Ender presents…

==[A Vandread Fanfiction Series]==

   For humans, they sure could party like animals.

   Or perhaps that just made them even more human?

   These thoughts and more drifted leisurely across Magno Vivan's head as she watched their new friends dance, jump and cavort around the mud-imprisoned Nirvana, spontaneously bursting out into songs that had been supressed for decades. For the first time in over a day, the 'Boss' allowed her thoughts to drift to topics other than the immediate survival of her beloved family - the hundred and a half crew members of the unique spacecraft she had christened 'Nirvana'… Truly, there was more than enough going on to keep her senses occupied, the smell of the meat roasting around the cookfires, the sounds of joyful hooting and singing, the sight of her crew members freely associating with those who had been, but moments before, the most feared and hated creatures throughout the entire ship… Who would have thought that it would come to this stage?

   When those of the crew who remained on ship had seen the approach of the attack droids a few hours before, they had been convinced that the 'beasts' were massing together with the mecha to launch a final onslaught against the ship. Barnette and many of the others had pressed the Boss to allow them to launch a pre-emptive strike, but the older woman had quickly vetoed that idea – they might have slaughtered many of the 'beasts' but the mecha would tear them to shreds – and then their energy blasts would ignite the hazardous muck that was engulfing the Nirvana, and send the entire ship up in flames.

   It was doubly a blessing then when, miles away, Hibiki and the girls managed to transmit a frequency which shut down the droids, just as they were about to launch their offensive – not against the ship, but against the 'beasts'. A short while later, Hibiki was able to explain that those they had been mistakenly calling 'beasts' were as human as they were – and that they had come to the Nirvana not to wage war, but to seek a sanctuary from the droids who had been the insturment of their supression and destruction for generations.

   At first the crew members of the Nirvana had found the news hard to believe… Not too long ago the 'hairy men' – as Paiway had taken to calling them, although there were plenty of females as well – had been abducting any humans they could get their hands on, apparently to be used as ritual 'sacrifice' to the machines that had come so close to killing them all. The corridors of the Nirvana were overflowing with the number of wounded from those encounters – and those who had met the 'hairy men' face to face could not easily put aside the fresh memories of terror that the ferocious 'beasts' had instilled in them. Even as the beasts moved, almost wonderingly, amongst the inert forms of their 'gods', the crew of the Nirvana remained safely behind its barriers, ready for the moment when a sea of fury would crash against the ship.

   Then, one by one, the hairy men had bowed to the Nirvana.

   It was as if a wave had crashed against the Nirvana and then ebbed back into the sea – soon, the thousands of hairy men who had converged on the site of the Nirvana's crash had their faces pressed to the ground, groveling in obsequiously to the home of those beings whom they assumed would be their new masters… their new gods…

   Magno had seen right then and there that such a situation wouldn't do. Against the urgings of some of the Bridge – most notably Bart – she, BC, Barnette and a few women appointed as security detail, emerged from the safety of the ship and walked calmly towards the bowed forms of their recent tormentors. Barnette kept her hand close to Jura's sword as they weaved their way slowly through the hairy bodies - but other than crouching even lower at their approach, the aliens made no further movement.

   Finally, the Boss decided she had had enough. Before anyone could stop her, she reached out and took one of the 'beasts' by its shoulders and urged it to its feet. The poor creature had flinched back violently at her touch, but slowly, as she repeated her action, it allowed itself to gently be brought to its feet. It was visibly trembling when she lifted its ragged, dirty face to stare at its eyes – but as soon as their gazes met, the creature gave  a small yelp of distress and dropped back on its knees.

   It took some food, patience and the better part of an hour to get even one of the 'hairies' to stand on its feet in the presence of the crew. The creatures had all perked up noticeably when Magno had ordered a sizeable quantity of food to be brought before the ship – it was only a small step from there to get one of them to stand up when she presented it with a slab of steak, though it took her longer to get it to accept it from her – but from the moment it took its first tentative bite, the Boss knew she had at least managed to convince them the crew meant no harm.

   Soon after the braver members of the crew followed her lead, though by the end of that first, true 'meeting', practically everyone had emerged from the ship to entice the hairy men to rise and treat them as friends. The Boss learned later that Dita and the others had relayed the morbid tale of the 'beasts' true origins and situation to the rest of the ship. Once word had spread, the wave of sympathy had been instantaneous - even amongst those who had suffered at the hands of the hairies.

   Once sufficiently conviced that the crew of the Nirvana were friends – or at least more benovelent gods than their previous masters had been – it was almost as if a massive, oppressive weight had been lifted from the collective shoulders of the hairy men. Slowly but surely, the noise began to pick up as they began to converse excitedly amongst themselves – the braver ones even trying to speak with the crew – and soon after, there was a flurry of activity as the ones nearer the ship fled towards those at the back, carrying their news and experiences. It wasn't long after that when the first fire was lit, and offerings of meat, fruit and other edible items were being piled before the crew and later, when they were certain the humans approved, divided amongst themselves.

   The first of the songs – and even without knowing the language Magno had known what it was – had broken out quite suddenly, as a group of hairy men had been bringing the roasted carcass of a particularly large animal before the Nirvana as another offering. The 'singer' had almost immediately snapped its mouth shut, and a deathly silence descended amongst those who had been near enough to hear.

   But, to the surprise of the crew as much as the hairy men, Magno had answered with a song of her own. It was an old song, one she remembered from when she had been but a child on the colony ship… But it was a good song, and though her voice was hardly more melodious than that of a hairy, she knew it was the right thing for them to hear at the moment. The machines had not had art or culture – could not have either. The Boss wanted to show the hairy men that not only were they allowed to sing, but that the other humans would join along as well.

   Word of _that_ little miracle had spread even more quickly than the last, and soon the 'party' began in full swing, the amount of food being slowly matched by the amount of singing and dancing going on, an explosion and celebration of the arts that had been too long supressed by unfeeling metal, or the heat of lasers… It was hardly 'music to the ears'. But the joy with which they engaged in the practice was more than enough to make up for the lack of skill. Even when they had been threatened with death for the practice of it, the hairy men were _human_, and they needed it as much as they needed food or drink. To finally be allowed to practice in the open, without fear of retribution, made this a truly great day for the hairy men…

   Magno just hoped it would last.

   She sensed more than heard the light, confident step behind her and smiled to herself as her second in command stopped at her customary place not three feet from the older woman.

   "It's good to have you back BC," the Boss said, letting the affection she felt for her friend seep into her voice. "I thought for a second you might leave me alone to bring this rag-tag bunch home…"

   The silver haired woman gave a low laugh. "It's good to be back… though we still have a lot of work ahead of us."

   "Talking business so soon Sub – Commander?" Magno asked with a wry note in her voice. "Careful… You're beginning to sound like Meia." The old woman gestured expansively towards the 'party'. "Why don't you take a few seconds to savor the moment? You have to admit, we've managed pretty well against some tall odds…"

   BC sighed and shook her head. "Maybe you're right Boss…" Then she gave a wry grin. "Don't worry though, I don't think I have quite as many walls as she does."

   _But there are things you keep very close to your chest don't you my friend?_ Magno thought silently to herself, _Even from me… Or at least so you'd like to think. And as for Meia… you're more like her than you'd care to admit…_  The Boss began to mentally tick off seconds in her head… One… Two… Three… Fo –

   "Boss, I was thinking…"

   _Three and a half seconds – longer than usual for BC…_ The older woman supressed both a sigh and a wry smile as she turned towards her subordinate. "What did you have in mind BC?"

   "Once Gasco returns with Meia and the others, it might be a good idea to send her back with Parfet to take a look at that mainframe. If that was just one outpost, whoever it was that Hibiki was conversing with might have more than enough power to launch another attack – it's obvious it knows where to find us. If we can find out where the prime mover is holed up, we might be able to launch a pre-emptive strike before we suffer further damage…"

   Magno nodded. "Hmmm… That's not a bad idea. I'd actually be inclined to agree even if I was sure that we'd defeated the last of those machines." The old woman's eyes narrowed. "Some things are unpardonable, and one who puts himself in the position of God for the sole purpose of sinking lower than the filthist scum, is long overdue for some punishment…"

   "I agree," the younger woman said, "Although I have to admit, we're in for quite a battle if there are any more of those droids left in his arnesal. As long as we're landlocked, all we have to use against them are our limited supply of energy weapons and those makeshift implements that Hibiki and Parfet cooked up – and that won't do much against an army of battle droids, regardless of how well we've fought so far. With the Dreads and Bangatta's out of commission, another offensive by those things might finish this."

   "I wouldn't be overly concerned," Magno replied. "We have a good crew BC… We've come through so far haven't we? I don't think we're going to let this little detour keep us from completing our mission…"

   "As you say," BC acknowledged, "But it would be wise not to take unecessary risks right? "

   "Do you think I would?" the Boss asked, "By all means send Parfet over – but make sure she's had some rest before then – that poor girl is fatigued." The older woman turned back then, towards the hairy men who were still in the midst of celebration. "In the meantime, I'll see about getting back our Dreads and Vanguards…"

   The silver haired woman blinked. "How? They're buried under a hundred meters of mud…"

   For a few moments the older woman refrained from answering, watching with bemusement as one of the hairies tried to get a few younger ones to join it in song. When she finally answered, she did so in a placid, unworried tone of voice.

   "Sometimes, you think too much BC…"

   When her second in command merely stared back with a blank expression, Magno merely smiled.

   "We dig BC. We dig."

==[VANDREAD]==

Vandread: MAROONED

Chapter Five: Evolution

Disclaimer: While I own this fic, Gonzo owns Vandread. And here's to the hope that they make use of that ownership for a long time to come…

Timeline: This series takes place in-between the ending of the First Stage and the start of the Second Stage. Think of it as Stage 1.5 perhaps ^_^

==[VANDREAD]==

   If there was one thing that Bart Garsus hated more than pain, it was work. Actually, when you came right down to it, they were the same thing – at least in the blond navigator's humble opinion. Thus he was perfectly justified in his own eyes in hiding out while the rest of the crew was breaking out the improvised pails and shovels to begin the process of 'excavating' the Nirvana. Unfortunately for him, Amarone didn't quite believe his excuse that the reason he was at his station was so as to be ready for take off the moment they were free of the muck – honestly, those bridge girls thought nothing but the worst of him. Of course, the fact that even the most optimistic estimate of the completion of the digging placed it two or three days away may have weakened his argument a bit… But couldn't they have cut him some slack before reporting him to Gascogne?

   Still, all was not lost. The Register Chief had been rather vague with her instructions – "Get off your butt and help out!" actually was what she said… Bart was certain that there would be quite a lot of ways to help in the project that wouldn't require too much effort from him – he just had to find out what. He did have a duty to stay fresh after all – who else would pilot the ship without him?

   Of course, there was Gasco-san's threat of crucifixion to deal with, so he had to make sure he wasn't _too_ obvious… That woman looked like the sort to follow through – she was bigger than Bart was for Granpa's sake!

   With that thought in mind, Bart made his way carefully to one of the airlocks which opened up near 'ground' level, his eyes shifting nervously from side to side, alert for anyone who might actually assign him to some specific duty. His precatiouns proved unwarranted however, as he made it to a nearby egress without incident. In truth, aside from the wounded and the nursing staff, the corridors of the Nirvana were deserted – it seemed as if every able bodied hand had been assigned to the excavation already – not a good sign, the male thought to himself. The moment he stepped out into the planet's warm sunshine however, Bart realized exactly why the Nirvana had been left with a skeleton crew. 

   Spread out before him was a cooperative effort on a scale he could hardly believe. In front of the Nirvana, the hairy men had formed lines in the hundreds, each receiving a set of makeshift spades or pails which Parfet and her crew had once more managed to cobble togethr from the scrap of their previous space battles. A group of women were arrayed before the rows, some handing out the implements, others meticulously demonstrating to the hairies what it was they were expected to do with them. Their new friends seemed to learn quickly, and set to work with such enthusiasm that Bart was, if only for a moment, ashamed that he was trying to find a way to shirk his duty.

   Overseeing the entire affair was Gascogne, her trademark 'toothpick' firmly clasped between teeth perpetally stretched in a smile. With Parfet off at the tower trying to find some trace of the madman behind all this, Gasco had been charged with directing the digging efforts of the women and the hairies and with the more delicate task of constructing what Parfet had called a 'cradle' with which they hoped to gradually ease the Nirvana out of the mud once the digging had freed as much of it as possible. That particular task was assigned to a group composed solely of women – although there was always a cluster of hairy men around them watching their simple feat of engineering with looks resembling religious rapture. Idly, Bart wondered how they'd react when the Nirvana actually _moved_.

   So engrossed was he with the spectacle that he didn't even tried to get away when Belvedere approached him. He hadn't seen much of her in the past thirty-six hours – she and Celtic had volunteered to help Parfet's undermanned nursing staff in treating the many wounded. This morning though, the blonde girl had traded in her injections for a shovel made out of what appeared to be the left dorsal fin of a Dread.

   "Nice to see you finally join us," she said,  "Amarone said something about you hiding at your station again…"

  "Pfft," Bart snorted, "Let me tell you this – REAL men like Bart Garsus do not cower. If you must know,  I was merely, um, keeping myself at the ready in case of emergncy – yes, just like any Pilot worth his wings…"

   "Hmmm… In that case, I'm surprised you thought of it," Belvedere retorted with a laugh.

   Bart put on an offended expression. "Is that the appreciation I get? I'll have you know that if it weren't for me, we wouldn't be where we are now!"

   "Stuck in the mud you mean?" the girl replied archly, then shook her head. "Well, now that you're here, you'd best make yourself useful – Gasco-san doesn't take kindly to slackers."

   With that the blond turned on her heels and walked away. Leaving Bart with the perplexing dillemna of how to do something constructive while doing as little 'work' as possible. Maybe now that they had seen him come outside, he could just sneak back in without them noticing?

   At that precise moment he caught Gascogne looking towards him. The Register chief gave him a small smile, as if to encourage him - then slowly ran the tip of her finger across her throat.

   Then again, perhaps they would notice.

   Despondently, Bart began wandering around the camp. To his dismay, he saw that the only jobs available involved either diggin though dirt, or hauling said dirt around in sacks. The only other line of work that he could see involved wooden poles and feats of engineering which he readily admitted were beyond him. Bart was about to resign himself to an afternoon of aching muscles when he spotted a group of hairies congregating around a fire – and being fed woman food!

   Immediately the gears in his head began to churn – now this was a job for the brightest scion of the Garsus family!

   With that thought he hurried back into the ship for a while, and when he reemerged his hands were laden with boxes of the capsule-form nutrient supplements that served as food on Taraku, and which his family had specialized in for generations. Unceremoniously bumping aside the girl assigned to distribute the food to the hairies, he began his spiel.

   "Hey guys," he said, in a confidential tone of voice, "I don't know what these women have been feeding you – perhaps in comparison with what you eat around here you find their sad excuses for meals as an exotic sort of delicacy – but I assure you, that their repasts are nothing, nothing compared with the fine, authentic products of Garsus Incorporated. I mean really, why should you inflame your tongues on their spicy fare when there's a much more palatable alternative?"

   "Does he really think they can understand him?" one of the girls behind him whispered.

   "Beats me," replied the other. "What I want to know is why he thinks gruel is spicy…"

   Poor saps, Bart thought to himself. They've obviously numbed their tongues through frequent exposure…

   "Behold!" Bart shouted, dramatically throwing open the lid of one of the pill containers, "The finest of Taraku cuisine – brought to you exclusively by Bart Garsus!" The blonde pilot smiled in anticipation as he proffered the pills to the raptly attentive hairies. "What are you waiting for? Dig in!"

   The hairy men looked at each other in perplexity for a few moments. Then one of them – an elder it seemed, from the whiteness of his hair and the stoop in his gait – moved forward to accept the box. With reverence, the elder lifted the pills to his nose and took a hesitant sniff. Apparently satisfied, the elder reached one taloned hand into the box and removed a handful of the colorful pills –

   Yes! It looks like I won't have to do much work after all!

   - and promptly proceeded to braid them into his long white hair.

   "What? Hey! Wait a minute!"Bart began shouting in protest. "That's not what they're for! You're supposed to eat them – eat them!"

   His cries fell on deaf ears however as the hairies began to eagerly pass the boxes of pills amongst each other, each taking a handful and arranging them into artful patterns of their matted hair. Some of the shouts he heard from the hairies must have been invitations, for word spread quickly and soon Bart was surrounded by a noisy throng of hairies, each using his special, high fiber nutrient supplements as tiny colorful ornaments. Bart screamed, he begged, he threatened – but no matter what he did the hairies merrily went along dressing themselves in his food – that is until Gasco-san's voice rang out across the air.

   "What the hell is going on out here?"

   The hairies all turned at the sound of her voice, many bowing deferentially in her direction.

   "Eh, I thought we told you that we won't be having any more of that," Gasco said, raising one of the hairies to his feet. "None of you are required to help us here – I was just curious as to what was going on…"

   As if he understood her completely, the nearest hairy man stood up and proffered her a handful of pills. After taking one look at the small, colorful objects, Gascogne turned slowly to Bart with narrowed eyes. "Helsa," she said, without taking her eyes from Bart, "Try to get them to the assigned site as soon as this euphoria wears off okay? In the meantime, get Amarone's team to pick up the slack." Then the tall woman took hold of one of the shovels left abandoned in the manic 'pill – braiding' and advanced menacingly towards Bart. The helmsman gulped.

   "As for you," she growled, before forcibly handing him the shovel, "You've got a lot of digging to make up for."

   "But- "

   Her face suddenly seemed awfully close to his…

   "Dig."

   Sighing, Bart headed to the nearest dig site, wondering why it was that the gods conspired against someone trying to get in an honest day's work…

==[VANDREAD]==

   The outpost was the same as Meia and the others had left it a few hours before – smooth, solid transparasteel walls and bunkheads enclosing a space that had been seemingly undisturbed by human feet, human noise, human _presence_ for a good number of decades before the team of three women and one man had stumbled upon it, quite by accident. But although the prior quartet had been unnerved by the lack of human habitation, the eerie silences and the sterile interiors, the present occupant of the outpost was too entranced by the technology to even notice. Well, at least one of them was.

   "Awe-some…" whispered Parfet in a reverent tone as she wandered the halls of the deserted – if that was even the appropriate word – base of the Earth Forces, taking in the sight of the vintage, yet fascinating, technology and hardware as if she were a sweet tooth in a candy store. "Look at all this stuff! I've read of some of them in the history books, but to actually see them in a functional setting – and in such good condition! Look! Is that a p-9833? That is sooo coool!"

   As the Chief Engineer dashed off in another direction at the merest gleam of metal, another metal object was desperately trying to keep up with her on stubby white feet. It finally had to use its boosters to catch up with the pig – tailed girl.

   "Neh Par-fet…" Piyoro 'wheezed' as it tried in vain to compensate for the brown haired girls faster, longer strides. "Could we maybe slow down *piyoro*? You've been running in circles for over an hour *piyoro*! If nav-bots could sweat I would have long ago dried into a prune *piyoro*…"

   Sighing Parfet, let her touch linger on another vintage machine before turning to the robot. She blinked once or twice to get him into focus – the contact lenses she currently wore as a replacement for her shattered pair of glasses were of a lower grade, and thus her eyesight left something to be desired. It was still better than nothing though… But even then, she realized that if she was going to sift through the data in the mainframe that Hibiki and the others had founds, she'd best do it quickly – her head was already beginning to ache from the eye – strain.

   "You win, Piyoro-kun," she said good naturedly, plucking his whitish form from the air with both her hands. "Let's go find this evil computer…"

   The two made their way swiftly towards the highest floor of the outpost, with only occasional hitches when Parfet's curiosity would get the better of her for 'one more minute'. Half a year ago she would have found it more than passing strange to find objects from 'Mejerr's' past on a planet a good fifty light years away, but now it only served as further proof of their origins on some planet called 'Earth' – one they had shared with the men. As usual at the thought of the males, her mind wandered to Duero… She wondered how he was progressing with his analysis of the genetic code of the hairy men – the Boss had wanted Duero to see just how much they had been modified from the original human stock, and in what ways, so as to determine if there was any hope of reversing the process. Duero hadn't looked very hopeful when she had left, but the investigation itself had proved quite fascinating for both of them… It was really too bad she had to leave. A part of her wondered if it was only the investigation she was missing though…

   The girl shook off such extraneous thoughts as they neared the main control room, passing by the large hangar which had formerly housed this outposts detachment of the X-52 drones, or 'spiders' as the crew had taken to calling them. She couldn't help but wonder how many outposts were scattered across the planets face, and how many more of those drones lay waiting there… The fear of another attack from reinforcements stationed elsewhere on the planet had prompted the Boss and BC to send her to the base in the firstplace. They believed that the main computer should hold some data about the location of the other bases – if they could just determine where the main control center of all the bases were, then they should be able to disable the enemy before it even gets a chance to attack.

   Soon enough, they reached the large room where Hibiki and the others had battled the damaged X – 52. The damage from the fight was less extensive than Parfet would have expected, mainly confined to the entrance ara where the spider had muscled out a larger doorway, and to certain areas where its talons, or its laser beams, had landed. Although there were a few blackened or shattered monitors here and there, the majority of the computing equipment remained functional, and the main station itself – where Hibiki had found the deactivation code for the spiders – seemed unscathed. Piyoro however, seemed mournful as he approached the unmoving remains of the X – 52.

   "It's always the machines that suffer *piyoro* - Why is it that humans always think to use us to hurt each other *piyoro*?"

   Parfet merely sighed as she took the seat in front of the mainframe and began looking for a way to boot up the computer, keeping a sharp lookout for any possible booby traps. "Maybe because you're better at it than we are? Though that's not entirely true…" the girl trailed off. "Oh I don't know Piyoro-kun, I'm the wrong person to ask – I think I know machines more than I know people."

   "Well, there's nothing wrong with that *piyoro*" the little robot huffed, and Parfet just had to laugh.

   The main computer, like the rest of the base, was made from vintage parts and in an older style than Parfet was used to. But it had been a long time since computers had changed in ways aside from efficiency, and she was quickly able to ascertain where and how it was similar to the models she was familiar with. It shouldn't take more than a few seconds to do so – after all Hibiki had done it, so why shouldn't she be able to do so?

   "O-kay!" she said, cracking her knuckles as Piyoro tried accessing one of several, supplementary terminals, a cable connecting from his rotund body to a convenient access port "Let's see what this baby can do!"

   She hit the power switch, and after awhile was greeted with swirling lines of data – some sort of diagnostic procedure if she was not mistaken. The Engineer followed the lines as best she could, making out certain patterns or codes which indicated system performance and capabilities, data allotment… The Engineer waited for the diagnostic to run its course, but after ten minutes, she noticed that the program was looping back. Parfet typed in several forms of the standard key sequence to bypasss the code, but the numbers and letters just kept scrolling past her. Muttering a curse under her breath, she reached into her pack and pulled out an electronic by-pass module –

   And with a 'beep', the diagnostic stopped, and a prompt appeared on the screen.

   Parfet stared at the screen for a moment in puzzlement, then sighed. "Hibiki is right – you _are_ an evil computer…"

   Before the boy had gotten onto the repair drone that had brought Parfet to the base, he had told her that at one point, the computer had begun to respond to commonly worded questions, and even to their verbal comments. He still didn't know if it was the computer itself, or someone controlling it, but he and the girls had wanted to stay on while she did her investigation, just in case it had more tricks under its virtual sleeves. Parfet had waved them on though – they all looked like they needed the rest, and Meia was dead on her feet. It wasn't really false confidence – between her and Piyoro, she was confident she could deal with any electronic foe – besides, she'd requisitioned a pair of EMP grenades from Gascogne, just to be sure. Even then, it was with a mixed feeling of apprehension and embarassment that she typed in her first words.

H E L L O . . .

   Parfet waited for a good five minutes before allowing herself to breathe… If it was going to act like a regular computer with her, then well and good. She was much better at navigating one through command words and programs rather than through normal, everyday chatter.

   "What exactly are we looking for *Piyoro*?" her companion asked from nearby, his terminal showing signs of life as well.

   "Anything that can provide us a clue as to where we can find the mastermind of all this – computer or human," she answered. "A list of the number and locations of the other 'colony' bases would b our best bet, but everything from ship rosters to inventory listings might be able to help…"

   "What if… What if  _this_ is the mastermind *piyoro*?" the navi-bot asked with an air of concern.

   "Oh don't worry so much Piyoro," she replied, "In that case then it just made our job all the easier!"

   "Easy for her to say *piyoro*," the white robot muttered, "I don't see _her_ sticking her internal organs into the computer…*piyoro*…"

   The two companions set to work in earnest, each one pouring through streams of data, wading through numbers and letters in search of a hint of a clue. Almost as soon as she had turned the system on, it became apparent that it was going to be more difficult than Parfet had hoped – it was almost as if someone had intentionally muddled up the system… the storage drive was acting as if it hadn't been defragged in half a millennia. Parfet thought it was reasonable to believe that whoever it was who had been communicating with Hibiki and the others through the system had subsequently sabotaged it after the boy had cracked the code. Still, even though she had half expected the mess that lay before her, she couldn't help but feel a tad annoyed – at the rate she was going, she'd be lucky if she could extract anything useful within the day, much less the few hours BC and the Boss were hoping for. She had released saerch bot after search bot into what passed for the computer's operating system, but progress was infuriatingly slow – it was hard to make any sense out of the jumble of data. After close to five hours of futile work, the girl began to wish that the computer _would_ talk to her.

   Imagine her surprise when it obliged. And in a familiar voice at that.

   "Parfet, I have a message from - " was all that the voice managed to get out before Parfet let out a startled yelp and fell backwards onto her rump, blinking her eyes rapidly at the larger than life head that had appeared on-screen.

   "Parfet?" Duero asked in what was apparently mild curiosity, "Are you all right?"

   "Ow," the girl muttered under her breath, before turning what she hoped was a cheerful face towards the doctor's on-screen image. "Eh, don't worry about me – I'm fine! Just a bit surprised is all…"

   "My apologies," Duero replied, tilting his head slightly in her direction. "I did not mean to startle you. It seems that the Engineers encountered an anomaly while scanning Section D, and they were wondering if they could get your opinion on it…"

   The brown haired girl scratched her head. "A scanning anomaly? It's probably just due to all the mud, or the damage to the sensors that we haven't been able to fix." She paused then, and looked at the other curiously. "I'll get right on it – but why didn't they contact me directly? They knew where I was…"

   "Actually, they didn't," the man answered. "That was the problem. It seems that you didn't tell very many people where you were going – I was the first person they asked who knew exactly where you were. From there it was simply a matter of sending out a transmission based on the frequency Hibiki used to contact us, a few hours ago, and that enabled me to contact you at your current location."

   "Hmmm," Parfet nodded to herself, "Not bad Doctor! You're getting to be quite handy with the machines…"

   "It's not surprising… I've had an excellent teacher. Besides, it was very similar to tracking down the source of a viral infection…"

   Parfet didn't really know what to make of being likened to an infection, but his compliment still made her blush a little. Her whole life Parfet had always been the silent worker, the girl tinkering away in her room while her classmates ran around or went shopping. She was unused to being the focus of someones attention – and Duero's attention could be particularly unconcerting.

   "Anyway," she said, trying to distract herself from such awkward thoughts, "How have things been on your end? Meia and Hibiki where looked pretty bad when I arrived… and Dita and Jura looked ready to pass out."

   Duero nodded. "They're doing fine. Dita and Jura just needed some rest, and some basic treatment for minor bruises but the other two took the brunt of it. Hibiki had various fractures – I had to splint his arm and bind his ribs, though he insists on walking around a if nothing had happened."

   "And Meia?" Parfet asked in concern.

   The doctor sighed. "Given how intelligent she is, it's amazing how hard it is to talk some sense into that woman when the subject is her own health – Hibiki finally had to agree to partial bed rest in order to get Meia to agree to confine herself to the infirmary… I guess her pride wouldn't let her agree to something unless she felt that she was doing it more for others than for herself."

   The pigtailed girl sighed. "That's our Meia," she said with resignation, "She's never been very good with accepting anything – you should see what she does when we try to celebrate her birthday!"

   "In any case," the long haired male continued, "I'm making sure she's getting her rest – that's the only way she's going to make up for all the blood she lost. Since I am investigating a matter on the computer, it enables me to to keep an eye on her – I half expeect her to jump out of bed and back into uniform the moment I turn my back."

   He was staying by Meia's side the whole time? Parfet felt a brief, irrational surge of emotion which she quickly suppressed – she couldn't be jealous of _Meia_ could she? Then again Meia had been an idol when she was a – Parfet shook herself. What was she thinking?
   "Parfet?" Duero was asking, concern in his voice. "Are you alright? You seem disturbed…"

   Parfet waived away his concern, "Anyway you were saying? About this thing you're working on?"

   Duero's eyes narrowed. "It would take more time than we have to make a detailed analysis, but the major changes were readily apparent – one thing I can say about whoever planned these experiments: he had skill to match his sadism."

   "What exactly did he do to them?"

   The doctor sighed. "A great many things. The physical changes are most evident – the hair volume, muscle and sensory enhancement and the like. More difficult was his genetic cauterization of certain faculties of the brain responsible for higher functions. I still haven't figured out how they managed to make such a state hereditary – what they did was basically to 'devolve' the genetic code of the settlers, and that runs in the face of almost every law of nature there is." Duero paused and his normally stoic face took on a grim expression. "Then again, they made sure time would pass quicker in order for them to observe their handiwork."

   The girl tilted her head to one side as she stared back at the doctor. "Eh? What do you mean they made time pass quicker? That hardly seems possible doctor..."

   "In a relative manner it is possible. All they did was another alteration in the genetic code – one that resulted quicker metabolism, as well as faster maturation cycles – which aside from making them much quicker than a normal human –"

   "Also reduces their life spans proportionately," Parfet finished for him. She felt sick to her stomach at what had been done to the colonists – this was the true evil of the Earth! To think they could perform such atrocious acts on their own people... Then again, the people of Mejerr and Tarak had been colonists from Earth themselves at one point, had they not?

   The Engineer's attention was diverted from such thoughts at an insistent beeping noise coming from the console. She typed in some quick instructions, and she determined that a repeating signal was being sent towards the base from another location. Parfet had made sure to disconnect the base's systems from the rest of the planetary network, but she had wired in her own instruments that could detect possible transmissions, while filtering out any instructions that might turn the base against her. Ignoring a curious Duero for the moment, she quickly calibrated her instruments and watched as a series of numbers and images cascaded across her screen. Soon enough she had an idea what the transmission contained.

   "Something's sending out the Nirvana's coordinates... two guesses as to whom its sending them to..."

   Duero's eyes narrowed. "The spiders - there are more of them?"

   "Probably," Parfet agreed, typing furiously, "I've been able to find some mention in the archives that there were several bases that served as 'barracks' for the mechanoids... The military files refer to them as 'webs': it seems that at least some of the Earthlings had a sense of humor at least. Now shush for a moment Doctor – there's something I have to try..."

   As per her instructions, Duero waited quietly while she ran an intricate software program across the network the mainframe was tenuously connected to – a tracer program she had developed herself. She had to work quickly – there was no telling how long the transmissions would last. True enough, the signal ceased broadcasting a mere seconds later, but in the interim, Parfet had been able to get all she needed. With a loud whoop she turned to Duero.

    "Doctor," she told her friend, "Patch me through to the Boss..." Parfet allowed herself a tight, even predatory, grin.

   "Tell her I know where the bastard is hiding."

==[VANDREAD]==

   The dreams were weighing her down, enfolding her in a deceptive embrace that lulled her into lethargy. She was so, so tired... In the dreams there was no pain, no body to be hurt. Yet the girl struggled back towards consciousness, used the pain that she knew she should be feeling as an anchor to reality. She had responsibilities, and these took precedence over any other desires. Besides, there were other things besides rest lurking in her dreams, things she would rather not have to face again...

   Slowly, Meia Gisborn woke up.

   For an instant she panicked, as her surroundings were unfamiliar to the eye. Then the memories returned in a rush - as they often do upon wakefulness - and she realized she was in the infirmary of the Nirvana. Meia shook her head in mild irritation. The place should have been familiar enough – she seemed to find herself here with increasing frequency ever since that day when the Nirvana had been created. Maybe the men were bad luck... and one in particular.

   As if on cue, Hibiki Tokai strolled into the infirmary, a package tied in a bundle behind him. Well, 'strolled' might have been an inappropriate choice of words, considering he was limping around on his one good foot and a crutch – which he held in his right arm, the left having been fractured in more than one place. Considering all he had been through, Hibiki was lucky to have escaped with a few broken ribs, a fractured arm and a severely sprained ankle – there were many among the crew who had been more severely injured, even after but a single encounter with the beasts.

   Truth be told, Meia was in almost as bad a state. While she hadn't suffered quite the physical abuse the male had, she had lost a lot of blood during the past few hours – much of it as a result of her own, as Hibiki termed it, 'hare brained scheme' – and as a result her body had been weakened considerably. It would be a good few days before she would be capable of performing any action with even the most minimum amount of efficiency. The fact of her helplessness chaffed at Meia more than her weakness or light headedness.

   "So you're finally awake eh?" Hibiki greeted as he stepped into the room, walking awkwardly with the crutches.

   "If you found me to be so lazy, then you should have woken me before you left..." she admonished him as he plopped down onto the bed, still carrying the bundle behind his back.

   "Don't be so grumpy," he replied, "Duero said you needed your sleep. Besides, we got ya something..." With that he pulled the bundle from behind his back and presented it to her.

   Meia blinked. It was a bouquet of beautiful flowers, picked from amongst the lush flora of the planet from what she could tell, still wet with dew. Meia blinked again, then looked at Hibiki with a rather confused expression. Hibiki must have noticed for he sighed.

   "I had a feeling this wasn't going to work. Dita kept on telling me that you'd like some of these things, because of how you were acting while we were trekking through the forest. I have to admit, you did seem pretty interested in the things then, but I knew you were probably just looking for edible fruits or something..."

   Despite herself, Meia flushed a little at his words. "You... you saw that?"

   The boy tilted his head. "Sure, we were right there when you did it. It was weird, almost like how Jura gets when she gets a whiff of Barnette's food. You know – sort of dazed, and happy-like..."

   Meia found her flush deepening, and quickly snatched the flowers away from Hibiki before turning away. "Why don't you just shut up and give me those ok?"

   This time it was Hibiki's turn to blink in confusion as he stared at the hand which had held the flowers but moments before. Then he smiled knowingly at the embarrassed girl. "So you do have a soft spot for vegetation after all," the boy crowed, "Meia Gisborn, cool as ice Dread leader – who would have thought it?"

   "Maybe you don't know Meia Gisborn as well as you think you do..." Meia said under her breath, not really expecting him to hear her, but his quick reply indicated that he had anyway.

   "True, but then that's largely Meia Gisborn's own fault for keeping everything so close to her chest isn't it?"

   The Dread Leader turned to find Hibiki looking at her seriously, a genuine question in his eyes and posture. He actually did seem to want to know more about her.

   "Why the sudden interest?" she asked him, "We've been on this ship for close to four months now and this is the first time you've ever asked."

   Hibiki grinned. "Well you're not exactly the most approachable of persons Meia," he jibed, "But I guess it's just like you said – I thought I knew you after four months on this ship, and I've had quite a few surprises in the last few hours. It's got my curiosity piqued, I've got to admit. Besides, you did tell me last night that you would tell me about your past one of these days..."

   "I hardly meant for it to be the next day Hibiki."

   The boy growled in frustration. "Alright, do you have anything better for us to do? There's not a lot a pair of invalids can use to entertain themselves aside from stories you know..."

   Maybe it was his choice of words, but Meia felt her ire rising. "Speak for yourself – I'm no invalid."

   "Geez you don't have to be so touchy about it! I was just trying to keep you company! If I annoy you so much I'll leave!"

   With that the boy struggled to stand up. As the girl saw him struggle with his crutch, she had time to reconsider her decision. He had only been trying to help after all. Hibiki was just as in need of rest as she herself was, and she should not have aggravated him so. If all it took to keep him in place was to tell him a bit of her past, then it wasn't that great a price to pay. Afterall, Meia knew that she could trust him – they had saved each other's lives often enough.

   The girl raised her hand, palm outwards, and motioned for Hibiki to stop. "Sit down," she said.

   The boy glared at her, still angry. She shook her head. Such a child... "Do you want to hear this or not?"

   For a moment she saw his pride warring with his curiosity, but eventually the latter won out and he sat himself back down on the bunk opposite Meia's.

   The blue haired girl took a deep breath. She decided to start with merely fleshing out something he already knew. Meia did trust Hibiki, but there were many aspects of her past she hid even from her own consciousness, and these were not easily brought to light.

   "So Gasco told you about the tracer in my blood?" At the boy's nod she continued. "A little – souveneir from my time served at Sonair, the juvenile prison in Tarak. Although there's really not much difference between the prison for adults and that of children – they were built to punish their inhabitants, and they serve those purposes very well."

   "How'd you end up there any way? You certainly seem like a pretty straight arrow nowadays..."

   Meia allowed herself a small smile. If only he knew of the things she used to do in the old days... "Not always. Life on Mejerr isn't the glistening paradise the vids make it out to be..."

   Hibiki laughed. "On Tarak, the vids show that life on Mejerr is mostly about fire and brimstone – and eating mens livers."

   The girl chuckled in turn. "Close enough – it can be pretty hard if you are not a member of the affluent class – and I had become as destitute as one could get."

   "Become?" Hibiki asked, but Meia ignored him and moved on.

   "In any case, as with all animals, those who are weak tend to travel in packs," the Dread Leader's face took on a far away expression, as if her eyes were focused on something just behind the veil of time, "That's how the weak gain strength – through depending on others who themselves are weak." Meia blinked, then shook herself mentally before looking at Hibiki. "At least that's how I saw it before..."

    She sighed. "Anyway, the long and short of it was that I was poor, weak and hungry, and I needed to join a group – a gang if you will – any group, in order to get by. As expected, this led to me falling in with exactly the wrong kind of people – though of course it didn't seem that way at the time."

   "Let me guess – they had you do all sorts of things to 'prove' yourself before they would accept you, and these landed you right smack in the middle of trouble."

   Meia looked at him in surprise. "As a matter of fact, that's a fair summary of what happened." The girl shook her head, "But even when I was 'accepted' it was just more of the same. We did whatever we had to just to get by, then splurged it all on useless frivolities..." The far away look returned to Meia's eyes. The years she had spent amongst Sana and the others hadn't been all bad. But thinking of that time still made her feel... dirty...

   "Meia? Are you alright?"

   The girl shook herself. That was a different time, and she had been a different person... Damnit, this was why she didn't like thinking of the past – it was too easy to get lost in it. "I'm fine – just a little tired." She looked at the worried boy and gave him a wan smile. "Well, that's basically it – not very interesting is it?"

   Hibiki shook his head. "Actually it was – despite you trying to make it as bland as possible. And it explains quite a few things." The boy cocked his head to one side. "It doesn't explain why you reacted that way in the forest though. I have to admit I've never seen you looking quite so... happy."

   Meia looked away, her features suddenly closing up. There were some memories she doubted she would ever be able to share. One hand went up to touch the ornamental band across her face. In many ways, she had become more at peace with the destruction of her family during the past few months – but it would be many more, if ever, before wounds such as those would be completely healed.

   She was surprised at that point to feel a hand on her shoulder. Startled, she turned to see that Hibiki had reached out to her across the gap between their beds. His face had an oddly gentle expression as he spoke.

   "It's okay, you don't have to tell me more. It's just... nice to see you not being so gloomy every now and then y'know?"

   Meia's first instinct had been to pull away – she wanted no sympathy from anyone, not even one she had come to call a friend. Yet somehow, as she and Hibiki looked at each other, they seemed to reach an understanding. In many ways they were different, and yet in many ways they were the same. Meia's mind recalled their rapport in the midst of battle, the silent communication they had during their morning sparring sessions, ever since Hibiki had taken his beating at the hands of Rabat. She wasn't sure how she felt about the link that seemed to be forming between them – all her life she had prided herself on her ability to stand alone. But whatever her feelings about the matter, one thing she knew with crystal clarity: she need not tell him everything, but anything she told him would be accepted. There was no sympathy between warriors such as they – only understanding.

   She gave him a small smile. "Maybe…" she said. "One of these days…"

   He smiled and nodded. "One of these days..."

   "Uchuujin-san!"

   The two of them turned, somewhat guiltily, as Dita burst into the room, Hibiki sitting back completely on his own cot – just in time to be caught by a full throttle hug from the red headed girl.

   "Ack! Geddoffame!"

   Dita giggled, and relented her hold long enough to spot the flowers. "Oh! You were able to give them to Leader! Did Leader like the flowers Dita picked out? Dita took care to only get the best ones!"

   Meia couldn't help but smile. The red head's moods were infectious. "Yes, I did Dita, thank you."

   "See!" Dita cried triumphantly, turning towards Hibiki. "Dita told Uchuujin-san that the flowers would be good for leader!"

   "Which is more than we can say about all the noise you're making!" an irritated voice came from the doorway. The three pilots turned to see Barnette and Jura walking in, both with several bandages but looking to be almost at full health.

   "Uhm... Sorry," Dita mumbled, chastised, before she began to shout again, "But Dita was just so happy that Leader was okay!"

   Barnette shook her head. "You're missing the point..." But then Jura stepped in.

   "Oh leave her be Barnette, I'm sure Meia can handle a little noise," the blonde said, before turning to Hibiki, "Jura would prefer chocolates and sweets as gifts – or clothes if you could find someone who had Jura's good fashion sense."

   Hibiki's brow wrinkled. "What the heck are you going on about?"

   Jura affected an innocent pose. "Why, Jura is just giving you advice just in case you need to get Jura some get well soon gifts..." The blonde narrowed her eyes then and gave a meaningful look at the Dread Leader. "Or is it only Meia that gets such gifts hmmm?"

   "Jura! Stop that!" came a chorus of three voices.

   Barnette laughed. "Stepped on more than one foot with that one."

   Her companion grinned. "It's a gift..."she said, before she was cut off by the sound of BC's voice over the speakers.

   "Jura, Barnette... please report to the Bridge."

   "Wha-at?" Jura whined. "We just got back! I've only taken four jaguzi sessions since we left that filthy jungle!"

   "Four sessions in less than a day would be a lot for any other person," Barnette said while she dragged the blonde out of the room. She turned to wave a final time at the three other pilots.

   Hibiki looked first at Dita, then at Meia. "We're not going to let them leave us out of this one are we?"

   "Hai!" Dita shouted as Meia shook her head, the three of them heading for the door, Dita standing between them and giving her two injured friends her support.

==[VANDREAD]==

   "So according to the data I've gathered, a triangulation of the break off points would leads us to put the coordinates of the Central Command Center at this area," Parfet was saying as Hibiki and the girls walked onto the bridge.

   "Hmmm," the Boss was saying, "This is the source of the commands that woke the Spider macha?"

   The Chief Engineer nodded as she wiped her brow, "Yup. It was really hard to find, but it looks like it paid off huh?"

   "Indeed," said BC, "If this is true..." the Sub Commander turned then as the three pilots came inside. "What are the two of you doing here?" she said, addressing Meia and Hibiki. "You need your rest."

   "Heh, Hibiki Tokai doesn't need rest," the boy said as Meia stepped forward.

   "We'll be fine. I'd hardly consider walking to the bridge is strenuous activity. What's the situation?"

   It was Barnette who answered. "It seems that whoever is master of this hellhole has decided to sic his remaining spiders against us. The good news is that in doing so, Parfet was able to determine where the sicko's headquarters are."

   "You mean the computer that Uchuujin-san talked to?" Dita asked.

   "No way of saying if it was a computer or a human just yet," Parfet responded, "but we do know where the signal originated from, and that should be where we can find her, or him, or it..."

   "Are you sure that it's alright to be telling us all this over the Comm unit?" Meia asked. "The computer in that room is outfitted with audio receptors..."

   Parfet waived the Dread Leader's concern away with her hands. "Don't worry about it, I made sure I disconnected the mainframe from all external connections before I started work on it, with the exception of the new line I established with the Nirvana."

   Magno cackled. "Good work Parfet, good work. Now we can go teach this sadist a lesson- pirate style!"

   "Preferably before he decides to send the rest of the  mechanoids against the ship – Hibiki's frequency will probably only work once." BC turned to Belvedere. "How much time to we have before the first spiders get her?"

   "At the rate they're moving, around a day or so – from what we were able to access on the geography of the area, they have to pass some pretty rough terrain, and that should slow them down." 

   The Sub-Commander nodded and turned to the pregnant Ezra. "Give me a rough estimate of the number of our crew both able and capable of taking part in a quick strike offensive."

   "Around fifty women," came Ezra's reply "We could probably manage forty more if you included the moderately injured – although the Doctor would probably object vehemently."

   "Fifty women," Meia mused, "That number will barely be enough if they have to go up against a dozen of those machines."

   "Would it be wise to send all of our able bodied women on this strike?" Barnette asked. "That would leave us fairly open to attack."

   The Dread Leader turned to the green haired pilot. "True, but it goes both ways. A lesser number might fail to bring down the headquarters, and that would be disastrous. We won't have time to mount another offensive before the Spiders get here."

   BC sighed. "Either way is risky. It will be awhile yet before the Nirvana can be excavated, and that will be slowed even more by each person who leaves with the Strike Team. On the other hand, a delay could be disastrous – and if we send less than the full fifty we stand a chance of a double loss." The Sub-Commander turned to Magno. "It's your call Boss."

   Magno nodded. "Gascogne," she asked the tall woman, who had been observing the scene from another monitor outside the ship, "How much longer until we can free the Dreads?"

   The veteran pirate jerked her head towards the rear of the screen, where they could see hairies and crew members working on clearing the ship from the mud. "As you can see we're making progress – the 'new guys' are certainly a big asset – there are a lot of them, they have tremendous strength and they follow orders efficiently – unlike some other 'hairy' life forms," she said, as a sweating Bart Garsus came into view. Then Gascogne let out a sigh. "Still, the Nirvana ain't a small ship. I'd give it another day or so at least."

   "Hrrm... Roughly about the time the Spiders will get here..." the old woman intoned as she bowed her head in thought. Then her eyes focused on the screen. "We can't allow ourselves to let up the pressure. The momentum is on our side for now, but it could easily swing the other way. We cannot allow the droids to reach the Nirvana before it becomes fully operational." She took a deep breath. "Form the Strike Team BC."

   "Understood,"the white haired woman replied. "How large a unit are we sending."

   The Boss looked grim. "We've only got one chance for this, and Pirates have never been known for doing things half-way. Send every healthy body that we have, and outfit them with as much as they can carry..." she said – and just under her breath, as BC was issuing commands, she finished her sentence "... and with every prayer of every heart that has faith. I have a bad feeling about this one..."

==[VANDREAD]==

   "What do you mean we aren't coming?" Hibiki excalimed. "Have you forgotten that we were the ones who won the last battle?"

   BC merely shook her head. "I think I made myself clear. Duero thinks that the two of you," she motioned her head towards Meia, "have already pushed your bodies too far. For the sake of your long-term health, your orders are to stay and recupriate your strength."

   "What good will our long-term health be if we die in the short term?" the boy ranted, before he felt a cold cylinder pressed to the back of his head.

   "How about a little trust in your teammates eh?" Barnette said, as she withdrew the gun and faced Hibiki with angry eyes. "You're not the only one who can fight here – we can take care of ourselves without you males watching over us."

   "Buuut, if you really want to go..." Suddenly Jura was there, her fingers lightly touching Hibiki's face, "You could always go in Jura's palce. In fact – Jura would consider it a personal favor..."

   "Jura!" Barnette scolded the blonde. "The Boss made you the Mission Vice-Captain for heaven's sake!"

   "But Jura doesn't want to go back to the stinking forest!" Jura wailed.

   Meia had remained silent during the entire exchange, but this time she spoke up. "Sub-Commander, with all due respect, I have to go," she said to BC, ignoring the others, "I have a responsibility as the Dread Leader..."

   BC shook her head. "Which is precisely why we can't let you risk this. We need you alive, Meia."

   "How come no one is worried about the Dread Sub – Leader coming back alive huh? Huh?" Jura said before Barnette shushed her.

   Meia shook her head, "But- "

   "That's an order Meia."

   The blue haired girl's hands curled into fists. "Understood," she said, then turned smartly on her heel and walked away.

   "Leader..." Dita whispered.

   Hibiki watched Meia's retreating form for a moment then turned back to BC. "Heh, if you think you're getting rid of me that easily, then you're in for a rough surprise!"

   BC smiled and shook her head. Men could be so predictable. "Actually, I think you have it the other way around... Boys?"

   "Eh, wha – what is this -?" Hibiki asked as he found himself lifted up by the arms, the left held by Bart and the right by Duero.

    "What do you think you're doing? Are you going to take the orders of some woman against someone from your own race? Traitors!"  

   "Orders?" Duero asked, arching an eyebrow. "I was the one who told her to make you stay in the first place. You need your rest Hibiki."

   "Don't look at me..." Bart said when Hibiki turned his glare to the blonde, "All I know is that Gasco-san's giving me a day off from work if I haul your ass back to the infirmary."

   As the two men carried the struggling Hibiki out the door, BC turned her attention to Dita.

   "Um, Sub-Commander?" the red head asked tentatively, "Is Dita to go on this mission with you as well?"

   BC looked at the open face of the young girl for a moment, then shook her head. "No, you're to stay behind. In case there's trouble, we'll need to have at least one healthy Vandread pilot here to bond with Hibiki, and in case Meia isn't up to it, your version is second when it comes to speed." The silver haired woman smiled. "Besides, we need someone to keep an eye on those two stubborn examples of masculinity and femininity, respectively."

   At her words, Dita beamed a happy smile and snapped off a joyous salute. "Hai! Dita will take good care of Leader and Uchuujin-san!"

   With that and a twirl that sent her long red hair flying, Dita was gone.

   BC sighed. At least someone was happy to be staying...

==[VANDREAD]==

   The strike team met Parfet at the coordinates a little before the planet's evening, the thick vegetation surrounding the location sending out long curling shadows in the moonlight.
   "Is that the target?" BC asked when the pig-tailed engineer had arrived.

   "Uhm." Paret nodded.

   The silver – haired woman nodded. "Alright, get us inside." She watched silently as Parfet gathered a small team of Engineers – many of those who were still healty enough to be part of the squad had come from the Engineers – and moved downwards towards the base.

   The base was cleverly hidden in the midst of a sprawling network of caves that honeycombed the side of a mountain, lush with the hypergrown vegetation that was common on the planet. The set up made it virtually undetectable by sight from above, and BC was sure that it had its share of counter-measures to prevent electronic surveillance. Whoever had been in charge of setting up operations on the planet had been a professional – a military person from the looks of things.

   Which is why there is something that doesn't seem quite right about this place...

   "Sub Commander?" came a voice from behind her – Jura, with the rest of the Strike Force. "Parfet sent us word that an entry hatch has been opened. Shall we move in?"

   Already? BC thought to herself. "Did it pose any difficulty to open?"

   Jura shook her head. "Parfet said it was a standard defense program – similar to the ones we'd have on Mejerr."

   BC nodded, but her mind was troubled. It wasn't strange to find an easy lock out in a remote location – BC doubted the colonists had ever thought they would need to defend themselves from interlopers with high tech equipment. Still, something about the whole operation was bothering her... Something just didn't fit...

   "Sub – Commander?"

   The silver haired woman sighed. Like it or not, there was no room for hesitation – the Spiders would be at their doorstep in a few short hours, and this was the only lead they had.

   BC turned to the others. "Let's go."

   At her orders, the squad moved down the mountain, fifty women armed to the teeth with the latest technology Mejerr had to offer – and which the pirates had promptly stolen. As Jura had said, they found Parfet next to an open doorway, which led to a dimly lighted metal hallway burrowing deeper into the mountain. One by one the women entered, each one on her guard. BC was the last to enter, her eyes uneasily taking in the surroundings, searching for something she couldn't quite place a finger on...

   "Stick together everyone," she ordered, "I don't want anybody to be left behind in this place.

    The proportions of the base seemed impractical. One moment they were of normal human dimensions, the next they were huge, easily the size of a Dread, but with none of the guide rails or markings that would indicate it was meant to serve as a hangar of some kind. BC and the others had been making their way deeper and deeper into the base for the better part of an hour before BC began to realize what was troubling her.

   Too many holes...

   The base was purposely hidden within an extensive cave network. Yet instead of collapsing some of these tunnels to prevent intrusion, each and every opening that BC saw was one which served as an entrance or exit to the base, complete with reinforced steel doors. The design made no sound military sense, clashing completely with the sensibility which had given the installation such a complete camouflage. And then there were the corridors – while some were normal, others were obviously meant for something much bigger. Something that was not a person, was not a ship...

   The realization hit BC like a sack of bricks. She brought the group together in one of the human – sized corridors and ordered them to keep their weapons at the ready.

   "What's wrong?" Barnette asked. "Have you caught sight of the enemy?"

   That was when they first heard it – a scuttling sound, like that of a hundred teeth rattling against metal – echoing across the corridors of the base from a distance not too far away.

   "Not yet," BC hissed, "But we may be about to... Sera, Haline, take two others and serve as look outs at the nearest intersections," She turned to Parfet. "Parfet, raise the Nirvana."

   A worried expression on her face, the engineer brought out her equipment and quickly begun setting it up. "What's going on Sub-Commander?"

   BC clenched her fist. "I think we've been fooled. This isn't the headquarters."

   Parfet looked up. "But – it was here! I traced the transmission and this is where it came from!"

   The silver haired woman shook her head. "Whoever we're up against must have known you'd trace it somehow. This base doesn't fit the profile of a central base – it has too many access points for one thing, and seems bare of human amenities."

   "Then... where are we?" Jura asked. But before BC could answer, they heard the discharge of an energy rifle from just ahead.

   "Sub-Commander!" Sera shouted as she inched her way backwards towards the group, her rifle still firing at the unseen enemy, "it's a -!"

   What else the Dread pilot would have said was drowned out by the crackling sound of a high powered laser as it burned her flesh. Screaming in pain, the girl collapsed to the floor, just as the cyclopean eye of an X-52 droid snaked into the corridor, air evaporating around it from the heat of its discharge.

   Without hesitation, the Sub-Commander brought her own rifle to bear. "Fire!" she shouted, and instantly a good dozen or so lances of light flashed in the darkness, piercing the red orb and sending the spider crashing down unto the metal floor – only to reveal two more red eyes behind it. As BC issued another command, she heard Parfet's console beep as a connection was established with the Nirvana.

   "Parfet-chan?" Ezra's voice called out, sounding tinny through the receiver of the communicator. "What's going on? Is that gunfire?"

   "Webs..." Parfet whispered, her eyes riveted on the ever increasing number of red lights... "We're trapped in a web of spiders..."

==[VANDREAD]==

   "Parfet!" Magno called out. "What's going on?!?"

   Hibiki, Dita and Meia had been in the control room when the transmision from the Strike Force had arrived, hoping that they could make themselves useful in some way although they had not been allowed to go with the main squad. Now, as they gazed at the war of lights on screen, and heard the sounds of melting metal and screams of pain, they wished more than ever that they were there, able to lend a helping hand. And yet another part also realized that their presence there would have done little good...

   "We were tricked!" Parfet shouted, "I – I was tricked! I'm so sorry Boss, I didn't know- "

   "Parfet!" Magno shouted again, in a harsher tone of voice, "This is no time for guilt child! Tell us what is happening!"

   "This isn't..." she begun then was interrupted by a particularly fierce barrage of fire from behind her. Smoke began to trail across the scene, thick black tendrils which caused the engineer to cough. "... isn't the center of operations. It's a barracks – a hangar for the * cough * spiders, they were waiting for us to arrive and now..."

   Meia cursed roundly, while others gasped in dismay. Hibiki grit his teeth in anger and addressed the frantic engineer. "Get out of there! Get out while you can!"

   Parfet shook her head, trying her best to speak amidst the din and the smoke. "Came at us from both sides... No visible exits... Trying to break through to the South but there seem to be just so many of the-" she got out before the transmission abruptly dissolved into static.

   "Parfet! Parfet! Damnit!" the Boss cursed, slamming her fist against her chair. She turned to the bridge girls. "What happened to the connection?"

   "We don't know!" Amarone responded as she worked furiously at her station. "The signal was strong until a moment ago – it was almost as if somebody were..."

   "Wait!" Celtic interrupted. "I've got something!"

   The static disappeared then, and was replaced by a blue screen, with a single, blinking prompt.

_

Surprise! :-)_

   "You!" Hibiki growled.

   "It's the bad computer!" Dita shouted.

By now you've probably deduced that your friends have succumbed to my clever ruse. Such is the fate of those who would cross swords with a God... Their fate is to be thrown to the eternal darkness where they shall gnash their teeth – or be broiled by laser beams as the case may be, it's all really one and the same...

   "Bastard!" Hibiki cried out. The boy took a menacing step towards the screen. "You're not going to get away- "he began, but Meia caught him by the shoulder.

   "It's unlikely that this thing has audio receptors in the Nirvana," the Dread Leader said. Her face had gone deadly calm but her eyes burned with a barely controlled fury. "Let's see what it has to say..."

Yet perhaps you remain as yet unconvinced as to my nature, or perhaps entertain some idea of leaving my planet with your lives...

To this I have but one thing to say:

"469.7x 25.02y... Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly..."

   At that point the screen blanked out, and then the message began to loop once more, but Ezra had a composite of the words already up on a separate screen.

   Magno's eyes narrowed as she took a closer look at the numbers. "Are those..."

   "Coordinates." Belvedere agreed, "Bringing the location up on screen now."

   The screen was soon filled with the image of an isolated plateau, a hundred or so kilometers away from the Nirvana's position.

   "So that's their real base huh?" Bart said, from his seated position near his post.

   "But is that the real one this time?" Celtic asked, "It could be another trap..."

   "Whether it's the real headquarters or not is uncertain," Meia said as she scanned the image. "However, we can be very certain that this is a trap."

   "But one we're going to have to take anyway right?" Hibiki said. He turned to Meia and Dita. "So much for bed rest..."

   "Are you crazy?" Bart asked. "What good will it do to put yourselves in the same situation that the other girls are in? Getting everyone killed won't help those of us who get left behind!"

   "Whoever this person is hasn't left us with much choice," Meia said. "Everything has been very cleverly manipulated to our disadvantage – but if he holds all the cards, we have no choice but to play his game in the meantime."

   "Besides," Hibiki added. "I have a feeling that this base is the real deal..." He looked up at Magno. "I don't think we're dealing with a computer here... I think this is a living, breathing human being with a sick mind and a huge insecurity problem. He wants to show off before he kills us off."

   Magno nodded. "Like a cat plays with its prey..." Then, despite herself, she smiled. "I've always thought cats were poor creatures to emulate when hunting human beings."

   Hibiki smiled in response. The odds were against them, but this was no different than a hundred other times in the past. And never before had Hibiki so passionately wanted to see the enemy destroyed.

    "I agree completely," the boy said, a steely glint in his eye, "Especially because this time, the prey have a plan..." The boy clenched his fist. "It's time to put an end to this madness, once and for all."

==[End of Chapter Five]==

Author's Note:

Hoookay.

That took a long time.

A very long time.

Actually I don't blame you if some of you thought I was dead @_@

What can I say? Law School is a killer (in more ways than one) and free time to write was just one of the many casualties. It was my first semester and it took me awhile to get adjusted, and I didn't want to take any aspect of it for granted.

Now hopefully I know the ropes and can manage some better time management. Not that this will necessarily result in a quicker chapter turnout – writing isn't something you can squeeze in between assignments and expect positive results @_@ (That and the fact that my spellchecker has, for one reason or another, gone on strike). If the choice is between compromising the quality and getting these chapters out quicker, I'll have to err on the side of quality. I do have a story to tell, and it would defeat the purpose of telling it if it wasn't told well.

But – just so you know this isn't just a nice way of putting things on indefinate hold – my personal commitment is to have the sixth and FINAL chapter of this story out by December (1 – 31) at the latest.

Then it's on to the Second Stage – and beyond ^_^

Thanks for the patience and support gang – it really means a lot.

See you all again soon! As always, comments and the like are good – and might just get me to write quicker :)

-Ender

ADDENDUM as of July, 2003: No, I'm not dead. Half a year behind, but not dead ;p Just finished going over all 70 pages of Marooned as preparation to starting work on Chapter 6 again… I decided to reupload Chapter 5 because of the atrocious number of spelling errors (w/c I'd have to blame on my lack of a spellcheck or proofreader).

I wont promise any set date this time, but have no fear that I've abandoned the project. I'll finish what I started – so watch for it ok? :)