Chapter 14

I already knew I hated how the Black Ram's current battle armor looked. But actually wearing it was even worse. The purple rubbery leather they used under their body armor didn't breath at all. The only way the body breathed was through a few narrow slits. It was tight and constricting. It was horrible. Hot and stuffy.

Making things worse was that there were six of us crammed into the back of a Black Ram transport ship. Mythology, minus Tria, were there. Tria staying behind to lead the Rams in case anything happened to us. Kind of like how the U.S. President and Vice President never travel together. With our track record, there was a good chance we'd be arrested or captured or something. Seems to be how it goes.

Accompanying the four members of Mythology were Poem and the old veteran, Grizzly. The two soldiers I saw most fitting to take over Greasy's role in the Rams. Assuming he failed to live up to that role. Which was totally going to happen.

Traveling to a random location of land separate from any human occupied property. Of course, they chose land much closer to Fall than to Torchfront. But I guess this was as good as we were going to get. Meeting with a Vame for some strange reason. Using the excuse of the Nicharts as the subject of this "meeting". I don't know what was going to happen but I knew I'd have to handle them with kid gloves.

I had an uneasy feeling that was only intensified by the rocking of the ship as we were pelted with sheets of rain and occasional bursts of hail. Of all days for a storm it seems only fitting it'd happen today.

Ships like these could withstand strong winds, rain, and hail flicking off the hull, but that didn't make it a settling ride. I wasn't afraid of crashing and dying, the ship was only like 50 feet off the ground, but that didn't stop me from instinctively grabbing onto the arm rests of my seat. Clutching them until I can only assume my knuckles went white under my purple gloves. My eggplant colored gloves.

We'd been traveling for just under an hour when our pilot, who else but Clou, called back to us, "Oh boy. There they are. Four Fall ships settled in the clearing."

Well then it was a good thing I brought two other ships besides our own. We were stil outnumbered by one ship but with Clou at the helm, we still had the advantage.

I got up from my seat and carefully walked to the cockpit. Bracing myself as the ship tipped slightly in the wind. When I got into the cockpit, Clou pointed through the rain soaked viewing window.

The selected area was outside an old farmhouse that had collapsed after years of decay. The land was wide with either barren or weedy terrain. There was one transport ship and three Fall fighters parked near the farm house. The transport was just a box with an angled nose, stubby wings, and a balloon on top.

The fighters were older, more outdated models. The bodies were long and narrow with a bulbous cockpit in front. Like an angled dragon fly. But with only one pair of sharply angled wings and a narrow balloon along the ship's spine. They were built for quick scramble battle and only had one machine gun mounted on them. They were relatively feeble ships. Even more so since they were parked. But were still a threat nonetheless.

The two other Black Ram ships were simple oval shaped airships mounted with a couple of machine guns. If things here came to a head, I liked our chances. Clou being our X-factor. I gave her a pat on the shoulder and told her, "Take us down. Keep the two birds in the sky though. Just in case."

I headed to the back before Clou took us down for a landing. Through the ship's radio she told the other two pilots to keep ready in a hover above us. I sat next to Lake and told her, "You and Clou stay on the ship. Keep an eye on our backs."

Gid, who sat across form us, nodded in agreement, "Fall often uses flanking maneuvers. If they do intend to treat us as hostiles."

"I got your backs." She told us.

She was in full killer mode. A hood over her head with only an eye slit for an opening. Which hid her teenager like features and highlighted her demented eyes. Also sporting arm guards where she hid her needles. Oh yeah, and a sniper riffle laying on her lap. Nothing unusual.

I gave her a trusting wink, "Of course you will, Lake."

"Don't think I hadn't notice you call me by my real name." She said.

I laughed, "I'd rather not piss of the person who's going to be watching my back with a long range riffle."

I then instructed Gid, "Gid, you just stand next to me and look as imposing as you possibly can."

"Easy enough." Gid said.

I then told Poem and Grizzly, "You two keep a few paces behind us with guns drawn. But I don't want you two to fire unless anybody else fires first. I don't care if you see one of them reach for a concealed weapon. Don't be the first person to shoot."

"Understood. But why hold our fire if we see something like a reach for a concealed weapon?" Grizzly asked.

"Because we don't want to risk an incident over a mistake. Like you shooting someone as they reach to itch their ass. Besides, if you spot something wrong, Gid will have already spotted it."

Poem was ritually cleaning her gun as I was giving out instructions, "What about you, Captain? You don't even have a gun."

"And I won't. I figured it'll do me better as a negotiator going in unarmed."

She raised a doubtful eyebrow, "Uhh, right... But you do remember this is a Vame right? They execute prisoners on a whim and call it a divine sacrifice."

"Yeah, I know. But if they're hostile a weapon isn't going to do me much good. If they fire first, who do you think they'll be firing at?"

Poem sighed and went back to clearing her gun. Gid elbowed me in the side and whispered, "I'll be carrying a second gun at my belt just in case you need it."

I leaned over to him and quietly whispered, "Damn right you are."

The ship came to a complete landing in a patch of barren ground. I stood up and told the three accompanying me to follow me. I walked to the back of the ship and slid open the hull door. Getting instantly hit with a mist of rain backslash. At least the hail had stopped. For now.

I hopped down from the ship and onto the mushy ground. Gid landed with a thud right behind me. Poem and Grizzly shortly after him. The three of them in tow as I circled around the ship. As we walked by, Lake popped open a little window hatch on the side of the ship and stuck there barrel of the sniper riffle through.

We took only a few steps past the ship before a side of Fall's transport ship tilted open and doubled as a ramp for the soldiers to exit from. As the ramp lowered, I looked up into the rain and saw our two ships hovering overhead. Just double checking they were there just to comfort myself.

The Ram's battle armor had a hood that I wore to block of some of the rain but I was still getting pelted in the mouth with large drops.

We walked half the distance between our ships. We stopped there and waited. Watching a group of Fallers march out of their transport. Two soldiers in front and two solders in back of the Vame.

Vames often dressed in a coat similar to a pea coat. The long lapels that wrapped around the neck and down the front of the breast were covered in gunmetal colored, armored, scales. They had a black and gold-hemmed belt around their waist and over their coat. The Fall emblem was engraved on the buckle and a holster on the left side.

The holster held the "Knife of Amendment". A ceremonial and "divine" dagger associated with the Vame and the Vame alone. The church was all about balance and the Knife of Amendment was used by by the Vame to slay excessively wicked people to balance the order of the world. In other words, anyone killed by that dagger undid any negative effect that person did on the world. According to them.

Again, for a religion that's existed for over 1,000 years, the Vame and this dagger only came around in the past twenty years. Just thought I'd point that this was only a recent tradition.

This particular Vame had a bit of a paunch on him. Along with a pencil thin beard and curlicues in his his bangs. Despite white hair, he didn't appear to be that old. Late 40's maybe.

As they approached us, the soldiers stepped back and let the Vame take point. Before they arrived I looked over to Gid who stood next to me. Looking at the second gun in his belt. Just in case things went down I wanted now where it was exactly.

All five of the Fallers came up to Gid and I as we stood up front. But Gid and I still easily outmatched them.

The Vame and I greeted each other with a silent and rather impersonal nod before he broke the silence. Speaking loud enough for me to hear over the rain, "Greetings, Captain. I am correct in calling you Captain, yes? This being what your assistant told me."

I curtly nodded and responded, "Yup. Captain. I'm here representing Torchfront because the city government is lazy. And you, a Vame? Right?"

He nodded with overly false and forced geniality, "Vame Corliss."

Vame Corliss, Darth Corliss... Didn't care what his name was and didn't want to talk about it. So I changed the subject by gesturing to the weather, "Great timing, eh?"

The Vame looked over to the crumbled farm house, "Indeed. I planned on having this meeting indoors but nature seems to have reclaimed the neutral area."

"Yeah..." I said, impatiently, "Speaking of that... why are we here? In the middle of nowhere? To which I'll add, in the rain?"

He laughed, "Well perhaps someone's ill behavior summoned these storm clouds on this day."

"You know where we don't have rain clouds?" I asked facetiously, "Indoors! Back in Torchfront. Where I first invited you."

He let out a pathetic bout of laughter, "Yes well... Torchfrotn isn't the place for a Vame like myself to interact with or even be seen in."

"Nonsense." I insisted, "There is plenty of amenities I'm sure men like yourselves would enjoy. You look like the types of guys who'd enjoy a bathhouse."

I pointed to the Vame's ponch, "Or you in particular might enjoy some of the local cuisine."

"Indeed I do. When the cooks and presenters of the food are more balanced and less hedonistic. Torchfront is not a place for me."

"Well... Guess I can't really argue with that." I admitted, "But that doesn't change the fact that I told you that if you demanded to meet on neutral grounds we'd come armed and not exactly on friendly terms."

"As have we. But I don't understand your objection to meeting on neutral terrain. Other than perhaps the poor weather."

"Because if you're making such a request you could have the decency to do so in person."

He smiled with less geniality and more genuine arrogance, "This meeting is a gesture on my part. I'm sure you've worked it into your mind that because the Church doesn't occupy Torchfront that it's out of our control. That is not the case. We only let it be because Torchfront serves no purpose for us."

"So... if we start getting out of line you'll swoop in and show us a lesson?" I asked.

"That's not up to me. I'm just here to bring in a family of wanted-"

"Bull crap." I told him with a grunt, "They don't send a Vame to bring someone in."

I pointed to his little knife, "You're just a glorified executioner with warped justification. You want to take the Nicharts and kill them. Just as I'm sure you've already killed everyone else associated... or even suspected in the fire bombings back in Brightlanes."

"Thats a gross misreading of what I do. I remove those who've set-"

"I'm already aware of the script you read from but we both know who you are and what this is. It's a shakedown. Plain and simple. You want something small and make a threat. Sure, one family is nothing compared the safety of the city. But you strong arm me into this one small thing and you get the idea you can keep doing it. Until the demands get bigger and more extreme. Right?"

"..." No answer and no denial.

I continued, "But here's the deal. Before, you never thought Torchfront was worth occupying because the area is worthless to you. The only resource the province has is it's lawless nature. Nothing else is unique or profitable. Even the wood from the trees is weak for materials. And from a military standpoint there is no strategic value."

"And if you ever did want to attack us, you'd need an armada to cross into the province. Past allied cities who'd give us plenty of warning of your approach. You'd have to attack us city by city before your reached the capitol. Our resistances may be weak but by the time you reach the capitol, Independent reinforcements will have arrived and you'll have a full blown battle. Which you'd probably eventually win out of attrition alone. But it'd cost you a lot. And for what? A province with a weak army, no resources, and yeah maybe a civilization of pleasure seekers. It's not plausible. None of it is. Am I wrong?"

He eyed me, as if he were judging how real I was, "...So... I'm to take this as a denial of my request?"

"That's right. And if you send any Fallers into my province without permission, they will be turned away."

He rasied an eyebrow, "Oh? Is that so? Now I find that quite suspicious."

"Why, were you planning on sending in soldiers? Spies maybe? Let's not start the plotting. You do what you have to do outside my province and leave my people to their pointlessness."

"I can not promise that. But so be it. For now."

"Good. Glad you agree... for now. Anything else?"

He shook his head, "No. That's enough. I know everything I need to know."

He couldn't be any more blatantly ominous with his choice or words. If sounding ominous made him feel better about this meeting, so be it.

I turned my back and started walking away before he could say anything more. He came here to ask about the Nicharts and that was all I was going to let him talk about. I knew all he really wanted of this meeting was to learn more about the new leader of the Torchfornt army and I wasn't going to give him any information other than I wasn't going to take his bullcrap. I may have been abrasive but I knew what I was doing.

I just told Gid, Poem, and Grizzly, "We're done here."

As I walked away, the Vame called over to me, "Pleasant meeting you."

Obviously, I didn't respond. Just walked back to the ship with the others. Gid and the other two kept their heads turned to makes sure they didn't pull anything with our backs turned. I was confident they wouldn't. They may be vindictive but they were smart. They try anything and my gun ships pulverized them.

The moment I got back into the ship I saw Lake was still poking her riffle out the window. Without taking her eye away from the scope, she asked me, "So did you convince the entire Church of Fall to agree to our terms of surrender?"

For once, Lake said something funny. I flopped down into the nearest seat and sighed. Answering her as I tried rubbing away a headache I was getting, "Yup. They said they'd leave the Independents alone and return the cities to them."

Gid closed the door behind us and the others took a seat. With everyone inside, Lake removed the riffle from the window and sat down. Looking at me from across the ship, "Well then, I'd say this was a productive outing."

I forced a smile and looked at her with heavy eyes and a soaking wet face, "Indeed..."

-V-

When we had the meeting with the Vame in the rain my mood was a 8 out of 10. By the time a headache crept into my head and Clou landed the ship back in Torchfront and it was still raining, I was at a 9. When I saw Tria waiting for me in the rain when the ships door opened, I was back down at a 4. When she told me Clasko wanted me to call him the moment I returned, I was a full blown 10.

I didn't even bother drying off. I just took the ear pinch communicator into my office and ripped off my wet body armor. Stripped own to my pants and socks. I tossed the wet clothes into the corner of the room. Then plopped down into my chair and pinched the com onto my ear.

Tria came in shortly after and saw my wet clothes in the corner. Dripping wet onto the floor and walls. Sitting down across form me and sighing over my mess, "Nice..."

I ignored her as waited someone on the other end to pick. It took a few minutes of chirping and a couple of tires before Clasko eventually answered, "This is Clasko."

I cutout the part where he cheekily called me Corbank and did it for him, "It's Corbank."

"Ah. Good. I wanted to talk to you about your little encounter with the Vame." He said.

"Yeah. Of course. He wanted to meet me over the family that escaped with us. He wanted them executed for the fire bombings and he made some veiled threats over it."

"Did you hand the family over to the Vame?"

I sighed. I hope he wasn't going lecture me about putting a family of three over the needs of the mission or Torchfront. I tried twisting my explanation into a reason he might buy, "No. Of course not. From every direction you look at it, it's a bad idea to give into them. We give into them now and they just make more demands later."

"Right. Fall cannot be bartered or bargained with. Not with the Halfaxi at their spine. They have no need for compromise."

"Of course the problem now is that we have one Vame suspicious of us and we haven't even done anything yet. What happens when we remodel Torchfront's entire armed forces?"

"If we keep the forces small enough, we should be fine for now. It's just a matter of time before they act on Trochfront though. But don't worry. Neighboring independents are on alert to assist if that ever happened."

"Of course I have to ask, is this Black Ram situation really whats best for fighting the Halfaxi?"

"I don't know for certain. But remember we're breaking our own rules here. We've chosen a side in this conflict to help right what that Halfaxi took over without challenge. While Miasma and Pedigree are focused on the Halfaxi, you're doing your part to influence the Independents. And when I need you to act on the Halfaxi, I won't hesitate to make the call."

He was being surprisingly agreeable and forthcoming. What the hell was this guy and his mood swings? Maybe I should call myself Corbank more often. I asked him, "And how is Miasma doing? I haven't' heard from Clay in awhile."

"They're still acting in their cover. They've hit a snag due to a problem outside their control. But they remain confident they'll be successful."

"I trust they will..." I said, sluggish and tired.

"Right. Have some faith in your mission, Corbank (there is was). I'm sure you'll be surprised by the fruits of your labor over there."

We spoke for a few more minutes. I asked him about an updated time line on when our new gear would be arriving. He told me about the same time line. A week or so from now. Then we ended transmission. I removed the ear pincher and tossed it onto a stool alongside my desk. Exhaling loudly before laying my head, face down, onto the desktop. Tria looked at me with sympathetic smile and a pat on the back of the head, "Sooo, I take it things went went well. Yes?"

With my nose pressed into the desktop, I groaned which caused the desktop to vibrate against my face, "Why do markies have such a high factor of healing and pain tolerance... Yet, I still get a headache."

She leaned her head down and rested them on the back of her hands on the desk near my head, "There's no cure for stress... Well, there is but nothing for this type of thing."

I tilted my head to look at her, "It might help if you gave me a massage?

She smiled deviously, "I dunno... I mean, I could. But you sound pretty serious. Might need one of Gid's massages. Full gorilla grip."

I snapped up into an upright position, "Nooo, no, no. Hes squishes me like a grape and says it's healthy."

"It is... In the the long run."

"Screw that. I'd rather run a lap around the city in the rain than do that."

"Or you could do that too."

I sighed and rubbed my face, "Ugh... I hate Vames. They're like that Prime douche, Galen Bick. Only with an army."

She sighed, "Oh yeah... I had happily forgotten about him. Until just now. Thanks for that. Why don't you just bring up Ly while you're at it?"

I sunk my face further into my hands and groaned nonsensical gibberish into my palms. She smiled and asked me, "Okay. So what's going to cheer you up? I can have faux-Aaqqa go get you some food from town."

I lowered my hands and looked back at her, "That almost sounds nice. Honestly, what do you say you and I dress up and go somewhere nice to eat tonight? That'd cheer me up."

She smiled, "Don't have to ask me twice."

-V-

Sparks were flying and molten metal was dripping onto the shop floor in Clou's workplace. Clou was standing behind Skunk, the apprentice of the old engineer that Clou had taken as her own protege, as he sat on a stool with a welding arm (torch) in hand as he fixed an engine into a frame of a mobilized scooter cart.

Both wearing welding masks made of a black visor and a metal mesh. Clou watched him closely. Guiding him on how to make a proper weld. Jamming a knuckle into his neck when he made a mistake.

As they were welding, Lake came walking into the shop without the other two noticing her over the crackling torch and flashing sparks. She watched them and waited to see if they ever noticed her. She tried clearing her throat but still failed to get their attention.

So she gave up and just walked over and shoved Clou in the back. Clou turned around and removed her mask and greeted her, "Oh hey, Lake."

Clou gave Skunk a quick pat on the back and told him to continue with his work. Then took Lake by the arm and walked with her outside the shop. When they got outside Clou rubbed her eyes and asked her, "Yo, wacko. Whats up?"

Lake nervously rubbed her left hand over her right wrist, "Some of the soldiers invited all of us into town. Tria and the Captain already had plans and Gid didn't seem to care. Did you want to come with?"

Clou curled her upper lip in uninterested fashion, "Mingling with... people. I dunno. I'm busy... and stuff."

"The Captin said we should start to associate with the Black Rams more often."

Clou glowered, "Well, yeah... I mean I dyed my hair purple. What more do you want?"

"For a day." Lake complained.

"And then I dyed it black. Which is also their colors. So I'm plenty solidified. I'll never, ever color my hair, whatever you call the color you're wearing."

Referring to Lake's wild new hair. To collect on the previous bet, both of them had dyed their hair a dark purple. Clou kept in for one day while Lake kept her hair that color.

"But... I don't want to go by myself."

Clou groaned loudly, "I don't wanna, period! They're all... greasy and gross people and stuff."

Lake tilted her head to the side and eyed Clou's oil stained overalls, "They're the greasy ones?"

"Not literally." Clou whined, "They're personalities are greasy. And I'm not just talking about Greasy the dude. I mean like... I just look at them and I feel... sticky and uncomfortable. All the guys have gazes that never raise above my neckline."

Lake snickered, "I have a hard time believing anyone could look below your neckline."

Clou paused before reluctantly nodding, "Okay... good short joke. I'll give you that. But still-"

"It's just a bunch of girls anyways since Roan and Gid passed it up." Lake told her, "Rally is coming. And Poem, and Goth, and Misfit, and a couple or woman from the recruitment office. Nobel if she gets off work."

Clou groaned again, "That's even worse. Bun'cha estrogen... gossip... talking about... men and... I dunno. Whatever stupid things girly chicks talk about."

Lake looked at her doubtfully, "Have you... met Poem or Goth? I don't think they're the type."

Clou sighed loudly, "Ffffffine-ah!.. Where are we going?"

Lake smiled, "Right up your ally. A nightclub, 'Blastsonic', where all the drinks are dispensed from old, modified , and cleaned airship engines and the dance floor is a sheet of clear, unbreakable glass over a 100 year old airship cut down the middle and kept on its side so you're dancing over a preserved, classic airship."

Clou stood there with her mouth agape, "You... couldn't have just lead off with that?! That's friggin' awesome!"

Lake thought about it for a second and honestly admitted, "Hmm, I was going to lead off with that... but then I got sidetracked by your abrasiveness."

Clou crossed her arms over her chest, "Don't push it, rookie. I outrank you and can make your life hell."

Lake shrugged her shoulders, "Point taken. I'm just glad you're coming."

-V-

That night was a nice break from the grueling yet, admittedly rewarding task reshaping the Black Rams. Tria and I had a nice date night in the best restaurant in the city. Perhaps one of the few legitimately classy spots in town.

It had a formal dress code, a maƮtre d', proper waiters and waitresses, gentle music in the background, and a classy, albeit dark, interior. All the furniture was black and the walls were a dim white that didn't' reflect much light. Most of the light in the restaurant was produced by lights hanging above each table.

Tria and I both dressed up nicely. She wore a black and green, backless dress that was both classy and dead sexy. Topped by a choker made of a precious, black metal. It was kind of funny that she still wore military boots with the dress.

My look was a little more unusual. Men's formal wear in Torchfrotn was kind of off the wall. I wore a skin tight, sleeveless vest with a high collar that fell back into a tiny cape thing that only went as far as the bottom of my shoulder blades. I also had a wrap around skirt thing around my waist that covered the back and sides, but not the front of my waist. Everything was black except for the little cape and collar which was purple. This is what I get for having Nobel buy me my formal wear.

There were no menus. Every night the chef premade their own menu which was the same for everyone. A lack of choice was kind of lame but it forces you to try something new. They presented the food in a horse shoe shaped plate. Seven different, small courses fit onto the horseshoe dish. The idea being that you're suppose to eat from left to right along the horseshoe to get the "full effects" of each course.

The only choice you had was what drink you wanted. The drink I got was dark green and tasted like a mix between lemonade and cotton candy. As for the food, tonight's selection was a mix of fish and vegetables. Most of it was good. Except for the second one which had a vegetable that tasted like hot grass and smelled like dog breath.

I was on the fifth one while Tria was still only on her third. She smiled at me, "Food's pretty good. But it sure isn't Plumduff."

"Though to be fair... Plumduff has a few more advantages that this cook."

"True."

"Miss base?" I asked with a smile, knowing full well.

She scoffed, "I miss the food and the people. But can't say I miss the fake air and same old walls day in and day out."

I looked at her new hair, "Yeah. I can tell how much you like it here."

She brushed her hair back and shrugged her shoulders, "Well, I don't know how much it's being here specifically or just being outside base. "

I laughed, "C'mon. New edgy makeover. Hanging out with all the wacko Rams. And how about that little spar with the toothless giant the other day?"

She snickered evilly, "Yeeah, I kinda feel bad about that. I dislocated his shoulder. But he was the one who wanted to train with me. Besides, I popped it back in."

"Yeah..." I said flatly, "I can tell how broken up you are by it by the evil cackle."

She shrugged her shoulders, "Okay. So maybe I like it here. This place brought me out of my comfort zone and I think I like it."

I whispered so nobody else would overhear, "You've fought psychopaths on other worlds and it takes this to break you out of your comfort zone?"

"Pretty much."

"Well, whatever works for ya. Glad you're happy here."

She smiled sympathetically, "How about you, Snarky? Seem to be getting a lot of headaches."

"Guess you could call it a love-hate thing. These guys, I'm telling you, are driving me nuts. Vames and Fall. Working with soldiers who care more about getting high than protecting their province. But I'm really looking forward to seeing what Clasko sent us. He better not have been BS'ing me when he talked about sending top of the line goods. Knowing him he may very well send us a cardboard box with paper wings glued on and expect us to make fighter jets out of them."

"No. He'd give all of us the top of the line stuff and probably single you out. Give you some body armor made from recycled waste products."

I sighed, "Mine was sarcastic. Yours, I could see him actually pulling."

"Aww... poor Cap'n."

"Your mockery is not amusing."

She chuckled, "Maybe not for you."

"Shuddup and eat, Nerd."

She snickered, "Doesn't matter what you can say. Nothing's gonna dampen tonight."

I raised my glass of cotton candy lemonade, "Cheers to that."

She raised her glass and added, "And cheers to a whole buncha new toys to play with."

((Author's note: I apologize that the story has been slow and that updates have been longer than usual. I have been writing often and have many chapters already written up. And have advances in the story. The reason I haven't been posting new chapters as often was so that I could go back and add or change content as I go along. Again, thanks for reading.))