Kaiden III Battlegroup, Tetrarch 13, near Star of Heaven

Central Mid-Childa, approximately 540 kilometers west of Clanagan.

9-472-004M42

"Confirmed visual on Star of Heaven. Nothing looks amiss."

That much was obvious. The wrecked ship loomed up in the windows beneath them, sitting lopsided in the kilometers-long trench its impact had torn into the ground. A blind man couldn't miss it. And aside from the fact that it was on the ground, no, Harrian supposed that there was nothing obviously amiss.

"Aetheric Fluctuations Decreased 57% Percent From Projected Values... Rad-Census Results Are Reduced… Thermo-Scan Inconclusive…" The nav-servitor droned. "…All Auspex Indications Of The Warp Generator Are Negative…"

"The rates must have shut it down…." Harrian concluded. She couldn't say she was surprised they tried it, lacking the insane surety of the Korps as they did, although she wondered how a gaggle of slaves had managed such a task. Of course, they'd all have to die – not only had they disobeyed orders, but they'd also sabotaged their efforts to put a bit more hurt on the witches, and destroy a potential soft spot at the same time. She scowled, scrupulously showing no more sign of her thoughts, and pretended everything was going according to plan."It's just as well. Take us in."

"Yes milady. We'll need to dock on the other side. Ronal! Steady on the thrusters, I want a solid approach!" The skipper replied, as the pilot quickly adjusted the throttle and vectoring controls. The lander shuddered as it crossed down below the sonic threshold, the wreckage of the ship sweeping underneath them.

"Gun stations, be on watch for suitable docking bays." The co-pilot added.

"Aetheric Energy Spikes Detected… High Structure Level…" The servitor recited. It began to say something else, but was interrupted by a booming crack that shook the lander from side to side. Then another…

"We're hit!" The co-pilot shouted.

"I see them!" The Gunnery Officer shouted, a pict image replacing the Aquila on a nearby screen. A few flickering, vaguely circular lights burned through a small gap in the Star of Heaven's hull. One flared as Harrian watched, flashing past the camera and jostling the lander once more. "Stations four through nine…" he continued. "…effacing fire on that gap!"

"Alright then. Hold fast, lads. Bring us about, and let's give them a volley from the battle-cannons."

Tetrarch 13 reared up as it came to an abrupt halt, slowly beginning to turn. More blasts rattled the machine. An alarm started to blare. Someone was shouting something over the vox, although it couldn't quite be heard.

"Skipper. Should we really be stopping right now?"

"Milady, this lander's rated against anything short of super-heavy weapons." The skipper replied. "Even if they break through the armor, they may bang up the decks, but there's not a chance they'll-"

The lander heaved to the right, and Harrian found herself flung to the floor – again. Even more alarms blared, as the cockpit started to spin. The idiot skipper wasn't wearing a harness, either, and soon got thrown out of his chair as well…

"Port-Mid Thruster Is Not Responding. Flight Profile Compromised." The servitor reported, its tone completely unchanged. "Brace For Impact."

"She's losing altitude! We're going down!" The copilot screamed.

So much for invincibility…

Harrian swiftly switched on her Refractor, struggling against the spinning room. The idiot skipper hadn't been wearing a harness, and was thrown from his chair, too…

"Trying to stabilize…" The pilot shouted, and their motion did start to slow, the lander waving from side to side before mostly stabilizing. "Got it!"

"Then why are we still falling?" Harrian snapped, scrambling to her feet and running to the pilot's seat.

"We're down to half an engine on the starboard! Not to be flippant, milady, but I can't manage much more than a slower crash."

A red beam surged past, narrowly missing the cockpit. Harrian resisted flinching, and quickly shrugged neutrally. "We were landing anyways…" She pointed towards a small meadow in the midst of a field of patchy copses of ruined trees and loose boulders. "There. Put us down over there."

"Yes Milady. I can make that."

"Good." She said, backing into the skipper's chair and strapping herself in. She switched on the intercom…

"Gentlemen, we'll be making an emergency landing rather soon. All squadrons prepare for immediate deployment."

The lander continued to descend swiftly, weaving drunkenly as it closed in on the clearing, still shuddering under yet more impacts. Harrian was hoping that they could actually making it to the ground without relying on Providence - which it was foolish to presume, after all… but odds were looking slim.

"Altitude Three Hundred Meters And Falling." The servitor counted. A sparse moment later, the entire vessel seized to one side, first rolling to port before settling slightly to starboard…

"Throne of Terra, we just lost half the wing!" The copilot shouted.

"It wasn't working anyways." The pilot replied. "We're still steady!"

"Altitude Two Hundred Meters And Falling."

"Final approach… deploying landing gear!"

"Altitude One Hundred Meters And Falling."

The lander plunged down, ripping its way through the trees as it fell, before finally coming to rest with a resounding crunch. Harrian was jerked forward in her chair, and the stricken skipper went flying to settle at the feet of the pilots. For a moment, the sorcerous barrage seemed to cease.

"We're down! Move! Now!" She shouted over the intercom. She searched in vain for the controls to lower the access ramps…

"Servitor! Lower the ramps!" Harrian shouted, hoping that would work. She unfastened her harness and stood, slipping on her comm-bead at the same time.

"Order Received. Lowering All Deployment Ramps." The servitor replied.

The grinding of metal echoed throughout the ship as the doors began to open. Harrian ignored it, and rushed forward to retrieve the skipper, dragging him towards cockpit access hatch. At that moment, the bombardment of psychic blasts resumed – if she didn't get off the lander soon, it'd be torn to pieces. First, though, she had one more thing to do.

She didn't appreciate it when the foolish actions of people like the skipper put the mission – and herself – at risk. Technically, as an auxiliary, she wasn't supposed to shoot him…

So she opened the hatch, and shoved him off the forty-some meter drop. Not precisely necessary, but definitely satisfying

. Plus, it helped discourage people from making dangerous mistakes in her presence.

Harrian made her way out of the room, and hurriedly jostled her way down to the lower levels. She kept to the inside - enemy weapons were still slamming into the outer hull, but she made it down quite quickly, the dense crowd of troopers making a path as she approached. About a third of the vehicles were already out when she'd landed - that meant most of the Russ'es and a few others were already in the field outside, but her tank was still waiting in the lander - she dashed over and climbed aboard - it was a Leman Russ Exterminator, with the best wargear she could find - everything from infra-scopes to spall plating, all covered in jet black paint and gold embossing.

"Welcome aboard, Madame. Everything is ready as specified." Someone's voice shouted from the front of the tank.

"Good, let's go!"

The tank roared down the ramp and onto the grass. The dozen some tanks outside had fanned out, returning fire on a small gap in the Star of Heaven's hull. Meanwhile, lighter vehicles were either just behind them, shooting as well, or formed up into platoons for the advance to ship. Harrian glanced backwards, to the hordes of troopers swarming down out of the lander on foot, along with the usual assortment of towed artillery pieces.

"Milady Commissar." Captain Radol -, uh, numbers, said. "Our troops are presently deploying, but it will be some time before they are ready to advance en-masse. For the moment we are fortifying our position and returning fire."

Harrian glowered. She'd never been enthusiastic about the Death Korp's favored 'sit around and get shot' strategy - moreover, if they waited, it became increasingly likely the witches would sabotage the equipment they came here to retrieve... or escape, reinforce themselves, or worse. They had to get into the ship, now.

"I'm taking the grenadier squads and some tanks and moving in. Send in two platoons after us." Harrian replied, switching channels. She issued the appropriate orders, and had them confirmed. Good.

"Head for the ship. There'll be two squads from 2nd Platoon joining us."

"Madame." The driver replied, accelerating over the ruined thicket. A shaft of light struck a passing Centaur, leaving a crumpled wreck with a half-circle melted through it, with twisted and broken quad-gun behind it. No one, not even the two other vehicles grouped with it, even seemed to notice. Harrian's tank stormed past the destroyed vehicle as more beams rained down around them. Behind them, a shriek of metal and thunderous crash sounded over the din of the engines and cannon fire - the damaged wing had finally broken off and crashed down beside the lander, blocking off a fair bit of its doors. Inconvenient...

A moment later, Harrian's Exterminator caught up with the ring of tanks, and the six vehicles of 2nd Platoon's 4th and 5th Squadron broke off, rushing ahead and forming a wedge, with her just behind the 'point'. The whole assembly then headed out over the ruined plain, moving at maximum combat speed. The beams were not firing anymore, for the moment - though she could only speculate as to why.

They'd crossed maybe a hundred meters of the scorched and cracked earth when more Lights flashed from the wreckage of the ship, this time a bit further towards the bow, at a gash in the hull. Harrian didn't have time to even consider whether shouting a warning was appropriate before more blasts of witch-fire hammered on their tanks. One of the blasts impacted their tank, hurtling it backwards and shaking several bolts out of the hull. with a screech of agonized metal.

"Keep going!" Harrian She shouted. She pointed , pointing at the gap in the ship. "Return fire, there!"

The tank's tracks spun in place for a moment as they revved the engine, before the machine suddenly recovered its spirits, lurching onwards to catch up with the rest of the tanks. They didn't seem to be that badly damaged, fortunately. The twin cannons thundered as her gunner returned fire, shells raining down into the lower hull - the other tanks soon followed suit, firing their battle-cannons at the small gap.

The Star of Heaven's hull would provide the enemy with cover from their barrage - the exterior plating was twenty-five meters thick in places, they didn't have anything here that could penetrate that - but hopefully it'd occupy their attention for a bit.

It seemed to work. The tanks stormed on - they hadn't lost any in that barrage, although one had a long, shallow scorch mark visible across the top. That wouldn't last. Their own fire was lessening the enemy's attacks, but the blasts continued to fall down on them sporadically. At about two hundred-fifty meters from the ship, one of the blasts tore through the leftmost tank's treads, bringing it to an abrupt halt. The rest simply shifted formation and continued down into the deep scar carved by the ship's impact, and the Grenadiers signaled they were moving up.

The group accelerated to full speed – they couldn't fire on the gap anyways. The enemy could still fire at them, however, and continued to do so – the artillery they'd brought along was now taking up the task of suppressing them, but still wasn't having total effectiveness - a blast bored through the right-most lead tank and ignited something within, the machine erupting in a plume of fire. They stormed past the wreck, making for the comparative shelter underneath the ship's hull. The surviving tanks formed up around an airlock that had come to rest near the ground, waiting for the Centaurs to arrive.

Harrian couldn't wait that long.

"Hold this position, keep the tank ready." She said, as she opened the top hatch and climbed out - she leapt down from the tank, adjusted her hat, and sprinted for the entrance gantry. More blasts thundered in the distance, but sure enough, they were now concentrated on the distant artillery and the approaching Centaurs.

Inside the ship, the alarm was going off - apparently the crew had at least taken notice of the intruders… Perhaps they hadn't wholly defected – that did seem an unlikely scenario in any case. Harrian resolved to find out, quickly scanning the hall for the obtrusive green and black boxes that represented intercom terminals. She found one, off in an nook not far from the entrance, walked over, and primed the machine.

She shifted through the call-cyphers until she found something – a hurried conversation about witches moving through the primary crew rating hab-sector. Apparently a large contingent of the ship's crew was attempting to halt them, and they seemed to be at least somewhat organized… which could mean several things. She decided to risk contacting them.

"This is commissar Commissar Harrian. I've brought reinforcements – who's in charge now?"

There was a hail of static for a few seconds, the man on the other side probably debating how to respond. Which, admittedly, was in the better half of possible responses.

"That's Lieutenant Raega… uh... numbers. He's still in charge, milady." The other voice responded. "On cypher Nine Alpha."

That was a good sign. Harrian switched to the appropriate channel.

"This is Commissar Harrian – authorization code A78-E99. I have third company from the 94th here. What is your situation?"

"Heretics in fast the ship, milady. They have penetrated the engine room and shut down the warp reactor, there is also a group in the castle quadrant, and we have suspicions of another group near the amidships docking bay – it is suspected that more may be within the ship, but most sectors are inadequately surveyed."

Ah, of course. The witches would naturally be familiar enough to halt the warp breach – Harrian cursed herself for not having realized that earlier – still inconvenient for general destructive purposes, but at least the ship hadn't mutinied.

"There's a group along the cargo areas too, if you didn't notice. If you can take them out, the rest of our forces could deploy more easily."

"Understood, milady. I shall dispatch a detachment at once."

"Excellent." Harrian concluded. Unfortunately, that now left nothing to do here except wait for the infantry to arrive, unless there were any updates over the intercom…

Fortunately there was one.

"Milady commissar. We've confirmed the presence of hostiles inside the docking bay – it is likely that this was their means of ingress. While the ratings have not been able to penetrate their defenses, we have them surrounded. That will isolate the other units, allowing them to be eliminated at leisure."

"Very good… And the cargo bays?"

"Detachment sent reported contact, but there were no further communications. It is most likely they were swiftly eliminated."

"The grenadiers have arrived." Another voice interrupted, this one over Harrian's comm-bead. "Moving into the ship. Additional infantry are moving up."

The third company had three grenadier squads – all well equipped and trained, but also only thirty men if it was at full strength – which they weren't. The rest of its troops, however, numbered around five-hundred. It would take them a few minutes to get across the scar, however, given they were on foot…

Harrian didn't want to try taking direct command of the whole force, so she'd do what she could with the grenadiers. The enemy in the docking bay was already cordoned off, so that was a waste of effort; and the group at the wall were obviously powerful psykers, whom she'd rather have the rest of the company engage; that left the castle group.

"Excellent, I've made contact with the garrison –" Harrian said to her comm-bead. "-the enemy were the ones who shut off the reactor. There's a significant group in the rating hab-sector, we're going to intercept them."

She went back to the intercom. "We're going to attack the group in the castle area, and we'll need directions - our vox signal is 107.2, cypher 9-88B"

"Understood. I will designate an adjutant to coordinate."

He did just that, appointing one of the ship's officers to guide them through the labyrinthine corridors of the vessel. After the Grenadiers met up with her, they headed a bit further into the ship, boarded a lift, then followed a 'hidden' corridor closer to the target, before moving through one of the mess-chamber sections - then heading back down, as apparently the enemy had moved quite a bit further...

Still, with all the shortcuts, they'd made good time, and Harrian could now hear the sound of battle up ahead, shouts, bullets, lasguns, and the eerie whine-crack of the enemy... did their staffs qualify as weapons? They followed the trail of senseless ratings onward, looking for an officer to consult with. There was no one - at least not any conscious officers. They did find one of the enemy, dressed in strangely decorated grey robes, laying in a bloody pool in the midst of ring of ratings. A few spatters of blood lead away - it wasn't much of a trail, but it was something. The sounds were incredibly close now - they followed the blood trail onwards, past another small cluster of fallen ratings, and through an archway into a short hallway, where two people stood, at the opposite entrance. They were both dressed in strange clothes, one carrying a silver spear with a crystal embedded in the head, the other a jeweled staff - heretics, to be sure.

The two intruders reacted quickly - the male ducking behind a pillar, and the female rushing forwards, brandishing her weapon to strike. The grenadiers in front of Harrian fell down on one knee, firing streams of fire light into the female's chest - she seemed to pause mid-leap, falling to the ground and conjuring a dome of lights before her, against which the Hellguns sparked harmlessly. Throne blasted psykers...

"Defiliers!" Harrian shouted - it sounded appropriate - and sprinted for the woman. She fired a burst in the general direction of the male - the other was presumably safe behind her light show. A bolt of witchfire screeched as it streaked past her, more hellguns firing in the background, and the rest of the grenadiers filing into the room - at least two charging with her.

The female psyker dropped her field as they approached, slashing the air with her spear – but she hadn't missed. A shockwave ripped out, deflected away from Harrian by her own refractor. She moved in, pressing theShe activation rune on her chainsword, as she slashed at her target's waistline, only for the blow to merely nick her armor. Roughly as expected...

One of the grenadiers rushed in, jabbing with his bayonet - the psyker bashed him with the butt of her staff, throwing him backwards. That gave Harrian the chance she needed to press her attack, slashing back across the heretic's body, drawing a spurt of blood spurted from the arm - although her underlying field prevented her from losing it. She squealed in pain and quickly jumped back, thrusting her spear towards Harrian.

Even with unnatural powers, however, the female psyker's injuries were starting to tell - Harrian batted away the clumsy attack with a shower of sparks, fired her hellpistol into the witch's face, and gouged a great rent in the girl's leg on the backswing. She fell to the ground, screaming something incoherent - Harrian pressed the barrel of her pistol to the back of her neck, and fired. The radiant light broke through the tattered remnants of the alien field and seared through the psyker's flesh, the heat seeping through Harrian's gloves as the witch's head violently separated from her shoulders. Harrian spun towards the male - he was well in hand too, fallen to the ground with several grenadiers finishing him off with bayonet thrusts.

There were still enemies to kill, however - not a moment later, another sorcerous bolt darted through the doorway and struck one of the grenadiers at the hip - he stumbled, but remained standing, dashing for the doorframe...

"Next room." The Senior Watchmaster 'leading' Harrian's escort commanded. "Frags. Enter and clear."

Like clockwork, another Korpsman snapped to the door, he and the previous both drawing grenades from their satchels, priming them, and tossing them into the room in one swift motion. A muffled crack sounded from the chamber, followed by yelps of shock. The men at the door immediately rushed in, followed by two others, hellguns firing. Harrian followed after them.

The next room was more crowded - a crew dormitory of sorts, already half wrecked from prior battle, with just under half a dozen of the intruders present, one already wounded...

A streak of witchfire sent one of the lead grenadiers sprawling - another man quickly took his place as they advanced. Harrian darted to the side, another bolt passing through the space she'd just occupied. She ducked behind a support pillar, leaning around to fire a few short bursts at the heretics...

More grenadiers filed into the room, and with an echoing cry of "DEATH!", the forwardmost broke into a charge. Blasts of energy lanced out to greet meet them, as did one of the psykers, an apparently unarmed juvie-looking type - though neither was ever a reliable sign with psykers. Harrian dashed to another nearby, lining up a shot on him and striking a solid burst mid chest. He called up the same field they all seemed to rely on, albeit a bit too late. He was quickly surrounded by Grenadiers, and Harrian switched to other targets, continuing to fire toward the others - one of the intruders, a thin straw-haired woman - was already wounded, leaning against the wall - albeit still trying to fight. It would actually count as valiant, if they weren't heretic scum.

Harrian shot her - almost immediately, another enemy switched targets to her.

"I'll kill her first!" Harrian shouted, not giving a damn whether their sorceries actually let them understand. She blindly fired a burst in his general direction. "And then I'll kill you too!"

Harrian retrieved one of her own grenades from her satchel, primed it to the first rune, and threw it. As it exploded, she emerged from the pillar, first a short beam at the big psyker, then aimed at the wounded one, firing a solid burst into her chest for maybe half a second, before quickly ducking behind a fallen bunk.

Someone shouted something – it didn't sound Gothic, so it was either an intruder or one of the ratings. A split second later, a sharp rolling snap of a heavy energy weapon split the air – whether the two events were related, Harrian didn't know, but it sounded like a good time to check her surroundings. A new hole had been burned in one bulkhead, but no one seemed to pay it any mind. The intruders were hurriedly fleeing the room, including the juvie, who was now further back, trying to limp away, with several Grenadiers in pursuit. One Grenadier charged head on, jabbing with his bayonet, only for the boy to knock the blow away and send him staggering back with a sharp punch to the cheek.

The other, meanwhile, circled around, and shot a hellgun burst straight through the psyker's skull – that sent him to the ground like a limp rag. One of the forked staves carried by seemingly half of the enemy disappeared from the doorway as it sealed with a low rumble and clink.

The Grenadiers moved out to cover the door - Harrian followed after, as one of them began turning the hatch.

"It's jammed. We'll have to find another route."

"No time. Blow it open." Harrian said.

"... Yes Milady." The head grenadier replied - they stepped away from the door, while another Grenadier leveled a meltagun at the door - that must be the heavy weapon from before.

The weapon vaporized the door in a brilliant flash of light. Almost before the blast had fallen silent, the first Grenadiers were through the glowing hole where the door had been, weapons fire sounding from within. Harrian followed after a few more Grenadiers passed through.

The one of the intruders lay on the ground, his flesh and armor burnt away and still smouldering. One of the Grenadiers was already down as well - a second was struck by a psychic bolt a moment later, - he flew backwards, a piece of his mask shattering. Harrian ducked behind a column - there were more of the intruders further on, with a throng of ratings on the opposite side, tentatively but steadily backing away from the tightening knot of psykers.

Harrian swept a las-beam across the group of intruders – and, coincidentally, across the crew beyond them. The intruders didn't seem all that hurt, while about half a dozen ratings fell – but they stopped running. Bolstered by the sudden realization they should at least be of some use, the ratings surged forwards, witchfire and other such things lashing out at them, with still more bolts heading toward Harrian and the grenadiers - which were still advancing, moving from cover to cover or just steadily walking forward. There were four of the enemy left here, and they wouldn't last long.

Harrian dashed out from behind her pillar, shooting her hellpistol at a psyker with a staff. "Purge the heretics!" she shouted, charging forward. She slashed at that psyker's leg as she moved past. "Cast them out!"

She was now in the midst of the mêlee, with Grenadiers coming up after her, and the ratings distracting them on the other side. Harrian faced the one she'd identified as their leader based on demeanor - a brown-skinned female armed with a spear, whose long hair rivaled Beta-Two in ridiculousness. Harrian swung her sword at the psyker, only for the strike to be savagely deflected away with her spear - the witch followed up by jabbing in towards Harrian, who shifted aside, the blade darting past her. Harrian regained her footing and slashed at the enemy's shoulder, striking only a faintly glowing field.

The woman drew her arm back, and a blast of energy struck Harrian's chest with force of a bolter shell, and threw her back against a nearby row of bunks, a heavy, unnatural feeling of weariness rushing through her body. A round crater had been scoured out of her armor, but it was intact - and she forced herself to remain conscious as a grenadier rushed forward into her place, only for the psyker to quickly swipe her staff across his chest - he too crashed into a pillar and abruptly fell. Harrian pulled herself up as the woman struck down a pair of ratings behind her, firing another burst at the leader as she ran forward. Another beam darted in from the side, striking the staff-weilder off to the side - he spun around and collapsed behind a pillar. Meanwhile, Harrian rushed forwards, driving her chainsword across the woman's back - she turned to face her as she approached, but not quickly enough. The blade raked over the psyker's body, her field emitting a wave of sparks. Harrian ducked under the foe's counterattack, slashing at her leg - finally, her sword drew blood instead of just light. A wounded heretic screamed as he was dragged down by the tide of ratings.

"Commissar. You may want to step back." Someone said over vox. Harrian quickly did so - the woman looked up a moment later, and dove to the side as a melta beam flashed through the space they'd both just occupied - another of the enemy projected a psychic field, only to get vaporized anyways, along with a bevy of ratings.

The enemy leader, however, recovered from her roll, and rushed towards the soldier with the melta gun at an impossible speed, the spear flashing through him and the weapon alike - cleaving the gun in half, while by some witchcraft not actually wounding the soldier. That wasn't a wise thing to wonder about now though - or likely ever. Harrian charged the woman, not quite managing to duck under an arc of psychic force - her refractor didn't quite deflect it, the energies chipping away at her armor and tearing at her coat. She fought through it, closing in on her target as the woman stepped back, preparing for another attack. Harrian skirted to the side, slashing at the enemy's chest - but the leader quickly shifted stance, blocking the attack with her spear haft. Harrian's chainsword skittered off - at the same moment, something struck her opponent in the side - she grunted and stumbled forward. Again, Harrian ducked low and slashed at the woman's ankles - who shouted in pain as the sword gouged into her leg and fell to one knee. The woman swung down her spear with her remaining strength - Harrian blocked it rather easily, knocking the weapon away...

and rammed the chainsword through the psyker's chest. Her scream was cut short, as a fountain of blood and flesh was torn out of her body, splattering all over Harrian's arms and coat. The sound of battle in the distance had all but faded - Harrian made a futile effort of wiping the gore away, and opened a channel to Lieutenant Raega.

"All the heretics here are dead. Finish any stragglers in the castle. I'm heading to the docks."

."Understood." Lieutenant Raega said. "There are no confirmed reports of enemies in the crew area. The intruders at the bay have repelled another attack... but they remain isolated."

"Good." Harrian said, turning to the Watchmaster of Squad 3. "Secure this area. Remaining squads, with me."

With the easy targets eliminated, the next logical objective was to cut off the intruder's possibility of escape - and that meant the 'docking bay'. Harrian turned and walked out of the room, trailed by the remaining grenadiers. They took a funicular down out of the castle region, then made their way through the central corridor before taking a side passage for the remaining distance. Captain Radol informed her that several infantry platoons had arrived aboard the ship, and were being directed to the bay. Meanwhile, the psykers that had engaged their tanks had finally been silenced by the company's artillery, though whether that meant they'd been killed or driven further in was up for question...

They soon arrived in the vicinity of the bay - in all likelihood actually a cargo hold - to find a large number of ratings and soldiers already gathered in the corridors outside. Harrian and her men moved further on, into the outer hull, the crowds of ratings and soldiers not quite making way as they pushed through the corridors outside the hold, squads of Korpsmen guarding each of the entrances.

A few seconds later, a small group of men ran out from the chamber, witchfire chasing after them. The real soldiers immediately opened fire, cutting down the whole group. One of them survived, crawling away from the pile. Harrian reached out and seized him by the collar of his tunic, and dragged him - or rather her - back behind the wall, stomped her boot into the woman's face, and dragged her up against the wall.

"Ma… Milady. Sorry Milady."

Harrian pressed her pistol into her cheek. "What's in there?!" She demanded.

"There's… there were witches. There musta been a dozen. The fire… it was everywhere. I… I don' know how ta fight."

That much was clear - ship-serfs were more likely to mutiny than to help in a boarding action, so many captains denied them any weapons or training. However, that was no excuse for failing in the command of their betters. Harrian slammed her fist into her face, breaking her nose, at least. "Witches. Is that all?"

"There were… a… a kind of shuttle."

"Describe them." Harrian said, punching her again.

"They were strange, milady…"

Harrian kicked the las-burn on her leg. "Describe them."

"Ahh! They… had… long metal rods on top… like a fan, but thin…"

"They had vehicles then." Harrian said, nodding. She punched her in the chest, twice, then slammed her against the wall, and punched her again. "Anything useful?"

"There was… one of them… a terrible witch, dressed in black… she was so fast… too fast to see - she … we couldn' stop her…

That… sounded vaguely familiar. "This individual. Did you happen to see any of her features? Her hair, maybe?"

The rating just stammered incoherently.

"Talk!" Harrian shouted

"I… she had this strange yellow hair." She said "… Long… too long."

That did sound like target Beta-Two. If the reports were even half correct, she would be a formidable opponent.

Either way, she had no more need of this serf. She revved her chainsword, the rating shrieked and cowered against the wall. Harrian rolled her eyes and gutted her.

Even with their 'terrible witch', she doubted the enemy could break out, but it looked like it would take some doing to break in. Eliminating Beta-Two would be useful, assuming she was really here, they could do that at leisure…

That just raised more questions - if they had their vehicles in there, why hadn't they left already? It may just be because of the forces outside... or they could be waiting for something.

Like whoever had disabled the warp reactor - a third group. And there had been reports of combat in that area. That sounded like a good candidate for her next objective – Harrian gathered the squads that had come in with her plus a cluster of ratings, and set off sternwards. Although there were hundreds of possible paths the enemy could take, the crew would know the ship, and could hopefully guess the most likely avenue. The grenadiers went with her to a overseer's station, while the crewmen would scour the ship, retreating to an intercom to report any contacts.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't take very long for the target to fall into their trap. The ratings located a group of witches moving toward the bow - after ordering them to distract them as long as possible, Harrian switched off the channel and signaled her Grenadiers to follow. They moved down, splitting into demi-squads to isolate the enemy.

Harrian stacked up with one of the demi-squads at the entrance to a chamber whose purpose she didn't entirely fathom. The sound of witch-weapons clashed with that of stubbers and shotguns, and the inert forms of half a dozen ratings scattered about confirmed the heretics were within.

Two of the Grenadiers planted breaching charges on the door in front of them. Harrian gave the order to go in, and the thick gate was blasted off its housing, collapsing inwards. The inside of the room seemed little different from any of the other rooms, except for the piping running across the other side. Several more of the enemy were waiting inside, apparently having reacted to the explosion almost instantaneously.

Harrian led the charge into the room, hellpistol at the ready. "In the Emperor's Name!" She shouted, firing at the first target she saw. "Finish Them!" The Grenadiers followed in behind her - and at either end of the chamber, spreading out to surround the foe entirely. Two Grenadiers fell in the initial exchange - but so did one of the witches. A moment later, one of the enemy swung her staff through thin air, sending of fan of glowing spheres outward. One struck Harrian in the chest, eliciting a sharp screech from her refractor and sending her staggering. Another three blasts struck nearby grenadiers, hurling them backwards.

Harrian quickly fired a shot in her attacker's direction as she dove to a nearby pillar. She quickly checked over her wargear - the recent battles had reduced the front portion of her overcoat to tatters, even the armor underneath was splintered in places. Her refractor gorget, meanwhile, was smouldering worrisomely...

"Machina Deva, Sis Ne Disrumpere

..." Harrian whispered the mock-prayer as another two Grenadiers fell to the hail of pink bolts. That one would have to die quickly...

Harrian glanced back around the pillar - the enemy were pushing towards the bow-end of the room, but the Grenadiers were putting down enough fire to slow them, at least, and were methodically shifting the bulk of their force to cut off their avenue of escape. A melta beam thundered through the air, flooding the room with hellish heat and pressure as it vaporized

one of the ornate pillars, tossing nearby psykers and troopers alike in every direction. It seemed to have done little actual harm to the enemy, however, and a moment later, a sphere of energy wove around the heavy metal desk the gunner was using for cover, dropping him on the spot. They had 'lost' maybe a third of their number, but another two of the enemy were dead - good odds, but unfortunately Harrian's target was not among them.

That female psyker was... distinctive. She wore a vest over a long skirt, both colored a tannish-grey, carried an ornate delta-headed staff in her left hand - it seemed these witches allow the sinister

to persist with their unorthodoxy - and she had a bizarrely guady twin-tailed hairstyle that strongly reminded Harrian of Beta Two. And it looked even more absurd in person than the picts. Harrian fired a hellgun burst at her, striking in the middle of her back... but she scarcely seemed to notice. A psychic bolt from one of her confederates, though, smashed into the pillar Harrian was covering behind, forcing her to duck back. Whether it was intentional or not, it made Harrian's priorities even clearer. The enemy (inevitably) seemed to regard uniforms as a suggestion, but she suspected this woman was a leader of sorts, not to mention a fairly potent psyker.

"Target the one with the stupid... ponytails." Harrian ordered, inching around her cover to take another shot. The target was doing her level best to avoid a hail of fire from just about all directions, as though she was at the center of a demented string figure - although it didn't really seem to do terribly much more than scorch her clothes when she was hit. It took no small effort to track her motion as Harrian lined up her sights... however, she noticed another target, a man in the tattered rags of a rating, cowering behind her and held by another of the enemy. Whether he was a traitor or a victim was irrelevant, orders on the matter were clear - they could not have him. She switched targets, firing a las-burst through his neck, and quickly sweeping it across to follow the female leader. Then, the witch she'd shot the rating out from under ran to her side, holding his hand out to block Harrian's shot with a halo of sorcerous energy. The rest of the group closed in as well, two forming a perimeter, while another pair focused their powers into a dome of the same force that repelled their attacks... as for the woman... she was holding her staff, pointed straight at the far wall...

Harrian hadn't a trace of the touch of the Warp, of course... but still she shivered as the malefic energy coursed through the room. A pattern of light danced around the female witch's body... this could not possibly be a good sign. Harrian leapt out from her column, drawing and activating her chainsword. "Stop the ritual! Charge!" She dodged aside as one of the enemy launched a plume of energy at her, focusing her hellgun's

fire into the protective dome. A bell rang as the pistol's power cell depleted. Harrian let it hang by the cord as she sprinted on - under the combined fire of the Grenadiers, that dome couldn't last for long...

But they were too late. The woman shouted a couple of strange words, and a moment later, a torrent of physical force surged out from the woman, throwing Harrian back as an inexplicably pink beam of warp energy as wide as she was tall flashed across her vision... as the flash faded from her vision, she realized there was now a gaping hole in the right-most bulkhead...

That is, the one they *didn't* have any of their forces covering.

The green-red dome melted away as the witches sprinted for the opening, beams tracing after them, but failing to find their mark. All the witches except one.

The strange-haired woman remained, a faint pattern of energy running over her body as her scored and burnt clothes repaired themselves. Simultaneously, a glowing blade appeared at the end of her staff.

So she was sacrificing herself so that the others could escape. How quaint. Harrian drove her sword down across the woman's chest - but she almost effortlessly deflected the swing, raising her right hand to Harrian's face. She quickly leapt aside, the warpfire sphere meant for her redirected towards a nearby Grenadier, who promptly tumbled back. They were too close in for much shooting, but the occasional laser beam deflected off her dress like it was power armor. From what she'd seen thus far, however... Harrian knew that wouldn't last forever, and they had better than 10 to 1 odds...

The woman was shouting something in her strange tongue, though it was more lyrical than threatening, like the language a sparrow would speak. She wasn't as weak as her voice suggested, though, her light-glaive slicing through a Grenadier's chest as he rushed in, and casting him away like a ragdoll. Another Grenadier bashed her head with the butt of his gun, to scarcely any visible effect - she quickly turned and stabbed him, sending him flying backwards. Of course, the rest of the group was already closing in...

"Keep attacking!" Harrian shouted, swinging her sword low at the woman's legs. She leapt over the attack, but that allowed Harrian the opportunity to follow up with a rising thrust - and she couldn't guard against that. The blade hit only her ephemeral armor, of course, but it still tore its way up across her body and scored a gash across the chest of her dress. "Kill her!"

The Grenadiers drove in, moving to surround her. Meanwhile, the woman quickly counterattacked, slashing downward - Harrian knew better than to try blocking that glowing blade, so she stepped inwards, focusing her parry on the head of the staff itself. Somehow, this tiny girl hit like a more-than-normally enraged Ork, and it took no small effort to block the attack as the whirring blade as it screeched against the golden metal in a shower of sparks. Harrian quickly countered herself, slamming her knee into the girl's chest. She didn't have time to determine if it elicited a reaction before the witch swept her off her legs, sending her to the ground a half-meter from the girl's feet. The witch didn't press the attack, however, instead spinning her weapon to impale a Grenadier attempting to encircle her.

Unfortunately for her, that left her open - one of the Watchmasters closed in from the front, smashing an arcing powerfist into her face - now it was her turn to go flying away, hurtling backwards to smash into the cluster of pipes behind her. Harrian rose to her feet, almost at the same moment the woman... leapt right back up, blood trickling from her mouth. Harrian shook her head, holding her chainsword in both hands, and rushed forwards, as las-beams slammed into her, turning her grey dress black where they touched. But from the look on her face...

She could finally feel it.

"DAMN IT YOU ALL!" Harrian screamed, raising her sword in a mighty swing. There was a sudden, sharp boom, and it found only empty air - one instant the woman was there, and the next she was standing some distance away in the hole she'd created. Immediately, the psyker turned tail and fled, quite a bit faster than a human had any right to. Fortunately, she didn't know where she was going, and there were still ratings about, which might at least bog her - and the rest of her group - down. Plus, that group seemed much slower than her... they had to stop her before rendezvoused with the other intruders.

"She's weakening!" Harrian shouted, following through the hole into a cargo access corridor. "Don't let her escape! After her!"

All the Grenadiers followed, though someone muttered something about 'enduring a powerfist as though it were a padded glove' - not complaining, of course, so much as incredulous. Harrian quickly set to work replacing her hellpistol's power pack as she ran, heading through a long corridor that looked like an annex to some sort of aqua-farm. She rushed towards a door leading into a large open bay - a storage room for the ship's food supply. Witchfire slammed into a nearby wall - that girl was inside, standing one of the two gangplanks across the room as she fired back at them.

"You three!" Harrian ordered, pointing at three of the nearby grenadiers. "With me!"

She quickly turned aside, clambering up a spiral staircase, as a quick succession of two blasts threw a pair of grenadiers from the main entrance to the room.

The quickly climbed the stairs, the sound of psyker weapons and lasfire booming up from below. More weapons fired in the near distance - the lead elements of the enemy squad had apparently run into more ratings.

Harrian opened the upper door, and stormed out onto the upper walkway. The psyker in grey was preoccupied fighting the grenadiers below - efficiently shooting down any that paused to fire at her, but that gave the rest time . Meanwhile, Harrian ran along above her, moving to flank. The other walkway was maybe three meters distant... just close enough to be plausible...

Meanwhile, maybe a dozen Grenadiers lay unconscious on the gangplank - but they did not fear death, and feared this enemy's weapons even less - in typical fashion, they continued on, swiftly closing the distance with the girl. One charged in the last few meters - the girl in grey batted away his bayonet with the golden crook that had appeared on the end of her staff, then slammed the butt into the nape of his neck. A second Grenadier swung in with a rifle butt - the psyker jabbed him in the foot, then swept his leg and slammed his head into the railing. A moment later, she spun the staff, sweeping it in a wide arc before her. A fan of glowing spheres of witchfire arced out, tossing men aside, and smashing through the gangplanks. The walkway collapsed behind Harrian, carrying one of the Grenadiers following her with it. Another zipped past her waist, skittering off her refractor, which again screeched with the strain…

The lower walkway had collapsed as well, but the remaining Grenadiers were now taking aim, or else preparing to make a running leap across the gap… and that gave her an opening to do something foolish. She vaulted over the railing, praying she'd make it…

And she did, slamming down on the gangplank behind the girl. She could contemplate this blessing later - for now, there was a powerful witch to kill. Harrian swung her chainsword before she could turn, tearing at the back of her dress. The field around her made the blow frustratingly ineffectual, but it still drew blood. She gave a yelp of pain and jerked forwards, a laser beam simultaneously cutting across her chest. Harrian pursued, following with a second strike, but the witch quickly recovered, turning around and parrying the strike. She jumped impossibly far back, almost to where she'd demolished the bridge. She glared back, and raised her left hand in a commanding gesture. Harrian wasn't going to be intimidated by an childish staring contest, though - she charged forward, ready to slash her defenses apart, followed by her…

The witch shouted something incomprehensible, dramatically sweeping her hand to the energy emanated from her fingertips, coalescing into wide rings - Harrian realized what she was doing too late to respond, and the rings shrunk down in a fraction of a second, pinning her arms to her body, holding her firmly in place. She tried to slip out, but the bands of witch-fire refused to move even slightly… frak.

The girl in grey continued to glare daggers at her. She leveled her staff at her, speaking softly - some kind of invocation - the electric taint of psychic power built up around around them…"Frak…" Harrian swore.

But it was the witch's turn to be blindsided. One of the grenadiers leapt over the gap, running up from behind and crashing into her. She somehow managed to keep her feet, but the soldier also held fast to her, despite her inhuman strength… Harrian wondered what the soldier was thinking - it couldn't last for long. Then, she saw the krak grenade - primed.

It went off with a muffled snap, throwing the girl to the ground, smouldering, and sending bits of the valiant grenadier flying into the stacks below. The rings of energy around Harrian flickered and sputtered out. She quickly recovered her balance, and looked at the witch on the ground, red slowly seeping into her dust-grey dress. She moved her arm slightly, trying to get up - not quite dead, then. Harrian revved her chainsword. She'd have to rectify that…

Then, the girl exploded - a wave of force radiated out from her, crumpling the walkway like wet tissue paper, and throwing Harrian off the bridge. As she tumbled through the air, she saw a bright pink streak fly to the far doorway - bitch hadn't even managed to properly self-destruct. She grabbed for her hellpistol, only to remember that she was currently falling.

Harrian landed with a heavy thud on one of the ice-cold containers below, sore and furious, but largely unhurt. Her refractor was now thoroughly smoking on her chest, having finally fallen in the line of duty. She gingerly tossed it aside - niceties were oft sadly overlooked when one was a fire hazard. Of the damned witch, there was no sign - but it was clear that whatever sorcery she had employed, she hadn't actually destroyed herself. A handful of surprised Grenadiers remained, but between their casualties - both farcical and actual -, her at the bottom of the cold storage room and both bridges destroyed, there wasn't much chance she'd catch up. Harrian wanted that cursed woman's head, but she'd settle for just having her dead.

"Lieutenant Raeda! This is Harrian! Have made contact with the engine room infiltrators… they have a powerful psyker with them - gamma, possibly beta class. They're heading to the launch bay - we need immediate reinforcements."

JF-673 over Fort Rothschild

Central Mid-Childa, Outskirts of Clanagan.

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar: 1033 Hours

The trip from Kuran's Island had been a profoundly disturbing one, Clanagan still invisible through the windows, hidden under a thick pall of smoke. Everyone had spent the first five minutes of the trip interrogating Lieutenant Omar, who didn't reveal much except that Ginga's suspicions were correct – they were being drafted into a new unit, Emergency Defense Mobile Striker Section 9, which he would be commanding – Ginga would be section subcommander, and that they'd definitely be deploying to fight the invaders as soon as possible. They were headed to Fort Rothschild, where'd he'd brief them further.

He claimed to not know exactly why the decision had been made in the first place, or why he'd been chosen as Commander – but at least he already knew about the Combat Cyborg project, and seemed… sensible. After that, however, he retreated into the cockpit and refused to answer any more questions.

The girls spent the rest of the trip talking about all the things that had happened recently, but Ginga couldn't bring herself to participate, given everything that had happened lately… Instead, she just spent the trip in silence, fretting to herself. She hated the whole affair - the invasion, of course, but especially whoever had gotten the impression they could call up Numbers as they wished, as if they owned them. She wasn't upset that they'd done the same to her, she was an officer of the Armed Forces, that was her job; but the girls were civilians, technically speaking, and drafting citizens had been illegal since the Foundation. It suggested something unpleasant - that whoever had ordered it was under the impression the Bureau could use the girls as tools because of who - and what they were, and that gave them the right to do whatever they pleased... she couldn't imagine the Bureau as a whole would approve of that, but she knew better than most that there were certainly somewho wouldn't blink at making slaves of them.

Ginga knew she couldn't let that happen, but wasn't entirely certain how she could possibly do that. Refusing directly might destroy her career - or worse. She didn't have a terrific number of contacts to rely upon, either – her father would help her, naturally, but he was only a Major of a not particularly significant battalion, and didn't have much clout himself. Still, there was a chance… she hadn't spent most of the last three years in an investigative unit for nothing. If she somehow identified the party responsible, then she could act, somehow. She'd work out the details later. For now, she just had to worry about keeping the Numbers safe, and getting through this invasion… not that she was terribly confident in that – at least as subcommander, she wouldn't be in command of the entire unit, although whether Omar would be leading in combat, she didn't know. If he was, she hoped he knew what he was doing, at least.

The helicopter seemed to be slowing down – Ginga glanced out the window, figuring they must be nearing their destination. They were clearly outside of Clanagan by now, somewhere along the bay's western shore. She couldn't see much but water, but what she could see looked like a base… not too far ahead was a kilometers wide silvery artificial island – a holostage. There weren't too many of those – in fact, she didn't know of any on the west side of the bay except for…

"Hey…" Sein interjected. "didn't we blow this place up?"

Ginga - along with Wendi and - shifted over to look out Sein's window, on the helicopter's right side. True enough, on the ground in front of them was a familiar building, big enough to be a battalion headquarters, not terribly different from many other modular headquarters - the wedge-like facade covered with giant windows, interrupted by a slab-like tower in the middle, with flight deck up above - complete with an ocean-blue JF-704. But the location and surroundings were right - this was definitely the same place – Section Six, back from the dead.

"Technically, that was only Dido and myself." Otto replied.

"Looks like it didn't quite stick." Wendi said.

Ginga's heart raced faster – surely there had to be other suitable locations, so… who was this stunt meant for: her, or the Numbers? And what kind of purpose did it serve? Maybe to humiliate them into silence, or maybe… to offend them into rebellion? And why? She'd definitely try to prevent either event from coming to pass, and she'd try to find the answers to all her questions, once she had the chance...

"We're about to land." The pilot said. "Please take your seats."

Everyone rushed back to their seats as the helicopter swooped in, alighting roughly on the unoccupied landing pad, and then all got back up as the rotors began to spin down. The girls began to retrieve their baggage as Lieutenant Omar emerged from the cockpit.

"So... erm... why are we here?" Sein asked.

"Ah." The lieutenant replied. "This will be our base of operations. We'll be operating supply, intelligence, and the like from here. Plus, you can train on the holostage here."

"I think what she was asking was 'why are we here.'" Nove replied. "...and besides, we don't need any 'training'."

"Don't worry about it... I'm sure it was just a coincidence..." Ginga said, hoping to interrupt before anything more rash could be said.

Lieutenant Omar shrugged "'You break it, you buy it', I suppose? It's a direct order from the GFSC."

The 'Landing Clear' alarm buzzed, and Lieutenant Omar immediately took the opportunity to open the door - apparently seeing an unwanted conversation forming. "Alright. I'll take you downstairs to get oriented - pick your rooms, meet the rest of the staff..."

At that, he set off, heading for the stairwell.

"I'm pretty sure that's not how it works, is it?" Dieci asked.

"It certainly isn't. I have no idea what's going on with the building." Ginga replied, transmitting the message to everyone. "I'll... try to figure out what's behind this. Until then, it's probably best not to... say too much about it."

"I see. I'll do what I can to help you." Otto transmitted.

The group obediently headed down the stairs, into the main assembly room. Four people were waiting there, scattered around the room – as they entered, the officers swiftly formed a line and saluted. Omar returned the salute, as did Ginga - and Wendi, albeit rather… unprofessionally… in her case.

The four people in the room were SSgt. Donahue, who had somehow gotten here without anyone noticing, a vaguely familiar looking light brown haired corporal, probably somewhere around her age; another corporal - this one a man, slightly older, thin and with reddish hair cut super-short; and somewhat unexpectedly, (but rather unsurprisingly), Dr. Atenza

"Ladies… I'd like to introduce you to the rest of the command staff of Section 9." Omar said, gesturing in their direction.

"You've already met Miran Donahue, Section Manager and Communications Officer... she will control the day-to-day operations of the bulk of the section, paperwork and the like, as well as coordinating with other units and operating our transmission equipment.

"Corporal Vyral Holton, our quartermaster – in charge of supplies, his job is to make sure we have all the cartridges, special equipment and the like we need. And food... that's important too." Omar explained, for any invisible bystanders that might not know.

"Maintenance of your Devices, however, will be handled by Second Warrant Officer Mariel Atenza – I understand you're already acquainted, Master Sergeant. She'll also be in charge of our medical personnel… hopefully that won't be unduly necessary…"

"Thank you sir." Mari replied, nodding. Next to the others and dressed in her uniform, she looked somewhat out of place, maybe ten centimeters shorter than the others, with her olive-green hair slicked backwards, and a decidedly non-military poise.

"Devices… We'll be getting our equipment back?" Dieci asked.

" I suppose…" Ginga transmitted back.

"Finally, we have Corporal Alto Krauetta. She'll be our pilot - I'm sure you saw the JF-704 parked outside."

"Sir." Alto said. Ginga did recognize her now, from somewhere at Section 6, although she couldn't recall what her position had been then, though she was pretty sure it wasn't 'pilot'...

"Normally, there'd be a big, impressive ceremony, the whole section staff here, with speeches and everything, but under the circumstances..." Omar said, checking his datapad. "...It's been decided to forgo that. The rest of the staff is cleared and briefed, though."

That much was certainly true. Normally, it would take weeks to even start establishing a new unit, even a comparatively hasty Mobile unit. So either someone had really expedited the registration process, or they'd had this in the works for a while…

"These three, plus myself..." Omar continued, indicating everyone but Alto "...will form the command squad, callsign 'Storm'. Cpl. Krauetta's callsign is 'Halcyon 1', although, technically, that's the helicopter. Her personal callsign is 'Halcyon Principal'"

The Lieutenant finally paused to take a breath.

"Any questions?"

Wendi raised her hand.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Do you normally talk this much?"

Omar chuckled. A few of the others around the room grinned. For a brief moment, Ginga thought, Staff Sergeant Donahue looked furious. Then, a moment later, she regained her composure, no trace of her previous expression... although she certainly wasn't smiling.

"I have been told that before, yes." Omar said, nodding slightly shrugging. There was more laughing, before Omar moved on to introducing the Numbers and Ginga to the command squad, somehow even more unceremoniously than vice versa, Donahue still inexplicably glowering all the way through.

"Right..." Omar said, after he'd finished, handing a bundle of datapads to Ginga. She passed them down the line. "The rest of the squad organization is on these pads, but I will explain it anyways. Our forwards will be divided into two squads, Hurricane and Surge..."

"Hurricane and Surge?" Sein transmitted quizzically.

"I guess it's a 'theme' thing." Ginga replied. "Squad names are sometimes… silly."

"It's still stupid." Nove said.

"Each squad will consist of four members, including a squad commander and sub-commander." The lieutenant continued. "The rosters I have here are those created by striker command, designed to each have an even balance of tactical roles… you're familiar with TSAB tactical positions, right?"

"Obviously." Nove answered. Of course, it was hardly what Ginga would call 'obvious' since she had been the one to explain it. The Numbers apparently hadn't done things that way.

"Yes, essentially..." Cinque added.

"Good." Omar said. "That's good. Anyways, the rosters: For Hurricane Squad, we have Ginga - Hurricane 1, section subcommand and squad commander; Cinque - Hurricane 2, squad subcommander; Dieci - Hurricane 3; and Dido - Hurricane 4. For Surge Squad, Otto will be squad commander, ergo Surge 1; subcommander Surge 2, Nove; Surge 3 Wendi; and Sein as Surge 4. You should memorize these call signs, and use them exclusively when you're in the field, in order to preserve transmissions security."

"What makes you think the enemy can intercept transmissions?" Otto asked. "Even with Uno's talents, decrypting yours was rather difficult, and we were familiar with your algorithms..."

"True." Dido said, nodding. "Plus, even if they can, we have our radios."

Omar shrugged again. "We don't know if they can read our transmissions, or even if they can detect them. However, in absence of any evidence, we can't discount the possibility. As for the radios... they appear to use a similar system for their own communications. It's almost certainly insecure."

"So what?" Nove replied. "It's not exactly like our real names will tell them that much."

"Yeah... they're basically numbers already." Sein said.

"With those squad names we're actually giving away more information..." Wendi added.4

That was a pretty good point, Ginga had to admit; and one of the main reasons for radio callsigns was concern over possible covert retribution, which wasn't really a concern with the Krieg invaders... probably. Still, there were other good reasons for the practice...

"That's true... but the enemy won't be the only ones listening. Cracking a transmission is hard, but obviously not impossible." Ginga said, gesturing towards Otto for emphasis. "And in any case, we will likely be working with other units - the callsign helps to quickly identify the unit and the individual's position within that unit."

She left out 'and certain soldiers wouldn't be pleased to learn they were working with Combat Cyborgs', but figured they knew that...

"Uhh... yeah. Very good explanation, Sergeant." Omar said.

"Dont'ya mean 'Hurricane 1'." Wendi commented.

"You don't have to use them here, or face to face." Omar replied, sighing. "Now, Corporal Holton will take you to your rooms, so you can chose the ones you want, drop off your effects, and change. Except you, Miss 'Surge 3'. You can help Halcyon Principal wash down her helicopter."

"Not fair!"

"If anything, it's lax, considering the insubordination you just exhibited... or didn't your Doctor ever teach you to shut up?" Sergeant Donahue snapped.

"Yes sir..." Wendi replied.

Ginga gritted her teeth, trying to confirm she'd actually just heard that. Everyone else seemed, if not quite as surprised, at least somewhat dismayed. She understood that they'd been the Bureau's enemies before, and people didn't understand what they'd actually been through, but... still, she'd hoped that at least the officers of their own unit could exhibit some decency.

"Wendi: While I don't demand absolute seriousness, you don't need to make that joke out of everything I say. Sergeant Donahue: I can take care of my own business. Furthermore, I expect you to treat our guests with the same respect you would any Collaborator." Lieutenant Omar said, breaking the silence. "That is all. Sergeant Nakajima, I'd like a word. The rest of you are dismissed."

The rest of the group left the room, the girls following after Holton, Cpl. Krauetta heading to the roof with Wendi... and Donahue storming out to who knows where.

"You think she might be a problem?" Ginga asked – to her, the earlier comment was proof enough. The last thing the girls needed – or that Ginga needed – was someone taunting them about their past…

"Maybe… Believe me she wouldn't have been my first choice." Omar said. "However, she was assigned by Striker Command. Very specifically. Honestly… I couldn't guess why."

It was looking increasingly like someone in Striker Command had it in for them. If she was lucky, Ginga thought, it was only a few 'someones'... She considered telling Omar her suspicions for a brief moment, then thought better of it: he seemed like a decent person, but he had been placed here by Striker Command as well and seem to trust their orders implicitly – far from a bad quality in an officer, but it meant there was a chance he'd simply take her story to his commander. She couldn't risk that.

"That's not what I wanted to talk about, though. A fair bit of the organizational chart is set in stone, but... you know these people, and..."

"I'm a Combat Cyborg too..." Ginga finished.

"Erm… that's not… well, yes. More importantly though, you've… You know these girls' abilities, and you're familiar how they work together. I'm asking if there's anything in particular you can you use? Any adjustments that should be made?"

"We've sparred a bit, but never really did anything... tactical. I mean..." Ginga replied, failing to surpress a shudder. She still had nightmares about the only time they'd actually 'fought together'... She swiftly interrupted herself before she could think about it. "What kind of 'adjustments'?"

"Organizational changes, special equipment, those sorts of things."

"Ah..." Ginga replied. She'd hoped that was he'd meant, but couldn't be entirely certain, given everything that was happening... damn, she was growing paranoid. Luckily, while the roster was fairly well done, she had noted a few things she'd have done differently.

"... first of all, I would put Cinque in command of Surge squad, and make Otto my subcommander. Otto is pretty good at getting things organized, but I think Cinque is a more natural leader."

"That'd leave Hurricane with two Rear Attackers..." Omar noted. Normally, a squad's members were supposed to be skilled in a variety of combat styles so that they'd be prepared for any situation that might arise. Of course, that also meant the squad wasn't focus on a single role, but it was generally considered an acceptable compromise, and Striker units in particular weren't big enough to specialize. Concentrating personnel by role meant that each group could be highly effective for its particular purpose… but also that each group was dependent on the others for support.

Ginga checked her datapad. "Dieci, you mean? You could move her to Surge, put Wendi in Hurricane. I'd rather have her - Wendi, that is - and Nove together... but actually, I'd rather keep things that way. Unless specializing is out of the question?"

"Hmm. I'll consider that. It's not impossible... I'll need to get clearance for roster changes, either way, so it won't happen for a few days at least."

If Striker Command was still acting spiteful, that could make things difficult. Fortunately things would work either way, so it wasn't a major concern. Ginga had one more question, though.

"You mentioned something about new equipment?"

"Yes. We have devices for all of you... custom storage devices designed hardened and optimized for your data. Doctor Atenza has also offered to make some adjustments to your own device as well."

"I don't know how popular that will be..." Ginga said. The girls had become quite used to their old gear - or at least, knowledge of its workings had been hypnopaedically imprinted into them. Still, the enemy used mass weapons - there was no way in hell she was exposing them in lightly armored AMP suits...

"Well. If there's nothing else in particular, then that's it. You've got lunch, then I'll give you your equipment, then you've got the holostage free until... 2200."

"That'll be... fun, I guess." Ginga said. "I guess I'll head to the cafeteria, then."

She quickly exited as Omar dismissed her, only to find Mariel waiting for her just outside the announcement room. "Hey, Ginga. I didn't expect to see you for a month..."

"Yeah... we'll be stepping down to once a year after that?"

"Depending on how the exam goes, probably..." Mari said. "...since you're not growing as quickly, yearly adjustments should be enough. That's... not actually all I had to say, though..."

"I thought so. I'm going to get some food, would you like to come with me?"

"I can't, I have to get the equipment set up..."

"I see."

She did so, grabbing a plate of sausage and rice, and sitting down at one of the side tables to wait for the girls. Sein was the first to arrive, inexplicably wearing a Ground Forces uniform, and looking rather uncomfortable in it.

"Why are you wearing that uniform?" Ginga asked as Sein sat down across from her, carrying her own plate.

"Quartermaster guy told us to wear them... I dunno." She replied,

"That's strange. As civilian collaborators, you don't have to wear them..."

"We're apparently 'temporary mages' now." Nove said, taking a seat beside Ginga. "Whatever the difference is."

"It's... well, it's not all that much, really

, but still... it's a principle thing."

"You really shouldn't worry about those things so much." Nove commented, in between devouring bits of her lunch. "Feels a bit... weird, though."

Ginga nodded. "The clothing itself, or wearing the uniform?" The issue probably wasn't worth stressing over now, but still left her feeling... queasy. Perhaps precisely because it was so utterly pointless - what kind of point was 'High Command' trying to make? Or was she just spiraling swiftly into paranoia?

"Kinda both." Sein said. "It's a lot better than the rags we were supposed to wear at Kuran, though. Does feel a bit..."

"Inappropriate?" Cinque suggested, walking up to stand behind Nove's chair - Ginga noted the inside of the circle on her rank badge was solid - Private First Class, as opposed to Private. They'd given them actual ranks, too?. Dieci, meanwhile, was now in line for food. "It's strange to wear this, knowing..."

"It wasn't your fault." Ginga said. "And... it's not quite the same, but I remember feeling pretty similar the first times I wore it my uniform... like I didn't belong..."

The others looked at her strangely for a moment. "Really?" Cinque asked.

"Like I said, not the same... I felt like I didn't belong... I think everyone does, actually. But I was also worried that I didn't have a choice. As if I'd somehow been... programmed to join?" Ginga replied. "Also, I knew more than most kids how... corrupt... the Bureau could be, and... I felt as if I was betraying... something... by working for them? I'm sorry. This isn't really important." Damnit, she'd been rambling on again. The truth was, for a long time, she'd suspected that the Bureau had killed her mother... That didn't turn out to be true, of course - instead, it was quite possible that Cinque had killed her mother. She'd determinedly avoided the subject, and didn't intend to stop now...

"Did you ever actually fight the Bureau?" Nove asked.

"Well... no..." Ginga replied.

Cinque frowned sympathetically. "I appreciate you telling us that, though."

"You sound like a psych." Sein said. It did certainly sound like something stolen from the Kuran's Island psychologists, but then Cinque tended to talk like that anyways…

Cinque glared at her. "Shush."

She paused for a moment, cradling her chin in her hand. "...I suppose we're both much better off than the first time I wore my combat suit. I'd just abruptly switched sides then, and it wasn't even really my choice. Moreover, I was hurt, and I'd just 'slept' the better part of a decade. Although... I didn't really think that much of it at the time."

"Heh. I was just glad to have something to cover myself with." Sein replied.

Nove scowled. "We were almost born in that suit, it doesn't count."

Ginga shuddered. She'd probably brought that upon herself, but... she did not like to be reminded of that time, and thinking about those AMP suits did nothing to help, even if, she supposed, they themselves weren't that bad...

Anyways, what was she going to do? Tell the girls they couldn't talk about a good 60-95 percent of their lives? That was seriously unreasonable, to say nothing of being terrible for all of them. She just didn't ever want to remember what it felt like... to be a helpless prisoner in her own body... and to always wonder, if she hadn't been so weak...

Meanwhile, a nearby backyard soldier suddenly seemed to realize who he was sitting next to, and hurriedly left for another table. Ginga distracted herself by glaring bitterly at him. Now that she looked... the table seemed a lot more empty than before - they practically had a twenty-person table to themselves, their only companions a pair of housekeepers a bit to the right, who shared a frightened glance and quickly packed up to leave...

"Boo." Dido said, standing directly behind them - somehow Ginga had been distraught enough she hadn't noticed her or Otto coming.

Almost immediately, both shrieked in surprise, one tipped over his chair and fell splayed out on the ground, while the other leapt up and sent rice flying everywhere. They quickly regained their composure, and backed away.

"Assholes." Nove muttered after the retreating staff. STUFF?

"Hello." Dido said, smiling slightly as she sat down next to Sein.

"What were you doing all this time, making out in the hall? There was only one bedroom left." Sein asked.

"Er... no, that's not it..." Otto stammered. "I had to confirm the arrangements: Dido and myself will take Room..."

"I don't really need to know right now..." Ginga replied. Otto was wearing a Lance Corporal's insignia, for some reason, as well as...

"Pants?" Ginga asked. "I mean, it's completely optional either way, but..."

"Habit." Otto said, shrugging.

"I'm wearing uniform pants, too." Nove said - she was, apparently Otto was somehow just more noticeable. "Anyways, we're getting a pardon once this is over, so... what are you guys going to do?"

"I don't know." Cinque said "Find someplace to live, first."

"Any idea where?" Otto asked.

"Not yet." Cinque replied. "Maybe somewhere around here, like Teadale Bluff. Or possibly…"

"That wasn't exactly what I meant." Nove said.

"You mean like work stuff?" Sein asked, impaling a bit of sausage on her fork. "Do we even need to do that? I mean, there's that… money thing."

"Annuity fund?" Ginga suggested. Every MIDAS cyborg received a rather hefty sum - 15 million Capitals each year - combination reparations and payment for silence. It was enough to live decently well on on its own, but she'd never been interested in that. For the mean time, though, it wasn't a bad idea.

"Yeah, that one." Sein said.

"Can't sit around doing nothing." Nove replied, as though it were an axiom. "Hey, Ginga, do you think you can get me a job?"

"You mean… in the Armed Forces?"

"Yeah. What I'm best at, isn't it?"

Ginga had been afraid of this possibility for a while, but… she'd hoped the Bureau wouldn't press the subject… now, though, it appeared that the conspirators had been planning this for a long time - they'd only taken advantage of the disaster to put things into motion. And everything seemed to be going perfectly for them… But Ginga was not going to allow the girls to end up press-ganged into the military just because they thought they had no other option.

"Service in the Armed Forces isn't just about fighting things. Don't do it just because you think it's expected." She snapped. Harsh, but they didn't fully understand the implications. If she wasn't a bit harsh, every bit of progress they'd made could be wiped away. Still, it wasn't exactly productive - she took a deep breath, and continued, more softly. "If you still really want to join - to protect people, not just because fighting is 'what you're best at', then yeah, I can help you. Otherwise, that wouldn't really be helping."

"You have a better idea?" Nove shot back.

"Anything other than exactly what they want you to do."

"They? Who the hell is 'they'?" Nove asked - not only was she not lowering her voice, she stood up.

"Ginga, is it really…" Cinque interrupted.

"I'm not sure. I really can't talk here…"

"Your wireless broken?"

"These are the people that wrote those encryption protocols." She whispered, leaning in closer. "The Bureau isn't all sunshine and roses."

"So why the hell did you join?!"

"That was different, my mother…"

"Nove! Ginga!" Cinque yelled, pushing in between the two of them, then quickly half-bowing, half saluting as she realized what she was doing. "Forgive me… Nove - Sein and Ginga have a point. We shouldn't rush into a decision - especially an irreversible one - without some research. However… we should also try to stay calm - sir."

Ginga took another deep breath - she wasn't upset at any insubordination - she'd lost her temper first, after all. Nove was still glaring at her a bit coldly, but she'd backed off. In the meantime, they'd attracted the attention of basically the whole cafeteria. People were staring at them in a combination of shock and morbid curiosity, shaking their heads, or purposely avoiding looking in their direction. In the distance, Donahue was gleefully taking down notes on her datapad.

"Thank you." Ginga said. "I… overreacted."

"Right." Nove replied, slumping down into her chair. The rest of the staff slowly began to resume their prior conversation. Ginga glared over at Donahue, who looked up from her notes to smirk back at her. She wasn't sure if Donahue was working - whether consciously or unconsciously - with the conspirators, or if she was just a random asshole. But… none of the Numbers were really ready to deal with the world at large yet - perhaps that was what the conspiracy was out to prove? In that case… well, they'd have a pretty easy time of it.

Sheesh. Here she was, talking about conspiracies and secret plots again. It seemed so certain but… sometimes she felt like she was going insane. Or rather, she knew she was - she thought she was starting to get over September. It was kind of ironic, but helping the girls had helped her too. Now that that was all in jeopardy, her fragile progress had, well, shattered. And it wasn't like she could take the time off to see Psych she probably should - the girls needed her now. She'd just have to do the best she…

Wendi interrupted her thoughts by sliding onto the end of the table, a little bit of rice tipping through the air. Dieci stood nearby, looking vaguely bemused, then sighed and took a seat in an actual chair.

"So hey guys, what did I miss?" Wendi asked

"Well, we were talking about uniforms…" Sein explained "What we were going to do after this is over… Nove and Gin tried to kill each other…"

"Ah, is that all?" Wendi said. "Figures."

"We were just talking." Nove said.

"You were talking very loudly." Dido noted.

"I clearly heard that argument from the bathroom." Dieci said

"Our hearing is quite good to begin with…" Otto said.

"It wasn't anything important." Ginga replied. "But can you please not sit on the table."

With a little bit of coaxing, she did so, and the conversation went back to housing plans (carefully avoiding the subject of jobs). Ginga helped as Cinque and Otto debated the merits of various housing arrangements as Dido looked on, occasionally commenting. Meanwhile, Wendi and Sein busily planned an epic journey across half of Bureau space and quite a few places beyond. Dieci periodically flitted between the two groups, and Nove sorta sulked in the direction of the vacation planning group.

Not much was actually accomplished, but no one was arguing too fervently, and it served as a nice distraction until lunch ended. Afterward, they were all called outside, in order to receive their new equipment. Lieutenant Omar and Mariel were already there waiting for them, with several storage crates laid out on or around a small folding table

"Alright, everyone. The TSAB has issued a device for each of you. These are quite a bit higher than standard issue. They've all been calibrated for your specifications, though you'll be able to adjust some of the features for yourself, and they're all outfitted with the standard equipment package - storage system with auto-equip function, barrier jacket..."

He opened one the smaller of the carrying cases atop the table, to reveal a set of squarish tabs, consisting of a thin layer of crystal sandwiched between metal - standard-pattern storage system chits, each inscribed with an ancient-style numeral.

"We already have equipment." Nove said. "What's wrong with that?"

Ginga thought it was a bit of strange question - she hadn't heard many good things about Scaglietti's equipment, from her or anyone else - though Ginga could understand why she might be a bit standoffish over this whole thing...

"Your old equipment is very... focused." Lieutenant Omar replied. "It's designed entirely to fight mages, relying entirely on Synthetic Dark Energy in order to allow the use of anti-magic fields for defense. So it doesn't process magic very well - or at all, actually - and since it's designed to fight mages, it's not likely to be effective against the invaders, who don't seem to use magic... perhaps a demonstration is in order."

"That shouldn't be necessary." Cinque said, reaching for the devices. "I'd like to see..."

"I insist." Omar said, opening the crate on the ground. Mariel pressed her palm to her face, as the lieutenant activated several buttons, and a training dummy of some sort appeared from storage... wearing a MIDAS AMP suit. Ginga staggered back in shock, before quickly recovering her footing and shaking her head. It was clothing, and couldn't hurt her.

The gorget tag was blank, but it was the same pale-blue wrapped in mid-range blue pattern as... the real thing. Apparently either Scaglietti couldn't be bothered to change the colors from default, or someone involved in this whole affair had specifically designed it to be the same - probably Donahue, although how she'd do that as a communications officer...

… actually, there was no reason to believe it was Donahue. It was unlikely she was responsible for every bad thing that way happening.

"How do you turn this thing on..." Omar asked, searching the for controls.

"There's a control panel on the back." Dieci said, leaning in to activate it. The AMP hummed to life - apparently there was some power source attached, a heavy feeling of static filling the air for a moment before stabilizing out. Several nearby lights, on in the daytime for some reason, flickered and extinguished. Mariel's computer blinked, before determinedly turning back on in monochrome.

"This is a Surinom

Technical Supplies Model 5-N4 Anti-Magilink-Projector

Suit, modified for use with SDE for the Midas project. Rubberized synthetic polymers over integrated AMF circuitry and...

"Yes, yes, we all know this." Ginga said. She wasn't supposed to be so terse with a superior officer, but... that damned suit was making it hard to concentrate on protocol.

"I didn't know that." Sein commented.

Fortunately, the Lieutenant ignored Ginga's remark, and tapped a button on his plastic wristband before remembering he'd just turned on an AMF. He retrieved a pair of rubber gloves from beneath the table, and hastily put them on manually, before inputting a code into the larger of the two boxes and carefully retrieving a large, bulky rifle-type weapon, colored steel-grey and heavily worn.

"And this is the standard armament of the enemy forces. A mid-range electric laser, and, apparently, one of the weaker weapons in their arsenal."

Omar aimed the weapon at the dummy, and fired, the instantaneous flash of light burning a trail of plasma through the air, and scorching a mark the size of Ginga's palm into the material.

He aimed upwards, the beam striking the featureless bare head - it was almost blasted clear off, only the metal framework surviving. Then he turned back down to the suit itself, firing again and again. The armored fibres blistered from the heat, enduring the first few hits with little more than black splotches. The next beams, however, sheared through the already weakened material and blasted away bits of the simulation gel underneath... Ginga felt could feel goosebumps on her skin from the static as the field flickered on and off... Twenty shots in, the AMP suit was in ribbons, the scent of burnt plastic hung in the air, and the dummy had actually broken in half, only a few smoldering bits of simulation gel remaining of the torso area.

It was an effective enough demonstration, Ginga supposed... but it was also completely pointless. Nove's obstinacy aside, no one here didn't understand the concept that a anti-magic field wouldn't work against EM weapons.

"That was twenty shots. A third of a clip. We haven't seen the enemy operate in groups of less than five." Omar concluded, shouldering the rifle and smiling broadly.

"Well... that's just a dummy, and..." Nove retorted, although she didn't seem to really believe it - Ginga doubted their bodies would fare particularly well against weapons like that laser, herself... sure, they'd probably survive getting hit by it, but it would not feel pleasant.

"Was all that really necessary?" Ginga asked.

"Probably not, but I wanted to show you what you'll be dealing with." Omar replied. He still seemed entirely too fond of his own cleverness for anyone's good. At least he seemed to try though, and would probably have the sense to stay out of the way. Plus, he wasn't Donahue, whatever her problem was.

"Please, just... take your equipment." Mariel said, shaking her head.

The girls all reached over to the box more or less at once, but it didn't take long before things were sorted out and everyone had their appropriately numbered device. Ginga decided not to be annoyed by that, because she'd probably have done the same thing. Now, she just hoped that Lieutenant Omar wouldn't launch into an in-depth description of how to activate them...

"Right. Now, to activate them, say what's written on the attached paper, and that will start the set up sequence. Then simply imagine whatever kind of jacket design you want, and the computer will take care of the rest."

Okay, that wasn't so bad.

Everyone proceeded to read their pass-phrase - a series of numbers for 'simplicity', and their storage systems flashed for a moment as they changed into their new Barrier Jackets. In terms of superficial design, they were… interesting. There was a lot of similarity to the AMP suits, especially in terms of color - there was a lot of blue involved - but also quite a few differences. The only one wearing what could be called a pure bodysuit was Sein, some of the others had tight-fitting parts of their clothes, but then, her own 'Jacket was fairly tight fitting. Actually, a few of the girls seemed to have imitated it - Nove had a somewhat similar 'armor' plate over her upper chest, although hers was more… defined - meanwhile, Dieci had a similar light bodysuit, though it was more greyish than white, and she had a knee-length waistcloak. Otto and Cinque were both wearing longcoats of some variety, Dido had a simple design vaguely reminescent of a single-shouldered dress. Meanwhile, Wendi was wearing a purple… bathing suit, complete with cleavage window.

It was simpler than usual, and it certainly wasn't high fashion, even by military standards, but they were practical enough - and far from the worst 'Jackets Ginga had seen. That honor went to a man from the 268th Ground Battalion, who, among other things, had a bird for a hat. Just a giant freaking bird, with a generator stuck in it, and mounted on his head. It may well have been a real bird, at that.

In terms of weapons, Otto and Sein both had obvious devices - some variety of SX-18 in Otto's case, and what looked like a small combat staff for Sein. Other than that, things had remained much the same, though the designs seemed perhaps a bit more angular than was typical of TSAB design. It was particularly evident with Dieci's device, which seemed to have maybe two actual curves in as many meters of it… it was odd enough it seemed like it might be worth looking up who built them.

"See?" Omar said. "Worked fine. You can control the settings through normal monitors, but they've also been set up to work through your... contact synapse ?"

Otto nodded in conformation, as a monitor opened in front of Sein, then switched through various pages, apparently by way of testing? A faint bzik sounded through the air as her 'Jacket rapidly switched on and off. "Looks good..." Sein said, clearly about to add something, before Omar cut her off.

"Great. Anyways, I'll let Warrant Officer Atenza explain the technical details. I'm going to secure the holostage."

"The holostage? Are we going to practice there?" Dieci asked.

"I expect so, we need the time to get used to new equipment." Ginga transmitted. "Plus we're all a bit out of it, so…"

"We'll see..." Dido replied.

Mari softly cleared her throat, sparing Ginga from another explanation on the flaws of hypnopaedics.

"Now, you may know most of this, but… while the Synthetic Dark Energy your systems generate operates on a different frequency from normal magic - hence why it can work through an Anti-Magic Field, it isn't fundamentally different. It's like… the difference between heat and light. This means its possible to design a Device that can work with an synchronize both - and that's what these are. Full compatibility with SDE, reinforced for high point values, and optimized for your individual magical patterns - that includes your unique abilities. It will take a little bit more energy than you're used to, since you're using your natural MPV in addition to the artificial, but overall, your performance should improve by 50 to 80 percent right now. Of course, you have full Barrier Jackets too, which will provide protection against mass or energy weapons. Given your MPV, it should be quite a bit of protection…"

"Still, don't rely on it…" Ginga noted.

"As for the specifics of your individual devices, I've been told not to describe them in detail right now, since Omar wants you to start practicing before sundown…" Mari said, shrugging. "But I've included full documentation in these datapads and the internal memory. You'll be able to customize a lot of the settings too - I've left them at something like a default for now, so you'll probably want to change them to match your own preferences… all in all, however, everything should work basically like it did before, just better - though there are few major additions, especially for Otto… and Dieci, since you've got a cartridge system now."

"I… I seem to have a stick." Sein noted, holding up her quarterstaff-like device.

"Yes. They call it the E-1A3 hybrid armed device. Capable of quickly shifting from that staff to a compressed mode mounted on the wrist… but it's still active, so either way, you'll benefit from enhanced magic. It'll increase both your offensive and defensive capabilities significantly, and it's versatile enough to do so in basically any manner you want."

"Right…" Sein said. She flicked her arm, and the 'stick' collapsed and folded away into a thin rod running down her right forearm, like a bracer. "I see that, but I don't really need any 'offensive and defensive capabilities' - I'm designed for infiltration, not combat, so Deep Diver is really…"

"Infiltration is a lot more useful if you aren't restricted to observation." Ginga said. "We have searchers for that. Phasing is potentially really powerful, but not if it's your only talent. It can't be, if you want to fight in an actual war like this." She caught herself making the same assumption as Dayvor, and corrected herself - the girls weren't her pet army, either. "I mean, if you don't want to, I understand that…"

"Yeah. You're welcome to go back to the island." Nove interjected.

"That's not what I meant, Nove. I mean, I suppose that's what would happen, but I'd totally support you, and I'm sure…"

"Enough!" Sein yelled. "I told you I wanted to help, and I'm not leaving my sisters. I just… I was never really taught anything else, so I what I know will have to be good enough."

"For what it's worth, Ginga is right..." Mari said. "But that's what the Holostage is for - so you'll have the opportunity to learn whatever it is you need to."

"Heaven knows, it's not like I don't need practice too."

"Heheh… about that." Mari said, blushing. "We actually have a series of upgrades lined up for Blitz Caliber - the same basic firmware upgrades as your sister's device, as well as integration of an ACS and Limit Break system. So… I'll need to borrow your device."

Ginga pressed her forehead into her palm. "How I am supposed to lead a training session without a device?"

"There's a Training Jacket available for you, so at least you can supervise." Mariel said, handing her a jacket wrapped up in a cardboard box. But this should only take a few hours at most. You should be able rejoin fully a little after noon."

"Couldn't we wait until tonight?" Ginga suggested. "That way I could train with the rest of the girls now, you could do the upgrades while we sleep.

"Omar wants it done ASAP, says we can't know if anything will come up in the meantime."

Something could happen during the upgrade, too, and it was important to get as much training in as possible - but she wasn't going to argue with the CO's orders in front of everyone.

"Alright." She said, unfastening Blitz Caliber from its chain and gently placing it Mariel's hand. "Just be quick."

Mariel nodded, stepped back, and practically sprinted towards the armory. Ginga changed clothes as quickly as she could, and shepherded the others to the 'stage. It was going to be an interesting day.

Hostile Dimensional Ship Crash Site, 11 kilometers northeast of Zolice.

Central Mid-Childa, approximately 540 kilometers west of Clanagan.

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar: 1046 Hours

The alarms were still blaring, and tramping footsteps seemed to echo from all around, but it didn't seem like anyone was actively pursuing them - her 'diversion' seemed to have worked… still, Nanoha realized it probably wouldn't last. They could easily outrun their pursuers, or usually out-fight them, but the enemy knew the ship well, and seemed to be everywhere, and seemed to have the ability to just materialize from a side passage that had looked like a pile of metal seconds before. And it was only going to get worse - they'd shot down the large enemy airship, but that somehow hadn't stopped it from deploying a small army on top of them…The sooner they got out of this deathtrap, the better - she hurried through the labyrinthine corridors with less than due caution, trying to catch up with her team.

Well, what was leftof her team. Their encounter with the armored soldiers, what she assumed to be some kind of enemy elites, had… destroyed them. One on one, they weren't much of threat - but when dozens of skilled soldiers spring an ambush in a confined space, without the slightest concern for their own safety, it was devastating. The team had only 'escaped' after leaving half of its members dead, including Aurand. Maybe, if she had her full strength,she'd have been able to save them - she'd overestimated her recovery… again. As it was, she consoled herself that she'd pushed herself as hard as she could, medical advice or not - after all, she'd come uncomfortably close to dying herself, though her barrier jacket had saved her - barely. Her nose was probably broken, the grenade that had been the last straw for her the jacket seemed to have bruised her all the way through, and a dozen other pains marred her body… but otherwise, the soldiers had been efficient - most of the people who had been seriously injured were killed… and their prisoner was gone, too, apparently the victim of crossfire - after all that effort to keep him from killing himself…

Nanoha caught up with the others in a a small stairwell less than a minute later - judging by the mass of unconscious crewmen strewn about the stairs, it seemed that they'd run into opposition. She spotted them at the top of the staircase, almost maniacally checking angles before moving into the upper corridor, and generally looking unbelievably haggard - though, she probably didn't look much better. One of the Enforcers, looking over the stairs, apparently saw her coming, quickly pointed his device at her…

Nanoha was stepping aside from the shot before she even fully heard the crack. It slammed into the bottom of the stairwell, carving a crater somewhat to the left of where she'd been standing.

"Hey!" Nanoha shouted.

"Captain?" The man replied, his expression more like disbelief than anything else, his otherwise dust-caked barrier jacket tattered around the collar and soaked in blood. "You're alive!"

"At the moment…" Nanoha replied, leaping to the upper platform, and glancing down the far corridor. It looked vaguely familiar - they were back on their original path. The remaining enforcers all turned towards her, expectantly. There were three of them left now: the man who'd just shot at her - his otherwise dust-caked barrier jacket tattered around the collar and soaked in blood (though she didn't look much better), Schafer, whose leg had been injured earlier, and a third she didn't immediately recognize. "It shouldn't be far now. We need to keep moving."

"How do we even know anyone in the docking bay is still alive?!" The third enforcer asked.

Nanoha paused, shaking her head. Fate was as powerful as she was on her best day, and right now, she wasn't at a quarter of her power… if anyone would be okay, it would be her. At least… that's what Nanoha was hoping. "I… we can't be sure. But Fate's with them, and we can still hear weapons fire coming from there."

"But they haven't sent us any transmissions." Vice Enforcer Kowle - that was Friendly Fire Guy's name, according to Nanoha's AVS - said.

She hadn't heard anything from Fate since after she'd told her about the earlier attack… but they were already under attack at that point, so obviously…

"They probably haven't had the chance." Nanoha said. "They're fighting right now… We don't have time to waste!"

At that, she set off towards the landing bay, the rest hesitantly falling in after her. But they were coming, and that was what was important. The route they'd taken last time took them roughly along the central corridor of the ship. She couldn't be sure, but Nanoha guessed that the Krieg presence would be particularly strong in those areas, and they couldn't afford to fight through crowds of enemies, even if everything went perfectly.

"Yes, but what if they are dead?" The third Enforcer commented.

"Then I'll destroy every last one of these bastards." Nanoha replied, not breaking step. "Raising Heart. Any suggestions for an alternate route?"

"Yes, Master. There Is A Possible Path Along The Outer Hull. Estimated Probability Of Hostile Contact, 17%. Estimated Time, 3 Minutes."

"Thank you…" Nanoha transmitted - Raising Heart opened a monitor showing the new route - unsurprisingly, it added a bit more distance to their trip, hugging the ship's port side until it came up a bit forwards of the 'docking bay'… but if they really didn't run into anyone, it'd take much less time, and hopefully have them coming in from an angle the foe wouldn't expect.

"Okay. We'll take a new route… it should get us around the enemy forces. Everyone, follow me." Nanoha said…

They moved on down the appointed route, Nanoha hurrying the group on as fast as she thought was remotely safe - though, fortunately, it seemed that their predictions had been correct, and they didn't encounter anyone else - but that couldn't last. As they ascended the elevator for the final leg of their trip, the ever present sound of weapons fire grew louder and more immediate. The four of them stood alert, devices at the ready for any sign of trouble. Slowly, gradually, the elevator ground to a halt, its huge gears shrieking. It seemed to be empty, just a long, narrow corridor ahead, choked with pipes and indecipherable mechanisms - the group moved into position, Nanoha carefully leaning behind a small column of gears and chains without actually touching them.

"I'll look ahead. Standby…" Nanoha transmitted, conjuring a searcher in her palm. She sent it onwards, weaving through the stacks, and finally passing through a door at the end of the corridor… taking it into the hall circling the docking bay. The enemy was already waiting for them, a trio of uniformed soldiers manning what looked like some kind of machine gun, with a cluster of ragged crewmen gathered around them. One of the soldiers quickly noticed the searcher, leveled his laser, and the signal winked out. Well, now the enemy knew they were somewhere around here, but it was a lot better than walking into that corridor blind…

"How thick is that bulkhead, anyways…" Nanoha asked.

"Penetration Is Possible." Raising Heart replied, answering the unspoken question. "Divine Buster, One Cartridge Sufficient."

Raising Heart highlighted the last known position of all the soldiers the searcher had seen - Nanoha backed up, signaling the others to hold for the moment, centered the machine gun in her sights, focused…

The beam tore through the piping, and the wall beyond. She chased down the path of the beam as the light faded, the rest of her team following after her, all concealed by smoke…

"Nanoha..." Fate's voice called out, resoundingly clear against the din. "… you're just in time."

Nanoha rushed out of the smoke, quickly firing a barrage at a cluster of soldiers and crewmen that hadn't been hit by the bombardment. She kept moving, heading towards a small entrance into the bay itself, as the rest of the Enforcers followed after her.

"I'm just glad we're here…" Nanoha replied

The remaining crew members started backing away, a second round of fire sending them running around the corner. Nanoha ran ahead, making her way over the slumped forms of what seemed like a dozen crewmen as she turned into the bay itself.

An enforcer stood off to the side of the door, firing at one of the soldiers along the long wall of the bay. Meanwhile, across the room, a battle was still ongoing - laser fire and Shooting bolts flashing, a crowd of armed crewmen pressing inwards. Nanoha spotted Fate in the melee, slashing through the enemy with Bardiche's Scythe Form, hair and cloak whipping through the dusty air, her every swift motion demonstrating an almost casual fervor…

But this was no time for admiration. Nanoha focused in, sending a cluster of shots towards the enemy at the outer wall, then switching targets and firing at the group in close combat… by the time Nanoha had fired a third shot, the enemy was quickly beginning to peter off, afraid to come closer - moments later, the crew scattered away in panic, the soldiers left over slowly backing away. Fate dashed forward, cleaving through two of them as she passed by - a moment later, they collapsed almost simultaneously. The remainder hastened out of the room, firing a hail of rapid-fire bolts back at them as the went…

Nanoha ran to Fate's side as the last of the enemy disappeared behind the outer wall. Bardiche switched out of scythe mode as Fate lowered it from the ready position…

"Fate!" Nanoha shouted, finally taking the time to fully account for their own group - Shario was peering out from behind a pile of crates, with Doctor Tranter devotedly working on a datapad next to her. Besides Fate, another four enforcers were scattered around the room, along with all three pilots… and there were another three lying inside the helicopters, injured or dead… adding the three more with her, that made a total of fourteen, and there was no sign of Kemmel or her team… "Is this everyone?"

Fate nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so…" She glanced towards the doorway behind her. "You drove them off, but it won't be long before they attack again. We should go."

"What about Agent Kemmel?"

"Her last transmission stated she was being overrun, shortly before you were attacked… I don't think we can do anything…"

"Yes, but…"

There was an sudden, shuddering boom as something exploded just outside the entrance, a hail of tiny fragments ringing as they impacted on the outer edge of the bay. Immediately, Nanoha's attention went to Shario and Tranter - Shari had been hit in the leg, and was curled up in pain… Nanoha ran over to her…

"That complicates things!" Fate shouted as a second boom echoed through the air as another shell detonated on impact with the ship's hull some distance down. "…we have to suppress their cannons to get out of here anyways."

"Right!" Nanoha yelled back, sliding in next to Shari. A third shell streaked past - Nanoha reacted immediately, summoning a barrier in the split second before it detonated, pattering her and the floor around her with a rain of tiny fragments. She pulled a bandage from storage. "Press this hard against the wound... You'll be fine."

Shari grimaced, but obeyed. "Th… thank you!"

"Everyone! Into the helicopters!" Fate shouted, pointing to the JF-701. "Nanoha. Help me with the rear attacks."

"Doctor, help her." Nanoha said, indicating in the general direction of the nearest helicopter, before quickly getting up and running to Fate's side.

"There's a cluster of cannons near a rock outcropping… we have to stop them."

"Alright, I understand…" Nanoha replied, nodding at Fate. She nodded back. "I see them, let's go!"

They both sped out of the bay as the helicopters began spinning up, quickly splitting up to get clear of the launch bay. Spread beneath them was a small army - a steady line of soldiers in formation, marching towards the ship; what seemed like dozens of armor-types were spread out around it; and, amidst a field of rugged boulders exposed by the impacts, a swarm of Krief soldiers manned an array of artillery pieces. Already, two of the large four-barreled weapons were turning towards them…

"That's… a lot of soldiers. We'll have to do this quickly."

"Nanoha… can you cast Stardust Fall?"

"Of course…" Nanoha replied. "…I'm not certain how powerful it'll be, but I can cast it."

"Right… don't stress yourself. I'll handle it, just focus on keeping their attention off me." Fate said, speeding up into the haze of smog, and away from the cluster of guns. Below, the left quad-cannon was rapidly tracking after Fate, while the other turned towards Nanoha herself…

She snapped Raising Heart under her arm, who instantly shifted to shooting mode as she took aim for the left gun… it was a simple platform, no discernible armor except a simple gun shield - she wouldn't need much power, just…

"Divine Buster!"

A bright-pink beam lashed out, smashing the weapon apart and sending soldiers and gun fragments into the air. After that, all attention went to Nanoha as Fate sped up towards the cloud cover. The other quad-gun emplacement was zeroing in on her - time to go.

"Flash Move." Raising Heart said - instantly, Nanoha's magic whirled around her, thrusting her to the side - she kept going, diving towards the rear of the ship - closer to the massive line of men filing inside, but out of the cannon's line of fire. A steady stream of shells chased her through the air, detonating in plumes of black smoke - but she was moving too quickly for their tracking to keep up. She wove through the air, changing direction erratically so they couldn't predict her motion, a huge explosions from one of the larger single guns flashed nearby - fortunately, it didn't like they could traverse quickly enough to effectively track her, but she quickly cast a Divine Shooter towards it, not pausing to see if it hit.

"Master. Additional Anti-Air Array Now Tracking…"

Nanoha glanced over - a third quad-gun was now focusing in on her. She dropped down a dozen meters, then turned over and sped in the opposite direction, two lines of exploding tracers following after her. She could keep dodging, though the sky was gradually filling with smoke and flying shrapnel… but if many more things started shooting at her, she'd be in trouble…

As if on cue, a large enemy armor-type broke off from the cordon, along with a block of perhaps fifty soldiers. Meanwhile, the dust clouds above were growing dark…

Just a little longer, then…

"This is Bandit One, rotors engaged, engines online." The helicopter pilot transmitted. "We are Standby Ready for liftoff."

"Hold position. We need to clear out these cannons…"

Nanoha cast shooting spells at the cluster of gun emplacements as quickly as she could, trusting in Raising Heart and their homing capacities to ensure they at least came somewhat close to hitting - but she didn't need to hit, all she needed to do was keep them shooting at her, instead of Fate.

And, thus far, they were obliging. She wove through the firestorm, circling around towards the stern, shrapnel washing off her barrier jacket like rain - but as long as she didn't get caught in the blast itself, they couldn't do much more than slowly chip away at her barrier, and at this rate, they wouldn't be able to do that quickly enough - she detonated a cartridge and quickly fired a Divine Buster at the enemy tank as she passed by - it smashed a dent in it's front plate and twisted the weapon mounted on the front into unrecognizability, but it didn't stop… there was no time to take another shot, and she quickly turned and climbed upwards, continuing to fire shots in the general direction of the enemy. Then, suddenly, the shooting almost as one, all of the guns were turning skyward. It didn't look like she could distract them anymore… alright then - she'd take them out instead.

"Raising Heart!" She shouted, holding out her arm to aim carefully at the nearest quad-gun. "Cartridge Load! Axel Shooter!"

Four bolts shot out towards the closer gun. She switched targets, and cast the other four at the further gun. They all struck home, knocking out crewmen, knocking a barrel off one cannon, and damaging the other's mount.

The Krieg barely seemed to notice, more soldiers rushing in to replace their fallen comrades like nothing had happened. The guns promptly resumed their tracking…

A laser beam zipped past her, the flash of red light a bit fainter and wider than usual - but she wasn't going to bet it wasn't still dangerous. Another beam collided with her shoulder, then two more cracked through the air.

"Fate! Could you hurry, please!?"

"One moment…" She paused, then spoke again, much quicker. "Nanoha, get clear!"

Nanoha tumbled over and flew off to the docking bay, waiting just inside. Their helicopters were idling, barriers at full power, visibly glowing in the air, but they'd still acquired some dents and small bullet holes from the bombardment. The first of the quad-guns completed its rotation, and opened up with its three remaining barrels, a steady stream of tracers flying skywards…

A moment later, a gold-tinged lightning bolt erupted from the clouds, bouncing from shell to shell as it streaked down to the gun, blasting it to scrap and tossing the crew aside like ragdolls. A trail of explosions burst across the sky where the shells had been as a second bolt hammered down into one of the larger guns, then a third, then a fourth, striking with relentless accuracy; scattering Krieg among the rocks…

"That should be sufficient…" Fate transmitted.

"It just might…" Nanoha replied.

One definite advantage of electric-aspected magic… it had a tendency to seek out metal things all on its own, and when combined with actual guidance, it virtually never missed. Perhaps ten seconds later, all the guns in the field were in various stages of disassembly, and it was somehow even more cratered and blasted than before. The Krieg soldiers had stayed at their posts, still firing their cannons at the gap, until there was nothing left to fire. And even now, more of the enemy armor-types were moving up to plug the gap. They wouldn't get another chance…

"Bandits, move out, now!" Nanoha shouted. She didn't actually have the authority to make that order, but Fate didn't countermand it, and the copters responded anyways, spinning their rotors up to full speed as they backed out of the tight space one by one, as quickly as they could without crashing. The moment they exited the docking bay, each would quickly hop over the ship and speed off at low altitude, MFS at full. The enemy fired after them, but without much accuracy Nanoha followed the last one out, doing her best to shoot down any projectiles that looked threatening… but one slipped by, an anti-air missile of some sort, striking Bandit 3's rear boom - it quickly began to lose altitude, trailing smoke as it fishtailed across the sky.

"This is Bandit 3 - we're hit! Stabilizers are damaged, trying to recover…"

"Don't panic! Use the main thrusters to compensate."

"Hold on, I'm on my way."

"Damn… hold on… got it! We're leveling out… yes!"

Fate streaked down from above, a brilliant contrail of light streaking out behind her. By herself, she couldn't stop a helicopter from crashing, but slowing its fall should be simple enough. Fortunately, she didn't need to - slowly, gradually, the helicopter leveled out, making a long turn across the sky before settling into a stable flight path, although it did seem to be moving a bit crookedly. By this point, the squad had dipped back down below the ship, using it as cover against enemy attacks.

"Bandit 3…" Fate transmitted, her relief palpable. "…What is your status?"

"Still alive… I've got it under control, but power is low… I don't know if I can make it to Decryst anytime soon."

"Understood." Fate said. "Go ahead and divert to… Solen Hill."

"Roger. We'll report back when we arrive."

"Bandit Squad, go on ahead. Nanoha and I will follow behind… ensure there are no further surprises."

Fate flew to Nanoha's side, watching as the helicopters disappeared into the smog. Even apart from her scarred barrier jacket, she didn't look good. She seemed incredibly weary - coated in dust, floating sort of slumped in the air, and her expression haggard. Nanoha didn't expect she looked much better, but it was still upsetting to see her this way… she reached out and put her hand on Fate's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Fate shook her head. "…not really."

"Me neither." Nanoha replied. She didn't expect anyone could be in these circumstances. "But… we can't stay here. Let's go home."

"Right. First, though, we finish the mission." Fate said. She pointed in a vaguely upwards direction. "I was told to call in an orbital strike if there was any resistance."

"I see…" Nanoha said. "That's pretty extreme, though…" It was more a comment than a complaint. If there was any possibility the enemy could recreate that dimensional distortion, they needed to destroy the ship.

"Command can make the final decision." Fate replied. She paused, her brow creased in concentration for a moment… "We just need to get a bit further away to contact Hetaconchires."

"Let's try to get out of this dust." Nanoha said. "Come on."

They flew away, heading out to around 10 kilometers from the ship, and rising up above the pall of dust. Nanoha thought she could faintly see the dark silhouette of the enemy ship, and it definitely, if somewhat hazily, showed up on searchers. Hopefully, the enemy wouldn't be able to target them through the interference.

"Got it!" Fate said, pausing for a moment. "Hold on, I'll patch you in."

"We've just left the enemy ship. Relay this information to Enforcer Command."

"Understood." Someone aboard the Hetaconchires replied, "We are Standby for firing order."

"Not yet. I'll let them make that decision."

"Alright…"

"Just recieved the response. Transmitting it now."

"Lightning. This is Anton Boyle. Your previous orders stand." The transmission began, annoyance clear even through the distortion. "Authorization Code: Nova-97 SEALORD. All weapons on Hetaconchires are available at your discretion - just level that ship."

"Understood." Fate said. She grit her teeth, holding Bardiche forwards. Even if it had to be to be done, having to order an orbital barrage on Mid-Childa couldn't be fun…

"Locking On." Bardiche said.

"We have the target. Target Angelwing, four shots… there's an AMF, but you should be able to break through…" She hesitated, for a moment. "Fire."

"Angelwing, four shots… firing."

"Away."

The next few seconds were eerily quiet, with nothing but the wind to break the silence. Nanoha looked upwards, searching the sky for the four bright streaks of light that would come hurtling down at any moment, looking something like titanic versions of a normal shooting spell wrapped in lightning, striking the ground with more collective force than half a dozen Starlight Breakers on her best day. Depending on how high Hetaconchire's orbit actually was - Nanoha wasn't sure, it could take anywhere from around five seconds to a minute. For now, though, nothing was happening…

"Impact." The Hetaconchires officer said. "Standby for BDA, but from here, it looks like the whole stern is collapsing…"

Nothing continued to happen. Angelwing shots moved quickly, so she could have missed them, but an orbital strike wasn't something you just didn't notice. Had they somehow missed badly enough the shots didn't hit anywhere near them? Had they been harmlessly absorbed by the enemy's strange anti-magic barrier? But neither explanation explained why Hetaconchires thought they'd succeeded.

"Negative… I can't see anything." Fate replied, seeming just as confused.

"Say again, Lightning… no damage?" The Fleet officer asked. "What stopped it, the AMF?"

"No… it didn't even seem to have hit."

"That can't be possible. We have the target on viewscreen, the shot just hit…" The officer said, his voice increasing fast with each sentence. "…every sensor we've got confirms…"

It hadn't hit the target. It couldn't have. But if Hetaconchires had fired, then… where didit hit?

"I didn't see an impact at all… coordinates 48.105 West, 138.745 North?" Fate asked.

"Yes, the coordinates are right!" The officer snapped back. "Every sensor we've got shows impact…"

"Could something be wrong with your sensors?"

"That's a very specific error…" The officer said. "I mean, I see the enemy on my screen, and the damage doesn't look like a glitch… Could they crack us?"

"I don't think so…" Fate said.

"This is… Lightning A-1." Nanoha interjected. "I agree, the technology I saw in there didn't seem sophisticated enough."

"Well, I know we fired… where did those shots go?"

"I don't know…" Nanoha replied. "But it wasn't around here."

"Damn… well, they probably wouldn't have been locked on to anything, so they'll just fly off into space. Or maybe land in the ocean…" The officer said, though he sounded more hopeful than confident. "We can fire again, if you wish, but…"

"No. We can't just launch naval scale weapons without knowing for certain where they're landing."

"Probably a good idea. Captain wants to run a diagnostic either way, possibly reboot the system. You can ask Anton Boyle if you want, but…"

"…You couldn't respond in any event."

"Basically. We'll work something out for targeting once we regain communication."

"Try to find out what happened. For now…" Fate replied. "Transmission Ends."

Nanoha sighed. "There's nothing more we can do here."

"Let's head to Decryst." Fate said "Figure everything out when we get there."

"Yeah…"

Fate turned and flew off in the direction of Decryst. Nanoha spared one last look into the dust cloud before following after her.

Northern District, City of Harpin's Curve

South-Central Mid Childa, 464 Kilometers south of Clanagan

April 28th, Year 76 of the New Calendar, 1042 Hours

Two cartridges detonated as Subaru tightened her fist. A sphere of light began to gather in front of her, between the runes she'd summoned...

"Divine..." The strange walking machine halted, and gradually began to turn. The light shone like a beacon now - there was no way the Orks hadn't noticed. Subaru didn't care - she didn't feel like even attempting subtlety.. Sure enough, a moment later projectiles began raining through the office walls.

"Buster!" Subaru shouted, the incantation, slamming her fist into the sphere of light. The beam of energy surged forward, smashing through the side of the walker. She didn't bother checking whether or not it had been destroyed before leaping down from the overhang, sliding up beneath the gigantic machine, and punching its leg joint as hard as she could - she thought she'd broken something, so she used the momentum of that strike to spin left, and Mach Caliber accelerated her away, towards the nearest Ork.

"Dere he is! Get 'im!"

Bullets went everywhere - some were shooting at the office where she had been, while zipped past - or impacted heavily against her barrier jacket - as the Orks swarmed in. Subaru rapidly closed on her target, who roared, shaking his axe as he charged - but she was moving much more quickly, and crashed her fist into his chest with all her momentum before he could properly react- he flew away, tumbling over as Subaru followed up with a second strike to the head. A split second later, a round thudded into the back of her neck - her barrier stopped it, but still... she quickly turned, as another Ork rushed up from behind, bellowing as he swung a serrated blade as long as her whole arm. She caught it in the armored palm of her right hand, and shoved the sword aside to deliver a snap kick to the chin. She pulled back her fist to follow up, but the Ork recovered quicker than she expected, slashing with the huge knife - it scraped across her left leg, barely breaking the skin through Subaru's barrier jacket. Her own uppercut threw him just a bit into the air - just as the Ork with the big gun turned towards her, realizing no one was in the office. More bullets flew around her - the Ork she'd just been fighting's right arm just... exploded - and something struck her right shoulder with a sharp sting.

Her barrier was weakening - she had to get out of the way. She turned left, and skated into the stacks. The Ork's fire chased after her, one of the crates exploding from a critical containment breach that collapsed the whole end of the stack in an avalanche of falling crates and screeching metal - they couldn't follow her very easily. She checked her shoulder - the scorched and torn fabric of her barrier jacket was stained red, and there was a sharp pain when she tried to move her arm too much... it hurt, but she'd live. She could worry about treating it later - her body would stop the bleeding and pain on its own, but she paused for a moment to reload her cartridges - she was down to one, if she'd counted right - and hopefully restore some of her barrier.

"Mach Caliber." Subaru said

"Barrier At Fifty-One Percent and Rising. The Orks Are Pursuing. Walker-Type And Two Others... Knockdown."

"We have to knockdown the one with that big gun... any ideas?"

"He Does Not Seem To Be Moving Into The Stacks. Designating." Mach Caliber replied. "Outflank Remaining Forces And Engage. Alternatively, Fall Back And Eliminate With Bombardment."

The first option was basically what she was already thinking of, although she wasn't sure she could win a straight fight, and there was always a chance they'd find... her charges. She had mana to spare for another Divine Buster, so that wasn't a terrible option... but it'd destroy a lot of crates - which might set off a chain reaction and blow up the building, or something... or it might just attract more attention.

Attract attention...

"I've got an idea. We still have the second D-Cartridge, right?"

"Correct."

"Can you access the... um... inventory for this warehouse?"

"I Believe So. What Are You Looking For?"

"Something that explodes." Subaru replied.

"I See... An indicator flashed in Subaru's vision. "A Container Full Of Industrial Decontaminants

. Highly Unstable."

"Good enough, I guess. Roller Inactive Mode.." Subaru said. She had a plan now, of sorts. All she had to do was do it - the mental conversation hadn't taken as long as a verbal one, but the Orks had to be closing in. She switched to infrared, and quickly looked around - just in time, an Ork was about to round the corner ahead. She rushed ran forwards to meet him, grabbing a smaller - but still heavy - crate off the shelf as she went by. As he began to round the corner, he passed by, raising his gun as he saw her - and Subaru spun, hurling the crate at him with both hands. It fell open somehow, spewing stuffed bears as it sailed through the air, but Subaru didn't stay long enough to see if it connected, sprinting down the passageway - although the deep incomprehensible curse bellowed after her suggested it at least came close. She took cover between aisles, waiting for the Orks to close in before hurrying off down another corridor. Her boots made a very loud clinking against the concrete floor, so hopefully they could keep track of her. As long as she stayed ahead of them, she could basically lead them to the other side this way...

"Quit runnin and fight, humie!" One of the Orks shouted, taking a couple shots at her. She sprinted down a few more hallways, more bullets and an incoherent shout of rage chasing her.

She sprinted further on to the solvent crate, hoping she'd have enough time - and soon, she found it, sitting on the lowest level of the rack. Heavy footsteps pounded nearby... She opened the storage system, rapidly stacking boxes of whatever this was next to the shelf's support. They were getting close now… She placed the D-cartridge on the back of the crate...

"I'LL SKRAG YA, GIT!"

Mach Caliber shouted a warning, a moment too late. Subaru looked up just in time to see one of the Orks barreling towards her, shaking a large axe trailing what looked like locks of hair behind it. She immediately raised her arms, summoning a barrier - but not quite quickly enough. He ran in close, but he didn't use the axe - instead, he just slammed his huge, spiked boot into her chest.

It didn't feel all that much better. She flew backwards, slamming into the nearby shelf. The Ork pressed in, stomping down on top of her - once, twice… even through her Barrier Jacket, it hurt like hell, and knocked the breath out of her for a moment… then, the Ork pressed down on her, digging the cleats into her skin… she could barely move - she was strong, but it had to weigh around 300 kilos, and had the advantage of leverage… he raised his axe for the killing blow…

Subaru could still move her legs well enough - she booted him in the crotch, but only seemed to get angrier, recovering in an instant and swinging the axe down at her - she raised her arm to block, but a moment too late - the jagged edge bit into her chest - shallow, thanks to her barrier, (and armor) but too close. Immediately, the Ork drew the weapon back and struck again - her hand already in position, Subaru caught it, forcing the blade away - growling, the Ork bore down on her, close enough that its rotten breath was nauseating… summoning all her strength, physical and magical, she slammed her heel into his left knee - the leg that wasn't on top of her - unlike the groin shot, that had an effect.

With a bestial roar, he reared back, stepping off her long enough for Subaru to roll out from under him and into a crouch. He swung his axe at her neck, and she quickly leaned backwards to avoid it - luckily, she was flexible enough, the weapon skimming just over her nose… and through the one of the shelf supports. Slowly, with a groan of tearing metal, it started to fall. Subaru leapt back as much as she could from her crouching position, and quickly crawled away, one box smashing down decimeters from her feet. The Ork wasn't so fast - glaring up and yelling, more angry than concerned as a dozen crates piled down on him. Hopefully it wouldn't prevent the charge from going off…

"The D-Cartridge…"

"In place." Mach Caliber replied.

Subaru nodded. Weapons fire boomed out, probably aimed in her general direction. The rest of the Orks would certainly have heard that…

A moment later, the Ork's fist burst out of the pile of crates.

"Time to go…"Subaru said, sprinting towards the nearest side wall. Mach Caliber switched to Roller Mode mid-step, and she sped onwards, a handful of projectiles rattling through the stacks around her as she leapt into the air.

She punched into the wall with full force as she flew, smashing through the corrugated metal into the open city beyond. She immediately cast a Wing Road, catching herself in midair and riding it in an arc back to the front of the building. She could see the windows she'd looked out of as the Orks were arriving, Jone and Teras and whatshisname should be just behind it, but she couldn't really get them out without breaking through the wall… which would certainly attract attention, and she didn't trust the office walls to block a single enemy bullet…

"Mach Caliber…" Subaru whispered "If I detonate now, will they be hurt?"

"Uncertain. Result Dependent On Warehouse Contents. Rough Estimate: 5% Chance."

That was a small chance, but… she'd seen enough people die today, and…

She shook her head. If she delayed any more, they would all die. She couldn't be the type of person to hesitate - she wasn't the type of person to hesitate.

"Detonate."

"Detonating." Mach Caliber transmitted, a slow, rumbling explosion rippling out from the center of the warehouse. The ground shook as crates arced into the air, one of them exploding in a brilliant white flash as its storage system collapsed. The warehouse was already burning fiercely, and the flames were spreading… but it hadn't reached this side of the warehouse. That would certainly be a distraction… assuming any Orks survived… actually, come to think about, every Ork in the city would see that.

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea…

She switched to exographic to check that no one was too close to the wall, and broke through. Jone and Teras both leapt up in surprise at her sudden appearance, but they otherwise looked unharmed. Her plan was working! They still needed to get out of the city, but it was working!

"What was that?!" Jone asked. "What's happening?"

"I might have… blown stuff up?" Subaru replied. "Cmon, we have to get out of here before more Orks come to investigate."

She dispelled the Wing Road she'd taken to the front of the warehouse, and summoned a new one leading straight down. She picked up the husband, checking to make sure he was still stable.

"Is this… safe?" Teras asked, hesitating to step onto the Wing Road. "I guess it's some kind of barrier…"

"Yeah, pretty much. Don't worry, though, it's solid as a rock."

He hesitantly stepped onto the Wing Road, then quickly ran down as he realized it was, in fact, solid. Jone followed closely after. "We've gotta to stay off the main roads…" Subaru said. She wasn't really familiar with this part of the city, but first, they had to get out of the immediate area. She started leading the group away from the burning warehouse, planning to hopefully make it a bit of the way north along one of the nearby rows of warehouses. The rest of the way, she didn't really know what she'd do, but Mach Caliber quickly found the maps and transmitted them to her datapathic implants. It was too risky to take the main roads… so they'd follow the side streets through the unpopulated portions of the factory districts.

That… didn't last very long. Maybe a minute later, another group of Orks passed by - fortunately, they didn't notice Subaru's group hiding behind a nearby… tank thing - they seemed to be heading towards the warehouse, maybe they were too preoccupied. But, as they kept moving into the factory district, there just seemed to be more and more of them - first a few roaming groups of five or so, and a few alone or in pairs - Mach Caliber could lead them around the groups, and she could beat the loners, so it wasn't really terrible at first - then, they started seeing larger bunches - clusters of fifteen, twenty, thirty Ork signatures, and there were more of them, plus a erratic fuzz of individual contacts. Most of the Orks were inside buildings, but there were still a lot moving around. They were nearly caught by a large group of Orks rapidly exiting an annex office, and had to sprint nearly a block to the nearest adequate concealment. Alone, she could fight them - but it too was much of a risk to the others.

"This was supposed to get us out of danger…"

"This Is Best Available. All Possible Routes Require Hostile Contact."

"Crap… If we get in a fight, I'm not… not sure I can protect Jone and Teras. Are you certain?"

"Ninety-Eight Percent Confidence. Apologies."

"If we just stay here… maybe go back to Karol's house?"

"General Southwards Ork Movement. Projections… Poor." Mach Caliber replied, bringing up a monitor to display the situation. There weren't just a lot of Orks to their North anymore - they'd been spreading out to the south, leaving Subaru's group surrounded. There were enough that whether they stayed here, moved on, or headed back towards the city, they'd be found. And, from what they'd seen already once they were found, even by a relatively small group, the others would probably hear the fight and investigate…

Actually, maybe there was a chance… she noted an especially large group of Orks near a massive industrial complex.

"I think… we can't get away as a group, but maybe… if I go here, keep them busy… they might be able to get away while the Orks are distracted."

"That Plan Seems Flawed. You Must Rendezvous With Captain Halstadt Alive."

It was pretty dangerous, yeah… but there didn't seem to be any other choice.

"I'm not trying to die. I have a better chance of getting out by myself than all of us together."

"The Injured Civilian?"

"Maybe they can wait here… or he might wake up… I know it's not a good idea, but it's all I have…"

"The Most Favorable Option Is To Leave Alone." Mach Caliber noted. That was pretty obvious, yeah, but it wasn't a real option.

"Yeah, but… there has to be some…" Subaru began. If they couldn't go through the city, then maybe they could go over it? Wing Road could go pretty high, after all, maybe if they just climbed to a few hundred meters or so…

"What about Wing Road? We could just walk overhead." She continued.

"Perhaps." Mach Caliber said. "Certain To Reveal Our Position, However."

That was… pretty obvious, but if they got out fast enough, it wouldn't be a problem. Though… the others would probably have to climb at a pretty shallow angle, so it'd take a while actually climb it. it'd probably work… but it'd be really obvious, too. The Orks might follow them, or hit them with a lucky shot from below… or, actually, now that she thought about, just shoot at them enough to break the Wing Road - it was a barrier, after all, and a pretty weak one - it couldn't take that much punishment before it shattered. One more useless idea… they couldn't stay, they couldn't leave on the surface, they couldn't leave in the air…

That was when she remembered - Harpin's Curve wasn't a coastal city like Clanagan, but there were apparently still floods, or something, since there were more than a few storm drains around town - nothing like the caverns at the capital, but still… if they couldn't go over the town, maybe they could go under.

"I've got another idea." She said out loud, skating over the nearest window.

"Master?" Mach Caliber asked.

Subaru looked up and down the street - sure enough, a small entrance to the drains was there at the edge of the walkway, covered to make sure no one lost anything in it - but there was a small access hatch on top of it… they could get in easily enough.

"I was thinking… maybe we could use the drains. Get around without being seen? Maybe?"

"Possible." Mach Caliber replied, after a moment. "Searchers Detect 70% fewer Ork reactions. Uncertain If No Contacts Will Be Present. It Appears To Be Our Best Option. Apologies - I Did Not Consider It Before."

"S'okay, you can't… can't know everything." Subaru said. She couldn't really blame anyone for making mistakes… "Besides… we've got it now."

"Correct." Mach Caliber said. "…There Is A Gap In Enemy Presence. We Should Move."

"Uh… Jone. I think I know how we can get out of here."

"R - really? How?"

"Well, there are all these runoff drains… if we take those, we should be able to get to the park."

"The sewer… ah, well, if it gets us out…"

"Right! Wait here a bit, I'll open it up…" Subaru replied. She quickly skated over to the drain, and opened the hatch - it was locked, of course, but that didn't last very long. There was no sign of Orks in the vicinity, aside from the distant pounding of mass weapons… wasn't the battle supposed to be over?

Anyways, she called the others over, and went back to pick up Jone's husband, switched to Roller Inactive, carefully climbed down the ladder. Smooth, damp concrete tunnels stretched out in either direction, too narrow for Subaru to stand fully, and pitch black beyond a few meters.

"Unable To Access System Map." Mach Caliber noted. "However, It Corresponds With Street Layout."

"That'll work." Subaru replied. She called up the street map they'd been using earlier, and activated Revolver Knuckle's illuminator. The fastest would be a pretty much straight one, so at least that was simple…

"Alright, everybody… let's go." She said, leading off into the darkness.

The underground trip was mercifully boring. They could sometimes glimpse Orks on the roads at the actual drains, but they were never noticed - and they'd have never fit into the pipes anyways. The route had collapsed, been blocked off, or just never existed in some places, so they'd had to backtrack a bit, but it wasn't a major problem.

Ten-something cramped and wet minutes later, they had finally reached Piere Manufacturing Park, with only another Subaru sidled up to the drain, and peered out. A few fires smoldered nearby, several trees were uprooted, and the central statue broken… off to the side, someone was talking…

"Looksit, dis one got anuva of those gubbins… 'elp me yank it." That someone said. The voice seemed too high-pitched to be an Ork…

"Yank it yerself! Boss says to get some shootas… there ain't no shootas here. Ain't a shoota in this stupid lot…" Another voice said. There was no recognizable reaction or heat signature, but the sound was clearly coming from somewhere off to the side.

"But 'deze bits sparky!"

"There's someone here…" Subaru said. "I'll check."

She tore the bars off the drain entrance and crawled through - there was just enough room to squeeze past. Two of the small green creatures were clambering over a nearby car, apparently trying to strip it of parts. They yelped in surprise, scrambling off the car. One fired his pistol at her, the shot only bouncing off her barrier jacket. Subaru quickly pulled her legs through the gap, and rose…

"Humies innit s'posed to-" the gun-critter began. He didn't quite finish the sentence - in an instant, Subaru was upon them, ducking low to strike the first, then leaping over the car after the other…

"No Additional Reactions." Mach Caliber said.

Sure enough, there was nothing else alive in the park… but it was clear that the battle had passed through here. Craters marred the sides of nearby buildings, several cars had been abandoned in the road - then torn apart or overturned, and a group of mages were slumped nearby, laying in a pool of blood. More bodies were scattered about; some orks, some human - a few more TSAB, but mostly civilians. The sound of weapons fire continued to echo in the distance… though she hadn't heard much in the way of magic attacks… that couldn't be a good sign…

"I think it's clear." She called out, lifting the access cover off the storm drain, and helping the others out. They all moved over to the shelter of a nearby bench, which, admittedly, didn't offer much protection. Dozens of columns of smoke rose around them - it looked almost like half the city was on fire. One of the largest blazes seemed to be centered on the warehouse she'd exploded.

Oops…

There was nothing she could do now about any of the fires… or the Orks. All she could do was watch and wait while her adopted home disintegrated before her…

It wasn't very fun.

A few minutes later, Subaru heard a low growling off in the distance, getting closer quickly… at least it was a distraction.

"What is that?" Jone whispered.

"I don't know…" Subaru replied. "Stay down."

However, she stood up, trying to locate the source of the sound… it seemed to be coming from down one the larger roads… A moment later, she spotted the source - a vehicle, barreling in from one of the side streets, black smoke billowing from it. As it grew closer, she got a better look - it was some kind of small truck, with a what looked like a plow make of spikes at the front. It had to be some kind of Ork vehicle… she moved out to confront it, shifting into a fighting stance…

Something seemed off, though. It had a weapon up top, but no one to fire it… as it approached, it veered off, screeching to a halt alongside her. Up close, it was even stranger that it had looked before - a high cab with a huge, knobby tires, a cargo bed that almost seemed to small for its considerable size, plates of metal crudely fastened to every available surface, a sharpened snowplow with an array of spikes attached, and huge air intake sticking out over it. It made a loud thunk-thunk sound as it rocked back and forth, and the door flung, open, revealing…

"Need a ride?" Emelia shouted, looking down at her from the vehicle's high steel bench seat, her device laid next to hear, looking comically small as she stretched to operate the giant metal-studded steering wheel and a strange array of pedals. Doctor Ryker sat in the seat opposite her, looking slightly pale.

"What is…"

"The Orks were kind enough to lend me a vehicle. You said you have civilians with you?"

"Three… one too injured to walk." Subaru replied. Something in the vehicle seemed to explode, and a blast of smoke and flame billowed out of the front compartment. "Are you sure this thing is… safe?"

"Not remotely… hasn't exploded yet, though."

"Yet…" Ryker noted ominously.

"It'll get us out of the city, at least. Some genius set off a bomb in one of the warehouses… now the whole district is on fire, and the Orks are swarming towards it…"

"Eheh… well… that might have been me." Subaru replied, trying not to look too embarrassed. "… we should probably go."

"Oh." Emelia said. "…Anyways, yes, we should probably go. Climb on."

Subaru nodded, and gestured to the others. Seeing that the occupants of the truck hadn't attacked yet, Teras had already stepped out from behind the bench, and Jone followed after him. Subaru quickly helped them all into the back of the truck, then climbed in after.

"Ready when you are." Emelia transmitted.

"Hold on, guys." Subaru warned. There was nothing approaching restraints in the back of the vehicle, so they ducked down and desperately held on to the edges. Hesitantly, she knocked on the back of the cab… "Go."

The vehicle made another 'bang' sound and shook, the engine roaring for a second before they suddenly sped away - despite their precautions, the others promptly toppled over into the bed, struggling to recover… Less than a minute into the trip, Subaru felt somewhat uncomfortable. As they moved out into the edge of the suburbs, she'd decided that this was quite possibly the worst vehicle ever. An assortment of pipes billowed smoke directly into their faces, there was nothing but a rusted metal slab for seats, the engine was deafeningly low, and despite traveling relatively slowly, the wind whipped furiously around the open bed and the truck bucked violently when it passed over the smallest root or gap. Teras was puking over the side - at least mostly over the side - but they were out of the city. No one said anything, but she… she wasn't happy to see it go. Her comrades, her new home, her job… she had to leave all of that behind. There had to be tens of thousands of people left in there with all the Orks… and the fires, and the broken buildings, and the power outages, and the lack of food or water - one of the problems with being a Rescue Officer was learning just how bad things could get.

She knew she had to leave. There was no way one person, even a Combat Cyborg, could rescue an entire city, or defeat an entire army of monsters. But, she'd done the best she could… even if it wasn't that much, it was still - she looked over at Mrs. Jone - it was still something.

She wiped her eyes dry for a moment. Besides - she'd be back. After all, she was a Mage - anyone who threatened the citizens would have to be…

Then, Subaru spotted something moving behind them - it was coming closer, and she quickly recognized it as some kind of vehicle… actually, several, motorcycles of sorts - but they were bigger than any motorcycle she'd ever seen, a leather-clad Ork warrior riding each one.

"Get down!" Subaru said, nudging the others to stay inside the bed. Maybe if they weren't seen, the Orks would assume the truck was still one of their own - they hadn't seemed too bright… Destroying would come later, when the civilians weren't in danger.

"There's a bunch of Orks on bikes here! I think if…"

At that point, the Orks opened fire, impacts smashing into the ground around the truck. The motorcycles veered from side to side, spreading out. Their own vehicle seemed to abruptly accelerate, but the bikes were still gaining ground on them.

"Nevermind." Subaru finished. Looked like that bit was coming now after all.

"Oh, this is great…" Emelia replied. "I don't think we can outrun them…"

"No…" Subaru transmitted. They weren't going to just go away, and she didn't think their own vehicle was fast or agile enough to escape, and if they fought, the civilians would be defenseless - unless…

"I'm going to distract them." She said. "Get out of here."

"Wait, what are you planning?" Emelia asked. "Don't…"

Subaru had already crawled to the back of the truck-bed. "I can fight them." She leapt over the rear bed, landing in a crouch just behind the truck. She quickly turned her heels, a plume of dirt arcing into the air as she slowed down. A second after she landed, a wave of impacts tore craters around her - she quickly cast a barrier, several more projectiles impacting against it.

"Gear Second."Mach Caliber said - top speed on this kind of ground was impossible, but Subaru needed all she could get… she sped off to intercept the Ork furthest to the right, tearing a path through the grass. He had already begun to turn, facing his bike towards Subaru.

"I won't let you touch them!" She shouted.

"Damnit, you're the one I'm supposed to be rescuing!" Emelia transmitted.

The Ork in front of her roared, barely audible over the sound of engines, then opened fire with the pair of huge guns attached to the front of his motorcycle - plumes of dirt scarred the ground around her, bits of shrapnel glancing off her Barrier Jacket, but luckily, their accuracy with this kind of weapon wasn't any better than before.

"If you want to fight…" Subaru continued, veering off to the side, weaving through the trees - she was bouncing wildly over the rough ground, but he could only hit what his bike was facing, so heading through the underbrush was worth it… in the distance, the other two Orks were firing on the Truck - Emelia was obviously doing her best to evade, but was obviously restricted by the forest, and a steady stream of impacts pinged onto its hull… no time to waste.

The Ork careened about, a hailstorm of projectiles tearing trees to pieces as he futilely tried to get her in his sights… Subaru ducked as she quickly crossed in front of him, then spun and rocketed off back towards him.

"Then come and get me!" Subaru shouted.

"This stuff is what I'm good at!" She transmitted, punching the Ork as she sped by. "I'll be fine!"

The remaining Orks broke off their attack on the truck, heading straight for her, whooping over the roar of the engines as they closed in. Meanwhile, the Ork she'd just hit wobbled, spun out… and recovered…

'I hope' she thought. First things first - get out of the line of fire. Evade, Manuever, Overwhelm, that was how it went, right? She'd go over them… she arced a Wing Road upwards, over the Ork's heads… if this worked…

The moment Mach Caliber's wheels hit the bridge, she sped upwards, the Orks quickly closing and opening fire in their typical wide cone… but even they couldn't miss this entirely, and the barrier shuddered with the impacts… her target wasn't far in front… she checked behind her, at the first Ork - yep, he'd taken the bait, and was currently chasing her up the 'Road… just a moment more…

The Wing Road suffered one too many hits, and she lost control of the spell - too soon. The bridge 'cracked' and shattered - Subaru quickly leapt off, but she was still in front of the Orks, giving them a clear line of fire…

"Revolver!" She shouted as quickly as she could manage. "Shoot!"

The shockwave put the two riders off balance just long enough - she veered toward the one of the left, preparing to strike…

This time, she aimed low, punching through a hopefully-important looking strut on the motorcycle - she zipped past, and quickly skidded about… the left (now right) Ork quickly lost control, tumbling into the ground, while the one from before was already down - apparently being dropped out of the air did the trick. The last, however…

"We've got some more company…" Emelia said. "Another group, catching up quick…"

Not good… she had to move quickly, but she couldn't just turn away… "Cartridge Load!"

Subaru sped forwards on the last Ork, still spinning about, a hurricane of shells flying in every direction - her Barrier Jacket blocked one over her chest, knocking the breath out of her - but she closed in, slamming the last Ork with an uppercut that sent him flying out of his bike… she leapt into the air after him, and slammed her boots into his chest. He went flying into the ground, and she flipped around to land on her feet, heading in the opposite direction.

She was almost surprised that actually worked… "Hold on… I'm coming." She transmitted, setting off towards the truck.

At that moment, a rocket veered erratically through the air, slamming into a tree near the truck. She scanned the area, and quickly identified a new pair of motorcycles closing in from the side - with a another two motorcycles and some kind of large motorized three wheeled sled carrying the missile launcher further behind… if she went after the two closing in, it'd leave her exposed to the others, but if she chased those, the first pair would be free to attack the truck…

It was obvious what she had to do… wait, maybe she could at least reduce the threat… it would be mana-intensive, but she wouldn't hesitate, and there couldn't be many more left over…

She slowed down a bit, enough so she could aim somewhat effectively and wasn't spending too much mana, focusing in on the tricycle. She began concentrating mana…

"Mach Caliber… Cartridge Load… Barrel Lock…" She incanted, more energy gathering at her palms… she noticed the missile gunner aiming for her - no time to spare…

"DIVINE BUSTER!"

Subaru punched the sphere, the beam thundering over the grounds to hit the rear of the cart - which was enough to send it spiraling into the air as it disintegrated. Meanwhile, a missile was drifting somewhat lazily in her own direction…

"Gear… Excellion! Wing Road!" She shouted. "Activation Serial 0-04, Code B-982…" She added to herself, warmth filling her chest as energy flooded through her body. She'd need every advantage she could get, and with the bridge underneath instead of rough dirt, she could manage…

"Maximum Power!"

"Yes Sir!" Mach Caliber said - instantly, Subaru accelerated, speeding along the glowing path in front of her… she moved to pass in front of the truck, so she could attack from a different angle… hopefully. Meanwhile, the truck's own weapon opened fire on the approaching Orks - manned by Doctor Ryker, apparently - though swift return fire sent him ducking back towards the cabin… probably not going to be terribly effective…

Subaru arced in front of their truck, careful to dispel the Wing Road behind her… the air thundered around her as she approached top speed, banking her path into the air to avoid slowing down… something flew off the back of the truck, though she couldn't identify

"New Reactions Incoming." Mach Caliber announced. "Approximately Eleven, One Vehicle South… Six Northeast… Approximately Five-Hundred Eighty West…"

How many? That was practically battalion-strength… and right in their path, if she remembered her directions right. It didn't seem right… at the moment, however…

She zeroed on the Ork on the right, as he caught up with the truck… he was already half-standing, steering with his feet, and leapt aboard the moment he got close enough, firing his pistol at Ryker. Simultaneously, too fast to do anything, he casually scooped up Teras, and threw him over the side. Subaru shifted directions, now aiming for Teras as he flew through the air… she slowed down, working with Mach Caliber to match speed at the last moment… praying not to miss - and caught him. The boy emitted an 'oof' sound and lay still in her arms, unconscious. She spun, heading back towards the truck… she couldn't fight carrying him, and she couldn't drop him, but she didn't know what else to…

The Ork was still on the truck, climbing up the turret. He pulled some cylindrical object from his vest, bit it for some reason… and a shooting spell hit him in the center of his eyes, the stick spinning into the bed as he stumbled backwards. Ryker emerged from the cockpit, gripped the truck's weapon, and fired into the Ork - blood and flesh fountained from his chest, as he roared, raising his pistol. A moment later, with what seemed like more holes than Ork in him, he tumbled off, only to be run over.

"Western Contact Cluster… AVS Confirmed As Elements Of 1038th Aerial Battalion." Mach Caliber explained.

That was a real relief… not only were they not almost certainly dead, but they were almost away, then - nothing was going to touch them under the shadow of an Aerial Forces battalion. All they had to do was survive the next few seconds.

Doctor Ryker shouted something, raising his fist into the air, turning to fire at a second truck, this one carrying a large group of Orks. Subaru caught up with their truck, carefully setting Teras down next to his teary-eyed mother, before turning off towards the second bike… quickly gaining speed before smashing her fist into his chest, sending him flying away to crash into a nearby tree.

"Damnit… We've got another like this truck on the left… focus on the bikes! There's a huge group coming in, but it looks like friendlies. I'm heading straight for them."

"Right… if you can…"

The no less than eight bikes pursuing directly after them were now closing in, making an erratic path through the trees. Subaru gritted her teeth, accelerating straight towards them. She prepared a shield…

In under a second, a dozen shooting spells slammed down amongst the Orks, followed by several more. Two of the bikes fell, then a third… the rest turned, and started driving away, heading for a distant gully. Off to the right, the other truck was following after them… two seconds later, a bombardment spell pierced through its cabin - it ran out of control, coming to rest in a ditch, on fire as Orks piled out of it…

"Of course! It's the 1038th!" Emelia exclaimed. "About time they showed up!"

"Yeah. Nice entrance, too!" Subaru replied.

She deactivated the various systems she'd turned on as she moved back to the truck - up above, through the treetops, she could just make out the trails of flying mages… although what they could do, she wasn't sure - the city was already lost… she'd made it out, if only because she'd been forced to leave. As for everyone else, the last she'd heard, the civilians were being evacuated at the rail station, and the armed forces were… scattered. Whether anyone had actually gotten out, she didn't know - she sort of felt she should be at the station now, but… at least she'd managed to help Jone, Teras… and Karol, for that matter. Not a total loss…

She climbed into the back of the truck as they trundled on. Teras was already conscious again - it was just a bit of whiplash, probably… he'd be okay - at least until they got to a hospital. Jone immediately stumbled over and grabbed him, collapsing back into the jostling bed. Subaru sat down opposite from them and tried to catch her breath, hands on her knees.

"Where are we going, anyways?" Subaru asked.

"Fort Foevir, probably… either that, or head to Maelend and take a helicopter north."

Teras muttered about not wanting to go to bed yet.

"We should probably get to a hospital soon…"

"Right. Maeland, then…" Emelia said. "We'll drop them off to join the rest of the evacuees…"

"I guess that's good…" Subaru replied. "How long will it take?"

"Honestly, I have no idea… I'm not sure this thing even has a speedometer… but it shouldn't be more than fifteen minutes!"

"Great. If I have to leave, might as well do it quickly."

"We're not leaving forever." Emelia said.

"I know." Subaru replied. "That's why I want to leave as quickly as possible… I'm ready to stop this."

- 92 -