The Old, The Same, and The Usual

Disclaimer: SRatSS is © to WEP. The song 'Life for Rent' lyrics are © to Dido.

Rating and Warnings: PG-14/R

Author: Ele

Website: thanks to Silverfox for fool-proof-reading.

Chapter One.

Planet Yuma. Aboard Ramrod. Tuesday. Present Time.

I haven't really ever found a place that I call home

I never stick around quite long enough to make it

I apologize that once again I'm not in love

But it's not as if I mind

that your heart ain't exactly breaking

It's just a thought, only a thought

The old computer terminal was slowly restarting. A newer model, something like GW807, would cope with the spectre of operations much quicker than the slow, operation-limited GW227, but the mere thought of having to replace a familiar self-installed well-travelled loyal shape that never failed them in a battle by a thing that resembled a mixture of a mirror and a book gave her goose skin, and so she told Cavalry Command technicians. Some things about Ramrod she knew better.

She didn't need to hurry anywhere, at that. All the time of the world was hers. She has been alone aboard Ramrod since two weeks ago the rest of the team went on a mission. Saber would update her by sending short briefings every evening to keep her informed with useless bites of information- and even without being updated, she knew she could trust her team, their team, and needed no briefings. And, at that, the marauders must be long gone by now- Star Sheriffs remained a force to be taken seriously, even after a decade the Human-Outrider war ended.

It was a decade already, a decade that seemed like one long day. It seemed only yesterday they received an alarm call and learnt that Jesse had Cobalt Blue, and that he was desperate to use it. It seemed only yesterday the spaceship blew up, leaving a trace of dust of what once used to be the Ninth Degree, and Jesse Blue. Yes, no, she couldn't forget it.

Nobody of the team could. On starry nights, they would gather to watch the sky before going to sleep, and she could almost put a finger on their thoughts. Fireball's eyes would sparkle fiercely against the dark sky and his fists would clench; he'd sigh silently. This war was his personal war, and he lost it even though Outriders were finally defeated; this war took everything he was and everything he could ever be. Colt felt the same way though he was more complex to mind-read. He would draw his hat brim down his face to cover his eyes and only from nervous jerks of his hands she could figure out some thoughts. His hands changed, too; they grew stronger and older, more masculine. And Saber… Saber was the most androgynous member in their team. His eyes would follow the stars and he would occasionally name one or another planet in his soft pleasant voice; while one was looking at him life seemed normal. Everything seemed to be fine except for the fact that the majority of his life was spent in war turmoil and now he couldn't grow to get used to the fact that the war was over. And his condition was perhaps the worst among them all: he grew not to fall in love with any place enough to call it home because nobody knew how long any place would hold in peace; after one place being annihilated to find another one to call home and start having plans, and then see another settlement bite the dust… Homeless in their own galaxy, that's who they were. And she…

The computer terminal pager beeped announcing an incoming call. The extension wasn't that of Cavalry Command that the team members of her father's office would use. She tapped a few keys and opened a conversation channel.

'Greetings,'- said the man on the screen.

He has changed, too. It was only in her dreams that he was the same young man with boyish features, cat-like aqua eyes, and enigmatic smile. She couldn't bring herself to recall if his hands were warm or cold, but when he'd try to strangle her in her sleep, they would be always cold. She didn't care about him; she tried to erase every memory of him from every corner of her memories. She was indifferent to him, and to prove that she would answer his calls. Yet he kept coming to her almost every night in her dreams.

But if my life is for rent and I don't lean to buy

Well I deserve nothing more than I get

Cos nothing I have is truly mine

Planet Yuma. Nevada Dessert. Tuesday. Present Time.

The small fire was happily crackling, sending red and orange sparkles up in the sky. A small pot was friendly boiling, soon ready to feed the hungry campers with humble but filling supper. The silent and chilly night was peacefully hanging over the prairies and over a group of men in ponchos that were sitting relaxed around the small fireplace. Saber slowly lay back, crossing his legs on his ankles and resting his head on his crossed wrists. The starry sky was hanging over him as a silent reproach.

Flashback

When the discussion moved on, Saber was darn glad to have been asked to take a seat and even more glad to have accepted the offer.

'We can't have this report data-processed', -said Commander Eagle, tearing the paper into small pieces. –' We are not ready for that so soon. We need more time. Mass panic and pogroms are not something we are ready to deal with now, taking into consideration the current state of affairs.'

'Time is exactly what we don't have, Sir. We must act. The threat is at our door!'- Saber, for the first time in his military career, raised his voice. Commander Eagle spent a long silent moment before replying; and his reply was far from being agreeable.

'You and whose army, Saber? If we call back our troops from farming work, we will have to eat dust soon. Yuma is on the verge of ecological catastrophe, I'm sure you noticed- no rain, acid rain, fireball rain, no rain again…Ozone layer is destroyed. Populace would rather fall into the hands of Outriders, or any other alien race than starve again like they had to starve during the previous war. If there is any illusion of surviving without open resistance, Cavalry Command is left on their own. We can't rely any more on common people's support, Saber. They've had enough. We've all had enough to endure, more than enough.'

'They'll strike again. And then, there will be no place to strike again, and no need to. Outriders are preparing for their utmost move. I can feel it in my bones. Sir.'

'This,'- said Commander Eagle taking a sheet of paper from his drawer and pushing it towards Saber, - 'is your report. It'll go into our database for further processing as soon as you put your signature under it. And let's call it a day.' Commander was in no mood for further discussions.

Saber hesitated for a moment, then signed- pen tearing small bites of paper around its pen tip. His hand didn't tremble but it was his faith in something he held dear to him that was moved.

End Flashback

Planet Yuma. Secret Outrider Base. Tuesday. Present Time.

Jesse closed the extension just a second before Ramrod's radars would have paged his location, leaned back in his chair on the captain's bridge and yawned with great satisfaction of a successfully completed mission. He silently observed the 24/7 busy workers in the construction site and nodded several times in contempt: robots were doing just an excellent job constructing the ship and needed no breaks. It was enough to have only a few supervising mechanics around to check the quality of the work done and to programme a new task. In his turn, Jesse had plenty of free time at his disposal to spend as he pleased and chose to make certain external calls.

He piled the diagrams in a heap on the control panel and stood up. There was no use to keep the files locked because he was the only person on the captain's bridge, and should some robot or a mechanic set a foot in a shooting-range of it, he would know at once. Perhaps not soon enough to cease fire of the laser guns implanted in the captain's bridge, though. But, at least, now everybody was aware to remain at a safe distance, which gave Jesse extra privacy for his thoughts. He turned around.

Through the widescreen window he could observe a piece of scenery that always climaxed in the view of a sunset. The cave was a perfect hideout, and nobody could ever think of looking for them in here. If honestly, lately it felt as if nobody was actually ever going to look for them anyway, even if they'd come out of their hideout and lined up by the foot of the mountain, people would most probably wave them off and hurry to spud their cabbages. After years of extra attention, it now felt quite insulting, but cabbages were good. And Grand Canyon was a grand place for a hideout.

Jesse turned around and leaned on the railings of the captains bridge, now again facing the processes taking place in the soon to be control room of the spaceship. Everything was scheduled and proceeding perfectly up to a split second and it was obvious no inference would disturb the calm flow of work. Day by day, chip by chip, this spaceship will be completed; for a moment Jesse wondered which he liked better, constructing the spaceships or blowing them up.

Now he mostly enjoyed conversations with April, even though mere fifty-nine seconds each. When he first contacted her two weeks ago just to see her face upon seeing his resurrection, he knew she'd pick up because of the extension number but why she kept answering his calls since then was still a mystery to him. He knew she couldn't trace him to his location but perhaps she was expecting him to lose track of time and give her an extra second to page him.

And even though Ramrod's radars could page him….Jesse smirked, nodded again several times in contempt and concentrated started observing the group of robots installing the base connections and controls to the engine spot. Engine was the heart of the machine; the captain's bridge was only the brain that often issue wrong orders and the engine was the heart of it all.

He'll go and proofread the codes. But first, he'll make one short call…Just because….Just because he felt like doing it.

Planet Yuma. Nevada Dessert. Sunday. Present Time.

'There's nobody in here, compadre,'- said Colt and switched the torch off. The cave submerged in the darkness. His voice was oddly jumping from one stone wall to another in random order like a rubber ball. Saber's figure was blocking the entrance to the cave and sunrays that did manage to get through made his figure shine with aureole. Then it was sparkling bright again as Saber stepped out; Colt followed. It took them a few moments to blink in the bright midday sun, eyes slightly watering.

'Fireball?'- said Saber into his wrist-communicator; the devise buzzed, processing. Then came the reply.

'All clear.'

'Fine,'- sighed Saber, -'return to base.' Base stood for their campsite where they left their mecha. And it'd take about two days to get back aboard Ramrod since the spaceship couldn't pick them up from there or transport to any other location, at that Then, his com-link chimed.

Both men froze on the spot and exchanged looks. Only three people knew this extension that allowed them to contact any member of Ramrod team planet wide and even in the open space: Commander Eagle and April. Chances that it was General Whitehawk were low because he was in the Kingdom of Jar on an official visit and had Jarrian Special Forces to aid him when necessary. Both Commander and April could contact them via a surface extension and there was no need for a global link call. Trouble. Saber's heart leapt. Outriders have made their move.

The com-link kept beeping. Saber opened the channel and a small hologram picture sprung up on his wrist; even though small, it was enough to twist their faces and the face of Fireball who was rejoining the team.

Star Sheriffs kept staring at the hologram in total disbelief and thus could hardly grasp what the caller was saying; only separate words stroke their ears: something, aboard, now…; that made no sense.

'How did you know this extension?!'- roared Saber Rider, -'did you hack the satellite?!'

'I said, it doesn't matter,'- replied Jesse, starting to lose his temper. He made this call at his own risk and didn't want to spend extra time on meaningless explanations of the obvious; this interrogation…–'I said, something happened aboard Ramrod and you must return now!'

'As if we're gonna believe you, traitor!'- shouted Colt, -'this time you're not gonna lure us into one more trap of yours!'

'Hurry up, you fools! April might be in danger!'- exclaimed Jesse, furrowing his brows.

'I get it,'- said Fireball, -'he want us to lead him to Ramrod so that he can finally lay his hands on it.'

'If I could lay my hands on it,'- hissed Jesse, -'I'd chop it and sell to second-hand metal workshops because in its present condition it's good for nothing. Just, as a matter of fact, all of you three. But April can be in danger while we're trying to bite each other's throats via distance, which is quite impossible if you just could use your brains a bit, which is, I take it, also quite impossible. I'm just telling you Ramrod's been in non-contact for the past twenty-four hours.'

The extension closed fifty-six seconds sharp. The three Star Sheriffs kept staring silently for a long moment at the spot where the hologram took place.

'Have you contacted April?'- asked Fireball, still not taking his eyes of Saber's wrist, -'When? Any of you?'

'Last contact session was twenty-eight hours ago, and the next one is scheduled in next ten hours since we agreed there was no need to brief her every night until we find something substantial,'- replied Saber Rider, palming his forehead. His temples went on fire.

'Maybe she went shopping…'- Colt shrugged his shoulders and then snapped, - 'no, you don't want to believe that turncoat! He's lying! Why else on earth would he contact us unless he's schemed another plan of world takeover?' It seemed one minute more and Colt would start stomping his feet like a capricious child, trying to prove his point.

'Ramrod's coordinates are safe and known only to a few reliable people, Jesse wants us to expose ourselves so that he can finally get rid of us once and for all in one single blow,'- said Fireball. –'I'm not believing his words!'

'I'll page April just in case,'- said Saber, -'now when Jesse showed he's alive and kicking, she should be careful and watch out.'

'I don't like it,'- said Colt, eyeing Saber-'are you trying to tell us something we don't know, partner?'

Sometimes, hot-shot and quick-tempered Colt was so logical it scorched, thought Saber.

'If there's something we should know, out with it,'- insisted the cowboy.

'All right,'- said Saber, -' here it goes…'

Planet Yuma. Secret Outrider Base. Sunday. Present Time.

'Idiots!!!'- roared Jesse and hit the control panel. The machine thudded and sensitive sensors started beeping like crazy, as if a massive energy blow has just been released. The robots remained unimpressed since it was no command they were programmed to receive and perform, and mechanics were too far from the captain's bridge to hear him. And even if they heard him, they'd take that personally and most likely agree that it was really so. Commander Blue tolerated no back-talk.

April wouldn't answer his calls for the past few days and that was driving him nuts; he received extra instructions and extra materials from his authorities about the spaceship design to look through and that kept him occupied for the past eight hours; he couldn't remember the last time he slept…She might have stopped answering his call because she grew sick and tired of him already, but when he hacked the codes of Yuma's primary importance and sent her text messages under the assumed names of Saber Rider and Commander Eagle, and when even those were left unattended (while Ramrod's incoming mail system sensors must have been beeping like crazy), Jesse got scared.

Well, initially he didn't really care about if something, preferably bad, would happen to Saber Rider, Colt or Fireball. He knew Saber could manage to find the best way out of any emergency situation with his inborn intelligence of a pedigree, Colt could crawl back from the deepest black hole in this or any other universe, and Fireball was so insignificant that a trouble would walk around without bothering to happen to him. That's why they made such a great team together. But April…April was a completely different thing. She was alone aboard of a vehicle that had space weapons unfit for a fight on the surface, and surface guns were of limited recourses (he had a substantial rapport about that), plus the spaceship was crippled.

That was the sad truth about the glorious Ramrod Equalizer Unit, so bittersweet for a piece of revenge. After the last collision with Cobalt Blue- II, the engine of Ramrod was devastated. Blown, burnt, torn out with guts and spread all around the planet, fit for nothing even if assembled into one piece again. The big machine could only crawl but not fly.

Now what if Nemesis spies located the target and now an annihilations quad was launched for attack? Nemesis knew how much Jesse wanted to take Ramrod apart even if he would have to do this with his own two hands, this symbol of all kinds of humankind victories, but at the same time Nemesis was no fool. The Ninth Degree could objectively evaluate the situation and find personal matters interfering with a mission. He had enough warlords to send to lead the attack. Shivers went down Jesse's spine.

He thought he had no feelings left for her but now he didn't know if it was true; he didn't feel so sure about anything now. When he thought of her, an image of a beautiful woman appeared in front of his eyes. He'd close his eyes and try to listen to the pounding of his heart: was it regular? If he still loved her, how would he know? Love, no, passion was bygones. Then he suddenly grasped the reason beneath his tremor: it was not a fair fight.

That he, Jesse Blue, Supreme Commander of Outriders, would worry about a fair fight…

While he was crying over the spilt milk, something happening aboard Ramrod and this sate of unknown affairs was eating him alive. He liked to be in charge of the situation, any situation, and the fact that he was lacking vital information for his next step was too much he could bear.

The only thing he could do now was…

Planet Yuma. By Ramrod. Friday. Present Time.

'I can't believe it,'- said Saber. None of their entrance codes or the master entrance code could operate the door to let them in. The red lamp was angrily winking, refusing to let them pass. They were standing by the entrance covered in travelling dust and dirt and feeling idiots.

'Maybe she changed the codes? Or somebody from the office did?'- wondered Fireball. Colt shook his head.

'Both would have let us know, compadre, - said Colt, - 'it's something else.'

'I don't want to be the one bringing bad news, but maybe Jesse was right?'- said Saber, picturing a pool of blood on the other side of the door. Perhaps April was lying just five feet from them, her life melting as they spoke? He shook his head, brushing the thought off his mind. -'He seemed honestly worried.'

'Any good actor would. Don't give into slippery temptation to trust him, Saber,'- said Fireball. –'And stop being paranoid.'

'I'd better call Commander Eagle,'- said Saber, tapping his com-link.

'Yeah, and tell him what?'- frowned Colt,-' that we've lost the keys? Don't be silly, Saber, he'll die in a laughing fit. It must be some bug in the system, or something.'

'Yeah, Colt's right, - agreed Fireball. –'Let's try to handle this by ourselves.'

He squatted down and started carefully examining the shut door split, even though he knew it was not a mechanical problem. Somebody, for some reason, has changed the codes without letting them, for some reason, know. Them, yes…But! When he stood up and turned around, Colt was already in his mecha.

'It slipped off my mind,'- smiled Saber.

'Happens,'- Fireball shrugged his shoulders.

'Not a nice welcoming after the hardships of a mission, though. I hope we get to eat something hot and not primarily tinned.'

'With April's understanding of a proper meal, that's' something you take out of the freezer and heat in the microwave for ten minutes. I'd rather enjoy a hot bath…'- the door rose open as Fireball uttered his final word: every mecha of theirs had an installed code rewriting mechanism, meaning if the major code of the entrance door changed, they had a code generator to generate the correct code upon arrival or leaving the spaceship on autopilot. To make a long story shorter, Ramrod could leave outside the team members but not the mecha, the property of Cavalry Command, that could be assigned to new crewmembers or dealt any way Cavalry Command officials saw handling their best investment. One ridiculous situation solved another ridiculous situation.

Saber sighed loudly in his mind when the movement-sensitive lights lit up in the clean corridor. The sensors and close-circuit cameras have already transmitted the fact of their arrival to the control room but there was no voice coming from the loudspeakers to welcome.

'Is that air-conditioning malfunctioning?'- wondered Fireball. Only now they took off their helmets and ultra cool air started drying the drops of sweat on their faces and red colour of the face soon gave way to normal one and then their nose tips started turning bluish.

Ramrod was as cold as a morgue.

End Chapter One.

To Be Continued.