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Project: AKRA

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Project: AKRA

 

By E. A. Szabelski

 

Copyright © 2016 E. A. Szabelski

 

All Rights Reserved

 

Project: AKRA is part of the VayneLine universe

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Thanks to SKoparov for the outstanding illustration

 

Ironically, the Emotion-Field concept as an aspect to reality proved so revolutionary that the first groups to find evidence of its existence fought and killed for its secrets, deeply contrary to the discovery’s eventual implications. It was the first indication of higher dimensional aspects that influenced our reality, as well as our own ability to change them.

 

Terran Intradex Ver. 4 Excerpt on ‘Emotion Field’

 

See Also: Star Priestess, Classed Soldier, Project: AKRA [Declassified]

 

“I have reason to believe you are the best…feel like putting that reputation to the test, soldier?” The hooded figure had a light cloaking field over it that made it seemed almost like an illusion to the soldier it was speaking to.

A small smirk crossed the face of the soldier as he brushed two fingers through his short hair. “Naturally.”

The hooded figure laughed, but its tone was masked by a voice-modder, rendering its tone completely neutral so it could not be identified in any form. “I know you have taken hard missions before, but I do not expect the survival rate to be particularly high on this. There were only three groups that had both the clearance and the battle experience your group possesses. I hate sending such a valued asset like your group on a mission like this, but it is one of particular import to the Star Priestesses.”

‘To the Star Priestesses’ meant for all intents ‘to the Aelisha’.

Though the black-haired man was arrogant, he was not stupid, and likewise answered carefully. “Interesting; I assume this is your estimation of the danger. If I may ask, is that an academic estimate, or a once-soldier’s estimate?” A very small portion of Star Priestesses were soldiers, but a large percentage of Aelisha in secret operations like this were warriors.

“The latter,” the figure said in an easy tone that belied its long combat experience. “A rather well-connected criminal syndicate has stolen a very valuable collection of data. Its name is AKRA, an information processing and application unit. It holds an understanding of the universe we are just barely starting to comprehend.”

“And it’s our job to recover the data,” the man offered. It was probably an Aelisha he was dealing with most likely some high-rank diplomat or something similar. For the briefest moment he mused about tackling the creature and ripping its cloak off to see whom it was.

“ ‘Naturally’,” the cloaked figure mimicked.

The black-haired soldier laughed at the imitation, but in his mind he could tell there was something deeply wrong with this mission his squad was going to undertake. He always believed in his combat instincts, but this was different. Something was calling to him beyond just his instincts, but he had no idea what it was saying.

Considering the credits his group was offered, some mysterious ‘clearances’ for advanced weaponry they recently had been given, and the entirely personal reason that he felt something calling on this job, he knew he would do it. The soldier named Raist, told the figure they would take the job. As soon as he had said so, the figure had turned and started walking out, shimmering like a ghost that was barely visible. “Wait, one question though. Why us?”

“You were asked for specifically.”

That was interesting. He didn’t know too many people that knew him and were still alive. “By whom?”

“You are not privy to that information.”

“Ha, I am used to that,” he said to the figure that had departed.

The figure was far enough away it was completely invisible, but before it had completely left the room, its voice said to Raist, “But know an old friend sends their… regards.”

Counting the friends he had that weren’t in his squad and were still alive took about four fingers. He stood there for a moment, digesting the conversation that had just occurred. He spun his pistol lazily out of habit, more concerned with his thoughts. It crashed to the ground, and he crouched down quickly to grab it. He saw something like a small string or thread against the background blackness of his pistol and grabbed it. The single medium-length strand of hair was a bright pink.

That was a Solarian girl, maybe a Star Priestess or a Classed like me…I wonder who she was? Something felt weird about her.’ All Star Priestesses and really anyone this deep in secrecy were a little weird though. He shook his head, trying to stop thinking about things. ‘Too many thoughts and feelings; just focus.’

***

The five members of the squad were sitting on the bench in the sterilization room of their ship, naked while a battery of electromagnetic waves, chemicals, and machines poured over their toned bodies. Since the nanites within their systems protected them from any likely xeno-disease of the planet, this was for the exact opposite reason: so their own bacteria would not wipe out the entire planet’s ecosystem. That kind of xenocide tended to be bad for business.

“What the hell!? We are taking another recovery mission without getting any of the details?” Ziko’s fist slammed into the bulkhead.

“Do you want to bitch your whole life?” Raist pointedly asked him.

“Come on Raist, we need to start getting way more info before we get into these things!”

“Leave him alone Ziko, it’s not like you are smart enough to ever care about details anyway,” Leio’s voice stated calmly as she lay back against the wall of the room, arching her back with her hands locked behind her head. Her perfect breasts and thinner, toned waist would distract even the hardiest of males, but it was only a matter of course: she was Aelisha Genetically Engineered that way.

“How nice,” he replied as he gave her a sideways glance. “Your girl is playing secretary for you as well. What do I have to do to talk to the man in charge? Kill her?” he joked.

“She could kick your ass. If you can make it past her then you can talk to me,” Raist responded quickly, his brain coming up with a retort more out of habit than anything.

“Jeez, team effort here.” He wore a huge smile, closing his eyes and flexing his huge arms he had behind his own head. “Sorry for trying to show caution when our Leader is failing to do so.”

Leio giggled for a bit, opening her eyes and winking at Ziko while giving him a slight smile.

“So she is your battle-secretary? Damn that sounds hot,” Agrest, the fourth member of their team, suggested. Raist and Leio laughed at his typical joking demeanor, belying the fact he was the group’s Sniper capable of blowing any creature’s head off at amazing distances, or surviving alone for long periods of time “What type of other ‘uniforms’ do you get her to wear when we aren’t rolling out? Old school maid perhaps?”

“Why would her uniform be different?” Philira, the second girl of the group, naively asked. Through her hair was a bright pink when it wasn’t nano-camouflaged, her eyes left a cold sensation, amplified by her obvious young age compared to the older soldiers. She was a girl AGEd to be the best soldier you could have on point, with extremely heightened visual and aural acuity, rapid peripheral vision processing, and, above all, reflexes to keep her alive in the extremely dangerous position of Scout.

Agrest frowned exaggeratedly, “Uh, never mind…”

“Yeah, stow that shit Agrest, what is your problem?” Ziko’s joking demeanor changed to one that was stern. Though Agrest and Ziko were both the group’s source of laughs, Ziko had a sensitive spot in that he couldn’t stand jokes about Philira, or anything sexual that might ‘taint’ her mind. Ziko considered himself the father figure, or more like the big brother, of the younger Philira, unsurprising given the general close proximity of the two with his role as Assault and hers as Scout. It was probably a mistake for Ziko to ever have made an issue about it at all. Even cool-headed Raist got in on the jokes just to make him mad.

The five of them were a close family, but there were still a lot of secrets between them such as where they came from, action they’d be in before getting into super deep groups like this, and what horrors they had lived through; all somewhat natural given their line of work. Very rarely would someone get rotated out to a new team, such as Raist’s few other friends. Mostly people died in the team they start in or get maimed too bad to continue or they make it through a deadly grinder and live an all-expense retirement after a short but brutal tour.

Even so Ziko still felt a duty to protect the girl, even though she was just as good of a killer as him and her young eyes had that dark coldness to them. This was despite her naivety of some aspects of the world, namely those that didn’t involve killing such as relationships, love, or sex. None of them knew the past all of them came with, and a girl like Philira likely didn’t have much since Scouts tended to get grinded worse than most other Classes. At this point of their lives they still trusted each other deeply, as it took tremendous service and sacrifice to the Solarian or Aelisha empires to get here.

“Anyway, Leio’s sexy maid costume and Philira’s overall hotness aside,” Agrest began, grinning boyishly, “anything else about this mission you haven’t brought up yet?” he ended seriously.

“I told you guys everything that was said to me,” Raist answered. “This has the feel of something way beyond what we normally take on. Most of the time the impact is on the ultimately small scale, but just the way the courier was talking, and the price it paid for equipment had the feeling that this was very serious.” Raist opened his eyes and looked right at Ziko then Agrest, hoping to calm his old friend’s worries. He felt kind of bad leaving out some of the things, like that he was sure the courier was actually a girl, maybe a Scout given the hair color.

“What the hell is an AKRA anyway?” Ziko stood up, turning with the commands of the machine to change its neutralization pattern.

“Has to be either a robot or comp unit,” Leio guessed as she pulled her arms down and ran her hands through her bright orange hair, shaking it gracefully as it waved down her shoulders. “‘Data recovery?’ Come on, what else could it be?”

“I’m with you, but those were my words I had said to it,” Raist making sure that distinction was there. “It was never explicitly stated other than when it said ‘data processing unit’. The only thing we know for sure is that it has a recovery chip implanted in its system that we will be able to track it down with.” He pointed over to where his clothes were, and a handheld scanner configured to the tracking chip slowly pulsed, showing that AKRA lay down on the hostile planet below.

Ziko’s question repeated itself in Raist’s mind: what was AKRA, and why was this feeling only getting worse?

***

“I recommend Level-2 survival supplies,” Raist spoke to the four silver-suited figures in front of him. They were near deployment, grabbing the last of their gear in the armory before their descent. The suits they had equipped were capable of a high tech camouflage as well as defensive in terms of ballistic attack. Further, they carried extra medical nanites to synch with each soldier to provide advanced healing and drugs during combat.

“Studying the terrain, I would recommend at least three,” Agrest suggested.

“Go with at least one extra med pack as well,” Leio added.

Raist nodded, deferring to their specialties and around them everyone made necessary changes.

Once their suits were activated, the near-invisibility they provided would blend them in completely to their environment. Each of them tested their nano-camouflage in turn, rendering each of their various differences in appearance such as the boldness of the two women’s natural hair colors, Agrest’s taller frame, and Ziko’s muscular body all unobservable. There was only a vague shimmer of light where they were standing.

The technology involved a complex set of data transmission of accurately replicating the light pattern of objects behind the person and projecting them on the multi-layer crystalline structure in the front to create something as near invisibility as was visually possible. It was a perfect invisibility as it used what was behind to person to relay to the front, making it applicable in any environment or any angle

“Expecting this mission will be a siege, or an extraction?” Agrest asked, but he had already loaded many supplies; he knew how often the role of the Sniper meant he would be in hostile territory far longer than anyone expected.

If anyone was watching the room, they would be disturbed by the supplies and weapons floating in air like ghosts before they disappeared as they were pocketed or filed away in a cloaked backpack.

“We are running it as an extraction, but the terrain is extremely hostile, as I hope you guys had studied. I am not over estimating this at all.” Raist’s second statement was unnecessary to his crew. They all knew him well: he was not the type to exaggerate danger, at least before they went into it. That fact actually put a bit of caution into their minds.

“The combat drones we have sent have been shot down at about half the atmosphere height,” Leio said, decloaking as she pulled up a holo of their target and the visualization of the effective kill zone around it. Her tight combat suit left her still looking very attractive, perhaps more so with the way it hung tight to her legs and butt. “Their air defenses are extremely solid, and even our low flying drones were killed around the same distance horizontally.”

“From what I have seen, the forest looks extremely dense,” said Philira. The voice came from a barely-visible ghost holding a Plaz-Shot Scattergun. Only her tone was any clue as to whom had said the statement. “I see why you chose this path. Even if they knew we were in there, there would be no way to locate us for termination.” ‘Termination’…only a Scout would so distantly comment on their likely death that way.

Ziko was by default the group mule based on his strength, but on raw speed no one could touch Philira. For a moment her bright pink hair became visible, as did her youthful body as she disabled her camouflage to readjust some equipment. Soldiers had specific natural hair colors based on their Class: Female Scouts were pink, female Supports were bright orange, male Supports were light blonde, Leaders had black and so on. They could be manually overridden, but in general almost everyone kept their natural color, it was a mark of pride.

“Damn, I thought a saw an angel there for a moment,” Agrest said.

“Of death?” Raist asked, slamming an energy clip into a pistol and watching the counter read ‘full’ before the text dissolved into the number ‘100’.

“Maybe, I don’t know. I was a little confused though…”

“Why?” Ziko asked. Raist smiled, and tried to hide his laugh that Ziko fell right into a trap.

“Well, aren’t angels supposed to be hot? I thought she’d be a bit bigger if you know what I mean.”

“Agrest…” Ziko started.

“Bigger?” Philira asked. “But I am not the shortest here.”

“Bigger like Leio over there.” Agrest disabled his cloak to hold his two hands out in front of his chest.

Raist was snickering while he watched what shimmer was likely Ziko trying to catch Agrest while he was shouting, “Why the hell do you always fill her head with your perverted shit?!”

“Everyone has at least three-range cover in their weapon choices, right?” Leio was updating a graphic overlay showing the positions of the squad, with colored ovals representing the effective range of their weapon choices.

Philira, being the lead, naturally had a powerful, short-range weapon; the graphic showed a dark red oval that covered a short distance in front and behind, covering from Ziko up to Raist in his middle position. Conversely, at the back of the formation, Agrest’s personal Rail Rifle had by far the biggest range, but in an intense close range firefight could not keep up, and thus his main oval was less colored; nevertheless the vast coverage could still assist any of the team in a fight.

“Raist, you are a little weak on the close range,” Leio said, looking over the constantly updating data. “Not sure the pistol will cut it in these quarters.”

“Throw me the SSAW.” A strange looking blue weapon was flung through the air and caught by something invisible. “I’ve been meaning to try this out.”

“It’s slow on the recharge,” Philira commented easily. “Here, let me show you something.” A Vibro-Knife was picked up off the table, and Raist handed the SSAW over to the invisible tug. She revealed herself and walked next to Raist, her hips touching his as she held the gun to show him. “You can store a knife here in the lower duct. Useful on the downtime,” she smiled at him and stepped away. It was a slightly flirtatious or sensual move, but given her naivety in relationships, likely didn’t understand what she was doing.

He held the weapon in his shoulder, pretending to fire it then letting it drop while he drew the knife from where it was held. “Damn, that is a pretty nice trick. That really is a good place to hide it.”

“Saved my life before.” Raist wondered what creature or alien had a Vibro-Knife stabbed through its head to save Philira’s life.

“I’ll show you a trick later, how’s that sound?” Raist asked her slyly.

“What kind?” Philira asked, totally innocent.

“One that will leave you feeling real good.”

“Not Raist too…” Ziko moaned.

“Survive first, and I’ll show you.” He only did those jokes because he enjoyed how defensive Ziko would always become.

“I will,” she said firmly. “No matter what.”

“Okay, looks good.” Leio showed the planned formation to everyone, leaving comments open for anyone to input. The hidden rule they had acquired over the battles was that you made no recommendations about anyone’s main weapon, but you could request a change in either of their two sub-weapons, since it was often your ass that depended on it.

“Agrest,” Ziko began, “can you swap that inductor for something with a bit more range? Maybe the Silvershot?”

“Aww, feeling lonely near the front, lil’ buddy? I think Philira has enough firepower for both of you. But even that still leaves my little angel up there out of range.” Agrest gave Ziko a hard time, but swapped his weapon without protest. Upon further review Ziko was indeed a bit bare on the covering fire. Philira had him supported heavily, but only Raist had him within range of powerful rapid fire support.

He had finished, and at this point it was mostly small things others were finagling with. “Orbital Sync in five…” Raist said. Everyone stopped their banter, and shoved any supplies or extra energy cells in, packed up quickly, and went to the launch bay.

“Synch up?” Leio asked.

Yes – Everyone responded on the Inter-Connect System, an implanted communication system that could reduce verbal talking to a near-psychic level of communication.

Launch in three – Leio’s voice played in all of their minds while the air in the ship was pressed back into tanks, leaving the room they were in devoid of atmosphere, their suits protecting them against both the low pressure and the lack of air.

Two – The door opened up, the huge planet’s blue, green, and purple forests standing defiantly against the black of space. At this distance the beauty defied the danger.

One – Each of them could feel their suits change as they prepared for entry. The first change was the locking in with the launch system.

She didn’t have to say ‘zero’ or ‘go’ as the moment they were pulled out of the ship with by the launching system was obvious enough. The catapult system was designed to ensure the even spacing of the entire team, as even the most trained jump could result in a vast dispersion pattern from orbit. A pentagon shape of the five of them fell through space towards the planet.

At this distance the descent suit did not block out the visual yet, and each prepared differently for what was coming. For Raist he was always struck by the strange sensation of his appreciation of beauty in nature, even as his job was often to kill without remorse. There was just something in the divine perfection of how color and motion came together. He sounded stupid when he talked about it, so he tended to keep that part of his thoughts to himself. It was easier to joke or swear than to be philosophical, or far easier to talk about banging Philira than wonder about reality with those around him.

All five of them had small micro tethers that kept them connected for the duration of the drop, and within the tether was an advanced processor that regulated each motion of the descent suits to keep it descending evenly and without problems. With no warning the visual went black as spheres enclosed each of them, protecting them as they first hit the atmosphere and to prevent them from catching fire.

He hated this part the most, as nanites were blocking out the sound ever since he launched out of the ship, and now the black provided no distraction for his mind. It was the questions that bothered him the most. It was never doubt because he didn’t have any. More like if his life could have been different, if it should have been different. Unlike a lot of classes like Scouts, he had choices many of them never did. With choices came responsibility, and the weights of deaths were weighing on him even if he did not overtly show it.

Did he think too much about things? The last Scout he had died saving him told him he did.

He knew above him the descent suit would have streamers deployed to slow their velocity, whipping violently based on the speed they were coming in with. He knew underneath him the landscapes might now start to be visible, but all that was around him right now was darkness.

Light filled the void as the surrounding sphere him melted away above and beyond him. The planet had changed a lot since he last saw it from space: he could see clouds, the green/purple of plants, even mountains in the distance. The melting of the sphere reformed into parachutes that variously reformed themselves with the synchronization orders of the rest to ensure the perfect descent of the team onto the planet.

Get through one jungle, a river, more jungle, and then the base of the mountain. Sounds simple in premise. Not too far to cross at all. That mountain didn’t look too far away; he could get there by a single planet cycle. This was going to be the easiest ‘hard’ mission they ever took. He could ‘retire’ pretty quick, as he was burning out of the destruction he caused.

That was before something went wrong with their descent system and Ziko suddenly fell out of the pentagon formation. The rest of them went crashing into the strange upper-story plant life that ripped their advanced suits apart as if they were paper.

As Raist went tumbling to the dark forest floor, his only thought was that he had never felt this much pain this early in a mission before. He had never lost someone before it even started.

“Ziko!” He screamed before his head impacted something hard and he blacked out, still falling farther down.

***

Raist was younger, in the second stage of his training, looking upwards at the girl that had just pinned him. The dirt in his eyes and the sun silhouetting the female figure made it impossible for him to look at her.

“You think too much Raist!” she said giddily, jumping off of him and hauling him up back to his feet. He was holding his stomach from where she had side kicked him before taking him down, rubbing his eyes with his other hand. “Combat needs to be intuitive, you just can’t think about every option you have.”

“Easy for you to say, Laiun; they made you to be good at fighting.” He coughed and spat out some blood from his mouth. “I’m supposed to think of alternatives.”

“Don’t make excuses, it doesn’t suit you. Just focus. But still, I’m pretty impressed by you. For a Leader-type you’re pretty good at holding your own. You’re the one that’s supposed to think, and I’m the one that is supposed to do the fighting, but there are times when even thinking is bad.”

Her point made no sense. “If you do not think, you are going to get killed.”

“I’m not scared,” the girl said as she shrugged, as if they were talking about nothing important. It was Raist’s first time realizing how fatalistic Scouts were; their mentality kind of hurt him. “I know my role in things. I was engineered to be a Scout-type soldier, and will I die fighting? Probably. Then I go to the Line, right?” Her sarcasm told Raist she didn’t believe it. “Though I’m a better fighter than you, it’s just our roles that you plan and lead the battles, and we execute them. I’ll probably die either saving you, or someone like you.”

“Don’t say it like that.”

“What, don’t like the truth? That doesn’t seem like you at all.”

“Hey.” Raist nodded his head past the girl, indicating something was behind her.

She turned around and he launched at her, kicking the back of her knees. As she was going down, he flung his arm around her throat, wrapping his hand in the other arm’s bicep. They crashed to the ground rolling but he held tight to his choke. He held her there, wondering if he could maintain this grip against her wild thrashing for long, but before his grip failed, she tapped him twice on the leg and he let go. They rolled through the dirt a bit before they faced each other again.

“Damn Raist, now that’s what I am talking about! Nothing like being dirty to make you feel wild huh?!” She grabbed some dirt and rubbed it in her bright pink hair while she slapped her face a few times, looking a bit crazed before she launched back at him. Why was he paired with the crazy one for his close combat training?

Later the two of them were sitting on a cliff watching the star set, the two of them holding hands as she gently swung her legs off the edge. “Laiun, do you ever think there is anything beyond this reality?” he asked her.

“Like gods or something?” She lifted her face to look at him, but his eyes were distant, looking past the horizon. “Or you just mean the Line?”

He tried to frame it carefully that he wouldn’t sound too crazy, but also wanted her to understand what he was trying to get at. “Kind of. It’s a bit tough, but like there is this reality, and we think it is entirely explainable by physics and science, and I am not saying it’s not, but that there is a higher level of things that we are almost incapable of thinking about. Maybe think about it that this is almost a game, and that there is a higher reality beyond. Like what if we are affected by things we can just barely explain?”

She laughed a little, gripping his hand tighter. “They used to have movies like that back on Terra all the time. Reality was fake and all that. Never liked them much; reality is too real to be fake, if that makes any sense.”

“Ha, no I agree with that,” he answered as he laughed. “But that’s not what I’m really talking about. Like what if what some call gods are nothing more than ‘reality administrator’ or something that ran things on a more local level? I am not saying we live in a video game, but that what we call gods might not be anything more than just a more advanced being helping maintain systems like whole planets.”

She smiled at him. “You’re talking ‘reality administrators’, and I’m having a hard time believing in the Line.”

Raist didn’t say anything. He was close to Laiun but she didn’t really get esoteric stuff like this. She wasn’t even sure she had a spiritual or life essence and that it would be recycled in the Line; somewhat impressive in a weird way, given a Classed Soldier had to overcome her spiritual schooling on the matter.

He turned away from her. “I’m not sure how you can not care about any of this stuff, and just think when you die you are dead, and be so willing to die.”

“You know what I’m going to say?”

“Yes, I do, but I get the feeling you actually do care about this stuff. But I’ll say it anyway: I think too much?”

“Haha, yep! I actually do care, but still you think way too much.” She leaned over to kiss him.

***

Ist…

Raist! He shook his head slowly as his eyes focused on some light coming down from the trees above him.

He shook his head, thinking about that girl – spilled out on some planet in his past, serving her fatalistic destiny without complaint. In time his bleeding wounds would heal, but there were some wounds that never healed, those that were too deep to see.

Anyone there!? A desperate female voice came through on his ICS, but there was no identification marker or avatar associated with it. What was going on? ICS was nearly flawless, local range could reach substantial portions of the planet.

Yeah, I’m here. I can’t get an ID on you. I took a pretty hard fall and was out for a while there. – Raist

Philira speaking. I ended up on the ground okay, but I worry about everyone else. I’m glad at least one person is still alive. – Philira

Well, we need to meet. Unfortunately, this foliage is way too dense to get a vantage point on. – Raist

Raist put his hand behind him and pushed himself to a sitting position, but just doing that hurt his hand. He lifted his hand to find small cuts over it, and rapidly realized the ground he was on was composed of a grass-like plant that its sharp edges literally were serrated. He grabbed a blade of the plant and realized it was structured so that it would stab inwards deeper and deeper, but had small anchors that prevented it from easily coming back out.

In the corner of his eye his system was pinging a warning, and he activated it. His system told him that medical and suit synth capabilities have been reduced to 84% after healing him from the fall.

Normally that wasn’t too bad, but his system also warned that given the harsh condition of travel, expect high levels of loss while maintaining suit integrity as it increased thickness to stop the plants from getting at him.

He unrolled the suit off his hand to touch the plants without the armor protecting him, gently rolling his finger over it. Just the soft touch left a thin line of blood on his fingertip before his internal nanites quickly sealed the cut and recycled the blood.

Philira, be careful of the terrain. The area I found myself in is composed of extremely sharp objects. We should be okay with our suits, but if those break down we are in for a lot of pain getting through here. – Raist

Shout a few times, if you would. – Philira

“Philira! Hey! Anyone out there?! Phil—” He heard some crashing behind him, and shot up into a crouch, pulling out his Gauss-Limiter rifle.

There were many weapons that were used by individuals that were also used on ships, only in changed capacities. Agrest’s Rail Rifle was based on the ship weapon of same name that was a long-range rail gun designed to pound out space stations, and with very good tracking and computers could blow smaller ships apart. Raist’s Gauss-Limiter was similar to the ship’s in that it launched huge numbers of tiny projectiles at hyper velocities.

“It’s me,” her voice came through. He didn’t even see her; the camo was still working completely.

He disengaged his own clocking slightly, and she followed suit so they could see each other. They ran up to each other and gave a quick hug, grateful to see someone after the crash. Even though he was dating Leio, he had a soft spot in his heart for Philira. He never pursued it meaningfully because of emotional scars he had over Laiun, the last Scout whom he seriously liked, that selflessly gave her life away for him. They were vastly different in many ways, beyond that they were both completely sacrificial for the Leader. He shook his head to get off the dark train of thought he was on.

“How lucky that the Scout was the one that crashed close to me,” he smiled warily.

“You were actually pretty far away, but this forest is strangely quiet right now.”

“You ran here? Isn’t that risky with all these plants?” Raist asked the young Scout.

“Just reinforce your boots, and the rest is just being careful where your body is.” She held his eyes for only a moment longer before going back to scanning the forest, holding her Plaz-Shot down by her hips.

“Yeah, already on it. Was I the only one you heard from, on ICS or sound?”

“Unfortunately, yes. I couldn’t imagine we are particularly dispersed, but I should definitely be able to hear them, regardless of the ICS malfunction.”

Raist was completing a quick check to make sure none of his gear had fallen out on the crash. “Has to either be something with the planet, which I doubt, or our enemy has an interference device. That had to be what caused the crash. If we get you up that tree, any chance it might help?” He was pointing to the biggest ‘tree’, if you could call a starburst-shaped trunk a tree.

“Completely. It might take a bit to climb though.”

“Let’s do it. I’ll guard down here.”

The two of them made their way over to the spiked ridge. He crouched down, ready to boost her up to one of the knife-branches, when she shook her head ‘no’.

He raised an eyebrow at her, but then she showed him her gloves which had taken on hooked appearances while slightly spreading out.

Scout trick,’ he thought. She jumped at the ridge, slamming her hands into the strange object, punching her hooked claws through the tree as her spiked boots likewise punched their way through with slight ‘tings’ as she flew up the tree, crystal fragments falling down as she ascended. She cloaked herself fully once more once she was actually climbing upwards. If somehow the ‘tree’ had resisted the repulsion field in her climbing tools, the microscopic suction cups would have propelled her up anyway.

Keep a ping going so we can find the range of the ICS here – he sent to her, but when she didn’t respond he felt alone again. He backed up a bit as small bits of the plant fell out of the sky from her ascent, turning his own cloaking field back on. He picked one of the branches up, from where it had broken off was a liquid leaking out from the middle. Though the branch was colored purple, he thought the similarity to obsidian was strong. Was this really a plant, or maybe a symbiotic amalgamation of plant and geologic processes? They looked a lot like Daijin Star plants, if they had plants. Hmm…did they have plants?

Thinking too much…’

He shook his head and pulled the Gauss-Limiter up to his shoulder and looked around at the silent forest around him. Really the forest was rather beautiful with its soft reflections of the light far above. There appeared to only be two major life forms: the huge trees and the sharp ‘grass’ underneath.

The terrain wasn’t that hard to cross; compared to some the going would have been fairly fast. But the problem was the extreme diligence required of being aware where every hand and every foot was going to ensure no slipping into a razor tree happened. Strengthening just the feet or hands as Philira suggested was a good way to save suit material, but at the risk of injury in an accident.

The visibility was fairly good. Sight lines were about average, blocked only by the big pyramidal trunks or the eventual even dispersion of the trees filling in every sight line.

“Haaaauuuuuuu!” a strange call from somewhere up in the air came, making Raist realize how close to dusk it was now becoming. The call also indicated there was something here other than the two plants types. In the setting sun the purple color of the plants was even more obvious, and that made him remember the fact that from space the landscape looked green. But from here, there was definitely nothing green around.

The branches falling off the tree then took on a different touch from their completely purple obsidian nature beforehand. They were the crystal branches, but with leaves on them. Green leaves.

“What?” He picked up one from the pile forming and sure enough the leaves looked similar enough to Terrestrial leaves, barring the strange branch. Something else caught his eye even more though, and it was that this pile was softly moving. He backed up out of caution and slowly watched it vibrate.

This grass is alive…’ He looked down at his boots, grateful the advanced alloy was protecting him from this alien world. He dropped the leafed branch to the grass, in which the razor grass slowly swayed back and forth. It cleaved the glass-like branch apart and leaving a strange liquid inside the crystal branch similar to sap that was dripping out, as well as the valuable, soft leaves. Raist knelt down to see that between the blades of grass was a small pool of liquid, which the remnants of the sliced branch fell into and were systematically dissolved in what appeared to be an acid.

This was a hostile planet, and with each step he took he could imagine the alien grass trying to cleave bits of his boot off to get to his own ‘juices’ inside. It disgusted him imagining the grass as millions of worms swaying back and forth to eat him. He wanted to shoot them for a moment if it would have at all mattered.

“Raist?” a soft female voice called to him.

“Philira?”

“Yeah.” She jumped out of the tree and turned off her cloak. Her cold eyes and bright hair still affected Raist every time; Scouts were a very enigmatic class of soldier. Given his past with Laiun, the previous Scout he had fallen, for added to the forced distance in his heart he had to maintain with Philira.

“Four things,” she started. “One, there appears to be creatures that live here and only come out at night, and they put this plant life to shame in terms of danger. Two, that way,” she pointed, “is the way towards our goal. Three, there are robot sentries in the air, possibly of Daijin Star origin, but heavily armed. Lastly, there is at least one person alive, and they are that way.”

“Well, then we are going that way,” pointing towards the unknown team member.

“Of course, Leader.”

“Raist is fine, don’t talk differently just because we are on a mission now.”

“Of course, Raist.” He liked the way she said his name.

***

“How the hell can they see us!?” Raist shouted over the burst of gunfire. Another Plaz-Shot shell from Philira’s weapon exploded the creature apart as the remnants of the super heated bolts tore through parts of the forest.

The silence of the forest during the day was a complete juxtaposition of the chaos of night with its endless howls, shadows, and attacks.

One beast that had finished goring another swung its huge tusked head towards the two of them and started charging. Raist lifted the Limiter rifle to it, and the soft ‘zzzt’ sound hid the fact that hundreds of sonic rounds were electro-magnetically being discharged out of the rifle. The spray tore into the creature, rendering its millions of generations of evolution for naught as the rounds blasted through it and the trees beyond. It skidded to a stop not far from the two of them, and was rapidly being cut down by the strange ground under it.

“They have to be sensing us some other way…thermally possibly,” Philira suggested as she rapidly rotated her head around every side of them, pumping a round into things Raist didn’t even know was there, only occasionally seeing the burning creature falling out of a tree or fall over from behind an alcove. She danced in front of him always making sure to stay between him and any danger.

‘DADADA!’ A loud, fast retort of a Close-Support-Weapon came from somewhere fairly close to them; they knew they were closing in on the other member of their group. But every step was a battle. Even the ‘grass’ had become even more alive, slicing back and forth greedily for something to fall onto the cleaving surface.

“How close?!” he shouted to Philira.

“Not far.” She quickly bent down, her hands rapidly flying over the Scatter gun as she threw the empty energy clip to the ground, reaching to her hip for another, slapping it in and triggering the toggle. The green neon lights on the transductor rails came back on as she jumped backwards shooting a creature that had closed on her quickly in that short time.

“It has to be thermally!” Raist shouted. It made sense why everything was out at night: heat would show up better. Unfortunately, their advanced weaponry probably was a beacon in the night with the hot barrels and explosive plasma blasts.

“Get down.” Philira dashed backwards, tackling Raist to the ground. In front of them the huge tree was sawed through by a barrage of rounds as it swayed in one direction, its structure cracking. Its mass swayed the other direction as its crystal structure started breaking, falling towards them as the base exploded apart. The razor branches came crashing down around them. They scrambled to the feet, pausing for only a moment as the tree grew closer and closer. They escaped being crushed, but not all damage as the sharp crystals shot-gunning around them as the branches of the tree fell everywhere.

“Gaaaa…!” Raist let out a groan as he felt something slip right through his right side, passing through the armor like nothing. The tree had come to a crashing end and Philira jumped up. Raist was slower and she grabbed his wrist and hauled him up.

He put a glove on his right side and it came back red; he had been sliced through by one of the branches of the tree that had crashed around them.

“Shit, I’m hit.” Philira looked at him with her cold eyes, trying to decide what she was going to do.

“I’m going for whoever that is. We need to unify our force immediately,” she started leaving.

Raist grabbed her wrist, pulling her back. “No, I am going with you. This is nothing.” A warning in the corner of his eye warned that the expected healing would reduce his total combat healing potential down to 73%.

The first few steps were painful until the chemicals were sufficiently pumping through him and he forgot about the pain completely, focused on gunning down the further away creatures while Philira focused on those close ones.

‘Dadada!’ Shots boomed across the forest, drowning out anything else.

“Ziko!” Philira tried yelling between the fire. “Ziko!”

“Holy shit, Philira!? Raist!?” The three of them ran closer to each other, but the reunion was short-lived as the battle was far from over. Ziko had racked up a large amount of kills as the forest had been cut through here. Even the razor grass had been blown away, leaving much safer soft rock under them.

Raist took a prone position in the clearing Ziko had cut through the forest with his CSW, while the two close range fighters fought back-to-back against the horde, standing right above Raist.

He was taking careful burst shots, squeezing a few rounds, gauging whether the creature needed more rounds to die, then either delivering, or moving on to a new target. The counter on the side of the rifle shot down rapidly.

He squeezed the final 30 into some creature hopping between the trees and as he rolled to his side to put a new magazine of 1,000 in. The magazine was in, and his hand was going to the ‘accept’ toggle when he saw a huge bird diving out of the sky right at their group.

“Up…!” he started, but it was too slow. Its mouth peeled open to reveal a tri-maw opening ready to consume one of them. The creature was closing on them when its large neck was separated from its body, liquid exploding out the backside as its head crashed to the ground not far from them, its body gliding into another dead creature.

“What?”

Raist toggled the rifle back on, and saw a line of white tracers clearing the sides of part of the trees. He knew that weapon anywhere: it was Leio’s Sweep Rifle, but she was aiming horizontally. What killed the bird?

“It’s Agrest and Leio!” Philira shouted, another of her clips dumping out of her Plaz-Shot and hitting Raist in the head as she reloaded with robotic speed.

He didn’t need to tell the two he was with to not hit them, and he hoped the other two knew they were here.

Beasts continued advancing on them until all of them mysteriously stopped, turning and running as fast as they could. Death had not scared them before, so it was definitely something different.

“Phi?” Raist asked.

“Something’s coming…top of the trees.”

The strange silence had returned to the forest, though a few wounded screams still pierced the night. Raist hated killing animals, and hearing their moans as they were sawed apart by the grass hurt his soul.

“Drone!” Philira shouted, grabbing Ziko and diving to the shot-up ground. Above them a large floating disk hovered over the scene of their battle.

“Shoot it! Shoot it!” she yelled.

Raist was the only one of the three with the longer-range weapon and brought it to bear, and though he was giving it rapid bursts of ten sonic rounds that were undoubtedly flying straight through its hull, its size would not easily be brought down. The two he was with were each rapidly reaching for their longer-range weapons as a firing arm extended above the disk.

A loud whoosh reached them long after the rocket did, rending the ground apart as they were flung through the air. Raist crashed into one of the trees between two of the razor edges and escaped serious damage. He switched his weapon to packet mode, morphing the small rounds into larger slugs designed to pierce before blowing apart inside their target.

He aimed at the disk that was readying another rocket and started shooting, catching the white tracers of the Sweep Rifle also on target of the drone. The thin, fast spray of the Sweep rounds, and Raist’s exploding slugs were pounding away at the machine. It tilted to one side for a moment, but righted itself. Raist was sure it was going to fire again until its core exploded and it crashed somewhere into the trees above them.

He was breathing hard, his mind in combat mode, looking around everywhere for the next thing to kill, and with nothing moving for a long time he gradually began to come off his combat high.

Something was hurting his core and looking down, he saw a mat of the spiky grass imbedded into his chest after being propelled by the rocket. He pulled each out; feeling the distant pain of sucking out the semi-vacuum each projectile had created in his body.

He pushed himself out of the slight cove of his tree and staggered to the clearing. “Who is alive?”

“We are, but Ziko is hurt,” Philira’s voice had an edge he never heard before in it.

Raist ran over and saw Ziko slumped next to a tree almost exactly like where Raist had been blasted. The difference was he was moved slightly to one side, right into its sharp edge.

“Zi…ko?” Raist asked nervously.

“Yo, I’m alive, but shit…these plants are even worse than the creatures.”

Ziko’s words made it seem like he was okay, but Raist realized Ziko’s left arm had been cut cleanly off right by the shoulder. His nanites and suit sealed what was left of the arm to prevent any bleed off; it actually looked like he had a stub arm his entire life with how clean it was. The fact he could talk clearly was a result of their advanced training, and very tailored drugs to block pain and maintain combat efficiency.

“Your ar—” Philira started, Raist grabbed her and shook his head no.

“It’s okay…I know. I can get a bio amp replacement if we make it through this.”

“Hey, you guys over there?” Agrest’s voice shouted. “Get over here now!”

Ziko pushed himself off the tree, they all grimly watched for a moment as what remained of his arm was quickly chopped and consumed by the blade grass and its acid once the suit’s structural integrity had been broken down. “I hate this fucking place.” It seemed to be an understatement from Ziko as he watched his arm get eaten by the grass.

The three walked over to Agrest, his huge sniper rifle leaning against the tree. Raist realized it was Agrest’s shot that killed the diving bird before it killed them.

Leio was sitting on the ground, her knee looked crushed, and everything under it was gone. Her other ankle was broken, bent back up to her calf.

“What are you going to do with me?” she asked, looking straight at Raist. He felt his stomach drop a bit with the implication of one entirely real option he could take to save the rest of the group time. This was a woman he was intimate with, yet the mission was now at risk of being compromised due to both her legs.

“What happened?” he asked, trying to buy some time to think this through.

“The ankle was from the fall, and this,” she pointed to her missing calf and the crushed knee, “was from that bastard over there.” She indicated a large dead beast. “Heh, damn. I’ve never seen such a hostile fauna before.” She leaned back while they crouched down to inspect her damage. Even with her mutilated legs, she still was amazingly lusty, along with a slight independence still obvious in her countenance. “No wonder they put their fortress here. Secure the skies, and let the planet take care of the ground.”

Raist could feel everyone waiting for him to decide what they were going to do with the obvious change in plans the injuries and the planet presented to them. Maybe they were especially waiting to wonder if he would leave Leio, or kill her. The latter might be humane.

He stood up. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” He looked to Ziko before continuing, “I am taking you off Assault-role. It’s too dangerous to not have a combat-able person not firing, so because of your injury you are the one who will carry her. Leio, you are staying on the Sweep. The rest of us are changing our weapon configuration. Agrest, switch to your Silvershot for faster shots, I’m moving down to the ‘Saw and Leio you go with whatever you can shoot while still staying on Ziko. Z, you can either go weaponless or take a one-hander.”

“And me?” Philira asked.

“Stay with the Plaz-Shot. It is obvious to us now most of the fighting is going to be close range. I need Agrest and Leio to be on drone watch out. We are not that far in raw distance to our target so we are going to press on. I do not think resting is a wise decision.”

He walked over to Leio. “You know what we have to do right?” he asked.

“Of course, get it done already.”

They dragged her to an area devoid of the grass where it looked shot up from the battle. He handed her the handle of the SSAW with its softer grip, pressing it towards her mouth, she opened it and bit down on the handle.

“Hold her,” he commanded. Philira and Agrest knelt down and held her body and arms down.

“Heh,” she muttered out of her jammed mouth, turning her head towards the sky. “Never…get used…to this.”

Raist knelt down by her foot, grabbing the misplaced foot, and, without waiting for any okay or any delay, pulled downward and backward. Immediately her leg started flailing while the other two struggled to hold her down, letting out a painful ‘guuuaaaaa!’ through her gritting mouth. It was clear she was trying to maintain control despite the massive pain and compared to a scream most would have let out, her moan was fairly benign.

He continued pulling back until it was straight, and pushed it softly back into the semi-correct position. He held her foot still for a moment while she stopped moving; she spit the gun handle out. “I’m okay…”

All three of them let her go as she sat there. “Should be walk-able in about a cycle. I feel my nanites reforming the bone already.” It was quiet for a moment before she continued. “Well, stop staring at me already! As much as you guys like to do it, let’s get this going.” He reluctantly managed a smile at her pride hiding her shame of slowing the group down.

She lifted an arm up and Raist grabbed it, hauling her body over his shoulder then transferring her to Ziko where she sat on his shoulders. She used her one leg to wrap under his shoulder to his back and was using her hips to hold onto his head.

“Not pretty, but it will work. Z, can you still function?” Raist asked, handing him a pistol for his one remaining arm. The chemicals in them and their advanced nanites could keep them functioning at conditions worse than this, but still wanted to make sure.

“You mean with that hot ass wild woman riding him all night?” Agrest joked.

“I think his head is facing the wrong direction for anything wild,” Leio said, giving Ziko a tight squeeze.

“Damn Raist, no wonder you like her. I can tell she’s probably into bondage,” Agrest responded.

“Don’t make me squeeze his head off.”

“Why would you punish me for your two perverted minds?” Ziko said while he practiced moving around a bit with Leio on his shoulders.

“I think he’d like that.” Agrest added, “Either getting his head squeezed off, or your ‘punishment’ that is.”

At least their spirits…and chemicals… were still high enough to joke. Raist looked at the Spreading Squad Assault Weapon he was holding in his hands, its neon blue lines pulsing an incredible power just waiting to be unleashed. He was practicing drawing his knife out of the SSAW Philira had hidden in it in the event of a surprise. Raist was glad their spirits were still good for now though. He knew how bad missions could get.

***

The short cycles of the planet had given way to day as they trudged forward with no resistance, back to walking on the razor grass sawing slowly in the sunlight. They marched forward with four of them still fully ‘armed’ in the limb sense of the word but at this point met no enemies.

Everyone knew what was coming before they actually rolled onto the bare ground, based on the loud roaring starting to filter through the trees. Though Leio and Ziko were both reduced in combat efficiency, their squad was still in fairly good fighting capacity. They made it through the surprise of the night, and still had four people capable of shooting larger weapons. However, this new challenge they were coming up to was going to prove trying.

“There is no way we are making it across that,” Ziko said. He knelt down to let Leio off of his shoulders as she sat down on the ground so he could better look over the edge of the cliff. They stood next to some rocks and a tree, using the light cover as they looked over the shear corner of the massive cliff to the rumbling water hardly visible through the mist below. On both sides of them the deep gorge was cut through the rock with no easy way down, and the height did not get any less extreme anywhere close that they could hike to make the descent easier.

“The two of them could not hope to swim across that water,” Agrest said, keeping his head turned upwards most of the time for any drones that might come flying over the tree tops.

“I have faith they could, but the risk is too great.” Raist looked up and down the escarpment they were located on. “It’d be better if the two of you stayed here to cover our escape.”

From where they were, the tip of the peak was barely visible against the tall trees of the other side of the river. Their goal was close, but in every way seemed farther with every step they took.

“From here you guys should be able to build a pretty good choke point in the rocks over there. The three of us are going to do a sprint to the target, and come back. There is a good chance we will need as much cover fire and a clear path as possible on our way back.”

Agrest pointed to the rocks. “It’s a good plan, since I’d hate trying to descend and climb back up with things shooting at us. If you two have this locked down, it should help our escape.”

Raist finished, “Ziko, I am going to need you well-rested because as soon as we get here, we are running back to the extraction zone. I do not want to be in the forest again for another night. The three of us should be able to handle AKRA, and I know you are strong, but we cannot be slowed even if you are carrying Leio.”

The problem was they had to make it back out of anti-air range to call their shuttle down. Even if it was capable of firing, with how defended their target was, calling it anywhere close was risking being trapped here.

The group worked for a bit, positioning rocks and checking sight patterns so that the two staying behind would have clear cover fire on the three advancing members, both on the descent, the swim, and the climb before they disappeared into the other side. Natural rock walls covered their backs, and a few shots through the rocks gave them some gun holes to fight anything that did come from the forest. The three advancing soldiers dropped all but one weapon here so they could move faster now that the mission had become one of a sprint.

“Goodbye, Raist,” Leio told him as they embraced, the latter having to hold her up. “I hope I see you again. I really do.” Her foot was realigned, but the large section of meat missing from her calf was something he tried to not look at.

“I’ll be back soon.” He gave her butt a light squeeze as he turned away from her. They spiked their rappel systems into the rock and Agrest and Philira already jumped over the edge. Raist was preparing to do the same when a strange thought came to him.

Look at her one more time; it might be your last.’ He turned to face her, and she did a small wave, smiling at him, the normalcy making him think he was over-thinking again. He turned back towards the cliff and crouched and launched off.

Raist spread his arms out while he was falling through the sky, seeing the two of them further down through clearings in the clouds of mist close to the bottom of the river. He enjoyed the quick freedom of the descent when the small cord he was tied on began providing a counter to gravity as he rapidly slowed down, controlling the final length of his descent with a button on his suit.

Spinning around slowly, he lowered himself the final few body lengths to the small rock platform the other two were at.

Agrest took their three cords, pressing them into the wall and triggering their camouflage system, which caused them to fade into the rock color.

“What’s the likelihood of hostile creatures in this water?” Raist asked.

Philira shook her head rapidly. “No way, this water is too fast. Even if there are creatures, the water should hide our thermal signature with the outside of our suit being cold. I’ll wave when I have the system set up on the other side.”

She knelt down, spiked another rod into the ground and dove into the water without waiting for any command from Raist. Her body moved up and down in a rhythm as the wave started by her head swept through her whole body over and over as she flew across the rapids. Scouts…good at everything.

“I am glad she is such a good swimmer,” Raist said.

“Yeah, never got good at that style. Luckily I could pass all my tests doing the side-stroke.”

Raist was spiking his safety system, hooking it up to the line Philira was establishing when Agrest put his hand on his shoulder.

“Something doesn’t feel right.”

Raist didn’t like the pit in his stomach hearing Agrest say that, but evenly responded, “Why, what’s wrong?”

Agrest shook his head. “I don’t know, can’t explain it. But call it a Sniper’s intuition.” Raist was ready to dive into the water having seen Philira’s pink hair emerge from the other side and waved the two of them over when Agrest interrupted him.

“If I don’t make it out alive, can you deliver a letter I have in my room back on the ship?” Agrest asked coldly. His joking demeanor was totally gone, replaced by a dim realism. “It’s to that girl we saved last time on Azure 2. I was always scared to write her back. But at least let her know that I died, but was thinking about her, okay?”

Raist turned around, and pushed him hard. “Don’t you dare say that! What is everyone’s problem?! We have been through way worse shit than this. Border-Action 9, the assault on Klattu, being stranded on Kilo? Come on, Ziko’s arm? I lost both of mine on Kilo.” Raist lifted both of his arms as he went on. “These are bio-synths! We sustained a few injuries early and everyone is thinking this is the end?”

“Heh.” Agrest pushed Raist’s hand away as his lip rose in a slight grin. “You feel it too, then?”

Raist turned around, mad Agrest had basically gotten him to admit his unease, and dove into the water. He started swimming with all his might against the harsh current. Memories of the drownings he sustained during swim ‘training’ came back to him, but only focused his mind as he crashed through the waves and rocks. He felt a strong pull that was Philira’s line dragging him to the other shore. He felt his back legs sweep to the right, pulling away from him, and suddenly went spinning into the water as he got trapped in a whirlpool.

Underwater, he tried kicking off a huge rock he was trapped next to, but the whirlpool was too strong. He stopped struggling and went limp, conserving his oxygen. His nanites would keep him conscious for a much longer time than even the best breath-holders on Terra were capable of before nanites, but still knew anything could happen.

He protected his head with his arms as he hit the rock over and over with every spin of the water. Feeling the line on his suit finally tighten, it forcefully ripped him out of the whirlpool and back to the surface. He turned on his back, took a breath, and continued covering his head as Philira dragged him to the other side.

“Brings back bad memories of water survival school!” he shouted over the din, standing up and shaking the water off his face and hair as he backed away from the spraying mist the river was generating.

“Haha, yeah,” she agreed as she smiled. “Lot of memories is for sure.”

He suddenly remembered that as much as he went through, while he was in tactics and strategy classes, she was probably still out there swimming and running. He felt bad for even thinking about his hardship; he had no doubt the ‘expendable’ Scouts were trained far more cruelly than the Leaders. She had swum through those rapids that likely would have killed Raist had he not had assistance.

Agrest was drug to the shore and Philira hid the line across the river. Now that they had this line and the descent line, on the way back they would only need to do is hook up to it, and it could pull them across the river, or up the cliff.

“Ok, I’ll drop the line in a bit.” Philira molded her gloves into spikes and set off against the wall. The two men were glad they had such a skilled Scout with them. They were both trained to do all of this, but to a lesser extent than her. Raist remembered the cliffs he was forced to lead a lot worse than this, but the fact two of his classmates died on the route next to him left him glad she was the one doing this.

From down in the canyon the roar and the blasting mist kept their world fairly small, but every now and then the mist would blow just right and he could make out the rocks Ziko and Leio were bunkered in at.

An orange ball formed out of a thin black cord indicating Philira was ready. Raist grabbed it and handed it over as Agrest was soon being lifted up the cliff. It dropped again and he likewise was pulled up the cliff by the system.

‘Halfway through the day,’ he thought as he looked up at the star in the sky as he approached the edge. He pushed himself around the sharp edge and crawled a few steps onto the solid surface before the system stopped pulling and he disconnected himself.

“Lay down,” Agrest said, and the other two dropped without thought. He likewise was down, and pulled his Silvershot up in front of him. There was a wheeled robot patrolling further down the edge of the cliff. Agrest sighted in the robot and delivered a high-velocity slug right through its upper neural circuits as it spilled over the edge of the cliff. “Clear.”

“Burn.” Raist had used the name of an alien race that was composed of a tightly bonded gas/telepathic mixture that originated on a large super giant planet. Being gaseous, they had a hard time doing much until their advent of robotics, which some said was given to them as a dark social experiment by a different race.

“We aren’t at war with them though. The Solarian fleet would tear them apart,” Agrest pointed out.

“No, not officially. But I think this might go beyond that,” Raist mused, his voice very cold. “That robot was definitely of Burn manufacturing.”

“But?” Philira prompted.

“That rocket drone wasn’t.” Raist stopped for a moment, considering if his observation was right, but from every angle it was. “It was a Daijin Star’s.”

“That’s what I thought too. Holy shit…” Agrest’s facial features dropped.

The Burn and Daijin Star were at war with each other; their complete hatred for one another was no secret.

“And some of those animals I could have sworn we’ve seen on Reiko-3,” Philira added.

“Yeah, they were Solarian genetic experiments on combat animals.” Raist nodded to the truth of her point. Solarian’s were still neutral in the war between the two races, but everyone knew humans didn’t like the Burn or Daijin, and would be happy if both of them were dead. Everyone also knew those two races wanted the Solarian’s dead, stopped only by Aelisha protection. Yet on this planet was obvious evidence of all three working together.

“For some reason it appears at least three races that hate each other have come together for whatever it is AKRA represents. I was told this was a syndicate that represents a serious threat; but if it is true that three generally hostile species are working together…” Raist stopped, trying to express the magnitude of danger this represented. “Whatever AKRA is, is of more importance than we can possibly imagine.”

“Damn,” Agrest muttered as he shook his head. “How do we know just how far their influence is? There might even be agents within our…” He didn’t finish the sentence and the three looked at each other nervously. He finished, “This is bad.”

“That’s an understatement,” Philira said, as they all were looking at the forest that suddenly was a lot more ominous.

“What are the Aelisha going to do?” asked Agrest.

“Depends on if they know,” Raist sighed. The political situation was extremely complex with what they were seeing on this planet.

“Maybe we aren’t supposed to see this,” the young Scout suggested.

“What do you mean?” Agrest looked at her.

“Maybe we are supposed to die.”

Neither of the men denied it. Raist thought back to the beginning of this where the figure ended with the ‘a friend sends their regards’ and with a dark realization that this might be a way to get rid of them. They were utterly loyal to the Solarians and the Aelisha, and watching this mixed force in front of them…that might have been the entire problem.

***

“This forest is different.” The first part of the comment wasn’t needed as the short bushes they were now getting cut by were much different from the open forest before. “This might be a younger form of the trees, all fighting for early nutrients to become tall enough.”

Raist stepped on a short branch, but his boot slipped, so he reached out to the tree to catch his balance. His hand was instantly cut by of the sharp edge before he rolled into some of the sharper branches.

He caught himself before he became maimed trying to get out of the bush. He stopped moving for a bit to let his internal nanites restring the outer skin of his hand back together before he continued on, mindful to not trust the slippery lower branches.

“The blood we are spilling here is probably exactly what the trees are looking for,” Agrest mused as he slowly wove his way through the underbrush. “Regardless, looks like we are here.”

A large metallic fortress only slightly extended out from the mountain it was built in. A light patrol of robotic guards swept around the half circle perimeter of the building.

“Outlook?” Raist asked.

“Seven ground, two aerial drones…” Agrest started. “Unbelievable! Those AA cannons are Aelishan!” Agrest had laid additional nanite lens over his eyes to zoom in, and took a mental picture that he sent over ICS to the others. Raist got the picture and saw markings on the control panel that were written in Aelisha language. “Anything you aren’t telling us?”

“I really wish there was.”

The politics were not important to the Scout. “Only one entrance, but based on its various signatures and layout, I’d say a grav-charge over on the side should get us pretty close to where AKRA might be,” Philira said of the structure’s overlay, pulling a small set of goggles off her eyes that melted back into her suit.

Raist pulled out a grav-charge, priming it and looked back to the two of them. “I’m going in, and I’ll need Philira for close quarters. It’s up to you if you stay here for long range support, or come with us.”

“You should know.”

“Just had to ask.” The three of them did a quick check to ensure the cloaking was functioning, and that their weapons had full charges. “Once we get AKRA, we are blasting our way out of this forest. Get ready for a fast escape when we come back.”

“Ready?” Agrest asked. The two close range weapons floating in the air and held at ready was answer enough. They waited until he lined up his first shot.

The Silvershot’s round blasted out of the barrel, striking the first robot in the chest. The round pierced until its internal sensors detected softer material and detonated in an explosion of shrapnel. On the outside only a few joints showed anything blowing out, but the robot dropped immediately. The rifle was not quiet, and the other two took off as the battle was on.

Philira fired a Plaz-Shot at the nearest robot, the plasma bolts leaving it in pieces, some of the dispersion ruining one behind it. Raist lifted the SSAW to the two aerial drones swooping in and pulled the trigger.

The barrel was not round, in fact, it was almost completely flat, and the round that came out looked like a small contained energy field. The light blue ‘knife’ spread out about the width of Raist’s body, before it appeared to multiply, spreading into five exact copies of the body-wide energy knife. These five multiplied again horizontally. The cone of destruction was almost the full half circle in front of him, and these 25 knives each shot two lances above them and two lances below them from a strange black core contained in the center of the energy field. The result was 125 blades launched out of the weapon. Immensely powerful, but extremely limited on ammo because of how much energy it used.

This entire process took less time than it took to blink, and only the bright after-image in the eyes left any indication of what just happened, that and the cubed robot falling out of the sky.

“Grav it, I’ll cover you!” Philira was first to the wall, and turned to start fighting the remaining guards. Raist slapped the charge to the wall, sticking to anything as it was gravity bound and not friction bound. He grabbed the young woman’s arm and dragged her a few steps away.

The area by the charge turned completely black, an abyss of light in the shape of a perfect sphere. Only a moment later a complete match to the abyss of light was cut evenly into the ground and the wall of the fortress as everything within had been crushed to a singular dense point.

“Reinforcements!” Philira jerked his arm towards the main door where a massive number of robots and beings of the three respective races of who had stolen AKRA were pouring out. Raist leveled the SSAW and pulled the trigger again, cleaving out a substantial portion of the first wave. A second wave was streaming out and Raist lifted the weapon again.

Philira grabbed it to stop him. “You only have two shots left. Agrest knew what he was in for. We need to move fast. They know what we are doing.” Philira dragged him towards the hole he had blown into the wall. Agrest was putting up a good fight, but Raist knew he would not live through the horde as he attempted to defend the two of them as they went inside. Raist questioned for a brief moment that perhaps this was an elaborate plot to get a skilled and loyal team killed on a suicide mission.

They clambered up the spherical ground left behind into a fairly normal hallway. The problem was there were doors everywhere, and his scanner that was set to AKRA’s recovery chip was blinking erratically.

She leaned over, seeing the scanner acting randomly. “Shit, which way is it?!”

Anything worth hiding tended to be in the back, at least that would be logical. He put the inconsistent scanner away for now. “Towards the back,” Raist commanded as he started running in his direction, but Philira sprinted in front of him.

“Let me take point,” Philira said as she ran in front of him; he didn’t have a problem with that.

A door opened to the right and she pumped a Plaz-Shot into the room, one bolt bouncing off something reflective as it ripped back towards them away into the ceiling.

A Solarian guard leaned expertly out of one door, taking a rapid shot at the two of them. Philira went falling to the floor, rolling with a trail of blood arcing out of her leg. She brought the Scattergun to bear and ended the rather skilled guard’s life.

“Walk it off,” Raist told her as he drug her to her feet, the blood still leaking out of her leg.

“Had every intention.” She set off again, still faster than him even with a bullet through her muscles.

Further down the hall was a huge, thick door with an access panel to its right. That would be the type of place AKRA was hidden; the erratic scanner beeping madly seemed to indicate it was.

In front of him, Philira was twisting towards the ground again, and about the same time, he felt something itching on his wrist, a sensation he could not avoid. He looked down to see only the burnt stump of his arm remaining, while seeing Philira’s entire upper arm missing. Falling to the floor, she lifted her weapon with her remaining hand, each recoil of the powerful weapon seemed to be slow motion as it tore through the hallway, blowing down the enemies behind the doors with their Reflect-Rifles the two had been hit with.

“…that’s why the hallways were so bare looking. They definitely thought about an assault if they planned on using reflect technology.” She stood up, holding the heavy weapon straight ahead with only one hand, oblivious to the fact she only had one arm remaining.

He could still hold the front of the SSAW up with his left stub while his right pulled the trigger, and that’s all that mattered as they continued on.

“Wait, wait!” he called.

She turned around towards him, confused as to why he was stopping when they were so close to the huge door.

His mind was screaming at him to keep going, but something else was screaming that he was already there. If he opened that big door, they would die; it was a certainty he had never felt before. He turned to a fairly simple door nearby, one that didn’t even auto-open.

Raist was already here.

Front kicking the wood door off its hinge, he advanced through the door.

A woman was kneeling down on the floor, gravlock bracelets on her wrists, and a light force field around her. They had prisoners here too? Then a strange thought came to him. He remembered this as if he had known it his whole life.

“AK…RA?” Yet he had known before he even asked.

She lifted her head up to face him, and her bright teal eyes almost floored Raist with the peacefulness they radiated compared to the violence around him.

“Yes, that is the name of part of the knowledge I possess.”

“Well then you are coming with us.” He lifted his weapon and bashed the nearest console, lowering the force field as the controls sparked.

“You are lucky I can sense your intentions. I am not one who would follow threats,” AKRA said while offering her cuffs up to Raist to do something about.

“Don’t you dare talk to me about luck,” Raist said back to her angrily.

“Heh, you have no idea about reality.” She tilted her head away while he used the Vibro-Knife stuck in the SSAW to cut through the cuffs quickly. He stowed it back and stood up.

“Holy shit, you’re a Star Priestess…” Philira marveled at the regal woman who maintained a sense of dignity despite being a prisoner.

Per Philira’s exclamation, he noticed her bangle on her arm and the elaborate tattoo on both sides that caught his attention. Potential Priestesses grow up with it on the arm, and if they never let it fall off, it becomes a permanent fixture and a mark of pride showing their focus.

“I am. They sent the best, didn’t they?” asked AKRA.

“That’s what some called us,” he was not in a mood to talk.

I wouldn’t though…being the best is a myth’ his thought finished. ‘Even the best can catch a random bullet and die.’

“We have got to go.” Philira was holding the weapon between her legs to hold it in place of her other hand while she was loading another clip into the weapon. Raist felt a wave of guilt that this young woman was sitting on the floor holding her weapon with her legs just to reload it. She would never know a peaceful life… or things like love.

“Can you run?”

AKRA nodded, and the three of them ran out of the random room Raist had felt drawn towards. Had AKRA tapped into his mind, or was it something else?

“They will probably shoot you, won’t they?” Raist asked her, hoping that they could stage a hostage-style escape.

“Though I am valuable alive, at this stage they would now prefer me dead.”

For once, this rescuee was actually in excellent shape. She was obviously fairly fit and easily keeping stride with the two advanced soldiers. Star Priestesses were deceptively strong and fast, likely imbued with Aelisha technology.

“Cover your eyes and ears, AKRA,” Philira turned to tell her for a moment before grabbing two spheres off her suit and pitching them through the spherical hole. Raist turned, mentally triggering his nanites to block the sound. A loud retort and series of vibrations went on for a few moments before he opened his eyes. He was going to tap AKRA to keep moving, but she already was.

“Sonic pulsars…you have good connections, soldier,” AKRA said, sliding down the hole Philira was leading through.

“How the hell do you know about that technology?” Raist likewise jumped down the hole, and ran up the other side temporarily cleared by the two grenades the Scout had thrown. “Clear?” His second question was dedicated to Philira who was advancing across the open field.

“Hurry!” she yelled back. Raist was running after the two girls, seeing stunned or dead soldiers and robots around them. The covering fire from Agrest’s location had ceased, only burning pillars of exploded planet remained where he once was.

Thanks Agrest…’ Raist thought solemnly.

The two girls got to the deep shrub and when they didn’t dive in, he realized AKRA was not going to get through this easily; she would be torn to shreds. Even their advanced combat suits were still barely enough to get through the material.

“Saw! Saw!” Philira repeated twice, using the slang name for his weapon, turning back towards the compound to defend their backside.

Raist leveled the SSAW at the forest and pulled the trigger, the blue laser wave shot out, moments later the bushes fell apart as they were cleaved in multiple directions. It seemed a strange justice to be cutting the trees that had been tearing them this entire time. It left a wide cone of destruction in front of them, taking them to about halfway to the cliff further beyond.

“One shot left,” Philira reminded him.

“We’re good, let’s go.” He grabbed AKRA’s wrist and ran into the vast clearing. “AKRA you are going to get pretty messed up, but you should live and we can heal you back on our ship.”

“I have a name, and it is not AKRA. It is Ryluna. I possess Level-3 nanites, so I should be able to sustain more than you.” Raist never heard of levels of nanites, but loosely confirmed the idea of the Aelisha protecting their heavy investment.

“Well, Ryluna, keep running. You talk a big game; it is time to see just how tough you are.”

“I just needed the opportunity for escape, I am quite capable of effecting it myself, Raist.”

“Watch yourself, bitch.” He was in no mood given the losses they had sustained getting here.

Philira caught the subtly he himself had not, “How the hell do you know his name!?” she turned around before facing back forward and crashing through the light brush. Small trails of blood showed the cuts she was sustaining on her legs, blazing the trail for the other two of them.

In front of him, suddenly a huge black form crashed out of one of the huge trees, slamming right into Philira.

“Shit!” Her head slammed hard back into the tree, the huge creature with its horn impaling through her reared back to strike her again. She pulled her Plaz-Shot up and leveled it at the creature, sending plasma through its carapace. It fell to the ground, but she was still impaled into the tree, connected to the massive dead beast.

“Philira!” Raist stopped, his thoughts racing about how to get her out of here, but hostile forces were being mustered right behind them to kill them.

“Go!” Her cold eyes had taken a slight pleading edge to them, despite her strong words.

Damn it!’ His mind recalled the last Scout he lost. She too was still alive when she forced him to go on while she stayed behind, fighting to the bitter end…her young body bleeding out while Raist got to live.

Philira painfully reminded him of his training partner, Laiun, from his younger days. They were practically the same: a beautiful, youthful girl whose entire life was geared to be the ultimate spec-ops soldier with their speed and reflexes. The pain resonated from the fact they both actually seemed like gentle souls, or at least could have been, and only through not having a choice did they find themselves in this position. And the fact it was their ‘destiny’ to die for the Leader class like Raist, going down in a blaze of gunfire to ensure their Leader was kept alive.

Philira pointed her gun downwards and started shooting. The plasma bolts blew through the body, but did very little to ‘dig’ her way out of the huge mass.

“No…no way!” He yelled mostly to himself at a desperation based heavily in his own mind. He pulled out his Vibro-Knife and started sawing at the huge horn spilling the blood out of the beautiful Scout. The horn was so big even going all the way around wouldn’t sever it. He started cutting V’s into the horn, letting the pieces fall away from its vibrating edge to access deeper parts of the horn.

His mind was thinking in erratic, staccato fashion. He could get her. He would not let her die. He glanced behind him, noting he still had a little time. He started hacking faster and faster. He glanced again and thought he saw movement. He wasn’t losing Philira. Not again. Not again.

“Raist!” Her voice was on the edge, but her sadness and anger were palpable across the air. “Go!”

“I am not leaving you!” He hacked away again at the bone. “I’ll use the SSAW, move your legs.”

“No, save it! It’s the only weapon you have left. Don’t be stupid, your type isn’t supposed to be emotional. You know leaving me here will buy you enough time to leave.”

A shot exploded above his head, a branch fell down and hit him in the back, cutting it open slightly. Philira turned behind them and shot around the tree, killing whatever it was.

Raist rapidly turned his head to look at Ryluna, her frown added to the intense realism that his good friend Philira stood a very real chance of not living through this; he would never see her again.

“Damn it, Philira, we have been through too much!” He lifted his hand way up, stabbing the Vibro-Knife into the bone. It cut deep, but the ‘ting’ sound of the handle hitting resonated loudly as his knife went bouncing away into an alcove of one of the trees. He stood there with tears in his eyes, his one remaining hand empty of the knife that might have possibly been the one way to save her if he had more time.

“Heh, noble to the end. Just go.” She turned her face away from his for a moment. “You are making this situation worse.” Her eyes were wet as she continued, “I don’t want to cry, too much pride to die like that.”

“You just want me to leave you!?”

She placed her Plaz-Shot on the beast’s head, reaching down to her leg and pulling up her own Vibro-Knife. She held out her weapon to Raist, “Here, a soldier should never be without a knife.”

His tears were streaming down his face as he took her customized knife from her. The simple act was essentially admitting the eventual death of the Scout. The fact she had chosen a girly bright pink tone with a single yellow star on one side for its handle decoration was too much for Raist as he started crying hard.

“Heu…” he choked on a sob, squinting his eyes closed as he touched his cheek to hers. Damn it! He cared too much about her to just leave her. He had closed his heart to her because of his past, and now was paying for that mistake.

Philira was crying as well, but her voice stayed even. “Hope you like that knife, I had its repulsion field upgraded. It’s my favorite…It was my brother’s gift. Hope it saves you as much as it saved me.” She frowned, blinking the tears away, looking away from him for a moment as she probably fully realized her own imminent death. “Raist, go. You are losing your lead on them. Save AKRA, don’t let our group fail. Keep our memory alive.”

He looked at her, putting his one hand on her face, his own face taking on a cold determination. He knew what he had to say to her, even if he had denied it for so long. “I will never forget you, Philira. I…love you.”

“Thanks… That’s more than a Scout could ever expect from a Leader.” Her face cringed in pain for a moment, but she shook her head back to focus. “You were a hell of a Leader, you got us through a lot more than I ever expected. Goodbye, Raist. If a Scout could ever love, I think I loved you too. That’s what it felt like for a young girl like me.”

Together they kissed; it was a violent, passionate kiss that might have led to so much if she was not dying in front of him.

Raist pulled away, then removed his hand away from her face and she nodded, her own cold eyes taking on a deadly focus.

He jumped off the huge beast and started running through the forest. He ran hard, trying to get away from the shame he felt for leaving her there. ‘It is my training, it is my training’ he lied to himself. The emotions were hurting him far more than the forest ripping at him.

He heard the ‘plaaa’ initial warm up sound of her weapon and its ‘zzzziiiii’ diminuendo combo of the Plaz-Shot all the way to where the roar of the water was too loud to hear anything else. Raist never knew how long she continued fighting. Both Scouts he was forced to leave behind fought long past his ability to hear if they were still alive.

“Ahh!” He turned around to see Ryluna take a fall to the spiky grass, her speed unfortunately gave her a few rolls across the knife edges. He turned around, dropping the SSAW as it silently wound it way up the small cord to his waist and pulling her bloody body up. She had hit something and the harsh planet ripped deeply into her legs. She could not walk easily, if at all.

“Hang on to my back.” She complied, wrapping her rather toned arms around his neck while her blood freely spilled, mixing with his own spilling out from the small cuts everywhere on his body. The intensity of the injuries was too extreme for even their advanced nanites to keep up with. He grabbed the weapon off his waist with his hand and continued running, seeing the bright gap of the trees that represented the river.

“We have a descent system here, I am going to hook into it, and it is critical you do not let go of me.”

“Alright.” He was very glad she was not running her mouth, he did not know if he could take it.

Raist plugged the moving part of the unit onto his harness, swinging the gun over his shoulder so he could use his arm to help hold Ryluna on their descent.

Even on the fastest setting there was still a long spread of time on the way down. He lifted his head and focused on the huge double moon that filled most of the evening sky. It was strangely beautiful. It was this hyper-real sense he always got for things when he was the closest to death. A messed up irony: he appreciated life the most when it was so close to being completely ripped from him. He just had to get back to Leio and Ziko and they could help him return to the recovery point.

They crashed to the ground, Raist almost falling over with the double weight on his injured legs.

“AKRA,” he began, but didn’t bother fixing his mistake, “we are going to cross this stream, and we are both too wounded to attempt any sort of swim. Comply with what I am doing.” He extended the strap on his weapon, wrapping around his back, and consequently Ryluna, cinching the two of them face to face with the cord.

He looked at her, smiling grimly while saying, “You’re cute. Hang on.” He had tears in his eyes while he said it, doing his best to try to restore the cocky charade he wore instead of the raw hole Philira left.

He pressed a button while she was still looking confused and they were pulled sideways, crashing into the water. Raist tried blocking the rocks with his body, as they were dragged to the other side. He bent his head and body around the woman, using his muscular back to hopefully take the impacts that would potentially end her life with a sharp edge. Dirty and soaked, they were unceremoniously pulled up the short rocky beach. Ryluna was still coughing from the crossing while Raist hooked up the ascent system, and they were soon lifting into the air.

She was still spitting out water when she mysteriously told Raist, “The Emotion-Field was very high back there with your friend.”

“What are you talking about?” Raist was trying to control his anger; he didn’t really want to hear her voice at all. He was trying very hard to not blame her for Agrest and Philira’s death. He actually was kind of looking for a reason to smack her since meeting her.

“I am talking about AKRA, well a part of it anyway.”

Raist stayed silent, wondering if anyone would start shooting at them from the other side, or if Philira was still fighting right now…if she was alive buying him time like his last Scout had.

“AKRA is a culmination of knowledge about our reality. To explain it simply, there are rules that exist that are somewhat beyond our experience, but also directly influence it. The term to most easily describe it is ‘field.’ So far we have found an emotion, luck, and spirit field.”

“What does that have to do with Philira? And why would knowledge like that matter at all?”

“Your two emotions were so intense you influenced the local field, for some time later that sensation will literally be sense-able if one is in tune enough. It is loosely believed this is part of what makes Psionics work on some level as there is a higher dimensional aspect to this imprinting. Maybe you are familiar with the feeling of panic, or despair despite that no one has said anything? That you can literally feel someone’s panic in certain spots like cliffs, or melancholy at a graveyard?”

“Maybe.” His curiosity was starting to overpower any misplaced anger. “Do we influence the field, or does it do it to us?”

“Usually the field influences the individual, but not always. Sometimes, like the two of you, physical beings like us can have such intense experiences, we leave traces of that on the local field. It’s an emotional residue of sorts, which thereby changes it.”

They were nearing the top, and he was actually a bit regretful that they wouldn’t have time to talk while they were running.

“Ever been to those really old graveyards on some planets that still bury their dead?” She asked him. “You can literally feel something that defies conventional logic. It is that field phenomenon. Everyone is affected by local conditions that are not visible, but nevertheless exist.

“The importance of these fields, and AKRA, is the fact that our older understanding of science should not allow for this in such an esoteric fashion. But, by existing, it proves the evidence of an aspect of reality beyond our own, whatever its nature. It is that fact that makes AKRA so valuable: as much as we know…it does not even begin to touch reality. The Emotion Field can affect higher dimensions to an unknown outcome.

“Further, if Psionics, especially the Chrono branch, is based on this dimensionality, and we can cause a change in the upper dimension, it means we are changing an aspect of reality we hereto did not even know existed. It is entirely likely to say the emergent phenomenon we are witnessing suggests a degree of malleability of our very existence.”

Raist was thinking about a similar conversation he had with a different Scout when he was younger, talking about the same things about what reality might entail. She died. Hopefully AKRA wouldn’t follow the same path.

“And let me guess, you are going to tell me there is probably something beyond us that either controls or maintains these things? Demigods?”

She laughed a bit. “You are pretty in tune for a soldier. Though, anything beyond that is classified.” Raist had looked away; interested in what had been discussed, but curbed his enthusiasm given her shutdown at the end. She then spoke a final set of words on a topic she should not have but as a reward to him, “We might call them ‘Gods’, and how we communicate with them.”

They came to the top of the cliff and Ziko was waiting for them. Raist felt relief, they had made it. Ryluna stood uneasily on her bloody legs as the two men walked close to each other.

“You made it!” he exclaimed as he lowered his large assault weapon and came closer to the two of them.

“Where is Leio?” Raist looked around “We need to leave now.”

Ziko turned his head away from him as he spoke lowly, “Dead. We sustained attacks halfway through the day…the bunker wasn’t enough.”

Raist’s heart fell through his chest. Leio…dead? Raist’s eyes flashed to the rock bunker, and though there was blood sprayed around, it did not look particularly attacked at all. What was going on? Something in his soul was confused about the pain of Leio, but was also strangely angry at something he could not identify. He looked back to Ziko before the latter saw him looking.

Something beyond Raist was calling to him, and he realized he had been having these feelings his entire life; he only needed to listen to them. Somehow the legitimacy of Ryluna’s words gave credence to his sensations. The Emotion-Field was calling to him, and it was warning him. The higher dimensions were talking to him if he would only listen. Once Raist accepted what these sensations were telling him, the answers were as clear as if he had known them all his life. Leio was killed, but not by hostile animals.

“So this is AKRA?” Ziko asked, walking closer to the two of them. “Not much, really. Just some dumb little girl? My arm is bigger than her head.”

She was bleeding from her arms and face but defiantly looked at him as she spoke, “Size is but one part of the equation, you brute.”

Ziko laughed. “What a bitch.”

Raist backed up, holding his stump up against Ryluna’s chest, forcing her back a step.

“You killed her, didn’t you?” Raist said, looking at him with cold eyes. “You are an agent that was part of this group that stole AKR—…Ryluna. You sabotaged our landing too.”

Ziko took a step back, surprised, but then his face changed, and took on a dark sureness as he smirked.

“Ha, yeah. So you figured it out? This makes things a lot easier with you as the only survivor, ‘Leader’.”

Raist’s heart was pounding. Was his best friend through all of these missions a traitor? Ziko was the most recent member of his group, true, but was this syndicate so connected it had agents placed this high?! He thought back to the fortress that was even equipped with Aelisha weaponry; the conspiracy was deeper than he could imagine. Who could he even trust now that at the deepest levels it was compromised?

“You are a traitor.” Raist’s sickening tone almost asking a question, unsure if the friend he had had all these missions was only an advanced agent sent to sabotage any counter operations to his cause. In this case, the eventual rescue attempt.

“Had the three of you made it back with AKRA, things could have been harder. But this is perfect. Not only will all of you be dead, but we won’t even have to kill AKRA.” He looked at the Star Priestess. “I’ll have fun punishing that look off her face.”

Raist was frowning. “I have only one thing to ask. Is it true? Are you really an agent from this group?”

“Heh, yes I am. And if you think I am a highly placed agent, you better rethink everything you know, Raist. By the way, thanks for saving me on Reiko-3, but now it’s over.”

“That’s all I needed to hear.” Raist lifted the SSAW to Ziko, Ryluna had stepped back from Raist, but in that single movement Ziko dashed in. Batting the weapon out of his hand with an incredible force, the weapon crashed a few steps away. Assaults were strong and fast, and in close quarters is where they shined.

“Look at this nice mirror match we have set up!” He lifted his cut stub, pointing it towards Raist’s own burnt off hand. “I would have rocked Agrest, but Philira could have been some trouble.”

“You liked her.”

“Only a bit. All an act Raist,” his voice sounding as if Philira was nothing but a joke to him. That hurt Raist deeply, knowing what that poor Scout did for Raist. “Didn’t they teach you anything useful in those Leader-class trainings? Combat is one of the fastest ways to gain loyalty to later exploit.”

Ziko continued, shaking his head at the very idea of a Leader-class. “Leader-class is such a joke; don’t they know Assault is the only way to go? You realize you do not have a chance, right?” He saw the SSAW being retracted towards Raist, stepping on where the thin cord would be. “Cute.”

He stepped in, backhanding Raist with his huge arm. Raist went spinning to the ground, following the path of the SSAW. Ziko turned and kicked nearby Ryluna once, and her already wounded body fell down with little fight. Ziko jumped on top of Raist’s chest, grinding his knee into his throat.

Raist reached for the weapon as it was silently winding its way back to him, but his once-friend’s eyes saw it, and reached for the gun instead.

“You think that stupid trick will work?” Ziko ripped the weapon from his hand and pulled the trigger on the one remaining round into the forest to their side. The blue neon lights exploded outwards, taking Raist’s hope with it.

“Aww, too bad. You really wanted to shoot me too. I thought we were friends.” He dangled the empty SSAW in front of Raist’s gasping face. “What now? Too bad Leaders are so weak, huh? Well, it was fun. Bye bye, Raist. Tell the goddesses or whatever stupid shit you believe in you got rocked by a better man.”

Raist shot his one hand up, wrapping his fingers around Philira’s hidden Vibro-Knife in the SSAW. Jerking the pink handle out, and triggering maximum micro-vibrations in the knife, he shoved it through Ziko’s neck. The immediate spray of blood came pouring down on Raist like a balloon filled with liquid. Ziko’s hand shot to his neck trying to stop the severe severing, as the choke he had on Raist was broken. Raist kicked the bigger man off of him, but immediately got up and stayed in the grapple like the trainings he had endured with skillful Scout Laiun so long ago. Raist stabbed the knife in again, its micro-vibrations piercing straight through Ziko’s combat suit, as the pink handle was flooded with red.

“Maybe a Leader…would normally lose…to an Assault,” Raist said to the dying body as he was hyper-ventilating. “But I was trained…by some of the best Scouts…to ever be created.”

He looked once at Ryluna and hobbled over to the rock bunker they had created earlier. Leio’s dead body was strewn across the rocky ground. She likely had no idea the moment she was betrayed. He only looked enough to confirm and little more to not scar his already damaged mind.

He picked up Ryluna back onto his back, still holding Philira’s Vibro-Knife as they staggered, bleeding through the forest. “I’m so sorry for this,” Ryluna whispered to him.

He was punching the calldown button over and over on his suit as they crept onwards. When would that stupid thing think it was out of AA range from the base? Hadn’t they destroyed enough of it to decrease the range at least a little? Eventually he saw the long contrail of the escape craft homing in on his position. He fell once, the thin spikes impaling themselves into his knee.

“Ka…ahhh…” he gasped. Like some sort of mono-edge weapon, the spikes slid in so easily, he barely got back to standing as he could feel them slashing through parts of his knee.

He didn’t rest to get them out; he wasn’t sure he could start again if he stopped. Dusk was coming as the creatures’ howls started in the distance.

He dragged one foot to the next, limping his way to the shuttle. He felt the anchor spikes scraping inwards through his flesh in his knee as they refused to back out at all; some had stopped hurting, possibly having finally gotten to the bone.

Dark was rapidly closing around him, his head pounding from the strain and blood loss. His mind had long ago stopped being able to think clearly. It had been reduced to repeating random important thoughts.

Can’t give up…can’t…give up…Philira…too many…Scouts …dying for me…pink hair…star on her knife…Leio…Laiun…Agrest…Philira…’

Further ahead the auto-turrets on the shuttle began engaging animals that started coming out with the night. Raist’s shattering mind staggered on towards the staccato that represented safety.

He fell again, Ryluna letting out a soft cry, the grass embedding into his right side of his face. He pressed off the ground with his knuckles as his hand was still wrapped around Philira’s knife he refused to let go. The trail of blood would have been visible if it wasn’t for it slipping down into the caustic bath at the bottom of the sharp points of the ground.

The ship recognized Raist, opening the door while it gunned down the charging creatures around him. He got to the open shuttle door and fell through it, pulling his legs in and hitting the emergency take off button. He blacked out as the shuttle was going airborne.

***

“Ryluna! You’re alive?” A girl with bright pink hair that though was once wild and spiky was now held back in a regal set of bows. One would never know how crazy this now-respected Star Priestess once was.

“Laiun!” The two women embraced on the Aelishan military ship’s dock before stepping back, both of them equally surprised. Ryluna’s torn Star Priestess clothes looked immaculate as they had self-cleaned all the blood and fluids off of themselves, hiding how intense of a trial she suffered. “The tale of what I endured, and the sacrifice by those to save me is one even for us.”

“So the organization successfully recovered you,” Laiun confirmed as she shook her head in disbelief.

“The Star Priestesses utilized some deep favors in effecting my rescue at an unfortunately high cost. The quality of these soldiers was amazing, one in particular. His name was Raist. When I had woken up I was already on a small ship back here, all my wounds were dressed and everything.” She opened up her jacket to show the wraps of bandages around her stomach and chest.

She shook her head slowly, it was rare for Priestesses to not have bows in their hair, and Ryluna’s long hair shook softly mimicking her motion. “He had this deep pain in his soul though. His entire team was wiped out and his best friend was a traitor he had to eliminate. I could just imagine the torment he was in, bandaging my unconscious body completely professionally while the rest of his team lay dead on the planet below. It is too bad I did not get to help his pain. Worse, I did not even get to thank him.”

“Raist…” Laiun smiled softly, knowing things Ryluna did not. “Wow, that name brings up memories. I knew him, once. I was his Scout and he was my Leader, both in training and our first missions. Haha,” she started laughing, recalling some past memories. She tilted her head towards the holographic sky, small tears in her eyes.

So ironic Raist was much wiser in spiritual matters than her in their youth, it was completely accurate to say she became a Star Priestess largely due to things he had seeded in her mind that took root. Unlike Ryluna and many Star Priestesses she had not been scouted as a young girl, mainly because her spiritual depth and Psionics had not fully developed until later.

As a result, she did not possess the large, elaborate Priestess Bangle as children they were forced to wear and never drop. Those that made it had the bracer permanently attached to their arm. Those like Laiun who came in later did not have to do this, while they still wore a similar permanent piece of jewelry, the only ones who noticed the differences were largely Star Priestesses themselves. There was not a looking down on others, so much as a pride for those that had the actual one. Even in Laiun’s case, it was an absolute highest honor to be part of the elite Aelisha organization.

She looked at her somewhat smaller Priestess Bangle given her later start as she mused; if he could only see her now. She sighed contently.

“I felt kind of bad for him at times,” Laiun continued with her casual tone; she was much less formal than many other Priestesses given her background. “I put him through so much and constantly gave him such a hard time. I kind of beat him down a lot because I hated Leaders, but he always endured and I eventually came around to liking him a lot. He was a really good kisser.” She smiled at Ryluna’s surprise. “Hey, it was before I was brought into the Priestess organization. Unfortunately, I am sure he still thinks I died on our last mission. I regret I could never tell him I lived. But that sounds like him, just sending you away; he wasn’t the type to stick around for a reward.”

“The surprising thing was that he found the room I was in. It was like he knew, that he could see the Emotion Field,” Ryluna slowly said. Laiun did not tell her about the machinations necessary of which Raist’s sensitivity was explicitly counted on.

They were both silent, thinking about the same man. Laiun did not tell Ryluna that she was the one who specifically requested Raist’s group; or how much it pained her to expose her old love to so much danger, knowing he alone was capable of success given the subtle power within him she knew he possessed. Understanding what AKRA meant would only have meaning to someone like him. Her actions and his success set into motion many Fate Lines with positive outcomes.

She also did not tell Ryluna that she went personally to request the mission from her old friend. In a bitter irony known only to her, she could not tell Raist that she was still alive and well after all this time, even if they were only steps apart, hidden by a cloak. It was a pain he would bear his whole life for losing a girl who did not actually die. Manipulating the Chrono Threads in such a way he might actually understand but could not be made aware of.

She had watched his progress carefully ever since she had become a Priestess. She had pulled a few strings that had definitely kept Raist out of a few completely suicidal missions; she felt it was the least she could do to repay him for everything he had done for a lowly Scout like herself when they were together.

You protected me, Raist,’ she thought. ‘I’ll try to be a better protector of you from now on. Now that you know about AKRA, things are going to get complicated. But we are going to be much more useful to each other now. Raist, your purpose in things has only just begun.’

Laiun grinned as she turned back to Ryluna. Her grin stemmed for a feeling of love for Raist that she cherished but knew could never be reciprocated. But it also stemmed from a lot of pieces finally setting into place that the main act could finally start. “I bet he was still thinking too much, wasn’t he?”

Ryluna shook her head, her eyes far away, thinking about that man that had saved her. Her body had been healed with the advanced nanites in them, her hair looked clean and other than tears in the pristine outfit she looked as ready as any other sans the bows.

“I too shared that feeling about him not caring about rewards.” She was not responding to Laiun’s last statement, somewhat lost in her own thoughts. “He was a true hero, one whose heart was fired by conviction and adventure, not thanks. He acted with a duty to something beyond what most people are ever aware of, or ever capable of being aware of. I doubt we have seen the last of Raist.”

“Oh, I completely agree with that,” Laiun smiled.

***

Raist was sitting at a porthole of his ship, rolling Philira’s bloody knife in his remaining hand, occasionally blinking the accumulating tears away. The large ship was once lively. Now it lay completely quiet, with only the soft hum of the Jump-Drive to break complete silence. He sat there in a complicated set of emotions from all his various thoughts. A floor down, a synth-vat was warming up, its hum one of the few sounds piercing the quiet. He would lie unconscious in there for a while as his arm was reconstructed yet again.

Agrest’s letter he would give to the broken-hearted girl sat on a table, waiting for a poor girl’s tears to cover it. He would tell her of the hero Agrest had been to the very end, as if that is any compensation to the mourning.

Thinking about Leio and her constant boisterous attitude made the ship seem even quieter now that she was gone. Murdered. Never again would she fill Raist with energy with her love for life attitude.

He stopped rolling the knife, looking at the yellow star Philira had decided to decorate her knife with. She had mentioned a brother, but she was AGEd, and thus had no biologic relative; it was a mystery he would never know about the young woman. He was thinking about the valiant sacrifice the Scout had made, and it only made him cry harder. Raist envisioned her prideful face with her slight tears as she was trying to hide her pain, as her death was so close. He gritted his teeth hard, shaking his head softly. It hurt him he could only tell her his feelings when she was about to die.

***

A while later he was watching the last of the star’s light of the Reiko system and the planet he had lost so much on before the ship grav-jumped away. Somewhere on the planet his arrogance that all Leaders possessed died. It was probably along with Philira or Leio, but in exchange had a new wisdom.

His eyes were still tearing, but he had a strange confidence with him now. It would be a long time before he ever went down in battle, and until then he hoped he would find another team as good as this one. Especially the Scouts. He liked that type the best, he now realized. The universe declared an affinity for them he was happy to have.

He pulled up a screen, wiping the tears away, but in the soft reflection could still see all the blood on his face. He was connected to a team acquisition number.

“I am going to need four replacement members. Raist, L4437 L-Class 743,” he stated professionally.

“What Classes?” The man on the other end eye’s went wide at Raist’s face for a moment before he started pulling up pictures and profiles of the typical soldier within each Class. “Typical mix: Scout, Assault, Support, and a Sniper? Or how about the new batch of Intel just graduated…”

“No. Four Scouts.”

“Ha, are you joking, or you got a thing for those pink-haired girls?” The man on the other end had a sly look on. “They are more than a bit crazy. I heard they are thinking about discontinuing that style, or at least making less. Assault seems to be all the rage now. You sure you want those whack girls? Heard they are more trouble than they are worth.”

“Yes, I owe my life to them,” Raist stated with complete conviction.

“Alright, a round of training is just about done. You should have four reporting for duty pretty soon.” The guy on the other line shook his head, laughing, “Damn, a Leader with four Scouts. Sounds hot. And dangerous.”

“Naturally.”

 

 

Afterword

 

First, thank you for reading this story, and if you’d like more please subscribe to my mailing list where you can get a free story; I give a once a month update on new stories and special access to readers. I hope you enjoyed this story, when I wrote AKRA I set out to write a heavy military-style action story that had some deep philosophic underpinnings beneath the story. This was written during a break from VayneLine and I was working on tight narratives in a shorter format. Unlike some of the others stories, I wanted to demonstrate the technology, drive and will of the elite Solarian soldiers. The story came out better than I would have thought. I was surprised at many of my earlier readers how much the Philira scene touched them and was inspiring that my writing could actually have an effect on people.

Like all of my stories, there are hidden things in the plot that reading again I hope would be a ‘now I see!’ kind of revelation that might make a re-read fun. In this there were many, from Laiun being the one in the beginning and pulling the strings behind the scenes to help the man she once served with; to Ziko’s sabotage; to Raist/Laiun’s past and its many implication on her and him; or Philira’s promise to survive no matter what for Raist’s joke to her. Lastly, we have not seen the last of Raist and Philira’s ‘brothers’ knife, and Raist will be a character that plays a major role in the main VayneLine books.

Visit www.vayneline.com for more information on Project: AKRA as well as all other stories. The website is built as an encyclopedia of information regarding the expansive universe and a blog to stay up to date on new stories. Feel free to check it out, or to email me at [email protected] as I plan to be hand-ons with my readers. Thanks for reading!

-Eric


Project: AKRA

Raist was genetically engineered to be smarter, faster, stronger, and a leader of the most elite Solarian military team that has never lost. His group is contacted with a mission worth the risk of such a valuable asset: recovering the enigmatic secret known only as AKRA. Given unlimited resources, his team must assault a hostile planet that has staved off all attacks. With a horrifying discovery that threatens to affect the very framework of reality, everything he has may not be enough. *** This story is part of the VayneLine series that explores humanity’s near future of living across the stars and under foreign occupation. After Earth was environmentally devastated amidst a nuclear war, the Aelisha step and save us at a high cost. In return for being uplifted and given their advanced technology, humanity becomes a subservient race for their empire. The stories blend fast-paced action with deep philosophical questions regarding time, fate, and individual will. The stories do not need to be read in order but each story ties together in a larger narrative. Visit www.Vayneline.com for more information on this story and all of the other stories in the VL universe. It contains information on technology, characters, concepts, and much more regarding the expansive canon. There you can read more in-depth information about every story, as well as see the connections between them along with additional facts beyond the books.

  • Author: E.A. Szabelski
  • Published: 2017-04-21 19:05:11
  • Words: 20525
Project: AKRA Project: AKRA