MEGA MAN X: MAVERICK HUNTERS

By the Legacy of Metal Co-Authors

(Erico, Magus, Revokov, RoyFokker, and Maelgrim)

Chapter Two: Training Run

"Whenever you cross swords with an enemy, you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him."

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Wind Book


Maverick Hunter Headquarters

Jenna ran. She ran on sidewalks made of light, her footfalls entirely silent. On the 'net, how a reploid perceived information, how they visualized it, visualized getting to it, was up to the individual. She liked the idea of running, of building up momentum, so she could punch through the barriers that stood before her, in the real and electronic worlds.

The actual process of hacking a server was indeed more complex than the words 'brute force' implied. Normally she would be more subtle. But not today, not now. Jenna had something to prove. She also enjoyed knowing she would likely be responsible for some headaches among the human IT Security teams in New Amsterdam as they reworked the protocols she'd exploited. She wondered how long it would take for them to realize what had happened.

She decided it would take too long. A thought later, and she'd sent a compiled report of the exploit to her former colleagues.

Gripped 'tightly' in her left hand was a small baton, covered in ones and zeroes scrolling across its surface. Ahead of her, another figure identical to hers waited for the pass, arm outstretched. As she drew closer to this doppelganger, she could see others like it, sprinting in from connecting paths that stretched into the virtual distance, towards spheres representing servers located in Europe. The multiple Jennas all made contact with the waiting runner at the same time. There was a moment's pause, several bright flashes, and Jenna was on the run once more, all alone.

Security Clearance to MHHQ Information Network...granted.

The iron barred gates that stood in her way shattered as she ran through them. Behind the gate she found herself within what appeared to be an old fashioned library, with bookcases and shelves that seemed to go on forever. She continued to sprint through the corridors, taking seemingly random turns, her eyes scanning everything she passed by, until she slid to an abrupt halt before one particular set of 'books'.


"What's a Navigator?" Hawkins asked once more on behalf of his comrades.

"An unnecessary component." Volya answered. "If removed from a well-oiled machine, you would only notice improvements from its absence."

"A Navigator provides actionable real-time intelligence to reploid and human combatants during field operations," Jenna countered. "While you are all busy trying not to get yourselves killed, I handle tactical and strategic electronic warfare and analyze threat data transmitted back to me. I have access to the GDC orbital surveillance network to facilitate this, as well as a redundant internal-external hardware system suite designed specifically for my duties." She marched towards the team, her manner confrontational, pausing in front of Lu. "You're different from the one in your personnel file. Already lost one I see?"

"Affirmative." If the Chinese reploid was surprised, he seemed incapable of actually displaying it.

She already knows? Volya wondered if this was another instance of MHHQ security being lax. He concentrated for a moment, but could not detect any sign that she was accessing the local wireless networks.

"You're wondering," Jenna's smile was almost wicked, "why I already know that? SA rank in the simulation yesterday, hmm Commander? A rather exciting performance, I can see that now." She frowned at Lu. "Not so much for you. The price of being designed 'expendable' I suppose. There's always room for improvement. Our Commander has set the bar rather high."

"You will not continue this course you've set yourself upon." Volya said quietly, exuding menace as he stepped closer to the reploid. She glared up at Volya towering over her, then walked past him to inspect Nils.

"Do you prefer Goat, or Nils? You're Swiss, good. Someone reasonable, I hope. Second in command, I'm to understand?"

"Yes ma'am." Despite the fact that he dwarfed the woman, Nils still felt as though he was at a disadvantage. He wasn't used to seeing anyone brush off a demand from Volya in quite the fashion this reploid had. "Hey, how do you already-"

"Tomahawk 'Hawkins' Foxfire, an American." Jenna had already moved on to her next subject. "Interesting transfer, from AmeriCanada to Japan, and a vulpinoid at that! I've not had the pleasure of working with one."

"Pleasure's all mine I'm sure." Hawkins offered a handshake, but she simply dodged past him with self-conscious grace to stand before Huey. She's one of those. Knows what she's got, not afraid to use a little of that eye-pull.

"And you're our pilot. Right out of active stasis." Her face scrunched up with frustration. "Your files are surprisingly well protected. Even Cain-approved access isn't good enough?" She glowered. "Not for long."

Thinking she was accusing him of having done something wrong, Huey glared right back at Jenna. "What's your problem?! I haven't even stared at your ass!"

"Is this ALL of Zephyr unit, Commander Volya?" She whirled on the former Spetznaz reploid, ignoring Huey's comment and his gaze, hands on her hips, completely exasperated. "No wonder they told me so little about my assignment. This is a joke. Full units have at least twenty Hunters, but Zephyr's files begin with Volya and end with...me." She began to pace, distracted by her spoken thoughts. "They don't seriously expect me to go into the field, do they? That is far from what I was originally designed." A sudden realization struck her. "We are a distraction, a decoy?"

"Navigator." Volya rumbled, his void loud enough to temporarily silence the entire room. "You should-"

"Not have access to personnel files without your explicit permission, or Cain's, or any of the network security consultants on-site, or without bypassing their automated intrusion countermeasures?" Jenna actually leaned closer to the Russian. "Apparently you and I have a very different idea of what I need to know if I'm going to act as your Navigator!"

He's going to kill her, Nils felt a twinge of panic as he watch Volya take an unnecessarily deep breath. He was half convinced that in the next instant, the brash woman would find herself vertically bisected into even halves. If it didn't happen now, Nils could easily imagine any number of accidents that Volya could arrange.

"Your services may not be needed." His single eye focused in on Jenna, and still she did not back down. If anything, she looked almost distracted. "I suggest you do not get comfortable."

"It is not your decision, or mine. I know my orders. I trust you know yours." She flicked her hair back over her shoulders before she turned back to her metal case. "If you will excuse me, I have a meeting with the good Doctor Cain himself. I will catch up to you at the simulators. Your personal schedule suggested you'll be there within the next hour."

Jenna walked briskly to the heavy case that she had arrived with, then began dragging it towards the elevators, muttering to herself. The receptionist of the main entrance who had witnessed the the verbal altercation moved to offer her assistance, but was waved off.

"You do not need to report to the simulators, Systems Officer," Volya announced as she reached the elevator. "I intend to protest your assignment to this unit vigorously. We've enough to be concerned with to have a non-combatant test subject further meddle with our affairs."

The remark went seemingly ignored until she pushed the case into the elevator. It noticeably sagged with the weight. Once she stepped inside, she glared another set of daggers at Volya, but then her expression softened. Simultaneously, the emergency fire sprinklers directly over the heads of her five squad-mates descended from their storage slots on the roof, and commenced a perfectly aimed deluge.

"Good morning, Commander." The elevator door shut just as Jenna waved at the group. After the elevator had ascended several floors, the sprinklers shut down and locked themselves back into storage.

Volya remained silent for a full minute, and eyewitnesses later swore that the water that soaked his frame had begun to boil.

"She is...rather good." Nils offered weakly, taking a step back away from Volya.

"They were talking about Navigators years ago, now that I think about it." Hawkins said. "We never woulda seen them back home, funding cuts and all."

"Conceptually sound. Even operating my electronic warfare suites at full capacity requires direct connection to Home," Lu remained coldly analytical. "Looking forward to establishing connection protocols with Navigator, could supplement my current capabilities in the absence of my primary external resources."

Huey started snickering at 'establishing connection protocols', but otherwise kept his thoughts on Jenna, if he had any, to himself.

"Lu. How did she do it?" Volya sounded more curious than angry.

"Local network security still operating at maximum efficiency. Command-level access detected two minutes ago, authorized by Doctor James T. Cain. No record of any access by reploid Jenna. No detected network access from her current body. Suspect case carried was the special external hardware mentioned during introduction, possible relay for her. " Lu frowned, an expression he'd not shown even while requesting his brother be euthanized. "Her electronic warfare capability far exceeds my own."

"So it does." The commander began to stomp away, his heavy boots splashing in the growing puddle, water pouring in rivulets along the various edges of his armor. "Clean this mess, and report to the holo-simulator."

"Weren't we going to check in?" Goat asked.

"Leave that to me. You have your orders." Ducking into another elevator, Volya began his pursuit.

A minute later, he cursed as the elevator went down in reverse of his orders and stopped at every single floor on the way to the sub levels of MHHQ, then repeated the same on its way back up towards Cain's office.


Systems Officer Jenna had entered Cain's office calm and composed, offering a salute as soon as the door had allowed her inside, and marching in with military precision. The aging doctor appraised her as she walked in, surprised at her general appearance. Somewhere along the line, a designer had thought looks counted for a whole lot, hence her overall appearance. Were it not for the armor, she'd have passed for a human model. The picture of beauty and discipline.

"Well, you don't look like the type to have used my security clearance to activate the emergency fire sprinklers in the lobby." He gestured to a message blinking URGENT on the holographic display on his desk.

"Nothing sinister, sir. Or do you prefer 'doctor'?" Jenna did not look surprised that he already knew of her antics. He gestured to the seat on the opposite side of his desk, and she sat dutifully.

"Either or, doesn't matter to me." His grin was hard to read with his white beard, but the skin around his eyes crinkled slightly. "You seem tense. All things considered, you have a right to be. You'll have to lose that Eurobloc discipline around here, nobody wants a reminder that you're from the GDC."

"I gathered that Zephyr's presence is not welcome here."

"Personal experience, or from the files you've accessed?"

"Both, doctor." Jenna finally allowed herself to relax. She looked disappointed. "I did not choose to be assigned here. I would just as soon prefer a location that is less hostile. It's not even a proper sort of hostility. Nobody is brave enough to come out and say it. The receptionist on duty in particular, rude little snot." Speaking seemed to further loosen her own discipline, her own hot temper flaring up briefly. "Even you, doctor. I would prefer it if I'd been simply told to go retire myself where no one could see. The world is much clearer when such things are out in the open."

"And you didn't get any say in your appearance, or what you were built for. I know. Ostracized by humans and your own kind." Cain aged with every word, standing from his chair and limping towards the window facing out over the rest of New Tokyo. He did not want to face her accusatory expression. She was right about everything she'd said. "To me, you're another reminder of what I helped unleash on the world."

"Thanks, dad."

"Well, you're in the Maverick Hunters now. Until you go back to your original posting, you'll have to deal with that. Which means no further stunts like the one you pulled." Despite the admonishing tone, the old man couldn't help laughing. "How did you manage it?"

"A magician shouldn't reveal her secrets." Jenna puffed her chest out proudly even as she feigned modesty, twisting locks of her crimson hair around a finger. "It was nothing special, though. By design, I am able to split my consciousness in the Network to allow for multitasking, and I used this to access necessary servers here in Japan as well as in Amsterdam. I simply found a copy of an email you sent ten minutes ago to GDC command, via a keystroke log on your terminal here in this office. It seems you also agree that Zephyr unit, consequently myself, shouldn't be assigned to Japan."

She'd paused for dramatic effect, studying James Cain with almost frightening intensity, trying to read his reaction. He had sent a curt, but professional e-mail to Amsterdam regarding Zephyr Unit. He cited concerns with morale among the Hunters, the interoperability between 'his' men and women, and those handpicked by an organization that continued to argue for shutting down the Hunters worldwide. He detailed the fight that had broken out between the GDC reploids and members from the 14th Unit.

It was a disaster waiting to happen, and lives were being put at risk while the GDC tried to look good in the press. As the man who helped fund and create the Maverick Hunters, he had only felt it right to raise these concerns to the people in charge of making them possible in the first place.

But to Jenna, who sat before him now, it was calling into question her entire existence. He, just like the receptionist, just like the commander who had questioned her usefulness and ability, all were telling her she simply wasn't necessary.

When it became clear that Cain had nothing to say, Jenna continued.

"I edited two copies of that message, which include a perfect replica of your electronic signature. One was sent to Amsterdam, detailing my arrival, interview, and a security clearance request from myself and you. The second was a reply to another email I forged, signed off by my previous commanding officer, including my service record as requested. You should be seeing that one now. Piecing together your security log-in key from the keystroke log, I tested it against the defenses surrounding the personnel file system, and I broke in with no intrusion countermeasure queries from the automated defenses, and the key also protected me from active defenses manned by your reploid IT department." Jenna's voice had taken an almost sing-song quality by the end of her explanation. "You are possibly the biggest threat to your internal network security, and one I wish could exist in every other network I would be tasked to access. It was better than any friendly welcome you could have possibly mustered, even if it had been sincere in nature." She feigned a half-bow in her seat. "But I do apologize, doctor."

Behind her, the door to the office slid open once again, revealing a still wet Volya, wearing an expression that was half way between total frustration and grudging amusement.

"Apologize for what, exactly? The hacking or the pranks?" The Muscovite reploid grunted.

"To call what I did a prank indicates a gross ignorance of the technical expertise required, Commander. Cain's access key was enough for me initiate a localized fire alarm event in the system. I then blocked that alarm event from every single other emergency system in the building, ensuring there would be no audible or silent alarms, and only the sprinklers directly over your head would activate, under the assumption that the entire system had been alerted." She spun the chair slowly around to face the combat reploid. "The elevator was entirely my doing, though. I'd do it again, if it proves my point." She stood from her seat, walking back towards her heavy metal case. "You'll find my unique, factory-given gifts to be useful, Volya. I promise you this."

"Report to the simulator, then. We will see if this is a promise you can keep."

"About your living arrangements-" Cain began, but stopped when the woman raised her hand to cut him off.

"I will use the vacant office near Zephyr's quarters. It's away from the combat personnel of the team, and isolated from Maverick Hunters. The external hardware I'm bringing can be set up there. So long as I'm one of the 'enemy', I see no reason to allow your people to have a closer look at my set up."

"That will be problematic." Cain decided to try another friendlier tack. "You could help train personnel in your duties, so we could begin preparing Navigator support for other existing teams."

"I recommend you find someone you trust to train them, doctor. That clearly isn't going to be someone from Zephyr Unit."

Dragging the case behind her, Jenna hummed a tune neither Volya or Cain could identify as she marched out of the office without another word.

Cain looked to the Commander of Zephyr Team. "Looks like you'll have your hands full with that one."

Staring back with his one good eye, Volya scratched along the top of his eyepatch and shook his head. Wordlessly, he turned about and followed his Navigator.


MHHQ

Sub-Basement Secondary Annex (Holosimulator Row)

"Day 2, and we're back here again." Huey sing-songed. Unlike the day before, they weren't the only Hunters running morning exercises in the holo-rooms. A small group of Hunters from Special Unit 0 were running a simulation in the side room, and the 7th Unit was in one of the large chambers running full unit training.

The four teammates of Zephyr Team set up shop in one of the small siderooms and bided their time, waiting for Volya to show up. The moment of respite gave them all a chance to let their minds wander to more interesting topics, which turned out to be their newest squadmate.

"So, she doesn't fight, she doesn't even go out into the field with us. She just sits behind a computer somewhere and bosses us around?" Huey asked.

"That's about the size of it." Hawkins confirmed.

"Commander Volya's reluctance to the presence of our Navigator is most puzzling." Lu ventured. "Is he a misogynist?"

"No, that is not the case." Goat folded his arms. "The Commander is a very old-fashioned thinker. To him, a Navigator is more of a distraction than an aid. He needs to warm up to the idea."

"So he's gone through this kind of adjustment before, then." Hawkins reasoned. "How long do you think it will take him before he accepts her?"

"Well, let me see." Goat thought about it. "I first met him on a joint border patrol operation in the Balkans, and we…well, it was our fourth week together before he said more than, "Hey you" to me. So give it a month."

Huey slapped himself in the face with a groan. "Terrific."

"I know he's good." Hawkins said, trying to stay somewhat on topic. "But has he always been this cold to people?"

Goat shook his head. "No. No, that's different. He was able to relax slightly from mission ready when I first met him. He also had both of his eyes back then. Now, he seems frozen as a stoic warrior."

"Heavy is the head that wears the crown. Or is that the cow that wears the pants?" Huey rambled.

Goat leaned his large bulk on the end of his safetied ATA-7 Bazooka and sighed. "Yes, I suppose that would do it."

The access door slid open as he finished his sentence, and a sour-looking Volya stepped inside. "That would do what, Nils?"

"Uh, nothing, Volya." Goat quickly pulled himself back to attention. "So what's on the agenda? Will Miss Jenna be joining us?"

"She will be upstairs." Volya answered uncomfortably. "As soon as she is connected, we will begin our team exercise."

"So what are you putting us up against?" Hawkins asked. "A program you made up, or something standard in their system?"

Volya checked his systems over, removing his black longcoat and setting it outside the room door. "I found a program in their library last night that should be most enlightening. A tower assault."

"Oh, well that's good." Huey cackled. "I get to fly something this time, then."

"Negative." Volya refused him. He primed his Buster and drew his beam shortblade, but kept it deactivated, resting the metal cylinder in his hand. "We will need to keep together as a team to meet the victory conditions."

"Oh, that inspires me with confidence." Hawkins cringed. "At least it's not a Nightmare Mode run."

Volya paused in his grooming to stare at the vulpinoid, and Hawkins swallowed. "Crap. It is, isn't it?"

"Anticipate that your enemies will always have more data, more time, more men, more armor, and better weapons than you will." Volya explained calmly. "Then you will never be surprised when the world burns around you."

"Right." The vulpinoid nodded uneasily. "So, Nightmare Mode."

Lu slid a magazine into the magrifle he'd requisitioned the day before; like Goat's munitions, it had been waiting for him in the weapons locker in the corridor, dutifully warped down from the armory. "Our probability of success increases with our numbers."

"Perhaps." Nils said carefully. "But then again, we do not have much experience in fighting as a team. This may be very rough."

Volya absently adjusted his eyepatch. "Remember what I told you all yesterday?"

"Sort of. You said we sucked." Huey chuckled. "A real pep talk, that was."

"No." Volya gave his head a shake. "I said that you each have your own ways of fighting. Lu, you fought with total disregard to your own safety. Hawkins, you lost yourself to blood fury. Huey, you need to concentrate more. And Goat? You…" The Russian made a face. "Do…less of what you did before."

"Uh…yes?" Goat unsteadily replied. Volya pressed on.

"To act as a team, we must draw upon our strengths, and support one another. We must learn to fight, expecting what our teammates will do. It must become as natural as breathing. If we can do it in here, then we can do it in the field."

"Sensible enough." Hawkins nodded. Though Volya was still abrasive, he'd earned the vulpinoid's respect. The reploid was a leader, if not a sociable one. "And we're hitting the water facefirst. You believe in hitting the ground running, don't you?"

"You hit the ground, or the ground hits you." Lu suggested. That earned an unblinking stare from the team, especially Volya. Unaffected, the Chinese reploid slung his magrifle over his shoulder and checked his arm pistons.

"Amen." Huey offered, breaking the silence.


Jenna had allowed herself only a brief stopover at her private quarters in Corridor 5-B. It was unusual that they would be stationed in the main building instead of the barracks, but given the rather explosive incidents of the day before, that had probably been a wise decision on the part of Dr. Cain. At least it made getting from point to point easier.

The bulk of her gear, she'd stowed away and put in lockdown. It wouldn't do for somebody to come by and make off with it. All she had taken with her on the long transit to the Holosim Sub-Basement was a small flashmem stick and a broad-spectrum communications headset.

Now, she waited patiently in the main control booth as the primary on-duty technician scanned both devices with a "sniffer box," a portable scanner that checked for viruses and other hostile hidden programs. It did a thorough job of it: When the thirty-second scan finished, a yellow indicator light put up the warning.

"Your headset is good to go." The technician said, handing the ear-covering muffler and wire-thin attached microphone back to her. "The system flagged several batch files on your flashmem, though."

"It would be a shame if it didn't." The red-haired Navigator calmly replied. "It's designed to integrate with training centers, such as this one, and provide access to an approximate suite of applications I have in real life. It also programs your core memory and processors to adjust to the increased strain for maximum efficiency."

Her MHHQ counterpart didn't seem reassured by that. "We don't allow people to reprogram our machines. There was an incident six years ago…"

"The Shadow Hunters incident. Yes, I'm aware of it." Jenna cut him off. "Fine. You may run it as a read-only addition. Your system will work a little harder, though. It shouldn't crash anything, but…"

"Your concern is noted, Miss Navigator." The tech removed her flashmem stick from the sniffer box and handed it back. "To be honest, I'm actually sort of curious how you'll affect their performance."

"That makes two of us." Jenna answered softly. She raised her voice. "Do you mind if I take the console overlooking their room?"

"Help yourself. I've got to get back to monitoring the 7th Unit."

Left to her work, Jenna sat down at a secondary control console overlooking the holosim room Volya had checked out. Affixing her headset, she plugged the memory stick into an access port. Ignoring the warning message, she instructed the system to deny the installation request and run as read-only.

One by one, her application icons came online: Teamspeak and private channels, electrosphere uplink (Simulated, as there was no electrosphere access this far down), a non-comprehensive database of known aggressor Mavericks, mechaniloids, and weaponry, and her unit monitoring software. The last program was dimmed out: She would have to attune each one of Zephyr Team's warriors for that function to work, and that required time she didn't have.

Fully online, she opened up the comms, tying each member to her control station. "Commander, we're ready to go up here. What program did you want me to load up?"

Through the angled transparisteel window, Volya glanced up and took notice of her. "Zephyr 1 from now on. Assign numerical designations to the others in this order: Goat, Hawkins, Lu, and Morgan."

Jenna made the necessary alterations. "Confirmed, Zephyr One. My callsign is Sentinel."

"Sentinel?" Goat, or Zephyr 2, asked curiously.

"Yeah. She watches over us." Hawkins joked.

"Sentinel." Volya got the team focused again. "Load program Tower 01: Nightmare Mode."

Jenna raised an eyebrow at the difficulty level, but decided not to argue the point. "On it."

She brought up the desired program and started the launch procedure. The delay gave her time to review the description.

First Maverick Uprising. Karashita Tower, New Tokyo.

The attached Maverick, Boomer Kuwanger, had been an elite in his time. Commander of his own unit, and one of the eight generals in Sigma's 1st Unit: A ferocious Maverick after he turned.

The program construct began to load around Zephyr Team, replacing the empty room with a sight ten years in the past.

"Good luck, Zephyr Team." Jenna whispered, as they slipped into the mission.


Karashita Tower (Simulated)

New Tokyo, Japan

June 10th, 2118 C.E.

Nightmare Mode

In place of an empty, heavily reinforced room, the five found themselves standing outside the main entrance of an enormous skyscraper with two adjoined towers.

Mitsubachi polycraft, Bee Bladers, patrolled the airspace above them at 100 meters.

"Ooh! Ooh! Volya, you've gotta let me hijack one of those!" Huey said excitably.

"Call me Zephyr 1 during missions." Volya angrily corrected him. "And no. That would alert them to our presence. Let's get inside. Our target should be at the top of this structure."

"Couldn't we just warp up there?" Hawkins asked.

"I wouldn't recommend it, Zephyr Three." The voice of "Sentinel" came over the radio receivers embedded in their helmets, and in the case of Hawkins, his wristband communicator. "I've tapped into local electrosphere grids, or what the simulation is using, anyway, and there's a strong, localized field effect around the tower. You wouldn't even reintegrate."

"Did they even have antiwarp fields back then?" Huey complained.

"If you had studied your history, you would know that warp shielding has been around since Wily's time." Goat informed him.

"Son of a bitch probably invented it." Hawkins added sourly. "Okay, so the direct route is out. Through the front doors, then?"

Volya scrutinized the inviting prospect for a moment and shook his head. "Also negative. I am seeing sentry beams in the ultraviolet spectrum on those doors."

"UV Lasers?" Jenna questioned. "How can you see that?"

Calmly, Volya tapped his black eyepatch. "It can detect both ultraviolet and infrared signatures."

"That wasn't in your personnel file!"

"A great many things are not." Volya ended the conversation.

"Sentinel, could you disable the door alarms?" Goat asked.

"Negative." They could hear the sound of Jenna's fingers flying over a keyboard. "Whoever's in charge of that tower has the security systems locked down tight. I'm trying to break in, but it will be a while. You're on your own for a bit."

"Like always." Volya exhaled. "The front doors are out of the question. That leaves a more direct option. Few security systems monitor wall integrity."

"Query, Zephyr One: Are you suggesting that we break down a section of the building's exostructure?" Lu asked.

Volya shook his head. "No, Four. Not us. Just Zephyr Two."

Everyone turned and looked to Goat. The enormous reploid blinked, then squinted his eyes over the faceguard of his unvisored helmet. "Are explosives allowed?"

"No. Too much potential for discovery." Volya advised him. "Use your strength alone."

Goat handed his bazooka over to Huey, who almost toppled over by the weight of the weapon. "Even better." He chuckled. "Cover me."

Everyone readied their weapons as Goat plodded to the wall and sized it up with several hard taps of his hamfists. "Hm. Solid granite surfacing, but it's only a foot thick."

"So can you demolish it?"

"Probably standard plasteel underneath." Goat looked skyward for a moment. "Yes, I should be able to handle it."

"Well, you may want to hurry it up, because one of those Bladers is moving in for a closer look!" Huey urged him in a panic.

"Please do not distract me. This requires absolute focus." Goat chided him. He pulled his right arm back and cocked it at the elbow, then slammed it forward with tremendous force. The first punch rattled the ground from the vibrations and left a cracked spiderweb pattern in the surface of the building…two inches deep.

"Anytime now." Hawkins muttered, eyeing the descending Bee Blader. It hadn't yet brought its sensors to bear on them, but in seconds, it would, and then they'd be in it deep.

With what seemed like an effortless motion, Goat repeated his punch and broke through the granite and its undersupports. The stone crumbled away, pieces of debris flying inwards from the force of the blow. Goat followed up with a doublefisted swing and two hard kicks, widening the hole, then charged inside. The others quickly followed, taking up positions along the interior wall on either side of the gaping hole.

The whup-whup-whup-whup of the Bee Blader's rotor kicked up dust in all directions as it settled outside of the tower. Long seconds passed, with the team maintaining radio silence, and Volya calmly using a flat-handed downwards pushing motion to tell the team to stay put. It didn't stop Goat from reclaiming his Bazooka back from Huey and bringing it to firing position, or from Lu readying his magrifle.

Finally, the Bee Blader rose back up away from the ground, and the artificial currents of air from its wash dissipated. They all breathed a sigh of relief as it went back to its search pattern.

"How come it didn't send up an alarm? I mean, it was parked in front of our hole!" Hawkins exclaimed.

Huey only giggled. "Heh. First generation Bladers. Stupid as Hell. They only report trouble if they spot moving targets or vehicles. A hole in the wall doesn't exist to their puny little brains."

"We were lucky, then." Lu decided.

"And if you rely on luck to save you, then you are a fool." Volya ignited his beam shortblade and glanced around the lobby of Karashita Tower. "No enemy contacts. Let's get moving."


Holosim Control Center

The clattering of fingers on the console's flatpanel keyboard paused after ten seconds, then came an invective. "Damn." Jenna tried again with another access subroutine on the flashmem stick, and scowled as it, too, failed. "Damn!" Brute forcing the system resulted in an indignant beep, and she pounded the keyboard in frustration. "Damn, damn, damn!"

The other technicians glanced up momentarily from their own work, but didn't offer any remark. Jenna wasn't in a mood to put up with commentary, anyhow. "All right, you. You're going to be a pain in my ass? Let's be a pain in yours."

Imitating a mass denial of service attack, she blindsided the security program of the simulated Karashita Tower. While it struggled to cut off access, she snuck in a username request.

Confused, the security programs let the "innocuous" request through, and a comprehensive list of user accounts came up. Scanning through them, Jenna smiled. "Now for the real fun."

Accessing the Karashita Tower program database, she reviewed the casualty reports that the Maverick Hunters had collected. One of the humans that died in the communications tower's "Liberation" was Akagi Sunamoto, the Chief of Security.

"Perfect. Right up their backdoor." Jenna smirked. A password request from his user account provided her the 32 symbol-long alphanumeric code that was Mr. Akagi's access key. Hoping that Boomer Kuwanger hadn't disabled the tower's user accounts, she silenced the DDOS attack and tried the username and password.

He hadn't.

"Hello, there." Jenna smirked, flexing her fingers. She brought up the schematics of the tower to a side screen and then accessed the security camera controls. "Time to start some loop recording." She told herself, then she touched her headset's connect button. "Sentinel to Zephyr Team. I've broken into the Tower security controls, and I've got eyes on you."


The team was climbing a stairwell when Jenna's call came in. Volya stopped the procession and tapped the side of his helmet. "Do you now? Are there any sentries ahead?"

"Not in the stairwell itself, no. There are plenty of security cameras, but I can work around them."

"You can turn them off?" Zephyr 1 said.

"No, that would alert the Maverick in charge here that something was wrong. I'm recording every camera feed along your route. Once you get close, I'll play it in a loop, and they'll be none the wiser as you pass through."

"They won't see us, just an empty hallway." Goat repeated wonderingly.

"Exactly, Zephyr 2." Sentinel said. "The stairwell goes up another 6 flights before it caps off at the lower checkpoint. From there, you'll have to take your chances on the main concourse, and there is trouble waiting for you."

"Hey, couldn't you disable them?" Huey asked. "Put them into sleep mode?"

"Even if I wanted to, boys, I couldn't." Sentinel answered. "The Maverick sentries aren't tied into the grid. They're running on their own system, and I can't access it."

"Understood." Volya killed his helmet's microphone. He gazed at the team. "We should not rely too heavily on Sentinel. In the end, we will only have each other."

"So what's the plan, then? Once we reach the first tier of this place, they'll know what's going on." Hawkins voiced.

Volya grunted. "It is a good thing, then, that we have a scout."

Hawkins did a double take, then scowled. "Aw, son of a bitch."

"We will be right behind you!" Goat promised him. Hardly reassured, Hawkins tucked his tomahawks away and leapt to the railing.

"I hope you're messing with their cameras, Sentinel."

"Never stopped, Zephyr 3. Good hunting."

With a mobility and grace that only an animal-class reploid could easily provide, Hawkins made one jump after another off of the top of the stairs' handrails, barely stopping. In seconds, he was standing in front of the first security door.

He took a slow breath to steady his microfusion generator, then pressed his ear to the door. He heard nothing beyond. Taking a chance, Hawkins nudged the latch open.

On the other side, he found that the Mavericks had done their fair share of redecorating. Entire passageway had been gutted, the lightstrips had been ripped off their mounts, and almost every bit of ornamentation had been burned and smashed beyond recognition.

"Terrific. This must've been during Sigma's blue period." Hawkins remarked to himself. He closed the door behind him quietly and leapt to the wall, then jumped to the ceiling, digging his claws into the dilapidated permacrete. Clambering the ceiling like a spider, Hawkins approached what was left of the stairway headed up the tower. Handhold by handhold, he reached the lip of a gaping hole in the floor above. Slowly, he gripped the underside of the ledge and leaned his head out.

Standing watch at the checkpoint was a lone mace and shield-wielding mechaniloid, reminiscent of the militarized KIF robot series 60 years before. It hadn't seen him.

Hawkins eased his head back out of view, and flicked his mechanical ears thoughtfully. Deciding on his course of action, he pulled his feet forward and dug his hindclaws in hard, inches from his hands. He pulled his hands free and hung upside down, then started to rock back and forth, testing his inverted perch. When his feet held firm, Hawkins moved.

In one swift jerk, he contorted his body up over the lip of the ledge and grabbed the Hoganmer by its ankles. With momentum and gravity on his side, Hawkins reared back and yanked his prey down through the hole. Unable to do a thing to save itself, the sedentary sentry did a faceplant into the floor below. Sparking from the impact, it weakly tried to raise its head up. Hawkins didn't give it time to recover. He landed hard on its back and sliced quickly through its neck with an unpowered tomahawk, decapitating it.

Having destroyed the only thread, Hawkins cheerfully twirled his weapon about before stowing it with a flourish. He tapped the radio transmitter in his forearm. "Hawk…Erm, Zephyr 3 to One. Clear to come up."

The door to the tower stairwell opened again, and Volya, with the magrifle toting Lu at his side, came through next. They sized up the room, then Volya tapped his helmet. "2 and 5, clear." Goat and Huey came in last, and the four rejoined their ally. Lu knelt down by the fallen Maverick sentry and looked it over.

"Termination caused by sharp force trauma between the second and third auxiliary positronic corridors. Quick and effective." The Chinese reploid looked up to Hawkins. "A good kill, Zephyr 3."

"Thanks, I think." The unnerved vulpinoid responded. He motioned to a ladder ahead of them. "There's your point of egress."

"Very good, Three. Move ahead and search for additional patrols, but do not engage." Volya tapped his helmet. "Sentinel."

"Yes, Commander?"

"We will observe radio silence for this next leg. Do you have anything to say before we move on?"

"That sentry must have had some kind of neural activity monitor on it. I'm picking up on increased movement ahead, and the cameras are on direct feed and control. I can't mask your presence with image loops anymore."

"Well, that's terrific. Is there any good news?" Goat complained.

"One bit of it. I found a schematic of the tower through my access account. It won't tell you where the targets are, but at least you'll know where you're going. I'm uploading it to you all now."

"I don't need to know where I'm going if I know where I've been!" Huey boasted. He flipped down the visor on his flight helmet and blinked as the building diagram popped up in front of his eyes. "But this is kinda nice."

"Thanks, Sentinel." Goat added. He brought down the blast visor of his own helmet, fully shrouding his head behind metal and crystal. "File received." He said, in an altered, more mechanical voice.

"Prekrasneya, Sentinel." Volya grunted, the first real compliment he'd given her. "Going silent."

"Good hunting, Zephyrs." Jenna wished them well, and then her channel clicked off.

Alone once more, Zephyr Team's main contingent headed for the ladder while Hawkins jumped up to the roof and scurried out of sight like a spider.

Volya, Lu, and Huey made it up without difficulty, but as soon as Goat put his full weight on the ladder, the reinforced aluminum groaned and gave way with a spectacular crash. Lu and Huey poked their heads down and stared at the cloud of dust kicked up from Goat's fall. "Hey, Nils, you okay?" Huey called down.

He got a grunt in reply, and a sheepish Goat stood upright, shaking debris off of himself. "I have been better. I do not think the ladder will work for me."

"I do not think it will work for anyone now." Volya corrected him. "Can you make it up here another way?"

Goat paced around below, stopping underneath the large hole in the ceiling that Hawkins had climbed through. He grunted and leapt up a few feet, as much as he could manage. It was enough, though. Due to his towering height, he was able to get his arms up through the hole and grab hold of the floor above. Straining, kicking his heavy boots uselessly in the air, Nils pulled himself up and lay like a beached whale for a few moments.

"Hey, are you all right man?" Huey came over and nudged his shoulder.

Volya walked around his second in command, shaking his head. "Joke on your own time, Goat, not mine."

"Oh, fine. You're no fun anymore, did you know that?" Goat picked himself up, checked his shouldered bazooka and mounted cannon again, then took up the rear. "How far ahead is Hawkins?"

The sound of a plasma turret discharging above them, followed by a grunt, supplied the answer.

"He has been discovered." Lu declared. "Recommend rapid pursuit."

"Agreed." Volya dashed ahead, and his squadmates stumbled behind.


Hawkins had sighted another mace-wielding Hoganmer sentry on the climb up, and it was too well emplaced for him to subdue quickly as he'd done with the first. Using his remarkable mobility, he'd clawed up the opposite wall slowly and silently to avoid detection. Once he was up high enough, he'd then steadied his aim and made a wide leap for the wall overlooking his enemy.

For his troubles, Tomahawk Foxfire was promptly and precisely shot in the small of his back while in midair. He grunted in pain and crashed to the ground well short of the mark…directly at the feet of the enemy he'd now failed to catch off guard. He risked a glance behind him and saw what had shot him down: A wall-hugging Dodge Blaster turret.

Some instinct of his suddenly screamed into his head, and Hawkins rolled away in time to avoid the Hoganmer's mace, which dented the floor he'd been lying on.

"That's enough of that shit." He growled, opening up the vents on his back. He flooded the air around him with particles of Aether Flare explosives. A half second was all the density it took to leave a thick cloud around the Hoganmer, and Hawkins leapt backwards before he detonated it. The blast annihilated the sentry, but it had warned the others in the process. The turret above him dropped down and put him in range, and began to charge a shot. Hawkins winced, knowing he couldn't avoid the blow.

He didn't have to. A powerful plasmic explosive rocketed up from the hole in the floor and shattered the wall turret apart. Curious, Hawkins looked down in time to see Goat's shoulder cannon lower from firing position, wafting a curl of smoke from the barrel. The fully helmeted sentinel gave him a quick salute, and Hawkins returned it, using only the first two fingers of his right hand.

The others appeared shortly after, with Volya bouncing off of Goat's shoulders to land in front of Hawkins. "Damage report." The Russian demanded sharply.

"Some scouring on my rear plating, but otherwise, just my pride." Hawkins muttered. "Damn thing got the drop on me."

"We are expected now." Lu observed mechanically. "The element of surprise has been lost."

"Well, then we do it my way." Goat offered. "We charge right through it."

Though he wouldn't admit it, Volya was quite pleased with the speed of their progress through the security corridor. Hawkins and Huey blazed through the gauntlet of mechaniloids and traps like men possessed: Several times, they nearly triggered laser tripwires before Volya sighted them with the infrared sensor in his eyepatch and warned them off. There hadn't been this many Mega Tortoises on the actual tower assault, but the hellish simulation more than made up for that shortage, and every one of the lumbering brutes fired motors off like their supply was endless. In one particularly effective combination, Huey unloaded a charge shot at one Mega Tortoises' head, blinding it long enough for the acrobatic Tomahawk Foxfire to leap across its back, leaving a trail of Aether Flare incendiaries around the brute. Detonating them all at once nearly broke the bulky mechaniloid in half, and gave Volya an opening to leap atop the heap and end it with one clean stab of his beam shortblade.

Behind them, Lu and Goat played cleanup, destroying every particle laser-firing sentrybot hovering above the tripwires. The immobile Raytaps barely had the chance to beep in protest before a high-intensity plasmic round from Goat's shoulder cannon or a well-placed magrifle bullet sunk past their thick armor and took them out. Goat paused as he noticed Volya staring at him. "Hey, it's not like they didn't know we were coming. At the least, we are earning some bonus points."

Having long ago given up on trying to fix Nils's particular idiosyncrasies, Volya shook his head and turned around. He reached up and tapped the communicator in his helmet. "Sentinel."

"Yes, Zephyr 1?"

"Advise a route for egress to the control room."

"The main stairwell and elevators have been booby trapped or disabled…hang on." They could hear the sound of furious typing over their radios. "It looks like there's a service elevator close by, used to transport heavy machinery. It's approximately 40 yards northwest of your position. The lift controls show that it's still active."

Volya jumped down from the destroyed Mega Tortoise, and the rest of Zephyr Team crowded in around him. "Any resistance?"

"More of what you've dealt with so far. It looks like they weren't expecting anyone to go that way."

"Or they are, and this is a trap." Volya countered. Listening to the conversation on their own receivers, the rest of Zephyr Team was also dubious about the route.

"Trap or not, it is the only logical choice." Lu observed. "Zephyr 2's mass makes any other route implausible."

"Are you calling me fat?" Goat demanded through his faceplated helmet. He glanced to Hawkins and Huey. "Did he just call me fat?"

"No, he called you Shirley." Huey giggled wildly.

"Enough, all of you." Volya said in a low, warning voice. "Keep eyes on us, Sentinel."

"Will do, Zephyr Team."

Volya pulled his hand away from his helmet and motioned ahead of them. "Be cautious. They may have some surprises waiting for us."

A grey, flat swath of durasteel marked with hornet-striped safety zone indicators, the service lift was as unassuming as it was quiet. A lone green indicator light on the operation panel glowed steadily to itself in the stupid, content sleep of a common service machine. Volya cast a suspicious glance towards the team's chosen means of ascent. Flickering industrial lights lined the edges of the shaft up into the gloomy heights of the tower. Zephyr Team cast soft shadows bleeding indistinctly into each others' penumbra as they paced towards the elevator.

"Recommend Zephyr 2 mount the lift first, in order to ascertain its stability," Lu said quietly. Volya glanced at him. Even the stripped-down sinoroid spoke as if he suspected a trap.

Huey slapped Goat on the shoulder—by standing on his tiptoes—and chuckled, "Ladies first, Shirley." Goat rolled his eyes and started forward. A hollow, authoritative clunk announced his heavy tread onto the elevator. Uncomplaining, the lift held rock-steady. The rest of the team followed silently, except for the nervous sound of Huey's fingers rasping against the back of his helmet. Volya shot a severe—and ultimately ineffectual—glare at the pilot. Hawkins curled his lip but said nothing.

Good. They are beginning to learn caution…even Nils.

Lu walked to the control panel and pressed the activation button. The surface beneath them hitched once before the grinding sound of long-disused gears fused with the hiss of complaining hydraulics. After a few seconds, the lift began to ascend, with only the occasional whine. Its status indicator light continued to glow green.

"Spread out." Volya commanded. "Do not clump together so. It makes the team an easier target for bombardment." The team fanned out, badly. Lu and Huey almost walked into one another, and Goat faced the wall rather than the center of the circle. Volya ground his teeth, but waited for the requisite handful of seconds it took for his team to sort itself out.

"Now," he growled. "History says that the general atop this tower was Boomer Kuwanger. Has anybody here fought a Kuwangu model before?"

A chorus of negatives wafted from Zephyr Team.

After a brief pause, Hawkins haltingly offered, "We took down the Steel Revengers outside of Cheyenne a year ago. Their leader was a beetleoid. Not exactly the same, I know, but there may be some physiological crossover."

A static crackle preceded the anxious voice of the Navigator in the team's comlinks. "Alert, Zephyr Team! I'm getting readings of…" The rest was unnecessary, and lost in the noise of the attack. Like a phantom, the horned reploid appeared in their midst, the telltale thrum of a close- range line-of-sight teleport system trailing him like an afterthought. Nearly as tall as Nils, their enemy was compact and crouched—a study in glancing surfaces. A pair of curved slicing blades glistened in the inconsistent light atop the reploid's forehead, like the pincers of the stag beetle for which his line had been named.

Boomer Kuwanger wasted no words, but immediately hurled his blades spinning through the air towards Lu. Volya's HUD automatically fed him diagnostic information about the weapon—electromagnetically accelerated, constructed of a light but durable alloy, replicable through the Variable Weapon system. None of that mattered as Kuwanger telejumped towards his intended victim, poised strike simultaneously with the arrival of his blades.

"Lu!" Hawkins cried, tomahawks unsheathed. Volya's shortblade snarled into shining existence, and half of the lights went out as if on cue. Painted in ghostly shades, punctuated by the sporadic bursts of misguided plasma weaponry…who had told Zephyr 5 to open fire?...Volya observed with almost clinical detachment as Lu leaned slightly to the side and jabbed at the incoming Kuwanger blades with his pile-driver. At the same time, Hawkins' twin axe blades cut a blurring arc though the air, connecting with…Nothing?

Kuwanger had doubled back on his telejump path, snatching his crescent blade from the air and appearing before Nils. Plasma blasts shattered chunks of permacrete from the walls, and Hawkins nearly lost his balance as he struggled to avoid striking Lu. Nils blinked in surprise, his shoulder cannon rising to bear. Too slow. Too slow! With a vicious swipe of his blades, Boomer Kuwanger carved a small gash on the visor and faceplate of the Swiss reploid's helmet.

"Work together!" Volya barked.

Morgan had readjusted his aim…pointed directly at Boomer Kuwanger. And behind him stood Volya. Don't shoot, you fool! Volya had taken a step forward to ward the Maverick insectoid away from his second in command, but now stopped dead. As predicted, Huey loosed a stream of plasma at his enemy, who vanished to the other side of the lift. Thought-quick, Volya batted the incandescent globes away with his saber.

"Five!" Volya roared. "Control your aim! Team with Three!"

"Oh," Huey sputtered, as he tried unsuccessfully to avoid a glancing blow from the whirling blades. "Is that as easy as 'work together?'"

Hawkins seemed to be taking it more seriously. Though he had not spoken since his outburst, he kept his eyes fasted on Morgan and attempted to herd the Maverick into his teammate's zone of fire when he had the chance. Lu stood at the ready, his mag pistols withdrawn, waiting for orders.

Better. Volya frowned. Is this lift moving faster?

"…Not the only one!" Jenna's voice pierced the cacophony of combat. Volya glanced upwards and shifted his visible spectrum to include infrared just into time to see a hazy reptilian shape plummet towards him. Leap-dashing to the side, he let his blade carve a luminous blur

through the darkness. The new arrival shimmered out of all spectrums except ultraviolet, and scuttled towards Nils.

"Heads up, Two!" Volya shouted. "Sting Chameleon has just arrived!"

The next several moments passed in a nightmare of confusion. The two Maverick generals pressed their attack silently, with a savage fluidity and coordination that Zephyr Team could only envy. Even trying to work as a unit, the mismatched Hunters' attacks would often as not interfere with each other, while the steel chameleon and stag beetle dodged back and forth in a nearly invisible blur, weaving a web of lacerating steel and burning plasma darts in between them. In the standard spectrum, the rising lift and its surrounding walls were visible in patches of streaking light, from the sizzling sun-shards of Nils' shoulder cannon reflecting off the blades of Hawkin's axes to the shrieking surge of Morgan's buster and the menacing buzz of Volya's own saber. Lu's weaponfire was as understated and utilitarian as his demeanor.

For his part, Volya deflected the Mavericks' attacks with relative ease, which only drew more of their attention. Good. Perhaps this will give the rest of the team their opening. Instead of the coordinated strike he would have hoped for, the other four members of the team leaped forward in a disorganized charge. Morgan almost lost his head to one of Nils' blasts, and Hawkins had to perform a feat of nearly impossible acrobatics to avoid tripping over Lu.

The Mavericks vanished effortlessly from the path of attack and appeared behind Zephyr Team's ill-considered charge. Nils was the first to react, spinning on his heels with a grace that belied his size, and slamming both massive fists into the ground. The move crushed one of Kuwanger's feet into useless scrap, while Chameleon danced away unhurt. The lift groaned like a malfunctioning mechaniloid and titled alarmingly.

And then they were gone.

Zephyr Team stood silently, their labored breathing refueling their overtaxed microfusion generators. Volya glared at them for a moment, opened his mouth, and realized something alarming. The steady green light on the lift control panel had turned an ominous fiery color and now blinked spastically.

We're going faster, he realized with alarm.

"Work together?" Huey's voice held a note of hysteria. "Great advice, o fearless leader! Why not just order us to 'stop losing?'" Had Volya been less preoccupied with their new predicament, he might have taken the opportunity to enact some discipline.

"His order was sound," Lu observed tonelessly. "It was our inexperience as a team that led to our failure."

"If it was a failure, then why did they retreat?" Hawkins' query was just short of a challenge.

Volya gestured upwards with his still-shining blade. "Because the ceiling will do their work for them in less than half a minute." Enhanced optics had already revealed a ceiling crowded with spikes, towards which the lift was now rapidly accelerating. "Navigator," he said firmly. "Stop this elevator. Now."

His team glanced back and forth worriedly as Jenna's voice stuttered back at them.

"I…I…just a moment. Stand by, I think I've got it…"

Volya glanced at Goat. The massive reploid's shoulders had sagged…in defeat, or in shame for his performance? Volya suspected the latter, though he knew Nils would consider flight by their opponents a defeat. "Now, Navigator."


Jenna was trying her damndest to slow the elevator and do exactly what Volya was asking her to do. Even simulated, she was having trouble, though. The Mavericks had "Strengthened" the firewalls in Karashita's mainframes to counteract her presence, a logical course of action that the simulators had taken into account. Her fingers flew over her access panel, trying desperately to keep up with the shifting passcodes via her algorithmic processors. She knew she could do it. Knew it. Cracking systems was what she had been trained for in the GDC at New Amsterdam. In the world of the Electrosphere, data monitoring and alteration was a playground to her. As the saying went, there was always someone better than you, but she refused to believe a machine, a computer designed solely to run simulations and computations without emotional thought or context, could best her.

And yet, it was doing just that. The other technicians in the monitoring room glanced over at her as the attractive technician began to swear in Danish.

"The system's not buffering fast enough." She hissed lowly. That had to be it. If she was on her personalized equipment, this would be different. If they had let her install her microsuite of programs into the simulator mainframe, this would be different. Instead, she was stuck with the slightly more sluggish Read-Only functions.

"It's not fast enough!" She repeated, somewhere between panic and angry indignance. "It's just not fast enough!"


"I…I can't! It's too…"

Useless after all. A growing sense of panic blossomed in Volya's chest, right in that place he had thought was empty.

"Abort!" He shouted, as the lethal ceiling rushed to meet them. "End simulation!"

The chamber dissolved and reconfigured itself in bleak tones of neutrality as five reploids crouched protectively under ghost spikes that no longer existed.

"Simulation aborted," a calm synthetic voice announced to the room. "Mission failure."

The five warriors of the 18th Squadron all had dings and scorch marks on them after the haphazard combat. Volya was the least damaged of them, but the commander was fuming as though he'd had an arm ripped off. He glanced at them all, daring anyone to speak. Out of shame or embarrassment, nobody did. They all waited for the criticism to fall on their shoulders, for Volya to start yelling at them.

The chastisement never came. Volya merely disengaged his helmet, recalling it to storage inside his warp generator's memory. With his military haircut exposed and his eyepatch now just an eyepatch without the helmet hookups, he walked to the door. It slid open, and he retrieved his black longcoat from just outside the entry. Volya unceremoniously slipped back into his favored garment and glanced back over his shoulder.

"You are all to review this simulation and take notes on areas of improvement. I expect it on my desk by this evening."

Having spoken his peace, Commander Volya marched out of the simulator and stormed for the elevators. Sheepishly, Goat lifted up the visor of his helmet and looked to the others.

"Well, that could have gone better."

"We aren't dead, though." Huey chimed in cheerfully. "Simulatorially speaking, of course."

"That isn't a word, Morgan." Hawkins corrected Zephyr 5. The vulpinoid scratched behind his ears. "And we may as well be. Goat, how pissed was he?"

"The quieter he gets…" Goat sighed.


Evening

Floor 5-B

Commander Volya's Office

Volya was slow to adopt new technology, and even slower to adapt to it. He preferred his documents on real paper, much to the chagrin of technicians and the office staff who were so used to running things via electronic transfer to datapad that the added work gave them another reason to see Zephyr Team as an unwelcome annoyance. The Russian read through the detailed briefing of their failed Nightmare Mode simulation slowly, absorbing every detail and cross-checking it with his own memory of the incident. His black longcoat was slung over the corner of his chair, and the window overlooking the courtyard was left fully transparent, allowing the glow of harsh fluorescents from the MHHQ compound to filter in unimpeded.

The chime on his door went off. Volya's eye flickered up to it for a moment, and he grunted. "Enter." Once permission had been given, the hydraulic door released the lock and allowed his visitor entry. That visitor was Zephyr 2, the imposing Nils.

"Evening, Commander." Goat greeted him. Volya glanced back down to the simulation report, waiting for his subordinate and friend to elaborate. "I brought the notes from the rest of the guys like you wanted."

"Hm." Volya grunted again. "Very well. You may leave them."

Goat did so, dropping a stack of paperclipped pages right in front of Volya's propped hand, and a datapad on top of the papers. "I know how you prefer the feel of paper, so I went ahead and printed off everybody's but Lu's. I kept his on a datapad."

"Why?" Volya asked, leaning his chair back slightly to indicate that Goat had his complete attention.

"I doubted you wanted to read through 200 pages of hardcopy. On a datapad, you can at least skip to the relevant sections."

"200 pages?" Volya's eyebrow went up. Goat shrugged. "I may…skim…his."

"I thought you might." Goat smiled. Volya expected him to leave after that, but the larger reploid stayed behind, until the silence became painful enough that Volya finally stared at him.

"Is there something else you wanted?"

"Well, I did want to talk to you. About today."

"We performed miserably." Volya snapped. "What more is there to say?"

"I'm not interested in saying anything else. What I am concerned about is how you are dealing with it. With all of this." Goat said. When Volya blinked, he elaborated. "I'm your second in command, by your order. You have to talk to someone."

"I do not have to say anything." Volya protested, but his response was halfhearted. Goat sat down, and after a few moments of thought, Volya continued on. "Individually, this team's performances are acceptable. But when it came time to put your talents to use in a scenario where teamwork is crucial, we failed. News of our failure has already made it to Dr. Cain and to the rest of the Hunters at large. For the time being, the news outlets either have not picked up on our training, or do not care. I think the latter is more likely."

"We've only been together for a day, Volya." Goat reminded him. "And it was a Nightmare Mode run. Give it time. We're getting used to each other."

"Exactly." Volya's face and voice hardened, and as quickly as the door had opened to his inner feelings of disappointment and shame, it slammed shut again. "We are not suitable for deployment yet. Tomorrow, I am starting us on a new training regimen. We will begin in the simulators in small groups: two and three man teams, and individually at your own discretion. Huey and Lu will require the most work, but you and Hawkins will need to sharpen up as well."

"I see. Should I inform the men?" Goat asked.

"If they have not seen to their repairs yet, tell them to do so." Volya ordered. "In training, as in combat, always come prepared. Let us see if they can do that much correctly."

"Very well." Goat stood up. "And…when will we be ready for action, Volya?"

The Russian gave him a hard look, and Nils realized that their bond of friendship meant very little in the face of Volya's hard outlook. "When I say we are ready."


February 29th, 2128 C.E.

3:20 P.M.

'Foxfire' Hawkins was in a bad mood. Not that that was an uncommon occasion these days, as even he would admit; it had been a long time since he'd felt like he hadn't had at least two axes to grind about something around him for more than five minutes at a time. The closest he'd come had been the incident at the Hunters' bar, which he was doing his best to forget about, for more than one reason.

Not that that was easy, with every other Hunter he passed by in the halls of the HQ giving him the stink- eye. More than once, he caught himself just in time to stop from denting a few choice skulls. "Hard to say what's worse," he muttered under his breath absently as he walked toward the quarters his sorry excuse for a Unit had been assigned. "The circus I've been stuck in, or the assholes in the bleachers." Shaking his head, he opened the door, then paused; somebody else was in there, sitting on his stasis capsule like it was a bench.

"Huh?" Goat looked over, and Hawkins blinked; the massive reploid had his helmet off, for the first time since Hawkins had met him. Immediately, he could see why he didn't do so more often. Goat's features were human, technically, but no human under the sun had worn a face like that in millennia. His face wasn't so much ugly as it was unformed; it was like whoever'd designed him had skipped that part of the process, and they'd simply covered a generic skull with synthskin and buzzed blonde hair. There were other reploids out there with faces as crude as his, but theirs were obviously mechanical; the lack of any visible metal on his features was what made Goat's so eerie.

"Oh, hello, Hawkins," he said, recovering faster than Foxfire himself. Snatching his helmet off the capsule next to him, he slipped it back on, exaggeratedly casual. With his other hand, he slapped a framed photo that had been sitting on a small table next to his stasis capsule down; he'd been staring at it before Hawkins had come in. "I didn't think anybody else would be coming back here for a while."

"Nothing much to do around here when you're not shooting clay pigeons in the training room." Hawkins shrugged. "Didn't know you'd be, uh..." He paused, unsure of what to say; it wasn't often that anything happened that actually made him feel awkward. "Look, I didn't mean to... I mean, if you didn't want me to see..."

"It's fine," Goat assured him, smiling; with the helmet back on, the parts of his face that were still visible looked perfectly ordinary. "I simply don't like to call attention to it, is all. Actually, I'm glad to see you. There's something I've been wanting to talk to you about, without Volya being around." He paused. "Perhaps I could have phrased that better."

"Oh, really?" Hawkins raised an eyebrow, interested now despite his mixed feelings about the reploid who he was slowly starting to consider as the lovechild of a clown car and an armored carrier.

Walking over, he sat down on his own capsule, facing Goat. "Thought you two were old buddies. You're the last guy I'd expect to see going behind his back."

"I've worked with Volya before, yes, and thus, I know his weaknesses as well as his strengths," Goat explained. "Most notably, he's incredibly stubborn. Once he has made up his mind, he will not change it, unless something happens beyond his control to alter his opinion."

"Hey, you're the one who caught a promotion on his second day in." Hawkins snorted. "What've you got to complain about?"

"I suppose you're right," Goat agreed dubiously. "I just hope Volya made the right call."

"I don't believe this." Hawkins gave him a look. "You're griping about a promotion?"

"I'm not sure if I'm suited to such a position," Goat explained, shrugging. "To be honest, until Volya told me, I had thought that if he were going to select a second-in-command, it would be you."

"Me?" Hawkins gaped, actually caught off guard for once. "After all the shit I was giving him?"

"Volya is also old enough to be pragmatic," Goat told him. "He will do what is best for the team, regardless of his personal feelings on the matter. You are the best fighter we have, aside from myself and Volya, and you're smarter than I am. The role of a number two..." He made a face. "Well, it requires intelligence, and let's be honest, that's my only weakness."

"You mean aside from having the land speed of a crippled turtle?" Hawkins cracked, half just to see how Goat would respond.

"That as well!" Goat agreed cheerfully. "Very well, let us say it is my other only weakness."

"Sheesh." Hawkins shook his head. "Does anything piss you off besides wasting beer?" Goat didn't respond to that for several moments, looking thoughtful. "Uh... Goat?" Hawkins said eventually.

"I'm thinking about it," the huge reploid told him absently. After another few seconds, he shrugged. "No, that's more or less it."

"Wow." Hawkins had to chuckle, despite himself. "Well, okay then. Anyways, there's something you overlooked. I'm a lone wolf. I don't play well with others by choice. You, on the other hand... well, you look out for people. I'd say that's more important than brains for the number two guy."

"It comes naturally to me." Goat actually looked embarrassed now, as far as anybody would be able to tell from behind the mask of his helmet. "It's not a big deal. You know, I actually had an idea to overcome my lack of speed once, but my superiors refused to allow it."

"Oh?" Hawkins went along with the change of subject. "This should be good. What was it?"

"Well, first we would need to acquire a cannon," Goat explained brightly. "Not one of the modern, high-tech beam weapons. An ancient one. The kind that pirates and circuses used."

"A cannon," Hawkins said flatly. "Okay, I know I'm going to regret this, but say we managed to find one somewhere. How does this help your speed problem?"

"Simple!" Goat raised a finger. "When we arrived at a fortified location, you guys would launch me out of the cannon, straight at them!" Hawkins waited a moment to see if he was joking. Goat beamed at him.

"You're really something," Hawkins eventually told him. "You know that? One of a kind."

"Hey, thanks!" Goat pounded him on the back, and to Hawkins' credit, he only grunted slightly. "You're a pretty cool guy as well! Let's be friends!"

"I'll think about it," Hawkins muttered, but he couldn't hide a small smile as he said it. "Anyways, you still haven't told me just what it is you wanted to talk to me about."

"Oh, yes." Goat nodded. "I forgot. I wished to speak with you about our Unit's current progress."

"What progress?" Hawkins rolled his eyes.

"Exactly," Goat agreed. "Volya is, as some dead human put it, failing to see the trees in the forest."

"Uh." Hawkins gave him another look, realizing belatedly that he'd probably be doing that a lot from now on. "Think you mean seeing the forest for the trees. And I'm not sure that metaphor even works, either."

"Oh well." Goat shrugged, unconcerned. "My point is that he's too busy accentuating the negative to realize that we are, despite our many dissimilarities, still working at above par for a Unit as small as ours. The three of us all have extensive combat experience, and are skilled enough to recognize our own shortcomings and make up for them." He paused thoughtfully. "If Volya even has any. I'm not sure he does."

"Does having an icicle somewhere between two and six feet permanently embedded in his anal cavity count?" Hawkins suggested. "I know it's there, but I keep changing my mind as to just how big it is every time he talks."

"I suppose it might, yes," Goat acknowledged. "He loosens up a little once you get to know him, though it's hard to tell. Perhaps it's simply that one learns to recognize it when he does. Back when we worked together, when we were off the clock, me and the boys even managed to convince him to come with us to this little jazz club that..." He cut off abruptly. "Well, never mind that. As I was saying, Huey may only be average on foot, but that's not supposed to be his position, anyways. I don't know much about this 'Navigator' business, but as far as I can tell, she knows what she's doing. And Lu..." He paused for a moment. "Well, Lu's learning fast."

"I guess." Hawkins scowled. "I hate to say this, but he's the only one Volya might have a point about. The rest of us, though? We're fine. Hell, we're more than fine. We know what we're doing, and he just keeps us stuck in the freaking training room all day and all night. Yeah, I know that shit's important, but so is getting your hands on some real action. How long is it going to be before we get to prove ourselves in the field, huh?"

"My thoughts exactly." Goat smiled, but this time it was a more calculating thing than his usual cheerful grin. "There are only two ways we will be able to prove to Volya that we are more capable than he gives us credit for. The first is to meet all of his demands, but that will likely take months. I would prefer the other option. Get ourselves assigned an actual job, and then go out there and kick ten metric tons of Maverick ass."

"Can't argue with that." Hawkins nodded. "Easier said than done, though, if the bossman's keeping us leashed."

"I was thinking of our newest member." Goat glanced over at the sixth bunk, where Jenna's luggage still sat; she hadn't even unpacked yet, despite having been there for several days already. "Her talent lies in information gathering and analysis, yes? Perhaps the two of us could go to her, and ask her to keep an eye out for any... opportunities."

"Opportunities, huh?" Hawkins smirked. "I like it. Of course, even if she finds one, there's still Volya to deal with."

"If we can find something that's right up our alley, then I will be able to convince Volya," Goat assured him. "The trick is to locate it in the first place. If either of us went to see Jenna alone, she might be skeptical, but if we both go together..."

"She'll know we're not just screwing with her," Hawkins finished. "All right, I'm in. The sooner we get some fieldwork, the better. Let's go see if we can find her."

"Hey, guys!" The door to their quarters opened again, and Huey walked in. "What's going on?"

"Not much." Hawkins exchanged a glance with Goat, who nodded, both of them thinking the same thing; bringing the erratic pilot along for a potentially delicate conversation behind their boss's back was out of the question. "We were gonna go look for Jenna, actually. Seen her around?"

"Jenna?" Huey blinked. "Nope! Haven't seen her in a couple of hours. Want me to come look for her with you guys?"

"No." Hawkins shook his head, standing up, as did Goat. "We'll be fine."

"Oh." Huey frowned. "Okay."

"Unpaid overtime isn't much fun," Goat told him, clapping him on the shoulder and almost knocking the wiry pilot to his knees. "Just because we have to do it doesn't mean you do. Besides, if we all go walking around in a big group, some more Hunters might try picking a fight with us like that night in the bar."

"Oh, yeah, those jerks." Huey's scowl deepened, but after a moment he shook it off. "Well, have fun." Looking around, he walked over to the table next to Goat's capsule. "Hey, Goat, your picture fell over!"

"Hey-" Hawkins started to say as Huey moved to pick it back up.

"Don't," Goat cut them off, voice completely flat and dead of all emotion, and they both turned to stare at him. The big reploid was staring at the door, and after a moment, he spoke again, in the same tone. "Leave it."

"Huh?" Huey blinked. "But then you won't be able to look at it!"

"Just do what he says, man," Hawkins told him, walking towards the door, and after a moment, Goat followed him. Unlike the screwy pilot, he wasn't surprised; the more time he spent with his new unit, the more he realized that none of them had a healthy past. Goat hadn't asked about his, though, and that was one courtesy even he could return. "I'll explain it to you later."

"Explain what?"

"Never mind."


Goat's mood improved abruptly as soon as they were out of the room; in only a few moments, it was as if nothing had even happened. Fortunately, it didn't take them long to track down Jenna. The Navigator turned out to be in the first place they looked, which was at her desk in her office. She didn't look up as they approached her, but kept her eyes on her screen and her hands on the keyboard, apparently focused on whatever she was doing.

"You want to do the talking, or should I?" Goat asked quietly as the two of them opened the door to the office.

"Hey, you're the personable one," Hawkins reminded him. "Knock yourself out."

"Can do!" Goat agreed, walking in. "Hey, Jenna!"

"Oh, god," she muttered before glancing irritably over her shoulder at him. "Stop. Just stop right there. For the last time, Goat, no, I'm not interested in checking out any local places with you. No, I don't want to listen to some jazz. No, I'm not going to try and get you back into that bar you wrecked before the higher-ups let you back in there. And by the way? Nine inches really isn't that impressive, especially for somebody as big as you are." Without waiting for a response, she turned back to her monitor. Hawkins raised an eyebrow.

"Once!" Goat protested, but Jenna was clearly no longer listening. Stepping back out, as snorts and giggles came from out in the hall, he turned to Hawkins, looking baffled. "Once. Honest. And that whole 'Nine-inch Nils' thing was a joke. For crying out loud."

"Maybe I should do the talking after all," Hawkins decided, walking in. "Listen, Jenna-"

"Hawkins?" She turned around to stare at him, eyes widening in fear, and when she spoke next, her words came out at a much faster rate. "What do you... okay, okay, look, whatever it is, I'm sorry already. I won't do it again, okay? I didn't do it on purpose, I promise! Just don't hurt me!"

"What?" Hawkins demanded, stunned. "I'm not going to hurt you, you-"

"All right, all right!" She shrank back in her seat. "Just keep the tomahawks put away, okay? I'm not a combatant, I wasn't designed for that! Oh, god, please, just leave me alone..."

"But-" Hawkins sputtered, noticing the angry looks he was getting now from passing Hunters in the hall. "You... I..." A moment later, the light dawned. Stepping back out again, he dropped his voice. "Is she screwing with us?"

"I would consider that to be a distinct possibility," Goat said, watching as Jenna returned to her work once more. "If I didn't know better, I'd say she was just trying to get us to go away as quickly as possible."

"Yeah, well, I do know better and I say you're right on the money," Hawkins growled.

Reminding himself that this was the only way he was ever going to see any actual action outside of a training room again within the next decade, he managed to get his temper under control and walked in a second time. "Look. Give me ten words or less, no bullshit?"

"Fine," Jenna snapped, sounding like her normal self again. "Go."

"We need your help to prove Volya wrong about us," Hawkins said calmly.

"Oh." Jenna swiveled her chair around to face them. "Well, why didn't you say so? The sooner we defrost that fossil, the better. All right, I'm listening. What's the plan?"

"Well, the way we see it, there's two ways to prove we know what we're doing, and meeting all his expectations isn't on the table," Hawkins explained. "Especially in your case."

"Considering that 'meeting his expectations' would probably be defined as 'eat a magrifle round and spare him the trouble' in my case?" Jenna rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'd say so."

"Which leads us to the other option." Hawkins nodded. "Find an opportunity to get out there, whether he likes it or not, and show him and the Hunters that we know what we're doing."

"Hm." Jenna narrowed her eyes before standing up abruptly. "Come on, you two. Let's go talk about this over a soda or something." Without waiting for a response, she walked past them and out of the office. After sharing a glance, they both shrugged and followed her.

"There's a soda machine over there," Goat pointed out as they walked down a hall.

"Just keep walking," Hawkins advised him quietly. Soon, they arrived at a sealed doorway. After a few seconds of Jenna's attention, it opened, and they walked into a solid concrete room, its only contents a cheap metal table and several uncomfortable-looking chairs.

"This is one of the MHHQ's 'dead rooms,'" Jenna explained, catching their puzzled expressions as she sat down. "Which is to say, one of the only rooms guaranteed to be absolutely proof against any surveillance devices, Hunter or otherwise. We're really not supposed to be in here, but for something like this, we kind of need to talk without anybody else hearing us. It was bad enough that you two started off like that in the middle of that crowded room. We'll just have to hope that nobody was paying attention."

"Well, how else were we supposed to get you to actually talk to us?" Hawkins demanded, exasperated, as he sat down as well.

"Never mind that," Goat said in a conciliatory tone before she could respond, closing the door and joining them. "We're all on the same page now, right? What do you think of the plan?"

"I think it's unlikely, shortsighted, and in clear violation of most if not all of the Hunters' rules and regulations," Jenna replied calmly. "You realize that you're asking me to find you something that won't be covered by any other Units before we even get there. Barring some unforeseen catastrophe that ties up every other Hunter in the building at once, we're talking something that the Hunters wouldn't even be called in for. Out of their jurisdiction, or under their radar. And we'll be going in without being ordered to. I'm pretty sure Cain would not approve."

"Hey, if you've got a better plan for showing Volya up, go right ahead," Hawkins snapped. "I'm listening."

"I didn't say I didn't like it," she retorted. "Just making sure you knew what you were getting into. We'll be taking a risk with this, boys, and if you screw it up that'll pretty much be it for us right then and there."

"There is no profit without risk," Goat replied calmly. "Even I know that much. And spending the next ten years in the training room is of no benefit either to ourselves and to the world. I'm willing to take the chance."

"What he said." Hawkins nodded.

"All right, I'll see what I can do," Jenna said, standing back up. "No promises, but I'll keep my eyes and ears open, and I'll let you know if something comes up. If it does, though, you get to talk Volya into it."

"I can do that." Goat gave her a thumbs-up, which she didn't return.

"Good." Walking past them, she opened the door again. "If that's all taken care of, I'm going back to what I was doing before you two blundered my way. You might want to get out of here before somebody finds you and asks what you're doing in a restricted area." As usual, she marched off without waiting for a reply.

"You realize that if you roll your eyes and say, 'women,' you'll just be proving all that crap she gave you back when you first tried to say hi to be accurate," Hawkins said after a long moment.

"I know," Goat agreed. "Still. Tempting. Come on, let's get back to our quarters. I have a six-pack of beer there with our name on it. And Huey's, if he's still there."

"How'd you manage to sneak that in?" Hawkins asked, curious, as they left the room.

"Building strong interpersonal relationships is one of the foremost objectives for any soldier when transferring to a new assignment," Goat explained. "Even if one's new comrades are initially xenophobic, human and/or reploid nature stipulates that such an attitude will never be universal. Finding those more kindly disposed towards newcomers, and establishing a bond with them, is integral to establishing oneself as a fellow soldier rather than an outsider." He paused for a moment before continuing. "Whatever all that means. I'm not sure, but I think it boils down to knowing a guy who knows a guy. Which I do."

"Right," Hawkins said after a moment. "Do you have that little speech memorized, or

something? Because if you do, make sure you find an excuse to rattle it off in front of Lu when the whole team's assembled sometime. I want to see the looks on their faces."

"Can do!" Goat replied cheerfully. "Now let's go get that beer."

"Best idea I've heard all day."


March 3rd, 2128 C. E.

8:40 A.M.

"Simulation complete," the computer said as Goat stepped away from the smoking carcass of the gargantuan reploid known as Frost Walrus, and the holographic illusion dissolved around him. "Rank: A."

"Again?" Goat complained, head spinning slightly from the headbutt he'd delivered midway through the fight. In retrospect, that had probably been a mistake, but the cybernetic replica of the massive Repliforce Major certainly hadn't been expecting it. Shaking his head to clear it, he idly wondered if the real deal would have. Privately, he hoped he'd never have to find out; they'd only been in service for a few months, but the eight members of Repliforce's top brass were already making headlines with their overwhelming combat ability.

General. Colonel. Spider. Owl. Walrus. Stingray. Beast. Pegasus. Those were the names that were on everybody's minds these days, their latest exploits on display everywhere you looked. For a moment, Goat wondered what it would be like if Zephyr Team ever had that kind of attention, imagining Volya, himself and the rest on the cover of the reploid edition of GQ and scoring interviews with that one cute bombshell on Channel 69 at midnight.

"Naaaaah." He shook his head, chuckling. He couldn't see it. Volya had never had the time or patience for such things, a sentiment he was fairly sure Hawkins and Jenna would both share. Huey and Lu were both even more out of the question, and as for himself... no, he'd never sought out the spotlight, and he wasn't going to start now. Cleanup work behind the scenes was more his speed anyways.

"Now I just need to get some," he muttered to himself as he left the training room, a simple statement of fact without any real bite behind it. Still, he'd had more than enough of holograms for one day. Pausing for a moment out in the hall, he mentally debated whether to head back to his quarters and the case of beer he'd stashed there, or to pay the medical bay another visit. He tried not to bother them every day, since a few scratches and dents here and there weren't going to kill him, but they did build up over time...

"All members of Zephyr Unit to the war room!" The P.A. system blared, sparing him the decision. "Repeat, all members of Zephyr Unit are to report to the war room immediately!"

"Hell, it's about time!" Goat bellowed jubilantly, all of his previous thoughts forgotten in an instant. Whirling toward another Hunter in the hall, he shouted, "Hey, you! Which way's the war room?"

"And why should I tell..." the Hunter started to sneer, then trailed off, eyes widening as he actually took a good look at Goat. "I mean, just keep going down this hall all the way to the end, sir."

"I'm not a sir any more," Goat told him, shooting him a thumbs-up as he started running. "Thanks, buddy. Wish us luck out there!" He reached his miserable top speed in seconds, barreling down the curved hallway as fast as his legs could carry him, which wasn't saying much. He already knew he would be the last one there, and was determined not to make his team wait any longer for him than they had to. On the plus side, nobody seemed inclined to get in his way; almost everybody in the hall ahead of him dashed out of his path when they saw him coming, some of them actually screaming as they dove for the walls. The sole exception was one unfortunate Hunter who not only stood his ground, but drew his Buster when Goat approached.

"That's as far as you go, Maver-" he started to sneer, only to be cut off as Goat kept on going, running him down. Several onlookers winced sympathetically.

"Sorry!" Goat yelled over his shoulder. "Can't stop to talk! Orders!" Turning his head back around, he saw the doors to the war room straight ahead, and realized too late what would happen if he were to plow into them before they could open automatically. As he tried to put on the brakes, however, he watched them draw apart and relaxed, only to trip over his own feet and go flying face-first into the war room towards his assembled teammates as they stared at him.

"Incoming!" Huey shrieked as they scattered, and Goat ate carpeting.

"Nils," Volya said calmly; he was the only one who'd stood his ground. "I'm glad you could join us."

"My apologies for being late," Goat told him sheepishly, picking himself up as Hawkins, Huey and Jenna walked back over. "Hey, where's Lu? Don't tell me I beat him here." Silently, Hawkins pointed at him, and Goat looked down to see that the smaller reploid was stuck to his chestplate like a fly on a windshield. "Oops. Sorry about that, Lu."

"Pain is inconsequential," Lu replied, pulling himself off.

"Noted," Volya said dryly, turning to Jenna. "And now that we are all here, it is time to discuss why we are all here."

"Mavericks," Jenna explained, meeting his eye calmly. "A group of three-time offenders who've always run off whenever the Hunters came for them, which is how they're still alive. They're robbing a bank in Canberra, Australia, and they've got heavier gear than usual this time. Somebody must have cut them a pretty sweet deal. Local law enforcement won't be able to handle it alone."

"And this is our business why, exactly?" Volya replied harshly. "Our Unit is not yet fit for active-"

"Our Unit is one of the only ones here!" Jenna snapped, cutting him off, which caused his single eye to widen. Before he could deliver a reprimand, however, she pressed on. "It's a busy day, and nearly every other Unit is already out somewhere. The 6th, 7th and the 13th are the only ones currently on base."

"And there is a reason why none of them can handle this situation?" Volya asked, but his tone was slightly less cold now; he was listening, Goat could tell, though the look on his face suggested that he was already regretting doing so.

"The 13th could handle it, but they won't be able to get there in time," Jenna explained. "They're the only Unit with humans on the roster. They can't warp. As for the other two..." She glanced around the war room, conscious of the other staff present, and lowered her voice. "The 7th aren't good for anything but training new recruits. They go on about one actual mission a year, just to be able to say they're 'real Hunters.' And the 6th aren't much better. They're a political unit who spend all day posing for photo shoots."

"I see." Volya nodded, but his features were still cold and unyielding. "Well then, perhaps Dr. Cain will see fit to assign us this task. If he does, despite my recommendation, then we will do as we are commanded. Otherwise..."

"Uh, Volya?" Goat cut in, shooting Hawkins a glance and raising a finger to his faceplate as he saw him start to inhale angrily; one word from the fiery vulpinoid would ruin all their work. "Mind if I have a word with you, real quick?"

"Very well," Volya said icily, and the two of them walked over to the door. When the Muscovite spoke again, his voice was soft enough Nils had to strain to hear him. "This had better be good, old friend. You know my policy towards insubordination."

"Which is why I wanted to talk to you before you finished giving the order," Goat joked. "It's not insubordination if I'm not actually countermanding you, right? Look, Volya. You're right. We're not as good as we could be, as a collective Unit. But this isn't about us."

"No?" Volya raised an eyebrow.

"No." Goat shook his head. "It's about the civilians. You heard what we'd be dealing with. A bunch of amateurs with bigger guns than they know what to do with. That's the kind of situation that gets innocent people killed. Especially if local law enforcement mucks it up."

"We have not been assigned this mission by our superiors," Volya said stubbornly.

"And they're not going to assign it to us," Goat agreed. "Cain and X might be playing the polite, reasonable card, but Zero is the one who's honest about his opinion. They don't like us, and they don't trust us, so they'll hand this one over to the 6th or the 7th instead. And innocent people will die. People we could have saved. Because maybe we're not as good as we could be, but we're still better than they are."

"You know this for a fact?" Volya said quietly, meeting his eyes.

"Positive." Goat nodded. "I know you don't like Jenna, but she's right. I've seen those two Units in the training room. They're useless." He stared back, as intently as he could. "We might be a real mess, old friend. We're as motley a crew as they come. I'll admit that. But one thing we're not is useless. Any of us."

"No," Volya agreed, eyes and voice both distant now. "No, we are not. Nils, my friend, I wonder about you on occasion." He turned back to the others, and when he spoke next, his usual authority was back in his voice. "Zephyr Unit, we will be departing immediately. Navigator..." He struggled with it for a moment before relenting. "To your station. You may be of some use."

"May I ask where you're going, sir?" One of the techs asked as Jenna left the room without a word, before wilting under Volya's baleful gaze.

"Training," the Russian reploid answered, fingering the hilt of his beam saber, and nobody questioned him further.


Canberra, Australia

9:49 A.M.

The Maverick reploids in question were a loose coalition based out of Singapore, and were known regionally as the Steel Pirates. They were responsible for three attacks around Indonesia, and were wanted for questioning in four more incidents around Oceania.

The leader of the Steel Pirates went by the name of Gault. He was a former construction model, with a large chassis, reinforced armor plating, and a mag-lock system which let him attach metallic items to his body instead of having to wear a tool belt. Though that feature was originally designed to make it easier to hold impact drills, hammers, and assorted screwdrivers and bits, it now served a darker purpose. Guns, the odd smoke and fragmentation grenade, and even a high speed electrical chainsaw were scattered over his yellow and black armor, the colors of warning in a construction site. The rest of his gang were smaller humanoid class reploids of varying classification, armed with machine guns and low-grade plasma busters incapable of charge shots. In spite of their lack of strength, or perhaps because of it, the Maverick Hunters had never sent an alpha strike force after them. There were usually bigger concerns, especially when other Mavericks preferred to go after iconic targets or hijack military grade weapons.

A bank job was a little out of their norm, and Gault freely admitted that to the others when he proposed it. Usually, they would run down merchant vessels passing through the Strait of Malacca or the Java Sea. Pirating was hardly a new concept in the waters of Southeast Asia. They had a pattern for showing up quickly, grabbing what they could after putting the fear of God into their marks, and then scattering…usually with the Regional Maverick Hunters on their heels. When they weren't at sea, they stuck to the port cities, roughing up the natives and spending their ill-gotten gains on Energen recharges, black market weapons deals, and more illicit purchases.

Canberra, on the other hand, was well situated in Australia, a country that had always done well for itself. Sydney was a regional hub for the GDC military, the Regional Hunters were suitably well armed, and it wasn't very far from New Tokyo, where the true-forged Hunters were stationed. But time was a cruel mistress, and as Gault had reminded the rest of the Steel Pirates, none of them were getting any younger, and the world was moving on. To keep pace with the times, they required upgrades, and new weapons and armor tended to cost. So a bank robbery it was. And what better than the First National Bank in downtown Canberra?

Though much of the world's major finances were now almost completely electronic, the unit of currency favored over most of the world was the GDC Standard Credit, and there was always a need for money that could be held. Once upon a time, money had been derived from precious metals, and before that, more impermanent tangibles, such as livestock. Now, as it had been a century ago, the power of money derived from the faith that was put into it. Credits, the only true international currency left after the Wars of 2090, had a lot of faith.

It had been so simple in the planning. One of the more normal looking members of Gault's crew, Prettyboy, had made the initial entrance and moved to the kiosk close by the security guard, by all appearances simply trying to open up a new account. Shortwire, the Steel Pirate's resident electronics expert, had been outside of the building, and had quickly isolated the building's electrosphere uplinks, shutting each of them down. A few more seconds, and he'd even taken out the bank's alarm system.

That led to initial confusion and irritation on the part of the bank tellers inside, who suddenly found that their ability to conduct routine deposits and withdrawals was cut off. Of course, nobody suspected anything was wrong until Gault, Vitrous, Longarm and Cavern came in through the front doors, firing rounds into the ceiling for shock and awe. The security guard, a reploid, had started to level his Buster, but Prettyboy took him out from behind with a trio of plasma rounds right at the base of the guard's neck. Clean, precise, and fear inspiring.

And then everything had gone sideways because one of the hostages had gotten cute and dialed out to emergency services. Response teams had been on the bank in thirty seconds, thanks to the reploid division of the Canberra Patrol. Their heist had turned into a hostage standoff. Shortwire had bemoaned the shortsightedness of not packing a jammer along, but there was nothing to do about it now.

Gault strolled from the back rooms of the First National Bank, where the hostages were ziptied like proper pigs waiting for the slaughter and paused just shy of the front desks. There, Vitrous and Cavern were keeping guard behind cover, ready to slag anything that came in through the front entrance. They could see the police outside: There was even a division from the local GDC base just as a point of international presence. Nothing moved towards them, due to the hostages.

The hardline phone rang, and Gault glanced to the branch manager's office, where Shortwire was holding vigil. He picked up the phone and looked to Gault, pointedly seeking whether or not the leader of the Steel Pirates would do the talking or leave it to him. After a half-second's contemplation, Gault strolled in and took the phone from Shortwire. "Well?"

"We're working on your demands…but bringing in a military transport with the tracking beacons removed is going to take some time. The GDC technicians are telling us that it will be another two hours before…"

"I told you one hour." Gault said evenly, knowing that the police were merely bargaining for time while they prepared some sort of rescue contingency. "And they're lying. Disabling the IF/F beacons should only take them forty-five minutes. Plenty of time left over for the quick flight from their base to here."

"I'll tell them to speed it up, then." The hostage negotiator promised. "Maybe as a sign of good faith, you should send one of the hostages out?"

"You want us to release another hostage?" Gault questioned. They'd released one at the start of this mess just to get the ball rolling on their getaway polycraft.

"We'll give you what you want. Our only concern is the hostages."

Gault closed his eyes and exhaled. "Very well." He motioned to Shortwire to mute the phone, and then leaned his head out of the manager's office. "Vitrous! Have Prettyboy send out one of the hostages."

"You must be joking." The slender female reploid remarked. When it was clear that Gault was being quite serious, she rolled her eyes and stepped away from the counter, moving towards the back rooms.

A few moments passed, and then one harried man in black slacks and a white shirt emerged, stumbling out with his hands still bound together. He looked at Gault fearfully, but the former construction reploid gestured to the front door. A sense of newfound hope filled the human, and he made his way for the exit. He'd barely cleared the front doors when Gault spoke again.

"Cavern?"

Responding to the unspoken command, Cavern lifted up the projectile firing machine gun in his grip and loosed a spray of fifteen bullets. They cut into the human without mercy, blowing out his insides in front of him. The man stumbled once and then collapsed in his own blood, dead on the doorstep of the bank.

Gault motioned to the now grinning Shortwire, and the technician removed the mute from the phone.

"One hour." Gault repeated, and hung up.


MHHQ

New Tokyo, Japan

Nobody thought anything untowards of Jenna as she strolled out of the MHHQ War Room a minute after the rest of Zephyr Team. She was classified as a Navigator, after all: An information specialist. If they had paid closer attention to the before and after, they would have noticed she left empty-handed: She'd been carrying a small transceiver when she came in, and had surreptitiously attached it to the MHHQ's hardline control box on her way out. Hidden on the back, of course.

Oh, she imagined Dr. Cain and Commander Volya would have both disapproved of the act, but then, that was why she needed the strongest possible Electrosphere uplink, and after days of examining the Network within the MHHQ, she had determined no other access point would suffice. The technicians that oversaw the MHHQ's servers kept governors on the bandwidth, so nobody could do anything too crazy. They offered a faucet. She needed a waterhose.

The elevator dinged, letting her off at Floor 5-B. Smiling to herself, Jenna strolled to her quarters and picked up her equipment, then dragged it to the 18th Unit's Commons room.

"Tis better to beg forgiveness than ask permission." She sagely observed before getting started. It took her another three minutes to unpack her things and get it set up. She had time, of course. Even teleporting, it would be several minutes before Zephyr Team arrived on station.

With a few taps at her keyboard, Jenna linked up to her rogue transceiver and hijacked the MHHQ's server bandwidth. Some additional tweaks to the MHHQ systems took care of her immediate security. She locked off the elevator from accessing Floor 5, she disabled power to Beta Corridor's doorways, and she finally erected a low-powered EM field around the same space. It wouldn't do any lasting damage, but the disruption would be enough to trigger an automatic shutdown of any inbound teleports and drop them at their initial jump point.

"No trespassers." Jenna said to herself. Now she could work in peace.

She affixed her headset and brought up the GDC's teleport monitoring array. She copied over the warp signatures of Zephyr Team from the MHHQ's database, laughing that their "Security protocol" had given her everything she needed. Sure enough, all five of them were over Indonesia, being efficiently tracked. Her clearance, earned over many months of working at the GDC's New Amsterdam headquarters also gave her access to the communications broadwaves from the GDC units on site. Just to give herself a better view, she strained her account privileges and hit up one of the spy satellites in geosynch. Overriding its protocols, she dropped it into a hover over eastern Australia and dialed the picture in.

Jenna almost started humming to herself as she worked, but settled instead for routing the comms array for Zephyr Team through her GDC satellite uplink to the response team's systems outside the bank in question. She'd be online with Volya and his boys as soon as they hit the ground.

The Navigator had to admit, she admired the gumption of Goat and Hawkins for coming up with this idea. At least now, she could do what she was here to do. Jenna cracked her knuckles and offered a feral grin. "This is my kung fu, and it is strong."


Outside The Bank

The Mavericks running the show had killed their hostage eight minutes ago, leaving the officers outside stunned and stymied. There was a fellow on the roof of the building with a high powered rifle keeping watch on them below from his covered position. In short, there was no move they could make, not with their limited resources. Not with their training. Hostage situations were one thing, but Mavericks were another entirely. Even the Regional Hunters refused to go on, citing hostage safety…and the Mavericks had made it clear with their gory killing that they weren't squeamish about busting heads open to make a point.

"Damnit, you're telling me that the Maverick Hunters aren't sending anyone? What do you mean, they're busy?!" The on-site commander exploded over his radio.

And then five beams of light screamed down out of the sky and exploded nearby, reforming into five reploids. Everyone nearby jumped slightly at the sight of them; a towering helmeted menace, a one-eyed stoic in a black longcoat, a vulpinoid, a humanoid that looked more mechanic than man, and one clearly distracted fellow.

They glanced around and relaxed, and the one-eyed reploid reached up and tapped the side of his helmet. "Reading you clearly, Sentinel." He turned and looked to the on-site commander, recognizing him as the person in charge. "I am Commander Volya of the Maverick Hunters. And you are?"

"Captain Mansen, GDC ground forces." The human answered. He stared at them for a moment. "I thought the Maverick Hunters weren't sending anyone to help out here."

"Clearly, that is not the case." Volya grunted. He gestured to his men. "We are Zephyr Team."

"Oh…oh, right, yeah." The GDC officer blinked as he recognized them. "You're that new joint ops team that we assigned to the Hunters."

"Yes." Volya nodded. "Apprise us of the situation."

Seeing a ray of sunshine in the middle of this mess, Captain Mansen quickly broke it down. "We have one Maverick up on the rooftop with a rifle. Maybe even maground capable. Five more inside with the hostages. They've released one and killed another as punishment for us trying to force a delay on them. Other than that, we're running blind. We're trying to get schematics from the city records department, but…"

"Not a problem." Volya cut him off. "Tell your men and the police to stay put. We will handle this."

"Are you serious?" Captain Mansen gaped. "You think you can handle this with just five of you?"

"It's more than we need." Goat called out confidently. Volya glanced back at his second in command, but withheld comment. Sentinel cut in over their radios, the watchful voice from above.

"Zephyr Team, I overheard. I'm working on it now."

Jenna knew that she would never have another chance to impress Volya if she failed during a proper mission. It was time to give him the works.

Canberra's Public Works Administration site was a public domain on the Network that anyone could visit to find information regarding future projects that would affect the city, criminally underused by Jenna's reckoning, noting the disappointing visitor counts and hit counts. The opening splash page, recognizing her as a reploid, had absolutely bombarded her with news about future projects that would be affecting Canberra's central districts, the highways that snaked through it, the sorts of things that people tended to act blindsided by, all available for easy viewing.

Originally, Jenna had thought to go after the bank itself for blueprints, but those nets tended to be isolated, and if not, were simply bad news to try and slip into. Nothing she couldn't handle, but the consequences for being caught were about as severe as they came, on the lines of 'burly Maverick Hunters glassing her on the spot with charged plasma bolts'. Jenna decided that so far, she didn't like Zephyr enough to risk even the possibility of that scenario. She'd go to the grave before she admitted to anyone, but the failed simulation had shaken her confidence somewhat. She also suspected that was what Volya had wanted.

There was a login field in the upper right corner of her vision, but she ignored it for now. Instead, Jenna watched as another one of her 'selves' sprinted off down another light-path, splitting into more copies with each 'fork' in the path encountered. It took seconds in real time, hours to her own perception, but results came back more or less swiftly.

Name: Christie Magnusson.

Position: Head Administrator, Logistics Department

Login: C_Mag .mail

Password: BuNNy_HuNnEy1#

How cute, their site admin wants even wants it set up case sensitive. Just cute as a button. I want to hug him to pieces.

Jenna easily set up remote access to Ms. Magnusson's home desktop, the security on it was essentially non-existent. She'd never know an attack of any sort had occurred, and as much as the Navigator wished to do something to poke fun at the 39 year old single mother, that wasn't the objective. She'd have enough egg on her face when this was through.

Besides, this wasn't entirely her fault to begin with. Hopefully, the 'cuteness' displayed by the site admin extended to his looks, but it would be much more satisfying to slap all of it off his face for having set things up the way he did. Didn't these people all know better?

Christie's log-in session was short, another sign that she was bright enough to know that at-home access to any kind of work-related server was a bad idea, but something had been important enough for her to log in and check her work e-mails: Two co-workers having sent cat image macros (and interestingly, were the first things Christie inspected in her box), an invitation to a retirement party (Jenna shuddered at the word 'retirement') for one Jeffery Marburg (age 68), and some sort of request from another co-worker regarding a time-off request to tend to the funeral of a family member. There were a few spam e-mails requesting bank account information, which managed to infuriate Jenna somewhat. Just how badly had the PWA's network admin screwed things up to not have something in place to catch something like this? After a few more minutes of browsing emails, Christie logged off the site, as far as she was concerned.

Jenna was more than in. She could very well have started to rewrite the whole site from Christie's own machine. Wouldn't that be something to try and explain?

Christie had left her machine on and online, her attentions now focused on gathering press polycraft beginning to circle the scene at the First National Bank. Even though as far as the single mother was concerned she'd logged off that particular network, background processes on the machine planted by Jenna worked invisibly, keeping the Navigator inside the PWA's servers. Before her virtual eyes, a virtual maze of lightpaths unfurled before her.

Back in the real world, Jenna pumped a fist into the air, baring her teeth in a grin that would have wilted a bouquet of roses. I do so enjoy my work.

"Commander Volya, you will have your schematics for the bank, every building around it, and everything under it within one minute."


"Sufficient." If the Russian was at all impressed by the Navigator, he hid it well. He turned to Captain Mansen. "Do we know the location of the hostages?"

"Thermal indicates the ground floor, close to the back of the front lobby. They're mostly separate from the main lobby, in a room close to the main vault. We've been wanting to get closer to the building to get ultrasound imaging plates attached the building so we confirm the construction of the first floor, but there's no way to get close without being detected by the security systems. We're assuming they have a tech expert inside, since we've been locked out of anything on the inside."

"Sentinel-"

"I'll put it in the queue."

"Commander, we are being targeted." Lu snapped, his typical demeanor gone. The magrifle previously secured to his back was now in his hands, aimed at a distant glint atop the bank, in a motion that caused Hawkins, Goat, and Huey to back away from him. "One sniper, armament: Model M25 Koenig-Spier Magnetic Acceleration Rifle. We are within effective range."

"Lu, stand down." Volya's voice held unrestrained menace. Lu ignored him.


Longarm had peered over the roof to check out the new warp arrivals at police blockade. He'd only counted five originally and thought it rather strange. Hunter units, even Regional Hunters, usually brought more men to a situation. Curious, he peered through the scope of his rifle, eager to see who it was that had been sent to intervene…

And in that moment, knew fear.

While he was never purpose-built for sniping, Longarm had chosen to augment his factory-given body to make the task easier. He didn't actually require a scope. His eyes were good enough that he could zero in on a target up to a fifteen hundred feet away, if necessary. Complex (pirated) software synched with his chosen weapon, allowing him to compensate for weather conditions and shoot accurately 'from the hip' if he wanted. Recoil compensators jury-rigged into his arms would handle anything the ones built into his rifle couldn't. A scope was unnecessary for him, but Longarm felt that sniping wasn't sniping if he didn't do it the 'right' way.

Through the scope, he could see perfectly down the barrel of the rifle the short reploid had brandished. In his mind, Longarm replayed the last five seconds of his life again and again, and came to the same conclusion that by the time he'd decided to look over the ledge, that reploid on the street far below had already aimed his rifle exactly where Longarm's head eventually was. He'd literally leaned into a perfect headshot, through the scope, through his right eye, and out to the great beyond somewhere behind it.

He's looking through me. It's like he knew I was here the whole goddamned time.

Scrambling back to safety and wondering why all of the sudden he felt so terribly cold, Longarm immediately contacted Gault.

"I don't think the Hunters sent anyone, Gault!"

"So, who were the new arrivals?"

"I think one of them is Chinese military! Hell, they all look military!"

"Wait, what?"


"Hostile has withdrawn. Our presence has likely been reported to his comrades. We are compromised." Lu's stance relaxed, but his rifle remained firmly in his hands, and his gaze was locked onto the roof top. "Assuming the sniper is disciplined, he will deny us any and all possible surface entry to the bank."

"That is mere assumption." Volya said. "We cannot predict anything about these Mavericks without proper intelligence."

"Precisely." Lu blinked. "Awaiting orders, commander."


"He looked right at me! As soon as I peeked over the side of the building he was scoped right on me! Get me the hell off this roof!" Longarm was shouting into his communications link.

"Relax, Long, ferchrissakes, they are not gonna pull anything stupid so long as we got hostages. So who gives a shit if the dude is 'Chinese military', they know how the game is played like everybody else." Gault drew in a deep breath before he shouted. "So sit up there, sack up, and shut up!"


"How did you know he was up there?" Volya asked, already predicting the answer.

"I temporarily re-established links to my unit in Wangqing, regaining access to orbital Chinese military surveillance systems."

"Against my orders." Volya confirmed.

"Yes."

For a long moment, the two reploids stared each other down, and then Lu returned his gaze back to the roof.

"Sentinel?" Volya decided he would deal with Lu later.

"Almost have what you need, Zephyr One. No, I will not interfere with Chinese military network communications. No, I will not do so even if you order me to. That's the sort of thing that gets people fired and/or disappeared. I'll reposition the sat I'm using to keep an eye on this sniper. In the meantime, I'm working. Give me more time, sir."

Is everyone going to refuse orders today? Volya felt the weight of his decision to bring Zephyr to this bank press down upon him, wondered just how wrong Nils would be. How many innocents would die as a result.

"Commander Volya?" Captain Mansen broke the reploid out of his grim thoughts. "You may want to know that the polycraft the Mavericks asked for is ready to go, it has been for some time. One more thing, I'm to turn operational command of the situation over to you."

"You are?" Volya's one eye widened slightly, but otherwise he kept his surprise to himself.

"Orders from above." The human snorted with disgust. "I don't know what the hell my commanders are doing, but they're telling me to pull the majority of my ground troops away from the bank and leave it to you and the cops. The media blackout ends in five minutes, we're to be gone before then."

So, we are expected to fail, on international broadcast news, no less. A macabre spectacle watched by millions by the end of the day. Look how incompetent the Maverick Hunters truly are, they will say. I am sure the innocents inside will understand that they are merely part of a charade.

He'd sung this song and dance before. He knew, regrettably, all about the game being played, the little rules that guided it. He was familiar with the concept of 'acceptable losses'. Indeed, one of the members of his new command had been designed with that in mind.

As much as Volya did not want to admit it, Jenna's original analysis of Zephyr Unit had been spot on with his own. They were pawns in a power play that was going to likely end after twenty five human lives were snuffed out. It was easy to see how it would be spun from there. He could see the tearful families on international television, accusing the Hunters of recklessly endangering the lives of their loved ones by sending an unproven unit into combat, ultimately resulting in their deaths that would undoubtedly be politicized by wealthy politicians who barely knew how the less fortunate majority of their species lived. There would be hearings, tribunals, accusations, trials and verdicts. Absorption into the GDC ranks for his lot was likely, outright disbandment of the Maverick Hunters another option depending on how hard the GDC wanted to twist the screws. A hero disgraced by association, and his super-villain hiding somewhere in the shadows, would undoubtedly enjoy the irony of the situation.

Volya knew that no matter how bad he thought things would get, there was the possibility that it would get worse.

"What sort of transport have your people arranged for these Mavericks?"

"An A/TP-55 Stormcrow, launching out from RAAF Wagga."

"Armed?"

"Fully. An unfortunate stipulation for the safe exchange of the remaining hostages, and enough fuel to easily leave the mainland to head toward God knows where. I argued against it, but it appears this was never my situation to handle in the first place."

Somewhere deep within Volya's mind, a proverbial straw broke the back of an imagined camel.

The actions of the GDC officers that ordered Mansen to fall back from the scene were feeding the speculative side of his brain, the side that was screaming at him to recall the team back to New Tokyo, while he could still keep them safe from the political machinations he believed to be in play. With military units no longer in sight, he could see these Mavericks turning the weapons on the Stormcrow against the hostages and the lightly armed and armored Canberra Police Department officers on the scene. They'd shown a callous disregard of human life only minutes before. They'd show it again if given the chance.

It would not surprise him that the external factor involved in this situation indeed counted on their violent tendencies to guide events to a specific conclusion.

Regardless of what happens, I've questions that will be answered.


If they'd allowed me to simulate this sort of capacity for that ridiculous simulator, I'd have made Boomerang Kuwanger commit suicide well before the ground-pounders got their hands on him, Jenna thought bitterly. Better yet, I'd have made Sting Chameleon do him, then himself. They may have been Maverick Generals, but they're practically ancient compared to any of Zephyr's combat personnel or myself. That sim was bullshit. Had to have been.

"But I'm not mad about it, am I girls?"

"Mad isn't the word."

"Right."

The many 'instances' of her psyche returned from their assigned sectors within the PWA's data center before sprinting back into the writhing fractal mass of light in the distance. Each return brought swaths of new information that would find a new home on her external memory devices. She thought that this was possibly unnecessary, but it couldn't hurt to have the blueprints to another major city to be added to her collection. Other Jenna instances sat around the virtual office space Jenna had constructed, sifting through the data as rapidly as was possible. More instances returned from other destinations on the net, reintegrating back with the primary Jenna one at a time.

"No luck?" One of the Jennas at a desk asked the last of the returning group.

"None. The Mavericks have cut access to all internal security cams. We tried, but you already know that. You'll have to make do with the data recovered by the others." With a smirk, the Jenna joined her sisters and reintegrated back into the whole.

"It'll be just fine, girls. That's what Goat wants us to believe, at any rate." The other Jennas around the primary giggled at this. "Sentinel to Zephyr team, go secure and get ready for some data."

"Understood, Sentinel." Volya responded. "I assume you have heard?"

"Do you need to ask? Commander if they get their hands on an armed transport-"

"I've already formulated a plan to make use of this…" There was a pause, as Volya received the download. "This is substantial."

"Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get you camera access to the bank itself, so there is no telling who or what is waiting for you on the inside. Before the stand-off began, someone inside the target building got the police involved via an external line. This also triggered a response from a local GDC unit through a silent alarm. I find that hole, and the building is mine."

"We will…improvise. Thank you, Sentinel. I will be uploading a plan of action for you momentarily." Volya replied stiffly, clearly not expecting to thank the Navigator for her efforts.

"Don't thank me yet." Jenna whispered to herself back inside MHHQ.


Captain Mansen was leading the team away from the bank. Almost as quickly as they'd been deployed, his unit was pulling up its barricades and preparing to fall back behind the regular police lines.

"This is almost too much data." Hawkins shook his head. "It is too much. How many possible contingencies could these Mavericks have?"

"Assume they know everything we know," Volya said quietly. "Prepare for the worst, never assume events will play out in your favor. Further questions?"

"None."

"Then let us begin. Primary objective: Rescue the hostages. Secondary: Eliminate all Mavericks. Our situation: They are inside the bank, which we now have schematics for. At this time, our Navigator has been unable to access internal security systems to determine the exact locations of the hostages or the Mavericks. To counter this," Volya turned to Lu. "I am authorizing limited use of your unique resources to attempt to pinpoint general target locations."

"Yes sir." Lu's expression blanked for a moment as he accessed the satellites. "Commander, the Maverick sniper does not appear on thermal imaging from the current available orbital platform, currently tracking him on standard visual spectrum. Heat signatures within the bank appear grouped in an area close to the vault, according to schematics. However, individual signatures are not distinguishable at this time. It is safe assume the hostages make up the bulk of the massed heat signatures."

"If the sniper is running cold, then the others might be as well." Hawkins chimed in. "At most, they'd only need one reploid to guard the hostages. The others could literally be anywhere in the building." The Vulpinoid glowered pointedly at Captain Mansen. "For a buncha pirate losers with supposedly out-of-date equipment, that's decidedly modern."

This was a potential line of questioning that Zephyr team did not have the time for, much less the hostages. If they were committed to the mission, they would have to leave this for later inquiry.

"Zephyr Five." He spoke loudly enough that it startled the entire team.

"Boss?" The pilot meekly replied, shrinking away from the Russian despite not having been approached physically.

"I have need of your unique talents."


"Boss, if Long's right-" Cavern began to protest.

"Look, this doesn't change anything!" Gault's exasperation with his team was growing by the second. Sure, they'd always had the opportunity to run when things had gotten hot before. Not once had they ever engaged the Hunters or any local military assets in protracted standoffs like this, nor had they ever been denied an expedient exit. They'd never allowed themselves to be pinned down like this. That the day had been full of some very unfortunate firsts did not strike Gault as a good reason to start acting like frightened amateurs on their first job.

"Have you even looked at these assholes?" Shortwire hissed, flipping the LED display he was sitting at around to face Gault. The security cameras outside of the bank caught the Hunters on the outside, clear as day. "The big guy with a cannon the size of ME? The dude with a goddamned red star emblazoned across his left shoulder? Or how about the fox reploid? Didn't we hear about these guys the other day?"

"It's that Zephyr Unit the GDC had a dog and pony show about the other day." Vitrous, bless her reactor-heart, was still showing the cool and cruel professionalism that had endeared her to the team in the first place. "Political unit, at best. If you really think these people are being let off the leash, you need to find a new line of work."

Staring at the display, Gault took a deep breath, calming himself before replying. He was regretting shouting earlier. The hostages could have heard the nervousness in all of their voices, and that might inspire them to acts of bravery or stupidity.

"Thank you, Vit. At least someone else has their head on straight."

"Just sayin', boss."

"They could be Special Forces for all we care, and they can't do a damned thing. We have hostages, and maybe we ought to remind them of that. Give me an external speaker, anything that transmits loud and as far as possible preferably. We're still on a media blackout, aren't we?"

"Not for much longer, boss." Shortwire didn't seem all that convinced by the bravado on display, but wasn't brave enough to press his concerns any further.

"Then let's break it for them. Find me an external net connection to any local news agencies that are trying to cover this story, and lemme say hi to the world."


Piggybacking off of Lu's own connection to the Chinese satellite network (justified in her mind as not being interference, and therefore safe to do), she'd been able to watch the bank from a different angle. Combined with her own surveillance on the networks not totally locked out by the localized EM barrier, she was able to paint a very complete picture of everything around the bank, which stood out in her visualization as being a black hole amongst a sea of connection requests snaking out from the area outside of the barrier (half of those being her own requests).

But suddenly, a single mote of light shone forth from the bank, reaching towards the outside world it had been isolated from.

I got you. Got you got you got you. Now gimme those cameras, if you'd be so kind.

Shortwire did notice subtle interference as he connected the computer directly to a Sky News broadcast station, but attributed it to the interference that made use of the warp network impossible. It was a hardline connection, and there was always the potential of it being used against them. As a precaution, he isolated the internal security cameras from as much of the network as possible, assuming they could be used against them if he hadn't taken the precaution. If there was someone in the world who could re-enable access to those systems through this temporary and very short-lived exploit that he was creating and monitoring for himself, all without his knowledge, it'd have to be a monster on par with the legendary Mavericks he idolized, or worse.

Said monster was failing to control her laughter in a small locked office somewhere inside MHHQ New Tokyo while doing just that.


"…so I dunno what sort of bullshit powerplay you people think you're going to pull, but I highly recommend these Zephyr Unit clowns back off. There's no scenario where their intervention doesn't end with a lot of dead hostages splattered live on international television." Transmitting footage directly from his own field of vision, he made certain to pan slowly across the gathered hostages. Cavern and Vitrous made a good show of pressing guns to the heads of several of the hostages, eliciting the desired yelps and wails of fear from the whole group.

"The GDC golden boys stand down, or we take the money out of this bank vault, and we replace it with the pieces of these people that we leave behind." Drawing a line across his neck, Gault ordered Shortwire to kill the data feed. It had been a good show.

"Gawd, boss. I'm a believer." Vitrous licked her lips. "We should do 'em now."

"As long as they're still useful to us, they hafta survive. But Prettyboy? Rig 'em up with the remote charges, and stand guard next to 'em. Just in case. The rest of us have the lobby, in case our Hunters are as dumb as the big one out there looks. Long?"

"Yeah boss?"

"You holding up?"

"Y-yeah boss. They're all moving away, a little quicker than before. I see a transport coming to escort 'em off, LAV, Type 32 Custom maybe? Dunno how the fat one is going to climb in though." The sniper chuckled, some of his bravado returning.

"Y'see? Just like I said. All they needed was a push in the right direction."


"I'm being ordered to get you out of the area by vehicle. Now. I assume we all paid attention to that last broadcast?" Captain Mansen's mood threatened to remain perpetually glum, pointing to the troop transport that was rolling towards them. He was the first aboard as it pulled up to him.

"I'll, uh, I'll just keep pace with it." Goat sighed. Curiously, Lu did not join the others, but instead jogged alongside of the transport next to Goat.

"Our plan has not changed." Volya maintained his command presence despite this apparent setback, turning to Huey as he and Hawkins climbed into the LAV. "Zephyr Five, you are to commandeer the Stormcrow being prepared at RAAF Wagga. Go now, I have already transmitted my command override authority to the base. By GDC regulations, Hunters are able to legally acquire military or civilian transport as necessary during an emergency."

"And this counts as one." Huey sounded unusually restrained and disciplined. "I'm gone, sir." He warped through the roof of the vehicle without a snide or otherwise off color comment.

"Hawkins and I will use a path indicated by Sentinel to approach the hostages from below via an underground car park." Volya continued. "Goat, you and Lu are assigned to the front entrance. Breach by any means necessary. The schematics and satellite readings indicate the hostages are not in immediate danger to any of the weapons you both possess."

"Understood, Commander." Goat nodded once, his game face on, his combat helmet firmly in place.

"Confirming we are no longer within range of external surveillance methods the Mavericks have at their disposal." Lu motioned for Goat to stop running. "We will hold position here for one minute, and then approach the target structure."

"What?" Volya gasped, leaning out of the still open LAV door with a look of incredulity on his face. "No. Stand down Lu."

Lu's own face had disappeared behind a featureless bullet-like helmet. His color scheme had shifted dramatically. No longer did he wear the colors of a test unit. His armor had shifted to a gunmetal gray, with portions of it opening up to reveal a series of lenses across his heavy chest armor. "Combined with Sentinel's own capacity for electronic surveillance and infiltration, and this holographic generation system, we will be undetected.

"We will?" Goat asked, just as he and Lu vanished from sight, replaced by a reasonable recreation of the area he and Lu occupied.

So, even the Lu-series have secrets similar to my own. That was not in any documentation I received from Sentinel or headquarters.

"Commander Volya, please inform Sentinel that if she should need to use the surveillance networks I access, she only need ask for permission."

Climbing back into the transport fully, the Russian sat down heavily, the beginnings of a smile forming on his face. It did not go unnoticed by Hawkins.

"This is moving a bit faster than I expected." The vulpinoid leaned forward. "Look, even with magic tricks like that, even with Sentinel watching over us, there's a mag-sniper covering that whole area. They get spotted, they get slagged, and so do the hostages."

"We could all die in the next few minutes. My concern is firmly with the hostages. They cannot fend for themselves. We can."

"Fair enough."


RAAF Base Wagga, Australia

"She's awful big to have 'Attack' somewhere inside the name, ain't she?" Huey asked the technician sitting next to him in the cockpit of the Stormcrow. A tilt-engine polycraft like the 'Crow wouldn't normally rate the designation, but there was a good reason why they'd added 'Storm' to the name of this variant.

Everything about the big and bulbous craft looked wrong. It didn't look like it could reach Mach two, but it could and was going to in the next few minutes. Nothing about its external appearance suggested a capacity for extreme violence, and certainly it had no proper external hardpoints to mount anything significant, but that was only because its weapons were typically buried within its hull until they were needed. The Stormcrow was big and ugly because it needed to be, designed to quickly deploy troops and supplies into a hot zone, and then loiter in the area and provide close air support until dedicated fighters or drones could be put on station. The Australian government was likely strong-armed into offering such a thing to the Mavericks.

"Have you flown one of these before?" The tech was clearly nervous around Huey, but there wasn't much she could do about it. She'd been told by her superiors to give this particular reploid what he wanted, when he wanted it.

"Nope, I'm a virgin when it comes to Stormcrows." His grin had a madness to it that made the tech want off of the machine right away, but that wasn't an option. The engines were already spinning up, a serious suction hazard, and Huey was already rolling the craft out to a cleared VTOL pad. "Hey Sentinel? Y'mind uploading an operations manual for an AT/P-55?"

"Who is Sentinel?" The tech, being human, didn't get to listen in to Zephyr Unit's network transmissions.

"You're scaring the poor woman half to death." Sentinel was quick to admonish the pilot.

"She'll be just fine…" Huey leaned closer to the tech in an exaggerated manner, pretending he could not read her name patch from afar. "Osborne'll be just fine."

"Will I?"

"Will she?"

"About as fine as you might expect us to be when we're getting ready to fly at a sniper armed with a mag rifle. If he's good, he'll slag me through the canopy the moment I present him a target. Go tumbling into the city if the auto-stabilizers don't take over. They haven't evacuated the operations area have they?" Again, he'd shifted from his joking demeanor to something cooler, more professional. "Upload received, Sentinel."

"Good hunting, Zephyr Five."

"Roger roger, good hunting." He frowned. "Good hunting. Huh." The radio had men from the control tower shouting over the disregard to proper procedure, quickly muted with a stab of a button. "Mmmkay, Osborne, what do we have for armament?"

"Four Phlanga Mark 12 Anti-Material micro-rocket pods on conformal wingmounts." Simply being asked to recite what the polycraft was loaded with was enough to get the woman to visibly relax. "Full load of 30 mike-mike for the chin mounted auto-cannon, four Shock Gel canister launchers on the conformal fuselage mounts-" The Stormcrow shuddered around them as its engines, pointed to the horizon at their backs, grew louder, pushing it through a turn much sharper than should have been taken. The landing wheels chirped and squealed against the tarmac as the polycraft lunged forward.

"Did-did we just drift away from the hangar-"

"Shock Gel?" Huey asked grimly, suddenly on edge.

"Yes sir. Originally the plan was to insert an MSWAT team into the bank for hostage rescue, and this craft would have provided overwatch to help cut off the Mavericks if they attempted to escape on foot. The gel would have been used-"

"I know what it does," Huey said. "I suppose they deserve it. Zephyr One, Five. I'm mobile and headed your direction." After a long moment with Volya not responding, Huey shrugged. "Welp, that was fast."

"He's not going to respond, Zephyr Five," Sentinel informed him. "None of them will. Can't risk getting branched, after all. He did have a message for you, though?"

"Oh yeah?"

"The raid starts with you taking out the sniper. In that time, the team will have arrived at their positions."

"On my go? Really?"

"Huey, ah, sir, we are running out of runway rather fast-" Osborne spoke rapidly, pointing emphatically into the distance. "This is a VTOL field for Gods-"

"I got it, I got it-" He pulled back hard on the controls, the Stormcrow surprising him by deftly following his command. The polycraft nearly went vertical before he corrected, almost overcorrecting into the ground before he stabilized. "Woops."

"Are you doing this on purpose!?" "Are you doing this on purpose!?" Sentinel and Osborne both shouted.

"On my go, Sentinel? You're serious about this?"

"Yes, on your bloody go!"

"Well then, here we go." Huey slammed the throttle forward, and the Stormcrow's engines sang, the polycraft surging forward and pressing him against the cushions of his seat. "Osborne, confirm the airspace is clear around the target."

"There are press vehicles in the air and on the ground. You can't fly this fast over populated areas, it's against regulations-"

"So you're telling me that the civilians will be maintaining safe altitude over and away from the situation, as per press blackout protocols?"

"The press blackout has been lifted, sir."

"Well, they're not gonna be flying as low as we are, so that's cool." Huey smirked at his reluctant co-pilot.

"Pardon?"

"You ever fly nap-of-the-earth before?"


Jenna had repeatedly assured Volya and Hawkins that she was currently "dominating" the local security systems, that it was safe for them to be inside the car park that had been designated one of their best chances to infiltrate the bank. Her choice of words had raised their eyebrows. The giddiness in her voice suggested they could trust her as far as the bank was concerned…but neither man felt comfortable commenting about anything beyond that.

"She was such a nice girl when we met her." Hawkins finally broke the silence between himself and his commander.

"Indeed," was all Volya allowed in response.

They had walked directly in front of an intelli-cam, at Jenna's request/orders, and saw nor heard any discernible changes to their surroundings, and she reported that nobody inside the building had lost their lives.

"Image feedback loops are for amateurs. I'm editing the video in real-time. Their so-called tech expert thinks he's got all the keys to all the doors in the whole structure. Little. Does. He. Know. Be sure to tell him I said 'hello', if you'd be so kind."

The two Hunters exchanged a look.

"We will send him your good tidings, Sentinel." Volya said. "Can you place a waypoint that gets us below the hostages?"

"Done. In ten minutes, I can directly stream to you the security feeds that show you the precise locations of the Mavericks in real time without compromising the operation. It's worth noting, sir, that the Mavericks have rigged what appears to be high explosives in the middle of the cluster of the hostages. Based on what I've been able to observe, your first customer is the trigger man."

"Damn them." Volya growled. "You have relayed my orders to Huey?"

"Yes sir. On that note, I may not have the time to set up those data streams. At his current airspeed he will be in the operational theater in roughly eight minutes. Sooner, if he'd take a more direct flightpath. I believe he intends low-altitude navigation through the city streets."

Volya considered having Sentinel route him a secure connection directly to the pilot to inform him that such a plan was far from acceptable, or have the navigator relay the message herself, but was certain Huey would not take orders from her. It was also time he did not want to waste. At this point they were committed.

"I will reprimand him in person following the outcome of this operation. We will combine the schematics you have given us with realtime HUD markings of our targets. Can this be managed?"

"You ask the most inane things of me. Not that I'm complaining, it's less complicated overall doing it your way. Less chance of detection, even an idiot can get lucky." Seconds later, outlines of the Mavericks appeared in Hawkins and Volya's vision. For the moment they were still relatively far away, but if the outlines were detailed, moving in sync with the Mavericks as they idled near their apparent assigned positions. She'd even gave them ID tags based on conversations she'd overheard. Prettyboy was the closest to Volya and Hawkins. Gault, the apparent ringleader, had been given a crown next to his name. Cavern and Vitrous, closest to the front entrance.

The hacker, Shortwire, had (DUMBASS) after his name.

"The rooftop sniper has no direct feeds on him other than our satellite surveillance platforms, and the network encryption on those systems is making it impossible to guarantee up to the second markers on him. We're talking five to ten second delays based on the speed of the systems here at MHHQ and that of my decryption software-"

"You have done well, Sentinel." Volya interrupted the navigator. "It is up to us to not squander what you have afforded the team."

"I recorded that. So you know, sir." Jenna broke the link a moment later.

"Our first target is up ahead, Commander. Fifty meters, right above the premium parking spaces for the execs." Hawkins had taken point, his movements cautious despite the assurances from the voice in their heads. "They'll have weight sensors, basic theft deterrents these days. Between you and I, we'll definitely trigger those."

"Sentinel will handle them." He pointed at the roof above them. "Your Aether Flare. I want to use it as a shaped charge on a section of the roof surrounding the general vicinity of the Maverick, in order to bring him down to us without harming the hostages. Can it be done?"

"Hell, I sure can try, it'll take me some time to get it set up. I don't think I've ever done anything this…fine under duress though." Hawkins gripped his tomahawks, twirling them idly. "I suppose we'll find out. What if he moves out of the target area?"

"Leave that detail to me. You have less than seven minutes before Zephyr Five is in position. I need you to have this ready with time to spare."


Nils was not used to creeping forward as slowly as he was, in broad daylight, a small Chinese reploid on point out in front of him. Yet there he was, and forward he crept. The sidewalks were empty all for blocks around them, sirens filled the air, and there was a sniper capable of taking their heads off many floors above them. This felt incredibly wrong for the large reploid, and he wasn't embarrassed to admit that he was quite nervous. A small half dome, barely visible, enveloped both Hunters as they advanced on the front entrance to the bank. Everything outside of the dome was 'off' in some way, shimmering from the effects of Lu's holographic generators.

"They really can't see or hear us?"

"No, sir. It is a direct result of combined effort between Sentinel's electronic warfare capabilities, hyper-resolution holographic field generation, and satellite imaging. It is not perfect, but nothing observing us from the bank will be able to detect us for the moment." Lu turned to face Nils, still marching towards the bank. "You are concealed, sir."

"You say so." Nils appreciated Lu's attempts to reassure him that they were fine, but his odd featureless helmet made his words less comforting.

"Serious tactical error on behalf of OpFor," Lu continued. "Would have placed sniper for overwatch on different building, possibly used a therm-optic sheath for concealment, rendering this plan difficult if not completely unfeasible."

"That all sounds a lot more subtle than what I saw you- your brother attempt in the simulator the other day."

"The conditions specified did not require the use of these features. After consulting with the collective Lu-series, we determined that certain features be kept on standby for that scenario."

"He died because of that. Doesn't that bother you?"

"No."

"Okay..." Nils decided to hold off pressing the subject any further, but he did detect how Lu's voice changed when discussing his 'family'.

Eventually, the pair reached the foot of the stairs that lead up to the bank's front entrance, and Lu held up his right hand, making a fist.

"We will have to make our assault starting from here. I cannot guarantee consistency of the holographic projection on this stairway." What that meant was they would still have to clear fifty feet to reach the barricaded front doors, which meant if they were detected by the Mavericks, they'd likely be taking fire before they even got to the doors.

"Ah, hell. Vol- Zephyr Lead. We're more or less in position. We're waiting on Five to start this thing."

"Acknowledged. We are in position and making our preparations now."

"Now I don't mean to sound pessimistic Lu, but I'm not quite as fast as you."

"You are fast enough and easily stronger, sir. Shall we begin dividing targets?"

A timer appeared on the HUDs of every member of Zephyr team about to assault the building, counting down the minutes and seconds until Huey arrived on station. There was a lot less time remaining than Nils had anticipated. It made him nervous, but at the same time he felt some relief. He was going to be a lot happier when he didn't feel like he was standing out in the open waiting for someone to shoot his ass off.

"Howzabout I mash the guy on the left, and you get the one on the right? Doesn't look like there's any hostages to hit near the other two. The one in the center looks like a ringleader, he's nowhere near the doors. Probably a coward, we can take turns with him. The other is apparently their-"

"Don't you dare call him a hacker, Zephyr Two," Sentinel interjected. "That would be insulting. He doesn't appear armed, from my footage. The other three look quite dangerous. I'll send you images of what I think they have for weapons."

"None would ever be intended, Madame Sentinel." Nils chuckled. "So he's their techie, let's assume that at best he has a Buster, we can leave him for last. The other three must go down hard first. The one by the hostages should be handled by Hawkins and Volya. How's that sound, Lu?"

"Kill order confirmed. Breaching method?"

"This," Nils pointed to his bazooka, "and this," he pointed to his left shoulder's armored pauldron.

"Ready." Lu crouched low, as though he was on the starting blocks of an Olympic sprinting event. Nils did likewise, though somewhat more awkwardly.

"There's no way for you to project that holographic field to cover my advance, is there?"

"No, sir. Will make necessary requests for improving that system after the mission is successful."

"Well then, let's make this quick so you can get on that." Nils switched his own helmet into combat mode. The timer at the corner of his HUD read two minutes. "Loading HE munition, ready to breach."


Longarm had been hearing the roar of jet engines in the air for the last few minutes, but hadn't been able to locate the source. He attributed this to his superior hearing. There'd been jets flying overhead all day, and long after they'd passed by, he could hear them even over the horizon.

This roar sounded different. He swore it sounded as though it was being 'piped-in' between the buildings. It was also getting closer.

Then there was the high pitched ringing he'd started hearing not long after the local GDC units had backed off under Gault's demands. At times, the ringing buzzed before resuming its steady pitch. He thought he'd even heard footsteps, or something eerily similar, coming from the streets below, a sound not unlike that of a ride armor. It didn't come with the other sounds he associated with something like that. Just the ringing and the occasional buzzing.

The roar of the jet engines was growing louder. Closer. It was starting to overpower everything else.

"Hey boss! I think our ride is coming!"

"I barely hear you!" Gault complained over their comm net. Strangely enough, his voice sounded distorted from interference that hadn't plagued them all day. Shortwire's getting' sloppy.

"I said 'I think our ride is coming!'"

"Finally, get your ass down here, I'll have 'em meet us out front." Now it was Longarm's turn to shout back.

"I didn't catch that!" Shaking his head, he began cleaning up his perch, ensuring he was leaving nothing behind for the authorities. There hadn't been much call for his sniping today, and part of him was disappointed by that fact. The other part was happy that he hadn't been forced to make himself a bigger target than he already was on his lonesome. Unlike the rest of his comrades, Longarm held no delusions over how "awesome" he thought he was. He might have been a match for local police, or even MSWAT sharpshooters. Hunters or military units didn't play by the same rules. They had access to real toys. Therm-optic cloaks, fancier rifles, full access to local or satellite surveillance. Even Shortwire at his best couldn't manage that last item consistently, and everything else was prohibitively expensive to acquire, not to mention easier for law to track.

But perhaps after today, that wouldn't be the case.

The jet engines were even louder now. He could even start to make out the creaks of an airframe, the sound of servos moving control surfaces.

The hell is that?

From between one pair of taller buildings, tilting violently in the opposite direction it was traveling, was an AT/P-55 Stormcrow, coming in hot and fast. It barely avoided scraping against another building as it righted itself, bearing down directly at Longarm, whose vision focused entirely on the gunship as it closed in. He could make out the nose mounted gun, pointed right at him. The various conformal weapon pod mounts on the wings and fuselage, opening wide and revealing their payload. He saw the pretty human co-pilot, sweat drenching her face, a look of unrestrained terror on her face.

He saw the reploid pilot, left hand held up for Longarm to see, middle finger extended and wagging back and forth, the reploid mouthing something he couldn't hear, but could easily make out.

We win.

"GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAULT!" the Maverick screamed as he began to raise his rifle in defiance, just as a small puff of smoke extended from the Stormcrow, directly at him. He felt something cool yet oddly warm slap against his chest plating and neck. The world turned white, and he felt nothing save for the worst pain he had ever experienced. He could not feel the grip of his rifle melting to his right hand. He could not hear the weapon fire six times involuntarily. He could not see those six rounds bury themselves ineffectually into the rooftop. After seconds that felt like years passed, he sensed nothing more.


This is the last minute of Gault's life.

For a long time, he always imagined his life ending after a heroic shoot out. It was a fantasy he did not share aloud with the others of his gang, but it was something he was positive they all shared. If they had to die, it would be them at their best, giving it their all. They wouldn't die cowards. They wouldn't die afraid. They would be proud Mavericks who embraced all that their actions would eventually bring down on their heads. They would take some of the bastards down with them.

The roar of jet engines hadn't gone unnoticed. In fact, it had prompted curiosity on behalf of Cavern, who'd crept close to one of the windows, moving aside one of the curtains to look at what was causing the sound. This prompted Vitrous to snap at him, demanding that he "get his ass away from the windows" before she shot him herself. He'd started to insist that things were fine, and that was when his voice caught, and he pressed himself against the glass, straining to see what was outside.

"The hell are you doing, Cavern? You should listen to Vitrous-"

"Boss I think something is outside!"

"Like what?" Gault had asked. "The fucking clouds in the sky? The birds in the trees?"

"Something doesn't look right just outside the door, I swear I see somethin' out there!" Cavern usually didn't sound nervous. None of them ever did. They'd all played "Mecha-Pirates of the South China Sea" for long enough that 'practiced bravado' was almost their default state. Of course that had all gone to pot when they'd gotten themselves mixed up in this mess.

And so, Gault had begun to walk his way over towards the door, fists and teeth clenched, silently counting to ten to control himself, when the sound of jet engines had grown impossibly loud, and the windows in the front of the lobby rattled violently. Cavern leapt back a whole ten feet, leveling his machine gun at the door. Vitrous stood her ground, several paces behind Cavern.

"Boss, something's up with the security system, I-" Shortwire had to shout to be heard over the noise.

That was when Longarm's scream was heard over their internal network.

The front door exploded inward, causing everyone in the room to recoil back, Shortwire almost falling out of his seat. Gault had raised one hand to protect his face from flying debris.

Another explosion sent dust and debris through the open door to the room where all the hostages were being kept.

"HUNTERS!" Gault roared, bracing himself for combat, but still partly blind from the door explosion.

Two figures rushed through the tattered remains of the front entrance, one small, one massive, the large Hunter they'd been cracking jokes about. Each step he took caused the room to tremor, and he closed in on Cavern as the Maverick leveled his machine gun to open fire. He got a short burst off that was completely off target, and then came the sickening crack of his head meeting the shoulder of the big Hunter, his body thrown down so violently from the impact that he essentially cratered the tile floor, before bouncing back up into the air, trailing pieces of himself and vital fluids. To Gault's perception, sped up as it was, it appeared as though Cavern had hung in the air for a full second, before the Hunter drove a massive fist directly into his face, into his control chip on the forehead, crushing the Maverick's head flat. All of it done in one smooth motion.

And the Hunter continued forward, making his way directly towards Gault and Shortwire. Neither Maverick had even started to raise their weapons in defiance.

In that moment in time, so focused he was on Cavern's death, when his eyes had darted back to Vitrous, he'd missed what exactly it was that had happened to her, only that her legs stood in one place, and her upper body, severed from the rest at the belly, spiraled off to Gault's right. Her murderer stood with a fist firmly planted in a portion of her lower half. The fatal instrument: a fully extended pilebunker spike. He hadn't heard Vitrous fire her mag-pistol, but he saw that she'd fared somewhat better than Cavern had. The Hunter's helmet had been partially blasted away, revealing half of his expression. A lifeless eye stared through the carnage directly at Gault.

At least he believed Vitrous had died instantly. Then her upper half hit the ground and was tackled by her assailant, dark purple reploid blood sprayed from her mouth as she gurgled and wailed in agony, struggling to push her assailant off her body as they slid across the tiling. The Hunter clad in gunmetal gray gripped her by the throat with his left hand while the right was raised upward, the pilebunker retracting back into place with a hiss. There was a moment where he adjusted his aim, preparing to finish the job. The Hunter looked down upon Vitrous with all the deference that a boot showed to an ant just before crushing it.

"GAULTHELPME-" she managed to screech, just before the piledriver came down on her control chip.

Behind Gault, Shortwire uttered a single yelp of terror. He whirled around, finally bringing up his left arm and converting it to a buster, just in time to see Shortwire's right arm drop free from his body. Stuck partway into his chest was a tomahawk.

Wheredidthatcomefromwhattheh ell-

He saw the vulpinoid observed earlier, already covered in reploid blood.

That can't be Prettyboy's itjustcan't-

He held a second tomahawk in both hands as he moved in for the kill, the weapon raised high overhead, a feral roar issuing from his open mouth. Shortwire managed to bring up his remaining arm in a feeble and useless attempt to stop the tomahawk from crashing down directly on to his forehead. The weapon sliced easily through the arm, and buried itself deep into Shortwire's head, almost down to his neck.

"BASTARDS!" Gault's cry was strangled, his body shaking as he fired in retaliation, throwing off his panicked burst of buster fire as it went wide of the vulpinoid by at least three feet. In his right hand, his own mag-pistol barked twice, and he managed to only shoot Shortwire's corpse as it fell towards the ground. The vulpinoid had danced back several paces, tearing his weapon free from Shortwire. His face was a mask of fury directed entirely at Gault.

This was not the way it was supposed to go.

This was not how he envisioned things.

This just wasn't possible.

These Maverick Hunters could not be so skilled, so powerful, so brutal. Sure, Gault and his crew had all come from civilian walks of life, but they'd done heists that had earned them enough money to purchase black market mods. They were better than the average jackhole Maverick who got started by swinging around a I-beam on a construction site.

We couldn't be so weak. It's not possible. It's not fair.

He did not want to believe that he had consigned his friends to needless deaths against the insurmountable.

I don't want to die.

He aimed his weapons at the vulpinoid, snarling and cackling all at once, a high pitched ringing and buzzing in his ears.

I don't want to die.

Green light momentarily flashed in front of his eyes. ALERT NERVE CONTACT FAILURE / scrolled across his vision.

I don't want to die!

Eyes widening with horror, he watched as both of his arms, severed just past the elbow, fell free towards the floor. The electronic nerve endings in both his limbs triggered several shots from the buster and mag-pistol, destroying some tiling, part of a desk, and one of the light fixtures mounted on the roof.

Something heavy clasped firmly onto his shoulder, spinning him back around just in time to see Vitrous' killer standing up from her corpse, her head suffering fractures in dozens of places, a perfect round hole at the center of her forehead burrowing through to the floor. And now Gault faced his own angel of death just as the pain from his severed limbs registered.

He was taller by at least two feet, so it seemed, and his long black overcoat still flapping in the air appeared to Gault as a singular dark and twisted wing. His one eye gazed down upon the Maverick, and the Hunter snorted with contempt. In his right hand, a green shortblade-class beam saber was drawn, and already coming down towards his face. The Hunter mouthed something Gault could not understand.

I DON'T WANT TO-


"Sniper's down." Huey had reported laconically over the tac-net.

That had been the signal for Hawkins to detonate his hastily erected Aether Flare field in order to bring down the Maverick to his and Volya's level, but in that split second he hesitated.

He's out of position, he's not on the designated point, thehostagesare-

"HAWKINS!" Volya bellowed.

That was enough to get Hawkins moving. The initial flash from the Aether Flare hadn't even faded, the dust from the blast had only begin to spread, and Hawkins was already half way through the expanding cloud of debris.

The Maverick 'Prettyboy' had been pacing around the room, clearly growing nervous, but in the moment just before Huey called the sniper going down, something had grabbed his attention. He'd started for the exit of the hostage room, which put him just out of range of Hawkins' trap. It had given him perhaps one additional second to live, and he never even saw his killer, his back still turned to the newly opened hole in the floor behind him. In one smooth motion, Hawkins swung one of his tomahawks into the small of the Maverick's back, twisted the blade vertically, then ripped it upwards, taking special care to guide the weapon just around the reactor as it traveled up and eventually out the top of his head.

Prettyboy coughed with surprised as he fell forward, before a second swing of the tomahawk neatly removed his head from his body.

"That's one!"

Behind Hawkins, the hostages began screaming. Ignoring them, the Vulpinoid charged out of the room into the main lobby, one tomahawk raised high above his head as he sighted in on 'Shortwire', who was starting to leave his seat while rapidly typing in several commands on his security console.

HE'S GONNA DETONATE THE EXPLOSIVES Hawkins thought in a panic as he threw his tomahawk as hard and as fast as he could while still bounding forward towards the Maverick. His aim was good, but it hadn't been a killshot. He would review this moment later and still feel proud that he'd managed to knock the Maverick away from the console while taking out a limb, but also how he had believed he'd been too late.

A guttural roar escaped his throat as he bore down on the Maverick, who could only raise his remaining limb in feeble defense before Hawkins drove his remaining tomahawk through the Maverick's forearm and into his head. He watched as the light behind Shortwire's eyes fade away. Even with an ax between both eyes, something about his expression struck the Hunter as incredibly sad-

"YOU IDIOT, CHECK LEFT!" Jenna shouted over the net.

Leaping back his second kill, he turned his eyes in the direction of his potential third victim as he brandished a buster and mag-pistol at him, the shots going wide.

These people don't even count as amateurs.

That was when Volya reached him, the twin flares of his dash thrusters fading just as his green shortblade lashed outward, cleaning cutting off both of Gault's arms in a single slash just behind the elbow. The stumps glowed bright orange as the waved ineffectually at the air as Volya grabbed the Maverick by a shoulder, spun it around to face him, shortblade pointed right at the control chip. Just behind him, Goat and Lu simultaneously began to stand from the corpses of their own targets.


High explosive ordnance selected? Possibility of civilian casualties minimized if shell is detonated on contact with front barricade. Subject Nils/Goat is better prepared for this scenario than outward appearance suggests.

Knowing that Goat was slower, Lu did not immediately begin charging forward the moment the heavier reploid fired his bazooka. He waited until Goat had just about reached what was left of the front entrance, watched as he batted aside what was left of the entryway and the makeshift barricade beyond. Then he moved. A moment later, he was beside Goat, attempting to slow himself down, not having anticipated the sudden loss of traction . In the next, he was ahead of him, a mag-pistol pointed at his head.

Target Designated 'Vitrous', female-humanoid type reploid-

Lu's internal analysis was interrupted when the pistol fired. It was a glancing blow that shattered a part of his protective helmet. Superficial damage that could have been worse had he not spun to the left.

Vitrous attempted to readjust her own aim-

Completing the spin, Lu swatted the arm with the gun out of his way, sending the weapon and part of the hand that held it across the room so hard that they would later be found embedded in the roof of the lobby.

As he knocked the gun away, Lu brought his right hand around, slamming a pilebunker into Vitrous' soft, unprotected belly. A moment later, the pilebunker lanced through her body, tearing her in half, sending her torso spiraling away. Her legs stood in place for one moment, then crumpled to the floor just as Lu threw himself over them to tackle what was left of Vitrous to the floor. They slid several feet, carving a small path through the tiles before stopping.

She did not have time to finish her cry for assistance. With clinical precision, Lu drove the pilebunker through her control chip, through her head. She convulsed one last time, her hands brushing across his helmet, and that was that.

"Target silenced," Lu announced. To his right, he noticed that Goat had already terminated his Maverick.

Reassessment: Sub-Commander Nils/Goat notably capable during high-speed combat.

That did not sit well with Lu, but he could not describe how or why.


Glaring down at the crippled Maverick whimpering before him, knowing that Zephyr had quickly and decisively put down the "Steel Pirates" nearly effortlessly, part of Volya was composing words of praise for his team. He was proud of their effort.

Not satisfied.

The Steel Pirates, whatever they may have been, were nothing in the larger scheme of things. They weren't even practice. They likely had nothing to do with the strange orders the GDC units had received. Whatever conspiracy Volya believed to be at work that had brought Zephyr Team to Australia today, they were at best a convenience, and more than likely a happy coincidence.

There was another part of Volya, another part that he worked even harder to restrain, that wanted to kill this Maverick slowly. Wanted to make him suffer. In the brief moments before rushing out to the lobby to intercept the Maverick ringleader, he managed to get a look at the faces of the hostages. He could imagine, with great detail, what could have happened if they had failed, or if Zephyr had never arrived.

The Hunters that they were assigned to would have allowed this to happen. The GDC apparently had some interest in letting this happen.

"Unacceptable." Volya said, raising his shortblade high over the Maverick's head. The stumps that remained of Gault's arms tried to move into the path of the oncoming magnetically bottled plasma, and failed. "Unforgiveable."

The beam saber passed easily through Gault's head, just to the side of the crystalline casing at the center of his forehead, and the Maverick spasmed violently, only held in place by Volya's hand on his shoulder. Then he tore the saber slowly through Gault's head until he saw the control chip vanish in a short-lived flash as it met plasma.

"Secure the hostages, and call in the local units." Volya said before turning on his heel and stalking his way out of the bank. "Mission accomplished."


The Stormcrow Polycraft had touched down inside of the cordoned off area, and its turbofans had whined down to lifelessness. The human technician who had been carted along for the ride was on her knees, expelling every scrap of food that had been in her stomach. Beside her, Huey rubbed her back sympathetically. "Oh, come on, Osborne! That went pretty smoothly, I thought!"

"You're such a bastard." She rasped, then turned and started heaving again.

The footsteps of Goat, and the rest of the team, drew the pilot's attention away from his charge. Volya, resplendent in his black longcoat and eyepatch, stopped three feet away from Huey and stared at him. The pilot absently scratched his face.

"I got a little something on me?"

Volya blinked. "You are something of a wild card…but you are a good pilot. Why, though, did you N.O.E. instead of the high-altitude flight pattern originally designated?"

"Once Sentinel told me that there'd be press polys airborne at higher altitudes, it cut down on my options of ingress." Huey said, retaining a certain level of lucidity. Though it seemed to come and go, putting him in the pilot's seat again seemed to have balanced him for a time. "To get to all of you in time, to catch their sniper unawares, to attack him while minimizing exposure to enemy fire, a low altitude approach was the best option. Also, the trickiest."

Volya grunted. The rest of Zephyr Team formed around them as the police ran into the security cordon and rushed to secure the hostages. "Very well." The Russian reploid glanced to his team, sizing all of them up. Though there had been some minor glitches, some areas of personal aberrancy that didn't sit well with him, his team had succeeded. The Mavericks had been neutralized in less than half a minute, the hostages were secure. The day was theirs. In the end, did a few minor flaws in an otherwise flawless performance matter?

He decided they did not. There was enough he was already thinking about.

"Very well." He said again, nodding to all of them. "We have done what we came here to do. Sentinel, your oversight was appreciated."

"Keep this up, you'll make a girl blush." Jenna answered. There was a smile in her voice. "See you all back at base, Zephyr Team." The connection cut off.

Volya nodded to the others. "Set warp generators for MHHQ. Return to base."

"Roger, boss." Morgan chuckled. "I suppose I can't bring the Stormcrow with me?"

"Do you think the Australian government would let you teleport off with a multi-million credit polycraft, Huey?"

"No, but it'd make one Hell of a Christmas present…"

"Enough, Morgan." Goat wearily said.

A camera crew and a reporter who had likely ignored the order to fall back completely raced up to them, cutting off their conversation. The woman reporter shoved a microphone into Volya's face. "Susan Trace, Electrosphere 8 News. You and your men successfully put down a hostage crisis that has spun out of control. Tell us a little about yourselves."

Volya stared at her with his good eye, pleased that none of Zephyr Team offered any comment or remarks to this leech. He gave Goat a sidewards glance. "Go."

The towering reploid nodded and disappeared in a beam of warplight, and Huey, Hawkins, and Lu followed him.

"Sir?" The reporter repeated. Volya gave his head a shake.

"We are Maverick Hunters. Beyond that, we have no comment."

He teleported away, leaving the mess of Australia behind.


MHHQ, New Tokyo

Corridor 5-B

To the others on station in the MHHQ's War Room, the presence of the European "Navigator" had been a puzzling oddity. She had strolled in, examined the news feeds, and then made a call. A few minutes later, the rest of Zephyr Team had shown up, and they had spoken about something in animated language off in a corner where nobody could hear them. Then Zephyr Team had left, and Jenna had stayed behind for a few minutes more before leaving herself. They hadn't noticed, in all the hubbub and their own business, how she set up an override relay for the Electrosphere uplink.

Safely within the confines of Corridor 5-B, Zephyr Team's domain, Jenna removed her wireless earpiece and pulled her consciousness back into her body completely. The simple act of going offline was like taking a long, deep breath: It was a lot of work to do the sort of high-intensity, high-focus system commandeering and controlling that she had just pulled off. She was good at it, and calling it "Hacking" was like saying Picasso had been a finger painter.

Along with the sudden ease of strain of her mind, there was a sense of exhilaration she couldn't shake. Sure, Volya still had found ways to complain about their performance, surely it was the Russian in him that did that, but Zephyr Team had proven they had the right stuff.

An impossible hostage situation, a dangerous group of Mavericks. All civilians rescued. All targets neutralized. Sloppy or not, they got the job done.

Pulling out all her feelers from the Electrosphere and the MHHQ systems also allowed the defensive measures she'd put into play to lapse. The EM barriers and elevator lockouts dissipated, and within seconds, a small force of four Maverick Hunters appeared in the commons room with the hiss and crash of teleport beams. 6th Unit members, if Jenna remembered their faces correctly. They took notice of Jenna, and though they didn't raise their weapons, at least two of them wanted to.

"Well, hello there." Jenna greeted them pleasantly. "Can I help you?"

The apparent leader rolled his eyes. "Dr. Cain would like a word with you and the rest of Zephyr Team."

"I imagine he would." Jenna almost hummed. While they waited, she continued to pack up her gear, which almost had the Hunters apoplectic. Once they realized she was just boxing up the equipment, rather than using it, they relaxed a little. Just a little.

Then at last, the distinctive sound of Dr. Cain's cane tapping outside the commons room signaled an end to the waiting. The door slid open, and the leader of the MHHQ trudged into the room with a scowl.

"Do you mind telling me why you decided to lock yourself into 5-B, disable all access points short of cutting through the floor or ceiling, and then disrupt MHHQ Electrosphere operations?"

"I simply borrowed most of the MHHQ's bandwidth. I didn't disrupt anything." Jenna countered, crossing her arms.

"Then why the lockdown?"

"Would you have let me fiddle with the uplink if I had asked?" Jenna pointedly countered.

"No!" He snapped, and she nodded at him with a 'there you go' look. The old man grimaced. "Where the Hell is Volya? If he authorized this stunt of yours, I'll…"

"Wait a minute." Jenna blinked, trying to catch up. "You mean you don't know?"

"Know…what?" Cain demanded with exasperation.

The Navigator sighed. "Do you have an Electrosphere-capable datapad on you?"

Curious now, Cain reached into his robe and pulled one out. "It's my personal pad, so I'll need to put in my password." Jenna almost told Cain that she knew his password, but wisely refrained. He was peeved enough already.

After a few taps and swipes, Cain handed the device over. Jenna took it and brought up her browser, running a quick search for breaking news in Australia. It didn't take long to find it.

"We all accepted the fact that you and the rest of the staff here didn't think very highly of us." Jenna said, pulling up a recorded video feed. "But we were sent here to do a job. Maybe nobody thought we were capable of being a part of the MHHQ. Maybe we were sent here as a publicity stunt, an experiment that was supposed to fail and then get quietly swept under the rug. The fact is, nobody on Zephyr Team enjoys being used." She waited for Cain to contradict her, but the geriatric merely tilted his head to the side slightly, narrowed his eyes, and waited for her to go on.

"There was a hostage situation in Australia involving a group of dangerous Mavericks." She turned the datapad around and held the screen up for Cain to see.

Behind a backdrop of rescued civilians and a damaged bank, Commander Volya almost looked heroic, in spite of his black longcoat and eyepatch.

"We are Maverick Hunters." The recording of his voice intoned.

Cain looked up at Jenna and blinked. The old man suddenly found he had no bluster left in him.


March 3rd, Evening

News of Zephyr Team's successful mission in Australia spread like wildfire through the MHHQ, once the Electrosphere was running at full steam. Some were surprised that they had succeeded. A few others went for indignance: Who had told them to take that mission on? It hadn't been assigned through the usual channels. It had been Hazil who had silenced the grumbling in the cafeteria with one of his trademark angry doctor glares and the biting remark, "Then let's see you do what they did," before peeling out on his treads and leaving skids on the floor. On the whole, the world seemed pleased. It made for a nice soundbite on the news, at least.

"…and here's a bit of good news, for a change. A bank robbery perpetrated by Mavericks in Australia threatened to spiral out of control earlier today. Thankfully, a crack team of Maverick Hunters out of New Tokyo arrived on the scene to put the Mavericks down, and did so while preventing any human casualties. They have since been identified as Zephyr Team, the GDC-sponsored Unit. After completing their mission, they warped off without ceremony. So here's to you, Zephyr Team. Let's hope they send you out if I'm ever in trouble!"

Dr. Cain lifted his remote up and clicked the monitor off. He set it on the side of his desk and looked to Volya, who stood at attention, in spite of Cain's suggestion for him to relax. At Cain's side was Commander X, who scrutinized Volya in a much deeper way than he had before. Volya surmised the Azure Hunter was developing a sense of unease about him and his men. A tactical review had shown that, in spite of the few glaring errors Volya had made a note of, Zephyr Team had deployed rather effectively.

"Well." Dr. Cain finally spoke up. Volya turned his eye from X to the MHHQ's figurehead and waited. "Well." Cain said again, clearing his throat. "I like to applaud my Commanders when they take initiative, but you certainly have pushed that practice to a shatterpoint."

"Indeed?" Volya mused.

"You and your men have done nothing but train since you got here. And as swamped as we've been, I just haven't had the time to find a mission suitable for you." Cain lifted a hand, anticipating a quick response. "But that isn't to say I was just going to let you rot in your quarters."

"Of course." Volya said, agreeing with Cain while not believing the man's sentiment one iota.

"At the end of the day, your actions saved lives." Mega Man X cut in, saving Dr. Cain from his own ramblings. "And you also acted in the best interests of, as well as by the highest standards of this organization. We save the innocent and punish the guilty."

Volya looked between the two consideringly. "So. What happens now?"

"As X pointed out, you did well." Cain sighed. "So we keep working. And you and Zephyr Team get some actual assignments. Just do me a favor, Commander. The next time your Navigator runs an operation, ask her if she wouldn't mind not using all our Electrosphere bandwidth."

"I will make that recommendation." Volya nodded. "Is there anything else?"

"One last thing." X nodded. He picked up an old-fashioned manila envelope from the desk and spun it through the air. Volya caught it in his sword hand and stared at it questioningly. "Seeing as you're official Maverick Hunters now, I thought that you might as well look the part. They're Unit insignias."

Volya opened the flap of the envelope and slid one of the weighted metallic emblems into his palm. It had a weak sympathetic magnetic clamp on the back, intended to connect to the shoulder or chestplate of a reploid. The number 18 was engraved on the forward facing surface of it, and underneath was a picture of a roaring blast of gale-force wind.

"Since you're called Zephyr Team, I figured that might be appropriate." X went on. "Do you know the etymology of that name?"

"It is from Greek mythology. The god of the west wind." Volya said. He slid his coat back and pressed the insignia to his right shoulder. "West winds were said to bring good fortune to sailors."

"Let's hope that you are favored by the winds as well." Dr. Cain finished. He folded his hands together and leaned back away from his desk. "Dismissed, Commander Volya."

Volya came to attention and proffered a salute He held it for a full second, then turned about and left. The door hissed open and then shut behind him with its usual click.

Alone in the blue-lit office, Dr. Cain sighed and looked up at the ceiling. "I'm amazed this job hasn't killed me."

X glanced down at him with a smile. "Oh, and I suppose you believe you'd be better off hooked up to a life support machine the size of a large chair?"

"Pft. No. No, I'll die when it's my time, and all those doctors can go bugger themselves." Cain snorted. He looked back at X. "That's why Hazil's my personal physician; at least he knows to keep those machines out of me. What do you really think of Volya and his team?"

"I think they're capable." X admitted. "Whether or not they can fit in around here is another matter. I suspect, though, that they just don't care. In their eyes, they're here to do a job. They'll do it whether or not we approve of them and their methods or not."

"So, it's better to support them then, and stay in their good graces. Now I know why you had those Unit badges made up." Cain reached into a desk drawer and pulled out his aspirin. "What does Zero think of all this?"

"You know Zero: He's more worried about the results than the method. He actually liked their plan."

"Ha! I thought he was obsessed with style these days." Cain wiped at the corner of his eye. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You two are like oil and water in your opinions. How you ended up as best friends is beyond me."

"Kind of hard not to be when you're the two fallback Hunters to keep the world from going to Hell."

"Yeah, I suppose. But I don't think you're alone anymore."

"We never were." X affirmed.


Zephyr Team's Quarters

Commons Room

True to his word, Goat had a six-pack of beers waiting for the team to celebrate their victory. It was an extravagance, but then, so were reploids eating in the cafeteria and so many other amenities around the MHHQ which the Hunters took for granted.

"To us!" Huey whooped, lifting up his beverage in a makeshift toast. "To the 18th Unit, and the best damn squad!"

"Hear, hear." Hawkins nodded, a tad more reserved than the wild-eyed pilot.

Jenna rotated hers in her hand. "Hm. I don't normally drink beer…but, since this is a party, why not?"

The good cheer of the five popped like a soap bubble when Volya walked into the room, as stern as ever in his black longcoat. The Russian reploid gave the celebration in progress a long look, then turned to Goat.

"I hope you have one for me."

Goat laughed, tossing the last can at his commander. "Of course, Volya. Six people, six beers."

"That is an improvement." Volya drawled. "Usually, Nils, you keep two for yourself."

"Wow, you're in a good mood." The Swiss reploid deduced. "I take it things went well with Dr. Cain?"

Volya popped the seal and took a long swallow, pacing the conversation. "Though they found things to complain about, namely Sentinel…" He nodded towards Jenna meaningfully, "…it seems that our actions have been met with general approval."

"Just like you thought they'd react, Commander." Hawkins realized. "How did you know that?"

"Experience." Volya explained, seeming older than all of them in that moment. He took another swallow and grimaced. "Bah."

"Let me guess: You would prefer Vodka?" Jenna teased him, tossing back her red hair.

"Actually, he drinks rum." Goat cut in. "When he can find it."

"Vodka will do in a pinch, but it has no character." Volya went on. He set his beer to the side and pulled a manila envelope from the interior of his coat. "Commander X also had one other thing for us besides congratulations." He shook out a handful of small metallic disks and passed them around to his men. "If we are Maverick Hunters, we must look like Maverick Hunters."

"Wow." Huey turned the insignia over and over in his hands, savoring the feel of it. "This is nice. I needed a new dealer's token for Texas Hold 'Em."

"Do you ever turn off the crazy, or is lucidity beyond you?" Hawkins grumbled. He fingered his own for a moment, then clipped it to his right shoulder. "It looks better than my old one. Thanks, Commander."

Volya grunted in reply and looked to Lu. "Well?"

The blockish reploid shook his head. "This icon has no augmentive characteristics. It will not improve battle performance. It appears purely decorative: A waste of materials."

"Perhaps in your eyes, that is all it will ever be." Volya cautioned him. "But you only get one, Lu. Consider that incentive to improve on your survival instincts: Should you die, any further replacement will be lacking it. You are Zephyr 4, the reploid we call comrade. Be worthy of that respect."

Lu considered his Commander's warning. "I shall try." He clipped it to his chest.

"Well, isn't that nice." Jenna crossed her arms, frowning at them. "I didn't know you'd turn into a boy's only club at the first opportunity. Should I leave and go knit something?"

Volya turned about and shook his head. "Hardly." He held up one more 18th Unit insignia. "This is yours, Navigator. You have earned it the same as the rest of us. Perhaps…" He struggled with what seemed like an apology, then chickened out of it. "Perhaps having a Navigator is useful after all. I would prefer that you stay on as ours."

Stunned at the unusually gentle request, Jenna said nothing for a moment. She finally nodded and stood at attention. "As ordered. Commander Volya."

Volya handed her the insignia, settling into a very uneasy smile. "One other thing. Dr. Cain wished me to ask you not to use MHHQ bandwidth so exclusively next time. Could you find a way to cultivate other options?"

"I could put out a few feelers, I suppose." Jenna nodded. "Maybe I could use my old authorizations to hardline GDC Electrosphere assets to here. Or would you prefer I find some new ones?"

"I would prefer you do all of that." Volya said. "I favor redundancy." He polished off his beer and set the empty can to the side. "It is my understanding that this mission was suggested by Nils, but that the rest of you agreed with it. I might not have gone along with the idea if you had not been so unified about it. I am glad you were."

"Hey, we needed a win." Hawkins pointed out. "Did it matter how we got it, boss?"

Volya harrumphed. "I suppose not." He gave them all a nod. "Nils. Why don't you take everyone to The Last Round for a drink? Use my authorization code to settle the tab: I believe you know it?"

"Yes, sir." Nils nodded. Volya turned about and exited the room.

"Oh. If you all could, have your mission reports on my desk before morning exercises. We are going to try the Karashita Tower Nightmare run again…and this time, Jenna, use your full program capabilities. If the technicians argue, have Lu shove them out the door."

"Query: Nonlethally, Commander?" Lu asked.

Volya chuckled and walked out.


A faint sliver of light leaked out from underneath Commander Volya's office door, illuminating the empty corridor of 5-B. Nils, Lu, Hawkins and Jenna were all still celebrating at The Last Round, but Huey had succumbed to his nervousness and excused himself from the party. For as talkative as he was, Morgan struggled to stay afloat in social situations. Had he always been introverted like that? His brain, muzzy to begin with, wasn't doing any better while his body struggled to filter out the alcohol he'd imbibed. He wagered a hesitant guess that that hadn't always been the case.

The pilot stopped outside of Volya's door and listened: He could make out faint scratching noises inside. His curiosity got the better of him, and Morgan rapped on the door. The noise inside stopped, and a moment later, the door unlocked and slid open.

Volya was sitting at his desk, his longcoat folded up and set beside him. A pad of paper was sitting in front of him, and he gripped an old-fashioned pencil in his hand. The leader of the 18th Unit offered a barely noticeable nod. "Morgan."

"I knew you liked old-fashioned things, but damn." Huey chuckled. "More paper. And it's not an easy thing to come by these days."

"Are you here to submit your report?" Volya asked, smoothly changing the subject.

"My report? What?" Morgan furrowed his eyebrows, trying to think. "Oh…Ohh, right. Ah, no. No, I sort of forgot."

"Your last mission report was less than satisfactory as well." Volya motioned to the empty visitor's chairs. "Sit down."

"Are you gonna bitch at me now? Because my confidence is pretty fragile, and I only just got a little of it back." Morgan sulked as he plopped down in front of Volya, expecting a tirade.

Instead, Volya reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a small device. He set it on the desk in front of Morgan and pushed a red button. The thing chirped, and a light flickered on.

Huey stared at it. "That's a voice recorder."

"You noticed."

"And it's recording."

"Da."

"So…you want evidence of me being chewed out?" Morgan reasoned.

Volya sighed, a sound which resembled a low, irritated growl. "I want you to tell me your version of our mission today. IT was my judgment that you might have more success with composing your mission reports if you didn't have to write them."

"Ah." Morgan scratched at his head. "Well…the bad guys were pretty well hunkered down. I flew in at street level and blasted the sniper with shock gel…and then you all finished the job." Huey blinked and looked at Volya. "Is that enough?"

Volya hit the stop button and stowed the recorder. "It will do." He looked out of his one good eye. "I used my clearance to get a more detailed look at your service record, Morgan. You were quite an accomplished pilot in New Denver."

"I was?" Huey seemed confused. "Uh, I mean, sure I was."

"You were checked out on every polycraft in the police arsenal. You received numerous citations for valor and courage under fire. As a matter of fact, you even received a personal letter of thanks from New Denver's mayor after you and the MSWAT unit you supported saved his life."

"Letters were cheaper than a promotion." Morgan replied bitterly. Volya blinked at the moment of clarity, filing it away. As soon as it had come, Huey's awareness slipped back into the fog of amused confusion. "Hey, did my file tell you about my favorite ice cream? It's Butter Brickle!"

"I also learned why you were imprisoned and put in active stasis for 18 months." Volya went on. He folded his hands together and angled his head closer to his subordinate.

"It was discovered that you had been purchasing military grade munitions and gear with MSWAT accounts and your own salary. Your former squadmates reported that you would "Supply them" with these items during intense deployments, to the benefit of the team."

"Wow. I was a frigging saint." Huey joked.

"When your actions were discovered, you were crucified instead of congratulated. Regardless of your motivations, you were charged with embezzling police funds, purchasing and owning unlicensed and restricted materials, and conduct unbecoming an MSWAT officer." Volya watched Huey closely for a reaction. "After a trial that lasted all of two hours, you were found guilty and sentenced to incarceration in active stasis. You remained there…until two weeks ago."

Morgan stared back blankly.

"An interesting career." Volya concluded. "What do you have to say on it?"

"I'm not really sure." Huey squinted his entire face up. "I…I don't know. They said I did something wrong. It didn't feel wrong, though. Torque would have died in that one raid if I hadn't given him that kinetic mesh body armor. And that GBU-88 mortar? Going in through the inner, non-load bearing wall saved all those hostages." He was reciting missions that had occurred during his time in New Denver, and was surprised he could recall that much detail for a change.

Volya kept silent, not wanting to break his subordinate's focus. Only when Morgan had finally, atypically, shut up, did Volya speak again. "Do you remember enough to do it again?"

"Whutnow?"

"Do you…"

"Yeah, I heard you the first time, I'm just confused." Morgan removed his helmet and rubbed at the top of his head. "You want me to do the thing that got me dumped into a living Hell?"

"Yes." Volya nodded again. "Let us just say…I do not trust our presence here. It all seems too arranged. If you had the funds, could you build up an off-the-books weapons cache?"

"Sure. Might take me a couple of weeks to get in touch with my old contacts again. They don't exactly advertise in the yellow pages."

"Ah." Volya nodded. "A joke."

Morgan slapped his forehead. "He gets that one. Jesus." The pilot was still reluctant. "I don't want to go back to prison, Commander."

"Consider my informal request a direct order." Volya clarified.

"Ooh, nice. Now I'm covered. If this blows up in our faces, they go after you, eh?" Huey grinned.

"They can try." Volya motioned to Huey. "This conversation never happened. I will leave you a note tomorrow with an overseas bank account. After that, you will tell no one of what you are doing. Not even me, unless I ask. Understood?"

"Yeah. I don't get why you're doing this, exactly…but I like it. Okay, Commander. I'll take care of it."

"Good. You are dismissed, then."

Morgan put his helmet back on, but didn't move for the door. Volya looked up, waiting. "Yes?"

Morgan blinked rapidly, an unsure and unsteady sorrow on his face. "I'm not crazy." Volya tapped his desk once, and Morgan forged on. "I'm not crazy. I know everyone says that I'm crazy, but I'm not. Not really. I just…"

He looked down at the floor. "Sometimes, I have trouble remembering things. Sometimes I forget who I were. Was. Am. Damnit." He grit his teeth. "I know that I lost something down there, that maybe I'll never get it back. But I'm trying, Volya." He looked up woodenly. "I'm not crazy."

An unusually sympathetic look came over his Commander's face. "I never said you were." Morgan nodded back in a gesture of thanks, and then disappeared to bunk out for the night.

Volya leaned his chair back and looked up at the ceiling, exhaling softly.

"You may be the sanest one of us all."