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 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 destruction 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 18 – The Arctic Gambit

A thud of metal echoed through the quiet solitude. It crawled up the walls like spiders skittering away from fire. Rare visits made each pound of the heavy doors crack through the veil. It was almost as if it took advantage of the few uses it got to be able to make an emphasis of its existence knowing it would not last. And it came louder than previous ones realizing that end had come.

Slow tapping of military boots echoed over the floor as the visitor approached. Sitting up, she expected someone else than who she found. "Ensign Toule. I'm guessing it's not a social visit."

The young ensign ground his teeth a little as his lips thinned out. 'She's not at all regretful about her actions. Though in her mind she didn't do anything wrong… Damnit… Why is she so much better than the rest of us?' His hands tightened up a little as he did the best to hide his frustration with the situation. Born specifically to be a pilot and trained his whole life, it should have been natural that Aerona or himself were the best. It was why he was made Ensign and leader of the team.

When he first read that the Doctor ordered for his daughter, Ansgar had his concerns. They only became more of a reality once he saw her and her results. It went how he expected a complete novice, but it rapidly changed. Now before him, she was a better pilot than him and he did not even know how. 'Is it just natural talent? Is this something Kitawara knew when he sent for her?'

The longer time passed the more it became clear to him that they kept far more secrets than he possibly imagined from him. He never expected them to tell him everything, but Ansgar never believed it would be this bad. 'Who can I even trust at this point? A system that talks to the pilot…' Sharing the same concerns Ed did about what it was doing to Shizuka, he had his reservations about taking her into battle, but there was little choice.

As the swirls of emotions churned within Ansgar, he stared down at the girl that defied any sort of logic that he understood. He knew that he could not let his feeling cloud his mind. In the coming battle, her new capabilities might be exactly what they need. 'Having to rely on something unknown…damnit, what hell is this war anymore?!' Ansgar broke his silence and placed his hand on the panel next to Shizuka's cell. "We have a new mission. Your confinement is considered served."

"What's the mission?"

"Same one we've been on," he declared with an unnecessary amount of mystery that might have given him a little bit of perverse joy. Though, her having less of a reaction to it did take a little wind out of his sails.

Outside the hall to the briefing room, Shizuka walked alongside Ansgar catching Ed waiting outside. Her eyes ever so slightly lit up. "Didn't want to sit?" she teased as they all stopped in front of the door.

"Can't really get started until you're here anyway," smirked Ed before he turned to head into the room before them.

Inside the room was Captain Deon with Commander Laft at the front with the projector already on. Shizuka took a seat in the front next Edgar with Aerona one row behind them. 'They're already returning…' The next stage of their mission began, Shizuka already assumed that was to be the case. They could not stay beyond Antarctica City for long. "What are we doing about Montegaro?"

"Su…"

"Ed you can't agree with this."

"Of course not, but…"

George stepped in before the arguing continued clearing his throat. "The unfortunate reality is that the enemy will likely take the city back after we leave. None of us are pleased by it, but with the numbers of the enemy, we can't compete. This won't be the end. Things will turn around and we'll be able to properly defend the cities." It was not an order that he liked to give. Those behind him were citizens that he swore to protect even as he headed to ones in front of him. There were no good answers.

"Remember your mission and orders," Sam repeated with special attention to Shizuka. "Completing this mission will be the difference in between victory or defeat in this war. Your actions don't affect just yourself. Consequences in war can mean the deaths of millions."

Ansgar grimly swallowed already feeling the immense pressure of his role and their mission, he did not welcome the Commanders added burden. Scanning around at the seats of the briefing room, both Shizuka and Ed wore troubled expression fighting with painful reality. Behind them, Aerona continued to remain matter of fact. He was never too certain how much she understood the significance of any of her actions.

He knew Aerona the longest and that was only while she was part of the project. Some much mystery remained around that he tried to dig into with her, but she changed so little in the time that he knew her.

For a brief moment, his mind returned to the day that they met. Their machines mostly just parts and skeletons back then with little but imagination and blueprints to guess what they would be. But it felt promising with Doctor Kitawara joining the team that things were finally moving forward.

Kitawara introduced the new member to Ansgar, age ten at the time. The slowly aging man stood behind Aerona, age six, with his hands on her shoulders. "Starting today, she will be joining you, Ansgar."

Warmly extending a hand out to greet her, Ansgar did not understand at the time the empty look in her eyes. She did not necessary seem to refuse to grab his hand, but just did not act. Young Ansgar tilted his head not sure why she was being shy. Trying to create a bridge, he spoke, "Hello, I'm Ansgar Toule. There's not been anyone my age around here. Let's be friends!"

Still that did not seem to be enough. She looked up at Kitawara for approval. He gave her a soft smile and nod. "It's okay. You'll be spending a lot of time with him now."

"Yes, Doctor. I understand." Aerona stepped forward as Ansgar took her hand and pulled her along out of the stuffy reception room.

Wandering the facility, Ansgar gave her his personal tour of the important places, like where to find the food, where to hide from the adults and the best viewing spots of the snow. At the end of the tour, they arrived at the hanger for the Freya, the one machine that was further along of all of the AESIR with a completed skeleton and partly assembled plating. Very little of it made sense to him, though they were still teaching him. "Have you seen them yet?"

"No I have not," she answered dryly.

"They're pretty cool huh? This one has been here like that since I've come and the one that you replaced, he said it's been like that for as long as he was here too and he's been here for fifteen years!"

"I see. This is the Advanced Response Machine known as the Freya."

"You talk funny," laughed Ansgar a little at her stilted speech. "We just call them ARMs, it's easier to say."

"ARMs…"

"That's right! Plus it sounds cooler, sort of like it's a part of the body."

"Or a weapon."

"Huh? I guess so, I hadn't thought of it like that before. But anyway, if they finish these while we're still old enough to be pilots, I'll get to be the leader! It'll be the two of us protecting the world! We can save everyone and no one will have to die!"

"I will serve to the best of my ability," she started to salute as though it was an order, but Ansgar stopped her.

"Hey, we're just kids none of that stuffy adults stuff between us, okay?"

"Adult stuff? Stuffy?"

"Yeah, that's right! They let us just have fun whenever they're not yelling about silly technical things and tactics. So just be yourself with me and act like that in front of them."

"Act? What do you mean?"

The questions started to slow down the child mind of Ansgar, never having had to deal with someone like her. He just thought it was something that she did for pretend. "You know, like smiling, laughing, getting in trouble, fun stuff."

"I do not understand."

"Hmm…" He crossed his tiny arms not really sure what to do anymore. Things hit more of a wall than he expected with her. When the Doctor told him that there was a new child joining the project, he got excited. Having someone near to his age would make the loneliness and the hours learning boring things better. But she was not what he sought out. "Then I'll teach you!" he said firmly, not ready to give up on her. "For starters, I'm going to call you Air! We're friends and friends have nicknames!"

"They do? We are?"

"That's right! I'm going to teach you how to have fun, Air!"

'I was young and seeking anyone to connect with my age. I didn't think that whatever experiences that she had before joining permanently tainted her. Seeing the Doctor in his true colors with the Generals, I guess I shouldn't be surprised. I'm the leader, I need to protect my team for their horrors. That's my job!' The Ensign reaffirmed his position and stepped out in front to take the hand off from the Captain. "The mission we have is going to be hardest for us yet."

Making such a statement did not have the same sort of weight initially as it might have seemed given what Shizuka brought to the team as well as the power difference of their machines versus the Federation. The projector displayed the map of the southern hemisphere with the current arrangement of the Federation blockade. "Unlike our previous battles where we only had to think about ourselves and the enemy, this is an escort and diversion mission. We've loaded up enough supplies in ships that we found in Montegaro that should give Antarctica City a fighting chance. But we have to make sure every one of the ships makes it through the blockade."

Ansgar tapped the button in his hand to change the projector advancing the mission simulation. No longer showing the whole hemisphere, it zoomed into the area around the continents edge where the Federation parked itself. The Vingolf along with the AESIR team and freight ships identified themselves. "The Federation already knows what we're doing, the blockade is meant to starve us into surrendering. So they're going to be doing everything they can to stop us. Our forecasts expect that they will be moving some of their fleet to bolster the line where they'll be expecting us."

"So we're going to be somewhere else then, right?" added Ed looking to the next step.

"No, we will be taking them head on."

Edgar jumped up in confusion. "What?! But we'll lose the ships!"

"The enemy is more developed in the art of war than we are. So they don't expect us to make sophisticated moves. Playing into this view of theirs we'll be able to trick them."

As the projection moved to the next stage of the plan, Ed sat down understanding clearly the goal. "This is a very risky maneuver. If they figure it out, it's all lost."

"Yes, but it has the highest chance of survival given the situation."

"Diversion, yeah…" Ed pressed back into his seat getting a little uncomfortable with the mission. All their past missions he entered feeling like they would win without question, even if that was not always the case. This mission did not give him the same sort of sense and it left him more uneasy than he expected.

After the briefing ended, Ed stepped out of the room finding Shizuka standing in the hall. He leaned up against the wall, the rest already left well ahead of him. "How are you feeling?"

"About being free or the mission?"

"All the above."

"I'm not happy about the situation, but you don't need to ask me to know that."

"True."

"I hate that we have to even decide this. Ask me a week ago if we were doing the right thing and I might have considered surrender, but after the village I know they're not to be trusted. If some of them harbor such evil, then there won't be peace. Not like we've previously known."

"But can we really have any sort of peace now that we know they exist? I mean we haven't dealt with something like this in like forever. Is peace even possible after the war end?" Everything that Ed had seen far made him worry about the future. For good or bad, they managed to escape the dark history of humanity, but now it caught up to them. Could it never be escaped? Was humanity always going to be unable to move past their darkness?

Captain Deon slumped back into his chair staring out at the glass view of the port. Sam stood at his side giving him a small comfort. "I don't know which is worse, Sam. Forcing those children into these situations or sacrificing citizens to save others."

"This is a terrible war, Captain."

"History says there's no good war. I'm starting to see why."

"It'll be a very short one if this plan doesn't succeed."

He rubbed his forehead feeling stress accumulating. "In all of my years of service, I've never felt the weight of the burden of my oath like I do today." Like everyone else on the ship, they knew what they signed up for before the mission began. 'Probably only the young ones didn't think about the full consequences of this mission…' George knew from the start what it meant. He thought he accepted those terms already, but in the moment made all the difference as he learned. "Whatever happens, I'm glad you're here, Sam."

"We're in this together, sir."

"That we are…"

Across the mountain, the CSS Hunter began its procedures for departing finally from the forest. The young crew had trouble hiding their anxiousness. Fear over the next mission became heightened after watching the videos out from the Second Battle of Montegaro. Witnessing the deadly potential of the Ghost first hand, seeing it completely disassemble the defense fleet started to make more believers out of the crew.

Even with the strength that Schir displayed in the previous battles, they doubted she had the ability to finish the job anymore now that it had leapt beyond seemingly human abilities. It unnerved Schir how much superstition began to circulate amongst the crew. What used to be words shouted as a curse took on meaning.

A dangerous wind began to blow.

In the very empty hanger of the Hunter, Schir stared up at her Bishamon Custom as the work crews rushed around finalizing the repairs. Already suited up, the psychological effect of the pilot suit helped her forget about the linger pain that still persisted. She did not have anything life threatening, though the doctors still tried to get her to rest.

Mullia, her energetic as always mechanic and part engineer, walked over to her with an electronic pad in hand. He moved his finger around the screen sorting or organizing things that Schir barely recognized. "She's all back in working order, for the most part anyway."

"I'll try to keep it in one piece."

"I hate thinking about it as a positive, but the spare parts we have is a saving grace. I heard rumors that other fleets are behind on resupplies. So I don't know if we should think of ours as fortunate or not."

"I'd prefer to fight with one arm if it meant the rest were still here."

"I know, Lieutenant. Hopefully, they'll send more pilots. It's started to become like a ghost ship."

Schir reflexively tightened her hand on the front chin bar of the helmet as she scanned the hanger again still able to see each of her team members running about in a reality where they had a different destiny. "I don't think they have pilots to spare, besides fewer numbers against these enemies is better."

Mullia laughed a little thinking about the absurd specs of the Devils. "Guess you're right there. They don't handle solo battles as well as siege. Though aren't you worried that they'll figure out how to fight those battles?"

"That's why we have to destroy them all before we get to that point." For Schir, the point that Mullia brought up was a very real concern. As much as the pilots and soldiers like to call those in the HOPE Skins demons, they were human like everyone else. They would grow and improve the same as they would. In a battle with unchanging equipment, it was down to the skill and improvement that proved the victor.

"If anyone is going to it's going to be you guys."

An alert came over the internal systems of the Hunter, Ensign Yorun Fault from communications spoke, "Pursuit of the enemy Skins is resumed. All combat crews on standby. The enemy carrier has been spotted still within the city of Montegaro, prepare for a possible city battle."

"A city battle…"

"That's going to be trouble, fighting in such a tight space."

Schir put on her helmet feeling energized. "No, this will be perfect. We couldn't have asked for a better place to finally put them down."

"Lieutenant?"

"Their machines are too large to easily navigate the city and they'll have to hold back their strength or risk causalities." She could not have asked for a better scenario. 'Let's hope they don't move out before we arrive…' Schir walked off to the foot of her Bishamon. Looking over her shoulder as she waited for the lift, the rest of her team waited for the signal each sitting, leaning or standing. 'I've got to stop them and see this war finally end. It's already taken too much…'

She stepped forward to the lift and hit the button to take her up to the cockpit. 'They're my team… I need to do the Commander proud.' Dropping into the seat, she started the preflight checks as a way to pass the time. 'This is the best chance we're going to have to finish this. Whatever it takes, I can't worry about honor or doing it right…' As the lieutenant worked to convince herself of the coming battle, the Hunter steadily made its approach.

Unknown to the crew of the Vingolf of the imminent arrival of the Hunter, they continued with their standard procedures for launching. There was no hint of the impending conflict. Their minds focused on the battle to come with the ECF over Antarctica. Given that those that hunted them across the ocean remained behind, they felt more confident in their survival, but nerves still ran thin board the ship. While no one said anything, the only thing that gave them their confidence was Shizuka and her successes of late.

They all quietly and diligently worked finishing everything that needed to be done for the mission. Moving all of the supplies into the freight ships took longer than anticipated, but was finally the last of the deliveries.

Shizuka and Ed stood on duty in standby with their AESIR. An unnecessary move it appeared, but a cautious one by Ansgar. It did serve the one purpose that they needed during the deliveries, maintaining order. The riots only recently calmed down and it did not seem like that would be the end. It was a difficult to predict situation anymore, even the Freya's forecast offered nothing worth building a plan around. Precaution was all they could.

"That's tha last truck," reported Ed back to the bridge. His finger itched at the sticks as his memory flashed back to what he saw. It was only a guess, but he was certain the others likely saw similar things. Even sleeping was starting to become difficult for him, he could only imagine how it was for them. Leaning back a little into his seat, he let out a long sigh. "Just glad it ended without trouble."

A proximity alarm went off as Ed neglected his monitors. He snapped back to attention seeing that it was one of the workers from the delivery truck only about ten meters away from his machine's foot. "What's he doin'?" His finger started to itch the stick again. As his mind hurried planned out scenarios the young man started to wave towards him, or the Od's face.

Adjusting the audio pick up of the Od, the worker's voice came through. "Go show those murderous bastards they don't belong here!"

"Huh…" Ed muttered as reality disappointed his fantasy. "I'll be sure to pass along the message," he answered to the worker, who nodded with an eager smile and returned to the vehicle. Removing his hands from the console, he crossed his arms pensive. A strange sight still for him, even if he had already witnessed similar ones recently. "Never in my days…"

"Ed?" asked Shizuka.

"Guess there's still some life left down 'ere. Whether that's good er bad, I ain't sure yet…"

"What do you mean?"

"Nothin', less get back to tha Vingolf." The Od turned away walking across the port's docking platform lined with countless ship. As a civilian port, it did not have the accommodations for a military ship, so it parked in one of the large holds for massive freight cruisers. It meant a bit of a walk for them to return.

"Once you return, the Vingolf will be departing," reminded Ansgar as they waited for the rest of the team to rejoin them aboard the carrier.

"Right. Let's hurry Su. Those guys are probably gonna tah show up again if we waste time."

They made it back to the dock where the Vingolf waited, but before Ed took another step alarms ran out through the city, something that he did not recognize. "What's goin' on?"

Silence to Ed's request dragged on longer than he waited. The alarm was something new that he did not remember the city having before, or at least using before. Though given the options for a city-wide alarm, it was pretty obvious. "A Federation ship was detected on Montegaro's long range sensors."

"Damnit!" He stopped the Od as he linked with the city's systems to see where the enemy was coming from. "We can't let 'em near tha city!" The city could not be allowed to become a battlefield once more.

"Get in the ship, Ed, Shizuka! We're leaving now!"

"What?" snapped Ed when he heard the order from Ansgar. "We can't let those bastards jes retake tha city!"

Ansgar paused for a moment as his emotions started to rise and breathed. "Think about it Ed! They're here for us and most likely that team that's focused on us. They're not here for the city, but us! We need to lure them away!"

It only took him another moment to understand that Ansgar was not planning to abandon the city. Their mission still did not sit well with him, but at least this was a chance keep them at bay a bit longer. He quickly brought the Od onboard with Shizuka following up behind him. A slight rocking came through the AESIR as the Vingolf departed. "Have we confirmed that it's those guys?"

"No, but they'd send more than one ship against us otherwise and it's from the direction we left them."

"Makes sense, whas tha plan then? I'm tha only one good for a battle over tha ocean."

"They're not suited to water battle either, so we'll both be disadvantaged, but their ship won't be able to stand up to you."

"They cou'va some of tha flight devices we saw those other usin'."

"We'll be adaptive. Be ready Ed, you're going to be the frontline this time."

Over the comm. system Josh reported the latest updates," We've confirmed it's the same team. All pilots prepare for launch." Tension throughout the Vingolf immediately increased with the alert to battle stations. It was obvious to anyone who it would be with an unplanned battle.

On the bridge, George stared at the monitor that displayed the current tactical readings. His hand tightened up watching the change. 'Damn them…'

"Captain!" Ashley Marks spoke up as the radar updated the situation.

"Yes, I can see it, Ensign." A pause held back his orders as he looked back to the windows in front of the bridge. Ahead in their view was nothing but ocean, it hid Antarctica and their home. The mission assigned to them and the millions within the domes cut off were nothing but ideas at the moment with the reality behind them. Fate played a cruel game. "Continue the course, return the AESIR to standby."

"Sir?!"

Sam stepped forward and confirmed the Captain's orders, "The mission is to escort these freighters back home. If they have no plans to engage us, then we leave."

"Lieutenant…they're not taking the bait," muttered Veren.

"They'll come," Schir asserted as she marched her Bishamon through one of the wider streets of Montegaro as alarms continued to sound off. At her feet, some tried to flee while others armed with small arms tried in vain to do something to the more than fourteen meter tall machine. "They won't be able to ignore us, even if they want to."

"Freya, what's your forecast."

"There's a fifty-seven percent chance they're bluffing."

Shizuka immediately started to sweat hoping for better odds than that. She had not been given any orders this time. "You're not certain?" If it could be definitive then perhaps her mind would be at ease. Assurance would not fix it, but she could live with it.

"Nothing is certain."

"But you can't give better odds?"

"Without better psychological data of the pilots, I can't make an accurate calculation. The lead pilot's aggressive and reckless combat data indicates they could be willing to go to any lengths for victory."

"Any lengths…" That was all it took for the fifty-seven percent to become a zero. She gripped the sticks tightly as the Vingolf quickly drew away from the city. "Ensign Toule, permission to remain behind."

"We have our orders."

"Su, what're you…"

"It is more likely that they're bluffing."

She switched off the comm. channel for a moment. "But you can't be sure. If there's any chance, I can't risk it. They might attack the city if we don't face them." Returning to Ansgar, she addressed him directly. "The Freya is telling me that it's certain they'll attack the city. They're desperate to fight us. We can't abandon them."

"I understand, but we have a mission to complete."

Knowing them well enough, none of them seemed to agree with the idea of leaving Montegaro without defense. She realized that she needed a different point of view. They wanted to be out there, but the mission stopped them. "Ensign, the Vingolf can stay ahead of the enemy carrier, however we're escorting ships. We're as slow as the fastest freighter. When they see that their tactics aren't working, they'll come for us and we'll be forced to defend the fleet over the ocean. At least here, I can keep them back while you escape with the supplies."

"Su! Even if ya win, you'll be left behind enemy lines! You won't be able tah return. Tha Freya can't fly."

"I'll steal a ship from the port and fly back. I only need to break through the line, not engage the blockade."

"We need you when we're breaking through," reminded Ansgar, "Our numbers are already small enough. You'll be risking the failure of the mission."

"Doing nothing is the same risk. It's better to do it in a place that I can fight properly."

Listening to the conversation, the Captain interjected into the debate. "I'm not thrilled by the possibilities, but she's thinking the same thing as me. The moment they showed up, the mission became a risk. We don't have enough of a head start to outrun them back to Antarctica, but we can't risk staying when these supplies are needed back home."

"Captain?"

"Very well, Petty Officer Hiraoka you have permission to launch, but promise me to survive. No reckless heroics."

"Yes, sir! Thank you, Captain!" Shizuka firmly gripped the sticks as she turned the machine about. Alarms went off in the hanger alerting the crews to the preparation for launch. Steadily, she walked the Freya over to the launcher.

Before he lost the chance, Ed opened a direct line to Shizuka. "You don't have tah do this alone, Su."

"You've got to stay with the Vingolf. We can't weaken the defense anymore. I'll keep your back safe."

"Su…be safe an' come back!"

"I will. I promise." The gate around the lift closed as the Freya rose up to the launch deck. Lights guiding her out flashed on with the ocean ahead of her. A small bounce from below came up as the lift stopped and locked into place. The signal from the Vingolf for a safe launch displayed in green with the words "Launch" centered above from the ceiling.

"Handing over manual control," declared Josh.

"Confirmed." Ahead the horizon showed only a peaceful view that contrasted with her heart. Shizuka tried to clear her mind for the battle to come. 'I'm going to need you…' Gripping on the sticks firmly, she prepared herself. "Shizuka Hiraoka, Freya Vanadis launching!" Hitting the release on the launcher, the Freya rocketed out of the Vingolf with the verniers turning it around immediately.

A small island gave her a place to land and prepared her tactical forecast. Plugged into the Montegaro's sensors, she could see where all of the enemy ARMs were located. The city setup before her gave terrible flashbacks that she wished that she could forget. "They seem to have a fondness for bringing in the uninvolved.

"Ghost…" repeated Schir as she saw the computer inform her of the change. It did not play out how she wanted it, but it was not a bad turn of events. Things were better than she could have asked for.

"They're getting away, Schir."

"It's fine, Kara. Killing one of them will be a perfect start to the turn of this war," she declared with confidence. She flipped the switch for full military power from the Bishamon Custom as the battle approached. "Remember everyone, this is the Ghost and most of you haven't fought it before. Don't treat it like the others. I'll begin and you get a rhythm of the fight and provide support for each other. It's time to show them our teamwork!"

Shizuka slowly made her way towards Montegaro as the fleet and Vingolf steadily disappeared over the horizon. As she judged, the enemy machines wanted a city battle and had no intentions of engaging anywhere outside of it. A simple thing to take advantage of as it became a delaying game. They did not seem to have much interest anymore in the Vingolf and others, thankfully, but Shizuka could not risk that chance of it. 'Almost completely outside of radar range now.' A little more and she felt that it would be safe.

"They're completely off radar."

"It's fine, we know where they're headed. The blockade fleet will catch them."

"That won't be enough."

"All they need to do is shoot down the freight ships and victory will be ours. The regular forces can handle that much."

"Cut the chatter, the Ghost's coming."

The Freya landed at the coastline of Montegaro, a part where it was normally welcoming beach with sand, stalls and families relaxing. Now no one cared about those sorts of things. Some abandoned equipment during the Federations' quick retreat lined parts of the beach. Crates and machinery that Shizuka did not understand rested half in the sand. Until she reached half way up the sand each stomp of the Freya's foot submerged the beach.

At the main road tracing the coastline, she stopped with some of the tall condos dotting the edge breaking up the enemy silhouettes. Only one of the machines stayed in the open making clear declarations to her for battle. "You again. No matter how many times I beat you, you keep coming back. What drives you? Why do I sense such anger in every action you make? Who are you?"

"This is going to be our last battle, Ghost. No support and restricted, I'm going to show you strength of our wills that you can never crush!"

"Freya, get a solid read on the rest of the enemies. There's too much interference."

"The enemy is using a strong ECM amplified through the city's network. Without visual detection, I'm not going to be able to make accurate forecasts of their positions."

"You have enough data to make a guess of their strategy."

"That's what I'm already doing." The thirty percent accuracy that displayed on her screen suddenly felt heavier . She gripped the sticks facing down with her reoccurring opponent. It continued to astound her that they kept coming back. Despite their encounters they never managed to have a conclusive battle even though there were clear winners out of them.

As the pause continued and Shizuka prepared mentally for the battle to come, she prayed that Ed and the rest made it safely back to Antarctica. Even though she only needed to keep them from going after the Vingolf and the freighters, she felt that with the addition of the Eljun victory should be possible. Yet staring down through the camera view, the enemy's machine made that certainty turn to doubt.

Her opponent, her enemy had a powerful presence that she could feel through the machines. A dark image seemed to project from the sensation that she felt from it, being unsure if it was a product of her mind or the Freya doing something to her. Walking the battlefield of death as they did, the sight should not be strange especially from this one. Despite that, she still found herself replying, "Death walks with them."

Shizuka scanned her eyes around the environment trying to notice any sort of detail. With the situation, she had flashbacks of the last battle before the war began. Many traps and deceptions were used against the rest of the team. This would not be the same, but she still expected something similar. The enemy knew how disadvantaged they were and needed every bit to rebalance the equation.

Schir stared across the road at the Ghost that remained still the whole time since arrived on the shoreline. "You're waiting for me to make a move…you know my machine's power efficiency is worse. Even in low power mode as I am, you would outlast me. You're in no rush…why so cautious Ghost?" She expected a more violent greeting from the Ghost considering their previous encounters.

"Lieutenant…"

"Keep out of sight everyone. This is a relay race, not a sprint."

"It might be for you, but they're a little out of our league."

"I'm not special or unique. I'm just human and so are you." She focused back on the machine in front of her. "And you're just a ghost."

"They really want me to act." Shizuka rubbed her thumb over the buttons and switches that lined the inside of the control stick. "Perhaps it is time to make a move. You need more data don't you."

"As things are I will be unable to provide much aid to you."

Cycling through the weaponry Shizuka settled for the shield and sword combo, anything else ran the risk of causing too much damage in the city. Taking a slow step forward, she positioned the right arm a little more forward with the mounted shield. It covered up the whole forearm of the Freya protecting down to the wrist still allowing complete range of movement.

She saw the enemy machine immediately react to adopt a defense position while wielding the energy katana, foregoing the beam weaponry in close combat. Shizuka half expected a charge as she made first real action toward battle, but they remained surprisingly cautious. No doubt weary of the strength she displayed in their last battle. A bit of her actually hoped, counted on that action, it would have made the coming fight a little easier.

Another long pause dragged out the engagement further before she took another step now properly between two condos that rose over the Freya with ease. For anyone else, they might have been trying to gauge the other, but with their battles already that was no longer necessary. "I don't like feeling like I'm playing into their hand."

It happened in an instant, the collision broke the glass of the condos raining down deadly shards, thankfully free of anyone long ago. The pounding of metal on metal flashed around them as the weight of the Freya bore down on the Bishamon Custom, only the defensive stance giving it enough balance to not topple over.

Shield scrapped against the forearm of the Bishamon avoiding the blade entirely. With the two machines almost immobile as they shook from the pressure, the Freya jamming its knee up hitting the ECF Skin in the waist and lower torso section sparking more, but holding its shape for now. Another strike and another began to push the Skin back as the Freya slowly emerged between the buildings.

As the camera began to get a new view, Shizuka tried to find signs the other machines. "Damn…nothing still…Freya anything?" Quickly, the enemy dropped itself down throwing her off and behind their position. The Freya balanced off the left hand turning the falling into spiral kick to keep it off her as she recovered.

Schir grabbed tightly on her sword as she braced the arms of the Bishamon Custom against the condo halting her momentum though cracking and bending the metal outer frame. A bit of debris from the impact tumbled down in the periphery of her viewport. Groaning from the shaking through her cockpit, Schir kept her eyes fixed on the Ghost. "What sort of control system did they create to allow for that sort of movement…"

Their brief scuffle acted as the introduction they need to begin the battle proper. The two women charged forward fully prepared for another long fight. The true start of their clash echoed through Montagero far out of the reach of the escaping Vingolf and fleet.

Two hours after Shizuka's battle began the familiar horizon of Antarctica came into view for the bridge crew. With their final objective in sight, they gained a must need morale boost. However, they could not enjoy the moment as the twinkling of the ECF Blockade Fleet surfaced. Alerts sounded through the bridge as the computer began detecting the ships hovering over the ocean.

Ashley raised her hand to her ear supporting the earpiece as she concentrated on the readings. "Captain, detecting a massive enemy fleet ahead, too many to count."

"We expected as much. The enemy's mothership likely relayed our course to the fleet. It's all according to plan still…"

"Judging from what I'm seeing, I'm certain they've pooled all of ships in the quadrant to our location."

The Captain grimly sighed to himself as the data from her station showed up on the main monitor in the bridge. Even if it was the plan, it did not make it any easier to swallow. Part of him hoped the forecast was wrong.

"Captain, we've never faced this many before."

"Yes, I know, though our history's a little short so that's not much of a milestone."

"But, sir."

"The plan hasn't changed. We protect the escort fleet from the enemy at all cost." His young crew looked scared, more than he had ever seen them before. They knew the importance of the mission and what it might require of them. 'So young…none of them have actually seen any sort combat before we started this mission. Being born for this or not, it never has prepared them for this.'

"Captain…"

"I know, Sam." George tapped the switch on his chair opening the comms. through the ship. "This is your Captain. We're approaching the end of our mission everyone. I know that this wasn't what you expected when you put on that uniform. But you know the weight and responsibility that it means to wear it. The odds don't look great even with our pilots, but this is a battle we must win because everyone that we love and care about is ahead waiting for us. They will die without us. We're not here to sacrifice ourselves. I'm planning on getting everyone of you back home alive.

"This is a mission to live. I expect all of you to live. So let's show those Federation bastards that even though we're green, we still know how to fight!" He switched off the comms. again and cleared his throat a little as he got a bit of a playful smirk from Sam. "You put me up to it."

"It is your job."

"I'll make you the speech writer next time."

"Making me the Captain, sir? I thought we were all supposed to live through this."

"Damnit, Sam. Give the orders to the Ensign to launch."

"Aye, sir." Samantha turned away from teasing her CO and directed her voice to Josh. "Ensign Castle, the AESIR are to launch immediately."

"Yes, sir!"

While Josh focused on his job communicating with the team, Sam turned to main monitor and crew. "All hands, combat level 1! Close all outer bulkheads! Prepare beam dispersal charges and open all weapon ports!" A sharp and firm delivery quickly put the bridge crew to work. It worked for now, though within the actual battle, Sam did not know how far it would take them. They had yet to be truly tested.

Ansgar launched last from the Vingolf with his Njord landing back on home soil of Antarctica. Ice crunched and cracked behind the feet of the AESIR but held as he bore his shield on his back while the enemy approached. Air in the Skadi kept to his right as the Od flew on ahead.

"Their numbers are unreal," commented Ed as his computer did not even bother with individual tracking. Each squadron was marked as one and even that was too much to filter through. While he had not forgotten what it was like during the first day of the invasion, this somehow felt worse than that even without the specialists.

"We just have to keep them locked down here."

"Easier said than dun. We ain't exactly good at tactical battles."

"It's a good time to learn then." A grumble came over the comms. as a first barrage of missiles from the Federation forces lit up the monitor. Ansgar quickly dropped the glib smirk and prepared for the long battle ahead. "Air, you're up!"

Another collision rocked through the Freya as the road cracked and cratered keeping balance against the Bishamon. Shizuka pushed them off, but they disappeared behind a building before she could make an attack. Her eyes darted around as they dragged her deeper into the city's downtown as tall buildings made for easy camouflage inside the ECM field.

She turned around with the building at her back only getting ambient rumbling of the machines with too much city to make it clear. None of her equipment was designed to detect enemies in this sort of manner. "It's been ten minutes already, how have you not gotten enough data?"

"They're alternating the one fighting you and each is different. It's making any sort of forecast analysis less accurate. Their strategy is an effect counter."

"Do you think they figured out you exist?"

"Unlikely. It's more likely they're using this strategy as a way to wear you down and keep you unable from finding a rhythm in battle. One on one or in a group in the open, they're out matched against you and they know that. They're using this to level the field. Whomever is leading them is very intelligent."

A heat alert suddenly popped up from behind her, but her reaction came too late as a beam cut straight through the building and struck the Freya's shoulder staggering her forward. Out in front another one appeared at full thrust hitting her straight in the chest. The Freya smashed into the building as glass and metal rained down around it. Shizuka was not certain, but it felt like it gave a little.

The enemy fired another beam at point blank range as the flash consumed the entire block and surrounding hundred meters. Quickly, he pulled back to reduce the heat damage to his machine. "That had to have done something!"

"Even if it did, that's not going to be enough! I've seen what these things can take, keep up the pressure!"

Damage warnings flashed over the monitor as Shizuka struggled to regain her senses. Amidst the noise came another beam attack. "You must move, they will keep firing at you."

The cockpit continued to shake violent under the assault as she held onto the sticks. "Easy… for you to say…" Groaning from the hits, she forced herself to focus through it all dropping down to the ground as the easiest action. Smoke filled the area masking her movement, though not the fact that she left their assault with beams blasting through the building.

"You're not getting away, Ghost!" Schir yelled charging into the fray as her team ceased the attack. The heat from the beam weapons made detecting the Ghost in the smoke impossible. As the Bishamon Custom arrived, she vented some of the built up exhaust from the machine to use it to clear away the smoke. But the Ghost already had disappeared. "Damnit!"

"Damnit!" shouted Ed as even with the Od's mobility he could not dodge all of the barrage of missiles and beams directed at him. He fought the controls trying to keep the machine in the air. Explosion buffeted him around the sky with warnings lighting up. "Yer tougher than this Ed! Focus!"

Support fire from the Skadi knocked the Od back as explosions blanketed the sky in light. Emergency warnings flashed as he strained in the cockpit with the Od careening out of the air. Nothing but warning sounds filled his head as everything turned to a blur for a moment. The ground quickly came up on Ed as his head began to clear up. Yanking on the sticks, he flipped the Od around and transformed into the humanoid form before he crashed into the snow and ice. "Ugh…"

"Ed, are you alright?" called Ansgar.

A long pause delayed the confirmation. "Yea…jes a little shaken up."

"Fall back to us. You can't keep pushing alone."

"Me and…" He cut himself off before finishing. It came out as natural as anything. Looking around at the battlefield alone hit him harder than he expected. Ed squeezed the sticks as a sigh came out of his lips. "Roger, sir. Fallin' back."

Using the smoke as cover, Shizuka took a breath struggling with the intensity of the battle. 'I hope they make it back…' She heard a noise from above her with her mind immediately reacting. 'Ed!' But instead it was one of the enemy Bishamon's plunging down with a glowing energy sword different from the katana she was used to seeing. "Damnit!"

She brought up her shield to block the blow only to get attacked from behind as well. The beam scorched her back shoulder of the Freya and she struggled against the pressure of the sword pinning her down. Kicking out, she broke the weight for just enough that she could push back before the next beam came through the building. It glowed through the air and off the Bishamon's armor as she spun around to pick up the enemy from behind and throw them towards the projected attacks.

Shizuka panted slipping the Freya out of the attack circle and behind several rows of skyscrapers. "They're relentless…how'd Ansgar and Air survive such a battle…"

"Even without an accurate forecast, you should be doing better. Your concern for the city in reducing your performance."

"I'm aware of that. That's their strategy and I'm not going to start trashing the city just because you say so."

"But you're not fighting to your best."

"No I'm not. Find me a way to win like this."

"Tactically, it doesn't make sense to restrict yourself. War gives no second chances. The area has long been evacuated."

"We're trying to rebuild this world. I'm not going to be part of destroying it. I agreed to all of this to protect, not destroy. So get it through your narrow minded programming that my self-centered bastard of a man calling himself a father cooked up and understand how things work with me in charge."

A bit of pause from the onboard AI not expecting such a strong reaction. It finally followed up a few moments later. "Understood."

"Now let's turn this fight around!" Shizuka gripped the sticks firmly staring at the monitors for the next round.

An explosion filled the snowy skies of Antarctica as one of the freighters they escorted blew up from the ECF barrage. The enemy beam slipped through with only a single shot being enough to completely destroy the ship.

Ansgar stared at the monitor's rear camera as their defense finally failed one of the ship. 'For every ten that Air destroys thirty more take it's place. Even with our superior power how are we supposed to win this war against an enemy that has vastly superior resources? I thought we'd be able to run them down, but this is endless!'

"I'm beginnin' toah think it was a good idea that Su stayed behind…I dun think even she wou've been able tah change this outcome."

"At least one of us survives."

"I still have plenty of energy reserves."

"Hey, Ansgar, is Air tryin' tah cheer us up?"

"This really is some sort of day…" Aerona's special brand of optimism managed to give Ansgar some of his resolve back. They still had a mission to complete. The future could not be something that could distract him on the battlefield. "Ed take the right flank and break up their formation, anything to get their focus scattered, but don't over stay your welcome."

"Right!"

"Air cut open the center for the Vingolf." Ansgar tightened up his hands on the sticks staring at the vast numbers on his screen. He had nearly forgotten what it was like upon the first day of the war. The only thing that saved them was separation of the forces across the entire planet. In the time since the invasion, they continued to move more of their forces to the blockade, no doubt due to the repeated failures in stopping their attacks. This might have been the mission plan, but it still scared him.

Plums of smoke covered the battlefield masking half of the enemy fleet and completely obscuring the horizon. Wreckage lined the snow and ice wasteland completely altering the landscape. He hardly thought of Antarctica as his home, but even still it gave him pangs to see how the war devastated the deadly purity of the land.

He only hoped that he could live to see the end of the war and return the peace. This mission would be the first real step towards that goal. The Njord pushed forward as he separated from his defensive position to make a push on the enemy line in coordination with Ed. They already lost one of the freighters too quickly into the battle. The rest would not survive if they did not change the pace of the battle.

A scream of metal and cry of glass poured out in the stillness of the city as the Freya held it's position on the uncertain battlefield. Within the cockpit sweat fell along the side of her jaw trying to provide an irritation that could not break Shizuka's concentration. She had not felt so close to death since the bombing and had hoped to never find it again, though being a pilot in a war that hope seemed like a futile one.

Thirty minutes already passed since the battle began marking for the longest she had been engaged. Trying to keep her breathing steady, another alert snapped her arm to jerk the machine out of the way of an incoming beam followed by a tag team assault by two of the enemy machines. She managed to fend them off, but nothing of the situation changed. All she had been able to do is improve her reaction time. "Shouldn't they be running out of power by now? This is coming up to their supposed operational limit."

"They're likely conserving power with these tactics, potentially trying to exhaust the Freya's operational limit." That had never been a risk for Shizuka until now. She had to reconsider further options for ending the battle.

Her hand slid over the console and tapped quickly to look at the data that the Freya compiled. "They're still consuming more than their recharging though, right?"

"Most likely. All the data so far collected from destroyed machines indicate that they use solar energy to recharge their reserves. While the energy from the sun still penetrates even with the heavy cloud cover, it is less efficient than can be used in combat."

"But enough to give them a longer duration…" It was not something that she relied on, she wanted to end the battle quickly if she could and save the city, but it remained a fall back for her. No longer having that as an option that she could rely upon, she needed to focus directly on the enemy. "I need to reduce their numbers if I'm going to break this strategy of theirs."

"You've yet to make a solid connection with them."

"As I said before find me a strategy that works."

"All scenarios that fit your criteria have less favorable odds of success."

"Then just give me all your data and projections and leave the decision making up to me."

"That's more data than a human is able to process."

Shizuka pulled her hands back to the sticks and stopped playing the hide and seek game of the enemy putting the Freya out in the open for the first time. "Just trust in the human mind to know what it needs. Give me everything!"

"Affirmative," replied the voice before the monitor changed from a passive display of the entire field along with minimal tactical data displayed to a tinted red display as future projected lines drew everywhere along with enemy positions based on estimates and old tactical data. It nearly made it impossible to see the actual city as everything came unfiltered to her eyes.

The Freya staled in mid-charge as Shizuka winced in pain nearly doubling over if only her seat allowed it, but the back bolt restraints held tight. She had forgotten one thing, not all of the data was displayed through the monitor. All of the AESIR machines made neural connections for the aid of smoothing out the manipulation of the complex functions of the machines, but that was not all that funneled through the connections.

Suddenly overwhelmed with new information, she could not even look at the screen as it felt like her head would split open. "Damnit…you won't beat me!" She struggled to get her hands to grip the sticks knowing that she was out in the open still.

"Lieutenant?"

"What the hell is the Ghost doing?"

"Careful, it could be a trap."

While Schir calculated her actions for the team, someone else made it for her. She saw the out of position marker on the map and shouted over the comms. "Stop! It's too much of a risk!"

"Back me up! If it's a trap, it's better to trigger it on our own terms!"

Alerts overlaid the monitor having a marginal effect on Shizuka. "Ed…" she whispered to herself as she struggled with the Freya.

The Od flipped around in a rapid vertical spin to dodge an incoming beam as Ed squeezed the sticks feeling the Gs. He returned fire quickly trying to take down a few more enemy machines as the blockade fleet was nearly upon them and already in weapon range.

On the bridge of the Vingolf, shaking from direct impacts sent up continuous alerts. The heat dissipating could not keep up with the beam attacks even from the enemy ARMs. Captain George kept a stiff expression on the viewport as another explosion lit up behind them.

"Freighter number 6 destroyed!" reported Castle.

"We're almost there, hang together!"

"Air back me up! I'm going after that advance group! Ed support the Vingolf!"

"Roger!"

"Affirmative!"

Weapons fire intensified quickly as the Njord jumped with full thrust into the air after the group splitting away from the main enemy fleet. Though slower than Ed or Shizuka, he could still keep up well enough with the enemy to get his sword clean through one machine while swing out with his shield to knock it out of the sky. Support fire from the ground took out two more while keeping the others out of his air space.

Missile alerts sounded across the bridge as the in-range Federation fleet opened up gun ports. Reports of the missile proximity raced through from the radar station as panic filled the room. Counter barrage from the Vingolf went out to take out the incoming missiles, but the count was too many for them to cover. Several made it through the screen with one targeting the bridge directly.

Even as the crew braced in their own ways for a quick and sudden death, a shadow came over the viewport before the view was completely obscured by the blue glow of thrusters followed by the bright explosion that whited out the bridge for a moment. "Made it!" sighed Ed as he intercepted the remaining missiles before they hit the ship.

Unfortunately, it was too soon to celebrate as new warnings came up just as the old disappeared. Ed quickly supported the barrage as the automatic systems kept the Vingolf running even as the human crew processed everything in the seconds after the intended death. They were not allowed more than that as the bridge suddenly lurched to the right from a direct missile hit that destroyed one of the gun ports.

"Status!" shouted George, seeing the crew coming together again.

"Damnit, I missed one!" Another massive explosion blinded the rear of his monitor as Ed turned half around with the Od to see the last freighter they were escorting destroyed. The remaining hull on fire falling out of the sky. They had lost the entire fleet and the blockade showed no signs of breaking. "This is impossible…"

All around the Vingolf and AESIR was a growing U-shape formation that they were unable to prevent. Completely outnumbered, their superior machine were not even enough this time.

Pounding echoed through the cockpit as Shizuka finally found herself separated from the Freya enough to see once more. Her senses sharply came back along with the annoying ringing of alerts. On her back with the Freya and the enemy on top of her, the chest armor had taken serious damage and on the verge of failure.

Ignoring all of the information, she focused on the direct threat to herself and grabbed the arm of the Bishamon stopping it. A quick strength check started as the Freya's fingers squeezed on the armor putting dents into the metal. "Get off of me!" Shizuka roared throwing the machine off her.

She spun around getting back up, but in a low crouching position as all of the displayed information funneled directly into her. An alert popped up and her mind immediately darted to the left flank as everything else disappeared from her thoughts. Jumping forward, she tackled the Bishamon before it could support its fallen comrade.

Flipping out the blade attached to her shield, she motioned to stab at the chest waiting for the beam attack to stop her. She already launched before it even got close given her the location of the next enemy stomping through the street picking up one of the streetlamps and flinging it like a javelin piercing the building that provided cover. The Bishamon jumped out of cover as Shizuka slammed the Freya's hand into the head nearly crushing it as she dropped it into the ground.

Her eyes glared intensely at the monitor as the Freya's eyes matched with her turning. Shizuka flipped the Freya away before the next attack came as she hit the thrusters to land on the roof of a fifteen story building. "Where are you? The special one…stop with these games…you want me. I can feel it, your drive, your emotions."

"It's moving differently again!"

"Damnit, the main drive is locked up!"

"Don't give yourself openings! Stay to support!"

Jumping down, she targeted the unmoving Bishamon needing to eliminate pieces from the board. She focused her bladed shield towards the enemy to finally silence one of them. However, support fire came from across the district to stop her making her change her course quickly coming to a harsh landing on the street shattering glass.

"No you won't take another one, Ghost!" shouted Schir blasting in on her Bishamon Custom tackling directly the Freya as the two machines flew up into the air and spun around battling over orientation.

Shizuka rapidly input alignment corrections as data came through. "So you've come out." She broke free from the clash as they dropped on their respective roofs. The Freya pointed its blade at the Bishamon Custom with its energy katana aimed back.

Staring down at each other, they paused for moments before leaping back into the air for their swords to clash. Shizuka traced the forecasts keeping her blade in the right position to block and parry. Sparks and chunks of metal flew up as the full weight of their machines threw down behind each swing.

The Freya spun about and ducked trying to preserve some of the blade's integrity. Fierce emotions roared through the machine at Shizuka as she could barely feel anything within the moment. Their movements danced around the city too fast for the support to keep up with anything meaningful.

Schir's hands stretched and pressed within the pilot's suit gloves as she swung around in the cockpit hardly even noticing the ever increasing Gs on her body and the cries it gave her to stop. "I'm ending this today, Ghost!" With a yell that backed her swing, she cut straight through the blade and sliced off half of the shield damaging part of the arm as the Ghost staggered momentarily.

It was enough for her to see the opening that she needed and threw everything away, her safety, her machine, her life, none of it mattered for the final strike so long as it connected. She could already see the Ghost reacting to draw a weapon, but she already moved too quickly for it to keep up and seemingly inhuman as he katana punched through the crack in the chest armor already made piercing through its back.

Warnings and short circuits blasted out in the cockpit as blood dripped down Shizuka's face laying unmoving in the seat with power failing. Shaking bounced her body around not waking her as the monitor shutdown with the Bishamon Custom standing victorious over top.

To be continued…