Chapter 5

"Over here! I found her!"


"I'm getting life signs, bring the plasma torches!"

"There is no way someone could have survived that...and if they have, they won't live long."

Angseth's body ached. Her ears rang out as the voices came closer. She could feel intense pressure all around her body. External forces pushed on her armor, pinning her place. If she moved too much, the armor would dig into her skin even more. She could see her shoulder plate, it had an odd ripple effect to it now, as if it had been no more than a metal ribbon that someone had carelessly dropped. Breathing was difficult. There was something pushing against her diaphragm, preventing her from taking in air. The voices grew louder, chattering away in five different dialects. The lack of air and the intense pressure against her body were nothing compared to the searing heat that consumed her leg.

What happened? Where am I?

The metal around her began to shake. The pressure increased while rubbing and pinching her body. Almost without her approval, a raspy pained scream left her throat. The vibrations stopped, the voices could be heard whispering, and another voice called out.

"Airman Angseth? Are you alive?"

The pain was forgotten for a brief moment as she contemplated the question. Am I alive? Am I ALIVE? Why else would I have started screaming if I wasn't?

Angseth let loose with a string of curses aimed at the parentage of those shaking her prison. In one breath she screamed at the redundancy of that question and the lack of intelligence of the person who spoke it. Laughter from her rescuers followed her outburst, and Angseth was left regretting using what little air she had left to damn her saviors. Another voice came through the laughter, or perhaps it was the same voice, it was hard to tell surrounded by all this twisted metal. The voice was calm, level, reassuring.

"Airman Angseth, I am Medical Officer Nevada Briar, Class V. Your squadron leader has stated that you have an even head on your shoulders, and I find it necessary to explain your current situation, as we may need your help."

Angseth began to wonder if he was reading the lines from a prompter on a data pad.

"Please answer all following questions with yes or no. Airman Angseth, do you wish for me to proceed?"

She could picture him in her minds eye. More than likely some private standing there reading off lines from "Illness and Injuries 101." Angseth fought for a breath, and called out "Yes! I can hear you!" She then heard the sound of feet walking on metal.

"Airman Angseth, you have answered yes. Are you in any pain?"


"Can you move?"

"No!" Angseth looked to her right as the metal began to vibrate again.

"Have you ingested any alcoholic beverages in the past 24 hours?"

"NO!" She was getting angrier by the minute. It would not bode well for her to be angry. She was trapped, she didn't know how she had gotten there, but she needed help from the outside. Anger would be of no use against these crushing walls.

"Airman Angseth, your fighter was caught in the wake of a ship warping out. Your ship then proceeded to collide with three other craft from your wing. This compromised the structural integrity of your craft. In order to extract you, we must first cut away the hull of your craft. This may cause you some discomfort. We will try to have you out as quickly as we can. Are you able to feel your limbs?"

"Yes, except for my right leg."

"Can you see your limbs?"


"Will you be able to withstand minor vibrations while we free you?"

Angseth took in another lungful of stale air. "Yes!"

The vibrations began anew. She could hear the plasma torches as they shaved away pieces of her fighter. Angseth grit her teeth and tried not to howl in pain as the shaking began to irritate her wounds. Everything was dark in here, even her HUD display revealed nothing. Now that consciousness trickled back into her mind, she began to remember what had occurred.

Angseth had been on a routine training exercise with her squadron. She had been positioned as a far wingman, completing an attack formation. She remembered that her external sensors had lit up, indicating close proximity to another vessel. There shouldn't have been any other vessels, not to mention larger ones this close to their formation. Her memory had been accurate until the point where she had looked up for visual confirmation, and saw the hazy ass-end of a troop transport as it pulled away. She remembered a cackle coming over the com before she lost control of her fighter.

The metal before her groaned and a plate covered in the mechanism for her holo-display was pulled away. Angseth could now see light that had filtered through her HUD. Beyond looked like a bay, what kind she couldn't be certain until she had a chance to read the insignia on the walls. Emergency crews were cutting and carrying off pieces of her ship. A pair of hands reached in and pulled her helmet free. Angseth gasped and drew in fresh cool air, then felt the hands place an oxygen mask on her face. More pieces of her prison were then pulled away.

"Airman Angseth?"

"Pilot," She corrected. "Lieutenant Angseth." Vera tilted her eyes up toward a distinctive feline face, with a few scale-like plates over his eyes and on his chin. His features were young even though his voice held maturity. Was this the guy who had been talking the entire time? He didn't even have a data-prompter anywhere near him.

"Please forgive me; I've always had trouble remembering proper rank titles." He spoke softly, carefully positioning the oxygen mask so as not to cause her anymore discomfort. That one small act caused Angseth to pause and study him.

Angseth spoke through the oxygen mask. "Medical Officer Nevada Briar I assume?"

The feline nodded as he pulled away more plating.

Angseth fidgeted, her vision was beginning to blur again. Her leg afire, and her body suddenly telling her that sleep was a good thing. One last question escaped her lips as she slipped away again. "What kind of name is Nevada?"

A beep sounded within the cockpit. Vera opened her eyes and looked around.

Did I fall asleep?

She stretched, and felt her body rest on the ceiling above her seat. Holo-screens bounced around as if they had a mind of their own.

I guess I did fall asleep.

Angseth slipped back into her seat and locked her feet onto the pegs. She had been just full of memories lately. Running into old "friends" seemed to have that effect on her. Despite the fact that she had lost her leg in that horrible accident, she hadn't been afraid to step back into the cockpit of an aircraft. She couldn't afford to be scared.

And if it weren't for the loss of her leg, she never would have met Nevada.

Another beep drew her attention to the view screens and radar. The pirate frigate was coming out of its jump, and once it did she would need to vacate, fast. The one and only text message that Aran had sent still graced her navigation screen. Angseth remembered what she had been thinking about before falling asleep. The message had read "Four hours, and ten minutes." That was…so little time. The planet that they had set a course for was FQ3-59. That planet should have been well into Mirson's home territory, and four hours? Traveling that kind of distance in such a short amount of time could normally only be done with a jump-gate. It took the Mabus one month with the drives at maximum to make it that far. What kind of engines were the pirates using on these frigates? If their frigates could move this quickly, then could their battleships do the same? What other odd technology did the pirates have access too?

Angseth began booting up her base systems, wondering if she should bother performing a more in-depth systems check. The holo-screens returned to their normal stations. Vera patched her HUD into the fighters interface, and was rewarded with an awe-inspiring three hundred and sixty degree view of the space around her. As her old instructor had put it, it was the closest thing to dream flight the Confederation had come up with.

The Pirates were no doubt pissed about their hitchhikers and a firefight was to be expected the moment they dropped out of warp. Vera glanced back at Aran's ship. It hadn't changed through the trip, why should it have? The power cells on her own fighter were still at a stable level and the navigation screens displayed the speed of the frigate. Angseth didn't believe what her instruments were displaying anyway. There was too much conflicting evidence. The most important thing her fighter could tell her at the moment would be how much fuel she had left, and where the enemy craft were. However, it was still unmistakable that frigate was slowing. They were leaving whatever stream of time-space the pirates had jumped into, and Angseth was sure that there would be an intense battle to follow.

The frigate slowed and almost came to a full stop. Angseth's radar immediately lit up with several hundred little blips indicating incoming enemy craft, and several rotating turrets lowered from the belly of the ship, swinging around to evict the tag-alongs.

"Not giving us a chance are they?" Angseth planted her feet on the pegs and released the magnetic docking clamps. Her fighter began to drift away from the underside of the frigate, and not a moment too soon. The turrets began to fire, rotating to follow her ship as she pulled away. Vera's navigation systems and shields flared up as she gunned the engines and shot forward and hopefully away from the underbelly of the ship. She kept close to the hull, keeping inside their guard and knowing that the moment she hit open space it would be a free-for all and her life then could be measured in seconds.

Overhead, previously hidden bays opened and pirate fighters began to erupt into open space. Good, that was just the kind of cover she needed. Slipping into formation with the Gamma Fleet Pirates, she followed them toward open space. As far as Vera knew, they had no short-range weapons that would do her much damage and if the frigate was going to fire on her, then she might as well try to take as many of them with her as possible.

Angseth bit her bottom lip as Aran's ship shot past her, forgoing any kind of cover or even concern for incoming fire. Vera put the minor grudge behind her and left the pirates formation, then guided her fighter into position to cover Aran's flank, a place she had become quite familiar with during her time as a fighter pilot. She could see the blue-green orb of FQ3-59 in the distance. The frigate had pulled in close. Not quite in the planets orbit, but not far from. For a moment she pondered why the Pirates would travel to a world that could not sustain them. Did they intend to land, or was this just a stopping point on their route? So many questions bubbled up in her mind. Angseth sorted through them and made a mental note to find answers to the more important ones. She still hadn't forgotten about the Seattle, and she needed to live long enough to ask Aran about it.

More gun turrets emerged from the sides and top of the frigate. Far more than it seemed was necessary to attack two small fighter craft. Then again if Ridley was on the ship, he may not want to take any chances against Aran. Angseth used her multi-targeting system to lock-on to and eliminate as many Gamma Fleet fighters as opportunities presented themselves. There was no shortage of targets. The pirate fighters seemed to almost be made of paper, even normal plasma charges were taking care of entire fighters, missiles weren't really necessary. Aran however was using some of the most powerful missiles and cannon charges that Angseth had seen anyone use on such flimsy craft.

"Over-kill much?" Angseth breathed. She had been trained to wound ships, not destroy them entirely. With this many fighters, even her expanded missile bay didn't have enough warheads to last long. How much could that paint-chip of Aran's carry? Angseth pictured a cockpit with Aran seated in a command chair surrounded by crates and piles of missiles and warheads. Why was she wasting so much valuable firepower on these cheap fighters?

Pay attention, you know Aran doesn't do many things without good reason.

Angseth checked her scanners; the two of them combined weren't having any effect on their forces. She looked up to receive visual confirmation on a hit. The scanner said that she had a confirmed hit on pirate fighter so why didn't the thing blow up or spin out as the others had done? This whole mess was just one big crap shoot. Vera opened the com line. "Captain Angseth to Bounty Hunter Aran, what is our primary objective?"

No reply. Angseth didn't really expect one either. More of the fighters were swarming toward them. How many could that frigate carry? She remembered reading the schematics on captured Gamma Fleet craft and had marveled at how they gutted the entire craft on some occasions to accommodate their purposes. Could this one have contained a boarding crew and full complement of fighters as well? The physics of it seemed off, but hey, they made a month-long trip in four hours, so why couldn't the frigate contain upwards of one thousand fighters?

Aran fired upon another cluster of fighters. Angseth studied her movements, and then fired upon the engines of a fighter before her. It suddenly became very clear why Aran was using such heavy firepower against them, and how so many of them could fit in one vessel. Angseth watched slack-jawed as the fighter before her appeared to break apart to allow her plasma charge to pass. The pieces then pulled together and once more became whole.

"Variable Form fighters? Where the hell did they pick up technology like that?" Now it was no wonder that Aran was using such heavy charges power. All of the craft that Angseth herself had shot down had simply pulled themselves back together like a magnet touching paper clips. She remembered attending an arms convention where the latest in fighter technology on been on display. Variable form fighters were top on the list of featured designs. They consisted of a central capsule that contained all the life support features, surrounded by a jigsaw puzzle of pieces that operated inside a highly flexible Aura. From what she understood of the technology, each piece of the fighter bore a certain energy signature that told the central computer where each piece went. When the field was disrupted, it simply drew the fragments back. The only way to really damage a ship like this was to either take out the central pod, or use such heavy weaponry as to disrupt the energy flow into the separate components. Due to the high cost, the military declined to bid on them, preferring solid-state fighters that could be easily and cheaply repaired.

An alarm in her cockpit sounded and Angseth drew her attention back to the battle. Variable form fighters were not cheap, and extremely deadly. One fighter could easily become two or three smaller craft—and that would be before the Pirates mangled them to their purposes. In theory the central pod on a Variable Form fighter could construct a vehicle out of any junk laying around.

Vera began to wish that she had brought a few of her own fighters from the Mabus with her, the weight of the situation starting to creep into her mind and spread doubt. There was only herself and Aran against this newly discovered amorphous mass the frigate had spewed. Only two fighters. One a ten-year-old Federation fighter, the other a…something…against a Gamma Fleet frigate with a full complement of its own forces and very heavily armed port cannons. Below was a planet, and Angseth was beginning to feel that she would become very familiar with the terrain of she didn't start paying more attention. What could two fighters do even make a dent in this behemoth?

As she picked off Gamma Fleet fighters using what few missiles she had left, Vera realized that she had come within range of the main gun turrets on the side of the frigate. One cluster swung around and began to open fire. Angseth cursed as a beam that could easily vaporize her craft narrowly missed her left wing. The beam continued on to destroy a few of Gamma Fleets own fighter craft in the effort to strike Aran and Angseth. Angseth was grateful the frigate didn't mind taking out its own fighters; she was running out of missiles.

Vera maneuvered her fighter to stay in Aran's shadow, giving cover fire as they swept in close to the frigate to destroy its main guns. She began to maneuver back to Aran's side when a pirate fighter seemed to come from out of nowhere and full-on rammed the side of her craft. Angseth braced herself as the shields rang and her fighter spun, slamming her into Aran's craft. Aran rolled her ship as Angseth hit, reducing the force of impact, but still receiving a bit of damage in the process.

Angseth gained control again, and looked down at her status screen. Her fighter's right missile ejection mechanism had been jammed. Her radar blipped again. She swung to her left to find a main cannon on the frigate locked onto her position, and it was about to fire. She gunned the engine again, hoping to dodge the beam, but it had locked on and tracked her movements.

A gold shape suddenly eclipsed the beam. Angseth yelled as Aran's ship took the full impact of the blast. The force of the beam caused Aran's ship to impact with Angseths once more, sending both of them spinning. Angseth fired her stabilization thrusters in an attempt to work out of the spin. Her fighters computer then calmly told her those were offline as well. Her shield sparked as the pirates fired upon them, closing in for the kill. Aran was using her thrusters to work out of the spin, however they were already close to the glowing blue ball of FQ3-59. Angseth braced herself, and began to guide her ship into planet fall.

The rock it is then.

She and Aran hit the atmosphere together, and then split apart. Angseth was almost thrown from her seat from the force of the impact. The friction in the atmosphere stopped their spin, and the pirates, surprisingly, only pursued them but so far. Yelling in frustration, Angseth grabbed her steering bar and began to call out instructions to the onboard computer. She was coming in too steep. Her fighter could easily perform space-to surface landings, but that was in ideal conditions. With Aran forgotten for the moment, Angseth gunned her directional thrusters and felt the main engines catch and steady the fighter. Temperature warnings flashed on her HUD as she made corrections to her decent.

The atmosphere grew thicker, and she finally gained control over the fighters trajectory. Angseth broke through several layers of clouds, then was greeted by tall jagged mountains, and jade green forests. The view itself came as a bit of a shock, she had been expecting terrain more akin to uninhabitable desert. Angseth pulled her steering bar gently and brought the nose of her fighter upward to prevent a nosedive. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Aran's craft spin off to the left before correcting its orientation. Angseth turned her attention back to her own heading. Right now the most she could do was find a safe place to land.

"Keep going, there is nothing you can't fly or land." Angseth mumbled to herself. She inched the nose up on her fighter, and picked a nice spread of forest. The hull of her ship could deflect most of the trees, those wouldn't be a problem, but if there were any rocks hidden in said trees, those could do some damage. Angseth deactivated her thrusters and let her ship glide in to a landing. After what seemed like ages she heard the first rattle and pock against the remaining shields and hull of her fighter before it committed to a full landing. The trees made an awful racket as they slammed against the hull of her ship. She held steady, then breathed a sigh of relief as the trees cleared and revealed an open plane…just before a drop off a sheer cliff face. Vera feathered the fighters brakes, hoping to slow her progress. Her ship groaned and listed to the right. She let up on the brakes and allowed the butt-end of her fighter to swing around and turn one hundred eighty degrees. The down-turned wing dragged the ground and kicked dirt and rocks over the hull of the ship, but still aided in bleeding off inertia. The fighter then stopped all movement

For a moment she heard nothing but the sound of beeps and blips in her cockpit of systems rebooting and calibrating. Angseth leaned on her hands and took in deep breaths.

I haven't had to perform a landing like that in a long time.

She kept her head in her hands as the beeping stopped and the fighters systems performed a diagnostics, and checked the composition of the atmosphere. Vera took in deep breaths to slow her pounding heart. Her fighter had come in fast. An ideal landing should have taken at least an hour but she managed to pull off in twenty nail-biting minutes. For some time after, she kept one eye on the radar for possible Gamma Fleet fighters coming to finish the job. After waiting what seemed like a lifetime, she determined that they had given up on the chase. Angseth counted her breaths. This fighter had seen her through many dogfights, but this was only the second space-to-surface landing she had to perform in it. Her heart rate eventually slowed and she allowed herself to relax her guard.

Vera waited for her ship to finish its examination of the atmosphere. Without knowledge of what the atmosphere here was composed of, she wasn't going anywhere. Vera looked up and pulled a holoscreen closer toward her, then began accessing her database to see if there would any information about this planet. After a moment she had more questions than answers.

FQ3-59 had not been on any map as a habitable planet. Perhaps the paperwork for colonization was moving slowly, or the whole planet had been tucked away in some senators back packet as a retirement home. After a moment she condensed the holoscreens around her, then looked out on the green surface of the planet. The landing had been very rough, but at least she had landed in a nice area. The readouts told her that her that the planet did have a stable atmosphere, and the soil composition would be compatible with human needs, even the bacteria levels were acceptable. If it came down to it, she could probably forage and find something edible here.

Vera popped the canopy, and opened the vents on her power suit. Fresh cool air rushed over her skin in welcome waves. The landing had agitated her cybernetic leg, but walking on it for a moment would loosen most of that up. Angseth welcomed the sunlight pouring into her cockpit. The holoscreens around her were like thin ghosts compared to the luminescence that poured in from above.

"All of mankind's little trinkets must abide by the laws of nature." Angseth whispered. She leaned forward and pulled a keyboard closer then punched in a line of coding that would enable a more in-depth damage report. It played back to her a list of ailments.

"Damage to landing gear, damage to right missile bay, communication malfunctions, navigation needs calibration, and of course, all contact with the Mabus has been severed." Angseth read off, then began running a few "quick-fix" redundancy programs. At this rate it would take three days to fix it all. "On a lighter note, my engines are still intact, as are the majority of my shields." She pushed the keyboard away, then slipped off the seat. Vera turned and opened a storage compartment behind her seat then pulled out her emergency kit. The kit consisted of a months worth of rations and ammo. With careful planning, her supplies would last longer. She also removed her second favorite gun from the compartment. Not quite a rifle, but a short-range arm-mounted cannon that still allowed for the flexibility of using her hands. Like her rifle it could fire pulse-beams using energy in her suit, or fire plasma cartridges that could either be charged or used as is. She also had another weapon tucked into a false bottom in the storage compartment. It was something that she had confiscated off one of her cadets trying to board the Mabus. However instead of giving it up to the proper authorities, she had been naughty and kept it for herself. She doubted that no self-respecting captain would give up a chance to own a weapon of that caliber.

The weapon had been made from banned technology. It was the only one of her collection that had a name she could remember. It was called a Sigel, a third class infantry weapon from the far moons of Cordova. These weapons packed quite a kick; they were made from dense ores and usually could only be wielded by those who lived on super-dense worlds. The weapons and the backlash they created were simply too much for any normal human to handle. Even though Angseth had twice the strength of a normal human, it still sent a shock down her arm when she fired it. Anyone else and it would take their arm clean off. The first time that she had test-fired the weapon, she had been unprepared and the kickback had broken her collar bone as well as dislocating her shoulder. The Sigel converted easily from a short-range cannon to a long-range sniper rifle with an adjustment of its beam intensity.

Angseth closed the storage compartment as she shouldered her pack. That little toy in her arsenal would stay in the ship for now. She had instructed the ship to emit a distress beacon as soon as all sign of pirate activity had ceased. If she carried the Sigel on her person she would have a hard time explaining the contraband to her rescuers.

Vera gathered the last of her survival gear and then climbed out of her ship. The first sound she recognized was the gentle crash of running water. The scent of chlorophyll came through the vents. Most importantly, there was a blue sky overhead. A blue sky indicated a healthy ozone layer, one unaffected by the burdens of modern technology. Angseth swung her feet over the side of the cockpit, then stepped onto the wing, and eventually followed it to the ground. As expected, her leg stopped aching as soon as it set down on the soft earth. The ground was a combination of fertile soil, and the occasional rock. Everything was so alive, trees grew clinging to cliff-faces, many different varieties of plants and bushes grew around her, edging the meadow, and dotting the landscape. The only thing that seemed to break up such a serene sight was the two-mile long trench to the east that her fighter had created on the landing. The ground in that direction had been scorched and burnt. Trees stood broken and toppled along the path her ship had taken. The meadow her fighter had come to a rest in continued another fifty yards to the west before dropping off the edge of a nearly vertical cliff. Angseth walked over to edge and observed her surroundings.

The nearest thing she could equate the view to were images of what Ni'gara Falls must have looked like in the on Old Earth. Old sepia toned images rarely displayed well on holoscreens, but this is what it must have looked like. A huge amount of water fell gracefully over the edge of a cliff, pounding into the basin below. Perhaps this was a collapsed caldera, but then again Angseth was no geologist.

"This must be someone's retirement home. A place like this wouldn't go long unsettled in normal circulation." Vera mused. She adjusted the cannon on her arm, and checked the computer mounted on the inside of her right wrist for the data read-out of the last location of Aran's craft. It displayed a rough map of the planet, and a small beacon to the south of her present location. The blip was only Aran's possible location, but it was all Angseth had to go on at the moment.

She began walking south, along the rim of the waterfall.

Vera scanned everything she could find, all the plant-life and the animals in her path. Most of them paused and gave her curious glances. Their response was enough to convince her that humans had rarely if ever set foot on this planet. The animals did not fear her, and in some cases they even sniffed at her feet. Vera made sure to keep the ones that she could locate at arms reach. As she crept through the forests, her mind traveled back to the only other time she had pursued Aran.

Aether had been and still was a dangerous environment. Her marine troop had pursued a pirate frigate to the Outer Reaches, and then on to Aether. After the Ing-possessed splinters had killed off her fellow marines, the pirates still remained. She had been afraid then, so scared that she would end up like her teammates.

Help seemed to come in the form of a bounty hunter sent by the Federation. The bounty hunter had helped her get her bearings back. Then the bounty hunter named Aran had run, left her with enough means to defend herself, and ran off. Angseth gave chase, knowing that if she at least followed in Aran's wake, her chances of running into something dangerous that still had some fight in it were slim to nothing.

Aran had proved to be a hard chase. The hunter already had all the tools she needed in her suit. Angseth had to improvise everything to follow behind her. She had cobbled together what her environment could provide. When her standard-issue jump-boots proved to be inadequate at best, Angseth had taken down one of the pirates present that had been equipped with a jetpack. That one acquisition had been enough to help her keep up with Aran even after the woman found an upgrade that turned her into a ball of jumping spinning fire that once she returned to normal society her fellow marines jokingly called the "spin attack." The only places that Angseth couldn't pursue Aran were into the portals of what came to be called "Dark Aether."

Angseth personally had no desire to travel through Dark Aether in the first place. Only bad things came from those portals. If the baddies were coming from there, then it was preferable that a one-man army like Aran to go in there and do battle with the forces of evil and leave Vera out of it.

Damn I was so stupid back then. I suppose one could argue that I'm stupid even now. I've abandoned my post and chased down a bounty hunter on the hope that she has some kind of information on what happened on the Seattle.

Angseth stopped walking when a deep trench came into view. Perhaps her tracking had been right on. The trench was narrow, almost mistaken for the natural lay of the land, and not very long either. However Angseth had been able to land her own craft upright, Aran was not so lucky.

The gold-colored ship lay on its side, leaning against a wall of rock. A bit of vapor escaped from where Angseth supposed the engines were located. The make and model of the vessel were unknown to her. The ship for the most seemed to be still intact. Angseth walked carefully forward looking for an opening or something of that nature. Had Aran even left her craft?

Pain and weight in the shape of a foot hit Angseth in her lower back, knocking her down to the ground. Her leg locked up as she fell. She didn't need to look to see who her attacker was, that much was obvious, what Angseth didn't expect however was the big green device known as a power cannon resting against the back of her head. Vera slowly turned her head to face her attacker. This was the very same cannon, yes, but that thing down at the other end of it wasn't a plasma generator.

Angseth didn't so much as breathe, but somehow managed to take her gaze away from the power cannon and look Aran in the eye.

By the Goddess,

Aran's helmet seemed to be transparent, as if made from colored glass. With the sun at the right angle, Angseth could make out the curve of Aran's skull through the armor. Was it even armor anymore?

"So my dream was right. I knew there had been something off about you when I saw you on the station." Angseth remained still. She carefully and slowly pulled her hand away from her own power cannon, leaving it to the side to show that she had no ill intentions.

Aran lowered her arm cannon, but still stood defensively as Angseth pulled herself to her feet. The ship captain couldn't help but question. "What happened to you?" Angseth studied Aran's features. Yes, transparent was the only word for it. Aran's Varia suit had become transparent, clear and hard like glass, showing her bones and organs along with the harder parts of cartilage. No wonder no one had heard from her in years.

Aran took a step back, the power cannon still fixed on Angseth. Vera hoped that the awkward moment would pass. The only time that she had ever been this close to Aran had been when she was chasing her down on Aether. Actually having her full attention was something unexpected. Angseth took in a breath and simply began to speak.

"There are a few questions I would like to ask, and then I'll pack up and go. First, I need to know exactly what happened on the Seattle. Since you were the only living force there I can call an ally with any kind of certainty. What happened and how did you end up there?" Angseth stood, feeling a little out of place. Aran was her hero. And even after all of the other experiences Vera had before now, just standing in the presence of someone she respected and yes worshiped to an extent made her knees weak and her heart race. She had to keep her cool, she had to get information, she had to stop acting like a teenage girl that had just run into her role model. Vera opened to her mouth to ask another question, but stopped when Aran raised her left hand in a "halt" gesture.

Angseth stayed rooted to the spot as Aran stepped closer to her. Her dream began to rise unbidden in the back of her mind again. Role model or not, if this thing touched her, she would turn into that withered mummy she had seen in the hall of the Seattle. Aran reached out with her left hand and took Angseth's hand, almost as if she would shake it. She felt that skeletal hand close around her own, glass shielding around the bones preventing contact. Instantly Angseth's HUD lit up with information. Lines of code raced by so quickly that she could barely register any of it. Almost as soon as the information had lit up her screen, it faded.

Aran took her hand from Angseth's then stepped back, lowering her arm cannon. Angseth stood for a moment staring stupidly at the interior of her HUD. Trying to ascertain what had just happened. Did Aran sift through her own files, or had she put something there? No, now she saw it, a new file was being recorded in her personal data cells. Angseth recovered after a moment. The file that Aran had just sent her was automatically forwarded to her ship and faded from her own records. A beep sounded, indicating that her ship had an update for her. Angseth looked at her arm to check the status of the repairs. It had only been a few hours and she didn't expect much progress to have been made .

The beep had been for a different purpose however. Her ship had picked up incoming air traffic.

"Confederation vessels?" Angseth looked up to Aran. "Did you summon them?"

Aran was quiet. She instead lifted her arm cannon again at Angseth. Angseth in turn scrutinized the com on her wrist. Her ships distress beacon hadn't been activated yet. "I didn't call for help either." She accessed her ships computer, and received information on the incoming vessels. "Battleship Seacrest, ranking officer Captain Fredrick. Battleship Churi, headed by Captain Leh." She looked up at the sky. "Two battleships, and goddess only knows how many drop ships and fighters with those. They got here fast. Almost as if they were expecting us to be here." She paused, feeling a sense of dread come over her. Things were not adding up. Why didn't the pirates pursue them to the planets surface? That action itself was enough to cause her concern. Secondly, how did the Confederate forces get here so soon? Both Captain Fredrick and Captain Leh were some of Mirson's best men.

The sky soon yielded some answers. From the west came sounds of spacecraft. The horizon became dotted with incoming ships, much like a flock of giant birds coming in to land.

"This doesn't add up." Angseth turned to Aran, only to find a vacant space where the bounty hunter had once been standing. First Pirates and now this?

Angseth searched for some sign of Aran. Not even her ship was visible any longer. Aran and cloaked it before she had run for cover. "Here we go again." Angseth sighed and checked her ammo supply. She began running through the trees looking for what she felt would be the best path to take. She wouldn't make herself known to the incoming force until she knew what their intentions could be.

For the moment, she would put all protocol aside, and disappear into the trees herself.

Private Jones was a common man. There was nothing very memorable about his looks or build. He wasn't even particularly clever or witty. His term with the marines was nothing more than an excuse to earn some much-needed cash for college. It sure beat flipping burgers on a station somewhere. He did all that he was told, and never any more than that. He was a good and dependable follower. When he jumped into the transport vessel this morning he didn't think much about the mission statement. This was a training exercise. A total of twenty transport ships had landed on this backwater planet, which put roughly two hundred fifty troops on the ground. It didn't take long for them to swarm ant-like around the "enemy" fighter, and deploy the proper materials needed to establish a base camp. They used a crane to move the fighter from its perch in the meadow, and secure in a lock-down pen in their base of operations. A security perimeter was then established. Wherever the marines went, lights and mild devastation followed. He, like most of the marines treated this as a field exercise, they often had training runs where they would fly out to god-knew where, set up a base camp, confiscate some enemy intelligence, then pat each other on the back and go home. There was nothing about this mission that told Private Jones otherwise. For all his dependability, Jones did have one major character flaw.

He could not refuse a dare.

The rest of his squad knew of this flaw and used it to their best advantage. For Jones had a second flaw that could be exploited. That being he was an idiot. Whenever they found themselves on leave, Jones would become goaded into trying the first new drink, or sent out to test a questionable catwalk. Jones was even the idiot that stuck his head out to see if the coast was clear. Jones was the guy the rest of the squad bet on to be the first to get shot, even though he had made it through more missions than most.

Tonight, team Sigma was out scouting the perimeter of a high cliff roughly half a mile outside the newly established base camp. The air was mostly quiet, save for the odd calls of some alien creature. They only had one objective, and that was to find any trace of a "Captain Angseth." The confiscated fighter supposedly belonged to her. Missions like this were like looking for a needle in a haystack. All they really had to do was go through the motions of searching, and they would be able to go home once it was over. Mostly everyone doubted they would locate her. In his mind, Jones found it more likely that some large creature had carried off the "target". In their boredom, the squad took turns stepping to the edge of the cliff they were patrolling to see if there was a way to climb down without the aid of repelling gear. The wind was high on the rim, making it difficult to stay near the edge for long.

Private Carson threw out the first challenge by announcing that he could do it with a grapple hook, not exactly repelling gear, but close. Soon other dares were flying around. The final challenge was issued for someone to climb down the cliff face to a ledge below where thin grasses blew in the wind. All eyes soon rested on Jones.

"Hey, Jones, do you think you could do it?"

"I dunno, the wind is pretty strong."

"Only on the rim, once you get over the edge its not so bad."

Jones walked back over to the side and peeked over again. "It is a long drop."

"Dare ya."

That having been said, it wasn't long before Private Jones stepped to the edge and peeked over for the last time. "Alright, but you guys owe me a drink when we get back to base." He turned, and knelt down to his hands and knees. Jones dropped a foot over the side of the canyon, much to the amusement of Sigma team. The whole squad soon gathered at the edge as Jones disappeared over the rim. His power suit gave him a slight edge as he slowly made his way down. He paused and looked upward to see the glowing faceplates of his comrades peeking over the edge.

"Get back up here, you're gonna get killed."

"Nah, I did this is basic, it's easy." He called back.

"Bullshit, you've made your point, get back up here."

"Let him go," Carson chuckled. "I've got a grapple beam in case he falls."

Jones couldn't help but feel a mild sense of superiority as he continued down the cliff-face. It wasn't often that he was able to say he had done something no one else had even tried. He fully intended to land on that little ledge, grab some plants and come back up again. He shifted his weight and moved his foot down to another hold. He settled his weight on the ledge and felt it slip a little.

A pebble rolled from under his foot, and began to roll down the cliff face. He listened for a moment as the pebble made the more familiar rattling sounds of rolling over stones before ending in a hollow almost plastic-like "POCK." He paused, then turned and looked down the side of the cliff.

As expected, Angseth had lost track of Aran soon after leaving the crash site of her ship. She had wandered through the woods, listening in on hacked com lines to determine the incoming force's location. Soon she lost even the slightest trail of Aran, yet came across the aftermath of some strange battle. There had been ice everywhere. Trees and rocks had been blasted and uprooted; yet everything had been coated in ice. Angseth knew that Aran had an ice creating weapon, perhaps she had been using it to protect herself from the marines without hurting them.

Angseth stayed and studied the scene for a few moments, recording as much footage and readings as she saw fit to review later. Vera then began to seek out a place to hide and still keep an eye on the events that played before her. She had found a nice narrow crevice up on a cliff-face over-looking the base camp operations. She was at a safe enough distance, close enough to use the zoom function on her visor, yet far enough to make an easy get-away if need be. She lay flat inside gaps of the rock, letting her body to conform to will of the cliff-face. As expected they had moved her fighter, and formed a security perimeter around it and the base camp. Getting off this planet just got a little tougher. However she still had faith in her training and her ability to out-smart these rookies.

Angseth had tapped into the com lines and used the information she gathered to judge the troops actions. So far they were making sweeps of the area to track herself and Aran down. The troops seemed to go about this with all the concern of a standard training exercise. Nothing indicated that either of them would be close to getting captured. At this point the troops didn't even know if Aran was still on the planet. If Angseth could help it, it would stay that way.

A pebble hit her helmet. If it had gone anywhere else, she would have thought nothing of it. However since it came from overhead, Angseth glanced skyward to get a better look. Sudden shock and pain overcame her as a standard-issue marine power suit boot came down on her face-plate. She resisted the urge to yell but couldn't help but squirm. Some stupid Private had just stepped on her face!

How the hell did they find me? I didn't even hear any voices on the com-lines!

Jones froze as the "rock" he had placed his foot on began to struggle. He carefully shifted his weight again, then lifted his foot and looked down to see burning brown eyes glaring up at him from behind a faceplate. The faceplate was connected to a head, in turn a whole body, lay between two cracks in the cliff. At first he wanted to scream out in surprise, but instead he simply clicked on his com.

"I found her."