The year is After Nuclear 605, a time of peace for the Earth sphere. Six hundred years ago contact with the Earth was lost. Alone in the beauty and danger of space, the last survivors of humanity took their first steps in sudden independence.

For years before, the Earth and colonies co-existed, branching out with their blooming population into the vast potential of space. Construction of large cylindrical colonies from resource satellites pulled in from the asteroid belt saw a new golden age for humanity. Within a century, dozens of colonies welcomed millions into space. In time, it would become home to billions.

However, independence could not break the long history of war and violence that follow humanity in every endeavor. It was not long before colonies found their own identities. Strong beliefs grew and the right to expand became the familiar cries of those spurred to fight.

War was inevitable.

Known as the Warring States Period, rapid militarization and technological advancements made war frightening and deadly within space. And out of the new war came the appearance of the Second Skin mobile humanoid weapon. Originally built for space construction, the Second Skin quickly became synonymous as a weapon of war thanks to the development by the Jade Corporation. Four major corporations vie for superiority, but Jade remains at the top.

While many wished to fight, there equally remained those trying for peace and stability. The Colonial Council was born out of the wish for unity and cooperation between all colonies in the dangers of space. Seating representatives from all colonies, the Council quickly grew, but lost its power in the myriad of voices trying to become heard.

To save the colonies from their potential self destructive future, a leader rose up. Bringing allies together, the formation of the Earth Colonial Federation was born and the start of their war of conquest against The Alliance. A harsh war enveloped the entire Earth Sphere. In the end, the Federation was victorious and finally united all of the Earth Sphere under their banner.

The Earth Colonial Federation had saved the colonies.

Episode 22 - A Chilled Hero's Welcome

Emptiness, a vast raven void blanketed all light. Despite the view, it came as a far more comfortable sight than anything else. A cold dispassionate hold felt far warmer than anything that fell away behind. Even with the destination so far away, the heat for the familiar could nearly be reached out and touched. It came as a bit of a surprise, yet diminished with the looming unknown. A sharpened blade hung overhead and no one knew if it struck for good or ill.

Schir leaned on the arm rest to gaze half distracted out the window of the shuttle. From the angle, the Capital could no longer be seen in their approach. The recent, yet distant, memories of her last return flooded back. All the rage and sorrow only felt multiplied and compressed to refine it. Such a feeling did not come to disagree with her. It needed such strength.

A low grumble came from her out of earshot of the rest of her team. 'The last time I came back I knew what was happening. It made sense, even if I didn't like some of it.' Her hero treatment came to mind among her thoughts. The new journey she made after, left a new view. And yet it was not that view that changed how the colonies, the Capital, looked to her now. 'What will I find? What is happening?'

The waiting turned nearly unbearable listening to the mechanical thrumming of the space dock. Clamps locked down the shuttle and boarding bridge extended out to connect. Unlike the last time, the ship was not falling apart and it was a proper Federation military ship rather than the refurbished transport they took.

With the knocking of the pistons, space dock fully tied the ship down. The rest of her team already moved to the aisle, eager like anyone to breathe colony air and see the beautiful contained world they knew.

Schir pulled her case up from the chair next to her and slowly brought up the rear. Watching her team leave with some energy back in their step provided some relief. She could still remember seeing all of their arrogant faces cocky about killing the Devils. They were going to be a swift and decisive end to the war.

All of those emotions disappeared, burned away in the fires of Hell. Their hardened features rang familiar from when she returned. The sight dredged up more memories than she preferred. 'Dammit…' She shook her head to clear away the distractions.

Out on the deck, she found the whole hanger oddly empty. There were of course other ships in the dock besides theirs. It was a main hub for the military and yet it had none of the overwhelming presence of force. Only a few Jiao lined the side and nearby just two cruisers parked above. Other silhouettes filled in above, but less than a tenth of the space was in use. 'I guess most of the military is planet side, but for the Capital it's a little thin.'

No escort arrived yet. Which clearly meant that Mullia had his chance. He slid into her right flank. "Any secret orders you can't tell me about?"

She glared at him for his lack of tact. "If I did, they wouldn't be secret anymore."

"So serious, Lieutenant. We came without our machines and just the combat data."

"I'm aware. Which means I expect you to find out what they're planning."

"You mean if there's new machines or replacement parts."

"Glad you catch on fast." Eventually any news would find its way to her, she knew. As the leader of the team, she would know first. But Mullia could probably learn sooner and what the Captain said worried her. 'This is not where I belong…don't make me do this…' She was relieved to have someone like Mullia at her side.

A soldier walked up finally to greet her team. A young man, probably similar in age as the rest of them, but now beneath her rank since the last time. "Lieutenant Schir Mille?"

"Yes, Sergeant and my team and mechanic."

"I'll take you to your car, sir. The Rear Admiral is waiting for you."

'Him again…will he have anything for me?' She nodded and motioned to everyone.

They took two cars to HQ. Laania and Mullia shared the car with Schir, while the rest followed behind. This also appeared to be how they planned to handle everyone. Only the three of them received an escort to the Rear Admiral's office. The rest of her team went straight to their debrief.

A quick knock and they found themselves once more greeted by the old Admiral. "Ah, Lieutenant Schir, we meet again. Good to see you've survived your second journey to Hell."

"Yes, Rear Admiral. I didn't know if I'd see space again."

"Indeed, just reading your reports makes the nicknames of those Skins feel equal parts apt and insufficient. But please come in and sit all of you. It's probably the first time you all can feel at ease."

Schir took the middle seat not paying too much mind to Mullia or her second. She was not sure if it was the second visit or something else, but the Admiral did not seem as awkward for her as the last time. There was something more relaxed about the air in the room. Schir could not figure it out.

"An impressive feat you achieved down there. Few up here understand the difference. They just see numbers and binary results. However, the real terror that you all faced there…you have succeeded in defeating one of those monstrosities. I see that as an important victory for everyone fighting and dying on that miserable ball."

A hardly new speech for Schir, but she kept her face from showing anything to betray her feelings. "Victory or not, the Ghost escaped and will be trouble for us again."

"Indeed, which is why we've recalled you. As you no doubt already are wondering. It's become very clear to us in Command that the current plan won't be enough to secure a permanent lasting victory against these machines and HOPE."

She nodded slowly feeling a little concerned, but slightly more curious what they could be planning. The machine specs completely out classed them, she doubted that they had anything to change things. None of them fought on the surface like she and her team did. They knew nothing. "And what is the new plan?"

"I want to hear your assessment of the Bishamon."


"You've fought against these Devils in the best the Four Corps have to offer. How did it perform? Is it enough?"

Schir held in silence with the Admiral's question floating about her mind. All the battles with the Ghost turned over. The memories of deadly dances flashed by. She felt reminded of the Terra Team mission. They landed for recon with no idea of what they were getting themselves into. Even now, it felt like nothing had changed.

It seemed strange that after fighting them for so long that she would not have a fast answer for him. It continued to hover in her mind. The Bishamon was a powerful machine and served her well. Customized to the limit, she could not imagine anything being better than it at the moment. And yet, she knew from the fighting that it compared nothing to the Devils. The Corps were behind somehow. It made little sense and the mysteries of those four machines only continued to make it more difficult to assess.

She focused her sight back on her superior. "It performed well against a technologically superior foe. In a one on one spec against spec, it will never be enough. The Devils have a different base that makes it nothing like what we field today. The size gives it better reserves and energy outputs, it is strong and has greater thrust. Despite what the Corps have come to settle on as a standard for Skin design, the Devils are an anomaly that defy our traditional view point."

"The battle data collected say as much. But I'm not looking for a computer analysis, Lieutenant. I'm wanting a human one."

"It'll have to be enough, sir. We don't have any other options. I beat the Ghost once, give me fresh parts and steady resupplies and I will do it again."

"Yes, your piloting skills have improved far more than anyone could have hoped. However, wars aren't won off the backs of a single soldier, despite what the news and politicians like to convince the public of."

"Sir?" The tone seemed to imply something, but Schir had too many possible answers. 'Is this about what's stopped the reinforcements?'

"Oh it's nothing like what you might be fearing. I'm not pulling you off this. No, we need you down there leading the charge against these monsters. However, as valuable as you are to us, you alone won't be enough to bring the machines down. Your team, you need to see that they rise to their potential like you have."

"I've been training them, sir."

"Yes, I've got the reports, but they can get better. They must. It took six of you just to bring down the Ghost. I'm reminded of what you told me last time, Lieutenant. That these Devils aren't built for duels in mind. You've been making up for a difference in specs with numbers, but the Devils are improving. They are adapting quickly, just like you. Eventually, the weakness won't be one."

She stared listening to the lecture from the Admiral. It took her a little bit of surprise to hear him giving such a speech. He did not paint the picture she had in mind of high ranked officers. 'I'm grateful we have someone like him in this position. But it doesn't explain our situation. Who doesn't agree with him?'

"You've proven the Bishamon in battle, despite the losses the suits at Kami are very pleased. Your victory over the Ghost earned them a lot of acclaim within the Four Corps. I'm expecting to see a power shake up that's going to disrupt the Skin industry. But more importantly, they've finished production of the new Bishamons for your team."

"New Skins, sir?" The thought of losing her machine almost felt odd as she did not think that she would become so attached to the thing. A Jiao felt more at home for her, being what she trained and learned in as did any trainee. Yet the Bishamon with all its quirks that she worried over became something that she relied upon.

The old man pulled out a computer pad with classified files. He slid it over the desk to her. "The engineers at Kami put a rush job on the original Bishamon for the operation. So not everything had been refined. You were piloting test machines, not even prototypes. These are proper prototype production models. Like with most Kami Skins, they never make them cheap enough for mass production, but these are going to be the framework for the model they sell to us."

Schir tapped on the screen as it confirmed her identity. Unlocked, the new improved Bishamon blueprints displayed. Even at a glance, she could see the changes made. Physically, it would look no different, but the power plant had better efficiency and their solar batteries recharged faster. Weapon output did not change, but consumed less power.

It still hardly matched the specs of the Devils, but this would improve things in the battle. Duration turned out to be their weak point, something she understood, but the rest of her team and forces learned the hard way. Space battles with clean access to solar taught them terrible lessons to use on Earth. "The Bishamon KPS-600a."

"That is the base model which your team is familiar with so far. However, we will be getting Customs for your whole team. They are specialized further for combat on Earth."

Flipping through the file confirmed what the Admiral stated. 'Everyone…they're putting a lot of faith in us to finish the job.' The weight she felt previously leading the team, the deaths on her hands, every command and action on her watch threatened to crush her already. Even though she felt like she said adapted to that stress, this revelation made her feel like the first day taking over the Hunters. And even that did not seem to compare for some reason to the heaviness that suddenly filled in her stomach.

"Custom machines for everyone? This has been approved?"

"They didn't have a choice in the matter. The numbers of this war, which even the most pessimistic forecasts didn't calculate, have turned this into the second bloodiest and costly war in our history. If they don't want it to be the first, they had to accept. I don't like sacrificing lives to make a point, but I'll be frank with you, no one took the reports from Terra Team as seriously as they should. If I had more pull, things would have been different, but this is the situation we live in."

'A numbers game…the war was supposed to be just numbers and now they've become real. I hate this war…'

"This was the reason for your team being recalled. The final approval went through and you'll be receiving your machines soon. Your team will be able to make requests for adjustments. The Kami engineers will be at your full disposal while you're here. Especially you Warrant Officer Mullia."

"You've no idea how excited I am to hear that, sir!"

He smiled a little at the mechanic's energy. "I've got a feeling I do a little. But that's everything I have for you. Just remember, keep quiet about everything you're doing up here. The homefront has become a complicated political landscape."

"Complicated, sir?"

"The President's war, it's not over, everyone knows this, but the reality of the war isn't public knowledge. We're keeping it secret under the guise of it being wartime and not compromising our soldiers in the field, but it's become far dire and rumors are everywhere. Blood's in the water and the sharks are swimming, they're hungry. Don't speak to anyone, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir!" She knew why he specifically called her out and the others. The only one with a public face and a famous one was Schir. No one knew the others on her team very well. It did obviously go to everyone, but her position made her an ideal target. 'Politics, Captain…this isn't what I need.'

With the extra weight slammed onto her back, Schir walked out with Mullia and Kara. They still had the full debriefing to carry out before their day freed up. It would be as exhausting as the last time, if not worse than she expected.

And it was.

Afternoon arrived by the time she left the headquarters. Mullia and Kara parted ways. No doubt Mullia eagerly rushed off to the Kami engineers. Her second, she honestly had no clue what the woman did. Like with much of her remaining team, they shared very little still. Battles and training did not give them as much time as she hoped to open up, despite her efforts.

Running her hand through her hair, she looked forward to just sitting with a calming view of space. But that would have to wait it seemed. 'Who is that?' An elderly looking man in a suit walked straight towards his eyes already locked upon her. The intent was clear. Schir steeled herself.

"The Hero of Indus and the Devil Hunter, Lieutenant Schir Mille." A subtle condescending tone came through his words, masked fairly well beneath a very business vanir. It felt almost intentional rather than accidental that such a tone slipped through. She found herself off balance.

'Please tell me no one is calling me that.' She braced herself for whatever came. "You have me at a disadvantage." Schir fought to maintain her PR training they gave her before the talk show she had to go to last time.

"Ah yes, I'm comparatively less famous such as yourself, especially being away on Earth. I'm Senator Garet Tavill, Head of the Budgetary Subcommittee for the Military."

Schir struggled to keep her face from showing her clear disgust for the man as he seemed to take pride in his title. 'An accountant…I don't need an asteroid counter in my life right now…' Her eyes searched for an exit while her mind tried to find the words. "Is there something you needed, Senator? I've just returned."

"Yes, you have a very busy schedule, but I did want to speak with you."

"The Budgetary Subcommittee wants to speak to a Lieutenant? Don't you want the Rear Admiral?" She did not understand what the chain of command with this sort of thing was, but she felt certain the Senator ignored a lot of procedures. Though likely nothing he did was illegal, just questionable. Yet being a politician, questionable was part of the job description.

"He's even busier than you are."

'Intentionally so probably…though why is my schedule, that I know nothing about, full?' It only just hit her what the Senator said before. It broke through her polite facade a little. "I can't imagine what help I would be to you. Perhaps you should wait for an opening with the Rear Admiral." She attempted to end the conversation and move to go around him.

The stubborn man moved with her still keeping that disgusting smile. "A talented and decorated officer such as yourself would be more than helpful."

Her skin shivered and ran cold with the amount of oily flattery he poured over her. "And what would that be, Senator?"

"This war has already cost us fifteen trillion and being on the frontlines I wanted your perspective as we are receiving large requests for even more of the budget to be allocated. Far beyond what was originally passed."

"War's a messy business, Senator."

"And a profitable one for more than just the Corps."

"I'm a soldier. I follow orders and kill our enemies." She forcibly stepped around the Senator with speed to break away. He seemed to allow it, not making another move.

"For how much longer though, Lieutenant? Profit is more than just currency and lives pay better than gold."

Schir hurried out of earshot of the man as his chilling final words, warning, made her body shake. 'What was that all about? It felt so pointless. Did he really expect to get something from me?' She found the car that waited for her arrival, delayed already. Once inside the car, she slid down wanting to have five minutes where her mind did not have to think. 'What's the rest of my days going to be like?'

Her eyes closed, feeling the comfort of the subtle rotation of the colony and hum of the car. Only the cockpit gave her a sense of peace as twisted as that thought came. Demons visited her bed. Ghosts lingered in the fields, choking her with every step. She thought she might actually fall asleep.

Suddenly the car stopped and she snapped awake. Glancing at the windows, the scenery changed more than she expected. Sleep found her, surprisingly. And yet, she knew it was not the barracks. Schir looked forward to the black tinted glass that divided the back from the driver. Her hand immediately went to her side arm.

The glass pane slid open and the driver looked back through the opening. A shockingly familiar face smiled in a Sergeant's uniform. "They don't let you sleep down on Hell, Lieutenant?"

"Lieutenant Rinn?!"

"Still can't call me Rinn, huh? Had hoped they would loosen you up a little more."

"Why are you my driver?"

"It's complicated."

She narrowed her eyes glaring at him and his casual breezy tone. "Tell me what isn't."

"Hey, our little rookie's making a joke, maybe Earth did soften you up."

"What are you doing here?"

"Already back to serious mode." A click of the locks on the doors released as he stepped out. Schir raised a brow before following him outside. He hopped on the hood staring out at the colony.

It took her a moment to realize how long she had slept. They were not even in the city anymore. Farms and forests stretched out curving up towards the village above. A few clouds obscured some of the surface, but it was a common yet welcome view. 'A far better sight…Though what's his game?'

"I came to give you a warning and get you up to speed."

"Another warning?" He looked over at her with some curiosity. "The Rear Admiral warned me as well about the political environment, but didn't go into much detail."

"Saves me one thing then. He's right. Since the war turned to an actual war and not a blitz, public opinion has started to swing away for the President. This was supposed to be a quick conflict and a return to stability and reconstruction could continue. Most of the brass knew like the President after we came back that it wasn't going to be so simple. They kept that part from the public."

"And now his campaign promise is coming back to bite him in the ass."

"Essentially. With the public change, the member states are getting cold feet now. Those that are in the know, have seen the death tolls and it's making them pull support. The President is fighting to just keep the Federation together at this point."

"I had no idea things were so bad…that explains the drop in supplies. But don't they realize failure to support the planet side forces is going to lead to even more death and likely a retreat?"

"A couple of members are already threatening to order their troops home. As much good as that can do being stuck in a gravity well. Landing a massive force is significantly easier than extracting one back to space. We simply don't have the logistics."

"A good thing HOPE doesn't have a mass driver or launch capacity."

"I wouldn't be so certain."

She turned to look at the man who seemed to grow further in mystery. "Do you know something?"

"Just professional experience. When we were down there and seeing the reports you're sending. There's a lot of things that just don't add up. Why do those Devils even exist? The public knew nothing about us and seemed to have even forgotten they had even been to space. HOPE's hiding a lot and knows a lot more than they're being public about. Those machines were made for a war on a massive scale and you saw Earth. They've got enough trouble just surviving, a real war hasn't been fought by them since before the bombs dropped."

"You think they're planning to attack the colonies?"

"At this point I'm not ruling anything out. But they still have cards to play and I get a feeling we haven't seen what their plan is in all of this. So I'd watch yourself down on Earth. Nothing is as it seems."

"Speaking of which, I got a visit from Senator Garet Tavill."

"From the budget committee?"

"What you know him?"

"Yeah, most people do lately. He's made it very public his condemnation of the war and the cost. Claims he's speaking for the civilians and families that have lost loved ones in the President's war."

'This is worse than I thought. The President campaigned on the war for the people.' Even centuries later, the millions dead because of what the Earth did never washed away. And the floating dead colonies stood as both memorial and reminder of the terrible day. It made for a powerful uniting message to forge the Federation on the promise of getting reparations from the Earth. 'Everyone's calling it his war now. I can't believe so much has changed in so little time.'

Schir leaned back against the car staring up through the glass into space. "How did we get here? Everyone's just forgot their anger now?"

"When you have to put a price to it, I think people learn to live with their anger. The reality is no one alive today has anyone they know that died. It was forever ago for people. Many people probably can't even remember if someone from their family did at this point. It's easy to hate when it doesn't cost you anything."

"I'm not done until all four Devils are dead. They'll have to use anchor cables on my Skin and drag me away."

"Glad you've focused your passions, but just be careful of the path that leads. It's a dark and empty road you walk."

"Only ghosts walk with me."

Rinn slapped his hands down on the hood, snapping the mood. "You must be hungry! Let's get you some real food!" He dropped down, straightening out his pants. "I'll drive."

Schir stared at him for a moment. So many questions filled her mind as she tried to read him. 'Just who is the Lieutenant. I really don't feel like I know anything about him.' She was a late addition to the Terra One Team and outsider. He seemed to get along with the others that she assumed he was part of the group going back to the war. But his actions started making her question that.

They returned to the car. Leaving the middle of nowhere, he drove her back to the restaurant they went to last time. Settled down in the booth away from everyone, she waited until the waiter finished taking their order. "You never said who you are."

"What you didn't know? And we spent so many months together down there. I'm a Lieutenant in the EFC, nice to meet you."


"The less you know about me the better it will be for you. Trust me."

"I'm finding trust difficult with someone that pretends to be my driver and refuses a simple question."

"It's always the simple ones that cause the biggest problems. But seriously Schir, you need to focus on yourself, not me. If the Senator is trying to get to you, he's not the only one. It's only going to get harder up here for you."

"Good thing my mission is on Earth then."

"You're an important figure, don't think someone can't pull strings to get that taken away."

"Let them try."

"The invincibility of youth…just take it from someone that's been in the game longer. You have no idea how bad things can be if you don't play ball." Schir paused in her attempt to drink the glass of water. The weight of his word hit stronger than she expected only to make his vague history more confusing.

While she let his words pass through her, she went back to slowly cool off with the water. A few drops of clean chilled water felt wonderful. It might have been recycled the same as on the Hunter, but colony water tasted different. She did not know how, it just did. "If you can't say anything about who you are, then what are you doing? I doubt you got demoted to being my driver."

"Just pulled some strings to visit a friend."

'A friend?' The word hovered in her mind. "Then what are you doing after the Terra One Team mission?"

"A desk job if you can believe it. Running logistics for Lyra and Carina."

"Carina, Kami headquarters there."

"You see why I knew about your arrival today."

"Then you saw the new requests."

"They're getting pretty serious making your whole team aces."

"We're not…" Customs did mean that, but she refused to accept that they could be with nothing but a string of defeats to their team. The Ghost might have counted as a victory at one point, but it got struck from her list the moment it escaped, more so knowing the pilot remained alive. "But logistics, seems like a waste."

"I was just the driver for you guys down there. Was just on borrowed time."

"Borrowed time?"

He shook his head attempting to cancel his remark. "A past you don't need to worry about. So how long you here for?"

"Five days, maybe less if we get everything together. But that's all I know right now."

"Get some rest then, you're going to need it." Something more ominous hung in his words as she listened. Her brow pinched trying to figure him out. All she could do was nod and accept his simple, if not portentous words.

When her lunch finished with the Lieutenant, she took his advice and returned to the barracks. The room assigned to her looked as empty as she remembered. A layer of dust covered everything, but it didn't matter to her in the end. She dropped onto the bed and found herself miraculously asleep before she even felt the sheets.

Darkness and silence slowly peeled back. She opened her eyes seeing the night environmental settings of the colony. "How long?" Schir tapped on the panel at the head of the bed to activate the clock. Almost half past one, she pulled herself up. "Ten hours…" The fatigue and soreness that followed her body the last few weeks lingered further back for her.

Schir stretched a little, testing out her body's condition. "Better, but not the rest the doctor demands for me…" If there was one positive from the recall, she might finally have the doctor off her back. "Hmm…no nightmare…"

With a cleansed mental state, she stood up and changed into a fresh set of clothes. Given the late night, she took a thick pair of camo pants with a black tank top and jacket over top. It gave her the off duty look, while still not being civvies.

She walked out of her room into the empty halls. The silence of the night came as expected and even welcoming. The low hum of the colony covered her in a relaxing blanket while she strolled with slow, but purposeful steps.

The final destination for her was the Skin hangar, the special one given to her team for the confidential nature of their work. Along the way, she took a few protein bars from the dispenser. With the time since lunch, she knew hunger would come calling soon. Breakfast remained far away for now.

In the hangar, one Skin stood alone, but with a couple of tiny companions. 'I guess the Bishamons haven't arrived yet…' Schir recognized immediately the Skin as a Bishamon, though with all of its plating stripped away. Staring at the damaged and recovered machines, she could never forget the unique frame.

She had a good guess as to who stood at the foot of the machine. As she got closer, the familiar grating sound of Mullia confirmed her first guess. And then like she came to expect, Veren looked over the mechanic's shoulder staring at the computer pane.

The tap of her feet on the concrete floor as she walked alerted them. Veren immediately went to attention, saluting her. "We're off duty, Veren." He slowly went at ease.

Mullia leaned forward with a smirk. "Couldn't sleep Lieutenant?"

"The opposite, but what are you two doing? Or rather Veren, Mullia I'm not that surprised to find you here. Oil and metal are your coffee."

"You know me too well. Only one crazier than me is you."

"I'm not sure what that says about you that you know you're crazy, but whatever." She looked over to Veren.

"Since we're getting Customs as well, I wanted to start understanding it better." A glow came over him as he mentioned the Customs. Anyone else, that would have just been the pilot excitement to getting a special Skin. Schir knew it was something else.

She stared up at the bare Bishamon. "I see you around the machines a lot. Got aspirations beyond being a pilot?"

"Not really, being a pilot is all I've ever wanted to do!"

"Veren here's my favorite. He's always got a detailed report for his machine so the team knows what to do. Plus he fixes some things on his own."

"My family works at a resource satellite. Labors are always in high demand, so it was the work they were able to get. I guess because ore's in our blood I got pretty into Skin. Mom's a Skin drill operator and Dad's on the line. I pretty much lived around Skin and machines since I could walk."

Veren looked back at the foot of the Bishamon. He placed a hand over the frame. "She'd let me ride inside some days while she worked. Pretty reckless when I think about it now, but it's what made me excited about Skins."

"What made you want to be a military pilot, a civilian pilot is a far safer and financially stable job."

"Probably so, but colony work doesn't get to play with the best Skins. But more importantly it was to prove a point."

"A point?

The short muscular man turned around and sat down on the lift behind them. He placed his hands in his lap recalling past memories. "Getting a job in colony work has a lot of regulations and requirements. I didn't make one of the more critical ones, my height. I could do the work, but most companies didn't want the risk or adjustments to make a cockpit work for me."

He tugged on the sleeve of his jacket. "The military still has those requirements as well, but unlike a company I can prove with merit my ability. Everyone always said my dream was empty and shit. That I was just a daydreamer. So I went to the place where I could be accepted and show them how wrong they were about me."

"And if you survive the war, your record will get you any company job you want."

"That about sums it up. Being on the Hunters is the best thing I could ask for and this Custom is going to be the wings I need."

"Good to have goals. I'm going to need that drive and motivation when we return. The Custom's nothing like the standard model you've been piloting. It'll tear you to pieces."

"I'll be sure to live up to your expectations!"

Schir pulled out one of the bars from her pocket and ripped open the wrapper. While she slowly started to munch, she leaned forward to the pane they looked over. "Back to the original subject, what were you looking over with the Bishamon?"

"All the wonderful new improvements they made and equipment. We need to get the requests in early."

"So you're helping Veren out."

"A bit of both."

"Figures." As she finished the bar, she stuffed the wrapper back in her pocket. "Got a pad I can use?"

"Not sticking with the same equipment?"

"If there's something better I would have it."

"Practical as always."

Mullia handed over a spare device to Schir. She tapped on the screen. Data on the Bishamon Custom panned through. A fair amount of the info got technical, beyond her academy training. If the computer had been paper, she would probably have found water stains from his drool. Regardless, she went to the weapons.

Everything at a glance looked the same as what she saw last time. That did not surprise her much, creating new equipment likely had high development cost and time. Though they might have improved existing weapons to change her favored tool.

She paused on the items looking at the changes. Efficiency and output were the main factors in a lot of them. It reflected the improvements to the Bishamon. 'Speed and flexibility are going to be key…' Smaller reusable weapons remained critical. The energy burn through rate improved, but everything with the Bishamon consumed power.

The additional thruster options made her ponder the balance and power demands. Against the Ghost, it might give the advantage in a one on one fight. She could only play scenarios in her mind for now. Numbers only meant so much without the practical experience to know how it felt. Even as it stood, the Custom nearly crushed her everytime that she begged for its full potential. Her coffin would become her urn.

Schir on a whim and curiosity quickly flipped through equipment to make what would just be a very expensive and elaborate tombstone. Once complete, she tapped to return to the primary menu. It immediately flashed red, lighting up her face.

The small error ping from the device drew attention. Mullia leaned around to see what she broke only to see an error message "Lethal to Pilot". "That's a special brand of crazy, Lieutenant!" He pulled over to look better at the screen. "What in the shiny white ass of the moon did you do to that?" His fingers forced his way over the screen to display the loadout. "I'd be lucky if I could disinfect the cockpit for your replacement with how that'd spread you over everything like butter on bread!"

A narrowed glare and tug of the computer separated the two. "I wasn't serious. I let you and Kami make the last machine, so I just wondered what it could do."

"Kill you."

"Clearly, I'm not an idiot."

"I don't know about that. Ace pilots are a special sort of idiot. It's what makes you fun to work for."

"Thanks…and I'm not an ace."

"Keep telling yourself that."

She wiped clean the modifications and went back to take a more serious approach. The battles with the Ghost ran through her mind. It had mobility and speed, though it moved in ways that a Skin never could. They had a completely different foundation, approach to design. 'How did they achieve such a nimble machine?'

While in the middle of selecting thrusters, she looked up to Mullia. "How's the data from the Ghost we captured?"

"Headquarters has the main computer core working on it, but it's going to take some time."

"What does the combat data say about the G forces on the pilots?" Their little conversation about the death trap she created sparked something that she had not thought about. They focused so much on its capabilities and power that she never considered a frighteningly more basic question.

Mullia looked up and then back over to the computer, not having the answer immediately. "From what I recall it was disturbing. Ah here it is, based on the recent fights you've had against the Ghost it was almost constantly maintaining five g's with its movement and acceleration and deceleration in excess of fifteen g's. Pilots can handle up ten well enough with a pilot suit, but either they've got a special dampening technology or those pilots aren't human. Real monsters."

"Monsters huh?" Watching the way the machine moved, she wondered what sort of pilot could achieve such a result. Perhaps it's an AI system driving it. They haven't had a real conflict in centuries. Most of the people just rolled over when we came in. Only after the Devils interfered did things begin to escalate. They would have lazily just accepted us if it wasn't for HOPE.'

Schir paused as the thoughts became something that she did not expect. Her focus remained so tightly on the enemy that the rest of the world disappeared. 'Perhaps I'm too far away. It's making me think strange things.'

She flipped through the device a few times making additional modifications. Once complete, she passed it back to Mullia. "See that the changes work."

The mechanic quickly looked down at the changes that she made to her Custom. A flick of a finger through the digital papers rapidly gave him a pause. "Hey wait! You've got most of the armor stripped off. Any sort of direct hit is going to destroy you."

"The way the Ghost now, armor is meaningless. I need to be lighter and have less get in my way. Get Kami to make me plating that can not melt under beam weapons from those Devils and you can put it back on."

"Don't ask for the impossible!"

"Then take the armor off."

"My baby's going to be so ugly…"

"It's war, I could give two shits about the appearance." Schir walked out of the hangar leaving the two men with more than enough to consider. Merit to her strategy gave them pause, but only someone like her could pull off such a thing and not get killed immediately.

Night finally faded into the artificial morning light of the colony. Morning risers started to fill in the Capital. On base, soldiers marched in formation and began early training. Headquarters sprung into life. Sounds of transports filled the air over the base. Activity buzzed about the colony largely unaware of the war below.

Though some found unpleasant reminders to the darker reality. Out in the grass field scattered with the infrequent trees sat Schir's team without their leader. They gathered around with computer pads spread out amongst each other. The warm open air gave a welcome change of pace from the stuffy hangar.

Small chatter about the Bishamon loadout and weaponry exchanged between a few. While Veren got a head start on planning, the new options left them in a bit of decision paralysis. They knew enough to make some picks, but knew enough to doubt if any of it would work. The Devils presented a frightening and dangerous potential.

"The range on the energy rifle is appealing," commented Shenai.

"But the armor on the Devils will make it nearly pointless unless you overcharge it," countered Veren. His digging into the specs of the machine and data on the Devils over the late hours gave him too much to consider.

Emi flipped through to look at the data Veren referenced. "Even with the upgrades, beam weapons are nearly pointless on them, damn…" She leaned down trying to roll it over in her head. Their battles came down more to feeling than numbers lately. So she wished they could field test the machines to feel the difference.

"Over time it'll make a difference, but we're not going to be suddenly punching holes in those monsters."

"One could hope, but even the Lieutenant struggles."

"I wonder if the heavier weapon would be better with the improved energy efficiency," Kovin thought aloud.

Veren nodded with the similar thought. "It's something I considered. We're always fighting with how much we can fire before we exhaust our reserves. Against the shield of the Blue Devil we have to punch through so much armor. But the recharge still isn't going to be great. We might burn out faster."

"Dammit! All this is making my head hurt. I wish this could just be like a normal Skin. I'm not used to all these decisions…"

"A dream come true."

"More like a nightmare." They all went silent as their minds went to the Lieutenant and her battles with the Ghost. Best as she did to hide her condition after every fight, they were not blind. Each exchange looked to shave off another year from the young officer. The brass gave such a curse to all them and pointed them at the Devils.

They faced a new trial in Hell. The heavy burden pressed upon them as the silence lingered. A couple of brief glances around sought out questions unsaid. Slowly the team attempted to return to their conversation, but several heavy boot steps approached.

Kara looked first given that they had classified information. The headquarters ran lighter than normal of stationed troops giving them more privacy than normal. But their march came with purpose. She waved her hand to everyone in a gesture. The screens all went black promptly following her.

Five soldiers in army uniforms strode up with shit eating grins on their faces. They were all enlisted non-commissioned soldiers, the look in their eyes was all too familiar. "Well, well, what do we have here, boys?"

"Looks like the famous Hunters having a picnic!"

"A picnic, ya say?"

"Just laughing it up while good people are dying down in Hell!"

Kovin started to move to stand up, but Kara grabbed his forearm glaring at him in silence. He ground his teeth and swallowed roughly forcing himself to sit back down.

The lack of meaningful provocation only seemed to fuel them further as they started to flank around the pilots. "Does your Lieutenant pack you up little baby meals?"

Kara's hand clenched around the computer pad resisting with every fiber. 'Just words…they'll leave once they get bored.'

A couple of them laughed getting more into the taunting. "I bet she has to buckle each of them into their Skins!"

"So scared of Hell that you ran back here?"

Veren leaned forward with the same look as Kovin. He stared over at Kara as she slowly shook her head to him even while her hand went white squeezing the side of the device.

A couple of the rowdy soldiers circled around before one stopped at Shenai. He leaned down, getting a better look at her before snapping up. "Look who it is, guys! Rookie Killer, herself! I didn't know the Hunters let a murder into their ranks!"

The team all looked over at Shenai trying to find an answer for this sudden slander. But the soldiers laughed seeing that they finally got some sort of meaningful reaction from the pilots. "What, you didn't know she kills her own? That's right, better watch out who knows when she'll get you in some accident in the hangar!"

Veren jumped up, no longer able to restrain himself. He stood between Shenai and the taunting assholes. The soldiers got up in his face glad that someone took the bait. They grinned wickedly moving around him.

"Going to stand up for a killer, huh?"

"She couldn't hack it in the army, but I guess all it takes is killing a few cadets in a Skin to become a pilot. Federation's got a real low bar. I can't believe the Alliance lost to people like you!" The soldier's smile started to widen, bearing teeth with excitement.

Shenai finally rose to her feet putting her hand on Veren's shoulder. "It's fine, Veren." She stared over him at the soldiers, wild like animals for blood.

"Yeah, shorty, she knows what she is!"

"I bet your Lieutenant had her kill anyone on your team too scared to fight!"

That was the last thread of restraint Veren held. While the soldiers laughed once more, he wound up his fist and let it fly without anyone to stop him. A heavy thud was the last thing anyone heard before chaos erupted.

A brief meeting once morning arrived for everyone else occupied Schir. The coming mission required her team and they kept her involved in the planning. Their Bishamon would be the linchpin to the offensive. Three, possibly four Devils would be defending Antarctica in this second and hopeful final battle. Even with the caution of the brass, she still felt they were being overly optimistic about the odds.

However, as she left the meeting a messenger stood waiting for her. "Sergeant?"

"Lieutenant, you need to come to the brig immediately. A fight broke out between soldiers and your team."

"A fight? What's the situation?" Her eyes narrowed and voice deepened harshly glaring at the young man, who likely was the same age as her.

He stiffened a little, getting assaulted by visible stares. "I don't know anymore than that, sir! I was just ordered to bring you."

She sighed imagining all sorts of reasons for a fight. 'They're not so crude anymore. All the hot air's been beaten out of them, what provoked them?' Schir knew she could go around in circles on questions while they stood around. Motioning to the soldier, she followed his lead.

The long march left her with plenty of time to try to figure things out. Around base, she did not find anyone that looked to be talking or troubled by what happened. 'Did it not draw much attention? Or the base just that empty?' Under normal circumstances, the headquarters would be crowded and rumors and chatter about a fight breaking out would have been news everywhere. The eerie silence felt a little odd.

Inside, she signed in and walked down to where everyone was locked up. As she started to approach, low mumbles crawled their way towards her. Voices that she did not recognize, likely the ones that picked the fight if she had to guess.

Once in the main floor of the brig, more than a dozen cells filled her view. A larger square chamber with small and large cells made up the floor. Given the current status of the base, it sat mostly empty. Two cells had occupants, the two parties involved in the brawl.

The MP that escorted her down, directed her over to her team. They sat on the bench or floor looking mostly away at the mid distance. Mostly bruised and some roughed up uniforms, no one looked harmed in a serious way. 'That's a relief, I don't need them getting knocked out before the big mission.'

Kara stood up noticing Schir approach, she had a guilty and disappointed sag to her shoulders. "Lieutenant…"

"Is everyone alright?"

"Just a little banged up, nothing serious."

"Good, I'll have the doctors look you all over to be certain. Don't need to find out someone got a concussion from fighting." Her second in command nodded, opting to hold onto her words. Schir searched around to get a better sense of what happened. No one felt worse, perhaps the fight did not even last long before being interrupted. "So what happened?"

"They were looking for trouble. I did everything I could to keep everyone from giving into their taunts."

The Lieutenant glanced over at the soldiers. Young men probably just out of bootcamp and a year younger than most of her team. They were barely adults and by most standards still just as poor at making mature rational decisions. Not that a year could make much of a difference until under extremes.

"They throw the first punch?"

"No, Veren did, sir."

She looked around at him. 'The muscle on him, he probably knocked the guy out in a punch or put him on his ass at least.' Of the five of them, he looked the most bruised up with his sleeve ripped a little. "Knowing his personality, it doesn't surprise me. What was the tipping point?"

"They made a very poor taste remark about you and everyone that we've lost. Veren lost it. Honestly, if he hadn't I think I would have. You don't make jokes about the dead."

"He's lost his entire team to the Black Devil…the man's too kind for this war."

"How bad is it, Lieutenant?"

"I'm about to find out. But it's just a fight and as distasteful as it is, we're special. So it'll likely be a warning, but you'll be out before lunch if I had to guess. Let them know I'll get this sorted out quickly."

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant."

"I doubt I could've done anything differently. You did everything you could. Some people just want a fight."

"Yes, sir." Schir turned away following the waiting MP back out of the sight of her team. Kara returned to everyone, putting her back towards the bars. "The Lieutenant's going to take care of it."

"Sorry, Kara…"

"You did well enough to keep it together as long as you did, Veren. Don't worry about it."

Veren nodded slowly and looked over to Shenai. She had been quite the entire time only accepting what happened. They were also the only one of them that did not fight, even though the soldiers took some swings at her regardless. "What about you? Are you okay, Malca? They said some really terrible things."

Silence dragged out as everyone looked at her wanting to know the same thing. Forced by the group, she adjusted her seated position on the floor. "Yeah…thanks. For before."

"Of course! We're a team."

"Not going to ask?"

"They're just loud mouths with a chip on their shoulder. I've dealt with plenty like those. I wouldn't be here today if I took them seriously."

She nodded slowly looking around at her team. They all carried the same eyes at Veren. Malca stood up and paced about the small space before stopping at the wall. "The stupid thing is that it wasn't even my fault." Her foot kicked at the wall absentmindedly. "I saved their asses, but all they saw was a Skin gone rogue."

"A rogue Skin?" Kara tried to think about what she might be thinking about, but nothing immediately came to mind.

"Back during the academy, before I joined the Skin Pilot Academy, I was a foot soldier. I enlisted like most in my family did. They go far back as the Century of War. I was just going to serve in my way, even though they really wanted another pilot. Well they got their wish…"

Malca turned around leaning against the wall. "Because of the incident, I became a pilot."

"What happened?"

"Some drunk recruits and failure in security. I was nearby in another building going through routines with my gear when I heard something. I rushed out to find two soldiers drunkenly cheering on their friend in a Skin undergoing maintenance." She looked over at the opposite cell where the soldiers stewed.

"I reported it immediately, but the Skin wasn't working correctly and there were more than just the two. I realized how dangerous it was and the idiots were too dumb to understand. I tried to get them out, but it was too late… A loose plate fell off, crushing one of them. The drunk kid in the cockpit panicked and ended up killing two of his friends before I got into the Jiao.

"Him and three others survived. They were kicked out and the Commander saw the security footage of what happened. They tried to get me into the Pilot program seeing what I did with the Jiao, but I refused. And since no one other than me was still on base after the incident and everyone knew I was in the Jiao, recruits blamed me for the deaths regardless of the truth."

"Rookie Killer?"

"A bunch of clueless kids needing to put a target to their anger. In the end, it just became easier to move to the Pilot program than stay fighting a lie that couldn't die."

Veren ground his hands together having heard the whole story. "And they just keep spreading the lie even after everyone's gone…"

"It would seem. In the end, they're just looking for a reason to cause trouble. If it wasn't that, it'd be something else."

"I'm not saying you need to fight it, but you shouldn't just accept that it is normal either."

"There's far bigger things for me to deal with than a bunch of childish immature recruits."

Kara nodded slowly, accepting Malca's decision. "That's a surprisingly healthy outlook. I'm glad you told us. We can be on guard for those types in the future."

"Wouldn't it just make more sense to get Command to kill the lies?" asked Emi.

"They probably have bigger fish to fry. We'll have to deal with it." She knocked her fist into her leg not liking it anymore than the rest. The only positive would be that they would not remain on base for long. Suddenly behind her, the lock on the cell clicked. Kara looked to see the Lieutenant along with a MP. "Lieutenant?"

"It's all taken care of. You're all free to go, just don't picking another fight." They stood up silently nodding even though everyone knew it was not them that sought a brawl. However, Veren threw the first punch and it could not be denied, even if those in command knew what really happened. Such fights were hardly uncommon.

Schir let her team walk out ahead of her while the MP escorted them away. Once free and back to the artificial morning of the colony, she stepped up a little more. She got within a few meters of them to not raise her voice. "Did you kick their asses?"

"Hell yeah!" Kovin declared with a flexing arm. "Veren popped that guy on his ass. We gave those ground pounders something to remember."

She grinned a little back to them. Her hand patted Kara and Malca, the two in the back, on the shoulder. "Damn right! Now get yourself over to the infirmary to get a clean bill of health. Afterwards we'll get lunch, my treat!"

"Yes, sir!" they all shouted. Her team hurried off into a steady march.

A relieved breath escaped her lips watching them leave. "I'll see that you all get back home. It's the least I can do for all that I've dragged you through." She looked up towards the large windows in the colony shell that opened out into space. "They're a good team, Commander." Schir stared off at the stars lost in memories and promises.

"Lieutenant Schir Mille?"

Snapped from a dream, Schir turned to see a civilian woman in a business suit. A temporary guest badge hung from her suit. They appeared young, though still much older than Schir by her best guess. But more troubling for her was why a civilian sought her out on base.

Schir hesitated a little longer before confirming for the woman. There were far too many people that she met the last time that she came to headquarters. Most individuals that she met or was introduced to were military, yet there were a number of civilians. A majority of them tied back to the talk show that she had to appear on. But none of those felt right. Perhaps she just forgot, or they were truly new as it seemed.

"Yes, is there something I can do for you?"

"I'm Heathia Thill, assistant to President Myrilan Lapin."

Her eyes widened a little revealing more of her surprise than she wished. Schir fought to get her reaction under control and narrowed her expression. "The President of the ECF?"

"That's correct, Lieutenant."

"And what does the assistant to the President want with me?" A heavy weight grew in her stomach as she listened longer. Between the Senator and Lieutenant Rinn, plus the Rear Admiral's warning, it seemed like her life only got more complicated than she wanted. 'I miss the stale air of the cockpit and recycled oxygen of the Hunter.'

"I've come at personal request by the President to meet. He has much that he would like to discuss with you."

To be continued…