As the advancing night crept slowly over the Dark Tide, the fortress's crew began to change shifts, switching over to the evening's typical skeleton crew. Her six flight decks moved to their standby configuration, with the two groups of three decks on each side stacking on top of each other, leaving only the top two flight decks still operational. On the bridge, the night crew took their positions, settling in for yet another night of inaction.
The Dark Tide was currently located deep behind Terra Firma's lines on the east coast of the former United States, comfortably situated amidst the decaying rubble of previous centuries' urban sprawl. Thanks to the region's relative disuse by SAF and by extension Shell as a whole prior to the war, it had been very easy for Terra Firma to establish control of it almost 3 years ago, and ever since then it had proven to be one of the Surface's most defensible areas. Now known as the Juggernaut Line, the region had become home to 6 large Terra Firma ground bases, several smaller installations, and at any given time was the home territory of no less than 6 of Terra Firma's 17 massive Spirit of Motherwill-class carrier fortresses (of which the Dark Tide was one). In short, the Juggernaut Line was quite possibly one of the most militarized areas on the planet (second perhaps only to Terra Firma GHQ in Australia), and the core of Terra Firma's military might in the western hemisphere. Crossing the Line was a death sentence for any SAF Force attempting to operate within the area, and the Juggernaut Line was one of the few air-spaces on earth where no Shell dare fly.
"Sir, I’ve got an unidentified contact on radar. Approaching from the northwest at high speed."
The ranking officer on the Dark Tide's bridge at the time, Capt. Robert Archer, sat up, looking mildly concerned. He was a shorter man, a little on the pudgy side and vaguely resembling a pug dog, but the intense stare he usually wore gave him an air of strength, and those under his command learned quickly that he was not one to be trifled with. Though outranked by Admiral Yoshino and Vice-Admiral Adachi, he was technically the Dark Tide's commanding officer, and often served as the fortress's second-in-command when Takeo was on the bridge and Zalwara was out flying a combat mission. Archer had the utmost respect for both men, though he was sometimes annoyed by the lack of authority he had over his own boat. As such, he rather enjoyed taking command at night, even if there was rarely anything to do. He turned and spoke to his radar man, an inexperienced cadet who had recently finished his training, hence his assignment to the night shift. "Check your database, you should be able to match that radar signature to something we have on file. Have you received an IFF code?"
Robert pinched his brow. "Identification Friend or Foe code. Its a transmission code programmed to be picked up by our radar to let us know which contacts are ours. If something doesn't give us the right code, its likely an enemy. What do they teach you kids at the academy these days?"
"Sorry, sir." The cadet looked both apologetic and a bit scared, obviously not used to being in the company of such high-level personnel. Robert broke his characteristic intensity to flash a reassuring smile.
"Don't worry about it too much. Just focus on your job. Now, what have you got for me?"
"Just this one, sir. Large enough to be a Combat Frame, but it’s moving much too fast... about mach 1.2, and it’s on a vector that will take it right to us. No IFF code yet, sir." There was a pause before the cadet spoke again. "What kind of frame moves like that, though?"
"Not your average machine. All active hands to yellow alert, just in case. What's the ETA?"
"Roughly seven minutes, sir."
Archer turned to the only operator currently on the bridge. "Get a frame squad on standby. I want to have some sort of response ready for this thing, just in case.”
“Roger that, sir.” The operator then proceeded to order one of the Dark Tide’s numerous squads to the flight deck, their frames ready for a quick takeoff and intercept.
A light breeze flowed gently over the hills that surrounded TRAP HQ, rustling the needles of the few pines that remained standing on the barren landscape. The sun had set hours before, giving way to a brilliant pageant of stars, joined that night by a nearly full moon. The breeze gave the cool autumn night air a bite, and thanks to the comparatively bright light of the moon and the stars one would be able to see their breath. On the roof of the rustic hotel structure that served as the above ground entrance and disguise for TRAP’s base sat Gavin Decker, taking puffs from the electronic cigarette that normally served to fill his pocket. The roof was where he usually ventured to be by himself, as few of the personnel on base ever ventured into the hotel, and few of the ones that did knew how to get on to the roof from inside.
The day’s events had weighed heavily on him. Despite his inquiries that appeared to indicate the contrary, Gavin was all too aware of what had been bugging his commanding officer, and frankly the subject troubled him as well. The Twins, despite their insubordination, were correct. Lauren’s disappearance was suspect, and the fact that they’d been able to recover the Canis’s cockpit intact meant that there was little-to-no chance that Lauren had actually been killed in that engagement. In all likelihood she was alive, somewhere. Best case, she was in good health and simply had not been found yet. However, there was also another possible scenario, one Gavin would rather not think about.
He was sure it was on Addy’s mind too, though she would never have admitted that fact to him. Actually, despite their shared responsibility of commanding TRAP, there were few things Adelheid actually let Gavin in on. For the most part, he took care of whatever she delegated to him… as well as a good portion of other work that was his alone. In other words, despite the fact that they got along rather well, their relationship was strictly professional.
It bugged him.
Gavin sighed, then sat up and pulled a wallet out of the same pocket his E-cig had been residing in but a few minutes earlier. Beneath all of of his security clearances, the crumpled bills and the uncountable number of late-night cafeteria receipts, cleverly hidden behind the rigid, rectangular piece of plastic that was his ID badge, was a folded, dogeared photograph. A picture of himself and two people he cared deeply for, standing triumphantly on the shoulders and head of the machine that would go on to become the first Synchro Frame. One was now long gone, a sad reminder of the ferocity of the war, and the other was currently several meters below him underground, probably totally unaware of how he felt about her.
Then again, that was probably for the best. Those sorts of feelings had little place on the battlefield, especially for someone in a command-level position like Gavin’s, where he was more or less responsible for the well-being of all of those under his command. For this reason he’d done a very good job of hiding his feelings for Adelheid behind his usual friendly attitude and teasing.
They’d met during the early days of the SF development program, back before the Allegorical Manipulation System had been perfected and other theories on 1:1 control were being tested. Gavin had volunteered as a favor to Altomare Weiss, the third person in the photo, and Adelheid had been selected as a promising test pilot candidate. They’d gotten off to a bit of a rocky start at first, but after a few weeks of testing the three of them had developed a friendly working relationship. Thinking back on it now, Gavin had probably started to fall for her back then, little by little. Maybe it was her drive, he’d never seen someone as passionate about frames as she was. Or maybe he just found her attractive. Either way, he’d somehow come to care for this aloof, somewhat foul-tempered woman who, despite her stressful job somehow managed to put aside just enough of her frustrations each day to put up with his teasing, and was always there to help him dodge unnecessary paperwork or get a cup of coffee with him when he needed it after a sleepless night of maintenance, orders forms, and chores.
Whatever the reason was, It had been eating at him lately, especially now with TRAP having suffered its first casualty. It was oddly frustrating. Of all other people on the base, the only one he really shouldn’t get close to was the one he was most concerned for, and he knew that the correct course of action was to keep it that way. Besides, he doubted she’d even be interested in him. After all, laid back and cheerful wasn’t really her type. But still, as he looked up into the night sky, stars and Shells glistening against the blackness, he couldn’t help but wonder what she would say if she knew…
As the Argonaut squad made its way toward the unidentified radar contact, the men inside the frames were apprehensive as to what they would encounter. Should it indeed be an enemy of some sort, it would have to be very powerful to have penetrated this far into Terra Firma territory by itself. Though their machines were powerful, they knew that 5 Argonauts would stand little chance against an enemy Synchro frame, and with the speed the target was ingressing at, it was highly likely that this was the case.
They’d stayed silent for the most part, as they were all tired from being awoken after hours and were focussed on the target ahead. However, the lead pilot then broke the silence with the ETA.
“T -minus 45 to intercept!” The target was on their onboard radar now, coming in just as as fast as it had before. The argonauts slowed and spread out, hovering in midair and waiting for the target to close.
The frames’ weapons were out now, all aimed and ready to fire on the target. Suddenly, it increased speed, accelerating to over mach 1.4 and blowing past the Argonaut intercept team, making a beeline for the Dark Tide. Those onboard quickly manned their battle stations and prepped more frames for launch. However, before the unprepared fortress’s guns could open up on it, the mysterious machine had breached its defense line. Now in much too close to be reliably hit with any weapons save the Dark Tide’s AA guns, the unidentified machine descended rapidly toward the central superstructure of the Dark Tide, flying by the command tower and shaking its structure (and by extension those inside), with its exhaust. Before any of the shocked gunnery crews had a clear chance to open fire, the machine came to a screeching, sparking landing on the flight deck, its IFF code now broadcasting. Stunned and bewildered, Captain Archer recoiled in his chair as a voice came over the radio.
“This is Shark-1, Lieutenant Drayden Seidrich reporting for duty. I've got orders forms with me here from high command that I think you’ll want to see.” The voice of Terra Firma’s ace pilot was growly and condescending. He was obviously quite satisfied with having duped the entire ship’s defense grid, and thanks to both his special combat designation, as well as the orders forms he was carrying, he was able to do so with impunity. Archer, now fully recovered from the tower buzzing, growled back at him. “Roger that. Store your frame in the hangar and deliver those orders to the admiral ASAP.”
“Yes, sir. Will do.” The smile on the Vid-com was wide and malicious, sending a bit of a chill down the younger cadet’s spine.
“Who was that, sir?’
The captain turned, fixed his cap and sighed. “That, son, is a man you don’t want to meet on the battlefield. He is unpredictable, undisciplined, and, unfortunately for me, he may very well be unbeatable.” Another sigh followed. “It looks like we’ll have to put up with him for awhile, though.”
“But sir, why would command give someone like that so much authority. He could have gotten himself shot down or damaged the ship. If any of our frame pilots did that, they’d get thrown in the brig or worse.”
“It’s complicated. He’s a synchro frame pilot; a rare resource, in other words. Pilots like that get sent where they’ll be most useful. Command tends to think the drawbacks of giving them free reign are outweighed by the benefits of having them participate in combat. Sometimes though, we end up having to work with loose cannons like the Lieutenant.”
“Is he really that effective? I’ve never seen one in action before.”
“I’ll put it this way. Two or three of those machines can be more effective than 50 combat frames. Imagine if, just now, he’d been a SAF pilot. Everyone on this bridge would have both been killed, and the Dark Tide could have sustained quite a bit of damage. It pays to be able to fight fire with fire, so they say, and that’s why we often get sent one or two pilots like that when this fortress gets assigned an important mission. I expect we’ll be leaving here in a few days.”