Still trailing a long, brilliant blue-white flame from her main thruster and smaller flares from her boots, Mako races through the valley just a few meters above the broad and sturdy train tracks. She smoothly follows the tracks' wide turns, wings and vertical stabilizer fin gently banking and twitching, respectively, to make adjustments to her course. Halfway through a wide left turn the flight enabled cyborg suddenly banks hard right and into a narrow, steep sided pass between a pair of mountains opposite the tracks from the one they were rounding the base of.

I don't know how anyone can stand all this twisting and turning just to get somewhere, she mentally complains, but no other voices answer. This is just a private thought as she sticks low to the ground until eventually getting halfway around the mountain now on her left, its impressive mass firmly between herself and the train that should be nearly to the point she had parted ways with the tracks. Again she suddenly alters course, this time sweeping left and pulling back to jet straight up at the peak of the steep mountain blowing powdery snow up in her wake as she ascends at a distance of no more than two meters from the rough and rocky alpine slope. Just before she blazes over the very peak of the mountain, her thrusters suddenly flicker out and her matte gray winged form flickers in the air for a split second before disappearing.

XXX

I'm above peak altitude, Mako's voice sounds in Crash's head as he ponders the small stack of chips his opponent is pushing forward into the middle of the table at that very moment. I've managed to catch a thermal, at least what passes for one around here, so I can stay on station under stealth for at least a few minutes.

Quit whining, Crash silently snapped, his face giving no indication of any thoughts aside from a somewhat indifferent appraisal of the five cards in his hand. What do you see?

You have what I count as fourteen heavy duty all terrain bikes staying just around the bend behind you. All look to be double mounted, and all the riders look armed but I'm not getting any signatures on my passives worth noting. Looks like just a bunch of normals with chemical guns.

That's a light crew for hitting a train like this even if they don't know about us being here.

Well they sure as hell didn't notice me flying up here! Mako's neurally transmitted voice sounds decidedly offended.

Relax, he answers, casually flicking his cards onto the table, surrendering the pot, if I doubted your skills I wouldn't work with you. Anything else out there?

Nothing obvious.

That tunnel coming up, a new voice interjects, this one a little deeper and smoother than Crash's own and much more so than Mako's not quite shrill soprano, and Crash glances up to meet his physical companion's eyes as the other man rakes in his winnings. It's over three kilometers long and the slopes on both ends make for great ambush points.

Crash briefly leans back and mentally flips through overhead images of their present location, both from Mako's feed and zoomed in satellite photography. After another five or six kilometers of serpentine tracks, their course crosses a steep and wide ridge line that runs unbroken for a good dozen klicks in either direction. The ridge is nearly four thousand meters above the base and no clear (or even vaguely plausible) paths over it is visible, at least not without flight capability.

Gremlin's right, Crash agreed. Stay out of sight, but give this side of that ridge a good look and, if you don't see anything, check out the other side.

Acknowledged.

"Mister Krauss," Crash casually says as Gremlin again deftly shuffles the cards. Casually, but loudly enough to turn the other three men's heads to the cloaked companions. Do you know of anyone who might wish to seen this venture of yours fail?"

"Wha-" one of the other men as before Krauss holds up his hand and interrupts him.

"Why?" he demands. "Is there something out there?"

"There's always something out there," Gremlin smoothly responds with a slight drawl, "but that he's asking about your interests in particular."

"Well, of course," Krauss comes back. "The initial planetary survey discovered a huge wealth of minerals in the mountains all around the northwestern expanse of this range, and it's just been sitting there for the better part of three centuries since then because my father established a legal claim to the entire region back when he was in charge of this company. The only reason none of the would-be claim jumpers that got here on faster ships haven't tried to trespass on my claim is for fear that the others would rat them out to what passes for a government on this God forsaken planet!"

"Yes," Crash replied, "I am well aware of that much. Nobody else can legally exploit your claim unless you've at least had a chance to do so yourself. That 'else' includes three major resource development firms and at least a dozen smaller interests on Tierra Sierra, all of which got here quite some time ago, decades even, at least for the big ones. They all no doubt covet your claim, but if any one of those groups tries to sabotage your efforts the officials will start turning a blind eye to overt acts of sabotage against them by the others. The so-called authorities here are more like referees who make sure everybody plays nice, but the only real threat they possess unto themselves is the threat of calling in the Fleet and nobody wants that. Martial law is bad for business."

Crash pushes a small stack of chips forward as he continues in a matter of fact tone. "We know that. Everyone on the planet knows that, as a matter of fact, and you and the people you brought with you were the last to find out. What I want to know is are there any persons, organizations, or other entities who would specifically wish you ill amongst those you discovered, upon thawing from cryosleep, had beaten you here because FTL travel was discovered shortly after your expedition left Earth?"

"None specific," Krauss answered. "Nothing personal or even any real professional rivalries. Anybody like that launched expeditions like mine around the same time, if not sooner. Even the big players here were upstarts at best, beneath my notice. Why the sudden interest, Captain?"

"First, you're a newcomer that none of the existing players is fond of. The authorities may be keeping an eye on your claim, at least from a distance but this region is only intermittently covered by surveillance satellites. It isn't outside the realm of possibility that a few well placed bribes could result in certain imagery from those satellites to be lost. Second, it's not 'Captain," Crash corrects as Gremlin calls his bet, discards three of his own cards, and deals again, "it's 'Officer.' Captains have either ships, squadrons, or companies. I have a squad."

"So," Krauss growls, "you're saying now that we're in danger, Officer? You might have mentioned that before I agreed to the exorbitant price you demanded for just one squad of modernly equipped soldiers!"

Target, Mako's voice sounds in Crash and Gremlin's heads, and their eyes meet. Stealthed, about a hundred and forty meters this side of the top of the ridge.

Are you sure? Crash asks silently.

Damn sure. Lousy choice of a hide, no good room for full diffusion.

Fire a warning shot.

"Excuse me, Officer," Krauss demands, "I believe yo-"

He cuts off as Crash and Gremlin both abruptly hold up hands in his direction.

How much "warning," Mako asks, and how much "shot?"

Just graze them. If that's a lookout I want to see if his friends show their hands before we have to. Slip, Slide, Bounce, try to act casual. Crash finally turns to Krauss as he and Gremlin both set down their cards.

"Somebody's decided it's worth the risk to meddle, so I recommend you inform your men to stay alert and keep their hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times."

"What do mean," Krauss asks, though his tone is now wary and a bit respectful, "'somebody?'"

"Somebody with modern tech," Crash responds.

"You mean...people like you?"

"We're about to find out," Crash says distantly, calling up the live feed from Mako's comlink.

XXX

High above even the unearthly steep, snow dusted mountains Mako suddenly appears as if out of thin air, her seemingly unwieldy long weapon tucked against her armored left shoulder and helmeted cheek as she dives towards the long ridge line below. A brilliant crimson beam blazes from the muzzle of her rifle to vaporize snow and blast rock into the air below. Even as she sharply pulls up with a burst of thrust and banks into a barrel roll, already flickering from sight again, a white painted human form shoots up from next to the impact point on a flair of its own thrusters, quickly dropping back over the other side of the ridge.

XXX

Bogey confirmed, Mako's voice sounds in Crash's head, Striker. Just ducked over the ridge. Pursue?

Muttering a curse half under his breath, Crash stands up from the booth as Gremlin mirrors his movements. Negative, he responds, maintain overwatch. Turning towards Krauss, he speaks aloud as he shrugs off his cloak, his companion again following suit. "At least one like us, and our kind rarely operate solo" he says aloud as blue hued material half extends and half flows up to cover his head, briefly flipping outward to cover his red hair. More of the same occurs over his hands, sheathing them in cerulean gloves.

The other three men step back, suddenly showing discomfort at being so close to a pair of men covered head to toe in body armor, one blue and one black, with multiple short, stubby looking thrust nozzles extending from their backs and each with a pair of oversized pistol-like weapons hanging from brackets at their hips.

Gremlin wastes no time crossing to the rear of the train car, striding lightly and gracefully as if his armor doesn't weigh a thing. Crash follows, but can't help overhearing one of Krauss' companions ask, "Are we under attack?"

"Not yet," the mercenary leader shouts back, "but soon and you won't be able to do a damn thing about it on your own." All three of the finely dressed men act as if to ask more, but all three pause as Gremlin slides open the rear door of the car, hops through with a twist and shoots up and out of sight on a burst of flame. "You may have some men with guns, but they're no match for Boosters." He pauses in the doorway, turning briefly to face the others. "Luckily, you had the foresight to hire Crash's Party for protection, and we can fight Boosters."

With that, he steps backward onto the rear stage and launches himself up onto the top of the car he had just been standing in.