Ch. 1 Daily Life of a BLADE

"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival."

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I don't care what anyone says about how MIM's are immune to inconveniences like muscle pain or stiffness, you sleep on your arm for a few hours straight, and it's gonna feel like someone packed it full of concrete. I yawn and scratch my hair with the one normal feeling arm and take a glance over at the time.

0500. I've been asleep for barely more than four hours. Well not that it matters much. MIM bodies don't need much in the way of physical rest, it's mostly our minds that need the quality snooze time. Besides, Frye needed a designated driver and Phog was busy elsewhere. Such is the life of a sober person I guess.

Forcing myself out of bed I pad down the hall to the showers, which are empty at this time in the morning. It's going to be about another half hour before they start getting populated by other BLADES. I finish off my shower and head over towards the cafeteria at a leisurely pace. The food isn't going to be served until 0600, so no sense rushing to be first in line. To my surprise I see Elma already seated and reading a book in the back of the hall. Normally she's exactly on time at 0600 or just never shows up at all. I immediately get my interest piqued at what brought along this little change of pace.

"Morning Elma, surprised to see you here this early, what's the occasion?"

"Hey Cross," she replies sounding tired, "I wasn't having much luck sleeping, so I decided to try to get a better understanding of humanities penchant for separating themselves based on things like skin color or class. It's been…slow going."

I plop myself down across from her and wince at the title of the book. Pride and Prejudice. That was a tough read for me, I'm better with science fiction and fantasy than I am with 'real' literature. "Sounds like a pretty heavy topic there Colonel. What Lao said to you really bothered you huh?"

Elma doesn't really talk about her species much but they clearly don't differentiate between themselves based on appearances or social status. If I had to guess, which I do, I'd say they judge mostly on personality or family ties. Elma definitely has some people she doesn't get along with no matter how important or attractive they are.

She nods and says, "Mostly because he was right. Almost three decades of living among you and I still don't really understand how humans categorize themselves. The sooner I can figure out some of these social rules, the sooner I can stop being a total stranger."

I chuckle at this and reply, "Elma, your the idol all BLADEs look up to, are on a first name basis with NLA's big wigs, and get asked out on a date at LEAST once every two weeks, even though your walking around in your Xeno MIM. Trust me on this, you're no stranger. Just socially retarded, like me."

That get's a smile from her and she says, "Then from one social dropout to another, how's your quest to understand human culture going? Every time I stop by your quarters you've got a stack of books and movies a meter high."

"It ain't easy, I've got like fifty plus years of social media to catch up on, never mind all the classics that go back who knows how many years. Thank God I must have been a transcriber or cipher back on Earth, or trying to catch up on this many things would have been a doomed effort."

Elma's mouth twitches at my mention of being back on Earth. I guess she finds the idea of me being an office worker in my past life amusing. Well so do I for that matter. Office worker turned Alien monster slayer. What a tale that would be.

Elma closes the book with a sigh and says, "Well I'm not getting any farther in this right now, might as well call it quits. Thanks for talking with me Cross, I think I'll be able to fall asleep now."

"I'l try to take it as a compliment that talking to me makes you drowsy. Somehow."

She grins at that and waves as she walks off. I sit for about a minute before hauling my lazy butt out to the Administrative District to actually get something productive done. I'm not really hungry anyway, and these MIM bodies don't need to eat anywhere near as much as a normal flesh and blood body does. I'll stop by Mission Control and see what's available, then swing by the commercial district and grab something there. I yawn for what feels like the dozenth time this morning as I head to the exit. Looks like today might be pretty slow going.

I head over to the BLADE concourse and see Eleanora just setting up shop behind her personal desk near the Mission Board. I head on over and greet her with, "Morning Eleanora, anything interesting today?"

She looks up and flashes her patented smile that manages to perfectly blend maternal and friendly together. "Good morning Cross, I do in fact have something interesting for you. But aren't you up rather early? Breakfast hasn't even been served in the mess yet."

"I ate out with Frye last night, I'm good."

She frowns and says, "By 'eat out' you mean Frye drank all night at The Repenta while you ate all the free appetizers on the counter, then carried him back to the barracks, correct?"

"It's frightening how you perfectly describe what happened."

"It's all part of my job," She says while smiling rather creepily "If I wasn't able to understand the behavior of the BLADEs I organize, how can I efficiently coordinate their efforts?"

"You make it sound like personally mothering almost two-thousand BLADEs is easy."

"Well not all BLADEs are as much of a handful as you are Cross."

"So before my self-esteem falls even lower, about that mission you mentioned?"

"Oh Right. Well this is slightly unusual for a number of reasons, but the Murderess specifically put out a mission request just for you."

"I hope she's not asking for a target practice dummy."

"It's actually far more worrying than that. This is an official mission request with a substantial monetary reward. Otherwise she likely would have just messaged your comm device."

I feel my eyebrows widen at this bit of information. "Hold up, did you just say that the Murderess is offering a money reward? Eleanora, I need you to punch me real quick, I think I'm still dreaming."

"It surprised me too, but believe you me, this is real."

"Wow. So how much is the reward? She's kind of a scrooge, so it can't be too much."

Wordlessly she flips around her datapad and shows me the reward amount. I look at it and almost choke on my tongue. "Thirty-thousand?! What the Hell is so important that she's offering that kind of money? If it's something like Tyrant wrangling, I'm out."

Eleanor chuckles at that and amusedly says, "While I wouldn't rule anything out, it's still better for you to actually go hear her out in person."

I sigh and dejectedly say, "No kidding. Blowing her off would be probably be more dangerous than the hypothetical Tyrant rodeo. Alright so where can I find her?"

"The meeting address is 890 East melville St."

"An actual building huh? I wonder if she's finally starting her new empire now. How much you wanna bet she wants me to secretly drive some poor guy's business destitute?"

"Well it's not entirely something I would rule out. Best get moving Cross. We both know she doesn't like to wait."

"Sound advice that. Thanks for the info Eleanora."

She waves and goes back to her datapad while I head off to the commercial district. Sounds like Sharon has a heck a job lined up. I take back what I said. Today isn't going to be so slow after all.

Sharon's shop is one of the new buildings that recently got added to NLA in the months since the Lifehold was recovered. With tons of new Xeno residents, and the prospect of people being revived from the core, construction of new housing was given top priority. She must have gotten this place as soon as it was built, it still smells of paint and fresh carpeting, with a slight tang of metal. There's a few prefabricated counters built into the floor plan but aside from those the place is empty as a tomb.

I shout out, "The service here sucks! Can I complain to a manager?"

I hear an answering shout from the back, "In here smartass, besides my business isn't even open yet."

I head over to the managers office and see Sharon set up behind a desk with a few different folders spread out in front of her. She's abandoned her typical BLADE wear in favor of a black business suit, which quite honestly makes her seem even more scary than usual.

I decide to go with cheerful and say, "The suit really completes the image of terrifying businesswoman. I bet all the other shopkeepers are running scared."

She gives her usual frosty smile and says, "You've grown quite the silver tongue these past few months hon. Quite the change from the adorable, honest little puppy of a BLADE you were when we first met."

"I'm still honest, just bitterly sarcastic and contrary."

"No disagreements here. So would you like to actually get down to business?"

"I'm all ears."

"H.B. darling? Could you fill in Cross over here?"

I ratchet my head around as I realize I totally missed H.B. sitting in the corner of the room. Reeling in my immediate instinct to ask him what he's doing here, I instead force a smile and say, "Ah how the mighty have fallen. Once a prime BLADE candidate aiming for the top and now…a store clerk."

He rolls his eyes and says with all his usual haughtiness, "Amusing. So how does a trip to Oblivia sound?"

"It sounds hot. But never mind that, why are you working with Sharon over here? I thought you'd be going around and talking it up to other BLADE divisions in your bid for world domination."

"Miss Effinger has offered me a very convenient contact in NLA's business sector Cross. In the future, BLADE command will have to coordinate more and more with the citizens of NLA, especially now that the Lifehold has been recovered. Having the support and understanding of it's common folk will be instrumental in succeeding Vandham. Does that explain things satisfactorily?"

"It certainly does. Although I suggest you avoid referring to people as the 'common folk' in your PR campaign."

"Noted. So the details of this mission are rather simple really. You know about Kepha Holly right?"

"You mean those plum looking things that have the pollen that smells like Grex poop dipped in vomit? Unfortunately yes, I do know what you're talking about."

"Good. Then long story short, we need you to gather six of them and bring them back here intact. And that'll be your mission."

"Seems like a relatively simple job. What's the catch?"

"There is no catch, that's the job, and you'll be paid upon delivery."

I ignore him and turn towards Sharon, "Ok there's some context here I'm missing. Why am I being paid thirty grand to grab some of these things? What can they be used for that's worth that much money?"

She smiles and nods at H.B., who bluntly says, "It's not what they can used for, it's what they can be made into. Kepha Holly pollen, when combined with a ground up Cinicula horn and a few other ingrediants, can make a powerful multi-species aphrodisiac, something that wasn't given any priority aboard the White Whale's cargo stores."

I stare blankly at H.B. and say, "How do you do it H.B.? With a completely straight face you just told me that I'll be paid a huge pile of money to travel across an alien desert picking plants that can be made into medicine that'll help a city of cyborgs and aliens get boners more easily. What's your secret?"

He looks annoyed and says, "It's a perfectly normal assignment that is no different than any other of the hundreds of missions BLADES have been doing for more than a year. Don't exaggerate Cross."

"I'm just worried what this will do to your reputation if people find out. Just imagine it. BLADE commander forced subordinates into a mission to find sex enhancers, paid large sum of money for it."

Before H.B. can retort Sharon cuts in with, "Boys, there IS a lady in the room. Cross dear? While I agree that it is fun to tease H.B., I'd prefer it if you stopped trying to drive him crazy in the middle of this meeting."

"In this context I think it's more appropriate to say I was trying to get a rise out of him."

She gives me a look that convinces me to shut up and start acting like an adult. I clear my throat and say, "Jokes aside, is there any sort of timetable for this?"

"As long as it's done in two weeks I have no complaints."

"I'll have it done no later than week and a half then. I'll make sure you get your money's worth."

"Then we're done here. I'll expect to see you then Cross dear."

Both me and H.B. stand up and head out the door while Sharon goes back to all the files she has scattered around. As we head out I decide I had a little too much fun with H.B. and say to him, "You want to stop by Sunshine Cafe H.B.? I'll treat you as a way of apologizing for poking fun at your straight man act."

He heaves a sigh and says, "Alright I'll take you up on that. But Sharon was right in that you've changed from your forthright and embarrassingly honest self a few months back when I first challenged you to a friendly little competition."

"Good times those. And I haven't really changed that much. I just use a lot more words but say less."

"Oh i've noticed."

"So what do you reckon Sharon is trying to start up with her new, uh, 'products'? NLA's first red light district?"

"I'm not going to ask how you of all people know what that is. Well there are already several established general stores and such, so she's likely trying to fill a niche that hasn't been filled yet."

"Definitely the savvy business shark isn't she? You ever thought about asking her out on a date? Between the two of you, you could probably start ruling over NLA in a few months."

"I'm far to busy to commit to such a momentous task as a relationship. And as if you're one to advise about dating. You haven't seem to shown the slightest interest in any sort of relationship at all."

"My excuse is that I'm waiting for the perfect partner, and not that I'm utterly clueless about how to actually date or be romantic."

"You weren't joking about still being uncomfortably honest I see. So what are you planning to do for the mission? Take care of it yourself?"

"No can do. Some hotshot Fal-swo pilot did a number on my Skell last week near Hilal Stronghold. Blew off the left arm, leg, flight module and melted the head sensors. She's gonna be in the repair bay for some time to come. I'll ask around and see if I can tag along on someone else's mission, or just split the reward with a few others."

"Well best of luck with it, in the meantime you can buy me the most expensive thing on the menu."

"I'm really paying for those jokes earlier huh?"

"Damn right you are."

With H.B. heading back to H.Q. I start going through my COMM device checking on what missions are currently being offered in Oblivia. Not much is being offered right now except for a reclaimer mission, so I'll probably have to call up some friends and see if I can get some traveling companions. Then I remember that Frye is probably going to be accepting a bunch of missions today, since he had about four hours of straight drinking last night. I'll call him and see if I can get him to go along with me.

It's a few seconds before he picks up and says, "Hey, Cross my man! What's up pal? You need me for something?"

"You guessed it. I've got a mission in Oblivia that I'm heading out to as soon as I can and was wondering if you're up for giving me a hand?"

"Hey perfect timing pal, me and Phog were just heading out there to help out Yelv with a reclaimer mission he has, we'll make it a two-for-one!"

"So that was his huh? Well I ain't got any complaints, and this certainly fits your habit of taking on as many missions at once as you can doesn't it?"

"You know it! We're planning on taking a 1900 transport flight, that work for you? Or are you just going to take first class on your Skell?"

"No dice on the Skell, she's in for some pretty serious repairs right now."

"Damn sorry to hear that."

"No worries, it's my pleasure to ride coach with the rest of you. See you then."

He hangs up and I start heading towards the barracks to get my gear together. There's still some time to kill before the flight, but I'll just catch up on my reading until then. Today isn't going to be slow by any means whatsoever.

I spot three familiar looking figures loitering around the landing pad outside of the BLADE tower and head over to them, already getting a smile on my face. I wouldn't want to spend my entire career teaming with these guys, that'd be bad for both my stress levels and life expectancy, but working with them occasionally is pretty fun. As long as you don't mind things randomly exploding every now and then.

Yelv spots me first and shouts out, "Yo, pard! Long time no see friend, glad you could join the three musketeers on our little adventure eh?"

"I see Eleanora's still giving you plenty of movies to go through."

"I know right? I wish she would start giving me more action stuff though, classic's shouldn't mean boring."

"To be fair you have trouble sitting still for more than two minutes at a time Yelv." I turn my head towards Phog and give him a grin, "And how's life treating you Phog? Trying to keep these two out of trouble?"

He gives a knowing smile and says, "Trying. They mostly end up dragging me along anyways, so I wouldn't say I've had much success."

Frye saunters on over and heartily says, "You should just give up on trying to stop us and have some fun little bro!"

Phog gives a little frown and says, "Charging a herd of Insidias when it's only just the three of us hardly counts as fun Frye."

Not missing a beat Yelv joins and says, "You got nothing to worry about then little guy! With pard coming along with us we can take on anything this planet has to throw at us no problem!"

I mutter to Phog out of the corner of my mouth, "Are they always like this?"

He morosely replies, "Yah, and while I'm glad you decided to come along Cross, I feel like they're also going to be inspired to tackle anything that catches their fancy since you're along for the ride."

"I'll keep a stun grenade handy just in case."

He smiles at this and says, "It'll be nice to have someone level headed on the team for a change."

"You know what they say, misery loves company."

Frye shouts at us from the top of the boarding ramp, "Hurry it up and get your butts in here! We're taking off! Unless you feel like walking to Oblivia!"

We hurry on board and grab a few seats while the loading crew finishes off the last of their checks on the cargo lined up along the walls and locked onto the floor. Transports aren't so numerous that they can afford to separate people and consumables. NLA's air force always does double duty of airlifting both BLADES and material.

I turn to Yelv and ask, "So where about is this wreckage your looking for?"

"It's about 280 kilometers east of the main B.C., it probably got buried beneath the sand and just recently got uncovered by a windstorm or something. How about your mission Pard? Any ideas where to start?"

"I'll have to double check once we get to the B.C. but i'm pretty sure there's groves of Kepha Holly around 45 kilometers to the south of your wreckage. We'll know for sure once we get to the base."

"Sounds like a plan, anything else I should know about?"

"Yah, I'm going to take a nap, wake me up when we get there."

"What?! First time you see old Yelv in weeks, and you want to fall asleep already?!"

"Relax pal, we're gonna have lots of time to catch up on the drive out there. In the meantime I need my beauty sleep."

"No amount of beauty sleep is gonna fix that ugly personality of yours Pard."

I chuckle and start to regulate my breathing. Within two minutes I'm dead asleep.

Oblivia is a heck of a place. On the one hand a lot of it is just large expanses of desert with all sorts of nasty Indigens waiting to pop out of their burrows to turn you into a midday snack. On the other, more positive hand, it's a place of staggering scale and natural beauty. With canyons that make the Grand Canyon back on Earth look like a pile of puke, staggeringly large alien ruins, and floating isles kept aloft by electromagnetic currents, there's plenty to gawk at. I just wish it wasn't so freaking HOT. It's bad enough with a MIM body that is capable of regulating it's internal temperature, I can't even imagine trying to hack it with a normal flesh and blood body.

It's actually pretty nice at night though, with temperatures around a chilly 4.5 degrees celsius, as opposed to the 40 during the day. Thankfully we're arriving in the middle of the night, so the brutal heat isn't hitting me right away. The B.C. at Twin Arches was originally no larger than any others, but with the defeat of the Ganglion, it was expanded to include a few landing pads and a moderate Skell repair hangar, along with a few permanent buildings for scientists and prospectors. We check out a car at the vehicle hangar and meet outside the gate for our last equipment inspection before heading out.

"So whats the skinny on your little item hunt," Frye asks as he's locking his gear down, "Still where you thought it was?"

I nod and say, "Yep. So we can just stick with our original plan and head on over to your guy's site first, swing south for my stuff, then be on our merry way."

"That's no fun," Yelv grumbles, "Can't we take a little detour and take out a tyrant or something? I hear Barnabas is still running around out here."

I roll my eyes and say, "Your free to play out your own little David vs Goliath drama Yelv, but don't drag us mere mortals along for the ride."

"David vs Goliath? I don't get the reference."

Frye interjects with, "You should check it out Yelv, it's a pretty cool story about how the underdog beats the big old monster, right up your alley."

I slyly add, "You forget Frye, Yelv can't read."

"The Hell I can't read! How would I ever know which missions to pick?"

"I always assumed you just got Eleanora to read it for you." Phog adds.

Yelv rolls his eyes and says, "Alright yah bunch of smartasses real funny. So who's manning the gun? Nose goes."

I look around blankly as they touch their noses. "Nose goes?"

Yelv grins sadistically and says, "Too bad your only booksmart, not streetsmart Pard. Guess who's riding in the back!"

I look at Phog for help and he only shyly smiles and says, "Sorry Cross, thought you knew that one."

Frye's already seated in the front alongside Yelv who's driving, and he yells out, "Get a move on Cross! Don't want to spend the whole day in the sun do yah?"

I sigh and climb into the gunner platform and mutter, "Real douchebag move there Yelv."

He chuckles and says, "I know that particular phrase."

"Probably because it's applied to you all the time."

"Ahhh…the feeling of wind in your hair, sun on your face, and sand in your crotch piece."

"No one likes a crybaby Pard."

"Mentally I'm only about a year old. I can get away with being a whiner if I want."

"That's the first time I've ever heard someone use amnesia as an excuse for being a sore loser."

"Could you two stop flirting for a moment and give me a hand over here?" Frye interjects from the other side of a burned out passenger component of the White Whale, "The access hatch got welded shut from re-entry, I need an extra pair of hands."

I look at Yelv and say, "You're the Reclaimer here bud, sounds like you should go do some reclaiming."

"Yah, yah. Hold up a second Frye, we might be able to bypass it without tearing apart the door."

As Yelv heads over to where Frye is I walk over to Phog who's intently staring at his COMM device.

"Anything showing up we should know about?"

He looks over at me and shakes his head, "FrontierNav isn't picking up any signs of large Indigens or Ganglion signals, I think we're in the clear for awhile here."

"Good. After Yelv's driving I could do without another heart attack."

Phog laughs at this. About a month back or so I saw an old montage of monster truck rallies, and I can only assume Yelv saw the same thing, because he was trying his damnedest to emulate the sport. It's not so bad when you're inside of the car, those seats are padded and built tough, but standing upright in the flat of a car that's actively jumping around and hitting seemingly every rock in sight makes for a terrifying experience. On the way back, I'M driving.

My attention wanders back to the Yelv and Frye as I hear a loud clang coming from the debris. I get on my earpiece and ask, "How's it coming? Found your buried treasure yet?"

Yelv enthusiastically replies with, "You bet your ass we did! It's a Reclaimers wet dream in here. Personal data pads, photos, personal trinkets…all in pretty good condition too. Lemme record everything we got and we can check this off out to-do-list."

"Roger that. I'll keep an eye out up here with Phog, register to your heart's content down there."

I climb up a small rock outcropping about twentymeters or so from the crash site and start looking over the terrain. FrontierNav is an incredible piece of tech, able to give you a variety of info such as Indigen movement patterns, seismic readings, sound oscillation graphs and temperature changes based on how many probes are working in tandem. This area of Oblivia is fairly close to the main B.C., so there's an extra dosage of probes laid over the area. With all these luxuries, it can be easy to forget that sometimes plain old eyeballs are the best way of getting information.

With that thought in mind I notice a strange dust cloud moving roughly in our direction, and it doesn't have the usual swirling behavior clouds kicked up by wind do. I raise Phog on the COMM and ask, "Hey Phog, you see that dust cloud about two and a half kilometers out? Is FrontierNav picking up anything strange out there?"

"Yah I noticed that myself. Well it's kinda weird what I'm getting back from FrontierNav. Whatever's making that cloud must have travelled right over a probe because I got back all sorts of info."

"Like what?"

"Well there's lots of small seismic impacts detected that are probably footsteps of about tenor so large humanoids. There's also a larger one that could be some sort of floating vehicle. Sound pickups also place the frequency close to a Ganglion hover transport, but it's not a perfect match."

It takes a second for this to process before I jump down from my perch and yell, "Dammit Phog! If it sounds like a Ganglion squad, has the same numbers as a Ganglion squad and SOUNDS like a Ganglion squad, it's probably a friggin Ganglion squad!"

There's a moment of silence over the COMM before he comes back with a, "Oh, that's true huh?"

I resist the urge to deck him across the face and raise Frye, "Did you two get all that?"

"Yah, that's typical Phog for you. His heads always full of his namesake. Yelv isn't done yet so we're coming up to you."

"Roger that, I'll start coming up with a game plan."

I turn back towards Phog to have him sight down the Ganglion and confirm their numbers, only to find him up on a rock already doing so. He may be kind of a dunce about stuff, but when push comes to shove he's one of the best. I guess he's a kind of pseudo idiot savant?

"What have you got Phog?"

"Pretty much what FrontierNav guessed, ten male cavern clan Prone, one flatbed transport. Usual patrol formation, three in front, five around the transport, two on rearguard. They don't look too alert though."

I nod and turn towards Yelv and Frye who just arrived, "Ok here's the plan. You three take up position here and get ready for an ambush. Focus down that transport first, if it's carrying anything important we need to find out what it is. After that wait until I come in from behind and they get distracted, charge em and finish them off before they get organized. Sound good?"

They all nod except for Phog who asks, "How are you going to come in from behind? It's mostly flat terrain around here except for that cliff face over there. They'll see you moving when they're this close already."

I just give him a smile.

This cliff looked a lot smaller from a distance and from the ground. Up here I'm a good thirteen meters up. Not that bad of a drop for a MIM, even less so when I'm wearing my armor, but that's still a pretty big distance to tackle. I give my head a small shake and focus back on the ambush. We took about four minutes to set everything up before we took our concealed positions. Now we're just waiting for the Ganglion to walk into the kill zone. We've stayed off the Comms for the last eighteen minutes or so just in case the Ganglion have some sort of passive radar set up, so the only thing I've had to do since climbing up here is let my armor slowly heat up. It's gonna get pretty sweaty in here soon, but I don't want to risk using the cooling functions if they have thermal scanners handy.

I really, REALLY don't like the heat.

Thankfully the Ganglion finally make their way into sight. Just like Phog said it's ten Prone relaxedly escorting one of their multi-purpose hover transports. I notice that there's already an assortment of equipment on said transport. Looks like these guys have been busy. Hopefully Frye or Yelv don't get carried away with the fireworks and blow away the entire thing.

I slowly breathe in and out as the vanguard passes below me and ease myself into what Lin likes to call, 'The Zone'.

In addition to being an office worker back on Earth, I must have also practiced some kind of Zen martial arts or something. Even during my very first fights on Mira, I was always able to instinctively keep myself cool and collected, and other BLADE's always seemed shocked at how fast my reaction time is. I don't know why I'm able to so effortlessly enter this state of mind, but it's kept me alive more times than I care to count.

As the main escort passes beneath me I slowly ease myself into a crouch and get ready to jump. As soon as the rearguard is about to pass beneath me I shortly speak into the Comm, "Now." and jump off the cliff.

Coinciding with my leap the grenades Frye buried in the sand explode, shredding one of the leading Prone and staggering the other two. Wasting no time Yelv fires off a two-second burst from his raygun that burns off the upper half of one of the staggered Prone and slags a corner of the transport. In a beautiful follow up Frye launches a thermal grenade that hits the transport's guidance system and renders it immobile. Phog fires a volley of bullets that take out the last vanguard Prone and only leave a confused group of five Prone with both their vanguard and rearguard buddies dead.

The rearguard is dead because during the initial commotion I landed like an anvil on the leftmost Prone and snapped his back in half. Normally I wouldn't have been able to take a full grown male Prone out by landing on him, even if I had a good second or two to build up speed before impact. But I'm wearing my very own specialized 'Reginal' class armor, which makes a heck of a difference.

The initial Forza class armor by Sakuraba were mass produced and made in a hurry. It was mostly just a modern take on the old body armor concept. The new Reginal class takes full advantage of both Xeno and human tech, and it's a beast of it's own.

Built around the frame of a 6th-gen exoskeleton, Hardened ballistic plates are directly attached to the frame to allow maximum flexibility and durability. Not content with just a very powerful and tough armor, Sakuraba approached the Orpheans to help design the inner layer of the suit, creating a nasty mix of both temperature regulating and tear resistant fabric that is nothing short of brilliant. Stand in a burning desert or frozen Tundra and the only difference your body notices is the change in visual scenery. And forget trying to slip a knife in-between the armor plates, the material can blunt those suckers no problem.

Additionally I added my own special modification to integrate a 'chameleon' camouflage system from G.G.G. into the armor plates. Small sensors on my helmet read the color spectrum of the surrounding area and correspondingly alters the color of my armor. It's not too effective when moving fast, and drains power like crazy, but when staying still it works perfectly at fooling visual scans.

The long and short of it is that with the added force of the armor, as well as me shooting my legs out like a piston right before impact, Mr. Prone didn't have a clue what hit him. He didn't even have time to cry out. His buddy stares in shock for a second before uttering a surprised shout and starts to raise his gun.

He doesn't have it raised halfway before my carbide ralzes takes his head clean off with barely a whisper of resistance and he collapses like a sack of potatoes. I've never seen a sack of potatoes actually, but the saying is descriptive enough in it's own right.

One of the remaining Prone turns around and see's my bizarrely distorted figure standing around the bodies of his comrades. Just like no-head over here he's too confused to do anything but gape for a second. I don't blame him really. Seeing the chameleon armor in action for the first time is disorienting to everyone. To the person looking at it it's like part of the landscape came alive and took on a distended human shape.

Regardless he finds his wits and yells, "Behind us! Ear-" which is about as far as he gets before I throw one of my swords at him and split his head in half all the way down to the Prone equivalent of a sternum. His other buddies have gotten themselves together at this point however, and they start to raise their weapons at me while I'm still standing in the middle of an open desert. Not exactly a winning scenario, so I go with both the bold and slightly stupid decision of charging 4 Prone in close quarters combat.

It only takes me three powerful strides before I'm in hitting distance of these guys. The closest goes for a quick strike with the butt of his gun, not having had time to aim properly, but I let my upper body bend slightly backwards to avoid the strike, then lean forward and ram my remaining blade right into the center of his chest before dragging it down and to the right.

One more down.

To my surprise he manages to grab the hilt of the blade before it spills his guts out and locks it in place so that his buddies have time to get a clear shot. As far as dying moves go, this is a pretty good one. Unfortunately it isn't going to work on me. I don't even hesitate to leave the sword behind and immediately dash to the Prone on my left who just got a clear line of fire on me. He fires a shot but it goes wide by a hairsbreadth, and I leap into his chest, whipping my arms around to get him in a figure-four headlock.

Ordinarily I wouldn't advise trying to beat a male Prone in hand-to-hand combat, even if your wearing powered armor like I am. Their height advantage and ridiculous strength is just a little too much for us smaller humans to reliably contend against. That being said, those big ol' arms of theirs aren't great at dexterously prying off a sudden hug attack. What's even better is that the figure-four leverages most of my triceps, pectoral and lat muscles while he can only use part of his neck to resist. A quick push of my arms and his vertebrae come apart with a wet crack. While he's going limp I steer his body to block the aim of the remaining Prone, allowing the other a clear shot at me.

I was counting on this though. I clear my delta machine pistol from it's side holster and fire a burst at his head. His shot takes me in the side and knocks the air out of me, but I'm only winded, while my rounds took out an eye and a decent portion of his skull. That's six down for me and one to go.

Which would have been job well done if the other guy hadn't had the bright idea to take advantage of the fact that his dead buddy is still bearing down on me and blocking my view.

My first hint that things are going downhill is a sudden roar and then what feels like a wall crashing into me. I barely get my legs to brace me against the sudden charge and sneak a peek around the dead Prone's side. What I see isn't exactly comforting. The one remaining Prone is using his pals body as a fulcrum to bear down on me, which is pretty darn smart. This would have been a losing battle even if I wasn't out of breath from getting shot in the side. At this point all he has to do is keep pushing until I fall over and get trapped beneath the corpse of his pal here and it's game over for me.

THIS is why I say it's a bad idea to try to take on Prone in CQC. Luckily for me, I still have friends left. There's several sharp cracks and a brief sluck noise, then the massive force pushing against me stops and I can finally take a moment to get my breath back. My Comm crackles to life and I hear Phog saying, "Cross you still there? Did I get him?"

"Yah you got him," I wheeze back, "Nice shooting."

I bend over and take a few seconds to relax and get my breathing back to normal before I straighten up and take stock of the aftermath. Yelv runs up and disappointingly says, "What the Hell Pard, you didn't leave any for the rest of us."

I roll my eyes.

"My bad Yelv, next time I'll tell them to go bother you instead."

He laughs and happily says, "I think that might be a new record for fastest time spent eliminating an enemy squad two and a half times bigger than ours. Pretty sure twenty-two seconds is the leading time, and I personally counted ours as sixteen and a half."

"That's great Yelv, but how about we take a look at the transport before it runs off or blows itself to pieces? We might get some idea of what those guys were doing out here."

"Don't sweat it, Phog's already taking a look at while Frye's making sure all these guys are dead. Meanwhile I'm going to get back to work on that piece of wreckage. Plenty of work still to do Pard, don't start slacking now."

"I just got shot in the side. I can slack if I want to."

About half an hour later we finish stripping the bodies of the Prone of any useful tech or weapons, get the transport reprogrammed and hooked up to our car, and finish cataloging all the items retrieved from the wreckage. Our only casualty was my comm device, it's receiver and display got crushed during my headlock maneuver and the subsequent bullet hit, so I won't be taking any calls or messages on it until I can get a replacement back in NLA.

We don't bother burying the bodies. Ever since the Tree and Cavern clan emigrated to NLA it became known that dead Prone bodies are often fed to native beasts. It's a win-win for us. We get to be respectful of the dead, and we don't have to dig graves for those behemoths.

I take another look at the equipment the Ganglion already had loaded on the transport and furrow my brow. It's stuff I haven't seen before. While similar to the Oc-servs and Xe-dom sensor equipment, it's not a perfect match. Which then begs the question of where they got it and what they were going to use it for. Dammit, I really should have thought this through better and tried to keep one of the Prone alive for questioning.

As if reading my thoughts Frye comes up beside me and says, "I hope your not having second thought's on how we handled that little firefight. And I really hope you're not thinking we should have tried to take one of those giants prisoner."

"More like I'm just frustrated that I never considered the possibility that we might have had to tackle more than just our accepted missions. I wouldn't have made that mistake a few months back. I dunno, I guess I'm mostly just worried that I've started to get lazy for no particular reason. It's not like we're at peace or anything."

Frye laughs and says, "Cross, from the very moment you stepped foot in NLA you were taking part in every high risk mission you could find and helping people up and down the city. Don't think I've forgotten how you helped me and Phog out either. You've been fighting and mediating non-stop for more than a YEAR. All while having to deal with not having any memories of Earth customs or social norms I might add. You're probably worn out and you don't even know it. Besides, I've been in this business way longer than you have and I didn't consider that possibility either. I won't tell you not to learn from this mistake, but you sure as Hell don't have to beat yourself up about it."

I think about that for a second and eventually nod. "I'll keep that in mind. And, well…thanks Frye."

He grins and says, "Don't mention it kid, it's the job of the veterans to look out for the new guys."

"If you really mean that you'll let me drive instead of Yelv."

"Sorry, the nose goes policy trumps all."


Actually the rest of the mission was fairly uneventful. With the trailer behind us Yelv was forced to drive like a human being, which was great news for me. The Kepha Holly retrieval went without a hitch. Normally any sort of physical pressure exerted on the Holly causes it to explode in a cloud of pollen that smells like your worst nightmare. Sharon planned ahead for that though, and got a few Ma-non A-grav storage containers for this very mission. Looking like a simple briefcase, the containers actually have a very sophisticated field that keeps objects weightlessly suspended inside their confines.

Getting the holly is a cakewalk with this equipment. Simply shut the case around the stem so that the plant is perfectly centered, the field kicks on and bingo. Retrieval successful. After getting six of those I borrow Yelv's comm and call Eleanora. It rings for a few minutes while we pack up our gear for the return journey, until it's accepted and Eleanora's face shows up.

She seems somewhat surprised to see me and worriedly asks, "Cross, is everything ok over there? Why are you calling from Yelv's comm?"

"My bad Eleanora, we're all fine. We had a bit of a mix-up with a Ganglion scavenger squad and my comm device got busted. Just calling in to let you know we've completed both missions and are heading home. Also we picked up some leftovers from our Ganglion counterparts and are bringing those back as well. If you can pass word to the Xenotech guys I'd appreciate that. Some of this stuff looks pretty new."

"That is very interesting indeed. Alright I'll pass word along. Anything else to report?"

"Nope, that's pretty much it. We should arrive back in NLA tomorrow barring any further surprise firefights."

"Well you are traveling with Frye and Yelv, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

"Please don't jinx it. See you then."

I hang up and hand Yelv his comm back. "Hey Yelv I have a proposal for you."

"You've got my interest. What's up pard?"

"Actually, Frye, Phog. You two as well. What's your guy's cut for the Reclaimer job?"

"It's an eight grand job, nothing too substantial. Although all the junk we got from those Ganglion guy's will probably boost our payday a little. Why you ask?"

"Well my cut for the Holly collecting job comes out to a hefty thirty-thousand credits, and I was thinking I could maybe buy us dinner and drinks. What do you think?"

Frye looks at me in shock before shouting, "Thirty-thousand for that milk run?!"

"Why is that phrase called a milk run anyway? I'm curious."

"Quit changing the subject! Heck why are you buying for us only once? You could pay for our food for a whole month with that kind of moolah!"

"Don't get greedy Frye. Besides there's a catch to this deal."

"And what might that be?"

"Next time we go on a mission together? I'M driving."

I yawn as I walk through the commercial district on my way to Sharon's soon-to-be shop. The rest of the mission had gone routinely. Arriving back at base, getting our loot packed away and grabbing a flight back to NLA had taken most of the day and a decent part of the morning. Most places aren't even open this early, so the streets are fairly empty. Well, most sensible people aren't walking to work at 0450 in the morning. I don't know how Sharon does it.

I walk into her office carrying the cases and shout, 'Pizza's here!"

She answers with, "I really need to talk to Eleanora about what Earth media you're being exposed too."

"To be fair that one I learned from spending a lot of time with the Ma-non. It's like Pavlov's dog's except a lot more frightening."

"What a worthwhile subject to know about. Good for you dear. And excellent work getting those products back to me so quickly. I honestly didn't expect you to be back so quick."

"Neither did I, but I had some excellent teammates. Well sorta excellent. As long as you overlook their occasional bouts of crazy."

"Well then I'll go ahead and transfer the money to your account. And I'll be sure to contact you first for any future work."

"Appreciate it…all this is preparing for the revival of the Effinger Empire right?"

She looks at me guardedly and carefully says, "It is, but what's it to you?"

I avert my eyes and say, 'No, well…look, you don't have to pay me so much for any of these jobs ok? I'm not in this just because it pays well. Friends for friends and all that."

She stares at me blankly for a second then starts laughing hysterically. Did I say something weird?

She manages to choke out, "Cross, you really need to be careful about what you say to me, or I might just take you up on the offer," she chuckles a little more before adding, "There's actually two big reasons I'm giving you such good terms. One is that I've spent so long simply earning and saving money, I really need to get used to spending it, as well as paying employees based on their performance. Secondly because despite what you may think, I do remember all the times you helped me out. Chances are good I'd be in a prison cell if it wasn't for you and Irina. Consider this my way of finally saying thank you. Also never tell Irina I said that, or your banned from my business forever."

"Huh. What you referred to as my 'silver tongue' seems to be failing me right now. I think I'll just go with, 'glad to be working with you boss'."

"Happy to hear it hon. Oh, before I forget, your comm got trashed when you were out right?"

"Yup. Surprise surprise, it's not bullet proof, contrary to their marketing pitch."

"Well your darling little friend called late last night asking me whether you were alright, since they couldn't get ahold of you. Apparently Eleanora gave them my contact info since you were on my assignment."

"I didn't know Vandham cared so much about me."

She gives me a deadpan look and I amend, "Ok ok lame joke, I know. So who was it?"

"Well Celica obviously. She couldn't raise you on your comm so she was worried something may have happened and tracked me down."

I sigh and say, "I have no idea how she manages to worry about everyone else BUT herself. There's no way that's healthy."

Sharon gives me an incredulous look and says, "As if your one to talk. If even half the rumors and bar talk are true, you've had a hand in what seems like half of NLA's domestic problems. Your in no position to blame someone else for being too selfless."

"Ok fair point. I'd like to think I'm at least a LITTLE self-absorbed though."

She merely shakes her head in exasperation.

"So anyway, you did tell her that I was fine right?"

"Of course, she didn't mention what she was calling about though, so why don't you be a gentleman and call her as soon as you can?"

"She won't stop worrying until I do. Guess I'd better hightail it out to Armory Alley and get a replacement, the sooner the better."

"A sound idea. Well I'll get in touch you with you again if I need additional help. Take care now hon."

"See you around."

I stretch as I walk out onto the street and see the city start to come alive. I briefly consider just hopping on a shuttle to the Administrative District but decide against it. It's been awhile since I've had a chance to take a look at how the city is shaping up, I want to see how people are getting along with all the Xeno's emigrating to the city. I start humming L.A. Woman to myself as I walk down the street as the street lights shut off, shops start opening, and all sorts of figures start to peruse the storefront shelves.

NLA is what Vandham likes to call a 'mess of a melting pot'. I looked up the term and melting pot really does seem to best describe the city. We have several different species aside from humans living in the city. There's the majority such as the Ma-non, Nopon, Orpheans, Prone and Wrothians who have numbers in the hundreds if not thousands living throughout the city. There's also a significant minority of other races living amongst the city who only have a few dozen members, or even single digits. These mostly consist of the Zarubaggan, Definians, whatever the heck Professor B is, the Xenos Elma is a part of, Qlurians, Gaur, and L's species. Come to think of it a lot of the minority guys don't even have a species name or just don't want to give it to us. Such secrecy.

When the initial planning of NLA was carried out by EXODUS little thought was given to how the city might accommodate beings other than humans. Understandable, but if they could only see the numbers now they might be kicking themselves for overlooking such a possibility. Almost one in nine residents of the city are non-human, with some that have specific living conditions. Take a normal human general store with an outdoor cafe for example. There's a specific shelf height, specific chair height, specific door and aisle dimensions, specific temperature, specific humidity, specific products specifically for humans.

None of which are either convenient or even feasible for a number of Xenos. Take the Nopon and Ma-non for instance. They're both substantially shorter than humans, and with a different physiology. How are they supposed to reach for things off of a highly placed shelf, or see behind a counter that's too tall for them? Heck, how are they supposed to use a shopping cart? If the city is going to keep growing at projected rates, these things will transform from minor inconveniences into full blown disasters. Perhaps a better example would be the Male Prone. Some of the poor bastards can't even fit through a door without having to contort themselves, provided they can do it at all. And what if they want to sit down? The chairs in said cafe are laughably small and ill designed to carry them, are they simply supposed to stand all the time or consign themselves to benches that may or may not be present?

All sorts of problems, large and small. What this boils down to is that in the last four or so months, after Sun'Barac became the official Xeno representative, NLA has undergone a MASSIVE construction and redesign boom. New outdoor bazaars and diverse furniture designs were constructed while several parts of the residential and commercial district were expanded. A new housing block in the Residential District was just completed two weeks ago that takes into account the physical needs of many different Xeno species. At first I was kind of concerned that we would end up with Xeno only ghettos on our hands (I had just finished watching District 9), but even that had been thought of and a few human hopefuls had been given residence there, assuring there would be mixed species neighborhoods. Things are still a little rocky in terms of Xeno-Human relationships, but most of the really aggressive xenophobes like Powell and Alex have been dealt with already, and most people who aren't enthusiastic about coexistence are becoming outnumbered or simply resigning themselves to the inevitable.

I give myself a wry smile. I occasionally wonder if my memory loss made it easier for me to keep an open mind about so many different alien species. I barely remember anything about Earth, and nothing of it's destruction. A lot of BLADEs like to believe that one day Mira truly will be our home, our second Earth. For me, Mira always was my home. I spent most of my 'childhood' being exposed to all sorts of Indigens and Xenos, both good and bad. I didn't have any preconceived notions, so keeping an open mind was my default strategy. It seems to have worked out so far, if I may say so myself. My internal monologuing is interrupted when I spot a familiar face walking down the roadside.

I say walking, but it's more like a heavy plodding. I wave and shout, 'Hey Rock!"

He turns after hearing my voice and calls out with his own, 'Oh hey Cross!"

I'm still not used to how his voice sounds compared to his appearance. Normally you would expect some sort of gravelly baritone or something like that, but he's actually quite soft spoken and shy. Can't judge a book by it's cover. As he walks closer I see he's carrying his usual passengers of a few Ma-non and young Nopon on his back. Taking a closer look I recognize one of the Ma-non. "Hey Ackwar, long time no see!"

"Hi Cross! You can let me down here Rock, thanks for the ride like always! I'll see you later, right?"

"No problem little buddy, I'm happy to help!"

The Nopon chorus, "Ma-non friend leaving?", "Ma-non friend has to go to work!", "Bye bye Ma-non friend!"

I smile to myself at that. Nopon kids are too damn cute and trusting. I wonder what it is that turns them into slick conmen when they get older.

Rock looks at me and says, "Celica's been looking for you since yesterday Cross, although I'd be careful if I were you. Once she heard your comm got broken she was saying stuff like, 'he has no sense of caution', or, 'I bet he did it helping someone without a second thought again'. She can be pretty scary when she gets mad."

I frown at that. So apparently both Sharon and Celica think I'm a little too free with the helping people unconditionally act? Ok Sharon gets a free pass since she's always looking out for number one, but why is Celica getting mad at me for that? She's worse than I am, in fact she's almost as bad as Hope.

I shake my head and say, "Yah you're right about that. I'm getting my comm fixed today anyway so she can't stay mad for too long…right?"

"I hope so, I feel nervous talking to her when she's like that."

I scratch the back of my head in embarrassment and say, "Sorry that you got dragged into this little drama Rock."

He smiles and says, "Aw don't worry about. She would always get this way with me even before we arrived in NLA if I ever tried to fight off our pursuers. I'm used to it by now. Sorry Cross, but I have to get going to work. If I'm late Dalton will make me share my lunch again."

I grin at the idea of Dalton and his crew bullying Rock into sharing his food, which would normally feed twenty people in one go. I nod and say, "Don't let me hold you up. See you around Rock."

He walks off, surprisingly quiet for his size. Then again, almost all of Rock's mannerisms and personality quirks are the polar opposite of his appearance, I dunno why I'm even surprised anymore. I turn to Ackwar and ask, "So are you in town for BLADE work today or just sightseeing?"

"Just some BLADE work, nothing too important, yah? Some Nopon and Ma-non got into an argument over which is better, pizza or hot dogs? While pizza is obviously better, things got so heated that they decided to meet at Melville plaza today and have a debate to decide which is better. I'm just here to make sure things don't get out of hand. I mean, we Ma-non can get a little crazy when it comes to pizza…" He goes quiet at this.

I can imagine what he's thinking. Powell's killing spree was more or less because he blamed the Ma-non for causing his wife to commit suicide due to their irrationality and aggressiveness when it came to pizza. While I'm sure that played a part, I'd bet my life that the additional shock of losing Earth was the main cause of her slow burn. A lot of people had sudden depression or anxiety attacks after landing on Mira during the first few months. No matter how strict the mental screening process was for people to board the White Whale, I imagine it's still a hell of a thing to lose almost everything you once took for granted.

None of that matters to Ackwar though. He's a good enough person that he probably still feels responsible for both Powell''s anger and Yuyu's subsequent murder, as well as the rest of the death's caused by that mess. I pat his shoulder and say, "Then we're lucky to have guys like you who can be relied upon to keep things under control. Don't beat yourself up too hard about things that happened in the past ok?"

'Oh, uh, like wow. I, uh didn't know you thought that highly of me. Ok! I can do this no problem! I'll keep things under wraps and not get distracted by the thoughts of pizza! I think?"

I chuckle and say, "Well I have to get a move on, good luck with the job Ackwar."

He nods enthusiastically and says, "Count on it, you take care too!"

I continue on my way towards the BLADE barracks and take a look at the time. 0730. Sheesh, I still have like twelve hours before I'm meeting up with the other three tonight. Well that's not too big of a problem really. I still have to get a new comm device and turn in my armor for maintenance, that'll take awhile. And I HAVE been awake for almost thirty hours now, I'll probably feel pretty tired once I head back to the barracks and sit down.

As I walk into the barracks common room I immediately hear the sound of nails desperately scrabbling for traction on the metal floor. Sure enough Zippy comes tearing around the corner, panting heavily and tail wagging hard enough to break a kneecap. I lean down to pet her and sure enough get a face full of deliriously happy Labrador Retriever. Most terrestrial animals from Earth are given specific BLADE owners, like Mathias, to keep tabs on them and see how they adapt to Mira. Zippy is an exception in that she's sort of group adopted by the BLADE's who live in the Barracks. There's no set roster of people who look after her but so far that hasn't even come close to being an issue. Just the opposite really. I have no idea how the poor dog gets time to sleep since people are constantly coming and going, especially considering the fact that she feels the need to personally greet everyone that walks through the entrance.

Polar opposite of that is Yzma, our calico cat that never seems to give a crap about anyone. I walk by her and say, "Hey Yzma.".

No response.

I roll my eyes and move on. Zippy wanders off as I head into my room, probably to try to find time to take a nap, and I ease down onto my bed to catch up on some needed sleep. I start my breathing exercises and just like that I'm out for the count.

I stretch my back out as I wait by the shuttle stop that'll take me to the Repenta, and reflect that if the MIM's were really designed to mimic a human body perfectly, they would have added poppable vertebrae in the design. It just feels weird not being able to crack your back.

Musing about the shortcomings of not being able to crack your spine aside, my comm is finally coming back online. These things always take awhile to reboot when you transfer the data from one to the other, but with this finished I can finally catch up on lost messages. Hopefully something important didn't come by while I was out of the loop.

My messages screen pops up and I start to scroll through it as the shuttle arrives. Just a few random messages from BLADE headquarters informing me about the transferred money from Sharon's job, the completion of said job, the status of my Skell repair work, an advertisement for the newest in the arms manufacturers lineup, stuff like that. Capitalism has made it to space and seems to be doing just fine.

Three messages in particular catch my interest. One is a text from Elma, and two voice messages from Celica. I wince and set the voice messages aside for the moment. I'm not too sure I want to play those aloud right now. I scan through Elma's message and grin.

"Hey Cross, I'm thinking about getting some of the old Team Elma back together for a mission in Sylvalum. I'm running this by the others and getting a head count. Are you interested?"

Damn right I'm interested. I can't even remember the last time we had a full squad of familiar faces, especially now that Lin largely transferred to NLA's engineering division. Here's hoping everyone can make it.

Once the shuttle drops me off at the Repenta I take a look around but don't see the other three yet. There's a few scattered groups of people out and about, including some Zarubaggan gesturing towards the trash disposal units, some Orphean's and Ma-non seemingly debating whether to eat the Repenta's windowsill plants and a few Prone helping offload a recently landed transport.

It's life inthe big alien city.

Come to think of it Phog and Yelv are always at least fifteen minutes late no matter what, so I don't know why I bothered arriving on time. I'm surprised Frye isn't around though, I though he lived here. Whatever, I figure now is as good a time as any to listen to Celica's messages. I hit play and the first message voicemail plays,

"Hello Cross, I was merely contacting you to see if you're available to help me with a mission I'm accepting in Noctilum. It should be a fairly quick one, no more than 5 days even assuming delays. I assume you're busy right now, if not I would greatly appreciate you letting me know."

I feel a slight twinge of guilt. If I had waited a little longer before hightailing it out to Oblivia I might have gotten her message and been able to help her while still finishing Sharon's mission with time to spare. Well no point in worrying about it now, besides Celica knows that someone can be outside of the city at the drop of a hat. I play the next message and immediately recoil inside slightly. She does not sound happy.

"So Cross, I was just very kindly informed by Eleanora and The Murderess that you were on a mission in Oblivia. And apparently your comm device was broken during a fight in which you decided to attack a squad of Ganglion. While it's certainly not my place to criticize your actions, you being more experienced than me, I do wish you would take greater pains to avoid such conflict. Quite a few people in the city would be distraught to hear news of your death, Rock and myself foremost among them. Please contact me as soon as possible so that I may yell at you in person."

I can't help but smile at the end of that. She knows what she's asking is impossible, but asks anyway. Some people are just too caring for their own good. I contact her comm and wait while it connects. About half a minute later her face pops up on screen and I come to the sudden realization that I have no idea what to say.

I decide to wing it and say, "I'm back."

Good one idiot.

Apparently she agrees since the corner of her mouth twitches and she replies, "Indeed you are. I take it you are uninjured?"

"All in one piece."

"I'm relieved to hear so. No other complications arose during your mission?"

"Uh…no. Everything went smoothly. Aside from the busted gear and all."

"I see."

Ok this is freaking me out. I'm getting calm before the storm vibes here. I slowly say, "Hey if this is about your mission offer, I'm sorry I missed out so…"

She gives a small sigh and says, 'Actually it is I who owes you an apology."


She gives a rueful smile and says, "I wanted to apologize for being angry with you baselessly. Especially when I of all people have no right to be frustrated with others for taking unneeded risks for the sake of others."

"I appreciate the sentiment Celica, I really do, but being worried over others because they willingly put themselves in harm's way isn't something to feel sorry for. So how about we say no hard feelings and move on?"

"No hard feelings?"

"It's a human saying. It's a way of reconciling after an argument that neither side really wanted to end up in or felt all that strongly about."

She smiles and says, "In that case, ho hard feelings indeed."

I breathe in inward sigh of relief. I get anxious when I feel like people are upset with me. Especially when it's people I like.

I get back on track and ask, "So is that mission you mentioned still up in the air or-"


I almost have a heart attack as Yelv yells about eight centimeters away from my right ear.

"Why are you hunched over in the corner all by your lonesome pard? C'mon we gotta grab some seats while they're still ope-oh why hello Celica, I guess that explains why pard was so deep in thought over here!"

"I see your just as boisterous as ever Yelv. Cross looks as though he's gone deaf."

I rub the side of head and say, "At least the right ear is. Would it kill you to say hello like a normal person Yelv?"

"But then that would make me normal, which I so am not."

"Oh you're special all right." I mutter.

Looking back to Celica I say, 'Sorry to cut this short Celica, but I promised Frye, Phog and the human boom-mike here that I'd buy after finishing the mission. Do you still need a hand with the assignment you mentioned?"

"No, that's quite alright. I already have a team lined up and we are departing within the hour actually. Enjoy your time with your friends, even if they are a tad overbearing."

I chuckle at that and say, "Ok, good luck on the mission. And stay safe or I'm never letting you hear the end of it."

"I'll try my utmost. Talk to you when I'm return Cross. And make sure Rock doesn't get into trouble, if you please."

She hangs up and I turn to Yelv, "Hey Yelv, how do you feel about babysitting a 4-ton Xeno?"

"Don't try to push that off on me pard, I'm already jealous that you have such a cute babe that goes all googly-eyed over you."

"If nothing else, I promise you that's not what it is."

"Hey if your going to play the dense hero act, that's cool, but don't come crying to me later once she lands a date with another dude."

I sigh as we walk into the Banquet Hall section of Repenta.

"Getting relationship advice from you Yelv. I've definitely hit rock bottom."

Not missing a beat Yelv smiles and shouts, "Then the only way left is up! Let's party pard!"

I turn towards Frye who looks more than a little depressed at the moment and ask, "I guess scotch just ain't cutting it for you anymore is it Frye?"

He gives a massive sigh and says, "I don't get it. twelve glasses and I don't feel a damn bit drunk. Did I grow immune or something?"

Phog speaks up with, "It's entirely possible your body just got used it after a couple thousand glasses or so. Seriously Frye, you should just be happy you still have a working liver."

Frye looks at Phog, betrayal written all over his face "What are you also gonna be like Eleanora or Vandham and say that I have a problem? The problem here is that I can't get wasted!"

I speak up and say, "Weren't you all fired up over creating your own brewery a couple months back Frye? What happened to that?"

"Collection missions are just so damn boring! And I always spend my money on equipment or booze, so I never had enough to just buy the things."

"Then the only way forward is to stop buying alcohol for a while and invest in your own hops and malts friend. Or you can just take a bunch of drugs."

Phog frowns at me and says, "Don't give him any ideas Cross, he might just get desperate enough to try."

"Like Hell I would! Taste is half the reason I drink, I ain't into any of that pill or plant crap!"

"If half the reason you drink is for taste I have half your solution right here."

I slide my mug of Root Beer towards him and he gives me a look of utter disdain.

"And just how am I supposed to get drunk off of this?"

"You can't, but it might give you a sugar high if you drink enough."

Frye doesn't respond but just blankly stares at the empty shot glass in front of him. Phog laughs and says, "C'mon Frye, this might just be a sign that it's time to take up a different habit. Why don't you work towards earning your Skell License? Your plenty eligible for it. Heck, even Yelv has one"

He merely grumbles and largely ignores us. I smile and swivel around on my stool to face towards Yelv, who's busy on the other side of the bar talking it up to group of three women, one Human, Wrothian and Prone. I guess he's fine with anyone as long as they have two X chromosomes. Come to think of it, do Xenos even share the same DNA patterns as us? Probably not, so I guess unexpected pregnancies aren't gonna be an issue. Not that MIM's come equipped with such wetware. And wow, my mind is all over the place right now. Maybe I should call it a night before I do something embarrassing like join Yelv.

I turn towards Phog and say, "I think I'm gonna call it a night. Need any help with your comatose brother?"

"I think I'll be fine on my own. Thanks for all the help Cross, and for the meal."

"Hey, friends for friends. And don't worry Frye, I'm sure you'll find true happiness yet."

He actually growls at me and I laugh as I walk out. I head over to talk to Yelv before I go, but stop short once I see him start hitting the highpoint of whatever story he's telling. I roll my eyes and decide to let him have his fun. If he's a real gentleman he'll introduce his new friends to Frye and Phog since I'm not around to be the fourth wheel anymore.

I arrive back at the barracks around 1220 and find only a few BLADE's scattered around the common area, most are either still in town or asleep at this point. As I'm heading towards my quarters I hear someone shout, "Hey Cross!"

I take a look around and see Elma waving from over near the corner of the room. I grin as I head over and see her looking a lot more relaxed than she was a few days ago.

"What's the news colonel? Hows our class reunion looking?"

"It's coming along nicely. It's kind of on short notice but we can leave tomorrow at 1700 hours for a flight to Sylvalum. Want to guess who's coming along?"

"C'mon Elma don't leave me hanging in suspense here, I'm no good at the guessing game."

She grins and says, "Spoilsport. The final roster is looking like Mia, Lin, Irina and Gwin. Barring any surprises we have our final roster."

"Sounds like a party to me. What's the mission details?"

"That's a secret, but I guarantee it'll be fun."

"Sounds ominous, nothing I'm going to lose sleep over, is it?"

She ignores my question, stretches and replies, "Well everythings organized and set to go, I guess all that's left is to wait."

"I have a movie lined up to watch tonight, you want to join in? Doug, Frye, Gwin and Vandham keep insisting that it's a classic."

"Sounds crucial, what's it called?"

"Terminator. Gwin keeps saying that this movie was the inspiration for MIM's, so I was curious myself. You in?"

She grins and says, "Are you joking? Of course I am."

'Well let the credits roll then."

Nahum was less than happy. As a matter of fact she was, as one of the human prisoners smugly pointed out to her, 'ready to kill a bitch'. The translation of the term 'bitch' was lost on her, but the rest was perfectly accurate. She was feeling rather murderous, and the mouthy human had made a convenient outlet for her frustration. She made a mental note to have the body removed as soon as possible.

No need to worry about the head.

Part of her frustration had to do with only the limited success of her assignment to hunt down and eradicate the Wrothian deserters.

'Limited success' was a bit of an overstatement truth be told. Perhaps 'largely a failure' would be a better term to describe events. While the Wrothian hideout had been located and attacked while the majority of their forces had been absent, a stubborn team of humans working in tandem with the traitors had stymied their frontal assault with vicious hit and run tactics and allowed reinforcements from both factions to arrive, effectively ending the assault. Adding insult to injury the Wrothian traitors had somehow stolen blueprints for a new weapon that had been in development during the assault.

But her ire was by far and large caused by the overall situation now facing the ganglion.

Despite the sudden and disorienting arrival of the Ganglion on Mira following the battle with the Ghosts, things had proceeded rather uneventfully. Luxaar kept the disparate elements of the Ganglion working together, smoothly investigating the curious world of Mira in an orderly fashion.

And then the humans had arrived.

While Nahum had advocated an immediate attack on the human city, in order to eliminate the threat before it could grow, Luxaar had been indecisive and unfocused, splitting resources between searching for a crashed Skell that had been located in Noctilum, infiltrating the human city, finding their vaunted 'lifehold' and trying to pacify various hostile native lifeforms. It was a wasteful and haphazard strategy that he could not be convinced to abandon.

Then things went from bad to worse. Heavy losses were taken by Ganglion forces in Noctilum trying to recover the unknown Skell, only to have it stolen out from beneath their collective noses by the humans. After that it was a constant succession of failed assaults and defections. They failed to coerce the Ma-non into joining the Ganglion, the Orphean and Zarubaggan slaves had defected, various Prone hostages and soldiers were either freed or went AWOL, only to reappear inside the human's city being welcomed as willing allies. The assault on said city, which Nahum had so adamantly insisted be enacted, was repulsed with staggering losses with only the non-operable Skell to show for their efforts.

Then followed the Wrothian defection, a loss that no one wanted to admit was crushing, and then the infamous Zu Pharg incident. Their crown military machine that had been intended to help deal with some of Mira's more lethal predators went rogue and was isolated and destroyed before it had even left Sylvalum. Yet the worst was yet to come.

It had finally seemed like the spies and informants inside NLA had accomplished their mission. Stealing a prototype Skell and gaining the coordinates of the Human's Lifehold was the perfect morale booster for the disheartened Ganglion forces, and a massive force was organized to destroy the core, led by Luxaar himself. Yet despite all odds, against a force at least 3 times their own, opposed by the now operable Skell that was taken from them, the Humans had triumphed. They routed the Ganglion forces attacking the core, destroyed the ancient Skell along with Luxaar, and retrieved their prize.

With the leadership dead, and a full third of their military force gone within a year, the Ganglion fell to pieces within a week. Warlordism grew rampant, and the Humans wasted no time in fortifying several outposts and largely erasing the Ganglion presence from Primordia. All of that was about to change, however.

In one week the remaining Ganglion leaders had agreed to meet at Sylvalum's Anvil Rock Fortress, where the matter of leadership and what to do with the Human's and their allies would be decided. Nahum had a plan already in motion that would help advertise her ability to effectively strike against the humans, and the repairs to Nardacyon were proceeding, albeit slowly.

She was interrupted from her thoughts by her adjutant, a female apprentice Mislaadi, arriving at her side holding a view screen.

She looked at her icily and said, "The purpose of this?"

She looked down and quietly said, "The sensors for Nardacyon were intercepted and stolen by the Humans. Video surveillance captured the raid."

She went perfectly still and resisted the urge to break something. Instead she calmly asked, "And it is necessary to show me, why?"

"You have encountered this human before."

That caught her interest and she motioned at her to start the video. It started off routine, with some Prone lazily making their way towards a piece of human machine wreckage in the distance. She shook her head. The fools were simply to recover the required materials and return to base, not engage in a treasure hunt.

She kept silent and continued to watch, until the opening explosions and gunfire took out the leading troops and halted the transport. The camera kept displaying however, the initial volley had merely disabled it's navigation controls. Nahum was unsure of what she was supposed to be looking for until a shape crashed down on one of the rear Prone with surprising force, killing it in an instant. She watched with fascination as this Human tore through the remaining troops with predatory efficiency, engaging in hand-to-hand combat with seven Prone and winning. In a mere seventeen seconds this human with hardly any help from it's allies took down a squad more than twice it's size without the aid of any heavy weaponry. Simply fascinating.

And sure enough, she recognized that fighting style. While she hadn't personally been at the attack on the Wrothian base, reports and video of the failed attack showed two Humans with the same style of combat repeatedly taking out Ganglion forces, making concentrated assaults an impossible task. Which meant that her campaign was now personal.

She nodded at her adjutant and said, "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Contact our agents in NLA and tell them to begin."

She nodded and retreated to perform her tasks. Nahum stared into nothing and thought, "Enjoy your easy victories, Humans. You have been lucky to be up against fools and incompetents throughout your stay on this planet. Now I'll show you what a real soldier can do."