered the region. It was mostly due to intelligence tipped off by the Middle Easterners, but I guess that information is outdated.”

“I see,” Lance nodded, then winked, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Phoenix nodded, turned to leave Lance as he was, then turned around as a question kept nagging at the corner of his mind. Phoenix was far from human, but he had a CPU design sophisticated enough to keep things bother him…which perhaps wasn’t such a good thing after all.

“Hey, Lance,” Phoenix started.

“Hmm?” Lance turned around, surprised to see Phoenix still there.

“That time in the Middle East, when you were fighting against those X Droids…what happened to you?”

“What do you mean?” Lance’s brow furrowed, then lightened up as he understood, “Oh…you mean when I went insane?”

“Well,” Phoenix crossed his arms, another uncharacteristic feature of his armored body, “I’m not sure ‘insane’ is the right word, but…what happened there?”

“I’m not sure,” Lance admitted, “Something overcame me, I guess. All I remember during that time was an urge to destroy everything. Other than that, I really forgot…sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me,” Phoenix sighed and placed a hand on his shoulder, “You apologize for everything. You don’t carry everything on your shoulder because no one is there to do it. You only carry what you should. If you carry too little, people with think you’re selfish. If you carry too much, you’ll weigh yourself down until you collapse, then people will think you’re useless.”

Lance’s eyes sparkled with interest. “You certainly possess great metaphors in mind. Where did you get them?”

“Um…” Phoenix paused for a moment, and Lance swore that if Phoenix had features, he could easily tell Phoenix was embarrassed. Luckily, someone else answered that question.

“I’ve been letting him read a bunch of my books,” Eudora smiled as she came from the other side of the hangar, carrying several work tools in hand. Her direction was away from her Type-Zero, and Lance assumed she had just finished tuning up her Type-Zero.

“Is that so?” Lance smiled, “You read?”

“Of course,” Eudora shrugged and giggled at the same time, and found a seat next to the crate Lance was sitting on, “After all, a lot of us enlisted before we had a chance to get ourselves educated, so we read whenever we can. Most of us are built like humans, meaning Major Epsilon and just about everyone else on the ship that’s a Reploid, but Reploids like Phoenix, Odin, and Neptune are amazing. All they have to do is to analyze one page with a visual scan, then they’re done with it in a second or less. I swear, Phoenix finished about twenty of my books in less than an hour. And they’re all pretty long.”

“Shakespeare, London, Dickens, King, Herbert,” Phoenix began counting down the authors of the books that he had read, but was promptly interrupted by Lance.

“Alright, alright,” Lance laughed, “I get the idea.”

“Well,” Phoenix shrugged, and figured he knew tact a lot better than Lance, who was just about awkward about everything, “I think I’ll be leaving you two alone for a while.”

“Huh?” Lance stared at Phoenix with a puzzled look, “What do you mean?” However, Phoenix had hurried out of earshot, leaving Lance with no answers to his question. He was, after all, still quite socially impaired, even by Phoenix’s standards.

“Hey,” Eudora grabbed Lance’s attention while it was still adrift on Phoenix, “You think you can pilot a Type-Zero?”

“Huh?” Lance frowned once more.

“You know, fly a Type-Zero. Who knows, maybe you’ll do it a lot better than me, with you flying Phoenix and all.”

Lance shook his head and stared into blank space, “Phoenix is a lot easier to pilot than any Type-Zero. He relies on a neural-link interface, allowing my thoughts to link with his movements. Basically, I just think about moving normally. Besides, I’m horrible as a soldier. If you told to just kill someone, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it unless his presence threatens my safety or the safety of my friends.”

“I figured you’d say that,” Eudora giggled.

“What do you mean?” Lance asked, looking at Eudora.

“You are way too humble,” Eudora laughed, “I don’t know exactly how anyone could’ve thought you were even fit being a soldier.”

Lance quirked his mouth in one direction. “Is that supposed to be a put-down?”

Eudora hastened her apology. “No, no, sorry, I don’t mean that. It’s just that it’s…unusual finding someone like you in the military. You don’t find people around here that are as kind as you.”

Lance blushed. “Kind?”

“Yeah,” Eudora smiled, “Mostly, the people around here are hard-asses…but it’s not exactly hard to expect out of them. In war, we’re talking about life and death. My former drill sergeant once said to me, in the military, you usually don’t get a second chance, because before you get that, you’re dead.”

“Understandable…” Lance whispered and stared out into blank space once again.

Eudora looked over at Lance, and realized that her necklace still hung around Lance’s neck. “Hey,” Eudora pointed, “You still wear that?”

Lance looked down at the necklace. “Yeah,” he nodded and smiled, “It’s a nice necklace. You’re lending it to me, so I figured it would be a waste not wearing it…and it would be a waste if it gets destroyed too, so I want to remind myself that I need to come back in one piece.”

“Let me guess,” Eudora giggled, “You remind yourself to come back not for your own welfare, but so you can protect others as well, right?”

Lance looked mildly surprised. “How do you know?”

Eudora laughed this time. “You are so easily to read, Second Lieutenant Lance Sigel,” Eudora purposefully used his full title to tease Lance. To her relief, Lance took it as a joke as well, and that hard expression Eudora feared seeing from Lance seemed to have been avoided completely. What was scary about watching someone get mad was watching someone who seldom lost his temper do so. Even having a parent who had a bad temper is easy to get used to. It’s when you don’t get used to it, when you do not explore a certain fear, that it gets scary.

“Perhaps,” Lance shrugged, then chuckled, “I’m just socially awkward. I should’ve guessed your motive for giving me the necklace when you first gave it to me.”

Eudora blushed and looked away from Lance at the comment. Lance was awkward, but as she had said before, he was kind. That was all that mattered.

*****

“That’s strange,” Miguel pursed his lips as he studied the map display on the main screen, the spectrum of shapes that resembled the area around them rotating clockwise, “I was sure the information given to me by Mithrandiel and Giordano were accurate. I’ve even seen the data myself.”

The bridge had calmed down to a normal pace, where half of the crew was now on shift. While Phalanx and Cruz were still managing the bridge, Archangel and Juno were dismissed from the bridge for their break. Mostly, it was somewhat silent; neither Phalanx nor Cruz had been a soldier of many words to begin with. Helios was somewhat glad that both of them were on this shift; he sided with Miguel, that the information given to them was accurate, and although they dropped the battle alert, they should still keep on their toes. With two of their more serious bridge officers on duty, they had more of a chance of withstanding an attack.

“We’ve already did a scan on the area, though,” Helios said, managing his own console below the balcony that held Miguel’s seat, “No sign of Neo Arcadian forces anywhere. It is a possibility that they had moved to another area, perhaps assuming we had gone in another route.”

Miguel rechecked his configurations, then said to Phalanx, “Major Phalanx, do you mind if you give me a visual of the surroundings?”

“Aye, sir,” Phalanx nodded, then brought up a visual on the screen. They had just exited the region of Tibet and already had the Yangtze, with the barest glitter of blue at the horizon. However, it was somewhat misty below the ship, slight fog. It wasn’t too thick, though; they were able to see the canopy of the forests below. On both sides of the ship were mountain ranges that seemed to stretch on before the naked eye.

“Forests…” Miguel pondered, but that was just before the ship suddenly shook violently, three sudden bangs sounded at the port side of the ship, and all hell broke loose.
bond4154
Chapter Thirty-One

Lance was jolted from where he sat as he stood up immediately, adrenaline reaching a peak point. His posture was feral, much of his posture showing feline grace with a bit of aggression in them. The hangar was full of screams as everything suddenly moved with series of concussions that simply shook everything. Eudora screamed as she was knocked off as well, but Lance quickly caught her before she came to any harm.

“T…Thanks…” Eudora tried stammering, but Lance was beyond paying attention.

“Sergeant Mendez!” he shouted to the bridges above, where he thought the staff sergeant was, “I’m going out!” Lance didn’t need to tell him that, neither did Eudora think Mendez actually heard Lance shout that, but immediately, he released Eudora from his hold (he was holding me, Eudora noticed with slight surprise) and ran to the ramp that led up to the exit of the hangar. Eudora wondered what Lance was doing without even getting into Phoenix, until a sudden streak of orange flashed by her. Looking in Lance’s direction, Eudora noticed that Lance had jumped into the air, and Phoenix opened up at the precise moment to let Lance fit perfectly into his armor before sealing up again, ready for combat in less than five seconds.

How did he and Phoenix synchronize like that? Eudora wondered. It was almost impossible, a phenomenon, she would’ve classified. Something had happened to Lance, and she wasn’t sure it was for the better…perhaps it was after that period where he went berserk in the Middle East.

But right now was not the time to ponder about this. Snapping on the personal COM system at her belt, she quickly activated a channel to Epsilon. “Major!” Eudora shouted into the microphone, “I think this is an attack! I’ll be waiting at my Type-Zero for you. Over and out.”

*****

“Status report!” Miguel demanded, bracing himself against the chair to withstand another salvo. None came at the moment, but he was shocked.

“The damage seemed to hit non-essential decks,” Phalanx reported quickly as he moved to Archangel’s console and pumped the information out of the computer, “While there were no casualties or any serious damage, part of the coolant pipe systems has been damaged. Reactor cooling has been slowed by thirteen percent.”

“Tell Majors Archangel and Juno to return to the bridge immediately!” Helios shouted at Cruz, then to Phalanx, “Why didn’t we detect the upcoming salvo earlier? What did they hit us with?”

“According to the damage, and the estimated formation they hit us, they most likely hit us with a salvo of rockets. However, they were not rocket-propelled, and did not use any detection systems. Basically, they were launched like a mortar shell. No rockets, so heat sensors didn’t pick it up. No lock-on, so the radio-wave detectors didn’t get a bite of it either. The motion sensors could’ve picked it up, but it was traveling fast, maybe too fast for them to pick it up.”

“There must’ve been some sort of heat source if they were propelled like that,” Cruz mused, “No one just throws a rocket up into the air without a lock-on and hopes to hit. We’re not talking about slingshots here.”

“Yeah,” Phalanx nodded, “I think they were probably propelled by some sort of cannon. That kind of hardware is easy to find among RPG infantry. Launching warheads at high velocities. It wasn’t too hard to expect.”

“But RPG weapons still run on a bit of heat,” Helios said, was cut off with a second salvo as the ship shook again, “Major Cruz, activate the automated point defenses and leave it at that until Major Juno arrives! Anyways, we should’ve detected the heat from the launching earlier, even if we didn’t get the heat from the projectile.”

“Well,” Phalanx shrugged and sat back down on his seat, “I think we simply didn’t get it because they’re shooting from where we can’t detect them.”

“And where is that?” Helios asked, tiring of going around in a non-direct path, but Miguel got it off the bat.

“They’re using rocket buggies and launching rockets from the forest,” Miguel breathed, “We can’t gain altitude right now, and if we go any lower, we’ll be perfect targets for the rocket buggies.”

“We don’t have any conventional weapons against them,” Major Juno suddenly said as the door opened, and she and Archangel quickly saluted, then dashed to their consoles to relieve Phalanx and Cruz of their burdens, “We have bombs, but not the port holes for them. The attack we escaped from came before the Middle Easterners can install them. Rockets can’t do a thing, because we can’t lock on to them at the moment.”

“Sir!” Archangel reported, “Phoenix has been launched! Odin is under launch preparations!”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “Tell them to take the usual positions. Phoenix will be out on the offense and Odin will take point defense.” He grunted as the third salvo hit.

“We can’t just let them hit us!” Helios shouted at Juno, “Do something, just so we scare them. If we don’t return fire, they’ll simply get bolder!”

“Sir!” Juno stuttered, fumbled at the controls, and got the chain guns to fire randomly down into the forests. But chain guns were mostly used against lightly armored aerial units, and Juno doubted if any of the rounds even hit the rocket buggies.

“Estimated attack force?” Helios asked Archangel, but Miguel answered that question.

“Twelve,” Miguel whispered, looking at the map display on the main screen, “Then twenty-four in a minute, when reinforcements arrive.”

“How do you know?” Helios asked, bewildered at Miguel’s confident accuracy.

Miguel looked at Helios intensely, with much urgency and worry in his eyes. “This is Elliot Corrigan’s opening move.”

*****

Vincent landed on the deck of the Storm of Fire as he positioned his shield in front of him and aimed his chain gun. So far, there was nothing; most of the attacks were coming from the underside of the ship. Looking over the railing, Vincent could understand why the ship continued to shake as the salvos struck against the ship; it was hard to track, and most of the attacks were launched from mortars, making them hard for even Odin to track.

“This is hectic,” Odin muttered, “I can’t even get a lock-on signal down on any targets. Whoever thought about this maneuver’s quite the genius.”

“I can tell,” Vincent nodded and looked around, “Odin, can you do a scan around the area? See if there’s anything other than the rocket buggies?”

“I’ll take a check,” Odin replied, “But it’ll be difficult. Mountain ranges on both side make it extremely difficult to get a far reading.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Vincent said as he continued to look down at Lance, trying to stop all the mortars from striking the ship, and failing. Vincent considered joining in firing down at the forest, but he figured that would only be wasting ammo; he couldn’t as much as see the enemy at the moment.

“Scanning,” Odin stated, “Doesn’t seem to be anything around.”

“Wait,” Vincent whispered. Something didn’t seem right to Vincent, yet he couldn’t feel it completely. He probably would’ve snatched it off the bat if he hadn’t been wearing armor, but his eyes had already given him a clue of what he was looking for.

“Odin,” Vincent demanded, “Check for the nearest jet stream.”

“Understood,” Odin replied, not hesitating at all, despite the confusing order, “Done. Jet stream located approximately one point seventeen miles away, headed north-northeast at seventeen degree angle, traveling at one hundred ninety-eight miles per hour…”

“Good,” Vincent cut Odin off quickly, “Scan at that location. Use everything you can. I’m pretty sure there’s something there.”

“Scanning…I…wait! Three signatures detected. Airborne units. Two identified as Neo Arcadian Seraph fighters,” Odin brought the visual blueprint of the fighters into the HUD, “One unidentified, does not match any fighter in the databank. Seems to be a lead stealth fighter. Capabilities unknown.”

“Nice,” Vincent smiled, “Thanks. Keep track of them.”

“I have to admit I got lucky,” Odin grunted, “I actually had to use an IR uplink to detect that stealth fighter. It’s very sneaky, Lieutenant.”

“Understood,” Vincent replied, “Notify the bridge about its location, and…”

He didn’t finish. Six plumes of fire suddenly appeared as flashes behind the fog and clouds, and the next moment, six rockets were streaking toward the ship. Vincent brought up its shield quickly and fired, but the rockets were much too fast as it struck the deck around him. Only one shell impacted off his shield, and Vincent felt as if that projectile almost knocked him off his feet.

“They’re using the same ordinance that is hitting the ship from below,” Vincent mused, “This is bad.”

“Three more aircraft detected,” Odin notified, “They all seem to be Seraph fighters.”

“Got it,” Vincent nodded, and aimed at the jets that allowed themselves to be visible for only a second. The chain gun rounds hit, Vincent was sure of that, but in reality, it didn’t do much damage. He fired his RAWL rockets as the eight rockets darted out of the barrels at once, but the missiles went wild upon leaving his tubes, and arched to the ground below.

“They’re using jamming devices,” Vincent whispered, “Smart bastards.”

“Lieutenant,” Odin suddenly said slowly and deliberately, “I think there’s something wrong. The shells.”

“What?” Vincent asked, looking at the holes made by the earlier attacks. What was wrong? They certainly did their damage, and nothing was unexpected about that, except…

The shells hadn’t exploded.

“Detecting a radio-wave reading from the shells!” Odin shouted, “Lieutenant, get out of there!”

Vincent did as he was told, jetting upwards as fast as possible…and the shells that had been stuck inside the ship exploded, blowing fire and scrap metal in every direction as the interior integrity of the ship took serious damage.

What made it worse was that the rocket buggies launched another salvo.

*****

“Port thrusters!” Miguel screamed, “Evade the missiles!”

“Too late!” Phalanx grunted as the missiles slammed themselves into the hull of the already battered Storm of Fire. The Storm of Fire shook violently as the screens filled with white, and it was noticeably hotter on the bridge. Below, the rocket buggies pursued as they zoomed through the landscape, firing through the forests that effectively shrouded them, while having the Storm of Fire in their sights.

“Damn it!” Lance swore and fired his volley of missiles down at the forest while using his assault rifle to shoot down the missiles. But his missiles were fired blindly, and the enemies’ missiles were small. Each one of them struck with an explosion that shook the teeth in the combatants’ mouths.

“Status report!” Helios demanded.

“Hull integrity is down by forty-seven percent!” Archangel screamed, slightly panicked, “Casualties rates up to seventeen percent!”

“Plasma cannons offline!” Juno cried out, frantically working on her keyboard, “Chain guns offline! October missiles launchers offline!”

“No response to the call for reinforcements!” Cruz scowled, “It’s just us, sir!”

“We’re practically dead in the air…” Miguel hissed, his hands clenched into fists.

“Sir,” Archangel alerted, “Aircraft approaching from both sides! Putting visual onto the main screen!”

Three pairs of aircraft approached from the left and right of the Storm of Fire as Miguel looked in time to see twelve plumes of smoke as the aircraft launched their missiles, and broke formation. From off screen came chain gun fire as Vincent, on deck, fired his chain gun in the attempt to destroy the missiles. He destroyed quite a bit as explosions dotted the sky, but the majority of the missiles made it through and hit the Storm of Fire.

“Reactor two damaged!” Archangel shouted as more than a dozen alarms blared at once, “Coolant pipes seventeen through twenty-one non-responsive! We’ve lost contact with the second maintenance team!”

“Change formation!” Miguel shouted, “Second Lieutenant Sigel, take point defense! Lieutenant Colonel Swan, engaged the rocket buggies on the ground!”

“Roger!” Lance and Vincent replied in unison, and they immediately switched position.

“This is Lei, in Neptune!” Lei said through the COM channel, “Sir, please give me permission to engage the enemy!”

“Absolutely not, Lieutenant,” Miguel snapped, “Neptune is strictly for underwater uses. You’ll only be a living target for the enemy.”

“I can at least divert the attention of the enemy, draw them away as bait. And I have a eight-barreled missile launcher meant for air targets.”

“Permission denied, Lieutenant. I cannot risk something as reckless as that.”

“Captain!” Cruz informed, “Incoming transmissions, live video feed. It’s from the enemy! Should I…”

“Put it on screen,” Miguel demanded. Immediately, the main screen showed the image of a strikingly handsome man in his mid-thirties, with a confident expression on his face. He was lightly mustached, with slightly unkempt hair that Miguel was confident Helios would pick on should the man be in the UN and be a subordinate of Helios.

“This is Captain Elliot Corrigan of the Neo Arcadian 5th Independent Defense Force,” the man said sternly, then, almost as if by an afterthought, added, “It’s been a while, Captain Miguel of the UN…I’m sorry. I’ve never quite remembered which armada you were in command of.”

“At the current situation, I’m just in command of this ship,” Miguel replied, and added, “Yeah, it’s been a long time, Elliot.”

“It’s very unfortunate,” Elliot whispered, “It seems every time we meet, fate seems to put us on opposing sides. Last time it was the account for my treason, now I’m with Neo Arcadia.”

“So you really did betray us that time?” Miguel squinted his eyes in anger.

“No choice,” Elliot looked away, slightly ashamed, “It was a different situation than you thought it was. It’s not that I dislike Reploids…you know I’m better than that. But I had my doubts about the United Nations in the first place, and they were soon confirmed. I didn’t want anything the likes of the United Nations to take control of the world, so I joined Neo Arcadia. For that, I’m sorry.”

“I guess I shouldn’t know about this, should I?” Miguel whispered.

“No, you shouldn’t,” Elliot shook his head, “Because you are a Reploid. Knowing you, if you knew about what I know, you wouldn’t want to stay in the United Nations any longer. But you’re not human, so you can’t join Neo Arcadia…so if I told you, I’d make things twice as hard for you.”

“So that’s why we’re fighting here?”

“I guess…” Elliot nodded sadly, then resumed his expression of seriousness, “As Captain of Neo Arcadian forces, I must ask for you and the crew of your ship to surrender to us unconditionally. You will land, and allow Neo Arcadian forces to board your ship for a complete takeover.”

“What do you intend to do with the ship, Elliot?” Miguel asked.

“My superiors want the ship’s data…that, and the assurance that the United Nations can’t use your ship. If you surrender, I can drop you and your crew unharmed outside United Nations waters with a lifeboat, where you will be able to escape. I can assure all of you your lives.”

There was a moment of silence as the two captains looked at each other with intense concentration, before Miguel sighed and said, “Thank you, Elliot. However, I cannot accept your request. My duty forces me to jeep this ship away from all Neo Arcadian takeover and inspection…therefore, I must be your enemy.”

“Then…” Elliot drew a breath in, then let it out, “I’ll have to destroy you, Miguel.”

“Sorry,” Miguel whispered, and broke the COM link.

There was silence on the bridge as Miguel stared at the blank main screen, and all eyes seemed to be rested on Miguel. Then Miguel realized this, and barked, “What are you all looking at me for? Man your stations!” The bridge crew jolted with surprise, and quickly went to their assigned tasks.

“Miguel,” Helios said, surprising Miguel by calling him by the name, “I would have chose to ask you this after the battle, but since we might not make this one, exactly what went between you and Elliot?”

Miguel opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head. “No, Helios, I’ll tell you after the battle. We’ll both be alive for me to tell you.”

Helios allowed himself a chuckle. “You certainly are confident for your victory.”

“I wouldn’t get anywhere without it…” Miguel began, and was cut off by another salvo of rockets, “…Damn it. How is Lieutenant Swan doing in eliminating the rocket buggies?”

“He says that the buggies are getting hard to hit,” Cruz replied, “The enemy seems to be using jamming devices, and the forest has never been a great battlefield to begin with.”

“Captain!” a voice shouted through the COM system, “This is Major Epsilon! I’m going out with Major Eudora!”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “You have permission to launch.”

“Majors Epsilon and Eudora have launched from hangar two in their Type-Zeroes,” Archangel reported, “They’re engaging the enemy.”

“Tell the Type-Zeroes not to linger too far from the ship,” Miguel said, “We need point defense now, not a good offense. They’re hitting us too hard for that.”

“Massive heat sources detected!” Archangel suddenly shouted, “It’s coming from the ground! It seems to have been a detonation!”

“What?” Miguel turned his head to Archangel, “Get me a visual!”

“Aye, sir,” Archangel nodded as an image popped on screen. The forest below the ship was now on fire, the result of a ball of fire still in the air.

“Checking data,” Archangel said rapidly, moving his head left and right, “Readings match the profile for three bombs dropped. They seem to be UN.”

“What?” Miguel whispered, “How? I thought we didn’t launch any bombs yet. Are there any reinforcements nearby? Were the bombs ours?”

“No, sir,” Cruz replied, “No reinforcements nearby.”

“I didn’t release any bombs,” Juno said, sounding innocent, “Really, it wasn’t me.”

“We don’t need emphasis on that, Major,” Helios sighed.

“Sir!” the familiar sound of Mendez crackled through the COM system, “Those two suddenly took the Type-One and went out! I don’t know what they’re doing, but I didn’t close the hangar in time.”

“Slow down,” Helios demanded, “What are you talking about?”

“Those two Privates!” Mendez replied, sounding exasperated, “They took the Type-One and said they were engaging the enemy!”

“Giordano?” Miguel whispered, then to Archangel, “Get me a visual!”

“No, not him,” Mendez groaned, “Those two kids that we picked up back at Third Haven!”

Those two kids? Who else had they picked up other than Lance Sigel, Vincent Swan, Lei Loyola, and…

“Oh, my god…” Miguel whispered, “…W…Why did they board the Type-One?”

“They said they were going to engage the enemy,” Mendez was shouting frantically, “I told those two to get out, but they wouldn’t listen!”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “I’ll deal with it.” He cut the link to the hangar as he looked at the main screen, where Archangel had already got the visual of the UN Type-One, dropping bombs on the ground, eliminating the rocket buggies. The Type-One was a VSTOL aircraft that had extremely heavy armor and ordinance. It could take much punishment from even a battleship and dish out heavy firepower in return. They were slow, however, and mostly used for defenses. It was said that in the Battle of Fifth Haven, a group of three Type-Ones had held against a forward advance of seventeen battleships.

“Sir,” Helios asked, “What’s this about? I didn’t know we had a pilot for the Type-One…I mean, who is in it?”

The crackle of the COM system gave Helios his answer. Although the microphone was on Miguel’s seat, Helios snatched it up before Miguel could react.

“Is…is this the bridge?” a male voice said from the speakers.

“This is your Co-Captain,” Helios shouted, “Who are you? You are not authorized to fly a Type-One. Identify yourself immediately.”

“Actually,” a female voice replied, “This is the two of us, not just one.”

“Enough,” the first voice interrupted, then to the bridge, “This is Privates Hikari and Major Elysium, in the Type-One. We’re engaging the enemy.”
bond4154
Chapter Thirty-Two

Epsilon knew there had been a Type-One that was placed into the Storm of Fire before they left Second Haven, but there was no pilot designated to it. Type-Ones were slow and bulky, not any pilot’s aircraft of choice. And who could be flying a Type-One? Type-Ones required a two-man crew, one that piloted and controlled the secondary weapons, and one that controlled the primary weapons.

A red status light on her HUD winked as her Type-Zero intercepted an urgent call. Keying the COM system, she stated clearly, “This is Major Epsilon. Captain, that you?”

“Yeah,” Miguel replied on the other end, “I think you’ve already noticed, but…”

“We have a Type-One in the air,” Epsilon interrupted, “Yeah, that much I know.”

“I don’t know the details, but I think Privates Hikari and Elysium are on it.”

Epsilon froze for a moment, both her body and mind. Those two kids…they weren’t thinking of trying to defend the ship with a Type-One, were they?

“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Miguel resumed, “But typically, they’re out there now, and you can do a big favor to my conscience if you make sure they stay alive.”

*****

“We shouldn’t have done this, you know,” Mia grumbled as she tried configuring the Type-One’s swivel turret to her likings in the oversized cockpit for two, each being an escape pod as well, “Imagine how everyone has to worry for us, and how Helios is going to yell at us when we get back.”

“Well,” Aden laughed as he tweaked the engine output power and stopped dropping the bombs on the rocket buggies below, “If we don’t make it back, I suppose we won’t have to face either possibility.”

“Are you saying we should die?” Mia scowled in disapproval.

“Whoa,” Aden laughed, “I’m kidding. Even if I die, I won’t let you die. So hurry up with that turret so I can start attacking the aircraft. The Storm of Fire looks pretty banged up.”

Prior to Aden and Mia launching the Type-One, the shells that had made their way to the interior of the Storm of Fire exploded, creating severe hull stress. Looking through the view screen of the Type-One, Mia could easily see the dented and torn plates of the Storm of Fire. She looked as though she would fall apart immediately, but Mia knew the Storm of Fire was a formidable battleship. Of course, she certainly didn’t want to push her luck.

“You see those?” Mia pointed at a particular point of the oversized view screen. Unlike other fighters, Type-Ones did not have a windowed cockpit, but relied on a three hundred-sixty display that showed represented an open cockpit and gave optimized view for the gunner and pilot. Because the glass is not needed, the extra space is used for extra armor, a metallic alloy stronger than class-A titanium. Which was another reason of why Type-Ones were hard to see in the service.

“Yeah,” Aden nodded, looking over, “Those must be the fighters. I guess we have to concentrate on them now, right?”

“Yeah,” Mia replied.

“Well, then,” Aden laughed playfully, “Give the order for us to open fire, sir!”

Mia looked as if she was ready to scorn Aden for his dismissive attitude, but giggled when she actually found the remark funny. “Fire at will!” she said in a mock soldier voice, which itself sounded pretty funny.

Aden keyed the chain guns and the rockets, and multiple flashes enveloped the air around them. Missiles fired rapidly from the thirty-two rocket pods on the sides of the Type-One, and the chain guns blared. Also, the rotating plasma turret that Mia controlled fired a salvo of twin streaks of blue that guided itself toward the enemy. Along with that were unguided rockets that Mia controlled. The Type-One was surely a flying fortress, with excessive ammo. Although it was only slightly larger than the Type-Zero, most of its space were used to store ammo and reinforce armor. A reason why Aden and Mia felt safe inside the cockpit of the Type-One.

Such heavy ordinance was a force to be reckoned with, as the six aircraft that had been flying in delta formation quickly broke apart into their own path. However, several of the missiles tracked a Seraph fighter that had turned to slow. All the missile got was a slight reading, and that was all it needed as it turned on the Seraph fighter and exploded. Another flash of light erupted, and a streaking path of fire appeared behind the falling Seraph fighter.

“Yee-haw!” Aden whooped as they made their first hit. Mia stared intently at the Seraph fighter, however, looking for something in particular. Her hopes were fulfilled when a white dot appeared below them, signifying the nameless pilot, whoever he was, had ejected in time. Although Aden didn’t show it, Mia was sure he was glad that they had not taken a life as well.

“Five more left,” Aden noted as he turned the Type-One their way, but there was no need for that, as the remaining Neo Arcadian fighters suddenly returned to their formation.

*****

“We’ve lost contact with the ground forces, sir,” the lieutenant manning operations reported beside Corrigan, who sat at the cockpit seat. With what remained of his air force behind him, he stared ahead, lost in his own thought, wondering how this victory could have turned into defeat. A single Type-One, breaking all their progress! Records had not shown there was a Type-One on the Storm of Fire…

But that would not matter. Miguel had showed his trump card, and now Corrigan would know what to expect if he met him next time. But now was not the time to fight; the Type-One seemed to be in perfect condition, and Corrigan was convinced even if they launched all their missiles, the Type-One would still be holding. Of course, they could launch their missiles at the Storm of Fire…but Corrigan didn’t want Miguel to die. Not yet. Fate could at least give them a parting in which they could say good-bye…

“We’re retreating from the battlefield,” Corrigan snapped orders to his crew, “Tell the recovery crew to find the survivors. We’ll assemble back at Guild Air Base.”

“Understood,” the operations officer acknowledged the orders quickly, and the Midnight Falcon changed course as Elliot maneuvered the aircraft through a web of missiles from another salvo fired by the Type-One. Not wishing to engage the enemy now, he and his forces quickly fled back into the mist where they came from, where even their shadows could not be seen.

*****

Phoenix landed at the ramp of the Storm of Fire as the armor skidded to a halt inside hangar two. Seconds later, Odin joined him and hit his retrorockets, coming to a perfect stop right beside Phoenix. Both Reploid-armors then opened their metallic casing, allowing Lance and Vincent to step out.

“Those Privates are going to…” Odin started.

“…Be in trouble when they run into Helios,” Vincent finished, then sighed, “I know.”

“Lieutenant,” Odin said slowly, “I have to admit, I was quite impressed at how you handled yourself out there. For some reason, you seem somewhat…different. The way you think and act. You knew where to look for the enemy fighters before I did.”

Vincent managed a smile. “I guess I was trying to keep my cover as a civilian when I first piloted you…which reminds me. I still haven’t apologized to you about…”

Odin held up a hand to silence him. “Enough,” Odin shook his head, “Private Hikari has already told me everything. He told me that most likely, you’d apologize to me when you get the chance, and I already have that acknowledged. So don’t make me feel like I owe you one.”

Vincent looked mildly surprised, then slightly ashamed, a mixture of feelings blending into his face before he laughed. “You’re as human as they get, Odin,” Vincent smiled.

“I guess this is where I should say ‘thank you’,” Odin grumbled as his fidgeted, and walked away.

“He loves to play cool,” Lance and Phoenix said together at the same time, which surprised all of them, before Lance and Vincent erupted into laughter. Although Phoenix was unable to laugh, it was obvious that he was amused.

“Odin’s Odin,” Phoenix shrugged, “He’s cold on the outside, but warm on the interior. A lot of people are like that.”

“Vincent,” Lei came over from the side. She had been previously been in hangar one, and had quickly rushed over when the battle finished.

“Lei,” Vincent whispered, slightly surprised by her appearance. By his dazed outlook, Lance could tell that Vincent had been absorbed a lot in battle, and didn’t blame him. They came close to death…all of them. The adversary they faced was one to be reckoned with.

“Are you alright?” Lei asked, checking him over, “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“I’m fine,” Vincent replied, the barest mark of a smile of his face, “If I wasn’t, I’d be dead. I usually push myself to hard.”

“Don’t say…” Lei started.

Her speech was interrupted by the humming of the engine that came into the hangar. The three turned to see the Type-One coming into a landing, with both Type-Zeroes flanking at the sides. The three landed softly into the hangar bay, and the engines deactivated, the wind coming from the force of the engines dying down peacefully.

Epsilon jumped out of her cockpit first, then the cockpit for the Type-One opened up, with Aden jumping out, followed by Mia. Finally, Eudora came from the other side, walking toward Epsilon.

“Major!” Aden laughed as he and Epsilon walked closer to each other, “Glad we’re still able to talk again! You’re…”

There was a sharp snapping sound as nothing but a blur appeared before Aden’s face, and Aden was suddenly looking to the side, with Epsilon’s hand in the air. It was so sudden, that none of them anticipated the sound of what seemed like a twig snapping in a burning fire, sharp and sudden. Aden’s cheek was burning crimson as Mia gasped behind him, and even Eudora seemed surprised. Lance stepped forward to break them up, but Vincent held onto Lance’s shoulder, stopping him, shaking his head.

“Let her deal with this,” Vincent mouthed. Lance stared at Vincent, then nodded, understanding, as his features relaxed, then settled his eyes back on the scene.

Meanwhile, Epsilon was turning a mixture of colors herself, pale white with shock and burning red with rage. “How…” she wheezed, “How can you two be such idiots, deciding to going out a piloting a Type-One like that? You think it’s cool playing hero? Huh? It gets real cool when you’re the one that gets shot down!”

“That was reckless,” Eudora agreed, but Eudora was promptly interrupted by Epsilon as she snapped a fist into the air, signifying her to stop.

“We…” Aden breathed, his cheek still burning red, “We’re just protect…”

“It wasn’t your turn to protect anything!” Epsilon’s eyes were cold steel, “You could’ve ended up dead! Both of you!”

Aden glared back. “We would’ve been no less dead if we stayed here.”

Epsilon paused. She didn’t expect this comeback, or any comeback at all.

“If I have the ability to do it,” Aden continued, his eyes focused intensely on Epsilon, “then I’ll do it. You have the ability to protect us…like Lance, Vincent, and Lei. But I do too, even if it isn’t so evident.”

There was a period of silence, as Aden and Epsilon continued to glare each other down. Both Lance and Vincent shifted their body slightly and silently, prepared to jump into the way if the Major and the Private decided to tear each other apart.

Fortunately, a new arrival at the hangar stopped them from fighting. Unfortunately, it would’ve been much better if the two newcomers hadn’t come.

Miguel was okay; his face was mostly mixed with concern about the two Privates. In reality, he didn’t look very put off, taking it easier than Epsilon did. Helios, however, made furious an understatement. His was a face of raw, twisted anger as he marched his way toward the two Privates.

“May I ask,” Helios demanded as soon as he got within earshot, “Why did we have two Privates up in the air in a Type-One without authorization getting themselves killed?”

“Are you two alright?” Miguel asked, looking them over.

“Yeah,” Mia replied quietly, “We’re fine.”

Miguel let out a breath of relief. “That’s good…but…”

“Putting military protocol aside for a moment,” Helios interrupted Miguel in his fury, “Your lives were in complete peril. You had no training whatsoever, and…”

It was Epsilon’s turn to interrupt. “I’ve already said all that to them, Helios. No need to waste your breath.” Epsilon had tuned herself down when Miguel and Helios came, and now she looked calm. Slightly shaken and far from cheerful, but definitely calm. Helios looked at Epsilon for a moment, then nodded, taking the information in.

“It was very reckless of the both of you,” Miguel whispered, the broke a slight smile, “But in the end, our lives were saved because of you. So I have to admit it was a pretty good flight.”

“Both of you will be facing very serious consequences,” Helios tried to keep his voice low and steady, “Even if you don’t attract the attention of a hearing committee for court martial, you’ll receive very heavy penalties.”

“But in the end,” Miguel pointed out, “It was their efforts that we’re still here.”

“That was just the conclusion,” Helios argued, “We’re talking about procedure. Their action…”

“Broke several protocols?” Epsilon sighed, “Helios, sometimes, protocol isn’t enough. When it comes to choosing between protocol and duty, which would you choose?”

“And they were acting to protect us,” Miguel added, “Such as Lance and Vincent. Now you seem to grow comfortable with them covering our backs.”

Helios paused for a moment, then acted as though something had actually made its way through to Helios. “Fine,” Helios crossed his arms and bounced his head up and down in thought, “Now what?”

“Now what?” Miguel echoed, not quite catching on.

“What are we going to do?” Helios clarified, “Our ship’s integrity is down, and we won’t be able to survive another attack. We have two Privates to deal with, now that they’ve just decided to fly a Type-One by themselves.”

“We can’t do anything with the Privates, Helios,” Miguel replied slowly, “Right now, we are in a desperate situation, and survival is more important than protocol at the moment. I know you’ll disagree, Helios, but I believe they did the right thing.”

Surprising everyone, Helios didn’t argue, or seemed to put off. Rather, he just nodded, absorbing the details coming from the mouth of his superior. “So what do you suggest we do?” he asked simply.

Miguel pursed his lips, blew air through them, then closed them again. It didn’t seem he had an adequate answer for that one, especially with the fact that they had no idea if there was another attack coming their way, and when it would come.

“We’ll proceed with our original plan,” Miguel nodded, coming to his conclusion, “However, we are to remain on continuous primary combat alert. Now that we’re approaching the Yangtze, I believe it is time for Second Lieutenant Loyola to sortie.”

“Sir!” Loyola saluted rigidly. Miguel dismissed her with a nod, and she rushed to hangar one for her sortie.

“Vincent and Lance…” Miguel whispered, “I know I’m probably pushing you too hard, but we’ll also need you two to be out there. Phoenix will fly sortie and Odin will take point defense, as usual. Is that alright with you two?”

Lance stood at attention. “Of course, sir,” he nodded crisply. Vincent simply nodded, showing his approval.

Miguel did the favor of returning the nod, as both of them proceeded to their Reploid-armors. Miguel then turned to Epsilon and Eudora. “Have the two Type-Zeroes sustained any heavy damage?”

“Nope,” Epsilon shook her head, “We didn’t really take any hits…” she shrugged and smiled, “Consider us lucky.”

“Good,” Miguel said, “Then if it isn’t too hard for you, I’d also like the two Type-Zeroes in the air, flying escort with Phoenix. I don’t want to depend everything on Lance.”

“We’ll get it done,” Eudora saluted, then proceeded to her jet along with Epsilon.

Finally, Miguel looked uncomfortably at Aden and Mia, knowing that he shouldn’t do what was tugging at the back of his mind, but it was a warring decision between conscience and survival. Miguel didn’t want to ask them to go out, but if they didn’t, there was a possibility that they could all die. Besides, the Type-One was an armored jet after all…it had plenty of armor to keep the both of them safe.

Miguel didn’t open his mouth; Aden had already done that. “We’ll do it, sir,” he saluted, and quickly urged Mia to get back into the Type-One. Miguel looked around, and found himself very grateful that Helios’ back was turned to him, and wasn’t watching the episode.

“Repair teams!” Helios barked at the hangar crew, “Salvage what equipment you get and get the armor and shields repaired ASAP! That’s first priority! Afterwards, start repairs of the weapons and engines!”

“We won’t be able to fix the engines if we’re moving, Co-Captain!” Sergeant Mendez shouted from above, suspended from a rope attached to the balcony as he was attempting to fix a sparking component of the ship.

“Then get to the weapons after the armor!” Helios replied, and added as tactfully as he could manage, “All shifts have been cancelled, but if make it the Sixth Haven, we’ll add in a little bonus for you!”

“You heard that!” Sergeant Mendez joined into the yelling, “Everyone get to work, ASAP! This isn’t a drill we’re talking about, boys, so move, move, move!”

“You’d make a fine drill instructor,” Miguel laughed as he motioned for Helios to return to the bridge with him.

Helios shrugged as he walked alongside Miguel. “To be honest,” Helios replied, “I had been a drill instructor before I joined up with the crew of the Storm of Fire. Hence my gruff nature.”

“Amen to that,” Miguel smirked, “Guess we make good work as checks and balances, huh?”

“You make us sound so self-governing,” Helios muttered, although he was obviously amused by Miguel’s phrasing of the question. The two quickly made their way of the bridge, attempting to bring confidence to the crew, attempting to take control of the situation, and praying that those two assets would not have to be tested under harsh circumstances.

*****

The private council was assembled at the very bottom basement of Sixth Haven, a private meeting room built for the highest authority of the United Nations. Dark and cold, it reflected a very shadowy atmosphere, and shadowy it should. A screen was projected in the middle of the circular table, as holographic images appeared before the councilmen.

“The Storm of Fire is coming in from the west, is it?” one mused, “I wonder what we should do about it.”

“Captain Miguel has been incompetent so far,” another grunted, “Losing in the Battle of Fourth Haven, not to mention taking so many civilians under his wing, even accepting that Intelligence Division spy into the ranks of the Military Division.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” one other man shrugged, “He has demonstrated several extraordinary results…”

“But he’ll only be troublesome if we continue to keep him by our side. Let’s not add him to the list.”

“I concur.”

“But what about the Storm of Fire? And the three Reploid-armors? Are we just going to let it be destroyed when we activate the Final Elf?”

“It doesn’t matter now. Production data has already been downloaded in Second Haven, and they’re currently making production models of it. The final step in neural-link technology has also been completed, making it possible for single-man crews to pilot massive weapons.”

“Are you sure we should really be doing this? If news leaks out about this…god! Imagine the damage control that will have to be…”

“There won’t be any leaks. The Neo Arcadians will think we’re stupid, and even if they figure anything out, our soldiers won’t believe a thing they say.”

“We’re talking about things that are in an unpredictable future. The question is, what are we going to do with the Storm of Fire right now?”

“If the Neo Arcadian fleet is right outside Sixth Haven, as we predicted, they’ll probably be sunk…but I doubt that. They’re currently northwest of Sixth Haven, not between us and the South China Sea.”

“So, instead of going around in continuous circles, why don’t we try to get to the point instead of listening to you talk?”

“What was that supposed to…”

“Enough. Let’s not let this discussion go awry. So…any suggestions?”

“Perhaps we should send a large naval force to escort the Storm of Fire into Sixth Haven. That will definitely attract the attention of the Neo Arcadians, if they haven’t noticed us right now. Besides, it would add to a great morale boost; Miguel and Helios would be welcomed as war heroes.”

“That particular morale will be blasted to nothing when we activate Zeus…I don’t see the point. If we put anger in our troops, it’ll be easy for them to avenge the ‘fallen comrades’ of Sixth Haven…”

“But they’ll easily forget what they’re fighting for.”

“Let’s deal with the issue at hand. We’ll send a large naval force to escort the Storm of Fire…presuming they’re still alive. Afterwards, we’ll have them boost morale by adding them to the banquet on the Anniversary…I’m sure that’ll be quite the public show. After weeks of fighting, I suppose they’ll welcome the rest.”

“On the second thought, are there any notables on the list so far?”

“If you’re not talking about military brass, we’re planning on evacuating Dr. Jerome Jacob, Lieutenant Colonel Fireside, and several other Intelligence Division directors…”
bond4154
Chapter Thirty-Three

“You never did tell me what went between you and that Elliot Corrigan.”

Miguel looked over from his desk in the captain’s quarters, with Helios and he separated by only a single desk. In a sense, that represented their relationship; they were close, but still separated; they were friends, but still had restrictions. Miguel didn’t know if that was a blessing or a curse. At the moment, it seemed like both.

Miguel sighed and leaned back against his chair. “Elliot Corrigan had always been ambitious,” Miguel said, “When we were still friends back at the Naval Academy, he was always trying to gain the spotlight, and impressing everyone. If he wasn’t exceptionally talented, we would’ve thought of him as a tattletale, and even that would be an understatement. He wanted everything, but not in a greedy way; he wanted a challenge to get the thing he wanted.”

“Top student,” Helios nodded, “Guys like him are hard to come across nowadays.”

“He may have been arrogant, but he was also kind, in a way. Held no grudges, and was close to his friends. Most of all, he was dedicated. Not like politicians who say what and what’s better for soldiers; he knows how to do stuff. He’s been in every part of the military, and has experience. It was no surprise that he was promoted to Captain before Atrium and I.”

“How about you tell me what happened to that Atrium you spoke of after you tell me about Corrigan?” Helios requested.

“Fine,” Miguel shrugged.

“Well, then,” Helios gestured with his hand, “Go on ahead.”

“At one point, after Atrium had defected from the United Nations, Elliot followed in his footsteps…he told some of us that he didn’t like the direction the United Nations was going though. He also told us that he would side with a third side if it weren’t just between the UN and Neo Arcadia. We didn’t know what he was talking about until we met on the battlefield.”

“I see,” Helios nodded, “What about Atrium?”

“Atrium had always been the oddball…he was always so confident and arrogant, but he was competent. His defection was less surprising than that of Elliot, but there was always a tiny detail about his attitude that bothered me. Something I couldn’t quite put a finger on, but sometimes, he just doesn’t seem real…”

“As in he didn’t seem quite human?”

Miguel seemed genuinely surprised. “How did you know?”

Helios shrugged. “It was just a random guess…you described what you meant pretty well, anyways. You’re better at language than I am.”

Miguel gave a soft smile. “I didn’t expect you to say that.”

“You don’t expect me to say a lot of things.”

“That’s true.”

There was an envelop of silence as the two pondered of what subject they should approach next. They were saved by the bell, however, as Cruz patched a communiqué to the captain’s quarters.

“Captain,” Cruz said through the videophone on Miguel’s desk as his usually serious face showed up on the screen, “I have good news.”

“Let me hear it,” Miguel nodded, and folded his hands, elbows set on the surface of his desk.

“We haven’t had a reply, but a triple check has confirmed that our distress call has been heeded by UN forces. I think we have Sixth Haven’s attention.”

*****

Adjusting the scope on her sniper, Sakura was barely visible in the fading fog that was retreating over the South China Sea, but she was hiding at a point where she could observe the enemy…and keep herself hidden.

“Sakura to team,” she said slowly as she moved her sniper in a Z formation, as she had been trained to do to detect a sniper attack, “I see the Storm of Fire…Odin on the main deck, as anticipated. I also see Phoenix…two Type-Zeroes…a Type-One. They seem to be going out in full escort. I can’t see Neptune, but I suggest we assume it is there.”

The formation seemed to be perfect. Sakura was in the air, with her new hover rockets suspending her in midair. Subaru and Lloyd hid right behind the mountains that surrounded the exit of the river. Brandon would be the bait to attack the Storm of Fire head-on, and, consequently, was positioned right in the open. Unseen, the Redemption was right underwater, ready to clean up whatever the 7th Special Operations Unit left behind.

“Seven against five,” Brandon chuckled, “I like the odds.”

“Are those odds supposed to be good for us?” Lloyd inquired jokingly. Lloyd, making a joke. That meant things were going to be worse than someone anticipated.

Brandon paid no heed to it, however. “Yeah,” he replied, “Good for us. Let’s see who gets the most kills, shall we?”

“Don’t get carried away,” Subaru said, “We want to make this fast.”

“T minus seven seconds to engagement,” Sakura warned, “Five, four, three, two, one…”

“Spread and attack,” Subaru ordered calmly as he ignited his rockets, taking the left flank of the Storm of Fire. Likewise, Lloyd matched Subaru’s pattern on the other side of the river, taking the right flank. Looking back, Subaru saw Brandon aim two disposable rocket launchers perched on both shoulders. Two plumes of smoke shot out of the barrel, followed by two projectiles, just as the Storm of Fire appeared through the fog.

The Storm of Fire that Subaru saw looked nothing like the Storm of Fire they had seen just a week ago during the Battle of Fourth Haven. The white hull of the ship was blackened with what seemed to be rocket explosions, and it was torn apart by obvious concussions and gunfire. Most of its weapons seemed to be offline, and it was obvious the generator was devoting much power to the engines.

The two rockets soared their way to the Storm of Fire, but rapid fire from the Phoenix quickly shot the both of them into two balls of smoke. Subaru and Lloyd quickly came in from both sides, assault rifles blazing, as the two of them broke through the formation.

“Lot of targets…” Sakura whispered, “Subaru, do we have any primary targets?” She aimed her sniper rifle at the Type-One and fired, but the armor piercing round didn’t leave so much as a scratch on the reinforced armor.

“Just take them all out,” Subaru grunted as Odin tracked Subaru and returned fire, then turning around to block an automatic salvo from Lloyd on the other side. Phoenix broke off after Lloyd, and from the water, surface-to-air missiles were launched. Sakura was right; Neptune was there after all. Subaru avoided the streaking missiles from below and fired simultaneously at Phoenix to impair his progress. The two Type-Zeroes engaged gunfire with Subaru, while the Type-One and Odin remained on point defense. Brandon quickly disposed of his two rocket launchers as he held his chain gun in hand and charged into the fray.

“Behind you,” Lloyd warned Subaru quickly as several missiles slipped in from the side. Neptune again. Subaru quickly shot them down as he made a mental note of himself to check the waters from time to time.

“Brandon,” Subaru said, “Get underside the Storm of Fire and see if you can flush out our mermaid from the waters.”

“Got it,” Brandon replied, and Subaru took a quick second to watch Brandon hover right above the water, unleashing his carnage of bullets and moving to another point, before concentrating back on the battlefield.

And nearly losing his breath as the air was suddenly full of missiles.

The Type-One had launched a huge cluster of missiles. Although the HUD at the corner of Subaru’s X33 was blinking an estimate of fifty-eight missiles, Subaru was willing to guess that the computer was off by a long shot. He didn’t wait to see whether or not those missiles were headed for him or not, didn’t wait to guess if they were homing. He was out of there.

What seemed like thirty missiles hightailed toward Subaru as Subaru turned away and soared downwards. Chain gun fire from the Type-One also zinged the air around him, but mostly, it was only destroying its own missiles. Subaru figured whoever was piloting that Type-One was a rookie. He was also willing to bet that the pilot would learn from his mistake fast. Or was it a she? And he remembered that a Type-One was a two-seater…

He gave himself a mental slap on the cheek. Having thirty missiles behind you is not the situation to be wondering whether the pilot has two X or one X one Y chromosomes, Subaru scorned himself. He turned around and hit his retrorockets so he glided away from the missiles while facing them. He fired his assault rifles wildly, reducing the number of missiles, before turning back around to face his descent stopping momentarily above the ground. Then, he hit his emergency thrusters as the one-use emergency thrusters hit off with a large bang, and he was propelled through the air, shortly before the remainder of the missiles detonated below him.

Even though he was quite far from the concussion, Subaru felt as though his skin was suddenly shaking off his skeleton. The pure impact along pressed against his body and mind, and for a second, he couldn’t think straight. What the hell was going on? Why was he feeling so numb? And why was there red all over his HUD?

…Red?

Subaru paused for a moment, and took a moment to lick his lips. The lips tasted something strange, and it felt as though he had licked mucus. But it wasn’t; Subaru was sure it was blood. He didn’t know how badly he was hurt; his training instructor had once said a person looking at you would know how much you need medical attention better than you do. Subaru knew what the instructor said was true, but wasn’t sure this was the right time to call someone over and ask…

“Subaru!” Brandon screamed as Subaru was suddenly snapped back to the real world, and a sharp blow from the side knocked him to the right, shortly before tracers cut across where Subaru once was. Subaru looked left, and found Brandon had tackled him to the side. The Type-One had relentlessly fired its chain gun at Subaru, and almost hit him.

Lucky me, Subaru thought.

“Thanks for the save, Brandon,” Subaru nodded, “I owe you one.”

“You’re going to owe me a lot after this one’s done,” Brandon laughed, “You feel okay, chief?”

“I’m fine,” Subaru nodded, “Sakura, how long until the Storm of Fire exits the river?”

“ETA is seventeen seconds,” Sakura replied, then added, “Subaru, are you okay? I…I saw you take some hits from here, and…”

“I’m feeling fine,” Subaru cut her off, “Alert the Redemption of her position, and prepare to cover the Captain.”

A hesitation from Sakura, in which Subaru easily cut short with a yell, “Do it!”

“Yes…yes, sir!” Sakura gulped, and quickly moved to her given task.

“Sir,” Lloyd’s voice came through the COM channel, “My area is hot. I have Phoenix, Odin, and a Type-Zero on me. Requesting some covering fire.”

Subaru prepared to reply, before three tracers shot through the air. Sakura’s sniper rounds. It was extremely hard to hit a target that was traveling well over one hundred miles per hour in the air with a sniper, but the tracers had come close enough to startle the opposition to where Lloyd had a few seconds to get back into the green.

“Thanks for the cover, Sakura,” Lloyd said as he calmly disappeared behind a few mountains, “I’ll be back in five to shake them off.”

“Understood,” Subaru nodded.

“Subaru,” Sakura said, “I’m running short on ammo. Only eight shots left.”

“Dump those eight shots quickly and then get into the green before the Redemption can resurface for you to reload,” Subaru ordered, “You’ll be lucky to hit anything other than the Storm of Fire at this fast paced scene.”

“Got it,” Sakura nodded, where Brandon charged at Phoenix at the same time with his beam saber extended. Before Subaru could intervene, both of them had locked blades, sparks flying from the meeting point and the sabers flashing intensely. They broke apart, jetted in an arc, then locked their blades again, with even more force than before. Sakura took this opportunity to aim her rifle at Phoenix and fire two shots. One missed, but one pinged off the Reploid-armor; it left a noticeable dent, though. The Reploid-armors were not invincible, Subaru knew that much for sure.

“The Storm of Fire is entering the South China Sea,” Sakura reported suddenly, “Repeat, the Storm of Fire is entering the South China Sea. Informing the Captain.”

“Alright!” Subaru shouted, “Give the Captain some room! Everyone, withdraw from the area!” The four X33s quickly jetted away from the Storm of Fire, a surprising tactic against the enemy, although they were winning slightly. It wasn’t quite unexpected, but perhaps the enemy didn’t think the Neo Arcadians would retreat so soon…Subaru hoped that they could at least catch the Storm of Fire off guard for the Captain’s special present.

From the water came a sudden eruption as nearly one hundred missiles came up from the water, rocketing upwards, before their thrusters stopped as the missiles made their way one thousand feet up into the air, then began their descent, dropping like bombs. They had no tracing signal, nor did they emit a strong heat source.

In other words, they couldn’t be destroyed by conventional weapons from below. There was nothing the Storm of Fire could do to stop them.

There was a sudden flash, as two dozen wide plasma beams suddenly seared through the air, almost instantly frying Subaru and his team, had they been too close. The beams were directed straight above the Storm of Fire, and detonated all the missiles that had been dropped at the Storm of Fire, giving them an umbrella of energy.

“What the hell…?” Subaru whispered, and turned toward what he thought was the source of the sudden countermeasure. Heading into the South China Sea from the Atlantic was a large UN battle group. Subaru counted one dozen Ulysses-class battleships, heavy battleships that were known for their heavy firepower and defense. As Subaru magnified his optics, he saw the battleships began dispatching Type-Zeroes, which quickly jetted to their location.

“Is this an ambush?” Sakura pondered aloud.

“I suggest we evacuate the combat area immediately,” Lloyd suggested.

“No way!” Brandon growled, “Even if we’re going to run, we should at least take out the Storm of Fire first! It’s right fu…”

Their argument was cut short by a priority transmission from the Redemption as the familiar voice of Captain Svivern rang in their ears. “This is the Captain,” Svivern’s tenor voice sounded too smooth to be real, “Under the current circumstances, there is nothing we can do to the Storm of Fire at the moment. Because our forces will be needed later when we assault Sixth Haven, we will evacuate the area at best speed. You are to flee to the designated coordinates that will be given to you momentarily, where you will wait for the Redemption to rendezvous with your position.” The COM channel snapped off.

There was silence for an uncomfortable moment as the X33s hung there in midair, unsure what to do. Then, Brandon.

“Well, damn it.”

“I agree,” Lloyd shrugged.

“What the hell do you mean you agree? You were suggesting we run from the area just a moment ago…”

“Just because I said that doesn’t mean I don’t want to take out the Storm of Fire myself, ******,” Lloyd replied calmly. Subaru was slightly surprised; he had never heard Lloyd insult a fellow soldier like that before.

The same effect seemed to go for Brandon, who was momentarily speechless. Just as he had prepared a comeback, tracers sliced through the air, and all of them remembered that they were still in the combat area. Odin and Phoenix fixed their aim on Lloyd, who quickly jetted from the area and disappeared behind the mountains. Subaru and Brandon silently exchanged glances, then followed suit, as Sakura dumped the last for her sniper rounds for covering ammo, and disappeared along with her teammates.

*****

A beep from Archangel’s computer signified the full retreat of the Neo Arcadian forces as he allowed himself to heave a sigh of relief. “All Neo Arcadian forces have retreated from the area, sir,” Archangel said to the Captain, “We’re in the green.”

“Attempting contact with the United Nations battle group,” Cruz informed, then added, “Major Epsilon is requesting permission to pursue.”

“Negative on that, Major,” Miguel shook his head, “We were lucky enough today; let’s try not to push the luck.”

“Inform them not to return to the hangar until we are safely within the United Nations battle group,” Helios added quickly, “This is not the time to loosen our vigilance.”

“Yes, sir,” Cruz nodded, and quickly composed his messages.

“The response…” Helios whispered privately to Miguel as he looked up to Miguel’s separate command balcony.

“Overwhelming, I know,” Miguel nodded quietly, “One would’ve assumed that we were carrying vital enemy data or something.”

“It’s a dangerous gamble,” Helios grimaced, “Save the crew of a battleship, but risk the exposure of another Haven. It doesn’t take a veteran strategist to figure out a Haven is probably nearby…”

“I don’t want to think so much at the moment,” Miguel cut Helios off, “Right now, our primary concern is the ship itself. We are running low on weaponry, and our hull has been breached. If we cannot save ourselves, there’s no point in trying to worry about other affairs.”

Not surprisingly, but unusually, Helios agreed. “Of course. I apologize for my lack of concentration on these affairs, sir.”

Miguel smiled. “It seems being addressed as ‘sir’ sounds much better when you’re scolding me.”

“Do you want it to be that way?” Helios cocked an amused eyebrow. Miguel laughed and prepared to respond, but was interrupted by Cruz.

“Sir,” he reported, “Made successful contact with the UNS Rainbow Wing, with Admiral Barton in command, audio only. Patching it through now.”

The fact that the transmission was in audio only was not surprising in the least. The Ulysses-class battleships were known for their age of service in the United Nations, and were not often properly equipped with advanced equipment, including video encryption software and hardware.

The red words “AUDIO ONLY” appeared on the screen as the familiar crackling sound was heard on the speakers. “This is Admiral Derek Barton of the United Nations 17th Armada, hailing the UNS Storm of Fire. Storm of Fire, do you copy?”

“Loud and clear, Admiral,” Miguel nodded, “This is Captain Miguel of the UNS Storm of Fire. Your voice sounds like a godsend in our situation. We have casualties, and our ship is in a bad condition. We need immediate repairs at Sixth Haven.”

“Your situation is understood, Captain Miguel,” the voice continued, “I have orders to escort your ship to Sixth Haven, where it will undergo repairs. Your crew should be prepared for a full debrief. We suggest you dock in all fighters outside the ship; divert all power to engines for reaching Sixth Haven. We don’t want any risks of compromising your reactor.”

“Yes, sir,” Miguel nodded, and the words AUDIO ONLY snapped off. To Miguel, the conversation sounded unreal. Admiral Barton had dismissed some of the situations much too quickly, merely to them to follow along to Sixth Haven. That careless could easily give off the position of Sixth Haven…easily sacrifice all one and a half million soldiers and civilians on the large island.

“Message dispatched to the fighters outside, sir,” Cruz informed, “They’re coming back in.”

“Understood,” Miguel nodded, “Give them my gratitude. Meanwhile, Major Archangel, divert all energy to the engines, and please land back into the water into the center of the 17th Armada. Major Juno, set all weapons on standby, and minimize their reactor usage.”

“Aye, sir,” both Majors said in unison and flew to their tasks.

“It shouldn’t be far to Sixth Haven,” Helios looked up at Miguel with a faint trace of a smile.

“No,” Miguel replied, with a more evident clue of a smile, “Not far at all.”

*****

“Hey, Vincent,” Lance asked as he leaned against the balcony railing of the Storm of Fire, “Have you ever seen the mainland before?”

“You mean the continents?” Vincent asked, both of them standing around on the large platform, their gaze fixed over the misty sea. They had wanted to get a good view of Sixth Haven when they got close enough for their vision to penetrate the fog, and snuck up to the balcony without permission.

“Yeah,” Lance nodded, “You know, you were with the military and all…you must’ve been in a lot of places, right?”

“The sea is a large place to be in,” Vincent whispered, “At one point, I got sick of it…sick of being in the endless blue with nothing to stand on except a large piece of metal they call a ‘battleship’…the feeling was awful.”

Lance took that as a ‘no’, although he did wanted to ask a question to make sure. But he felt the times didn’t call for it, so he refrained from asking the question. Instead, he struck up another topic.

“Hey…” Lance asked, “Vincent…that day back at Dr. Jacob’s labs…”

Uh-oh, Vincent thought.

“Why did you freak?” Lance continued, “I mean, that is so totally unlike you. Unless it has something to do with Eli, of course…but…”

“Look,” Vincent interrupted, realizing that he had just been saved by the bell.

“What?” Lance asked, turned to look at Vincent.

“There,” Vincent pointed through the mist, and Lance turned to see, “I don’t see any…”

The cloud of mist that had enveloped around the Storm of Fire suddenly blew away, as Lance covered his eyes when the sunlight blazed at his pupils.

And he saw Sixth Haven.

In reality, Sixth Haven was not much different from Second Haven. As secondary branch of military affairs, Sixth Haven had been turned into a vacation-spot like area for high military brass, which reminded Vincent slightly of Pearl Harbor, what used to be an American naval port that was completely surprised by a Japanese aerial attack.

Not to mention Pearl Harbor was the location of an unsuccessful attempt to create Eighth Haven. The Neo Arcadians found out about the project early and laid waste to the naval group stationed there to protect it.

A glowing metropolis on an island in the middle of the sea, its grandeur matching even that of Second Haven.

“Welcome to Sixth Haven,” Vincent smiled as he placed a hand over Lance’s shoulder.
bond4154
Chapter Thirty-Four

Bonaparte was one head taller than Svivern, but that did not seem to put Svivern down even the most. Throwing a hard glare at the Captain of the Redemption, Bonaparte carried a very annoyed expression, reserved for the man that was trying to win so much control over the affairs of state.

First, he decided to ignore an order for the armada to mass over toward where they believed Sixth Haven to be. Instead, he decided to pursue a single warship that had escaped the Battle of Fourth Haven, and he lost the battleship when a United Nations battle group arrived with overwhelming numbers.

Now, he wanted to send his men into Sixth Haven to spy around first.

Once again, Svivern had gotten permission from the Council of Salvation, so that Bonaparte could not intervene. Bonaparte gritted his teeth in rage as the both of them watched from the bridge of the Redemption as four stealth Aqua Capsules were launched toward Sixth Haven.

“You have amassed quite an armada here, Captain Bonaparte,” Svivern said in his usual silk voice with a devious smile, “Do you intend to take Sixth Haven with a single sweep?”

“Once we take over Sixth Haven,” Bonaparte attempted to keep his voice level, “The United Nations will only have First and Second Havens. We have a clue as to where last two Havens are, so after we crush the UN in Sixth Haven, we must hurry to strike First or Second Haven, while morale would still be running high.”

I already know where Second Haven is, Svivern thought wickedly. Instead, he simply said, “I hope you don’t intend on engaging the UN with simply sheer number. Perhaps you should consider a tactical approach.”

“That came from a Captain which failed to destroy the UNS Storm of Fire many times,” Bonaparte growled, easily aware of the obvious insult.

“That is why I sent the four spies,” Svivern shrugged, seemingly unaware that Bonaparte just gave a counterattack, “Don’t worry; they have a plethora of experience, in which I can ensure the four of them will return safely with tactical data of the island.”

“I certainly hope so, Captain Svivern,” Bonaparte muttered as he marched off the bridge. The bridge officers saluted him off, while two guards flanked off by his two sides to escort him back to his command ship, the Obelisk.

Svivern smiled deviously as the doors closed, closing off the space between him and Bonaparte. “Well,” he shrugged once again, “The villain is gone…now all we need to do is to watch the play.”

*****

“Storm of Fire, this is traffic control. You are off by two degrees; please correct your position with the updated information from traffic control.”

“Roger that, traffic control,” Phalanx replied as he started the feed on the retrorockets of the Storm of Fire and turned it slightly, allowing it to dock perfectly into Dock 14. There was a slight shuddering before the ship finally came to a stop, and Archangel killed all the feeds to non-essential systems, as to not push a badly damaged ship.

“We’re good,” Phalanx nodded to Miguel as he deactivated his console.

“There will be a boarding party coming on soon,” Cruz informed, “Admiral Barton wants to congratulate you personally on making it safely to Sixth Haven.”

Miguel nodded as he gave a sigh of relief. “Very well,” he replied, “Inform the crew to prepare for the Admiral, and patch through all the proper channels for a status update. Major Archangel, please power down engines and weaponry, and divert energy to self-repair systems.”

“Considering the circumstances,” Helios said to Miguel, still not quite letting down his constant vigilance, “I suppose we should assume shifts now?”

“Yeah,” Miguel smiled, “Tell them that too, Major.”

“Affirmative,” Cruz nodded expressionlessly, and set down to his task.

“I can’t believe we made it all the way here,” Miguel whispered as he leaned back against his seat. The last few days had drained him completely, from their escape from Fourth Haven to the miraculous arrival to Sixth Haven. Sixth Haven was one of the few places the military considered safe from the Neo Arcadian onslaught. As well defended as Second Haven, Sixth Haven boasted an automatic defense system that was able to hold off invaders for at least ten minutes, in which the United Nations would be on full alert, and everyone would be at their positions. There were also hundreds of warships, many of them constructed by the naval yards on Sixth Haven. The air force was also a considerable threat, with its enormous number of Type-Zeroes and even more impressive arsenal of weapons.

“I have to agree that we defiled much odds in this crusade,” Helios nodded in agreement, and tugged at his collar as it became stiff at one particular position, “However, now the real trouble comes.”

“Yeah,” Miguel nodded, knowing exactly what he was talking about. As one of the surviving ships of the Battle of Fourth Haven, Miguel could already expect a plethora of paperwork coming his way. Included in that workload would be a complete report as to what happened during the escape, something which Miguel can’t really lie about because there are two Middle Easterners on his ship, not to mention that he would have to write up a separate report about that too. Lastly, he was carrying a currently MIA Lieutenant Colonel, namely, Vincent Swan.

In other words, this was going to be hell.

The doors to the bridge slid open as Admiral Barton came in, flanked by guards policing assault rifles on both sides. The bridge crew immediately stood and saluted, rigid in their appearance. The Admiral studied them for a second, then nodded.

“At ease,” Admiral Barton said, and the crew dropped their salute. Barton studied the crew, seemingly satisfied.

“Well, well,” he nodded, “I’m surprised all of you have made it this far. The remaining UN forces from Fourth Haven all hightailed west back to Second Haven, and yet you chose to come here. We were surprised you even made it at all. Even if it’s a means of engaging lesser forces, the drain on supplies must’ve been massive. Tell me, exactly how did you make it?”

“I’m afraid further explanation of our journey may lead to my court-martial,” Miguel bit his lower lip in slight nervously, and drew in a breath, let it out, “I’ll reserve my right not to comment until represented in a military court.”

Barton looked appalled. “Court-martial you?” Barton laughed, “We’re not going to court-martial you, Captain Miguel. You don’t have to take everything so damn seriously.”

Miguel’s forehead wrinkled. “Sir?” he said hesitantly.

Barton regained his composure. “The UN Military Division has no more time, no more resources, and no more patience for such things as court-martials. Considering that the loss at Fourth Haven hit us quite hard, we have to keep every able man fighting the Neo Arcadians. And just because there may have been a few loose knots here and there during your escape from Fourth Haven.”

“But sir,” Miguel resumed, and unwitting added, “We are carrying two Middle Easterners who want to enlist into the United Nations, and a MIA Lieutenant Colonel…” he suddenly shut up, realizing his folly.

Instead, Barton seemed to take the information lightly. “Well, that won’t be a problem. I’m pretty impressed, Captain. You actually got some Middle Easterners to help our cause? We don’t hear that often around the campfire. And finding a MIA Lieutenant Colonel isn’t easy either. You’re a man of a million miracles, Miguel. Well, you just send the data to my data-techs on the Lucifer, and they’ll update the data in every installation that should have the data. We’ll have the Lieutenant Colonel reinstated in no time. And don’t worry about the Middle Easterners; if they want to help, we won’t stop them from doing so.”

Miguel pursed his lips. He had been nervous ever since he had entered Fourth Haven, feared that he may be subject to breaking a good many protocols, and yet, Admiral Barton waved them aside without so much as a second thought.

Barton turned as to leave, then looked back at Miguel. “You probably don’t know,” Barton smiled, “But we’re going for a morale boost here in Sixth Haven. We’ve placed up a lot of R&R for our personnel, and are pretty much holding parties, getting our soldiers relaxed and reassured for the next battle. We’re planning to launch an offensive against the Atlantic-Draconic Line next week or so, trying to take out Capital Eurasia’s northern defenses. If it turns out successful, it could be possible to construct Eighth Haven somewhere around the North Pole. So don’t bother with the regulations and stuff. Get yourself relaxed. The last few days must’ve tired you all.”

Barton saluted, awaited for the bridge crew to return the salute, and left the bridge. The sliding door closed.

“What was that all about?” Cruz scowled, “A morale boost? The Admiral himself must’ve broken about six regulations himself for suspending the Captain’s hearing.”

“Are you saying you’d rather have the Captain court-martialed?” Juno frowned.

“Of course not,” Cruz shot back, “But it’s called order, ma’am. The military wouldn’t exist if there isn’t order. That’s why we call the guy up there ‘sir’.”

“That’ll be enough of that,” Helios snapped, cutting off their debate, “Bridge crew, you heard the Admiral. Run a diagnostics, and then proceed to log in your R&R. I want the ship cleared by no more than two hours to allow the engineers to begin repairs on this ship.”

*****

When the personnel had filed out of the Storm of Fire, Lance found himself at a lack of things to do. It was a strange feeling that had just overtook him suddenly. He had never experienced such a strange longing of action in his body; this seemed to start when he had escaped from the Middle East. He certainly could’ve gone to the Hotel Imperial, the Sixth Haven version of the Gloria at Second Haven, and gotten some good rest, but that seemed rather unappealing to Lance.

What was he turning into?

He was still permitted to stay on the Storm of Fire, although Helios had suggested that he get some rest, and Epsilon backed his opinion. But Lance had lied, saying that he would check on one last thing before he went to the Imperial. They bought it, and Lance stayed. All he really wanted, though, was just a bit of time to be alone.

He opened the door to the medical bay, the light outside in the hall seeping into the unlit room inside. He closed the doors and flicked open the lights in the interior, and looked into the mirror.

As Lance thought, there had been a change. His expression seemed completely different from that of a UN student…it had been hardened, in a sense. Everything about his face, his expressions, his features, they seemed chiseled. The only thing that still seemed alive about him was his eyes…and even then, they freaked him out. Not that they looked cold and haunting, but rather, they seemed as if they were going to cry. That was definitely something that Lance didn’t expect.

“You’re still here?”

Lance turned around in surprise, expecting one of the superiors of the ship. Instead, the door was still closed, and Lance found Stephanie still in the medical bed where they had left her. She had covered herself with a white sheet, standard for UN medical uses.

“Oh,” Lance said, surprised, and groped for words, “Uh…sorry. Did I disturb your…uh…sleep?”

“I was going to get up anyways,” Stephanie shook her head and sat up in the bed, one hand rubbing her right eye, “We’re…in Sixth Haven, aren’t we?”

Lance nodded silently. Stephanie returned the nod. There was silence.

“Hey,” Lance said, “I’ve got good news…well, kind of. The UN seems lax over protocol right now, so the Captain has told me that you guys can get through without much trouble. Giordano’s already with the rest of the crew at the Imperial, if you want to find him.”

“Thanks,” Stephanie smiled weakly, “I’ll look for him later…he’s the closest one to me now, even though I’ve only known him for two years.”

Two years, Lance thought, two years counts for a lot…like the time since Eli died.

Lance had seen Eli when he was fifteen, and that was where he met Vincent. Eli was a vibrant girl who always had an optimistic but mature outlook, and was constantly a source of inspiration and healing. It wasn’t a wonder that a large chunk of Vincent’s life was torn out when she died.

“Do you have someone close to you other than the people on the Storm of Fire?” Stephanie asked, “You know…someone that may be worrying about you?”

Lance thought for a moment, then shook his head. “No…Vincent, Mia, and Aden are the closest people to me. We are all orphans, so we had to stick close together. I don’t think there may even be someone who would have noticed that we are gone.”

Stephanie stared at Lance curiously with half-open eyes, which made Lance somewhat uncomfortable. He looked away slightly. “Is there something wrong?” he asked.

“Vincent didn’t tell you when you woke up,” Stephanie replied slowly, “He said that it was unimportant, and probably incoherent…but you were muttering ‘Iris’ when you were unconscious back in the desert.”

Lance placed a hand thoughtfully on his chin. “Iris”? Where had he heard the name before? He pursed his lips together, tapped his foot on the ground for a good ten seconds. He came up empty and shrugged.

“I don’t know,” Lance answered, “I…I don’t remember anyone called ‘Iris’ or anything…”

“It’s okay,” Stephanie held up a hand to stop his worries, “I was just curious, that’s all. Don’t take it too seriously.”

Lance nodded once again, rubbing his eyes. He was tired, he knew that instinctively. His body didn’t feel it much, but his mind did…and his eyes practically screamed the message at him. He wanted to sleep…close his eyes and doze off…but he had to keep Stephanie company first, at least.

“I’m sorry to have gotten you into this,” Lance whispered, “I know I shouldn’t have…”

“Don’t be silly,” Stephanie smiled again, interrupting Lance, “I should be the one that’s sorry. I…I was the one who gave Mithrandiel the data. I never knew he would go berserk like that. He…he had always been so…so…” She gasped, sobbed for breath.

Shit, Lance thought, she’s breaking up again. He thought of doing something, or saying something, to calm her down, but his brain came up empty. His body, however, did not, as it automatically moved over to Stephanie and placed both hands on her shoulders. Both Lance and Stephanie were surprised, each for their own reasons. Fortunately for Lance, he did not show it, as Stephanie looked up into his face, a rock that had strangely cracked a natural smile.

*****

Vincent looked over the data that came into the computer installed into the lobby of the hangar entrance as he checked out what his status was going to be. He had been to Sixth Haven enough times to know where was where and what was what. Part of his duties as Lieutenant Colonel was to attend various military assemblies, open and classified, and that made him very knowledgeable to the layout of the Haven.

Very surprisingly, he had been reinstated into the military without charge or trial, not even someone that was going to check on him. He had to hack into the back channels to make sure this wasn’t some trick to catch him off guard on the case of treason, but Vincent came up clear. He was completely cleared of all charges, unprecedented for a defected UN Lieutenant Colonel.

Or a MIA Lieutenant Colonel, Vincent thought as he closed the computer, after thoroughly erasing all traces of his hacking the back channels. Closing his eyes, he sighed and pondered all the possibilities of this. Even for a morale boost, what Miguel had told him anyways, this was ridiculous. He was pretty much sure every high-ranking military officer was suspicious of him, and yet he was let go with not as much as a mark on his records. He turned around, and looked up to see someone quite familiar. Vincent chuckled as he faced the black armored Reploid in front of him.

“I didn’t think you’d make it,” Fireside smiled as he leaned against the wall of the lobby, “I’ve seen the reports. You are one acute son of a bitch, you know that?”

Vincent laughed and moved toward Fireside. “I was wondering if you were dead or not myself,” Vincent admitted, “You and Mithrandiel were dunking it out when we left. You get him?”

Fireside grimaced, shook his head. Vincent nodded silently, then said, “You going to have a seat?”

Fireside considered for a moment, then declined. “I’ll stand.”

“Suit yourself,” Vincent nodded, and sat down himself. As his skeleton settled down on the soft mattress, several bones cracked here and there, smoothened themselves out. He grunted. He had been inside the action for too long.

“He escaped?” Vincent asked, turning to the black warrior once again.

Fireside nodded silently and sighed. “Yeah. What made it worse was that he wasn’t going to hide his tail either. It was a stalemate. Both of us lost our abilities to fight when it ended…”

*****

The massive ray of light disappeared as what was left of the dune which Fireside had been standing on was transformed into a massive crater. Mithrandiel’s lower body, still in the form of the Enigma Cannon, let out cooling methane as several vents opened, and the red glow in the barrel of the cannon died down slightly. The barrel was still smoking, as was the crater that Mithrandiel loomed over.

With an enormous swipe of his wing, Mithrandiel cleared the fog over the crater, intending to get a good view of Fireside’s dead body. He didn’t get that, however. Fireside seemed alright, in a sense. Breathing hard, but still breathing, Fireside stood there, with one arm raised in the air between his body and the Enigma Cannon. Stuck onto his hand was evidently a collapsible shield…or at least, what was left of it. The shield was cracked and broken, obviously incapable of taking another hit as crumbs of reinforced titanium dropped to the ground at Fireside’s feet. Part of his wrist armor was ripped apart as well.

“Damn…” Fireside whispered as he detached the shield from his wrist with a mere thought of his subsystems, and the shield struck the crater, shattering to pieces as it made impact to the ground.

“Impressive,” Mithrandiel scoffed egotistically, but with a detectable amount of surprise and rage, “A warrior able to withstand even the blast of the Enigma Cannon.”

“Let’s put the talk aside, please,” Fireside grunted as he dropped his cracked arm, “I doubt you’d be able to fire that thing again.” He pointed at the Enigma Cannon, which was still glowing red. Mithrandiel knew that he would be able to fire the Enigma Cannon again, but that would be after it finished its cooling and reloading cycle…and when that was done, either Fireside or Mithrandiel would be dead. Mithrandiel hissed, frustrated, as the lower part of his body resumed its usual armored form.

“We seem to be on par,” Mithrandiel nodded.

Fireside gave a snort. “At least you don’t think you’re overly superior. That’s a first.”

“Take this,” Mithrandiel snapped, and his wings changed from moonlight blue to a ghostly color of purple and black. And the glow around the wings definitely signaled trouble. At this point, Fireside was out of defensive options, and he didn’t know what to expect from this attack pattern.

So Fireside went evasive.

Fireside activated his jump jets as he gave a sudden upward lurch and flew upwards, just as Mithrandiel let loose the purple aura around his wings, materialized as two balls of crackling energy. The two balls struck the crater, and exploded, expanded. Fireside expected pain as the shockwave struck him, but there was nothing. No pain, no sign of damage. Fireside was just beginning to wonder what kind of weapon that was…

…Until he started falling.

Gravity well, Fireside thought with surprise, Mithrandiel created two gravity wells.

Fireside pushed his thrusters to the max and watched Mithrandiel’s wings changed back to a bluish color, meaning he was going to fire his plasma projectiles again. To Fireside’s dismay, his thrusters were not overcoming the pull of the gravity well, and it was tugging him ever so slowly back toward the ground. He was going to have to improvise.

Quickly, he pulled an impact grenade from his belt and pulled the pin, clasping it to his hand. He took a quick look at Mithrandiel, watching the angel-like Reploid finish charging up his plasma weapons and preparing to fire, then pulled a very unorthodox move just as Mithrandiel fired the plasma.

He flipped around, and jetted himself toward the gravity wells.

Gaining immense speed, he braced himself for impact, and watched as his body and the plasma reached the gravity wells at nearly the same time. He got there first, though. He quickly guided the thrust of the rockets away from the gravity wells once again, with the extreme speed. He knew that wasn’t going to be enough to get out of the fray, though. That was why he prepared the grenade. He pushed the grenade against the ground as it detonated, giving a massive outward thrust. That, coupled with the impact of the plasma projectiles, created a massive shockwave that sent Fireside flying backwards. He didn’t make quite a graceful landing on his feet, but he was out of the gravity well’s area of effect, which was good enough in Fireside’s opinion.

He skidded across the sand, then bounced back up into the air. Taking this lapse of uncontrollable movement, he armed his gattling gun and fired at Mithrandiel. The bullets zapped their way toward Mithrandiel, then arched downwards to the sand. Fireside frowned. Did he involuntarily adjust the settings? Then he remembered. The gravity wells were still in effect. The rounds were being pulled downwards before they could hit Mithrandiel. Which meant Fireside would have to aim upwards like artillery to hit Mithrandiel.

Only Mithrandiel already had another salvo of plasma bolts headed for Fireside’s way.

With his body cracked and beaten from his escape of the gravity well, Fireside highly doubted he would survive another salvo. He could either dodge the shots, or fire energy rounds at the plasma weapons, creating enough thermal interference to send the shots wild…

No…the plasma bolts arched downwards, vaporizing the ground below, but not hitting Fireside. Then Fireside understood his only advantage so far. Mithrandiel was not used to the gravity well’s effect against projectiles himself. Fireside took his only chance. Both Fireside and Mithrandiel charged up their weapons, one using his buster, the other using his wings. Two massive auras coated the two warriors as the energy became almost unbearable to imagine.

They fired.
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