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The small girl and the giant Zalavi both looked on in amazement at the broken blender as it continued with its brief parade of clicking and electrically groaned protestations.

After a moment;

“What the fuck?” Aleks asked, rhetorically, in as deadpan a tone as any. “Did you break our blender?”

"Stress tested it." Abigail stopped tormenting the little machine and grabbed a pint glass. She took the lid off and tipped the blender jug upside down. It took...a while, a worryingly long few seconds, for the viscous slush to peel off and slop into the glass.

“You broke our only blender to make soup. Why are you making soup.”

"That's not soup."

"Could be soup," Jakunta pointed out.

"It's not-...soup is supposed to be warm, this is, this is, uh. It's a smoothie. A combat smoothie." Abigail held the glass to her brow, grimacing. The contents looked like muddy snow with grit in it.

“Soup can be cold. Gazpacho is a vegetable soup, and it is only ever served cold, because it is meant to be refreshing in summer. Additionally and in relation to this fact, I find the Spanish to be a very strange culture.” Aleks came closer and inspected the blender personally. “I hope one of the engineers can fix this, or we will be in some trouble with whoever needs it.”

Whatever godawful concoction Abigail created smelt chemically sweet, like wiper fluid or antifreeze, with a bitterness that Aleks couldn't - or didn't want to - identify. There were no broken pieces of metal in her hellish drink. She'd only busted the motor and loosened the blade with her recklessness.

"If you want a glass for yourself, go right on ahead." Abigail gestured with her drink to the cabinets.

Aleks nodded, retrieved a pint glass for himself, and filled it from the jug. Whilst still looking rather serious, he then proceeded to give it a quick sniff, and then immediately empty it into the sink.

“I would like another.” He looked back at Abi, expression blank, gaze like a dead fish.

"Cowardice doesn't suit you, lieutenant commander." Abigail took a swig of her glass and coughed profusely. "GAWH. OH MAN. HOOOOH." She recovered, ruminated over it, and took another swig. She regretted that one a little less.

“Jakhunta, help me restrain her, she needs a psychological evaluation urgently.”

Jakunta quirked a brow and didn't move - not yet, anyway.

Abigail was still drinking the damned thing. "I am efficiently making sure my body contains all the vital nutrients it needs. You can't throw me into psych for that. You'll have to get Gansu for his death cocktails - this hasn't got a lick of alcohol in it." She sniffed the glass again. "Not unless some sort of…chemical reaction took place in there."

“I think that drinking this much sugar is suicide. But ok.” He went for a coffee cup and started preparing himself some hot roasted caffeine bean water. “How are you two feeling?”

"Crack open one of these bad boys alongside my combat smoothie and I'll be able to fight the gods," Abigail patted a small cylinder on her belt. "I'm tired, cranky. Jakunta won't let me nap. A bit beat up."

"Also tired," Jakunta rumbled.

"Mhm. I agree. I have spoken with the Princess." Aleks added bluntly to the end of his sympathy, with all the decorum and warning of a pebble dropped into a bowl of soup.

Or a bowl of whatever Abi had made - though it occurred to Aleks that whatever Abi had made was indeed liable to contain pebbles already.

He waited for them to ask.

"Is she hot?" Asked Abigail - despite knowing full well what the princess looked like.

"Single?" Jakunta ventured.

"The only way she'd marry you is if you had Zalava in your inheritance, old man," Abigail grinned.

Aleks smirked.

"I don't know if she is hot. I didn't ask if she is single. I have enough for myself in engineering, for now. If you are interested I can only suggest that you ask her on a date - but I say, titles don't suit you, Abigail. Princess-Consort is too fancy for you, you still-" he sniffed.

He frowned.

"I was going to say you still smell of Jaatikar. You do still smell of the battlefield. Perhaps we should have the medics shower you in isopropyl alcohol before you meet your crush."

"I have…literally just hopped out of the shower," Abigail protested. "That's just Abigail smell. That's my musk you're getting at." She took another swig. She stopped smiling. "Get on with it, then."

“The Princess seems to understand that her decision to inappropriately issue conflicting orders was the result of a poor reaction to intense emotion and combat stress. Ingram has explained that we would prefer her to work through the existing chain of command and leave tactical command to her more experienced juniors. I explained that it is her job to make tough decisions and to give unfair orders, so that she might better appreciate why some must go before her into the line of fire. I believe she listened.”

Aleks nodded, relaxing a little and gazing around the empty room for a second. In the chairs and sofas, gathered at the kitchen counter, reaching for beer in the fridge - he could see the 7th Direwolves. These were memories, he was sure, of a night he didn’t remember.

But here and there, between folk crossing paths and in the flicker of the fading light of the ancient lava lamp and disco ball that had been there for longer than him, just out of the heart of his sight… he could see the princess.

He could see the princess fitting in.

The quiet frost of the hunter’s heart thawed, softened, warmed; the living thought in the back of his mind, half formed and young, at last awakened and burst into its fullness - no longer a thought, but a certainty.

“She listened. She has potential as an officer. If she can overcome her ideals and if she can take instruction, then I think she will even start to fit in.”

"Don't get your hopes up loverboy," Abigail grinned. "Us fodder-folk aren't the sort that she hangs out with. We'll get her back to the inner systems in a few days - if that. Then you lot can go on leave."

“Us lot. I approved your leave request a week ago, I was shitting you at the debrief. Don’t worry though, I have an instinct feeling that we won’t get any leave for quite a long time anyway.”

"Where'd you get that from?"

“Princess is here to stay. In fact she comes with orders, orders that include her assuming direct command of our battlegroup. She is not coming with us, we are going with her.

Perhaps a testament to Abigail's alchemical prowess, the sludge she'd been drinking retained its shape long after the glass dropped to the floor, bounced a few times and rolled to the side. She stared at the spot where it impacted with a dull stare as everything seemed to shift gear in her head, then back up at Aleks with a smile.

"Cool!" She chirped. "Happy to have her aboard."

Abruptly, Aleks put his glass down and reached out for the smaller pilot.

“What the fuck.” He echoed, much more seriously than before.

Jakunta sighed, finishing his glass of ice water as he rolled back into a seated position. His elbows rested on his knees as he absentmindedly ran his fingertips across his knuckles.

"Pips! Did you break the blender again by cramming as much as you could into it? You're gonna get your blender privileges taken away like your Eva-"

"Yes LIEUTENANT MATHEN? How ma-"

"Damn it! Go away! Go away!"

"Gansu!" Abigail beamed, spreading her arms out wide, shouldering past Aleks as his gaze tracked her across the room. "I never even heard you coming. Made me drop my drink, you lil' bastard."

"I need your assistance Pips! You too Griz, D-eye, if you're up for it. We just had a successful mission saving Royalty from the evil clutches of the Coalition, and the rookie didn't get killed! That's a cause for celebration! Especially since we might not get our leave for a while with a Sunnie on board! And since Zoom has never celebrated with the 7th or had a Gansu-Special, I figured the best way to celebrate would be to find her and introduce her to the horrible concoction I made! Plus I'm going to get drunk before we go back into the field again before the politicians change their minds! You in? It'd help shake off that post combat nerves!"

"We're not out of the woods yet," Abi pointed out. "Not until Sunray's back home safe. And you know how I feel about drinking on duty. These two degenerates, though," she gestured to the two Savonians behind her - stoic, tense, silent, alert and very much not at ease - "would be up to it if they weren't convinced yet again that I've gotten a brain injury."

"She needs rest," Jakunta grumbled distractedly. "Somewhere quiet. Out of the way."

"Besides, there's a fifty-fifty chance Sunny's gonna find me and know who I am. I gotta be sober and on call for that. But where is that FNG anyway?" She looked around, her gaze briefly lingering on the security camera in the corner of the room. "Is she alright? Didn't even get a chance to say hi before the Coalition decided to ruin my day. Tell you what." Abigail stopped to pick up the glass, inspecting whatever was left that hadn't slid out onto the linoleum. "You're enough of a handful as is for a sane, shy-looking thing like her. Try and drag her back to the Lounge if she's not too preoccupied spit-shining her MAS. If she doesn't kick off and start pulling evasive manoeuvres, and I don't end up getting whisked away to do some damage control, then I'll have a drink and we can...I dunno, play Mancala or something. How's that sound?"

Abigail's smile was broader and toothier but lacked the glint that came with it. Behind her, Jakunta and Aleks loomed like two dark shadows - watching him and boring holes in the back of her head with their attentive glares.

Abigail and Jakunta - Officer Lounge


The sound of the officer lounge blender being abused was prominent in the surrounding corridors, followed by various clatters and thumps. Abigail had put some clothes on (thankfully) but still bore the minor injuries of negative G forces; in particular the bloodshot eyes, speckled and threaded redness around her forehead and some puffiness of the face. It wasn't often that she ended up this way after a battle and it was indicative of a rushed, hasty descent into atmosphere. Jakunta wasn't looking too great either, with similar effects but to different degrees of severity. He was sprawled out on one of the couches with an ice water. He lazily watched his companion as the poor, poor blender received another fistful of ice in the machine.

"Nutrition," Abigail broke the silence that had comfortably rested between the two for a while now. "Nigh essential for anything with a pulse. But especially for soldiers getting gunned down by pretty much any Coalitionist with enough know-how to pick up a gun."

whhrrRRRRRZZZHRRRRRHRHRHRZZZZZzzzhhrrr

"And lo, since the order came down from on high that there is to be 'no napping' - I will have to handcraft a liquid that will replace a full meal and a couple coffees." Abigail wandered over to the cabinets, pressing on the door slightly so it slid aside. She pulled out Jakunta's protein powder and dumped several hefty spoonfuls into the mix. "Do you think the coffee is cold yet?" She asked him. Jakunta merely grunted in the affirmative.

"It'll have all the basic food groups. Protein, caffeine," Abigail sloshed half a mug of coffee into the blender and followed it up with a bunch of vitamin supplements which she crushed in her fingers before tossing into the slurry. "Vitamins, sugar...I mean, what else do you need, really?" In went a froot skwurt.

whhrrRRRRRZZZHRRRRRHRHRHRZZZZZzzzhhrrr

"I'm a bit anxious to have a proper meal in case we come out of hyperspace and there's another battalion just waiting there for us. I think the next twenty four, seventy two hours are going to be a little nervy but after that it should be smooth sailing. I mean, they can't get too far into UEE territory unnoticed and, by the Gods, they sure did let themselves get noticed out there, huh?" Abigail looked at Jakunta. Jakunta was watching her - lazily, impassively, nonchalantly - but his gaze was steady and unblinking.

There they stood for a long moment, just staring at each other.

Jakunta slowly blinked once and looked away from her to have another sip of his ice water. "Stop worrying," he rumbled. "We move on. Adapt, don't worry."

"You know what I'm worrying about," Abigail muttered ruefully as she slammed the on button on the blender.

whhrrRRRRRZZZHRRRRRHRHRHRZZZZZzzzhhrrr

"She's human."

"It's not her. It's everyone else involved."

"You are a soldier. Is their job to make you look good. Your job, right now, is to bring her home."

"It's not that simple-"

"You are the one making it not simple."

whhrrRRRRRZZZHRRRRRHRHRHRZZZZZzzzhhrrr

Abigail regarded her masterpiece with scrutiny and fished out a bag of chocolate nibbles that has been sitting in the freezer. Abigail liked frozen snacks, or very cold food, in moderation. She started pouring the little cubes into the blender. "But she's lonely," she pointed out and her tone was softer now. "She's lost and she's alone in a different way than you can understand."

"Not your job," Jakunta reminded her.

"Maybe so, but I didn't get here by doing the bare minimum." Abigail straightened her back and stared at Jakunta again. "Do you like it when I'm alone out there?"

It took Jakunta a moment longer to respond as he mulled it over. "Do not forget your objective in all of this," he warned her.

"Precisely. The sooner she's home, the better."

whhrrRRRRRZZZHRRRRRHRHRHRZZZZZzzzhhrrrclickclickclick

"Serious?"

"Ah fuck."
"I can shower. I know how to bathe myself damnit, you lot just keep insisting-fine, fine, just don't make me raise my arms or anything."

Abigail pulled a face at the squinted looks from the medical team as she passed by. It wasn't just the fact she was nude save for a little biodegradable plastic surgery gown; she reeked. Stank like a whipped hound after a long hunt. She was grimy, unpleasant, battered and bruised but otherwise acting normally, much to the chagrin and relief of the professionals keeping an eye on her vitals - because it also meant she wouldn't shut up, either.

"Jakunta, they're damaging my self esteem. The doctors. They're judging my nubile body with their cold, hard stares," Abigail nudged the silent figure plodding beside her. He was also wearing a plastic gown. Abigail looked at him fully. "I'm a little worried my joke didn't get past the language barrier. It happens. You've been bred for war, and skull thickness was probably an evolutionary boon to your ancestors. See, 'nubile' means-"

“You’re talking a lot.” Jakunta sighed.

"And you're not listening," huffed Abigail.

Thankfully, Abigail had to stay quiet during the head scans. She was given an antibacterial wipe to clean her face up (which she then promptly used on her armpits and creases), plopped herself down in a machine, sat very still for a while as some flashes and whirring noises happened then got up again. Jakunta followed suit. Abigail had enough sense not to do or say anything that might interfere with the scans so she waited around as a nurse gave her a quick once-over to ensure none of the superficial injuries were hiding anything serious.

"Did they get your good side?" Abigail asked as she slid off the bench and waited for the scan results whilst Jakunta also received a quick check-up.

“There is no good side.” Jakunta snorted. “Are we done?” he asked up at one of the techs.

"Oooh. That's deep. S'got dual meanings and shit. You think the landing knocked some wrinkles into that brain?"

"Are we done?" Jakunta asked a little louder.

"Yes sir, there don't seem to be any serious problems. Any difficulty remembering things, feeling slow or confused - report back to us as soon as possible," reassured the technician.

"See? We're indestructible. I need a shower. I want a bath." Abigail strode off confidently down the corridors, her surgery gown flapping in the breeze.

“Mhm.” he nodded at the technician. He stood himself up and lumbered after Abigail. “Home will wait.” he remarked at her. Trailing ever so slowly behind.

There was a brief pause as Abigail processed what Jakunta said to her. "I mean, our home's here - when you really think about it. Home is not where the bath is," she turned and took a different route to the changing rooms - one that took them through lesser frequented sections of the ship rather than the main corridors that departed into most areas aboard the Roanoke. «When you're in Savonia you get to sit in some cabin and whittle out a small standing army of wooden ducks. When I'm in Savonia I get to go to a photoshoot while still suffering from a bout of the shits from the night before.» the transition to Savonian was seamless. In the zero gravity, Abigail twisted around to look at him as they floated along. «Home can wait for as long as it needs to.»

«Maybe I’ll get to do a photoshoot one day too.» he guffawed, his harsh and ugly laughter rattling off the panelling alongside Abigail's loud cackles. The conversation didn't pick up afterwards and they floated in a comfortable silence. They made it to the changing rooms in a roundabout way and planted their feet on solid ground. Abigail was quick to turn all the showers onto the hottest setting, save a few - and stood in one of the end stalls for the longest time. Her surgery gown lay discarded in a heap on the floor and the water ran muddied by blood and sweat and vomit.

Minutes passed, one by one - then in dozens at a time. The changing rooms filled with steam.

«Don’t fall asleep in there, we’re not on leave. You’re taking too long.»

«We were going to be on leave until Princess showed up,» Abigail pointed out ruefully. She reluctantly pried herself from the shower, sloshing her way to the lockers for a towel. «Not everyone is a genetically engineered supersoldier like you. The crew's tired already. At least we're zooming our way back into UEE space.»

«It’s expected of us. We don’t get to have lives. Not until we’re too old or broken to move.»

«No, not until you've stopped being useful. The only geriatric out here with a gun in hand and a MAS to his name is you - because you exceed expectations.» Abigail towel dried herself. «There's nothing stopping us from amicably retiring from the military except the overwhelming implication that post-military life is going to blueball us and our own fucked up addiction to killing people legally.» Abigail shot him a couple of finger guns. «Oh and my contract, I got another five years on it at least.»

«Is that the way you talk on camera too?» he scoffed.

«No, which is pre-cisely why I get to do it here.» Her smile turned into a frown for a moment. «You know what having the Princess on board - having rescued her ourselves - means for me, right?»

«You won’t have to jerk off anymore?»

And just like that - the frown was gone, a sputtering cackle skirting across the hiss of the showers on the tiles. «What a speedy way to end up court-martialled but by the gods - a legacy to be proud of.» She wiped a single invisible tear from her eye. «No, no. You know what? I'm overreacting. I need to get into the Zalavi headspace.»

«That won’t be hard. Not many went to school.»

«Yeah. Just gotta…» Abigail slouched down on one of the benches beside Jakunta, tilting her head back. «Theeere we go. Head empty. I don't have the hairiness to match but it's all about being immersed in the role.» She lazily scratched her nonexistent chest hair. She rolled her neck just enough to tilt her face at him. «I know we're not on leave but can we just chill here for a bit?»

«I’d rather get to whatever comes next. But sure, for a little.»

"Oh thank everything that's holy on this ship you two were here already. The showers aren't cold, you guys aren't hurt, and I can ask you guys the burning questions I've been dying to know about our Sunray!"

Abigail and Jakunta made the exact same disparaging look at the exact same time, but Abi couldn't stay mad at Gansu forever. As the pilot stripped she gestured at the showers lazily. "I've turned most of them on full blast. It's no Sauna - but it's getting there."

"Also, Griz! Great job with the laser cannon! Excellent level of destruction and you hit the Coalies too! Nice work!" He walked by, stark naked, offering a hand up for a high five. Jakunta didn't leave him hanging.

Gansu continued into the showers, yelling as he turned on the water and steam. "So! Pips! Tell me how our Royal is! Did we get the one who actually knows what they're doing? The really idealistic one who just wants 'peace' with the coalies? The one who the troops actually like? The one the troops hate, but thinks he knows everything there is to know everything? I overheard Sunnie's attempt at giving orders, and I can only imagine how Boss and D-eye are going to react to that! Do you think we're going to get our leave after we get Sunnie outta our hair or are we stuck on guard duty? I noticed there weren't any ISS dogs running around going 'OH, LOOK AT ME, I'M A SECRET COP WHOSE AFRAID OF REAL COMBAT SO I GO AROUND BULLYING PEOPLE AND GETTING ALL THE BEST MAS UNNECESSARILY'. You'd think we'd get like fifty of them yelling on our comms about how they're about to come here and take control of the situation by now!"

"Inside voices Gansu, this is a place of serenity," Abigail shut her eyes as she processed the torrent of questions and picked them apart piece by piece. "You can't just compartmentalise people - not even princesses. And it's unwise to make assumptions based on a brief and very out-of-the-ordinary initial visit. I know of her, what she thinks, how she likes to be treated... but I wouldn't comment on it just yet," she warned him. "People change in emergencies. You know that."

"I think the brass would be very ballsy indeed to thrust their finest pilots into a rescue mission by accident, watch them flawlessly bring back a royal, then continue to deny them leave when they were meant to be off duty the day it all started. And the reason the ISS haven't shown up yet is because they're all dead. Ferryman's a smear in the cosmos. Sunny's not going to like that, so try not to mention it all that much until she's had time to wrap her head around it." Abigail continued to slouch into the bench, practically melting into it until she was lying down next to Jakunta.

"No napping," he reminded her.

"I know," she sighed.




Goodnight


The Staff Room with Audrey






Just like many things that the fresh bootleggers were subjected to, this also felt like some sort of examination or test. It’s the way Audrey held herself - quiet, observant. She wasn’t just watching who spoke, she watched everyone; all the little side glances, the shifts in demeanor. Nobody could manage a sniffle without her picking up on it (and, in Angeline’s case, she definitely did). They were being measured, that was certain. What remained shrouded in mystery was the standards to which their behaviour was being compared to.

“We need to get a lot of things out of there. Can we steal one of their delivery trucks, that way we can really load it up instead of just getting a few bundles in the billy bus?” Ellen asked. “If we could get an idea of what uniform the loaders wear, perhaps we can disguise ourselves in the evening. Confidence can go a long way to getting you ignored. Could even fake some paperwork for a recall on meats, so if we do run into security, we could play it off as having to get the ‘tainted’ meat out of the store.” Ellen began. She barely paused between thoughts to let Audrey interject with feedback.

“Long haul vehicles tend to have GPS trackers and black boxes that’ll alert the company if tampered with,” Audrey responded. “It’s been considered, but the risk of being discovered is far too great. We can supply up to three supplementary vehicles if necessary - but we’ll need drivers for each and places to park them. I can get people working on finding some parking zones.”

Ellen looked up at Audrey for her next question. “Would you consider setting a fire to another building to redirect some attention from local authorities? A building on the opposite side of the station maybe near some roads with roads so the police need to work on traffic redirecting? It might reduce the chance for a random patrol to be nearby. And if there is a call made, we might buy a bit of extra time for escape.”

Audrey quirked a brow and said nothing for a moment. “If I gave you a map of the city, would you be capable of choosing a building to set on fire? We haven’t the time to scope out a building in person. There might be people in the one you choose.” She waited a half-beat longer. “If you feel up to accepting the consequences in that decision, I’m more than happy to provide you with a larger map of the area.”

She left the question to hang in the air as her gaze slipped to Abigail, watching her as she watched Audrey.

Ellen looked back down at the map. “If we do go in through the truck bay, that gives us great access to the fresh meat and bakery items. Perishable, but they will go a long way with morale. The produce is close, too, so assuming these connect, maybe through the chilled produce room, we can have someone go out and grab some of the fruits and vegetables as well.” Ellen paused. “To get us in at night, I think it makes the most sense to leave someone behind after we scope it out. Abigail is tiny and could hide among some of the giant stacks of food items. Or… I can hide in the freezer. The cold won’t bother me and security won't spend much time looking there for a person.”

Zephyr also spoke up after a moment. "I think staying behind after we check out the place is a good idea, the main problem with that is the time between close and when we'd want to go in is probably a lot longer than you think." Zephyr said in response to Ellen's plan, "the rest sounds solid, though if we do the fire thing I'd prefer it's a place where not too many people would get hurt." He turned to Audrey to ask something, "I do have a question about recon though, how many of us will be doing that? I just feel like we'd look strange walking in together considering we don't exactly look like a family going shopping together."

Audrey nodded. “Zephyr is right, we’ll have at least a three-hour wait time on our hands. If there’s four different vehicles to shift then people who aren’t doing recon can work on that, then all rendezvous at the bus to wait it out. Ideally I don’t want the bus hanging around in the parking lot for very long, so the addition of a normal car or two waiting near the entrance would be helpful.”

Audrey ran her tongue over her teeth as she considered how best to phrase her next statement. “Well,” she started carefully, “Brooks and Abigail should go together because they’re…” she waved a hand at the general presence of Abigail as if struggling to find the right way to put it.

“We got at least seven folk to our disposal. We can set up two teams of two that go in for recon. Different times, for different reasons. Rest of the three can work on getting us rides. Abigail should be in recon because she can’t drive.” Brooks interrupted Audrey.

“Of course,” Audrey agreed. “You can organise the specifics amongst yourselves.”

Before Angeline spoke she glanced around the room, ensuring no one else had anything to say. “Alright. So I’ve had a decent look at this floor plan while you guys were talking and Ellen, your idea is pretty good. One thing I want to point out, though, is that if the security is situated anywhere it’ll probably be here-” She pointed at the ‘main office’ section of the layout “-which is the total other side of the store from the truck bay entrance. So I suggest we try to get someone in through the main entrance or exits, or maybe, if we do have someone hiding in the store after hours, they could look along the side wall where the offices are for entry later. I mean one suggestion is having someone open a window in the bathroom if there is one as long as it isn’t locked or anything, you know?” She pointed at the bathrooms which were just above the main office.

“My other suggestion sort of builds on Ellen’s plan, I think everyone should have a planned route in the store we take, and we should have a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ objective, primary being important stuff, and the secondary is just add-on nice things we could take on the way back to the truck loading bay based on our routes.”

“Excellent idea Angeline,” Audrey acknowledged the bootlegger with a split-second smile, “consider how much your team can carry when delegating out who goes where, as well. Goodnight is a big place, so when I say ‘as much as possible’ I truly mean it.”

Angeline then launched into an in-depth description of the possible routes the Bootleggers should take whilst Audrey watched her with intrigue. She glanced at Brooks, but the other man was too busy following Angeline’s finger as it skirted across the map. “Don’t worry,” Audrey reassured Angeline (and most likely the rest of the Bootleggers, especially Abigail who was starting to wear her signature look of utter confusion) “once you’ve figured out a definite route - or routes, in this case - across the store you may plot it out on the map.”

Angeline continued. “Anyways… My last points are: here right at the entrance to the truck loading area are cleaning items, probably aisle 403. Grabbing a few tubs of bleach could be great for preventing disease spread and keeping things clean and toilet paper here too. Just last minute items we can throw on if needed. Finally, here-” She stabbed her finger at the top right-hand corner of the page. “Gas station. I’m not sure what the need is at the moment for fuel but that’s an option we could consider.”

“Given we may be taking out multiple vehicles, it’s definitely something to consider. However, we’ve not got a lot of intel on the gas station as it stands. The trip would carry its own risks and consequences if you don’t get it right...Brooks?” she looked at the other bootlegger. “What are your thoughts on this?”

“We don’t need robbing a gas station too. We can task others to deal with that. We’ll keep our objective focused purely on the store.”

“Mhm. We can organise a separate mission for gasoline - probably the next thing to get after filling those cars with so much stuff. Focus on the store,” Audrey agreed.

“How many people is that… 1 on meds, 2 on fresh food, 2 on preserved food.. That’s 5. How many people are coming with us? Uh… Anyways I know my plan is a bit over the top but it’s better to have a defined set of goals you want to achieve and then underachieve them than not know what else to grab if we have more time than we thought we would,” Angeline said.

“No, you’re right. Having a clear, well-defined goal for everyone going in reduces the amount of time wasted hesitating and gives them something to reorient themselves with once the disruptions start happening,” Audrey agreed with her. “We’ve got seven, as Brooks said, though if Ruby tags along that’ll be eight.”

"Y'all forgot about the janitors n' guards n' shit," Abigail eventually mumbled. A far cry from her usual boisterousness. "All I can do is set fire to 'em. 'Cept Audrey said the alarm's activated manually, so somebody's gotta get to the alarm n' set it off before any cops even know we're there. But people have phones n' shit too. Before y'all even start stealin' stuff you gotta find and shut up every single feller in and outside the building so's they don't call the cops on us. I don't know how, though."

Brooks let out a grunt of acknowledgement at Abigail. “The camera room, assuming it’s not being operated remotely, is the highest priority. We need to make sure everything inside is locked down before we even think of pulling the vans up. That means breaking in and carraling all the workers and guards together.”

Abigail raised her hand a little bit. "I can break the lock," she offered. "Sentex keypads, a lotta Yale locks...but they're prob'ly usin' a keypad."

Brooks looked down at Abigail for a moment before nodding. “Good. Impressive, if true.” he raised and lowered his brows at her exactly twice with a smile. That brief moment of liveliness in the otherwise deadpan Bootlegger caused a significant shift in Abigail's demeanor as she snickered and held herself a little taller than she did before. Her mood lifted.

Audrey took note of that too.

"Okay then, it's time to talk specifics. I want to know who's doing what and going where," Audrey moved the conversation on a little bit. "More intel for you; there's one security camera on each of the exterior walls of the warehouse monitoring the wall it's attached to. There’s also one pointing at the truck bay and the main entrance. After hours we've seen one bodyguard patrolling between the main entrance and the truck entrance, and the number of employees that arrive just after closing varies between two and three, hard to tell what their jobs are from a glance." She leant down and marked some crosses where each security camera was on the exterior of the building using the map.

"Nobody brought up the emergency exits either, so I ought to mention to you now that most fire alarm systems work differently from security systems. Smoke detectors are automated, and opening emergency exits usually triggers an alarm regardless of if there's any danger. Don't set any fires alight in the store," she glanced at Abigail again, "and don't depend on those exits unless the cops are already en route or in the building."
Maybe it was the argument. Maybe it was something to do with her self imposed sleep deprivation... whatever it was, Abigail had changed once she woke up the next morning and wasn't showing any signs of reverting back to her usual self.

Firstly, Abigail had withdrawn from the rest of the group. Gone was the word vomit, the galloping ramble in a southern drawl and the erratic movements around Goodnight; she was around in the evenings to make small talk and oft deflected prying questions by claiming to have had a very dull, average day for every single day during the last few weeks. When she didn't need to be around the others she oftentimes wasn't; rather she existed in the distant peripheries of their lives. Ellen and Hans had passed Abigail on their way out to create a shooting range. Zephyr had noticed Abigail and Brooks disappearing even further into the woods during one of his treks. Angeline had spotted her perched on an old shipping container, crunching through an expired pack of Reese's pieces and watching as the woman tended to her garden. When approached she was evasive and uncomfortable. She doesn't talk much anymore and actively avoided conversation where she can until everyone got the gist that she wanted to be left alone.

From a practical standpoint, Abigail was getting worringly good in her training. Since she kept getting hurt due to her magic, her pain tolerance was gradually increasing. She could run further, faster and hit harder than she was able to when she started, but the improvement was relative to the fact she's still much smaller and lighter than her peers. She slept like the dead whenever they had training that day. Magically, she had a much better control over her fire; jets of sharp violent flames that could reach three metres ahead of her, narrow and white-hot, striking her mark time and time again. But the casting had disfigured her hands into warped masses of scar tissue. Her fingers were stiff and hard to move, and the skin needed to air out in order to avoid sealing together as her body healed itself at a rapid pace. She was constantly, ceaselessly starving. She ate whatever she could get her hands on and still had this gaunt, famished appearance despite getting just as much - more if you included the smuggled sympathy snacks from Billy or Brooks - than everyone else.

Abigail also started reading a lot. That was a weird, left-field development that very few were expecting. Upon finding the remnants of the library it appears Brooks gave her a book and a notepad to write on. She seemed to be researching something, perhaps working on something based on the book. She oftentimes found nooks and crannies to hide in and work on it. She also had a litany of other weird projects going on as well; for example there's an entire claw machine in pieces way off by the sportswear section that Abigail has been fastidiously defending and yelling at anyone who messed with it, to the point that she's firmly established herself as the weird antisocial kid best left alone. Since nobody except the odd bootlegger or two goes through the Sports section, it's been idly glanced at and kept an eye on by a handful of people but whatever it is she's doing is slow progress as she doesn't always work on it. She's collecting old beer bottles under the broken staircase leading to the boutiques. She waters a patch of rock pansies growing out of a cash register every couple of days. She's been watching an ants nest by one of the benches in the food court with due diligence, and wherever there's a broken tile or shelf or something similar that's had its pieces carefully arranged to reform it back into its original shape (without the adhesive to repair it), chances are one was looking at the traces of Abigail's handiwork.

Abigail remained silent throughout the discussion of the plan, looking from face to face and soaking it all in. When there was a lull in the conversation she fidgeted with her mottled fingers and looked at the map. "Y'all forgot about the janitors n' guards n' shit," she eventually mumbled. A far cry from her usual boisterousness. "All I can do is set fire to 'em. 'Cept Audrey said the alarm's activated manually, so somebody's gotta get to the alarm n' set it off before any cops even know we're there. But people have phones n' shit too."

"Before y'all even start stealin' stuff you gotta find and shut up every single feller in and outside the building so's they don't call the cops on us. I don't know how, though."
The Kolibri's chassis was gradually dented and scraped by the onslaught of debris, stray rounds and angry Riverdrakes that assaulted it. It wasn't an act of shoddy engineering; simply put, the MAS wasn't built to take sustained firepower. It was designed with the skill of the pilot in mind. Abigail was meant to be evading these blows with her sophisticated radars and electronics that she'd overheated half to hell. Unfortunately the circumstances no longer allowed that - she couldn't dodge anything that might end up striking the princess - and the Kolibri made it well known to it's pilot that each impact was taking a toll on the machine.

For Abigail, the rush back to the Roanoke was starting to look more like an endless trek of increasingly painful ordeals. Each time the Kolibri was hit, she was roughly shoved in her cockpit. Even with the seatbelt on her body was thrown this way and that. She didn't have the time to take her hands off the controls and put her helmet back on; not to mention that trapping her hair under the visor would ruin her visibility. Whacking her head against some sturdy metal or plastic piece in the cockpit was becoming more commonplace than it ought to be. Her mood had soured, her muscles were tensed at all times to try and brace for impacts she didn't know were coming and the sweltering heat sent drips of sweat from her brow into her eyes.

No wonder, then, that when the Princess gave her one of those compulsory requests, Abigail was too fed up and tired to argue. She kept her Comms switched off and kept the pace consistent. She didn't even have the drive left in her to crack a smile when Ingram swiftly put Aurelia in her place and took control of the issue.

It was only as the Seventh made their way across the clearing and into the lake to board the Roanoke that Abigail started to take stock of her combined injuries and gradually start to realise that she might be a little more roughed up than she thought. Her breath was coming out in ragged, angry huffs. She couldn't tell if it was all the humidity and sweat or her vision blurring. The pain started to kick in - full body, aching throbs. She let loose one low, strained moan in the final stretch.

It wasn't normal for Abigail to have her Comms switched off for this long.

Abigail was second in the hangar bay of the Roanoke, following closely behind Aurelia and the Helmheimr. The Kolibri's pace finally started to flag as she skidded across the bay, a horrible crunching screech emanating from the broken landing strut as its massive metal arms stabilised itself to slow down it's movement. Various engineers and hangar staff were quickly scurrying out of the way as the MAS clumsily clambered to its feet and trudged back to its dock. The huge cables plugged into its charging ports one by one as Abigail powered down the Kolibri at last; a steaming, dented, dishevelled mess of its former condition. The damage was superficial but it was present all over. It would take time to repair.

The Krakono was one of the last. The behemoth stomped into the hangar, soaking up the blasts from coalition weaponry and acting as a shield against the oncoming firepower as the Sparrowhawk zipped in and the doors began to close. Jakunta was much more patient and methodical, entering his bay without issue and powering down the MAS gradually. He stared at his HUD with a frown, tapping a finger on the static-filled square that ought to be Abigail's portrait. His frown deepened when the Kolibri shut down and he tried to call her on her holopad.

”Medical to the hangar,” Ingram echoed across the hangar bay. Abigail squinted up a little in the pitch darkness of her cockpit as she tried to discern who might have been wounded. In gradual increments, she began to unbuckle herself from her seat - completely unaware of the faint regular buzzing noise coming from one of the glued-on storage pouches in her cockpit...

”Medical team belay that, all hands brace!”

"Fuck oooOOFFF-" Abigail groaned as she slammed one foot up against the console, one arm up on the ceiling, shut her eyes and took a deep breath. It wasn't a massive explosion like she thought it would be, but the familiar dropping, lurching feeling of the warp kicking in. As uncomfortable as it was she knew the feeling was short-lived and that it signified their prompt and hasty retreat from the battle. The relief alone was enough to make Abigail sink back into the chair, utterly exhausted. It was at that point she noticed the buzzing noise and blearily fumbled for the holopad, but it stopped ringing before she had a chance to answer. Instead she messaged Ingram.

A_HARLOW: goin to medical
A_HARLOW: lookin like shit
A_HARLOW: sunray might not want to see that

Meanwhile, Jakunta shouldered the hatch open to the Krakono and slid down the ladder, plodding across the hangar towards the Kolibri. He waved off some of the medics ("Not here, not here. We'll go to Medical.") and climbed up to the Kolibri's cockpit where Abigail was gingerly rubbing her temple and trying to compose herself.

KTHOOM KTHOOM KTHOOM. Jakunta slammed his fist against the cockpit.

“Come. Medical awaits.”

Abigail glowered at the metal shell.

After a few more seconds the Kolibri cockpit hissed open. Abigail was in her full EVA suit still, the tinted glass of her helmet showing a distorted reflection of Jakunta's impassive stare. She shot Jakunta a pair of finger guns and followed him down the ladders, similarly brushing past the medical staff as they both wandered back to the elevators for a proper check-up.




Goodnight


The ‘Staff Room’




Saturday, 13th of March, 2021 - 3:54 PM






Life in Goodnight was starting to become more familiar and with it, the mages were slowly beginning to settle into their living quarters in the abandoned mall complex. Though it was still a far cry from the lives they left behind, the routine and peacefulness of the mall had allowed its residents to feel less like refugees and more like settlers of the ruins that society forgot. Tensions had started to abate in some places but linger in others. Not everyone got along but everyone knew that they’d all had enough of conflict and fear for the foreseeable future. The time of hoarding over one’s belongings and picking fights over banalities had passed with the realisation that there really was no way to avoid someone forever in Goodnight, no matter how vast it seemed to begin with.

What hadn’t yet shifted from its mouldering halls was the impoverished living conditions. An outbreak of head lice caused mass discomfort to staff and survivors alike, with a lot of clothes and bedding being burnt or disposed of. Despite this, a volunteer-led initiative to sterilise clothes, brushes, combs and the like in boiling water and strong alcohol had brought everyone closer together. Mothers and uncles and stepsons alike from all parts of the world rolled up their sleeves and went to dinner with red raw hands. With a common threat to deal with, the Violet Underground had a goal to pursue.

The problems truly arose when there seemed to be no end to these problems. Food was still scarce, bland and unappetising. Goodnight still didn’t have enough pillows or blankets. Everyone stank and there were no rewards for hard work except the continued survival of everyone involved. A listlessness was starting to creep in; one that dangerously teetered on the brink of depression. People were starting to fear that this might be the norm for as long as they live.

Ever observant to the shifting moods and tendencies of the resident mages, the Bootleggers had formulated a plan to alleviate some of the gloom that had settled in Goodnight. Audrey went to the Bunkhouse as you were getting ready for the day that morning and asked if they could meet at 4PM as the staff had another mission that they wanted to send you and the others out to complete.

This decision had not been made on a whim; in tandem with the daily routine of life in Goodnight came scheduled physical and magical training sessions - the former compulsory over the age of 18, the latter compulsory for all mages. The goal was to ensure that all residents were able to defend themselves - at least to the point of escape - should anything happen to their stronghold. Groups were designated by their bunkhouses and you were made aware of any upcoming training sessions during breakfast that day. Audrey had taken the role of training your group since the meeting with Dr Cassar and her sessions were physically demanding. She focused primarily on heightening one's reaction speed and stamina - as the best resolution to a fight is to not fight at all. As Audrey was hardly one to espouse the benefits of running away, the gruelling physical exercise was also excellent for giving the body enough strength and speed to rush for cover and build muscle for some of the basic unarmed combat manoeuvres she was starting to teach (though they had only one session based on unarmed combat prior to the upcoming meeting). The latter half of each training session was for gun safety and correct gun usage. She trained everyone on how to use a basic 9mm pistol safely, including the correct grip and stance, prior to beginning target practice.

Magical training was much more difficult to define. There was no definite technique to casting spells and a lot of the lessons were introspective and based on prior experiences. Where possible, props and volunteers were on hand to practice with. Unlike other sessions, there was a fifteen minute mandated recovery period to ensure the mages were not overexerting their powers and no lingering effects of spell use would end up hurting them in the long run. With the time, resources and space designated to practice, the mages found themselves becoming more attuned to their most frequently cast spells with a better grip on their control than they had during the Violet Dawn.

All this had culminated in the Bootleggers assigning a new task to your group, one that Audrey had organised based on their results in training.

As you entered the grey, damp mouldering room a large floor plan was spread out across a folding table and held down with empty coffee mugs. There were a few Sharpies of different colours and an A4 lined paper pad with various notes written alongside it. Audrey was in good spirits, mid conversation with Brooks:

"No, look, it says so right here. 'I, Brooks Lockwood-'"

“They get it. It’s where smart people shop.” Brooks was smiling, for once.

"-'Declare that I am a middle class, hotblooded American male over thirty years old who shops efficiently.' That's a lot to put on one card," Audrey smirked at him and passed it back. “Good afternoon everyone. The Violet Underground has another supply run for you. This one just happens to be a little more morally ambiguous.”

Audrey tapped her finger on the map.



“Unfortunately, we do not have the funds available to legally purchase everything we need. The first - and most important - item on the list is good, high quality food, followed by as many tinned or nonperishable foods that we can muster, then medical supplies. We would like to see those three prioritised. The good food is…paramount to the continued operation of our base here.” Audrey didn’t waste any time plunging into the specifics. She was busy staring at the map. She had other things on her mind. “If we do not bring something substantial and of higher quality back to Goodnight, morale will continue to plummet - the suicides will start not long after.”

She looked up at the group. “We are going to have to steal all of these to survive. If anyone has any moral quandaries with that, leave now.”

"With all of that out of the way, we can go through the Intel."

Audrey opened the notepad and read through its contents. "First of all. Most Costco buildings have a surveillance system in place. There will be security cameras in the interior and exterior of the building, but the alarm system is activated manually. This is because there are also security guards and janitors that work after hours. As a result, I recommend a visit during business hours this afternoon to determine the location of these cameras both inside and outside of the building, as well as locating the security office so they can be disabled as soon as possible. The fewer people that see you, the better."

"I'm sure it goes without saying that using your magic should be a last resort, but," Audrey briefly glanced at Abigail, "try to avoid revealing that you're a mage under any circumstance to anyone. The response to a call about a burglary is going to be significantly less impressive than a response to mages performing a burglary. Speaking of police," Audrey sighed, "it's been ridiculously difficult to find a Costco wholesale that isn't a stone's throw from a police station. I know that map says Santa Cruz, but we're sending you to Ohama, Nebraska. If the alarm sounds or anyone calls the cops you have fifteen, twenty minutes to get out. Any altercations with law enforcement should be as nonviolent as possible. Like I've been telling you - prioritise your escape over any sort of fight. If the FOE arrive - which is an incredibly slim but not impossible risk - then it's even more important that you escape rather than try to engage."

Audrey slid the notepad around so the information is better seen by the accumulated mages. "We'd like to see you formulate a plan. Part of becoming a Bootlegger is a thorough risk assessment and agreeing, as a team, on the best course of action prior to a mission. So instead of me rattling off orders and intel to you, I'd rather hear from you what you'd like to know and how you'd like to approach this. I'm willing to answer any questions you have to the best of our ability and try to supply you with what you think you'll need - within reason."

«What the fuck is she-?»

«Doesn't matter, cover us, I'll have her ass in the MAS in five minutes-»

The moment Aurelia cracked open the cockpit Abigail lurched forward and tried to yank her in, her free hand slamming on the lever to shut the cockpit. Aurelia yelped in surprise as she was tugged into the machine. Once the cockpit closed as the internal lightning came back on, Aurelia blinked, ”Ah… Well I guess that means you’re fine then.” she breathed easy for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, ”Thank you, pilot. For helping me back there…”

"Hey, don't worry about it. The fleet wasn't gonna let you drop planetside without sending someone out to look for you." Abigail's voice was warm, even through the crackle of the speaker on her helmet. "How are you physically - no sudden tiredness, dizziness, double vision or anything like that? No injuries?"

Aurelia sighed and slumped back against the wall of the MAS cockpit. She looked hazily off into nothing as she ran a hand through her hair. Eventually, she shook her head, ”Just sore all over and exhausted…” she said quietly. ”No amount of training at the academy prepares you for the real thing…”

"It never does," Abigail agreed. Her helmet moved a fraction as something started beeping on her dashboard; her Full Echo suite was down after the beating it took but that didn't stop her Smart Targeting from picking up hostiles in their periphery. "We're out of time-Princess, I know you're beyond tired, but I need you to hold out a bit longer okay? Remember that fear that got you through the jungle? You're going to have to tap into that." Abigail sent the data to Jakunta as the Krakono lurched to life, stomping into position. "Reinforcements are en route. I've been acting like a big UEE tracking beacon ever since I found you and my squadron is on the way. However, I don't want you to relax."

Abigail stopped typing on her keyboard for a moment and looked at Aurelia through the tint of her helmet. "Until you board the Roanoke, our carrier, I want you to assume that one slip-up will kill you. No matter how many of us are trying to protect you, you pilot that MAS like your life depends on it because this time, it actually does. We'll do whatever it takes to keep you safe. Don't open your cockpit for anyone or anything until you get back in the Roanoke. Don't run off from the group for any reason. And don't do anything risky to help anyone here."

There was a hiss as the cockpit of the Kolibri opened up. "We're your elite pilots, Princess. No matter what happens, you're getting back to the Roanoke in one piece but don't assume that you can't get shot just because we're guarding you. Now go on, get back in the MAS. There's hostiles closing in on our position."

Aurelia felt a swell of pride that there were other troops beyond the ISS that were so willing to help her. Aurelia was always worried that those outside of her immediate command were either dispassionate or weren’t about to stick their necks out for some rich girl born into power. Yet this pilot was an example to the contrary. She nodded to the pilot’s instruction to get back into the commandeered MAS. If any ISS were with her, they’d be scolding the pilot for ordering a royal princess around. But Aurelia never cared for that. In this moment, the pilot was the subject matter expert who knew better than she did. She had no reason to contest that.

Aurelia climbed out of the Kolibri and scaled back up the deployable ladder to the Ragnarok’s cockpit. As she closed the cockpit, Aurelia caught sight of familiar beady eyes in the tall grass. Riverdrakes! Now is not the time for them! ”Kolibri! Drakes behind you- look out!”

Abigail snapped the cockpit shut and braced for another impact that never happened. "Grizz?" She asked hopefully as she heard dull explosions, noticed the massive target on her six slowly changing course. From an outsider's perspective, the Kolibri standing stock still as the explosions backlit the Riverdrake must've looked pretty impressive.

“This is Boss, coming around for another pass."

In the cockpit, Abigail was trying to get her Full Echo back online to no avail. The impacts and the temperature of her MAS had shut the systems down before Abigail could brute force it beyond the point of repair. Instead she switched off all creature comforts - air conditioning, cockpit lighting - and didn't allow her cockpit to automatically pressurise again since they were in a stable, breathable atmosphere. She wrenched her helmet off and used the HUD as her eyes and ears. "Boss, lead us back to the Roanoke - these lizards are just going to keep us here 'till reinforcements arrive." She activated her boosters and the Kolibri sputtered into the air. Jakunta, unable to provide short range support due to the devastating nature of his weaponry, reacted to the Kolibri's flight by squatting slightly and adjusting the enormous chassis as the smaller MAS landed on top of it.

Their HUD pinged as Ingram forwarded more precise directional information to the Krakano and the Kolibri. The Sparrowhawk itself landed with a thud on the ground and unloaded its autocannons on the circling riverdrakes. The creatures were hardy, their hides almost as tough as armor plating, and the noise and impact of the cannons didn't scare them. Still, at the very least it hurt them, and gave the pilots a bit more space to work with.

"We're on the move", Ingram called into the squadwide comms, "Follow my heading!"

"Sunray, keep as close to the Krakono as possible - we're moving," Abigail repeated into the unencrypted channel as her MAS clung to the Krakono's cannon.

The Sparrowhawk's armored head turned towards the Krakano with its huge guns, "My radar pinged a Coalition patrol approaching south-southwest, bearing 220, 7 klicks."

An armored hand pointed in the respective direction, sweeping a short 30 degree angle. "Grizz, level it."

The Kolibri ducked under the armaments of the Krakono as the ballistic and laser cannons shuddered into position. The slow throb of the generators building up for the blast filled the air as a dull thunk accompanied the artillery shell clunking into the barrel. Abigail stuck her fingers in her ears after bracing the Kolibri for the recoil. "Ready, Pips?" Asked the Zalavi over comms.

"Ready."

"Firing now."

There was a buzz and a bang.

A white hot shape burnt through existence.

Everything in its path - trees, stones, animals, birds - all reduced into a smouldering, smoking mess as the gargantuan treetops fell into the glimmering ashes. A clear cut border of flame marked the path of the laser cannon and the smashed debris that littered its interior denoted the ballistic missile that thundered after it. A long, black streak of nothing in an otherwise dense jungle; a mass grave of wildlife and a handful of molten MAS scraps seared to fleshy lumps of charcoal were all that remained after the Krakono had finished its brief and terrible onslaught.

And just as soon as the behemoth finished carving its mark on the planet, the pilot slowly turned his machine back en route to the rest of the Seventh Squadron and kept lumbering through the undergrowth with the Kolibri still clinging to its chassis.
One moment Abigail was asleep.

The next moment she was on her feet, hauling ass up the ladder out of the Krakono, helmet in hand and wondering why she was doing that.

The moment after that she heard the radio transmission and put her helmet on in one fluid yet complex motion that involved folding her hair back in on itself so the pressure seal would activate. Her EVA suit on its own didn't have air conditioning and she already felt uncomfortable, but at least the ground felt like ground again. Scampering up the chassis of the Kolibri, Abigail felt the ground underfoot vibrate as the Krakono booted up again. Neither had said a word just yet because they were both thinking hard.

Once Abigail started up the Kolibri, both MASes pinged back onto the Seventh's HUDs. Whilst the Krakono had sustained minimal disruption in the landing - his laser cannon was marked as 'faulty' instead of 'damaged' - the Kolibri still wasn't looking great. She was still pinging with a warning sign about being too hot and reported damage to the landing strut. She was also starting to run low on fuel for her boosters.

Not that either of them had the time nor the materials to address these concerns. Abigail took off in a dead sprint first. «You're never going to get a clear shot here. Flank them - I'll try and get the Fenrirs to run in your direction,» Abigail spoke in Savonian through the encrypted comms. She didn't need to but her mind was running a mile a minute as she circled around the trio of Fenrirs from behind, using her boosters to catch up with them. Raising her rifle, she took aim - lowered it slightly, her smart AI calculating to adjust her specific target - waited for the Fenrir to pass the gnarled base of a tree then opened fire on one of the leg joints. The rounds tore through the exposed gap in the armour plating and caused the MAS to lurch sideways and crash into the undergrowth.

Five years of vocal training went into a couple of sentences as Abigail spoke with measured confidence, articulated clearly to accommodate for the short range on the radio and just enough warmth to sound friendly without losing the underlying tone of absolutely having her shit together like a real professional. "Sunray this is Pipsqueak, keep doing what you're doing. Follow my instructions and I'll get you out of this mess." What she didn't sound like was the Child of Savonia, who had a thick accent and a childlike cadence. She never sounded like that over comms.

Of course by announcing herself on the radio and immobilising one of their teammates Abigail also drew attention to herself. Realising they were getting flanked by a Sparrow one of the Fenrirs wheeled around and opened fire. Abigail was forced to take cover behind a tree but didn't waste a second; she started tapping commands into the console…

The HUDs of the Seventh burst into life as a new feed from the Full Echo suite blipped into existence. Though the dense tree coverage provided a significant amount of interference, they got a glimpse of one blip marked as a Fenrir, two more defined shapes also marked as Fenrir and a blip called 'AAT-9 Helmheimr' running away from her. Abigail had just enough time to designate this unknown MAS as 'SUN' before the Full Echo suite cut off, leaving a still image and coordinates of their last known location.

Jakunta only barely caught up and positioned himself in a more suitable location, the thick canopy of the jungle working directly against his MAS- it was slow to move and break through the thick vines that stood in its way. Abigail picked up on the Krakono's bulk in the distance, clenched her jaw and broke from her cover to start firing at the other Fenrirs to force them back - towards Jakunta - in an attempt to hide behind the trees and distract them from the heavy MAS. Ammunition crashed into the Kolibri's chassis and exploded, compressing and deforming the armour as she dived for new cover.

The Full Echo suite clicked on again. The Seventh got a new set of coordinates just a few dozen kilometres from the last, a new read on the situation. The Krakono had joined the fray, the downed Fenrir indistinct and trying to stand. Abigail had pushed forward and forced the remaining two Fenrirs to break from the chase and move towards the tree cover.

Once in position, Jakunta hurriedly lowered his armaments to fire at the next target he’d spot through the trees, anyone of the enemy MAS’s that Abigail lured her way. He waited patiently, and when one of the Fenrirs broke into his line of sight trying to get behind a tree he fired. The damaged laser canon whirred painfully as it blasted a hole through whatever foliage stood in its way to the target. The laser collided and burnt a massive hole through the upper half of the chassis and the cockpit as the second Fenrir crumpled into the undergrowth.

"Sunray it's Pipsqueak. That laser blast came from my squadmate Grizzly, adjust your course to regroup with his MAS - it's a little hard to miss." Abigail started pushing once more, jaw clenched as she fired on the remaining Fenrir relentlessly and closing the gap between them. More bullets crashed into her chassis.

The Full Echo switched off after an impact. The Seventh's HUDs once again displayed the last input feed of Abigail rushing a Fenrir and getting shot at.

Meanwhile Abigail's rough advance had forced the Fenrir back. Jakunta was forced to reposition once more. Through bared teeth he attempted to re-navigate the Krakono to hammer the last Fenrir, basing his own movements off the last known location of the hostile passed onto him by Abigail. He swapped from laser to cannon, intent to lock in and lay a devastating attack on the last Fenrir. The artillery thumped into place as the Krakono stabilised itself and fired. What little the vines and leaves did to slow the trajectory of the cannon had no effect on the outcome - there was a Fenrir there once. Now it was scrap metal and viscera scattered a couple hundred metres northward of its position.

Abigail slowed the Kolibri, restarted the Full Echo suite to show the dead Fenrirs and unknown MAS within range, and finally decided to breathe again. "That was... disappointingly easy. Sunray, you still with us? Circle back to-"

“It’s firing!” Jakunta belted, a futile attempt to warn Abigail in the last minute.

"FUCKING ASS-" The Full Echo lit up with warnings of an oncoming sledgehammer missile from the immobilised Fenrir at the back. Abigail revved up the boosters as she tried to move backwards and out of the way; the projectile collided with the spot where she once stood and exploded in a ball of flame and debris, sending the Kolibri spinning. The Full Echo cut off with the blast as the light MAS collided with the ground and skidded a little then - most concerningly - the portrait of the MAS switched to 'offline' on the HUDs.

For a few agonising seconds the Kolibri didn't move then it flicked back online with Abigail mid-rant in vehement Savonian on the encrypted comms, her voice thick and congested. «-ORCHED FUCKING EARTH DO YOU HEAR ME JAKUNTA. JAKUNTA IF YOU DON'T KILL THAT FUCKER I WILL PERSONALLY TEAR HIS ASS FROM THE COCKPIT AND THROW HIM INTO ORBIT.»

“I’m on it! I’m on it!” he hurriedly lumbered his MAS towards the Fenrir, conserving ammunition and exerting his physical weight onto the enemy. The 'foot' of the behemoth MAS came down on the cockpit several times, smashing the occupant within and halting the ineffective spray of bullets that dented the Krakono's chassis. All the while Abigail continued her ranting until the final pilot was dead, then the sound of heavy breaths came through the Comms. She collected herself. She groaned a little. She took a deep breath and flicked a switch, returning to the unencrypted channel.

"Sunray. This is, unfortunately. Still Pipsqueak. I'm a little banged up now and cannot use my radars to locate you, please return to the…blast site, and we'll regroup."
It didn't take long for everyone's HUDs to light up with the input from the Full Echo suite. A diorama of the battlefield pinged into existence, the outline of MAS units, cruisers, warships and debris expertly carved out of light. As Abigail fiddled with the controls a small object was brightened and highlighted; its path of trajectory into Cerol's orbit calculated and adjusted piece by piece for accuracy with each passing moment that the system was locked onto its target. The two MAS units designated KOLIBRI and KRAKONO were adjusting their course to not follow, but cut into the path of orbit at a steeper angle so they could catch up with the escape pod and land as close to it as they could.

With its thrusters disabled the Kolibri clung onto the Krakono with one hand whilst the other kept its autocannon rifle trained on any encroaching targets, but there just weren't any nearby; the combination of whatever turrets that still worked on Horizon Point and the fleet were occupying the bulk of the Coalition forces as a slew of debris was slowly sucked into the weak gravitational pull of Cerol, gaining speed and traction as it fell. With the size of the Krakono the glow of its thrusters was masked; what care would one give to two MASes similarly plummeting towards the planet amongst the wreckage?

"I don't even have both landing struts," Abigail lamented. "Ingram just did the MAS equivalent of ordering an amputee to do a backflip."

“He knows we can do it.” he paused. “No complaints now.”

"You're right. There might be Coalitionists down there. They could end up capturing her, or worse - turn her into a capitalist." Abigail took a deep breath and slowly exhaled.

“This isn’t right. Space here is no place for her.” The Krakono gradually adjusted its course to the data input from the Full Echo Suite on the Kolibri. The HUDs of the seventh start to show a longer trail of the escape pod's descent - but slowly, pixel by pixel.

"The devious schemes of the ISS are so secret that even they don't know what they're doing," Abigail spoke with mock solemnity, "but rest assured that whatever it was, before it got horrifically fucked up, it was probably - really clever." The way she spoke started to get affected as they continued their re-entry.

“Their minds are running thin. Hell knows what this was for.”

The black of space slowly turned purple, then a dirty pink. Neither pilot saw this from the darkness of their cockpits. The air resistance made the Kolibri start to shiver long before the Krakono would be affected. A little warning light flashed against her symbol on the seventh's HUDs as it reached very high temperatures.

"Starting to get a bit toasty in here. Not that I can tell in the suit but the computers are mad at me," Abigail pointed out. She adjusted the Kolibri's grip; it was a little tin can flush against the gargantuan bulk of the Krakono.

“It’s going to start getting worse.”

"It'll hold. For now."

The Comms were quiet, save for the increasingly laboured, painfully controlled breathing of the pilots.

"I think Ferryman's dead. The way he broadcast that message. I think he's gone." Abigail thought for a moment. "Sunray's lost her Jakunta."

“Yeah. He is dead. It happens.” he briefly replied.

"You know that, and I know that. I don't think she knew that. Not really." A deep breath and an exhale. "Here's hoping it doesn't mess with her too badly."

“It is not our job to play counsellor.”

"That kind of thinking got you far in the TLF, but out here in civilised society it's not as easy. If she puts a bullet through her own helmet, we can't exactly call it friendly fire and wash our hands of the whole thing." Another slight adjustment, a steepening of the curve as the two pilots aligned their landing with the scrap of a bent line that marked the escape pod's route. "I don't know Sunray but I get where she's coming from. And besides... always easier to follow instructions when they're coming from a friendly face in an emergency like this. You play soldier; I'll be the contingency plan for any, emotional disturbance, that prevents us from carrying out our orders."

Abigail wasn't just rambling for the sake of it. The deceleration was putting an immense strain on them both; it felt like their heads were swelling with blood. It thumped in their ears and squeezed their eyeballs, blurring the screens slightly. The pain was tolerable - but tolerable didn't mean it was pleasant. And though Abigail's suit was deliberately made to withstand alternating positive and negative g forces, the Krakono seldom saw such impressive speeds and the flight suit wasn't built for such a thing.

"Not seeing red yet, I hope?" Abigail spoke tersely as she fought her own circulatory system. "See you can just pass out when you touch down, what's the Krakono gonna do. Bounce. No way. Meanwhile I've got to break off, accelerate, decelerate some more and land on a busted strut. Cerol's full of trees."

"Everything clear. We’re falling far, the trees are the last of our worries." His eyes were glued ahead on his readings.

"Let's shoot for the meteor tactic. If any of my sensors aren't fried before touchdown we'll just point you at the nearest guerilla Coalition hideout." Abigail tried to giggle but managed a breathy hiss and a pained groan. "Speaking of…" Just as suddenly as it appeared, the layout was abruptly cut off; instead the last known descent path of Abigail, Jakunta and the escape pod remained. The little warning light against the Kolibri had started reaching severe levels of overheating; next was 'critical', then 'fatal'. It hadn't gotten that bad yet.

"Not even Ingram expects us to have fully operational MASes after tearing ass through an entire atmosphere," Abigail spoke through gritted teeth. Her optimism came out strained. Everything was strained. "You know what we're here for. Tracking beacons with guns. An idea - of where the fuck she landed." Her fingers, now leaden, punched in something letter by letter into a keypad. "Cerol. S'got breathable atmosphere, hodunk...colonies of some sort. Most of it, it's jungle, and water. Very wet. We won't hit any water." Each sentence was broken with a ragged breath.

Aleksanderin's screen pinged with a message.

A_HARLOW: wheeeeeee

A_DANIELSSON: what the fuck

The Krakono was starting to rumble with turbulence now as well. Unable to multitask any further, the two pilots conveyed their continued consciousness through various quiet grunts and noises of pain. An alarm started to blare in Abigail's cockpit. "Detaching from your chassis," she growled. "Prepare for landing."

The deceleration was already ruthless but having to press the thrusters even harder for a few seconds worsened the long, tumultuous descent. Jakunta yelled through a clenched jaw as everything - blood, organs, muscle, bone, everything - seemed to push upward into his skull. The pressure and the pain breached the threshold into intolerable levels. Trees bent like twigs under the Krakono's weight and the HUD blurred and his vision went red then there was a resounding crash and everything sloshed back into place and Jakunta slumped back into then through his seat as he plunged into absolute darkness.

The emergency lighting was on when Jakunta came to, with various alarms pinging and beeping to let him know that the Krakono was overheating. His arms, legs, head, hands and feet felt heavy and difficult to move. The HUD was still online but flickering; it displayed the position of the Kolibri at around a hundred metres from his location. The camera feed into Abigail's cockpit was full of fuzz and static - he couldn't make out her figure in the seat. It was empty.

Jakunta tiredly reached out to confront Abigail through her comms. “You with us? Hey.” before collapsing back into his seat. He waited patiently, trying to recover some sense into his limbs to get himself up properly and exit his MAS.

"Haaaghghraauuughgh." Abigail clearly wasn't attempting anything more complex than an indication that she wasn't dead.

Jakunta nodded to himself, he let himself recover for one more minute before finally gathering the strength to start fiddling with the controls of his mech. There weren't any damages - not that he'd expected any - but the more delicate components such as the HUD and the Comms were patchy and flickering as they kept trying to turn off to cool down and switch back on again because the MAS was still in use. Control input was sluggish at best. He tried to aim his cannon and, whilst it would move, it would only move a fraction of an inch before he had to input the coordinates again.

There was no way around it; until the Krakono had cooled somewhat, it wasn't going anywhere fast.

Jakunta reached back out to Abigail. “Stay where you are, I'll come find you. I’m going to take a look outside.” he stood himself up and shakily made himself to the hatch of his MAS.

"Aaarghuugugugh."

Initially Cerol looked like a hazy rainforest but once Jakunta made it out of the Krakono he saw the MAS steaming as the humidity in the air sizzled off the armour plates. The jungle was dense and thick and had been only slightly blown back by their sudden arrival, to the point that only a brief gap in the canopy had formed. It wasn't that hard to find the Kolibri as Abigail must have aimed for the gap during her own landing...but it wasn't as flawlessly executed as he'd have liked. It was slumped over on its knees, leaning against one of the knotted tree trunks and also emanating clouds of steam high into the jungle. The cockpit was only partially ajar.

Jakunta dove back down the hatch, he equipped some light combat gear and grabbed a sidearm before clambering back up the hatch and safely down his large MAS. He carefully trudged towards the Kolibri- eyes scanning the foliage around them and the dirt beneath him. He arrived at the cockpit, trying to peer inside before voicing out: “I’m outside. It’s me.” as a forewarning. When he didn't hear an answer he pushed his way into the cockpit; in the gloom Abigail was lying face first on the ground in her EVA suit.

“You look like you just fell from orbit.” Jakunta remarked before looking at the interior of her MAS, checking to see if there were even sparks to indicate the machine's functionality. Everything was switched off and a few preliminary clicks didn't turn anything back on again. Abigail slowly rolled onto her side, wrenched her helmet off, sucked in a few lungfuls of air then instinctively lurched onto her hands and knees as she threw up a splash of watery fuschia liquid.

"Waste of a d-damn good FroO-" Abigail retched and threw up again. She groaned. "I've got the Dizzies."

“Same can’t be said about your MAS. It’s fucked. Come on- come back to the Krakono. It’s systems are still working I just can’t move it. We can see about finding the location of the escape pod there and… recover while we do so. Grab your personals. We might have to blow it.”

"Kolibri's not fucked, she's just resting. I didn't even reach critical. But she's delicate and prissy - same sort of temperament you'd get out of Aleks when you use up all his good shampoo." Abigail wiped her mouth and sat up. Her whole body was swaying. "I switched it all off so we can get the Full Echo up and running, your MAS doesn't even have smart targeting. Alright give me room."

Jakunta stepped back, standing by the ajar cockpit to observe with a faint grin on his face. It was an increasingly common sight; Abigail planted her hands on the floor, shut her eyes and steadied her breathing. Then she stood up sharply and began gathering her combat gear. The problem was that her balance, after prolonged aerial manoeuvres in space and a rushed re-entry, was utterly disrupted for the time being. Yet she carried herself with a chaotic grace like a young sailor on a storm-tossed ship, with the practice and haggard ease of someone who’s clearly trained, and trained, and trained to handle herself in these states. She staggered from one end to the other, her movements deliberate, controlled, unstable, erratic all at once. Once she had her combat gear she tugged her helmet loosely over her head, pulled her elbows in and flung herself out of the cockpit. Jakunta watched her bounce off the Kolibri's chassis and land in the dirt then followed her down.

Offering an elbow for the young woman to hold onto, the two pilots made their way back to the Krakono. It took Abigail a moment to get to the hatch. Once inside, Jakunta sealed the entry and Abigail pulled her helmet off, burped then gingerly lowered herself onto the floor so she was lying on her back.

“No signal from the escape pod. Is good and bad.” he murmured. “We need to wait for the others to land, hopefully they aren’t getting minced up there.” he let out a deep breath. “In the meantime, see if we can figure out her trajectory from the debris. At least give us a direction to turn to once the others arrive.”

"Would a pod have any debris?" Abigail asked. "It's risky - all the space crap from that fight is also getting sucked into orbit. I'm willing to bet we'll start seeing burning chunks of MASes, cruisers and Horizon Point soon."

“If she emits some kind of signal we can more accurately find her- so can the enemy though.”

"Krakono's on its emergency lights and I'm letting Kolibri cool off," Abigail retorted. She rolled her head to look at Jakunta and clearly regretted doing so. "Sorry if I sound like a negative Nancy here - but she's also a fully trained pilot and we're in the middle of nowhere. As much as I want to find her, I feel we're not going to be able to do much except make it harder for the Roanoke to find us."

"And besides." Abigail gingerly turned to look back up at the ceiling. "If she's dead and we stay here, our orders were to drop and we followed procedure by providing as much information as we could and remaining where we landed so the Full Echo could be used and the Roanoke could locate us. If she's dead and we chase her...then we weren't fast enough, right?"

“You talk a fuck ton for a someone that should be shutting up and making sure she doesn’t vomit.” Jakunta interrupted.

"If I couldn't do my job whilst under the effects of violent vertigo I wouldn't be here," Abigail forced a grin. "My job is to annoy pilots." She went quiet for a bit. "I do feel like crap though."

“Let me say correctly: You’re talking too much.” he nodded, getting to work on assisting the Krakono with temporary shutdown.

"Does this mean I can sleep off the Dizzies?" She lifted her head and regretted it more. "Military mandated naptime?"

“Yes. I’m going to shut MAS down. So enemies don’t catch any machinery.”

"Since you don't have double vision and can aim a gun I think you should be on the lookout for now." With great delicacy, Abigail lifted herself and grabbed Jakunta's jacket from the back of his chair. She bundled it up into a pillow as she lay back down, shutting her eyes and taking a deep breath. "Wake me up when you spot the princess," she murmured.

Jakunta didn’t respond. He climbed up the hatch again, gun in hand to keep a physical lookout. As he stood watch he cycled through the various radio channels but only heard static. He leant back a little and looked down at Abigail. The pilot was fast asleep already - if not, she was lying as still as possible with her mouth open as she tried to recover what little balance she could before anything developed.

He sighed and went back to his ‘post’, gazing out across the gargantuan, heavy branches. The crystalline lake glimmered in the distance and the breeze rolling across its surface tousled his hair.
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