CHAPTER 1
Finder's Keeper's

Snow fell slowly on the ice plains, adding an extra layer of thickness to the sparkling endless white blanket, muffling the crunch of ice under tread, merely white noise to match the view. The sky was dark as almost always, covered with heavy gray clouds, only the thinnest rays of sunlight making their way to the ground below. The mountains rolled on in the distance, jagged black rocks sticking up out of an endless flat white horizon. Static spiking from the communicator in my hat, broken by the faintest sounds of someone talking made me shake my head in slight surprise, having been lost in thought for some time. These lonely missions into the barren plains offered a lot of time to reflect. I slowed my snow cycle to halt, placing a hand against the receiver in my ear. "Matt here, almost to the post. How are things on your end, Sam? Anyone come knocking yet?"

More static.

I inhaled slowly through my nose, pulling the goggles away from my eyes, the sunshine still blinding without the tinted blue plastic. I grabbed my machine gun out of the holster under the seat and threw the strap over my shoulder, sliding off my snow cycle and starting to wade cautiously through knee deep snow to the edge of the ruins nearby, skeletons of a village once skimming by on the barest of necessities. My feet caught a piece of rubble hidden in the fresh powder, stumbling for a moment before steadying my steps, leading me up to a small orange light reflecting against the pale concrete, an out of place beacon in the middle of a destroyed settlement. My gloved palm rested on the firearm at my hip, keeping it awkwardly ready just in case. I never liked having such an imprecise gun with me… I had a nice rifle until a few days before; kinda old, but it worked like a charm, right up to where the barrel cracked in half when I fired it cold. That'll teach me, I guess.

I heard a few words cut through the static. "…sti- no sig-…copy?" I pursed my lips and brought up the data pad on my wrist, tapping a few keys to set up the link back to the trailer and the data post activated, glowing bright orange as the antenna extended and the casing closed up, humming and radiating heat from its casing as it transmitted back to the trailer. I smiled again, leaning back against it, bathing against the warmth of the beacon and placing a hand against the headset. "Copy me now, Sam?"

Sam's voice came cutting clear through the static, "Loud and clear. About time too, thought I lost you there for a minute, when you went all quiet."

I rolled my eyes and chuckled quietly, shouldering my gun, which had been slowly slipping down again. "While it's not like you could hear me in the first place, can't a guy have a moment to think?"

"You, thinking? That's just a recipe for disaster."

I rolled my eyes, jumping off the second floor into three feet of snow, wedged in to the point my lower body stuck for a moment. I twisted and pulled, grunting as the icy grip gave, letting me trudge back out to the snow cycle. "Oof… Well…" I panted out, tugging at the thick bit of cloth around my neck, trying to cool off from the effort, "I'm coming back. ETA… 'bout 25 minutes."

"Keep an eye out for Akrid."

"Copy that, I'll let you know."

I revved the engine, feeling the treads slip a little, then grab snow, pulling me forward a few feet. I slid the goggles back down over my eyes and hiked up my mask an inch more over my nose. I pulled on the accelerator, and snow flew into the air behind me, the powder blowing away into the wind.

Always cold, this damn place was. Even when it was sunny, it was as cold as death. The wind bit the little skin that was out in the open, cutting straight to the bone and burning anything in between. I kept my eyes moving, watching for the movements of Akrid, the large insect-like natives of our snowbound home, E.D.N. III, or other Snow Pirates like ourselves, humans that left the safety of the domed cities to try our luck out in the ice. Then Sam broke my silence. "Still alive?"

I slowed to a halt, something having caught my eye. Something shiny. I pressed a hand to the receiver over my ear. "Stand by, Sam. I found something, wanna check it out."

"Be careful. You remember what happened last time."

I huffed through my mask. "I stand by the fact that Akrid lying down look just like puppies. I'll contact you in a second, Matt out."

I removed my hand from the receiver, climbing off my snow cycle and placing a hand on my machine gun, holding it up to eye level. I crouched low, making my way down a hill as quietly as I could through the knee-deep snow, glancing nervously about. Out on the frozen steppes, you can never be too careful, and I could feel my heart beating rapidly against my chest… this didn't quite feel right. I got within twenty feet, and not daring to get much closer, I threw my trusty screwdriver. The loud sound of metal on metal calmed me immediately, along with several long slow breaths. Snow had piled up all around whatever this metal chunk was, leaving only a smooth, glinting black bit exposed. "My lucky day."

Deciding my vague silence had gone on long enough, Sam's worried voice made me jump, clapping a hand over the communicator in my ear. "Matt, what is it? Everything alright?"

"Holy crap, Sam, stop being so nervous! You know if I'm getting shot at, I scream."

"Fine, but if you ruin that bike, you realize how pissed Rose'll be?"

I rolled my eyes again, starting to dig. Rose was the third member of our team, the dedicated engineer. We'd picked her up only a month or so ago, but she easily was the best mechanic of the three of us. Easy on the eyes too, I suppose, but a personality like a lit firecracker that you couldn't see the fuse on. She always got angry when I misplaced a piece of equipment, or got lost for a couple days, and I always seemed deserve a stern talking to when I got back. But this thing in the ground, if I could dig it up and drag it back, I'd be a hero! "It looks like a vital suit."

"Someone left a VS out there?" Sam paused for a moment, before crackling back in my ear again. "Spare parts for Rose; she'll be happy for once. Think you can haul it back, or should we start on our way there?"

I kept dusting off and digging away what I could, trying to find a release, or a button to open the cockpit of the VS. "I'm gonna try and pop the front door, hang on a sec." The whole thing was painted glossy black, to the point it was almost creepy seeing yourself in the polished surface. The only part that wasn't painted was a single sensor bar on the 'head'. I stood up, scratching my head a little as I pondered the way to get in. Maybe it was a passcode? If it was, there was no chance of getting inside without a heat saw. Flexing my freezing fingers inside my mitts, I continued to stare down at the shining exterior. Doubtful it was anything remote controlled, at this size. I pulled my damp gloves off, shoving my bare hands into my jacket in hopes of getting some feeling back.

"What the-?" The radio suddenly went into white noise, a mess of squealing and static, and then came back with the sounds of mayhem; explosions and circuits crackling all around on the other end. "Matt, we've got Crim-...s! They're...-cking!" Another explosion and bullets rattling on the hull of the trailer cut through Sam's last transmission. "We nee-...help!"

My breath froze in my lungs. Crimson Pirates… The only vital suit we had was in our trailer, which was under attack. My snow cycle, even though it could change into a walker, would be totally useless in a firefight if the Crimson Pirates had their own VS's out and about. My mind was racing, but then my eyes pointed something out that gave me the slightest inkling of a plan: the thing I had just uncovered. It looked like a VS, but the overall construction looked much more human in design. It had fully mobile arms, with weapons already attached. I started digging again in earnest, gloves cast aside in my fury, but as soon as my skin made contact, a whirring started up under the snow. As though responding to my touch, the head lit up, sensor eyes roving the sky, as the dented chest panels creaked and groaned, finally popping open and pulled back to reveal its cockpit, revealing a single seat perpendicular to the ground. I turned around and slipped inside, falling into the cushioning. Again, responding to my touch, it closed the hatch doors, and a screen lit up before me, along with a control panel, orange holographic displays flaring to life all around me, showing 180 degrees in front of me. A female computerized voice spoke, her pleasant voice echoing a little in the space, but not obnoxiously so. "Welcome, new pilot. This is the prototype battle suit known as SHD-00. You may call me HARLIE. How can I assist you? Perhaps you would like to start with the tutorial."

I sat, looking over the control panel in front of me: a holographic keypad and touch screens, coupled with a physical pair of joysticks. I pulled on the joysticks, trying to get the damn thing to move, but I got some grinding gears, whirring motors and no movement. Getting angry, I shouted at the screen, "You can assist me by moving. Right fucking now!"

I felt the cockpit rumble, and as I watched through the monitor, I saw stiff mechanical arms shifting in and out of my field of vision, snow falling off as they moved for the first time in a long time. "Testing all dragfins and actuators for damage. No significant damage. Transferring all available thermal energy to control systems. Warning: Reserves low. Warning: Life Support offline: Keep warm, please." I heard panels on the arms and legs clicking about, and at this point, I was feeling just the smallest bit impatient. I grabbed both joysticks, and pushed them forward hard, pressing a thumb button in my haste. I heard the computerized voice say, "Main boosters activated, please hold on."

There was a loud roar, the build-up of power in an engine. I tightened my hold of the joysticks in front of me; the sensation of being forced back against the wall was immense, almost like it was trying to take off. I saw a massive hunk of ice close in on the computer screen, its jagged edges showing in sharp relief and speeding right toward me. "Warning: Collision imminent."

I pulled back on the controls, and hit the boosters again. "Warning: Heat overload."

"Damn, you get annoying fast!"

Flying through the air, I saw my trailer below, pieces of it scattered about on the ground below the cliff I was on, a small squad of Crimson Pirates standing around the hangar doors, waiting to set charges. "Harlie, you have radar, right?"

"Affirmative. I have six different sensors, each spec-"

"Fan-fucking-tastic. Paint those Vital Suits so I can keep track of them."

"Task completed." Red markers flashed up on the screen, indicating targets on the VSs. The roar of the booster stopped, and the VS free-fell to the ground, landing with a loud crash, the impact making a crater in the powder, its knees bending to absorb the shock, a plume of snow surrounding my VS. I caught chatter from the Crimson Pirates over the cockpit radio, holographic displays popping up in my periphery with waveforms as they started yelling in surprise, "What the hell is that?" "Is that even a Vital Suit?" "What the hell! Shoot it!"

Shells rattled against the hull as I pulled hard on each of the control sticks in front of me, trying to learn the controls and look around for something that indicated a firearm or a heat saw or something, anything to fight back with! Getting frustrated, I slammed my hands on the control panel, yelling, "Doesn't this thing have any fucking weapons?"

"At these energy levels, I am able to use the Gatling gun and heat blade, as well as shoulder mounted missile pods. Which would you like to activate?"

My engineer's curiosity overcame my anger for a moment. "A heat blade?"

"Blade activated."

"Hold on! I didn't say I wanted that!"

The left arm swung up, creaking and groaning into the suit's field of vision, one of the arm panels popping up to reveal a hexagonal device, a strange cyan beam of rapidly pulsating energy shot. The boosters fired quickly, charging the nearest VS, slicing it up the middle. The robot body sparked at the spot where Harlie's arm had passed, and then the two halves fell away from one another, smoking for a moment as the pilot dived out of the shredded cockpit. A bright yellow flare lit up the view screen in front of me. "Whoa...one swing... and it cleaved the thing in half?"

"Affirmative. The heat blade was designed to be used for quick close combat; however, there are several known metals and electronic counter measures to be able to disperse the blade, which is why it was not approved for mass production."

The Crimson Pirates continued to fire, but the computer seemed to be one step ahead. The sound of shots ringing on the hull was suddenly absent as the boosters fired in quick succession, sliding over the battlefield, leaving me to worry only about when to strike. "Harlie, just what kind of program are you?"

"I am a prototype artificial intelligence, designated Human Assistance Relay Life Input Engine."

"Damn, that's a mouthful."

"You may say that again."

I stared at the control panel, trying to understand how an AI could make a joke, even if it was a bad one. The VS came to rest, and HARLIE spoke again, "All Targets and Points of interest have been destroyed. Remaining enemy targets are retreating. Objectives complete."

I whooped, doing a victorious arm pump, when I heard a wavering female voice come in from the outside, projected by the trailer, "Target VS, you have 10 seconds to move away from this trailer or the guns on this thing will fry you, no matter how fast you move."

I blinked a few times, surprised by such a negative reaction. As realization dawned on me, I peeled myself out of the seat, saying, "Harlie, open the cockpit, willya?"

"Certainly." The VS set down on a knee, opening the chest panels, revealing the sunlight through the brief dark of the cabin when the console lights had turned off. I stepped out into the relative brightness, shielding my eyes and a wide grin plastered across my face. Rose's voice came in over the loud speaker and my earpiece this time. "Matt!"

I jumped down into the fresh snow, trudging through towards the trailer. Rose and Sam came charging out the wrecked bay doors, almost tripping in the fresh snow. I laughed and picked up my pace slightly, catching both of them in a bear hug. Rose pulled out of the hug, punching me in the arm. "Matt, you bastard! You scared the crap out of us with that black VS."

I glanced over my shoulder. Its likeness to a shadow really was uncanny, even a bit off-putting if you looked at it too long. Like staring at something that wasn't supposed to exist. I shrugged my shoulder, jerking a thumb back at the VS, trying to sound casual. "This old thing? Ah, I just found her lying covered in snow."

Rose's focus had shifted from me to the VS, as Sam smiled back at me. "Well, lucky for us you did! Half the systems were about to go critical when you dropped in." I chuckled, turning to Rose, who'd edged a few steps closer to the machine, and I caught an all too familiar glint in her eye.

"Oooooh, no, you aren't."

"What? I didn't say I was gonna take it apart!"

I smirked and tapped my temple, narrowing my eyes suspiciously at her. "But you were thinkin' it."

She leveled a look of indignation at me, her hands on her waist, though her right crept down to the tools hanging off her belt. "But... But...it'd be nice to have more of these things! I could learn how to build it! I so totally could!"

I stood there, shaking my head, still grinning. I turned to Sam while I held Rose securely by the collar to keep her from getting at Harlie. "How long until the trailer's fixed?"

Sam grimaced as he looked over some of the damage from a distance. "Well...totally fixed, with plating reattached, displays, turrets, and treads replaced, and bypass all the ruptured conduits and all? Probably ten weeks, on the low end? Maybe seventeen at the max."

I sighed, letting my head sag slightly. Wonderful... My grip slipped on Rose's jacket, and she made a bolt through the snow towards the VS. I lunged after her, grabbing her by the foot, managing to tackle her into the snow, and pulling her back towards me. Hoisting her over my shoulder, I turned back to Sam, who was shaking in silent laughter. "Shut your cakehole. How long till we can get moving again?"

Sam got himself under control, saying, "Well, considering the worst damage they did was to our power distribution, we could drive blind in maybe five hours?" He folded his arms across his chest. "Though we won't be able to go far with half the treads gone."

I nodded, hoisting the squirming Rose into a more comfortable position on my shoulder. "It'll do. I'd say get Harlie inside and charged, then get right to repairs on the engine." I patted Rose on the outside of her thigh, earning a sharp swat on my head. "Me and this one'll go get started on that power grid."

Sam raised an eyebrow as I took my first step toward the trailer. "Okay, so...How do I move that thing?"

I paused, my eyebrows furrowed in thought. A grin slid onto my lips, snow crunching up to my knees as I made my way back to the trailer. "Just ask nicely."

The warmth from inside the trailer hit my face like a soft kiss as the door hissed open. I sighed, smiling. "Feels good to be home."

Something hard and metal clonked me on the head. "Put me down, jerk."

I set Rose down, closing and locking the exterior door and rubbing a palm where she struck me. She glared at me once more, and then walked over to the nearest conduit, placing her wrench on her belt again. I smirked, walking into the briefing room. Panels inside sparked all around me, two of which had been shattered in the blasts. I walked around the center display, running my fingertips over exposed wiring and shards of glass, picking up a fallen screen and turning it over, inspecting it closely. "What a mess... I'm surprised any of this is even fixable."

"Well, then you should be glad we're all capable mechanics here."

I turned my head to see Rose leaning on the doorway. I smiled ruefully, mumbling mostly to myself, "True."

I think I caught the briefest glimpse of a worried look as I turned around, but by the time I was facing her, she was closed up tighter than a clam and wearing a frown to boot. She shot me a glare once more, saying, "Jerk."

I raised an eyebrow, thoroughly confused. Shaking my head, I started to explore any cut wires behind the broken panels. I tapped a communications panel on the wall, getting back only static and a couple of fresh sparks. Busted, like everything else. I placed a hand on my earpiece. "Sam, do you copy?"

"Read you loud and clear. Pretty advanced AI you've got in there. Bit of an eavesdropper, though. She said hi when I got in."

"Yeah yeah, Harlie's a prototype battle AI, or something like that. Listen, are you in the engine room? I really don't want to be sitting here when those pirates come to find their friends."

"Just got here. It's not as bad as I expected, but the drive core looks like it took a pretty bad surge. It's gonna be slow going for a while."

"As long as we're going." I tinkered with a wire, testing the connection to another, continuing to talk to Sam. "Any clue what's up with Rose? She's angrier than usual."

"We did just have half our trailer blown to bits."

"True, but that's not really my fault, is it?"

"Like that matters?"

I gave him a noncommittal jerk of my head, though it was fairly pointless, as he was down in the engine room. I connected a pair of wires, and sparks flew everywhere. I looked at the screen to my right. "Nothing...damn."

I stood and rested myself on the console for a long time, letting Sam's talk go through my head. This place blows... I thought. I tapped the console a few times, lost in thought, letting the sound of my tapping echo through my head. Tightening my hand into a fist, I smashed the plating above the screen. Sparks flew, and the briefing room burst into life for a few seconds before burning out again, giving me enough time to check all of the systems. "Satellite map and heat chart, both completely gone. Wonderful."

Rose's voice echoed through the trailer, "We've got another conduit burst! Deck 2, section F!"

I raced out of the briefing room, up the stairs two at a time, I found Rose trying to weld shut a freely steaming pipe, waves of heat emanating off of everything as the water in the air all around evaporated, "Are you insane?!"

Grabbing a wrench, I twisted a close valve on the piping, and the steam stopped. She looked up at me as though startled, though I couldn't see her eyes through the goggles. I turned on Rose, glaring at her. "What the fuck is your problem? That steam could've boiled your skin off! That's not something I should have to tell you, Rose!"

Rose turned back to the piping, finishing the job. She turned to me, who was still standing there, still glaring at her, about ready to shake some sense into the girl. She peeled her goggles up from her eyes, she was glaring right back at me. "Conduit's fixed, asshole."

Taken slightly aback by her response, I let her walk past, still staring at the spot she had been a second ago as though it were crazy. Recovering from my shock, I looked down the corridor after her, still extremely puzzled.

Sam walked up behind me as I stood frozen, his hand resting on my shoulder. "Shoulda seen her when the Crimsons attacked. She's been in a fire-fight before, but I think you being out when they attacked really worried her."

Coming out of my trance, I snapped at him, "What are you, my psychiatrist, now?"

Sam shrugged. "Just trying to help."

I glared him down for a moment, before stalking off to go restore power in the cargo bay, the one place I knew I could find peace and quiet here. I opened the door, and was frozen in place for a solid minute. The whole place was riddled with holes in the walls, black impact marks on the opposite walls. And my suit... My old VS was completely wrecked, as though the Crimsons had made it a point to blow every piece that might have been repairable into even smaller shards. The hull behind it was smeared and splattered with its snow white paint like blood splattered on a wall. I kneeled down, picking up a piece of white paneling, running my fingers over the scarred metal, eyes closed. The frustration of the day came flooding back to me, and I let out a yell, hurling the broken metal at the nearest wall, reflecting off, but marring the wall no less, leaving a streak of white paint, clattering to the floor. "Heard something crash back there. Everything okay, Matt?"

I breathed heavily for a moment, until I saw the black VS resting in a sitting position against the wall. Taking a final deep breath, I put my hand against the receiver. "Yeah...Yeah, Sam. I'm good."

I sat down against the wall, looking out one of the unbroken windows at the top of the hangar bay. My mind slowly drifted from repairs, and became drowsy, the excitement of the afternoon slipping away with the fading light outside. ...This place blows...