(Author's Notes: I've been feeling in the mood for another episode. I keep thinking about it and I had the Christmas Break. So I figured that it would not hurt anything to get another episode in when I had the free time. Progress on Twin Moon is at the point where I can easily write for it now. So it will be getting picked up in earnest now. I don't know the schedule it'll have, but it's planned to have more than 100 chapters. So it'll be a few years before I can actually write in earnest for this. I hope this will make people happy until the next time I write.)

The year is After Nuclear 605, a period of rebirth for the planet Earth. It has been six hundred years since the Earth was scarred by a nuclear assault that left the surface barren and radioactive. It is said that half of the world's population died immediately from the blasts and nearly everyone else in the year afterward from disease or contamination. The land was forever altered beyond hope for recovery it seemed. Human civilization was wiped from the planet.

By the grace of God or a miracle, it was Antarctica that was spared from the devastation. As temperatures fell from a thick cloud of dust in the atmosphere blocking out much of the sun, the frigid continent's harsh conditions worsened leaving the survivors to harden themselves if they were to survive. A new ice age gripped the planet.

The lone research base and experimental domed town toiled under the violent winds. A few thousand scientists and civilians began their work to rebuilding civilization. Decades slowly passed as the town grew into an ever expanding domed city that became known as Antarctica City. In their efforts they came up with a plan to reclaim the forsaken Earth.

The plan was a massive undertaking that would take generations to complete. They constructed massive machines the size of small villages fully automated sent to ravaged continents of the Earth to terraform the wastelands into fertile plains once more.

The machines succeeded in their design slowly recovering the land. In time people were allowed to leave starting new towns and villages working the land. By AN 605, half of the planet has been saved. All of the wonders and tools had come from a single organization. The HOPE group, an organization made after the nuclear winter, whose goal was to provide for the survival of mankind. They held all of the scientific minds and all new technology originated from them.

HOPE had saved the planet.

Episode 3 – Unfamiliar Skies

"What's the meaning of this?" demanded Shizuka. The sight of giant machines only started the path of confusion for her. She did not understand why her father stood in the hanger or knew such things. She did not even remember him being part of the military. He rarely came home or told her what he did, but she remembered her mother telling her he did important research. The research would save the world one day. Shizuka never grasped the meaning at the time. She was too young. 'Is this what she meant?' The questions made her arms shake and her knees turn to jelly.

Kitawara changed expressions quickly to bewilderment before reverting to jubilation. "These are your machines as I said already. You will pilot the Freya and the young man over there will pilot the Od."

"Pilot? What are you talking about? I've never seen this before." Shizuka stepped away from them all starting to feel the atmosphere change, or notice the actual mood that she had not seen before. "I don't even know what it is! If this is why you paid mercenaries to find me and bring me here then I'm leaving right now!" She turned on her heel and started to march towards the door they entered.

"You'll be trained," he commented to her, ignoring the stance she took. "You don't have to be concerned about understanding it yet."

Shizuka growled through her teeth as she stopped to glare back at him. She did not know this man. "I'm not staying."

"Where do you think you're going?" He motioned with his arm off to the guards standing at attention. They took immediate action in remotely locking the personnel door and then stood in front of it blocking Shizuka. She spun back around glaring at him. "You've seen the highest military secret just now. Do you think you can simply leave?"

Ed gasped in surprise and only managed to utter two words before cut off. "Old man!"

"Dr. Kitawara!" shouted Karen. She stepped out in front of the aging man. "She's your daughter!"

"Don't start questioning things now, Dr. Stein. You know how things work here."

"You can't…" Karen backed away from him. The look in his eyes made her shake. His unwavering resolve not clouded by any hint of hesitation pushed her away. She felt her presence shrink.

He walked around the woman and made his way to Shizuka. Towering over her, he bled a commanding aura that she had never experienced before. "The moment you set foot on this base you became part of the military. The paperwork already had you enlisted. You're the property of H.O.P.E. This is your new life."

Shizuka shook in front of her father. She questioned if he always appeared so dark. When she was younger, all her memories of him were fuzzy. He seemed distance and uninterested, but never so menacing. 'Military? Enlisted?' She wanted to run away even if she knew that the guards would capture in moments, but her legs refused her. Her body froze. All she had was her mouth. Shizuka ground her teeth trying to get back her courage. "You can't do this! I have rights!"

"I am your father. The decision has already been made for you."

"You were never my father!" She could not take it anymore and her body suddenly felt alive. Shizuka threw out her hands pushing past him. It was not enough to knock him down, but it did stagger him in surprise. She bolted for the opposite side of the hanger in hopes of an escape.

Kitawara stumbled around, but recovered quickly and shouted at the guards. "Stop her!" They stared at him for a moment and then ran after her as ordered.

Ignored by everyone, Edgar stood as a bystander. He had so many thoughts running through his mind. He thought back on the arguments he had with Shizuka, thinking her spoiled for rejecting her father. The scene that they gave him made him feel a bitter taste in his mouth. '…damnit…what sorta father…forcin' 'er…I…' He thought back to when they approached him.

A couple of military types came to him with a request. They wanted him to join a special project. It meant being in the military, but the pay would be good and it would help the Earth. He never really gave much thought to the recovery of the Earth or even a life outside of the Niph. But the opportunity seemed like a perfect chance for him. 'I 'ad my re'sons, but least I agreed willin'ly…'

Ed tightened up his fist to stop the shaking. He brought her here and took her away from her home. The reason she ran away from her father was his fault. The weight crushed his shoulders. '…s'not right!' Edgar pulled his head up staring down at the hanger. Shizuka had the lead, but the two soldiers quickly gained on her. 'Damnit!' He sprinted from his spot blowing past Karen and Kitawara. They only had a few seconds on him, enough to close in time.

One of the guards came into reach of Shizuka. He stretched out his hand to grab her arm, while the other tried to keep pace. However, in the last moments Edgar leapt down throwing his weight into the two men. With the guards running, the force was enough to send them down to the cement foundation. Edgar rolled over them roughly ending a little ahead of them.

Shizuka heard the grunts from behind and turned to see what happened. She stopped in surprise to see Edgar in front of her and half on top of the soldiers. "Wh-what are you doing?"

Rubbing his back a little from the fall, Ed smirked up at her. A low groan from behind told him that the two men were not completely out and even if he stopped them, others would be coming. He jumped back to his feet and grabbed on to Shizuka's pulling her with him. "C'mon!"

"W-wait!" Everything happened so fast for her. She found her feet moving along with his pace not thinking about it. Shizuka dragged a little behind at the lengths of their arms. She stared back at the floor where the soldiers laid. 'Why? Why did he help me?'

Rather using the open ground to get further, he pulled themselves between crates, metal plates and machinery placed on the opposite wall to the giant robots. He felt like they started get into a safer position however long it might last. The wrist he held suddenly ripped free and slapped him away. "Hey!" he whispered, as much as he wanted to shout.

Shizuka clung to her wrist that Edgar grabbed. A minute ago, he was sending her to the gallows. "Why? I thought you wanted to be rid of me?"

Ed gritted his teeth. She slowed them down with questions. They needed to keep running. "Does it matter right now?" He stretched out his hand to her realizing that he had to get her acceptance to keep moving.

The offer made her take a half step back. How could she trust someone that accepted money to kidnap her? She turned her head toward a distance sound of voice, more soldiers no doubt. 'I can't…stay…' Still holding onto hesitation, Shizuka reached out for Edgar's hand.

Southeast Asia – 4 km outside of Yokatomo

Exposed wires sparked keeping the silence at bay. Removed plating punched large holes in the interior making it seem deeper and darker than normal. The low vibration of the engines rocked the ship as though trying to put the passengers to sleep. However, the condition of the ship was not the cause of the tensions high between the crew.

"You can't be serious!" shouted Lellecaucua back at the plan that Wells suggested. Rivers landed the transport outside of a large city on the coast. They hid in a small forest hoping to remain unseen while they completed the real repairs the ship needed. However, they had to get more than medicine for the Commander.

Wells' shoulders looked crammed with how tightly he pressed his crossed arms together. He stood at the entrance to the cockpit with the rest of the team looking at him. Rinn kept to himself leaning against the wall, despite being higher rank Wells was the second in command after Callein. "I don't like the idea any more than the rest of you! If it could be helped I wouldn't get any assistance from those demons." He glared as casually as he could over at Rinn, who pushed the plan on him. "However, the Commander needs more medical attention than we can provide with combat training."

Several of them looked over at Callein. Currently, he laid unconscious, but earlier he briefly woke up in pain coughing up blood. He insisted that they carried out their mission and disregard him. None of them could turn their back on him.

Noinae looked back at Wells still concerned about the risk of the dangers presented with taking the Commander in to the city. "But what about being discovered? We're putting the Commander at risk doing this."

"I know that! We'll figure out something." Wells looked over at the empty spot in the transport. The images of the explosion from the Skin blowing up replayed for him. He tightened his fists staring down Noinae. "I've already lost one team member to those demons! I'm not going let them take another!" His words made everyone silent. They had mostly been not thinking about the loss of Rivers. They all knew the risks, but a death still did not come any easier. "If there are no more questions, the first order of business is obtaining a vehicle."

-X- -X- -X-

Outside of the hanger, two soldiers escorted Captain Fin and Sheila back to their vehicle. After the completion of the payment, the man that accompanied them parted ways. Sheila voiced her concerns about the situation, but Fin kept her moving. At the vehicle, they stood staring back at the hanger. There was a sense of expectation of seeing Edgar for a proper farewell. Fin started to open the door feeling the atmosphere change.

Sheila looked over at the Captain trying to keep her frustration with the military in control. "Ain't we gonna wait for Ed?"

Fin looked over the car door at the two soldiers watching them. They looked to be close enough to hear, but not enough to be imposing. "Ed knows the way back." He stepped in taking a seat to start engine.

She grabbed a hold of the door before Fin could close it and leaned into the interior. "But he's one us! For a lil' while longer, anyway…"

"Get in. I'm feelin' a draft…" Fin glanced up to Sheila as she backed away from the door. He closed the door and waited for her to get into the car. The vehicle shifted a little with the weight. Once she finished, he set the car to drive putting the soldiers in the rear view mirror.

"Cap'n? What's wrong?"

"Seems we ain't welcome anymore…"

Sheila looked back towards the hanger and the soldiers walking away. "But Ed's still back there!"

"They may be jackass military types, but I can't 'magine them not lettin' Ed a chance for goodbyes."

"…I guess…" She pulled away to look forward at the gate in front of them. The guard checked their badge and let them out without trouble. They still had a lot of the base to travel around with all of the secrets hidden behind numerous buildings. "There's som'fin unsettlin' about this place."

Inside the adjacent building to the hanger, Ed managed to discover another door out. It only connected to the hanger and brought them into a different building, but it did mean they could buy more time. They fortunately had not run into anyone else working in the facility. So they could hide for a time. A storage room partially filled with boxes served their needs.

Ed sat down on one of the boxes catching his breath. He did not run too far, but the danger of their situation made his heart pound and lung feel shallow. Once he felt a little rested, he turned to face Shizuka, resting on the tiled floor. She said something that he did not hear clearly. "Huh? What ya say?"

A little bothered by his lazy response, Shizuka wrinkled her brow. "I said, why are you doing this?"

"That ag'in?" He reached his hand up to pull on his fedora, a habit of his, but remembered he left it on the ship. Looking a little lost, he scratched the side of his head.

Shizuka stood up taking him over in height and leaned in. "You go on the ship about not being humanitarians and being in it for the money! But then you help me!"

The words pushed him a little back before she settled down. She looked a little calmer after getting it out of her. Unfortunately, Edgar did not have a good answer for her, but he knew she would not be pleased with a carefree answer. He did not entirely understand why he helped her. She annoyed him and made his life hell for the brief time he knew her, a skillful feat for anyone. She got on his nerves with her attitude and stubbornness. The thought of handing her over and not seeing her anymore made him happy. Yet he acted anyway. He needed an answer for her. "…reh'spons'abillity…"

"Huh?" questioned Shizuka. The notion that he had any sense of responsibility set her back a step. It did not even seem like a reason to help someone.

"Well Cap'n said yer me reh'spons'abillity." He turned away from Shizuka thinking back to the words her father said. Ed could not believe that a parent would ever do something so cruel.

Repeating his words did not clear things up for Shizuka anymore than the first response. She still stared back at him in disbelief that he acted on such an empty reason. "You can't be serious! Your responsibility as a mercenary to protect your cargo?"

"What?" Edgar jumped back around at the accusation that she leveled at him. "That's got nothin' tah do with it?"

"Then explain it to me!" Shizuka stepped up to Edgar's face demanding a proper answer from him. Her features narrowed with her stare.

The nearness of her made him a little uneasy. Her fiery temper and tendency to act like a boy made him forget until that moment that she was a girl. His time on the Niph rarely afforded him the chances to meet anyone close to his own age, let alone actual girl. Shizuka's face only centimeters from him make it all very clear, unfortunately she still smelt like sweat and dirt. A grunt from her that started to roll into a growl snapped Ed out of his distraction and let his emotions respond. "That's not 'ow a parent shuld act! Happy?"

Shizuka backed away even more shocked by his answer. "…wha…?..." It felt genuine, but she did not expect him to actually say something like that. She fought to regain her composure in front of him. His words agreed with her feelings, but she did not want to admit that to him. Seeing that she could not control her expressions, Shizuka turned away from Edgar and sat down on a box away from him. "…that's how parents are…selfish…"

Ed closed the distance between them. His emotions controlled his body. "No, its'not! It's wrong!"

"You should face reality," laughed Shizuka in a rough tone, "That's the adult world, self-centered."

"How can ya—" Edgar grabbed Shizuka's shoulder in anger, but cut himself off quickly. He felt her body trembling in his hand. His eyes widened a little. With his emotions expired, Ed no longer had any fight left in him. He backed away from her letting stay alone. Ed sat down on his box roughly.

Back in the hanger, Dr. Kitawara addressed returning soldiers. They searched for the last twenty minutes trying to find two children and the failure started to get on his nerves. "How incompetent are you to lose two children? They can't have gotten far! Don't stop until you find them!" He dismissed them with his hand. Once they left he turned back to the two machines. "We'll find them."

Karen kept her distance from the Doctor. The unease she felt left her unfocused and unable to work. Her hands just held the tools, but did not move. 'Shizuka…I'm sorry…but…' She knew the consequences and what needed to be done. Even knowing the truth, she thought that she had accepted all of the bitter poison, but some of it still lingered on her lips stinging her. She could not wash it away.

-X- -X- -X-

Southeast Asia – Downtown Yokatomo

Gaining a truck took a little more time than they planned, but they managed across one taking the highway into the city. They felt fortunate that the cargo truck they found was empty and returning back. The room in the back gave plenty of space for the Commander and later supplies that they would need.

In the front, Rinn drove with Wells seated in the passenger chair. Lellecausua watched over the Commander in the back. She kept him from shaking around on the bumpy road. While the city appeared new, the roads all looked poorly maintained. Much of the outer city had a shine to it as though recently built. While the deeper inside the more run down and older it appeared. Even the atmosphere of the people living seemed to change to reflect the difference.

With no idea of where to find a clinic, they resorted to pretending to be outsiders and asking for directions. The first few stops gave them a direction, but nothing clear. They tried to keep from staying in one place long. The current stop had their truck parked in an alley with Rinn and Wells out getting directions.

Wells came back to the truck looking as agitated as he had the last trip. He leaned against the truck waiting for Rinn to return. A low muttering kept himself from getting overblown. Nearby footsteps alerted him and snapped him back to attention, prepared. "Finally, you're back!" he barked after determining Rinn's approach.

The Lieutenant gave a simple wave to him. He waited until getting deeper into the alley before replying. "You get anymore used to it?"

"Damn, demons! They're so annoying! Most don't even bother to give you a second glance."

Rinn opened the truck door and pulled out two bottles of water. He tossed one over to Wells. "You need to cool off a little. The right approach will get them to talk to you."

Wells flipped his eyes towards the truck's enclosed bed. Cal laid in pain and getting worse with each passing hour they wasted. Such thoughts made it difficult for him to relax as Rinn suggested. He looked down at the bottle. His hand tightened around the metal casing that surrounded the plastic container. "This frigid land pisses me off too much." Wells snapped the cap off and emptied a portion of the liquid in his mouth.

He rubbed his arms a little remembering the cold air. "Indeed, it's rather cold. A little surprising considering the location to the equator. I think on their calendar it's summer."

"Enough about the weather! We didn't come here for a vacation!"

"Lellecausua report anything about the Commander's condition?"

Wells shook his head after he glanced at the truck again. "No, Elle hasn't said anything. You get a new direction?"

"Yes, there's a clinic nearby." Rinn pulled himself up to the driver seat. As he closed the door, Wells jumped in from the other side. The engine started up and he shifted the truck into gear. He looked over at Wells making sure he was ready. "We apparently passed it on the way here."

-X- -X- -X-

After their rest, Edgar and Shizuka went on the move again. Their search through the building that they hid in sent them down hallway after hallway with no doors to the outside. They had to avoid a couple of soldiers as they reached an area with patrols. The soldiers searching had recently started expanding and growing in numbers. As it became more intense, the places they could hide narrowed. It had already been at least two hours since they fled.

Their current hiding spot was an unused lab. It looked set up with equipment for whatever they designated it for, but for the moment, it was free. They moved a cart away from the wall and hid behind it while waiting for the danger to pass.

Ed looked over at Shizuka seeing her shaking again. Each time they ran she calmed down and became focused. However, during the pauses the trembling returned. He never thought about such things before, just seeing the whole of someone. Something had him watching her more careful ever since he realized how scared she was. "So…why were ya in tha village?" he asked hoping that a conversation might ease her nerves some.

It took her a moment to hear his words, but she tilted her head towards him. "Huh?" Shizuka held her arms around her legs trying to keep still.

"Ya 'now tha place we found ya. How'd ya get t'ere?"

"…oh…" Her response came delayed after thinking about the people from Welest. She leaned against the wall a little considering her words. "It was an accident when I was eight."

"…eh? How'd ya 'ave an accident? Wit' yer father?"

Shizuka shook her head slowly. The events of arriving in Welest never were very clear to her. However, she always remembered clearly how she left her father. The yelling over a monitor screen because he could not be bothered to come home for another night. The cold air that blew down her neck in the apartment even though the heater blasted around her when she made the decision to change. She decided it was not worth staying any longer with a father that stopped loving her and let mother die. She remembered the dull mechanical locking of the apartment door behind her sounding louder than she thought possible. The white sky above the dome of the city felt distant and dead, nothing familiar or comforting. The crowded streets that never seemed to stop making noise drowned in silence to the point of being suffocating. Her last look back at the city that should have been her home and the moment she gave up any hope. "No, I left him here. I was alone when I went to Welest."

"Then 'ow?"

"It was just chance I ended up there. I was traveling on foot and collapsed outside of the village." She had only read in books and seen on computers how to survive in the wilderness. The reality of her situation changed her quickly, but not before she made a lot of mistakes. Most of her supplies got lost and she wandered aimlessly. "They said they found me with extreme dehydration and malnourished. I got lucky, I doubt I had the strength to go on any further. Probably would have died if it wasn't for them."

"Reckless even then, eh?"

"Perhaps," she agreed without an argument, "But I was desperate then. I didn't want to stay another day with him. I rather be out somewhere else."

"What'd ya plan on doin'?"

"I don't know. I was eight years old and angry at everything. But when I woke up in Welest that changed. They had helped me and seemed to genuinely care that I was alive, unlike my father. They saved me and nursed me back to health. At first, I planned on leaving after I felt I repaid my debt to them, but after the months turned to years I found it to be comfortable. It felt like I had a…" Shizuka stopped suddenly having difficulty with her words. Her throat choked up and her eyes started to water. Imagines of the village people appeared to her. Her memories of them washed over her.

Edgar turned his head away from her suddenly feeling a little awkward. He knew what she wanted to say without finishing. After hearing it all, he thought on his actions. 'It's no wonder she'd think we 'nap'd 'er…man…' Ed slid down a little no longer feeling so well. He wanted to say something, but nothing came to his lips. His head collapsed to his knees for support. The bitter taste in his stomach did not go away.

Shizuka caught a drop of tears on her hand and pulled away. She wiped her hands over her eyes. Her eyes scanned around the room trying to focus away from herself. She stood up and looked out the windows at the conditions. "Hey!" When no answer came, she looked back at the wall to Ed. "Hey! Dubois, you hear me?"

"…eh?" Edgar popped his head up finally noticing Shizuka. She motioned to him and he sluggishly walked over to her. His head still swam with the thoughts of his actions.

"I think we can make it out now."

"…yea…"

Taking note of his slow moves, Shizuka grabbed his arm and pulled him with her to speed him up. It took him a little longer, but he caught up to her side. The empty hallway granted them access to several paths. Two of them turned before finding an end. The last stopped at a set of double doors with no clear signs as an exit. They weighed their options and took the chance with the doors. Even if not an exit, they figured it might lead to a different building and put them further away.

Their exit at the double doors led to a medical wing, as they discovered from the plate on the wall. It had to have an exit they figured, being some sort of clinic or hospital. The unfortunate problem was that they saw several people in white coats walking through the halls. They stared at each other realizing that an attempt would make it easy to spot them. They had to turn back.

However, two sets of footsteps came from behind them echoing around the hallway. The hall they stood in near the door had no rooms for them. A retreat back to the intersection meant risking being spotted. They looked back through the windows in the doors at the hall. No choice remained for them. They pushed the doors open and slowly walked along the side of the hall. Their effort in being small and invisible made it a few doors through the hall before they saw a nurse exiting a room. Ed pulled at Shizuka taking her into the room behind them. They pressed themselves up against the wall inside the room only looking at the entrance of the door waiting. Once the nurse passed out of sight, they sighed with relief.

"Who are you?" a voice asked from the other side of the room.

The voice made the two teens glue themselves to the wall pulling their heads back to the room. Thoughts of capture and punishment ran through their minds. However, after they focused back on the individual in front of them they changed their attitude. A young girl no older than them stood before them in a hospital gown.

"Er…kid?" questioned Ed, trying to figure out the situation that they found themselves in. Someone still saw them, but not in the manner expected.

Shizuka took a cautious step forward. "Who are you?"

"I asked you the same question," replied the girl.

"Oh, I guess you did," laughed Shizuka. She wiped her hand off on her dirty dress and extended it to the girl. "I'm Shizuka."

The girl took a step away from Shizuka measuring her up. "Aerona."

"Huh?" Her hand held out alone for a time until it became awkward. She retracted her arm seeing that the girl did not plan to accept her greeting. Shizuka noticed a distance that the girl placed between them with the intention of not approaching.

"That's my name."

"Nice to meet you, Aerona."

Ed noticed the warm smile on Shizuka's face and leaned away a little surprised. He had seen several different sides of her in the short time he spent with her, anger, fear, sadness, even humble, but not a smile. 'Girl changin' e'ery minut'…' However, he did not have much time to think to himself. A stare from Shizuka out of the corner of her eye aimed at him. She passed him a directional gaze to the girl that they met. "…er…yea…Edgar, that's me. Ya can call me, Ed, if ya whant!"

Shizuka cringed a bit at his use of language, but tried to move past it. She hoped an introduction would improve the atmosphere, but it remained as divided as it started. Her body wanted to move a little closer to try to mend the difference, but she felt it too great a risk. "Are you hurt?"

"Negative, the doctors reported no abnormalities in my body."

The response made Shizuka tilt her head a little with utterly befuddled Edgar behind her. 'A rather odd reply…' Her voice sounded clinical almost mechanical at times. When she spoke, it felt like she was as distant from her own body as Shizuka was from her. Shizuka did not know what to make of the girl. It made her curious to know what sort of home she had. "That's good! So why are you here then?"

"I am in a diagnostic room to verify my physical and mental condition."

Another difficult response, Shizuka raised an eyebrow becoming more curious. However, she shook her head lightly. "No, I meant on a military base. Does your father or mother work here or something?"

Aerona shifted her weight slightly away from Shizuka. "Negative, I have no parents. This is where I live and work."

Both Ed and Shizuka pulled back a little hearing her words. They did not completely understand what she meant by work, but their mood changed no longer feeling safe. It seemed a little impossible to them that someone their age would have any work on a military base.

"What are you saying?" asked Shizuka, "You're no older than us."

"It is the truth." Aerona moved over to a metal cabinet on the other side of the exam table. "If you will excuse me I need to change." Her finger pressed a button that pulled a curtain around the area separating them.

Ed could see that the answer confused Shizuka. She dealt with too many traumas in a single day and it seemed that she started putting together the truth. Edgar did not consider himself very intelligent, but he had his suspicions about the girl. Her response only made it clear for him. While he might have not liked the idea anymore than Shizuka, reality seemed far different that either imagined. One truth still remained for them: escape. He could not let them catch Shizuka and be subject to a cruel future. Ed grabbed onto Shizuka to pull her back to reality. "We need tah go," he whispered to her.

"Huh? Oh…right…" Shizuka let him take her to the door entrance. She still felt a little out of it. The thought of that girl possibly being involved churned her stomach. That man already planned to have Edgar and her pilot strange machines. The girl's speech and response added up in ways she did not want to finish connecting. '…this isn't right…we have rights, don't we? Isn't this against the law to use children?' Shizuka turned her head back towards the curtain where Aerona stood behind. She wanted to do something, but could not make her body move.

The hall became too active for them to move. Edgar wanted to leave quickly, but the doctors moving around made it impossible. However, the worse sign for him was the sight of soldiers. They did not seem to be searching, but rather speaking with one of the attendants as the desk. The scene gave him a bad feeling in his gut. '…damnit…' Each second that drained out for him watching the soldiers nervously from his hole racked his body. He wanted to move. "C'mon, we need tah go."

Shizuka looked at Edgar and then back to where Aerona was. "…yes…but…"

"I advise you to remain here," Aerona spoke from behind the curtain. Her voice made the two tremble for a second. The tone remained the same constant as before, but the air shifted to include a threatening presence.

'She knows?'

Ed changed his stance quickly pulling on Shizuka. He preferred to take his chances rather than wait for them to catch him. "Let's go!"

"Soldiers have already been dispatched and are in the Private Medical Wing." The curtain shifted with the noise of it pulling away to reveal Aerona. Both of them turned to see her standing in a military uniform. She closed the inside clasp on the collar locking it into place around her neck with a full single-breasted coat covering her down to her light blue slacks. "There is nowhere left to go, Petty Officers Third Class Shizuka Kitawara and Edgar Dubois."

"What?" The added rank completely ignored Shizuka as the sight of Aerona made a greater impact on her. The uniform was the last piece that she needed to forcibly accept the fact. She even missed the fact that they had them surrounded. "It can't be! Why? Why would you work for them?"

"This is my destiny, as it is yours as well."

Edgar pulled on Shizuka trying to get her to move out of the door while they still had a chance. Unfortunately, she became immobile and he stumbled. The time they wasted was enough for the soldiers to appear at the door. They started with Ed, who tried to fight his way through, but put him down to the ground quickly. They handcuffed him and raised him up. Shizuka was so lost that she gave no challenge to them and they arrested her quickly.

Back in the hanger, Kitawara sat on the plated shoulder of the Freya machine making adjustments to the equipment in the cockpit. Wires and tubes ran from all sides of the head into the machine and through the entrance. All of the machinery and wiring covered up most of the head from sight. Around the machine, work by the staff resumed in spite of the problem with the pilots flight. They still had a lot of work left to do before either machine functioned.

A beep from a small communication device attached to Kitawara's ear went off along with a light flashing. He subconsciously tapped it letting it expand around his ear partially covering it. "Yes? Tell me you have found them."

"We have, sir! We have them under arrest."

He fiddled with an electronic panel and removed a board from within the machinery. The device in his hand ran over it and touched specific points giving him back readings. "Good, put them in the brig for the time being. I'll deal with them later."

"Yes, sir!"

The line when dead after and the communication device closed up to the compact form clipped to the top of his ear. He slid the board back into place and attached the wires. A small window appeared on the only installed piece of the display screen in the head. It waited for a prompt from him. "Such selfish children…" He pulled back not giving the machine the answer it wanted. His free hand rubbed his head as he gave it more thought. "…guess it worked out. I planned on those two getting closer anyway. Their little escape has no doubt started to develop some bonds. Yes, if I consider it from this approach it is for the best. I need those two together…"

-X- -X- -X-

Darkness began to set on the city. Heavy shadows carried an oppressive feel through the rust and moss covered buildings. The coastal air brought in salt and moisture working its magic fingers on all of the metal. Old downtown did not receive the same maintenance as the newer parts of the city quickly feeling the effects in a few years. Those years long passed leaving the slow creak and groan of metal from passing trains pounding their still polished wheels into the elevated tracks. Each reverberating pound quaked into the sidewalk and street below belting out an awful baritone key. Residents of the slums ignored the screeching managing to filter it out of their daily lives.

However, Wells had not become accustomed to the racket. The wait on the light to change and the rattling in the truck made his borderline temper push centimeters closer to the edge. Even life as a pilot stationed on a carrier did not make such a ruckus. Only his prejudice with the people prevented him from screaming out the window, secret mission or no. Surrounded by demons on all sides, he started to regret his decision to travel with them. "…bastards…"

The light changed finally and the truck moved, but another train passed by for extra measure. Their stop to the clinic was only a short half block away. A small lot for cars did not give them much room for their truck, but they forced a spot anyway. Rinn's finesse with ships seemed to transfer well to different vehicles. He handled the truck with ease and parked them. Tilting his head over to Wells, he threw a bag at him. "Come on. Time to change."

Wells picked up the bag with generic looking overalls inside. He then threw it back at Rinn and crossed his arms. "I'm staying with the truck. Take, Elle with you." The tapping of his finger on his arm gave him the only outlet to release his emotions.

"Fine." They had little time to argument on the matter. Rinn opened the door and jumped down. In the back of the truck, he opened one of the doors and hefted himself inside. Not too far in, Lellecausua, known as Elle to those on the team, knelt at the side of the Commander. She looked up at his direction when he opened the door. "It's just us." He tossed the bag over to her. "I apologize for the lack of delicacy."

She picked it up and walked to the back corner facing away from Rinn. He turned away working on the bag in his hand. After they finished they exited their corners and came back. She lifted up Callein, who they already put in the uniform back on the ship, to her shoulder with Rinn coming up to help from the other side. He looked over at her and let out a small smirk. "Let me do the talking and just follow my lead."

"Understood."

He kicked open both doors letting them slam against the sides. The noise echoed around the street distracting a few of the people passing by. Rinn carefully approached the edge of the truck and took over carrying him while Lellecausua stepped out. Once they had the Commander down on street level, Rinn paused. He started to breathe heavily looking almost like he was out of breath from running a marathon. His hand ran through his hair ruffling it up and did the same to Lellecausua, who momentary protested. Rinn nodded to her to start moving with him. "Somebody help!" he shouted with all of his lungs, enough to knock Elle off balance again. "Anybody! Help!"

Rinn steered them to the clinic and kept shouting as loud as he could. It seemed like his voice would run ragged at the pace he yelled. However, by the time that they reached the sliding doors of the clinic three people, looking as part of the staff, ran out in a panic. He had their attention. "Please help me! You've got to save him! He was nearly crushed!"

A man looking like a doctor approached touching Callein. He motioned to the other two to come and help him. The doctor glanced back at Rinn. "What happened?"

"We were delivering materials to a construction site…when one of the heavy loaders malfunctioned." Rinn turned his head over to Callein pausing to take a breath of air. "He…noticed it before…the rest of us…" He turned back to the doctor leaning in towards him. The doctor looked a little unsettled by the proximity. "Please you have to save him, doc!"

"W-well, yes…I'll do what I can. Bring him inside!" The doctor ran back into the clinic shouting at the staff. "Get room D open now! Start up the body scan immediately! I need to know if there are broken bones or internal bleeding! Get Dr. Loo out here now to assist me!"

Elle moved with the flow of the maelstrom that he stirred up with his performance. She took it a little by surprise the amount of acting that he put on. It made her question what sort of man they had as their pilot. She thought he was just a crazy daredevil looking for excitement, but the new side she saw changed it all.

They handed over Callein to the nurses to start the examination. Some hesitation came before passing him off, but they knew they had to trust them. Rinn grabbed one of the nurses that stayed behind. "Hey, he doesn't have any family here…but can she…" He turned the nurse's gaze back to Elle. "Can you let her stay with him? At least until you operate? She's…you know…"

The nurse looked down at his pad as to consider it. He stared over at the woman seeing the confused look as worry. "I understand. She can stay for a little while."

"Thank you so much!" Rinn shouted, adding a smile and patting him on the shoulder. The nurse got a little uncomfortable with the attention and moved on to his job. Rinn grinned a little while the staff started to move about before turning back to Elle. "I got you inside," he added passing by her.

She turned back around in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

Still within centimeters of each other, Rinn leaned close to her. "They might be doctors and we need their help, but I don't trust them anymore than Wells does. So keep an eye on them and him. I'll wait here."

"What did you tell them?"

"Just another little white lie. You're a woman and he's a man. You can put it together I think." Rinn stepped away and sat down in the waiting room chair.

Elle stared slack-jawed at Rinn for several seconds. Even as he sat in the chair and returned to a concerned appearance, he never flinched for a moment. She could not believe him. '…the Commander…I can't believe him!' However, the nurse that Rinn spoke with came over to her.

"We've started the preparation. The examination is going to begin soon. If you want to stand by him…"

'Damn you, Rinn…' She turned back to the nurse and nodded to him. Elle did not know how to act around them. She figured remaining quiet and just looking a little off would be enough. It seemed to work for her.

-X- -X- -X-

Antarctica – Antarctica City – HOPE Military Brig

Dead silent. Not even the clicking of distant machinery or the muffled sounds of planes penetrated. Only a single light existed in the entire chamber that filled with an ooze of gloom that ran thicker than paint over all the surfaces and into even the cracks between plating. Barely enough illumination leaked out of the iron jaws of the fixture to draw out blurred lines for shadows as though the artist drank too much before starting. Draped within the very darkness itself, the two occupants appeared to have welcomed the void that surrounded them.

Ed never knew why he acted to help someone he barely knew. He realized even before he acted that the entire effort was futile. Honestly, what could he have done inside a military base? While part of the crew of the Niph, they treated him as an adult, even if teasing him as a kid. However, he understood that he was still a teenager. As a teenager, he ruined someone's life. Even as a kid, he could still make adult mistakes.

He understood the likely outcome was the one where he sat, but he still wanted to change it. Edgar wondered if it was wrong to, naively, want to do the right thing when something was not fair and still ask to be an adult at the same time. It felt like asking for too much. He hung his head on his knees.

Shizuka remained completely motionless since her arrival in the brig. She did not even realize that she sat in a different room. Her mind still struggled to deal with everything that happened. Once she knew that they caught her everything shutdown for her. The efforts she made to hold back her questions and disbelief about the situation came flooding in baring the full weight with them.

Unaware of the door sliding open to the brig, someone stepped in it the chamber approaching the cells with the prisoners. They stood in the middle of the cells with an eye on both. The dim spaced erased most of the features of the individual. "You two have given us quite a bit of trouble. I guess considering that you spent your years on the outside rather on the inside, then that is to be expected. You lived unaware of your purpose or destiny. Today that changes."

"Who's ya?" demanded Ed. He tilted his head over his shoulder trying to see who address them. "And what w'th tha fancy-pants spe'ch, eh?"

"Such crude language skills. You'll need to correct that."

"Lik' hell I'll do that!"

"Petty Officer Third Class Edgar Dubois, you've accepted becoming a part of the HOPE Military, as such that means you will learn discipline, teamwork and respect. Additionally, you will speak correctly when addressing a superior."

"Eh? Who's that?"

He stepped back letting the meager light cast on his face so that Edgar could meet his gaze. The man that stood before him still looked very young, but older than him with a serious, disciplined form. His short dark blonde hair and light blue eyes showed someone that fought for professionalism, but still had a kind appearance. "I'm in charge of the two of you. I'm your direct superior as team leader. I'm Ensign Ansgar Toule."

"Anz-what?"

"…Ansgar…" he repeated with carefully measured tone.

"…eh? What'ver, think I'll just call ya Ensign Tool. Sounds perfe't." Ed gave a bit of a smirk to him. He tried to pull on his missing fedora again, but stopped himself. The uneasy balance between control and emotional immaturity within Ansgar did not go completely ignored by Ed. He did not have the keen observational skills, but his gut never led him wrong.

The Ensign struggled to pull himself together. Dealing with the ex-mercenary turned into a troubling issue. He began to regret agreeing to speak with him. As a move to establish his center, he shifted his position a little to look at the girl that remained still. '…the prize that Dr. Kitawara endlessly goes on about. She's at least more human than Air, unfortunately she has a rebellious streak that will be just as troublesome. I don't know why they decided to let these two into the world.' Ansgar approached the cell for Shizuka, noticing that she still made no action to noticing him. He held his hand to the bar gripping it firmly. "Have you accepted your reality? I'm not very pleased with the manner that they went about things, but this is beyond my control. The least I can do is make things comfort for you."

Shizuka held still, but Ed grabbed on to the bars of his cell pressing against them. "Hey! What's w'th tha fri'ndly talk fer 'er? 'Cus she a girl, eh?"

Ansgar only spared a momentary glance to him. "No, unlike you, she didn't sign any agreement or asked politely to come back. She was forced against her will. And by her own father, no less."

"He's not my father!" snapped Shizuka, on instinct. She had awakened. Her eyes held fire within them once more. They carried a strong angry, all-consuming untamable fire. "I have no father."

"Considering what he's done, I'm inclined to agree. However, family is still family, regardless how much of a bastard they are." He backed away from the cell glad to see her alive again. 'The reports from the soldiers did not understate her temper.' Near the center of the room, he came to a stop removing a card from his pocket. He held it up between two fingers. Ansgar turned his head back to the two. "However much you feel you have been lied to about joining the military and however much you feel that you have been forced into the military, your situation's are both the same. You are pilots of HOPE, like it or not. Now I'm going to let you out. You have two choices, run away to be caught again or follow me. Just remember, at least with me I still consider you human beings before pilots. Those in charge view you differently. So make your choice." He slid the card over the panel triggering the locks on the cells. After the unlocking mechanics finished, the doors to the cells rotated open.

Ed stepped out of the cell and stood up finally getting his measure of the man before him. While height did not mean everything, Ansgar did beat him. All of the speech giving bored Ed a bit, but despite the obnoxious attitude and composure, Ed did not feel him to be as bad as Dr. Kitawara. 'I did make a promise, e'en if thay're bastards.' He turned to look over for Shizuka. Given what he went through with her, he decided that he would leave the final answer to her. He only acted because of her.

The cell with Shizuka waited for her to exit. She stood just before the threshold staring down at the line it made between her and the outside. 'What's going to happen after I cross this line? Where will it take me?' Shizuka grabbed a hold of the bars for support and stepped out with one leg. 'Forced into military service…why? Why did he want me?' She still had questions and fears. A lot remained unknown for her. The oppressive atmosphere made her feel sick. She wanted to leave. However, they stood in a military base meaning escape would be difficult. Shizuka finished stepping out of the cell.

Ansgar watched the two of them for any signs, but neither budged from their spots in front of their cells. He felt a bit of relief. 'I don't want to imagine what sort of punishment they might have done if they tried again.' His hand tapped the panel, still holding his code. The cell gates closed up. After finishing, he marched to the entrance. "Follow me, I'll take you to your rooms."

Taken outside into the strictly controlled environment of the dome, Ansgar escorted Shizuka and Edgar to the base housing. Since the Antarctica Base was permanent, regular housing complexes lined the outer sides of the base. A few apartment buildings even stood on the grounds. However, as they noted, the Ensign did not lead them to the standard housing neighborhood. When they drove past the entrance, the sign to the two apartment buildings said "Special Projects Housing". They came to a stop in the parking lot positioned in the middle of the two buildings.

Once the engine turned off, Ansgar rotated around to the two in the back. "Alright, all personnel belonging to the highly classified projects of HOPE are stationed here. The west building is the male barracks and the east building is the female barracks. Remember that not all of the personnel are strictly soldiers. Engineers, work crews, scientists, researchers and staff all live here. In fact, the actual military presence here is very low, less than five percent have real military ranks. So be mindful of the other residents." He opened the door and stepped out. His hand motioned to them to follow him.

When they reached the sidewalk that ran between the two buildings, he stopped and turned to face them. He removed two cards from his pocket and handed them over. "These are yours keys to unlock your rooms. The number is also on the card. I will be back for you in the morning. You will find uniforms as well as civilian clothes already assigned to your rooms. The uniforms are mandatory, the civies was me trying to provide you some comfort. So take them or leave them."

A little hesitation came from Toule as he dug into his pockets again. He sighed a little knowing it was for the best. "One last thing. Put out your arms towards me." Both of them gave him a suspicious and piercing gaze. "Come on. This is an order!" Reluctance turned to acceptance, though cautiously. He quickly removed the bands from his pocket and attached them to their wrists before they could question things further.

"Hey, what's tha me'nin' of this?" Ed already began trying to remove the band from his wrist. If it had not been a seamless appearing strip around their wrist no thicker than string, it might have been mistaken for a watch. "Get this off meh!"

"While I prefer to work on trust, the higher ups don't agree with me. Since you've already tried to escape once this is something you will be forced to wear. It has a tracking chip inside it that sends out a signal to the monitoring station. If you remove them by force we will know about it, immediately. They've stationed guards at the apartments on a twenty-four hour shift to monitor you."

"Damn you!"

Ed threw out his fist at Ansgar in rage. Expecting the reaction, he lifted up his hand easily catching his hand. "I may not like this anymore than you, but my orders are clear. Since you've already made your decisions not to flee anymore, this is should only be a minor inconvenience for you."

"…bastard…"

Shizuka turned away and started towards her assigned building. She knew everything the man said was correct. She figured that they would take measures. Her hand rose towards her head to look at her wrist. '…a minor inconvenience…'

After Shizuka's departure, Ed felt a little out of place still arguing with Ensign Tool. He kicked his feet at the ground in frustration and moved on. The distance to his apartment had a bit of a walk. Ed did not feel like going just yet. He turned around noticing the Ensign already starting the jeep back up. Across from him, Shizuka walked away from him slowly. She had been very accepting the entire time since let out. He wondered what went her mind.

Edgar ran his hands through his hair with frustration in his muscles. He sprinted over to the woman's barracks with Shizuka still in sight. "Hey! Wait up! Shesu…She…Su!"

The butchering of her name was enough to make her stop. She tilted her head over her shoulders giving him a very health glare. "What?" she asked in a tone that passed being curt.

"…er…ya see…" Her stare and attitude that he was more familiar with seeing returned. Unfortunately, it made it more difficult for him to say what he wanted. His body stiffened up and locked his mouth. The words he wanted refused to come up. '…damnit…' His disappointment in himself made his body start to shake. Ed dropped his head down losing sight of everything.

Shizuka narrowed her eyes trying to figure out what he wanted. "If you don't have anything to say then leave me alone." She turned back and resumed walking to the building's entrance.

Ed managed to get his mouth to open, but no words came out. He pulled his head up realizing that she began to leave his reach. "…no…I-I-I…" He stretched out his hand to her, already beyond his hold. Edgar tried to get his legs to move, but they did not make any progress. Shizuka entered the threshold and the glass doors slid closed behind her. She was gone. "Damnit!" Ed dropped down to his knees. He failed. 'I'm sorry!'

-X- -X- -X-

The hours passed in awkward silence. The clinic staff continued on, but watched the two seated in their lobby waiting. Uncertainty and tension for being within enemy territory came out mistaken as worry and concern. They both worried about their Commander, but during the operation, their minds continued to fall back to the idea they sat in the middle of an enemy city hoping nothing went wrong. Their mission still needed them and a single mistake would cost everything that hundreds of people worked tirelessly to achieve.

Luck stayed with them however, the operation finished with none of the staff having any problems with them. Their identity remained safe and the doctor came walking out, still wearing the mask around his neck. He carried a hard plastic board with an electronic screen built into the thick material. His fingers tapped along the surface.

Rinn stood up first, slowly followed by Elle. "Doc? Is everything going to be alright?"

The doctor lowered the pad to speak with them unimpeded. "Yes, the operation was a success. He did sustain a few broken ribs that were pressing against his lung, but there was no damage to the lung. I did find a lot of internal bruises and ruptures, but we were able to tend to everything. He'll be out of intensive care soon and able to rest. It'll be a few hours until he wakes up."

Genuine relief showed on Rinn. "Thank you, doc."

"Umm…" The doctor began to look a little uncomfortable with his voice changing pitch. "This is never easy, but I do need to talk about payment. I understand that you don't have any insurance."

"Er…yeah, can we talk about this later, doc? I promise we'll pay you for your troubles. This is just a difficult time right now for us."

"Oh of course, I understand. We'll keep him in our care for at least a week."

"…a week!" whispered Elle, thinking about the dangers.

The man looked a little confused by her reaction. Rinn put his arm around her shoulder looking to be providing comfort. "Sorry, she's just worried about being away from him for so long."

"You can visit anytime during normal visiting hours, naturally."

"Thank you, doc. If you'll excuse me."

"Yes, of course."

Rinn helped her back out of the building and around to the truck. He pounded on the passenger door to wake up Wells. "Hey! Make room!"

"Eh? Oh, how's Cal?"

"He's fine they say. We'll be able to see him soon." He helped Lellecausua up to the front cab of the truck to share with Wells. Afterward, he quickly moved around to the drive side and jumped in. He kept the engine off. His hands rested on the steering wheel as he leaned forward, staring at nothing. "They want payment. I thought we had found a free clinic, but I guess a major operation like that can't be free."

Wells turned his head over to Rinn a little bothered by the casual tone he had about their Commander. "We don't have any money! Not like I'd pay those demons, anyway."

"Yeah, I know…means at some point we'll need to plan an escape with the Commander." Rinn pulled back against the seat and pushed the button to turn the engine on. He set the truck into gear and started to back out. "We still need to figure out our supply problem with the transport and do our actual mission too. So we should have some time."

-X- -X- -X-

The room they gave Shizuka came fully furnished. If it did not have the military base surrounding it and protocols, it would have passed for a standard studio apartment with an attached kitchen and bathroom. The bed and couch functioned as one set changing to the desired need. An entertainment monitor provided limited channel access. The cupboards recently received a new store of food. They prepared everything for her, as Ansgar told her. It still felt empty and impersonal.

Shizuka did not care for much of what she saw. After the day she had, she just wanted to sleep. She changed the couch over to a bed and dropped down. Sheets or changing clothes did not matter to her. She did not feel up it. All her mind focused on was the whirlwind of things that happened. The girl, Aerona, appeared in her mind. The thought that the girl lived on Base and did not have a problem with it bothered her. Then the case of the Ensign, who seemed kind, but forced to do things he found distasteful. Moreover, she fell on Edgar and herself, tricked or forced into service. 'None of this is right… This is not how things should be… Where people are forced to take orders, become used to military service while still a kid, tricked and forced… It's not right…' Shizuka narrowed her features as she stared at the ceiling. 'I'm going to make sure this never happens again…'

To be continued…