Astronos

                                             Astronos

                                             Prologue

                The entire escape shuttle shook violently as another ripple passed around it.  The energy pulses exploded out from the Velsior as chain-reactions detonated the giant space cruiser.  The shuddering was enough to keep the ten armor-clad Astronos soldiers belted tight into their seats. 

                The flashing warning lights indicating failed systems, swerving trajectory of the damaged shuttle, and the sounds of leaking atmosphere had the eight younger fighters confused and frightened.  The Velsior was their first assignment after having graduated from the Astronos Training Facility, and it had been destroyed by an enemy battleship only three weeks into its patrol.  Attempting to salvage the situation, and get the shuttle pointed toward the nearby planet were the chief medical technician and the squad’s commander.  Vimren worked frantically at sealing the various weak points venting oxygen, while Captain Cyrus fought with the shuttle’s only functioning engine of the four it had to keep on course.  They sat in the mobile center chairs, working along the aisle that divided the eight graduates in half along each side of the craft.

                Shadow and Silent sat huddled close, hands clasped together and quiet as always.  To Silent’s right were Titan and Horizon, they too stayed quiet and fought to remain calm against their concerns.  Across from these four sat Carnage, Vengeance, Havoc and Maelstrom.  They cursed under their breaths at the “cowards” who fight with ships instead of on the battlefield like true warriors.  Being forced to flee from a situation where their particular training was useless made them angry and spiteful.

                  Being new soldiers, none of them were allowed to use or reveal their true names until deemed worthy by a commanding officer and were forced to go by code names assigned at their school.  Each code name spoke to their particular character and battle tactics.  The eight had purposely divided in the manner they now sat, sitting by their sub designations. 

                Those on Carnage’s side of the shuttle were known as Battlers, aggressive and unmatched in head-on battle this type of soldier made up the majority of the Astronos army.  The other four were broken down into several of the less common types.  Horizon was a die-hard Sniper, preferring to engage at a distance and make all approaches to her inaccessible using traps, terrain features and other methods.  Silent and Shadow functioned under the broad arch-type of Assassins.   Unlike most of the Astronosians who worked in this manner, the two often functioned as a pair.  The squad’s running joke being that you’d never hear him, and you’d never see her, and you’d be dead before you knew they were there.  The remaining soldier, Titan, was a Defender.  This was the rarest title among the army, because these soldiers had to show time and again that they would set their life on the line for those in their squad.  Given the heaviest armor, most devastating weapons, and trained in the most rigorous courses, Defenders could often stand up against two or three Battlers and still hold their own.

                ”Captain, I believe I have sealed all of the remaining leaks,” Vimren said, sliding back along the track of his chair to sit beside the captain at the controls.

                ”Good timing, doctor.  We’re about to enter the planet’s atmosphere.  What do we know about this place?” Cyrus asked.

                ”Planet name: Destiron,” the medical officer read from a monitor, “Population: human.  Technology level: modern industrial.  Galactic presence: none.  Atmosphere: Tolerable.  Language: off-branch of core language that became our own.  I’m uploading a translation-module into each of your chips now, as well as the planetary information module.  Though it appears the information on this planet is at least one hundred years old and may be outdated.”

                ”No galactic presence,” the Captain thought aloud, “That means they’re about to meet their first ‘aliens’.  Be prepared for any kind of response and expect initial hostility and suspicion.”

                The other nine men and women nodded and skimmed briefly through the vast amount of information flooding their neural microchips.

                ”Entering  atmosphere now,” said the robotic voice of the shuttle’s computer.

                A brief glimpse of a blue and green planet flashed across the viewing window at the front of the craft before becoming obscured by the flames bursting around the shuttle as it pierced Destiron’s atmosphere.  After several seconds there was a brief moment of a cracking sound and a large bump in the craft’s trajectory. 

                ”Engine 3 now offline,” the shuttle voice announced.

                ”Captain…how can we land with no engines?” Havoc asked, fear evident in her voice.

                ”We hope the shuttle is harder then whatever we hit,” the Captain said sardonically, leaning back in his chair as the controls were now useless. 

                The viewing window finally cleared as they breached into the planetary sky, allowing them a rough idea of where they were going to land.  Below them was what looked like a vast jungle with jagged hills popping up amongst the trees and swamps.  Directly in front of them…

                ”Captain…,” Havoc’s voice came out quietly, so quietly that only the in-helmet comm-link picked it up, “Is the shuttle harder than that?”

                A massive mountain chain of orange-brown stone rose before them, directly in their path.

                ”To tell you the truth kid, I really hope so.”

                The shuttle streaked forward and slammed straight into the cliff side, hitting a jagged outcrop that pierced through the viewing window.  The sharp rock sliced through both of the senior officers, along the aisle, and out the back of the craft.  Blood sprayed as Vimren and Cyrus were effectively cut in half, drenching Titan and Maelstrom’s armor and helmets.  The whole craft shuttered for a moment, then the fires started.

               

===================================================================

                                       Chapter One

                The cadets sat stunned, Maelstrom shaking as the blood of his former commander slowly slid down his helmet’s mask.  Puddles of fuel spilled from the storage tanks where the rock had slashed them open, and sparks had now ignited them, starting small fires that threatened to slowly spread up into the cabin.  The shuttle creaked quietly as its own weight caused the roof of the craft to gradually give to the rock, leaving only a short period of time before the entire craft would rip free and plummet several miles to the jungle floor.

                Titan was the first to react, wiping the blood from his mask he ripped his harness free and then shook Horizon until she came out of her shock.  She unbuckled herself and turned to see that Shadow and Silent were already trying to figure out how to get out from around the rock.  It had missed the cadets sitting along the sides of the shuttle, but it had pinned them in with almost no room to maneuver.  Another ominous creak sounded from the roof, and Titan activated the small force shields around his gauntlets that they often used in melee. 

                He took an exploratory swing at the rock, managing only to chip a small fist sized piece away.  The faint humming produced by the small energy shield was familiar enough, however, to snap the Battlers back to the real world.  All but Maelstrom, who remained shaking and blood-covered, activated their own power fists and started swinging.

                They appeared to be slowly making progress when Shadow’s calm, quiet voice echoed across the comm-link.

                ”If we break it, we fall to our deaths.”

                Her statement froze the four mid-swing.  They slowly lowered their arms as another squeal came from the metal over their heads, and a visible tear began to show.  The fires, too, had not abated, and were nearly at the doorway into the cabin.  Carnage and Shadow looked at the flames with concern, but turned back to the more immediate problem.  Without a word of warning to anyone, Titan turned, surged the energy in his power fist, and punched a hole straight through the side of the shuttle.  Not even the reinforced alloy of the craft could stand up to a fully powered Defender. 

                Titan peeled a fairly large piece of the side of the ship back before the power surge ran out, and he was forced to stop.  The shuttle shook and groaned through his work, the rip growing in the ceiling expanding at an alarming rate.  He slid sideways off the bench of seats, and stood next to the rock and the hole, reaching through to grab the side of the cliff.  Once he had a handhold, he slid on his stomach through the opening and disappeared from sight.

                ”Titan?”  Horizon’s worried voice pinged the comms.

                ”Slide down the bench and crawl out, once you’re clear I’ll try to rip open the other side,” answered a gruff voice, the sounds of Titan scrabbling along the cliff face coming through in the background.

                Horizon, Silent, and then Shadow quickly complied.  Climbing out through a hole barely large enough for Titan’s armor, and only slightly more allowing for their own, they scrambled out and swung themselves onto the cliff wall.  Their energy infused grips clinging easily to the rough handholds. 

                ”Clear,” Shadow announced as she mounted the wall beside Silent.

                A loud clang echoed, followed by a crunch as Titan’s second attempt managed to slice through the armor of the shuttle again.  A horrible, screeching, ripping sound came from the tortured metal holding the whole mess up as it began to peel back even faster.  The Defender quickly tore a hole open and ripped the still stunned Maelstrom out from inside.  Havoc came out right behind him, and Vengeance behind her.  Titan pressed Maelstrom to the wall, as the two climbed out, keeping a grip on him until the boy gathered his wits enough to cling to the wall.  Carnage made it half-way through the opening before the ship finally tore free of the outcrop, and plunged toward the canopy several miles below.   A terrified cry broke out in their helmets as the Battler began to fall with the craft, but was suddenly cut off.  Titan gave a loud grunt as the full weight of Carnage and his armor hit him, but he managed to cling to the rock face with one hand, the falling Battler dangling in the other.  Havoc and Vengeance climbed to his side quickly, helping him get handholds, and allowing Titan to resecure his own grip.

                ”Thank you,” even with the comm Carnage’s words could barely be heard, though no one knew if he had been scared into being quiet, or more likely for their culture, ashamed at having to be rescued.

                ”My risk for the good of the squad,” Titan answered, reciting a common Defender saying when entering dangerous situations or saving comrades at risk to their own lives.

                With no commanding officer to give orders, an awkward silence fell over their comm-link.  The squad moved carefully, beginning the long climb down to the ground below.

*************************************************************************************

                A soft thud sounded across the sun-dappled area of the jungle that the squad had climbed down to as the last soldier, Maelstrom, jumped a few feet to the ground.

                ”What now?” he asked, looking around at the massive trees and dense undergrowth apprehensively.

                The silence that followed was oppressive.  These soldiers, ages sixteen through twenty-two, had spent their lives since the age of eight training to be soldiers.  They were taught how to fight, and they were taught how to follow orders, little else beyond that mattered to them.  Without guidance they were confused, completely incapable of functioning at their best.

                ”It will be dark soon,” Titan spoke slowly, ponderously, “We should…..set up a camp.”

                Even this small decision was made hesitantly, and only because the Defender’s desire to keep his team safe was winning out over his desire to follow the chain of command.  He was encouraged to reinforce this proclamation, however, when he turned to see the other seven members looking for him to expand on his “order”.  He took a deep breath, tried to imagine what Cyrus would say if he were still there, and did his best for the sake of morale.

                ”Horizon, find a good place for us to post watch and clear some sight lines.  Silent and Shadow, give me a perimeter, fifteen yards out.  Stay close and keep your comms on.  Battlers, scrap some of this brush and the smaller trees, get us a shelter set up.”

                The seven armor-clad fighters jumped to follow the orders.  Their movements were quick, and they went about their tasks efficiently.  Horizon found a moss-covered boulder with a small depression in the top that would offer cover but provide good oversight of the area, and began sighting lines through the trees.  Silent and Shadow moved in opposite directions and quickly disappeared as their adaptive armor blended with their surroundings.  Maelstrom and Havoc set to clearing an area of brush while Carnage chopped small trees with his power fist and Vengeance ripped down vines and broad leaves for binding and covering.  While all of this happened around him, Titan stood still in the center of camp attempting to look as an officer would.

                It was an incredibly bizarre experience for him to give orders.  Even more odd was how quickly his squad mates had accepted and followed them.  He considered himself to be one of them, and indeed he was in rank.  So strange was it to him that he could only stand slightly stunned amid the flurry of action trying to figure out what should happen next.

                After about an hour had passed, Titan gave up his philosophical pondering for a time and made rounds like he’d seen officers do during their mock field missions.  His first stop was the makeshift shelter constructed from saplings and vines.  It had a roof consisting of a mesh of vines, covered with the broad leaves and sealed with tree sap.  Though it would be of little use in a fight or other dangerous situation, it would serve to keep any weather away and allow them some privacy.  The structure was big enough to fit four of the soldiers and their armor, and Maelstrom, Havoc, and Vengeance were already half-way through building the second one.  They had built them directly across from each other, several paces between them, just as they would have done had they been setting up field tents in the army. 

                When he finally turned away from examining the small structure, he saw the three  Battlers looking at him expectantly.  He was confused for only a moment before realizing they wanted his opinion.  They were looking at him as they would an officer inspecting any initial camp set up.  Resigning himself to his strange and, he hoped temporary, new position he met each of their eyes.

                ”Well made soldiers, as soon as you finish the second one we can discuss bunk assignments.  Once we’ve discussed who’s sleeping where, maybe you can begin work on camouflaging them to match our surroundings a bit.  Where’s Carnage?”

                ”Setting up an area behind the boulder for a fireplace, sir,” Maelstrom answered as the three turned back to their work.

                Titan started a bit at Maelstrom’s words but quickly hid his uncertainty.  His mind knew that addressing him as sir was just a reflex, but it set him to thinking even more about the squad and who should be leading it.  He started walking toward the back of the boulder, for the fire would be there to keep from blinding whoever was on watch.  The location would also be easier to cover, keeping the flickering on the cliff face from view.  Understanding all of these things came more naturally to Titan then the position he’d been thrust into.  As he walked he pinged the comms.

                “ Shadow, Silent, report in.”

                “Sitting at left point, fifteen yards out like you said Titan.  Silent is at right, same distance.  Neither of us has seen anything except for a few birds and lizards.  We’ll call if anything worth noting shows up,” Shadow’s beautiful voice answered. 

                Titan mentally triggered a small diagram to form on his helmet’s screen.  He drew a line to represent the cliff face, and then formed a small semi circle around it to represent the camp’s perimeter.  He then added Shadow one third of the way out from the left, and Silent one third of the way from the right point of contact with the cliff.  He added Horizon’s boulder with her perched atop it toward the back of the camp, and the two shelters toward the center of the small semi-circle.  He shaded the area inside of the shape green, indicating checked and safe, then shipped it out through the squad’s data-links before closing it from his view.

                “Everyone else mark your positions and keep it updated please,” he requested, “We need to know where everyone is at all times until we find a safer place to hole up.” 

                He received seven “orders confirmed” pings that showed as small blue dots with each squad members name flashing once in the left of his view screen.  Just then he rounded the corner to find Carnage clearing away brush in a wide area for the fire.  He switched off his comm and strode over to the Battler.  Carnage looked up as the heavily-armored footsteps of the Defender announced his presence. 

                “Nearly done here,” Carnage announced.

                Titan thought he heard a bit of resentment in his voice, but as they almost always did, Carnage had his helmet mask colored opaque so his face couldn’t be seen.  Titan had only ever seen Vengeance and Maelstrom’s actual faces, and that was because he had bunked with them at one point during his training when they slept with their armor off.  It was standard practice to keep the view screen one-way visible only, and most soldiers kept an image on the faceplate to scare enemies and bolster allies.  Titan simply displayed the face of a stone statue when among friends, but even here in their own camp Carnage had his battle mask on, the face of a demon with blood-covered fangs.

                “Why wear your battle mask now, when you’re among friends?” he asked with honest curiosity.

                “Why take the position of acting officer when you’re the same rank as us?  You’re not even a Battler,” Carnage snapped back.

                Titan sat silent for a moment, stunned.

                “I never asked to be in charge.  I only did what I thought would most benefit the squad.  As far as not being a Battler…the Captain wasn’t a Battler either.  In fact, he wasn’t even a direct-combat specification.  He trained as an Ambusher in Astronos, I asked him once.”

                “Battlers are the strongest in combat!  We’re stronger, faster, and fiercer than any other soldier.  I’m also the oldest one here, twenty two, that’s three years older then you if I don’t miss my guess.  I’m the one who should be in command here,” Carnage answered, starting to move toward Titan, “I could take you in combat, the strongest should serve as our leader.”

                He lunged at Titan, using a boost to his leg armor to leap with more force.  The big Defender didn’t even flinch as the Battler knocked him to the ground.

                “I won’t fight you Carnage.”

                “I’ll force you to.  Fight me for the position of acting officer you big bastard,” the Battler challenged, pounding on Titan’s think armor with energy-enhanced fists, “Fight me!”

                Titan endured half a dozen painful blows without moving before Carnage’s weight suddenly disappeared from his chest.  He glanced up to see Silent had blind-sided the angry soldier, knocking him aside.  Carnage rolled with the blow, attempting to rise up for a swing at the smaller, lighter-armored Assassin.  Before he could clear his knees, however, a mildly enhanced kick to the helmet from Silent sent him rolling until he collided with the cliff.  Silent leapt the distance easily and knelt on the fallen Battler’s chest, a blade pressed against the joint in Carnage’s neck armor.

                Titan wasn’t sure where the blade had come from, all their weapons were supposed to have been stored in the weapons closet of the shuttle.  What he was sure about, was that this had escalated out of control far too quickly, and the whole situation needed to be cooled off.  Just then Horizon showed up on top of the boulder’s edge.

                “What in the name of Astronos is happening over here?” she asked, and then she saw the blade at Carnage’s throat and shouted, “Silent!  You get off of him right now.”

                The Assassin didn’t move an inch, the eyes of his mask were locked with Carnage’s, and living up to his name he didn’t say a word.  He let his gaze do all of his talking when Shadow wasn’t around to speak for him. 

                Having heard the distinctive noise of energy punches against armor, the rest of the squad finally showed up.  The other three Battlers moved as if to rescue their fellow, but Titan stepped between them and the pair beside the cliff.  His bulk and thick armor made them pause, and the shake of his head kept them still.

                Shadow, being the last to show up, easily dodged around the Defender and leapt, landing beside Silent.  Those watching heard her talking, but it was too quiet to hear what she said.  Titan was glad that whatever it was she’d said was enough to convince Silent to sheath his blade.  He stood up off of Carnage, and with a final glare at him, walked over to lean against the boulder below Horizon.  Shadow followed him, purposely stepping around the prone Battler rather than help him up.  Titan finally let the other three pass, and they jogged the short distance to Carnage’s side, pulling him to his feet.

                “Looks like we need to talk,” Titan announced.

*************************************************************************************

                The group of soldiers sat in a circle around the fire that Titan had started behind the boulder.  Silent leaned against the rock where he had been since leaving Carnage’s chest, and Shadow stood beside him.  Horizon perched sideways above them, keeping an eye on the meeting and their surroundings at the same time, unable to relax her Sniper senses.  The Battlers had all grouped opposite the fire from the Assassins and Titan stood halfway along the circle between the two groups.

                ”So…” Maelstrom asked, the curiosity of the youngest soldier getting the better of the sixteen year old, “what happened exactly?”

                An awkward pause followed as Titan and Carnage’s gazes met. 

                ”Carnage jumped me, claiming he wanted to fight for leadership of the squad.  When I would not fight him, he began punching in an attempt to force me to comply.  I continued ignoring him, and Silent knocked him off of me.  One kick later they were in the position you all saw when you arrived,” Titan stated in his deep voice, it reverberated back off the cliff wall and disappeared into the night.

                The six other soldiers all turned toward the oldest Battler who shrugged.

                ”Battlers are stronger, if he can’t beat me in combat then he shouldn’t be the leader,” he said, as if that should explain it all, “Of course that little scumbag over there had to step in because neither of them could take me in a fair fight.”

                Shadow’s hand shot up and she pulsed some energy through it as she threw her arm across Silent’s chest.  She knew him so well that her arm was in place to hold him back just as he went to leap across the fire at Carnage. 

                ”Behave,” she whispered, quiet enough that only Silent and Horizon sitting overhead could hear.  Carnage smirked under his mask as he watched.

                ”She knows what she’s doing Silent.  She knows that I would murder you if you tried.”

                Silent didn’t even look at Carnage, instead meeting Shadow’s gaze and giving a small nod.  She removed her arm and they both relaxed against the boulder.  Carnage looked slightly annoyed that his provoking hadn’t worked and turned toward Titan.

                ”I challenge you to trial by arms for the right to command this squad.”

                He stepped forward and stood tall and straight, glaring defiantly at Titan.  The Defender only shook his head.

                ”I already told you I won’t fight.  I especially won’t fight for a position I never wanted in the first place.”

                ”Then I rightly claim the position of command,” said Carnage, crossing his arms and looking smug.

                Shadow suddenly stepped forward from where she stood, her armor fading back to its natural smoky grey coloring from matching the rock behind her where she’d been leaning.

                ”I’ll do it,” she announced quietly.

                ”You’ll do what?” Carnage snapped, “Hold your little pet back from getting himself killed again?”

                Helmets turned toward Silent, and the Battlers tensed for a fight, everyone certain that Silent would attack at this insult.  Instead the shoulders of the Assassin shook as if he were laughing, though of course no laughter was heard. 

                ”If I recall correctly, Battler,” Shadow put an emphasis on the last word that dripped with venom, “Silent was about to kill you last time I pulled him away. “

                Carnage snarled quietly at this statement.

                ”However, that is in the past,” she continued, “I will fight you in trial of arms for Titan’s right to serve as Captain of this squad.”

                ”Shadow, no!” Titan exclaimed.

                The female Assassin simply held a hand out to silence his protest and turned toward Carnage.

                ”Well?” she asked, a mocking smile creeping across the face of the wispy shadow creature that she wore on her mask.

                Carnage’s own mask, with its hideous demon face, split as if in a feral scream when he answered.

                ”Very well.  My proposed rules are no weapons, no traps, and,” he glanced at Silent, “no help from others.  Do you agree?”

                Shadow nodded, and in response everyone moved back a few strides.   As soon as the other six were clear, a steady hum began to emanate from the two standing in the center of the area between the cliff and boulder.  They began to circle and energy pulsed into their legs and arms, preparing to make their move.  Silent strolled over to casually stand beside Titan and the big soldier looked over at him.

                ”Battlers are at their best in head-to-head combat, she can’t possibly hope to beat him.  I don’t want her to be hurt standing up for me Silent.”

                The Assassin looked back at him, the two eyes that were all that showed on his mask seemed almost to look inside of the Defender.  He shook his head and pointed back toward the fight, then sat down to watch.  Titan simply shook his own head, marveling at Silent’s trust, then sat beside him and turned to watch the battle.  Horizon perched atop the boulder looking upset, but still keeping an eye focused around them as well.  The other three Battlers had at first nervously watched Silent as he moved, but once he had settled onto the ground they too moved to sit with their backs against the cliff.

                Suddenly Carnage charged forward, swinging a heavy punch at Shadow.  For a second it seemed like the fight would be even quicker than expected, but the Assassin rolled aside at the last second and kicked out as she passed.  Carnage leapt over the kick, then immediately spun and jumped back toward her.  She feinted to her left, and Carnage jumped forward in a grapple attempt, missing by an entire arm span as she spun the other way.  They had created a small gap and began circling again.  The short pause gave the on-lookers an opportunity to see that the shadow-beast’s eyes now glowed red on Shadow’s mask, and blood ran freely from the jaws of the demon on Carnage’s.

                ”Sit still you little she-devil,” Carnage spat.

                ”Catch me if you can,” she answered with a small laugh.

                It was just enough to goad the Battler forward again.  He charged, moving side to side slightly as he came on to make dodging more difficult.  Rather than risk it, she turned and bolted toward the boulder.

                ”Nowhere to dodge this time, sweet heart,” he shouted as the gap closed to the point where Shadow could no longer dodge to either side.

                Luckily for her, she never intended to go to one side or the other.   Instead she jumped up and ran three full strides up the boulder before flipping backward.  Carnage, who had a slight advantage in speed, couldn’t quite stop in time and slammed into the boulder.  Just as he recovered and turned to look for the Assassin she fell down in front of him, an energy enhanced kick to the mask slamming the back of his head against the boulder.

                Shadow flipped backwards once to put some room between herself and the Battler, and waited.  Carnage moved groggily for a couple steps then shook his head a few times.  He snarled in a bestial way and used an energy enhanced lunge to close the distance, catching his opponent by surprise.  She had expected the kick and subsequent head collision to knock Carnage out, instead she was almost positive she felt a rib snap as she caught a heavy punch in the side.

                As the female rolled part way across the cleared area, Titan took a moment to glance at Silent.  The other Assassin tensed for a moment, but seemed to still be confident.  Titan was almost positive Silent would step in if he didn’t believe Shadow could handle it.

                The grey-armored girl rose to her feet, and rolled just in time to dodge a heavy kick from Carnage.  The Battler over-compensated when he missed, and she took advantage.  Jumping behind him, she blasted him square in the back with an enhanced punch that sent him hurtling several feet forward in his unbalanced state.  She quickly jumped up on top of the boulder, forcing Horizon to jump aside so she wouldn’t interfere with the contest.  As Carnage rose he put a hand to his back, cursing quietly, then turned and looked up at Shadow.

                ”Come on down, let’s finish this” he called, pounding one fist into the other.

                Shadow knelt and pushed out with one arm as if to jump behind him again.  Expecting this move the Battler pulsed extra energy and spun into a full round-house kick that would connect right before her feet touched the ground.  Instead, as he spun, she pulled herself back with the hand that was still on the rock and slid down behind him.  Carnage made a noise of confusion as his leg passed through nothing, but the sheer power he had invested into the kick kept him spinning.  His leg collided painfully with the boulder just as his body turned to face Shadow.  The shadow beast on her mask began laughing and that was the last thing he saw before her fist hit his chest with nearly as much force as he had put behind his kick.  The sheer trauma of such a powerful blow overloaded his suit’s systems and a large portion of the force wasn’t dispersed as it normally would be, instead passing into Carnage’s body.  The Battler howled in pain and collapsed to the ground, curling into a ball and gasping.

                As soon as she was certain he’d given up the fight, Shadow allowed herself to feel the pain that had built up from the single punch he’d landed.  He may have only hit her once, but it had been in a weak spot and the pain was excruciating.  She limped over to Silent, who helped her lie down and get comfortable before motioning for Titan to step forward.

                As he stepped forward, looking up from the pair, he saw where the three younger Battlers knelt around their older squad mate.  Carnage had managed to straighten out on the ground, lying flat on his back once his suit had reactivated, but he still hadn’t managed to sit up.    He grimaced at the realization that two of the seven he was sworn to protect now shook in pain because of him.

                “I will serve as commander of this squad,” Titan announced, his voice was resolute, brooking no argument, but under his breath he continued, “despite never being asked if I wanted the position.”

                All but Carnage nodded their heads in acceptance; the older Battler simply lay still and focused on breathing.

                “The Battlers will sleep together, and the rest will sleep in the other shelter.  The only exception will be Maelstrom and I trading places.   Does everyone understand?”

                Another rounds of nods, even Carnage managed to acknowledge this statement.

                “Good.  Havoc, Vengeance, take Carnage to your room and see to him.  Maelstrom, you will help Silent with Shadow.  Horizon, you keep watch until I send someone to relieve you,” Titan ordered.

                Maelstrom looked down at Carnage for confirmation, his natural instinct to do as ordered by the oldest of his order.

                “Maelstrom,” Titan spoke quietly but firmly.

                The younger boy looked back toward him, the constant violent waves that crashed against the edges of his mask and collided with one another seemed more turbulent then normal to match his confusion.

                “I am your officer now, not Carnage.  You will help Silent escort Shadow to the shelter, understood?”

                The red-armored soldier rose to his feet and snapped off a salute, fist to flat palm held in front of his chest. 

                “Yes sir.”

                He walked quickly to the side of the Assassins as Havoc and Vengeance carefully lifted Carnage up and headed toward the shelters.

                “How can I help?” he asked quietly from a few steps away, seeming nervous about coming closer.

                Silent pointed to the brush nearby and a small picture of a plant flashed up in the corner of Maelstrom’s view.  He ran it against his planetary data and matched it to an entry of a plant said to have pain-reducing qualities when ground and mixed with water.  The young Battler nodded his understanding and headed into the brush as Silent gingerly lifted Shadow and headed in the direction the Battlers had gone.

                Horizon had crawled back to the side of the boulder that gave her the best view of the surrounding jungle, and Titan remained standing in the middle of the clearing alone.  He watched the flames of the guttering fire dance for a short time as he considered what had unfolded since their crash.  After a few minutes he reached into the dying fire and pulled out a partially burnt branch before dropping more wood in to keep the flames from going out.  He used the blackened limb to draw a single black chevron on each of the blue shoulder-plates of his armor, then tossed it back into the fire and headed toward their primitive camp.

*************************************************************************************

                Maelstrom entered the makeshift structure just in time to hear a small whimper of pain.  It had taken him about half an hour to find the plant Silent had asked for, but he had searched diligently and finally discovered a small patch about fifty yards from the camp near a small stream.  Being thoughtful, he also filled both of the canteens he always carried at his waist with the cool spring water then had hurried back to camp.

                Silent looked up as he entered and nodded his thanks as the Battler handed him the plants.

                “I found some water too,” he said timidly, holding out a canteen.

                Silent took the canteen and checked the bar on the side to be sure the water was clean.  The indicator gave off a faint blue glow that meant “ok to drink”, and he popped the cap off.  Next he sliced up the leaves and stems Maelstrom had brought with the blade he had held to Carnage’s throat earlier.  He put the pieces on a large flat rock and ground them up with the butt of his knife, then poured the paste into the canteen.  Replacing the cap, he shook it vigorously for several seconds then offered it to Shadow.  Just as she took it, he realized she would have to remove her helmet to drink, and turned to Maelstrom.  The boy had watched all the preparation with interest but had turned to look out the small entryway now that the medicine was prepared.  Silent stopped Shadow from removing her helm with a slight touch on the wrist, then tapped Maelstrom’s shoulder.

                The Battler turned, startled, and then realized what had been about to happen.  Silent made a shooing gesture but Shadow grabbed his arm.

                “Leave him be Silent, he’s just a boy.  Besides, he helped by getting the plants,” she said softly.

                There was a pause while Silent turned toward her.

                “Yes, I know he’s a Battler,” she answered as if the question had been spoken aloud as she released the seals on her helmet, “but he’s not like the others.  He’s quiet, and kind, and has a good heart.”

                Another short pause followed.

                “I can leave if you’d rather I not see, Shadow.  I really don’t mind, honest,” Maelstrom said, his voice still sounding fairly nervous as he looked at Silent.

                “That,” she said with emphasis as she pulled her helmet off, “is how I know he has a good heart Silent.  The matter is not up for debate, he stays in case we need something more.”

                Maelstrom thought the way Silent’s shoulders fell, that he was probably giving a resigned sigh, but as always there was no sound to indicate he was right.  Figuring he was pretty safe after Shadow’s decree he took the chance to glance down at Shadow.  Even at his young age he could see why Silent would want to keep her to himself, she was beautiful. 

                Shadow’s red-blonde hair was plastered to her head as any soldier’s would be after wearing a helmet for a full day as they had.  She had big, expressive green eyes and a soft smile that was practically the exact opposite of the one the shadow-beast had shown during her fight with Carnage.  She met his gaze and smiled even deeper before taking a deep drink from the canteen.  They sat in silence until Shadow finished the last of the canteen and started to put her helmet back on.  Just as she slid it into place and clicked the seals, Maelstrom turned to Silent.

                “I won’t tell anyone what I saw,” he said, conviction in his voice, “I promise.”

                The soul-searing eyes of Silent’s mask gazed at Maelstrom for several heart beats before he finally nodded, and Maelstrom felt like he may have gained the Assassin’s trust.  He turned back to Shadow and thought he saw the kind smile through her mask for a split second before the shadow-beast’s face came back, looking passive for the moment.  She lay back down with a small gasp at the pain in her ribs, and tried to relax.

                “I grabbed some extra leaves and stems, enough for a few back up doses.  I know you fought him, but would it be alright if I took some to Carnage?” Maelstrom asked, the request making him nervous again.

                “Of course you can,” Shadow said with a small laugh she instantly regretted as her side flared with pain again, “He’s still a part of our squad, and we protect our own.  Grab Horizon on your way, she knows a small bit of first-aid, all Snipers are forced to learn some.  Tell her Silent and I will take the watch.”

                Maelstrom nodded, and disappeared out of the tent, headed toward the boulder where Horizon sat.

*************************************************************************************

                Silent and Shadow had taken over the watch, and darkness had fallen a few hours ago.  Shadow’s injury still pained her, but she was able to move around fairly well so she had chosen to stay out on the boulder while Silent kept watch.  She lay now, curled along the contour of the depression atop the boulder with her head in Silent’s lap as his eyes endlessly scanned the darkness surrounding the small camp.  He clicked on the impromptu map that Titan had created and linked to the others to check up on everyone’s positions. 

                Titan, Carnage, Havoc and Vengeance all slept in the first shelter.  They had fallen asleep quickly after the exhausting and terrifying day, and would likely not wake until Silent pulled Vengeance out for his shift of the watch.  Horizon, too, was fast asleep in the second shelter.  Maelstrom’s dot showed near the stream that he had found and drawn in on the map.  He had awoken a short time ago and reported to the watchers that he was going to gather some more water to create another batch of pain reliever for Shadow and Carnage.  Though Shadow was largely recovered, she knew that the mix would give her an edge back in case of trouble, and Carnage still needed it after the trauma he’d gone through from her over-charged punch.  He was just about to click the map off when a small group of red dots appeared beside Maelstrom’s blue one.  The only way they could have been added was by someone in the squad.

                With a small amount of confusion, he nudged Shadow and she quietly pinged the comm-link for the young Battler.

                ”There’s something out here Shadow,” his frightened voice came back in answer, “Something big, something that growls.”

                Shadow tensed and rose as Silent leapt off the rock toward the shelters.  They couldn’t afford to be loud enough to wake the others over the comm lest the beasts hear it through Maelstrom’s end.  He shook the first four awake, though Carnage was in too much pain to do much more then sit up, then rushed over to wake Horizon.

                ”Keep talking Maelstrom, what’s happening?” Titan asked, keeping his voice quiet as the squad gathered in the camp.

                ”They’re getting closer, crossing the river.  They look like…I think they saw me!” he whispered loudly.

                Following that sentence they didn’t need the link to hear Maelstrom’s shout.  Silent’s blade flashed as he unsheathed it and disappeared into the woods before anyone else could speak.  Shadow was about to follow when Titan grabbed her arm.

                ”You stay and watch Carnage, he’s more defenseless then Maelstrom is and you’re still wounded,” he ordered.

                Shadow tensed as if to protest, but the motion brought another flash of pain across her ribs and she nodded reluctantly.

                ”Yes sir.”

                ”The rest of you with me,” he shouted, “Stay tight.”

                They formed into a compact diamond formation and sprinted toward Maelstrom’s shouting, each of them painfully aware of their empty sheathes and holsters.

                Silent was already half-way to where Maelstrom had been beside the river when the young Battler sprinted into view ten yards ahead of him. The Assassin pinged himself on the rough map in hopes that the younger soldier would turn toward him, but Maelstrom never got the chance.  He took one step toward Silent then collapsed to the ground under the massive weight of one of the creatures chasing him.  It was built like one of the giant hunting cats that were often used in training exercises at the Astronos facility, but this creature stood as tall at the shoulder as any of the soldiers.  It had five claws on each of its massive paws, and a club-like appendage swung on its powerful tail.  A loud screech echoed through the trees as the creature slashed at the pinned fighter, but despite the deep rents it tore in his armor, it didn’t quite pierce through to Maelstrom.  It didn’t get a second chance as Silent bulled into its side.

                The beast was large and heavy, but Silent managed to push it off of Maelstrom with an energy enhanced charge.  It regained its feet quickly and two more walked into the clearing where the ambush had happened.  The trio began to slowly circle Silent who stood protectively, with his blade bared before him, over Maelstrom.  Silent could see at least two more sets of eyes roaming in the darkness beyond the field and hoped fervently that the rest of his squad would show up before he had to make a desperate move.  He lowered one hand slowly, hoping to avoid provoking an attack, and signaled Maelstrom to rise.

                Just as Maelstrom gained his feet the original animal leapt forward with a powerful roar.  Pushing Maelstrom back down and into a sideways roll, Silent slid forward on his knees beneath the creature with his knife held high.  He felt the blade pierce skin, and then muscle, and nearly lost the blade as it started to catch in the tough sinew of the beast.  He pulsed energy into his hand to sustain his grip and the sharp metal finally tore through and slid along the entire length of the thing’s chest and belly before sliding free again.  It ended its pounce, landing on legs suddenly too weak to support it and collapsed on its side, blood and organs pouring freely from the arm-length slash in its stomach.   It let out one last pitiful, quiet bellow before closing its eyes and dying.  The other four animals paused at this, as if considering if this meal was worth the trouble.  After several long moments, and Maelstrom moving back to Silent’s side, the Assassin hoped that the pack had reconsidered.  Unfortunately it seemed they had not, and they charged together, four lean, muscle-bound hunting machines. 

                Silent moved to push Maelstrom out of the way again, thinking to give the boy at least a running head-start, but his hand met only empty air as he groped sideways.  Maelstrom had recovered from his initial terror and was now determined to earn his title of Battler.  The small, wiry soldier leapt forward and knocked one of the beasts out of its mid-air pounce, rolling into the brush.  The other three continued toward Silent, but the rest of the squad broke through the surrounding fauna and hit them from the side.  A frenzied, rolling brawl broke out between predators and soldiers as they fought head to head with fist and claw. 

                Titan grappled one of the animals down by himself, and punched it square in the muzzle.  He wound up for a second blow but this time found his fist intercepted and caught in powerful jaws.  Vengeance and Horizon trapped another between them, and alternated rushing in from opposite sides to deliver over-charged kicks and punches.  Havoc tackled the last of the beasts just before it reached Silent, but was quickly overwhelmed by its size as it rolled over on top of her.  She managed to flip the beast and hold it belly up just long enough for Silent to slice its throat open as he ran by.  The female Battler somersaulted backward, gasping in exertion as the animal thrashed in its death throes.

                Titan shouted as the creature bit even deeper into his gauntlet covered hand and punched the thing twice in the throat.  Its wind-pipe thoroughly crushed, the beast released the Defenders hand and wheezed as it struggled for air, slowly suffocating.  Silent jumped over that pair, seeing his blade wasn’t needed, and finally sprinted toward the last three.  Horizon, being a ranged fighter, was comparatively inexperienced in melee and had over-committed on one of her kicks.  The animal had taken advantage, pouncing on her and pinning her to the ground.  When Vengeance had jumped forward to crush the beasts ribs in, it had batted him aside with its bony club tail so hard that the cracking of bones could be heard across the field.  The beast was lowering its jaws toward the helpless Sniper’s helmet when Silent’s knife flew through the air and buried halfway up the blade into the thing’s side.  Silent followed in a leaping kick that pushed the beast off of his squad mate while also driving the blade in even deeper. 

                Havoc and Titan rushed across the field to finish off the downed creature, but it proved unnecessary.  Silent had gotten lucky and pierced its heart when he’d kicked the blade in up to its hilt.  All five of the soldiers were panting with exertion, and Vengeance groaned quietly where he lay.  Horizon too, lay unmoving where she’d been pinned, only her ragged breathing indicating that she lived.

                ”Maelstrom!” Titan shouted into the comm.

                ”I’m here,” came the quiet reply.

                The small Battler that everyone thought so incapable because of his age and size walked out of the brush.  On his shoulders was the corpse of the giant cat he’d collided with, its head hung at an odd angle, indicating the snapped neck that had caused its death.  Everyone, even Vengeance who was wracked with pain, seemed shocked and at a loss for words as he tossed the body onto the ground beside the last beast to fall.

                ”Shadow, everything ok at the camp?” Titan asked, still staring at the animal Maelstrom had slain.

                ”Two of the things tried to get at Carnage, I moved him up onto the boulder,” came the reply, exhaustion sounding clearly in her voice.

                ”We’re on our way, coming as quick as we can,” Titan said, starting to run back toward the camp with Havoc and Silent close behind. 

                Maelstrom stayed in the field to check on the two wounded soldiers.

                ”No need to rush,” Shadow still sounded weary and worn out, even a slight tinge of pain colored her voice, “They’re both dead, and neither of us is hurt too bad.” 

                ”How…,” Titan started to say, “Never mind, we’re on our way back.”

*************************************************************************************

                Darkness still masked the surrounding area an hour after the attack of the wild beasts.  The squad had gathered all of its members, and Maelstrom had gone back for the corpses of the beasts claiming they should at least use what they could off the kills.  While the Battler went back for the last body, Titan checked in on his squad.

                 Shadow still suffered from the punch Carnage had landed, and had a large bruise on her thigh where she’d caught a swipe from one of the big cats.  Thanks to her efforts, however, the defenseless Carnage hadn’t suffered more than a few bumps as Shadow had hurriedly raised him onto the boulder out of the reach of the predators.

                Horizon had a few bruised ribs from the weight of the creature, but she was far better off then Vengeance.  When the creature’s tail had knocked him aside it had broken his left arm and two of his ribs.  Horizon had managed to set the bones but he wouldn’t be able to get around for at least a day, and he wouldn’t be able to fight effectively for much longer than that, even with the advanced healing rate of an Astronos soldier.

                Maelstrom had escaped unharmed, with only four large slash marks in his armor to show.  Silent too had escaped unscathed, and thanks to his quick knife work had saved Havoc from harm too.  Titan himself had suffered worse than all but Vengeance.  The beast’s teeth had pierced through the armor on his hand in several places, and his left hand was completely useless until it recovered.

                Havoc now sat perched on the lookout boulder, taking watch.  Vengeance lay in one of the shelters with Horizon tending to him, Carnage slept deeply in the other.  Shadow had succumbed to her exhaustion as well and fallen asleep curled atop the rock in the shallow depression behind Havoc.  Titan sat just outside the shelter Horizon and Vengeance were in, waiting for the Sniper to examine his hand.

                ”Silent,” Maelstrom’s voice spoke quietly across the comm-link.

                The Assassin immediately tensed, trying to figure out how the battered squad could repel another attack.

                ”Will you come here please,” the young, quiet voice asked, his marker pinging on the map.

                Silent placed red dots with question marks, trying to understand which direction the danger was coming from as he ran toward the Battler.

                ”No, no,” Maelstrom responded, “No danger.  Slow down and stay quiet, please.”

                Puzzled the Assassin slowed, creeping forward quieter than anyone but Shadow could manage, and arrived beside the Battler.  Maelstrom lay in the brush looking out into the clearing where the last corpse lay on the ground.  Silent started to move up so he could see what was so interesting, but Maelstrom stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

                ”Promise me, no matter what, you won’t unsheathe your blade or power your armor,” the younger boy demanded.

                Silent looked at him, head cocked slightly so Maelstrom would understand the question that he couldn’t see on the hidden face behind the eyed mask.

                ”Just promise.”

                Silent considered for a moment, then nodded agreement.  Maelstrom moved his hand, and the Assassin crawled forward.  He saw the body of the first predator he had slain, slicing through its stomach as it had leapt at him.  With a pang of guilt he saw that it was not alone.  Three small cubs were roaming around the dead animal attempting to wake it up.  One licked its muzzle while the other two nuzzled at its side and chest.

                ”You can’t kill them Silent, they’re just babies,” the youth pleaded.

                Indeed the three hardly looked dangerous, miniature versions of the predatory beasts that had attacked the squad a mere hour ago.  The largest of them couldn’t have been taller than Maelstrom’s knee and from what he could see, their claws and fangs weren’t fully developed yet either.  He gave Maelstrom another inquisitive head-tilt and was amused when he actually guessed what he was asking.

                ”I think I can catch them using these,” he said, showing Silent three collars made from vines, and a hunk of dried meat he must have snuck onto the shuttle, “Once I have them collared, we can train them like the war animals they trained at Astronos.  We can keep them in one of the shelters until they’re tamed.”

                Silent shook his head at the last part, flashing first a picture of Carnage sleeping restlessly in one shelter, then Vengeance groaning inside the other.

                ”Okay, not in the shelters,” Maelstrom consented, “We can tie them up to a stake behind the boulder until I make a pen for them.”

                Silent nodded that this would be acceptable and he could hear the happiness in the younger soldiers voice as he asked one last question.

                ”Silent…you’ll make sure the others don’t kill them right?” he was completely focused on the older Assassin now, “We killed their parents, even if it was self-defense.  We should at least try to help them survive.”

                The Assassin nodded and clapped the boy’s shoulder reassuringly.

                ”Thanks Silent!  I knew I could trust you.”

                With that, Maelstrom snuck forward to attempt his capture of the cubs.  He never knew that for the first time in a long time, someone besides Shadow had made Silent smile behind his mask.  The older male couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen such youthful happiness, and was glad that an hour later he walked back into camp beside Maelstrom as the young Battler battled with the leashes to his three new pets.

=====================================================================================

                                         Chapter 2

               The squad awoke to the sounds of hammering and bird song, and the battered soldiers groggily crawled out of their shelters.  Silent sat atop the boulder as he had for the last six hours while the rest had slept.  All except Maelstrom of course.  The youngest of the squad had stayed up with Silent through the night, patiently finding thick branches and hammering them into the ground with energized punches.

                The soldiers stretched aching muscles in a quick exercise routine that they’d performed every morning while in training.  All but Vengeance were able to complete the entire workout, though Carnage still groaned quietly on occasion.  The most seriously injured Battler remained in the shelter he had slept in, unable to rise and struggling to breathe evenly. 

               Havoc and Horizon both took to the jungle after they finished stretching in search of the pain reducing plant and water.  The mood in the camp when they returned was ornery and somber, and everyone but the Assassins and Maelstrom complained of being sore.  Being batted around by giant animals had given everyone a fair amounts of bruises and pains, and spending an entire night’s rest in full combat armor did nothing but make it worse.  The squad had spent the night in their suits however, fearing to be caught unprotected should some other creatures find their way into camp.

               After the painkiller had been prepared and distributed to those who needed it, and the beasts from the night before had been skinned by Silent, the group gathered around the bodies.  Even Vengeance was carefully carried out to lay atop the boulder so he could hear and speak.

               “Today, we send a group to the shuttle.  It should be somewhere nearby, and if there’s anything we can salvage we need to get it back here and take stock of what we have,” Titan announced.

               The group nodded in agreement.

               “Vengeance won’t be able to make a trip, and someone needs to stay behind to keep an eye on those stupid beasts Maelstrom caught,” Havoc said, her tone indicating her belief that the cubs weren’t worth the effort the younger Battler was investing in them.

               Most eyes turned to the makeshift pen Maelstrom had constructed.  It stood six feet high and had a stick-and-vine woven roof with a simple wooden-latched door to keep the little animals contained.  Through the cracks between branches the squad members could see that the cubs had fallen asleep huddled close to one another.

“Silent and Maelstrom will both stay behind.  The animals are Maelstrom’s responsibility, and he’ll need to hunt to find them food, as well as gather water.  We’re certainly not going to feed their parents to them,” Titan seemed to have considered all of this already.

               “Silent wants to know why he’s being left behind,” Shadow spoke for him, “He feels that the two of us will be able to scout for the group much better than one Assassin alone.”

               “Horizon is a capable scout, she can assist you.  We need someone with those senses to remain behind and keep an eye on the camp.  Besides, he’s the only one armed for the time being and if there’s an attack his blade will be needed here where numbers are short,” he answered, turning to Silent he continued, “In the meantime you can use that knife of yours to harvest what meat there is to be had off of these, we’ll be needing food.”

               None of the soldiers look particularly pleased at the thought of eating the tough, stringy meat of the cats, but Titan was right and they would need food eventually.  Silent finally nodded in acceptance.

               “Good, that’s settled then.  We head east along the cliff in an hour, everyone should fill up on water before we move out,” with that Titan turned and headed toward the stream, other thoughts already occupying his mind.

The other four who would accompany him followed after, unclipping canteens from their waists as they walked.

                “Havoc!” Vengeance called.

                The female Battler turned at his call.

                “Can you fill mine for me?” he asked, wincing as he unclasped his canteen from his chest.

                “I don’t have time to take care of you, Vengeance.  Get one of the lower types to fetch it for you,” she answered, turning her back on him and walking away.

                Horizon grabbed the passing red-armored shoulder and spun Havoc around.

                “He’s a member of your squad, we take care of our own,” she said firmly.

                “Get your filthy Sniper hands off me,” Havoc spat, turning toward the river again.

                Horizon grabbed her shoulder again and Havoc spun, her fist swinging in a wide arc.  A large blue gauntlet grabbed her forearm before she connected, stopping her arm in mid-swing.

                “I’m tired of this infighting,” he said quietly through gritted teeth, throwing her arm down to her side, “You will take Vengeance’s canteen, fill it and both of yours, and give two of the full ones back to him.  Do you understand?”

                The skeletal face on Havoc’s mask indicated her anger by spitting flames as she snarled.

                “I said do you understand, Battler,” Titan restated in an icy voice.

                “Yes, sir,” she said after she caught Carnage shaking his head in the corner of her sight.

                She saluted and turned to go to Vengeance but found Horizon, having been disgusted with the amount of effort it required to get Havoc to help her fellow Battler, had already went back and grabbed his canteen.

                “Thank you…I-“ he started to say quietly enough that only Horizon could hear, but she interrupted him.

                “Battler or not, you’re still a part of my unit,” her voice was soft and reassuring.

                The Sniper turned and brushed past Havoc without so much as a glance, heading toward the river.  Havoc followed, sulking as she had been made to look like a capricious fool, and Titan brought up the rear to keep an eye on everyone.

*************************************************************************************

                Two hours had passed since the small group had headed along the cliff wall in pursuit of their crashed shuttle leaving Maelstrom, Vengeance and Silent behind at the camp.  Vengeance still lay atop the rock where he’d been during the meeting, having worked up the strength to do little more than shift into a slightly more comfortable position. 

               Maelstrom sat back by the makeshift animal pen behind the boulder.  He had tethered the biggest of the cubs to a stake near the fire with roughly fifteen feet of vine leash.  He sat just outside of that range in front of the cub, the small animal sitting calmly in front of him.  Silent would have thought they were having a staring match, but he knew the only thing the cub could see in the Battler’s face were the crashing waves that he wore on his mask.

               The Assassin busied himself with salvaging the meat and any other useful parts of the animals he could find.  Not knowing how much of their gear would have survived the crash, he preferred to keep anything until he knew it wouldn’t be needed.  He had started stacking the chunks of meat on broad leaves to keep them out of the dirt, and made sure to keep the bodies out of view of the cub Maelstrom worked with.  On his other side, a small stack of teeth, bones, hides and tails was growing into a sizeable amount of raw resources.

               ”Silent.”

               The noise startled Silent more than normal, he had let himself get too caught up in his own thoughts.  That seemed to happen a lot when Shadow wasn’t with him.  Even so, he was impressed that Vengeance had managed to turn onto his uninjured side atop the rock in full armor without catching attention.  He shook his head once to clear it then looked up at the soldier above him.

               ”Why do you hate us?”

               Silent gave the inquisitive head tilt, asking for clarification.

               ”Battlers.  Why do you hate Battlers?”

               Silent shook his head, denying the accusation.

               ”If you don’t, then Shadow must.”

               The Assassin shook his head again, the deep gaze of his mask now locking with the piercing eyes of the hard-beaked, bird-of-prey face that Vengeance displayed.

               ”If you don’t hate us, then why are you and Shadow so opposed to Carnage leading the unit?  Surely you must see that a Battler is more fit to lead then a Defender.”

               Silent grew frustrated, thinking of no easy way to express his answer to that question.  He pinged Shadow to translate for him, but the scouting party had moved out of comm range.  Luckily for the grey-armored fighter, Maelstrom walked around the edge of the boulder at that moment.

               ”They don’t hate us, they just think that Carnage is too aggressive,” the younger soldier answered casually as he walked over to Silent.

               ”Who asked you?  I’m talking to Silent,” Vengeance said, though he didn’t sound like he meant it as much as Havoc or Carnage would have.

               ”They’re both gone Vengeance, you don’t need to act for us,” Maelstrom said, then he continued, “Can you move around enough to sit over by Faze?  I want them to get used to us, but I need to go hunt some food down for them.  I figure since we’re both in red armor it’d be an easier adjustment for her.”

                “Faze?  You named them?” Vengeance asked, sounding curious and incredulous at the same time.

                “Of course I named them.  I’m not just going to keep calling them cub.  Faze is the biggest, and she’s the only female.  The boys seem to be twins, and I think they had a different mother then Faze.  I’m calling them Rah and Rin.  The only way to tell them apart that I’ve seen is Rin’s left ear has a notch in it.”

                “I’m not going to waste my time watching your pets.  You should have killed them when you first saw them.”

                “Waste your time?” Maelstrom asked, “What else are you doing besides laying around being useless?  I know your injured but you could at least do this much to contribute, all you have to do is sit there.  Besides, I’m sure Silent doesn’t want you bugging him while he’s working.”

                “You little…” Vengeance started, then paused, “Fine, I’m bored anyway.  Maybe it will try to attack me so I can snap its neck.”

                “You’ll pay if I find any of them hurt,” Maelstrom spoke clearly.

                “Alright, alright, just help me down.”

                Maelstrom climbed part way up the boulder and, after about ten minutes of struggling and several shouts of pain from Vengeance, the two Battlers managed to get the older of the two situated as comfortably as he could be in his state. He half sat, half lay against the large rock with the cub sitting a mere arm’s length away. Maelstrom left him for the moment and moved back to Silent’s side.

                “Will you keep an eye on him Silent? Make sure he doesn’t hurt Faze…” Maelstrom asked.

                Only now, when he looked up to answer, did Silent notice the change in Maelstrom’s mask. He had broken the new habit of the Battlers to constantly display their battle masks, instead displaying that which he did amongst friends and allies. It was easy now for Silent to understand why Faze had been so calm looking into the mask, for the calm tide and half-set sun were incredibly soothing even for the Assassin. He nodded that he would do as asked, then turned back to his work. Maelstrom thanked him and moved back to Vengeance. The older, red-armored boy sat tensely, Faze pacing just out of reach and seeming agitated that she couldn’t get to what she obviously considered injured prey.

                “Try taking off your battle mask,” Maelstrom spoke quietly to keep from further upsetting the cub.

                “I’d rather keep it on and teach this thing to fear me.”

                “Fear isn’t how you gain allies, she could very well save your life someday. “

                “I don’t need a beast to do my fighting,” Vengeance said.

                He meant the words too, for no Battler would intentionally pass on a fight. Never the less, the image of the bird of prey slowly faded from his mask, being replaced by a calming view of sun-dappled ruins in a jungle similar to that which surrounded them now. The stone ruins were covered in moss, and a large shaft of golden light fell in the middle, causing an ancient marble sun dial to gleam brightly. Maelstrom nodded approvingly.

                “Now look at her, catch her eye. Force her to look into your mask and feel the calmness there.”

                “This is stupid.”

                “Just try,” Maelstrom urged.

                Silent, watching from where he sat sorting through the bones, teeth, claws, and tails, was amazed at how calm Maelstrom sounded. He seemed to intuitively know how to bond with these animals better than he did with any of his squad members.

                Vengeance sighed but slapped the ground a few times.

                “Hey, look over here you stupid animal,” he called.

                The loud noise, and sudden movement caught Faze’s attention in a way Vengeance didn’t expect.  Rather than just turning to look, the feline animal pounced toward him and hissed.  The injured Battler flinched back despite himself, and let out a yelp of pain.  The sound of a wounded animal only instigated Faze further, and she pulled desperately against the leash holding her still.

                After several seconds of Faze tearing up the ground just beside Vengeance, Maelstrom decided he probably got the point and moved between the two.  When he stopped moving, Maelstrom actually sat within Faze’s reach, but he had caught her eyes again.  He moved slowly, and deliberately, seating himself just inches from the predator cub. 

                Vengeance’s shock faded and was quickly replaced by anger.  How could some beast presume to attack a Battler like that after all?  He gathered himself to lunge at the animal, but Silent’s hand fell on his shoulder and held him still.  The Assassin had snuck over during the commotion to be sure Vengeance didn’t startle the animal while it sat so close to Maelstrom.

                “Forget it,” Vengeance said quietly, “I’m not going to watch your stupid cat.”

                “Going to let an excited little cat beat you that easily?” Maelstrom jabbed.

                “I could control the thing if I cared to.”

                “You couldn’t even keep her sitting still long enough for me to hunt a lizard or two, let alone something big enough to feed them,” Maelstrom goaded further, knowing how the predictable older boy  would respond when his pride was called into question.

                “I could keep her sitting still for days if I chose to, watch,” Vengeance slowly slid up next to Maelstrom, just inside the reach of the beast and drew Faze’s gaze away from Maelstrom and into his own calming scene.

                “Good,” Maelstrom said, “Now, no matter how calm she gets don’t touch her.  She’s not ready for that, she’ll bite without a doubt.”

                Vengeance’s nod was almost imperceptible as he focused on Faze, but Maelstrom knew the boy would handle the task suitably now that he’d invested himself in it.

                Once Maelstrom had backed up out of sight and rounded the boulder Silent clapped him on the shoulder, as close to a “job well done” as he could give.

                “I’ll be back soon, and I’ll stay in comm range.  Are you done with the knife?” he asked.

                Silent nodded and handed it to the Battler handle-first.  Maelstrom took it and set off with a determined stride.

*************************************************************************************

                The five other members of the squad had travelled for three hours before finally getting close enough to see smoke that still wafted up from the wreckage in small puffs.  They had started to rush forward at a disciplined jog but voices echoing from the small clearing the impact had cleared slowed them back down again.  The voices matched their translation modules, and they decided to wait and listen to determine the best approach.  The five fanned out around the clearing and hid as best they could.

                ”Hey Sampson, you ever seen anything like this over in your country?” a man called from near what was left of the shuttle’s nose.

                ”No, my friend, never anything like this though it looks to be some sort of transport.  Maybe something the Defilers left behind?” answered a large man who stood near the engines.

                He stood about as big as Titan would be out of armor, and wore a uniform designed to blend in with his surroundings.  A firearm of some sort was hanging from a strap across his back and he had at least three large knives that the soldiers could see.

                ”Hey Mac, you and the kid finding anything good in there?” the first voice called out again.

                ”Signs of fire, and a lot of blood,” a voice with a different accent called from inside the craft, “Someone had a bad day in this thing, and there’s not much left.  Based on what I see though, I don’t think they were Defilers.”

                ”Hey, I think some of these compartments have something in them,” a younger voice called out.

                The squad collectively tensed up at the proclamation, and heads turned toward Titan.  The compartments held supplies, weapons, and ammunition that they would need to survive.  Titan loathed to order an engagement against armed men when they didn’t even have a blade between the five of them, but he knew they couldn’t afford to lose whatever had survived the crash.  He pinged a “hold your ground” order, and breathed a sigh of relief when four “orders confirmed” flashed back.  He had been worried the Battlers might act against him and charge.

                ”Well, go and pry one of them open and let’s have a look,” the older voice from inside said.

                ”I can’t find a handle, or latch or any other way to open it,” the younger voice answered.

                ”Here, I’ve got a crowbar I found in the city,” the first voice answered, moving toward the rear of the shuttle and passing it through the hole that had been punctured through the back of the craft.

                This man was a fair amount smaller in size then the first, but still stood about as tall as the younger Astronos fighters when they weren’t suited up.  He too had a firearm strapped across his back.  He only wore camouflage pants, a sleeveless black shirt covered his chest instead of a camouflage jacket, and he wore smaller firearms on each side of his waist.

                The sounds of metal on metal lasted for several minutes before a cracking noise finally reached the squad’s ears.  

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