Step 1: Crash

"Holy shit!"

Her curse was nearly drowned out by the peal of small-arms fire against the side of her brand-fucking-new baby. "Hold onto your dicks!" she yelled over a shoulder before she yanked the stick to the left and slammed a paw into the rudder to send the dropship into a violent twist away from the gunfire. Her eyes flicked to the cracks that materialized on the corner of her windshield, snarling at the sight of three neat perforations in the supposedly bulletproof glass. "Reinforced, my ass!" she growled before blinking as one of the soldiers in the hold appeared in the entry to the cockpit behind the grey-furred female.

"What are you doing, you crazy bitch??" he yelled, eyes wide. "Get us on the ground before you get blown out of the fuckin' sky!"

Her eyes narrowed and she tilted her head to reply calmly as she swerved to avoid a burst of machine-gun fire. "I'm working on it."

He cursed as the maneuver caused his head to bounce off the archway, his knuckles tightening. "Well, work harder!"

She pursed her muzzle, blowing a loose bang of light-blue mane out of her eyes as she slid a hand onto the throttle. "Hey, Lieutenant, do me a favor?"

"What?" he shouted over the blaring alarms that began to scream across her cockpit.

She slammed the lever forward to shove the thrusters into the red, and the armored soldier yelped as the ship leaped forward and sent him tumbling to the back of the hold. "Thanks."

His three companions stared awkwardly at his crumpled body, a tangle of limbs and muffled cursing at the back of the ship. "You stupid bitch!" he hollered before he squawked in pain as she deftly juked the ship around another volley of high-caliber rounds, his unsecured body smashing into the side of the hold.

"Enjoy the spin cycle, asshole," she muttered, her fingers moving like silken strings across a series of switches to activate the air-brakes on one side of the craft. She grabbed the control stick with both hands and forced it as hard as she could to one side -- the flaps screamed in protest but helped her throw the dropship into an ungainly roll. At the back, the lieutenant was a screeching mass of arms and legs, clanking from wall-to-ceiling-to-wall-to-floor as his soldiers stared awkwardly from their harnesses.

The hail of automatic fire peppered uselessly into the armored sides of the ship, her maneuver keeping the less-protected underbelly safe. Her sharp eyes caught a relatively safe pocket of dirt in the chaos below and she quickly lowered the flaps before steering toward it while calling over her shoulder: "See an LZ, good as any! Get ready to jump, assholes!"

The lieutenant might have attempted to curse her again, but the ship was shaking too violently to hear him over the shuddering of the hull as the pilot's eyes locked onto her target. Another dropship with similar markings to hers was hovering near the spot as a small platoon disembarked. She continued the steep dive, poised for a rapid halt...only to grit her teeth and whisk the ship violently to the left as a rocket smashed into the other craft to engulf it in a fiery explosion that took out most of the troopers crouched on the ground next to it. "Shit, boys, this is gonna be a splash-and-dash, someone get that fucking door open!" she snarled as she quickly maneuvered to make use of the burning hulk in front of her as temporary cover.

She ripped her sunglasses off, holding them in her teeth as she slammed a fist into the emergency redirect for the thrusters, and the dropship came to a near-instant stop. The lieutenant had just enough time to grab the door handle, which was probably the only thing that stopped him from being slung back into the cockpit. The door was wrenched open and his voice growled over the thrusters: "Out, out, out, on the ground!"

His soldiers quickly undid their harnesses, shakily finding their footing after the harrowing flight and stumbling out one-by-one. When he was the last one in the hold, he shot a glare up to the cockpit. "As soon as this fucking shit-show is done, I'm sending a letter to the Council." She looked back at him flatly, aviators still hanging from her jaws. Her expression reflected a complete lack of any sort of impression, negative or otherwise. "Consider this the last fuckin' time you fly for the SSF!"

He shifted to jump down from the ship and a sharp pop made his face contort in confusion. He took one unsteady step and the pilot blinked before realizing he wasn't frowning -- he just had a hole in his face. That would explain why he slowly collapsed into a heap, along with the sudden spray of crimson over the other side of the hold. "Aw come on, I just got this motherfucker!" she complained before widening her eyes as another salvo of bullets pounded into the open bay. "Consider this the last time you fly, dickbag," she muttered as she quickly gripped the control stick and yanked back hard.

His lifeless corpse slid through the open door, leaving his surviving troops shouting in confusion before they started an unsteady charge into the firefight. The pilot kept an eye on them, but her attention was on getting the fuck out of harm's way, her teeth clenched hard enough around the sunglasses to threaten breaking them. The alarms screamed again and her eyes shot to that one red light that started blinking. Plenty of them were red, but that one was extra-red. Extra-bad. She cursed as she arched her spine with the effort of pulling back, one leg lifting up to shove a paw against the instrument panel to aid her desperate motion, and the ship shot skyward in a near-upright ascent as the rocket whistled past one of her thrusters by mere inches and exploded just out of range. "Motherfucker!"

Ashley Mills forced her fingers to relax, clenched around the yoke hard enough to qualify as attempted murder. She took a deep breath as the dropship rapidly ascended, waiting only until she was out of lock-on range to twist around in a lazy arc to survey the scene below. It was an abandoned army base...but might as well have been a full-fledged battlefield at this point. Bodies from both the SSF and the rogue army decorated the sandy expanse, along with more than a few troop transports. She no longer saw what remained of the soldiers she'd been carrying -- they had her frequency to request a pick-up after completing the recovery...but she kind of doubted that call was going to be coming. Something told her the SSF hadn't expected this kind of resistance from the outlaw soldiers hunkered down behind the old (but clearly still functional) fortifications.

She scowled again at the damage to her bird. Bullet holes in the windshield, armor plating dented to shit. Blood in the backseat, probably with some piss if she had to guess. The damn thing still had the stickers on it, still had that new-ship-smell. What the fuck. Leaving Freelancer was supposed to lead to a more stable job.

The muscular female whipped her arm out and shoved it against her cohort. He blinked and looked down at the thick, brown-coated limb but obediently pressed back against the wall while quickly signaling to a third chupa who was crouched at his side. The trio waited with their backs to the cool concrete as a small group of machine-gun-toting soldiers stomped past just ahead of them to disappear into another corridor. "We've gotta be close," she growled softly, glancing back at the other two before jerking her head to the corner. "Follow my lead, watch my four and and eight," she added in a mutter as she prowled forward with a shotgun held at the ready.

The two males behind her shared a quick glance before taking deep breaths and moving nervously after her. They kept in loose formation, the clicking of their claws drowned out by the wailing alarms that permeated the entire base. The leader's eyes locked onto a double-door ahead and her pace quickened when she noted the placard -- it was the rec room. "This must be it!" she hissed, not noticing that her companions had fallen behind.

They cursed, still shuffling backward to watch the rear and sides. "Ma'am! Wait!" One of them scowled and turned to lope after her just as a door slammed open to another hallway where a handful of soldiers charged through. "Oh fuck!"

He tried to shift his rifle toward them, but they were faster. Four guns barked and he hit the ground gracelessly, sliding through a thick slurry of crimson that began to spread beneath his body. His companion widened his eyes and dove for cover just in time to avoid another burst of automatic fire that pounded into the support column at his back to send bits of concrete dancing through the air. "Nelson!!"

The female whipped her head around with wide eyes and the four soldiers turned their attention to her. She was fast enough, however, firing the shotgun once, twice, three times from her hip to deliver deadly sprays of buckshot before they could lift their assault rifles. Two of them dropped immediately as the remaining pair stumbled backward, one falling to his knees in agony while the other roared and gripped into his bloody arm. His eyes burned furiously and he swung his weapon toward her again, but the interloper behind the column spun out and unloaded his magazine into the survivors to drop them both.

Marisa Nelson grit her teeth, trying not to stare at the corpse of her man sprawled out in the hallway, his blood spreading steadily into a dark red pool beneath his decimated body. His eyes stared up lifelessly, muzzle half-open as if protesting the unfair death, the fucking unnecessary demise of yet another soul on this goddamned mission. Her other fighter cursed quietly and jogged up to the body but she held out an arm. "Lowe is gone."


"He's gone, Davids" she snarled, eyes flashing as he flinched backward. "Just like fucking Ames. Now we need to finish this so it isn't in fucking vain!"

Davids swallowed thickly and Nelson could see the fear in his eyes. The regret, the blame he cast on her, even if he would never be brave enough to state it. He wouldn't need to. She could feel it all too well. "We're right here," she added darkly as she steeled herself and then crouched over Lowe's bullet-riddled body to rapidly empty his pockets -- they knew better than to bring anything even remotely capable of identifying themselves, but it never hurt to check. She felt a sticky warmth pooling around her fingers as she yanked a small rubber duck from his hip pack. A good luck charm. She could still hear the squeak it gave every time he squeezed it before a mission and her entire body pulsed with rage. Rage directed outward to the world...but it was only a sliver of what she roared to herself, an endless string of cursed decisions, searing hypotheticals and good ol' raw self-loathing.

She shoved the bath toy into her own pouch before removing the rifle from its bandolier to toss to her only remaining fighter. "If he's not in the next room, we take someone alive and interrogate them."

Davids seemed to know better than to question her and he only nodded mutely as he reloaded his rifle and let it hang loose from the strap while gripping his fallen comrade's weapon close to his chest. "Yes, ma'am."

She nodded curtly to him and then pulled two flash grenades off of Lowe's vest as her eyes hardened. "Let's go." Her large hand easily clutched both explosives as she wielded the shotgun in the other, turning around to storm directly toward the double doors. Her eyes were glowing pits of wrath, her fangs gleaming with her steadfast determination.

They should have called it, the moment they saw the size of the army holed up here. They should have backed the van up and driven away, and called it a loss. They had the chance to leave with their lives but Nelson wanted...needed the ledgers. If they couldn't at least start to form a knowledge of the pattern the House used to move their elite troops around, they would never be able to continue operating at the necessary pace, and they would continue to lose their already dwindling numbers to checkpoints and unexpected raids.

The plan was never meant to be easy, but it was at least simple. Use the cover of the the rescue attempt by the Sircan Special Forces to slip into the base, avoid as many of the rogue soldiers as possible, and find the House operative. More importantly, find his records. Detailed plans of the various HADES operations around Sirca, and of the potential locations to be targeted for raids by the Inquisitors and their complacent militias. A gold mine for the rebels.

There were supposedly only twenty or so ex-soldiers in this coalition that had managed to kidnap the bureaucrat and hold him hostage. They weren't even after his information...or they simply didn't know. They were only concerned with keeping him at gun-point until their demands for munitions were met. The problem, however, was that 'twenty' ended up being 'seventy-five', and the thirty or so Special Forces units that had been dropshipped in were outmatched from the first exchanges of gunfire.

It was too late now, though. Ames was gone, blown away by a mine that had been rigged up to a side door as an improvised trap. Lowe was dead now, too; ironic, as he had been the one pleading with Nelson to reconsider after they realized how many enervated, stimmed-up soldiers were just aching for a fight. But there was nothing to be done for them now, nothing except completing the godforsaken mission and at least escaping with half of her team in one piece.

They could still win this. She leaned down and yanked both pins from the flashbangs with her teeth, spitting them to the side while lifting her shotgun in the other arm. This fight could still be theirs, the sacrifices could still be made worthwhile. She tasted Lowe's blood as she walked right up to the twin doors, thrust a paw into the middle to bash them open before tossing the two grenades in and stepping to the side. She stared back down the hallway, back to Lowe's body. She burned his face into her memory and then closed her eyes to wait for the deafening blast and shock of white-hot light, twisting back around into the doorway with Davids at her side as they burst through the broken doors and into a room full of shouting, confused soldiers.

They could still make this count.

Nelson winced at the scream of bullets tearing through metal, staring back at the sunlight streaming in through the row of fresh holes in the back of the van. Her arm stung and she glanced down before cursing. Apparently one of the rounds had gone right through her bicep. Davids took a moment to look over before his eyes widened. "Ma'am! You're hit!"

"It's fine," she growled, tearing off a strip of her shirt to wrap around the wound -- through-and-through, at least. "Just get us out of here!"

Davids winced as he twisted the steering wheel to steer the van around the blazing wreck of a jeep. "Yes, ma'am!" He ducked his head into his shoulders as an explosion just to their left rocked the vehicle hard, a whimper escaping his muzzle. "Why the fuck isn't Tracer with us??"

"Because the bastard was smart enough to know this was a fuckin' suicide job!" Nelson snarled. She flinched away from the door when a lucky peal of automatic fire tore the side mirror off and she made a face before grabbing Davids's rifle off his chest and quickly rolling down her window. "Just keep going, they'll stop when we're far enough!" she yelled as she leaned out of the passenger-side door. She didn't know if that was true or not. But the guy deserved a hopeful thought. She lifted the rifle to her shoulder to return some suppressive fire and then froze in horror at the sight of the tiny little object hurtling toward the back of the van, a telltale plume of smoke trailing behind it.

She had a half-second to stare back into the van, her eyes locking onto Davids as her muzzle sluggishly opened to shout a warning. Reality ground to a crawl and she tried to reach for him as her body fought to move against the flow of time. The initial impact felt like a hammer to her spine, followed shortly by the sound of metal crunching as the rocket-propelled explosive smashed into the back of the van. The first blast lifted the rear axle from the ground, causing the whole back end to slowly flip upward and to one side. Her fingers slipped against the door frame but failed to grip into it as her body was thrown through the window while the van continued its molasses-like twist through the air.

She was boneless for a moment, floating helplessly backward as she stared back into the van with a silent scream of denial. They were so close. They were so close. Maybe they--

The ground rushed up to meet her and she slammed into the hard-packed sand with a gasp as the air was knocked from her lungs. It felt hot and gritty, tiny claws scratching at her clothes, while still firm enough that she bounced once and rolled onto her side. Stunned, she could only watch mutely as the van crashed onto its roof several yards away and skidded to a halt with a squeal of metal and shattering glass. And there was Davids...still strapped into the front seat, his eyes bulging as he stared back at her through the broken windshield. He opened his muzzle to call to her...

...And disappeared before her eyes as the second detonation destroyed the vehicle with a chest-crushing explosion.

She screamed to a deaf world, her pleas lost to the roaring flames that engulfed the van in hungry, careless destruction. Tears stung her eyes and she felt blood trickling down the side of her head from the force of the explosion. Her limbs ached, already feeling rubbery, and her head rang, a hum building around her that she knew couldn't mean anything good. But she didn't have time to process her status. She only had the cool steel she felt near her fingertips. She took a long, ragged breath she couldn't hear while closing her hand around the machine gun to pull it slowly to herself.

Her chest heaved and her torn shirt ripped further as her muscles bulged with the strain of shoving herself up to her knees before she jammed the barrel of the gun into the ground and used it to continue forcing her body into a standing position. She tasted copper -- it was hers, this time. She wondered what Tracer would say if he could see her now. He would probably be disappointed. This was a really stupid fucking way to die.

Nelson grit her teeth and then shouted with the effort of hauling the gun up to her chest to level it toward the cluster of soldiers that were sprinting toward her. They hadn't begun firing yet -- that was their loss, she figured with a broken grin as she struggled to stay on her feet. The tip of her rifle shifted toward them before it started to chatter furiously as she kept a firm grip on the automatic weapon and strafed it calmly across the group, matching it with a less-than-calm shout of defiance.

Blood ran down through one eye and she was forced to close it...but it wasn't enough to stop her from seeing the four or five soldiers she successfully mowed down. Her smile was cruel as it was resigned. This wasn't a fight she was going to walk away from as ten, twelve...fifteen more charged past their fallen comrades. But goddammit, she wasn't going to go down like a bitch, at least.

"Well what the fuck do you want me to do?" Ashley spat into the radio. "There's not a goddamn SSF uniform in sight down there that ain't covered in blood, fire or both! Those assholes are pissed about something and if they aren't tryin' to kill what's left of us, they're tryin' to kill me!"

"Pilot Mills, reinforcements are inbound. Standby for--"

"Wait, never mind, I see someone down there," she muttered into the microphone before throwing it across the cockpit and focusing on the single figure she saw at the edge of the battlefield. She couldn't make out the outfit -- it didn't look like SSF, but then was utter chaos down there. She was pretty sure everyone she had delivered was dead. In fact, she was pretty sure a good majority of the SSF units were decimated at this point.

SSF Command had responded in its usual calm fashion, instructing her to wait for more dropships and then 'provide support'. Whatever that meant, considering the total armament of her dropship was...nothing. Well, trying to save at least one of those reckless assholes had to count as 'support'. As she grimaced and began a steep dive, she could see a group of rogue militants approaching the lone fighter, which she now could make out as a snarling female with indeterminable armor; in fact, she wasn't even sure if it was armor. She didn't think it was someone with the SSF, but...whoever she was, she was firing her gun into the approaching soldiers. And as far as Ashley was concerned, that was goddamn good enough for her.

The soldiers were closing in on the furiously-firing individual and Ashley grit her teeth as she nearly skipped off the ground with how quickly she descended, her ship practically appearing out of nowhere to block a barrage of bullets with the armored side while she yelled over the noise through the open door on the other side: "Hey, you crazy bitch! Get in the fuckin' ship!"

Nelson snarled as another bullet ripped through her side, stumbling down to one knee but doggedly pushing herself back up. "Come on, then, you fuckin' assholes, come on!" she roared as she prepared herself for the worst...only to blink stupidly as a transport ship dropped out of the sky to hover between herself and the soldiers, catching the volley that would no doubt have cut her in half. Her nostrils flared at the words that came out of the cockpit, but she didn't really have much of a choice other than to listen.

Nelson growled under her breath as she half-ran, half-limped toward the dropship. She could hear the rounds slamming into the other side of the aircraft and it felt almost suicidal to leap into the damn thing. But there wasn't time to think as she grabbed the side of the hold and yanked herself up and in before yelling hoarsely: "Go, go, get us the fuck outta here!"

"A thank you would be real appreciated," the pilot growled over a shoulder as she yanked on the stick to send them rocketing upward and away from the machine guns. "What the fuck were you doing down there?"

"My fucking job," Nelson replied coldly as her eyes took in the jacket the pilot wore. The SSF logo on the sleeve was all she needed to confirm -- this was one of those mercenary fucks. No surprise, considering the livery of the dropship, but Nelson figured it wasn't wrong to hope it was someone else who'd maybe just stolen the damn thing. No such luck, it would seem. "What's the SSF doing here?" she muttered, choosing to play oblivious. If it bought her enough time to get to safety, she could be as dumb as she needed to be.

"What's it look like? We're just here to enjoy the fine Timae weather, nothing we like more than getting sand in our asses!" the pilot replied sarcastically while glancing back at her. Nelson glared back defiantly as the pilot brought them up high enough that the bullets finally stopped pinging against the outside of the dropship. "Shit, let me know if you find your sense of humor back there, my last passenger might have left his behind for you," she grumbled. "Along with part of his brain."

Nelson frowned at the bloodstains splattered on the wall beside her. The pilot's snarky voice continued, apparently fine without any input from her. "I can tell you aren't with the SSF, and you obviously weren't one of the assholes that took over the base. What are you? Just lost?" Nelson scowled when the pilot peered back at her again. "Looks like you got shot once or twice, too -- you're either having the shittiest nature walk of your life, or you were here for something else and just got lucky I was here to be your savior."

Nelson's muzzle wrinkled in distaste. It was difficult to tell if the pilot was probing or simply a chatty asshole. She kept her maw shut for a moment, taking a few more seconds to examine her 'savior'. Regulation SSF jacket, though it was unzipped to reveal an unkempt t-shirt that looked a little too small for her. It was hard to see the rest of the pilot thanks to the cockpit, however. Nelson wondered idly if her mane was natural -- the blue stood out, was a beacon of color in the sea of grey, brown and blood-red. It would have been a pleasant distraction in any other scenario. With anyone other than Nelson.

"Okay, fine, I get it, you're gonna be the silent, mysterious bitch, that's fine," the pilot continued with a mutter. "Whatever you were doing here, it doesn't matter -- we're here to extract some important asshole that those other assholes are holding hostage, but we're close to broke." She reached for the microphone again and Nelson's eyes narrowed. "Command, this is Mills -- picked up a survivor, but our boys are getting slaughtered, we need--"

A sharp crack cut her off and she stared at the radio receiver, a neat hole punched through it as a bit of black smoke trickled out from it. She whipped her head around to glare back at Nelson, who stood calmly with her gun still held against her shoulder. "What the fuck?"

"Mills, right? Your 'asshole' is dead," Nelson stated plainly as she took a step closer. "Let's just get the fuck outta here."

"Geezus, you're not my fuckin' boss, call me Ashley or I'm gonna get confused with the radio oh wait I guess I won't now, ya stupid giant bastard." Nelson's face expressed emotions she wasn't sure she could put to words. They would probably be angry words, though. "And whaddya mean, he's dead, how the fuck would you..." Ashley frowned before lowering her sunglasses to take another long look at Nelson over her shoulder. "Oh. Oh, motherfucker, you a rebel? Christ, of course, of course, I make a stupid decision to pick up some suicidal bitch on the ground and she's a fuckin' rebel, great, that's fantastic," she muttered.

Nelson lowered the tip of her rifle. "You know what I am now. So now I need you to take me somewhere -- you can drop me off, nice and easy, and I won't kill you."

"Oh, she won't kill me, that's good news," Ashley replied, sarcasm dripping from her voice. "What the fuck is it with you crazy bastards, every crazy bastard I meet ends up in the Movement, it's like the threat of dying in combat isn't enough, you'd rather fuckin' ride that lightning all the way into being hunted down by the House while still dying in combat." She snorted, eyes clouding for a moment behind the sunglasses. "You assholes befuddle me."

Nelson glowered before slowly starting to speak again: "I need you to take me to--"

"And by the way, lady, it would have been nice if I could have told Command someone smoked that fucker, so they could at least call the survivors back, stop any more of those dumbasses from getting their asses shot off!" Ashley added, heedless of Nelson's attempts to speak. Nelson frowned slightly -- she had no love for the lives of these mercenaries, but it was strange hearing one of them show actual concern for the others. Ashley threw a hand up in frustration. "But no, now they're gonna just keep sending more guys in, and the shit-storm's gonna keep shit-stormin' until, I dunno, fuckin' HADES is called in. Real mature -- I wasn't gonna fuckin' call you in, butch." She glared back, meeting Nelson's furious aura inch-for-inch. "Now you need to calm your ass down and put down the fuckin' gun because I'm tired of being shot at today."

"Woman, I need you to shut the fuck up and take me to Qoppa!" Nelson snarled as she lifted the gun again to point it toward Ashley.

Ashley blinked as the gun was leveled at her and she promptly stood up with her hands raised, sliding out from behind the instrument panel. "Oh, hell no, that's it, I'm not gettin' told what to do on my own goddamn ship." Nelson's eyes widened slightly when the dropship began to wobble a bit as it gradually decelerated. What the fuck was she doing?

"Get back behind the stick," Nelson ordered through grit teeth.

Ashley crossed her arms with a shrug. "Fuck you. You wanna shoot me, shoot me. I hope your fuckin' piloting skills are better than your negotiating skills, because I ain't givin' up shit."

The nose of the ship slowly began to tilt forward and Nelson stumbled, her muzzle opening slightly. Ashley remained unmoved, leaning against the opening of the cockpit with the same disapproving frown. Nelson's instincts flared at the brief glint of metal on the pilot's waist...but she found herself peering at a navel ring, not a gun. "What...the fuck are you doing, you crazy bitch?" Nelson stuttered before cursing as she took another unsteady step forward, barely managing to catch herself against the other side of the cockpit entrance. She stared with disbelief at Ashley, who regarded her coolly while the craft started to whine as it nose-dived toward the ground.

"Holy fuckin' shit, fine!" Nelson barked as she threw down the rifle and grabbed Ashley by the arm. The pilot snarled up at her, but Nelson pulled her firmly back into the cockpit and toward the seat before grimacing as she felt her body slowly lifting away from the wall. "Pull up, goddammit, pull up!"

Ashley dropped back into the seat but refused to pick up the yoke, still speaking as calmly as could be. "Say ple--"

"Please you fuckin' bitch, don't crash us into the fuckin' ground!" Nelson hollered furiously as she closed her eyes tightly and gripped desperately into the back of the pilot seat.

"That's better," Ashley replied curtly as she nudged the aviators back to the bridge of her muzzle before biting her tongue gently as she pulled the stick back toward her chest with a grunt, using a rudder pedal to ease the ship into a banking recovery. Alarms and lights across the entire panel wailed for attention but Ashley was focused on pulling out of the steep drop with a broad grin. It was very possible she was enjoying this crazy shit.

Nelson could hear her heart banging in her skull as she hyperventilated and dug her claws into the pilot's chair. Her gun clattered around somewhere behind her, but she no longer cared -- she just didn't want to fucking die at this point. As the floor beneath her paws vibrated violently, she swore she heard something scraping against the hull, and she finally opened an eye warily before dropping her jaw as they barely avoided the top of a leafy tree. She realized what she heard were the surrounding trees grazing the bottom of the ship as Ashley skimmed along the roof of the forest. She'd picked the wrong fucking savior.

"Christ, Mills, maybe go a little higher?" she finally snapped as her body remembered to breath, a shuddering rush of air filling her lungs. "Where did you learn to fly, the fuckin' School for the Blind?!"

"Oh, please, I know exactly what I'm doing," Ashley replied with all the casualness of someone ordering dinner. "Now sit your ass down before you end up breaking a leg or some shit."

Nelson favored her with a glower before she growled at the squealing alarms. "Can you shut any of those fuckers up?"

"I dunno, can I shut you up?" Ashley retorted as she gave her own glare to the various alerts. She slammed a fist into a few of them to silence them before blinking. That one wasn't supposed to be lit up.

Nelson immediately homed in on her expression. "What?"

Ashley cursed under her breath and had maybe two seconds to glance at Nelson before twisting her head around to stare out of the left side of the windscreen. Nelson followed her eyes and had almost the same amount of time to try and understand why there was another dropship just outside the window. "Oh shi--!"

Nelson had a distinct sense of vertigo as her world came to a crashing halt for an instant...only to transform into a thunderous screaming of metal plating as the collision smashed her body into the opposite side of the hold. Somewhere in the violent impact, amid the protesting cries from the ship's hull, the squawking of alarms, the frantic cursing of Ashley, Nelson heard a snap. There was just enough time to wonder if a broken leg was going to be the worst of this before everything went black as her head slammed into the steel floor.

"Motherfucker, motherfucker!" Ashley yelled to no one in particular as she desperately kept hold of the control stick. The other dropship had rammed their midsection and sent her bird into an ungainly spin while crumpling in a massive area of the armored hold. More alarms were bleating now but she already knew without looking that her port thruster was decimated. Her eyes caught the other aircraft attempting to circle back around as her own ship continued to spiral loosely in a hail of splintered sheet metal and thick black smoke. "Oh come on, baby, come on, you big fat bitch, hang in there!" she pleaded, the ship seeming to moan in protest as she struggled to pull out of the uncontrollable yaw.

She'd lost sight of the attacking ship -- could she even call it that? She'd thought earlier about how her transport had no weapons, but that wasn't true, was it? These things were goddamn several-ton battering rams with enough highly-reactive fuel to bring down a small building. She glanced at her radar again but it was just a fuzzy green screen now -- her sensor radome must have been destroyed by the first impact. "Where's the third...always come in threes," she muttered under her breath. She shot a glance into the back and grimaced when she saw her limp hitchhiker slowly sliding along the floor. "At least you won't feel this next part..."

Ashley still couldn't see the other ship and could only guess it was sweeping around from behind. She'd somewhat managed to stabilize her craft, but that didn't mean shit at the moment -- there was still the problem of the assholes trying to play aerial chicken. And with her sensors down, all she had were her instincts. They promptly shouted 'on the right', which spurred her to yank the control stick violently to the left to twist the starboard side of the ship upward.

It was the correct decision, in a long line of decisions she hadn't been so sure about. The other dropship screamed past, its hull scraping loudly against her own. It barely missed tearing the entire wing off, though the fiery blast she saw reflected against their attacker's armor told her she hadn't been able to save her other thruster. Less than ideal. Her teeth grit together as a string of curses rushed between clenched jaws, her arms aching from the exertion of struggling to keep her bird somewhat under control.

As the aggressor passed her windshield, her eyes lit up. The destruction of her starboard thruster had punched a massive hole in their wing and the stabilizer was billowing black smoke. "Ha, take that, ya dumb fucks!" she yelled even as she felt the dying thruster sputtering out to leave her dead-stick. "Ah shit," she muttered, her sunglasses sliding down her muzzle a bit as she scanned the ground below. A shitload of hard-packed clay, a dusty highway, dying grass and...well. There was the forest. She lifted her head again to glare at the other ship but whatever damage it had sustained hadn't left them much better off -- they were hurtling toward a distant part of the wooded area as the ebony smoke was now accompanied by a hungry plume of fire.

But she couldn't delight in what she hoped was its imminent destruction as her own craft drifted into a lazy drop toward the earth. "Shit, shit, shit, c'mon, honey, come on," she begged, pulling hard enough on the yoke that she could hear the bolts creaking. She activated every flap and air-brake within arm's length, doing everything in her power to prevent a full nose-dive as the no-longer-flying brick plummeted toward the treeline. "Just get us in there, that's all I'm askin'!" she added, hoping the poor thing wasn't offended by the way she was all but manhandling it. The trees were quickly approaching and she grimaced, not happy with the approach, but knowing she didn't exactly have any options. "Okay, here we go, steady, steady...shit, it's all you, baby girl!" she yelled before throwing her restraints off and quickly looping them around the trembling stick as they crashed through the first treetops, a cacophony of snapped wood surrounding the aircraft as splintered branches and bark peppered the hull.

Ashley flung herself out of the cockpit and into a slide across the cold steel flooring despite the fight against gravity. She collided with her unconscious passenger and immediately wove one arm around Nelson's chest to try and keep her steady. Her eyes flicked briefly through the windshield as the ground rapidly approached while the nose smashed through tree trunks like toothpicks. She cursed under her breath, doing her best to pull the larger female against her chest as her other arm swiftly hooked around a harness for a jump-seat above her.

She closed her eyes tightly, keeping her body loose except for the arm securing the other chupa. She just hoped if this shit was her last hurrah that the fucker at least took her out in one goddamn hit. But when the first impact came, as the nose slammed violently into the dirt with a deafening screech of crushed metal, she knew immediately it wasn't the day. And thank god for that, because this grumpy knocked-out bitch would have probably haunted her for a thousand years.

Every bone in her body felt jarred with the initial crash and the arm clinging to the harness threatened to rip from its socket as she used whatever strength she could dig up to keep a tight hold to both her passenger as well as their anchor. The ship bounced once, leaving her weightless for a second, before smashing back down and continuing to rip through several more trees as it turned slowly to slide sideways while digging a massive furrow through the forest floor in its attempt to stop. It finally tipped precariously to one side as it wobbled to a halt, then at last rocked onto its belly to settle with a whimper of strained steel and the dull thuds of a few loose bits clattering off the hull and into the dirt.

"Holy shit on a shingle," she muttered even while wincing and carefully unraveling the harness from around her arm. Her shoulders wailed in agony, as if she'd just taken part in a tug-of-war by her lonesome, and she didn't even want to start counting bruises. "Ugh, goddamn, you better still be alive after all that," she grumbled while glancing at the dazed rebel under her other arm. A worried frown slid into place as she held a hand in front of Nelson's nostrils. But there was a tickle across her fingers and she looked relieved. "Small favors," she added under her breath. "You take a minute, you angry bitch."

Ashley gingerly set Nelson down before shedding her jacket to fold it into a makeshift pillow to move it under her head. A cursory search of the hold reminded her of the first aid kit mounted on the wall -- better than nothing. There wasn't much else for her to use, however. The bird was still relatively new to her, so she hadn't been able to add much personal flair to it yet. She had her repair kit stowed away in the front, consisting of all her own gear, but it was all for repairing dropships, not chupas. But beyond that, none of the additional knick-knacks she normally kept tucked away for emergencies were at hand. This sucked pretty hardcore.

"Okay, at least need to get some light in here before I try to fix anything going on...there," she grunted while waving a hand at Nelson's battered form. The only real good option was the loading door, which she had to struggle to shove open thanks to the damage from the collision and subsequent crash. She took a deep breath as soon as the warm air rushed in before sticking her head out to peer around the crash site.

They were a good distance past the outskirts of the forest...although she wasn't fearing much from the base at this point with how far they'd flown. But what did bother her was the fact she hadn't heard any distant explosions. And she was really hoping for that, because her gut told her that if they were pissed off enough to try and ram them out of the sky...they probably wouldn't let an emergency landing stop them from undertaking a bit of search-and-murder. "Ugh, you dumb asshole," she grumbled while idly kicking one of Nelson's legs. "Just had to kill their leverage, didn'tcha?" She shook her head and then sighed as she threaded her arms under Nelson's and dragged the unconscious female to the threshold before nudging the jacket under her head again.

She took a moment to study the thruster outside the open door. It didn't look great. Kinda looked like someone had run a ship into it. No quick fix there, leaving her with the rebel as her only immediate option. Awesome. She sighed and went to fetch the first aid kit before her eyes flicked to the assault rifle resting near the back of the ship. She probably didn't need that...right? She frowned again before glaring down at Nelson and leaning down to mutter next to her head: "You try to shoot me when you get up and I'll kick you right in your lady-dick, you got that?"

...She accepted Nelson's silence as an affirmative and grumbled her approval before popping the kit open to check what was within. Maybe she could at least do something about the two or three bullet holes she spotted...

Nelson tasted blood., wait. That wasn't blood. It was...water?

Her eyes cracked open and then stared stupidly into cerulean mirrors that peered back at her. It took her a few seconds to register it as a person and she flailed in surprise, which promptly led to her choking on the water halfway down her throat. She coughed and wheezed, doubling over and then instantly regretting it as a searing agony ran up from her torso. "Motherfucker!" she spat out, sending water all over her companion.

Ashley squawked and leaned back before glowering down at her and wiping slowly at her face. "What the fuck, man?"

"You startled me," Nelson growled, attempting to stand and immediately hissing in pain again. "Fuck!"

"Yeah, you're fucked up three ways to next week," Ashley replied dryly. "Is this how you treat everyone who saves your bitchy ass?"

Nelson glowered up at her for a few seconds. She tried not to, but it was difficult to not remember the last person who had saved her, albeit it hadn't been from any sort of physical injury. More in the realm of 'altering her entire outlook on life'. It hadn't been that great for him, either. "Last guy got a dislocated jaw, a broken collarbone and a bullet through his shoulder," she retorted curtly. "I'd say you're lucky, Mills."

She looked out into the forest before frowning at the long swathe through the dirt and the tunnel of destroyed trees. They'd crashed, hadn't they? But then...

Her eyes shifted back to Ashley. The pilot didn't owe her anything -- Nelson had arguably caused the events that led to the crash. They could have easily died because of that. Although then she remembered her leaving the cockpit mid-flight to make her stubborn point and Nelson scowled again. Fine. Middle ground.

Ashley was still looking exceptionally unimpressed, her arms folded as she leaned back onto her haunches. "Yeah, I'm lucky. You fucked my ship, rebel-chick."

Nelson opened her muzzle to respond before realizing she saw a lot of grey fur and only a little bit of black fabric. " just wearing your bra?"

Ashley glanced down at herself and then shrugged. "Yeah? Used the jacket for your broken-ass head and the t-shirt was fuckin' covered in blood and sweat. You gotta problem with my tits?"

"I have a problem with them being shoved in my face while I'm trying to figure out what all you broke of mine during the crash," Nelson muttered, glaring up at the pilot even as her eyes betrayed her with another swift inspection of Ashley's sleek frame. "You mercenary fuckers don't look as impressive as those other mercenary fuckers," she added mildly. "SSF only work weekends?"

"Bitch I'm a pilot, I don't need to spend all my free time in the gym, pumping iron and drinking protein shakes," Ashley retorted. "Anyway, you're welcome for being alive. I'm gonna go check out the rest of the ship, see if there's even a chance I can do anything for the poor thing." She stood up before grumbling and nudging the water bottle closer. "Here, last of the water from the survival kit. You drink it but then we gotta find a stream or something. I'll go look for one after I take a look at the other side."

Nelson made a face and then grumbled. "Thanks, I guess." She grimaced when her shoulder pulsed and she glanced at the bandaging. It wasn't perfect, but looked clean and complete. A sigh escaped her muzzle and she picked up the bottle before adding in a low voice: "Thanks for. Patching me up, too."

"Yeah, yeah, couldn't just leave you to bleed all over my ship," Ashley replied with a squint. "My busted-up ship." Nelson glared up at her again before blinking when Ashley grinned slightly and crossed her arms. "But you know what, it's kinda nice to have you owe me. Normally the fuckers who owe me favors are squirrelly wusses or self-inflated bastards. Good change of pace to have a tough chick in my pocket."

"I am not in your pocket," Nelson threatened, her eyes narrowing.

"Oh, you so are," Ashley crowed as her hands shifted to her hips. This bitch was enjoying her little power trip, wasn't she? Her eyes were dancing like a goddamn kid who knew they were getting a new pet. "Anyway, no point arguing now. You ain't in no shape to do anything about it, so drink the damn water, rest your damn ass and don't break anything else on my damn bird."

Nelson just replied with a fiery look, although it only seemed to make Ashley grin more before the pilot winked and grabbed a large wrench from her tool kit to rest on her shoulder. She hopped out of the ship and wandered around toward the front end, past where Nelson could see. At least she could sit in silence for a few minutes.

She sipped from the water and then looked down at herself. The generic fatigues they'd all worn to blend in with the chaotic scene at the base were torn and bloodstained...most of it from her two gunshot wounds, but some of it was Ames's. Some of it was Lowe's. She grimaced and closed her eyes for a moment. Death was a part of being in the Movement. They all accepted that. But they still died on her watch. Deaths that were stupid, deaths that could have been avoided. Deaths that were all in vain because the Omegite's information was useless. All historical data. Nothing pertaining to the latest patterns of raids and troop movements.

Nelson grit her teeth and clenched a hand into a fist before slamming it down into the cool metal flooring beneath her. She'd lived, though. She'd survived because that's what Tracer called her. A cold-hearted bitch who would help win this war, because she wasn't ruthless...but she was a survivor. This was just one more battle she'd be walking away from alone. And she was sure it wouldn't be the last.

A bitter thought crossed her mind as she realized she hadn't yet walked away from this one. Fate had gifted her with a new, even if just temporary, teammate. Someone else she could get killed before the day was through.

Her teeth slowly ground together, every drop of frustration and self-loathing coursing through her veins as strong as it had the very first time she'd lost someone on a mission. Tracer, that fucking calm son-of-a-bitch, he'd told her it was okay. He told her to get over it. He told her it would happen again, and she would need to accept that if she was going to be the leader of these people, those who had chosen a life that meant immediate execution by the House, or perhaps first excruciating torture followed by execution. Somehow the old bastard figured she had what it took to inspire them, to guide them into what amounted to a daily foray into suicide.

...Better her than those Freelancer assholes, she supposed.

Her immolating thoughts were interrupted when Ashley suddenly came running around the front of the ship with widened eyes. "Uhhh shit, we got incoming friends!"

Nelson narrowed her eyes and glanced over her shoulder. The rifle was out of reach. "I'm assuming you don't mean actual friendlies," the rebel growled. "Get me my gun."

"Nooo, no no, bad idea -- only one guy was coming this way, the others were spread out, I think."

"You think."

"Hey, look -- all I know is that gunshots are just gonna make those assholes show up faster, yeah?"

Nelson frowned immensely but found it difficult to disagree with the logic, at least in part. "Okay, so what's your bright idea, then?"

Ashley snorted and held out her wrench, "Don't care how pumped-up those dicks are, no one likes getting hit with this big bitch."

Nelson looked up at her flatly. "You gonna, what. Ambush them?"

"Yeah! And you'll be the bait!"

Nelson's nostrils could not have flared harder. "Excuse me?"

"Just like...pretend your leg's busted! He'll come check you out instead of shooting you immediately since you won't be armed. And he'll think your leg's broken, assuming you aren't a shitty actor."

"My leg IS broken, bitch!" Nelson seethed through clenched teeth as Ashley leaned back slightly. "Did you not notice while playing Miss Candystriper??" she added while gesturing to her leg.

"Look, you're a sexy hunk and all, but I even I don't go feeling up random chicks' legs while they're knocked the fuck out," Ashley retorted, earning an entire cavalcade of infuriated glares from Nelson. "Okay, sorry, bitch, geezus, fine -- that just makes my plan easier! You won't even have to act!"

Nelson opened her muzzle to respond before widening her eyes as she heard the snap of a broken branch. She quickly thrust a fist out to Ashley as she wracked her brain...but could come up with no better solutions if they wanted to avoid the others. "Fuck!" she hissed before closing her eyes. Well, maybe someone else would be the one to walk away this time. "Okay, okay, just...go hide!" she whispered.

Ashley grunted and saluted with the wrench, whispering back loudly: "Don't worry, I got this!" before she scampered away to duck behind a half-fallen tree trunk as Nelson sighed. This wasn't going to end well for anyone.

She still had a chance to arm herself, but she knew Ashley wasn't wrong about the gunshots. It would be a beacon to the others if they hadn't already spotted the wreckage yet. An idea came to her, however and she blinked as she reached behind herself to grasp into Ashley's jacket. It was a long shot, but what wasn't in her line of work...

She'd half-expected to hear a shout from the approaching figure -- wouldn't he want to call his friends over? Perhaps he was still trying to sneak up on them. Perhaps he just wanted the kills himself. Hell, maybe he was just an idiot. She saw the tip of a shotgun round the front of the ship first before the rest of him followed. His eyes immediately locked onto her and he raised the shotgun as she gasped and threw her arms up in the air, now covered by the SSF jacket, although it looked rather short on her. "O-oh god, p-p-please don't shoot!" she cried out with as much pity as she could inject into her voice. "I'm just a pilot, I'm just the pilot!"

He snarled and cycled the weapon to load a fresh shell, never lowering it as he crept closer and quickly skimmed the area. "Shut up, you dumbfuck." His eyes locked onto the logo on her jacket before he jabbed the weapon toward her. "Where is she?? The rebel bitch who got on your dropship?!?"

"I-I don't know, we crashed and my leg broke...she took all my supplies and ran!" Nelson forced her eyes to not flick to the side as she picked up movement in her periphery. Ashley had slipped out from her cover to move slowly toward the soldier.

He roared in frustration and slammed a fist against the side of the ship. "Fuck! She was mine!"

Nelson wondered just how many stimulants these assholes had been pumping into themselves. His pupils were raging pinpricks and his entire body twitched every few seconds. She grimaced when he took a step closer and grinned slightly. "Whatever, I can add one more Special Forces cocksucker to the list."

"Oh god no!" Nelson cried out, doing her best to sell it as he moved the shotgun into place a moment before Ashley leaped up behind him with a grunt to swing the wrench into the back of his head. He groaned in pain, stumbling down to one knee before his eyes widened with a roar as he twisted around toward her.

Ashley stared in bewilderment. "Oh, fuck off!" she yelped before quickly smashing him across the face. A sickening crunch of bone accompanied it this time, along with a spray of blood across the armor plating of the dropship. He slowly collapsed as his eyes rolled back into his skull, and Nelson let herself exhale.

"Ha!! Eat that, ya fuckin' prick!" Ashley yelled hoarsely, her arms visibly trembling with adrenaline. She grinned enormously at Nelson. "You see that?? Toldja it would work!"

Nelson began a smile before freezing as a shiver ran down her spine. Paws pounding through underbrush. Multiple pairs. The fucking shouting. Ashley blinked and turned toward the front of the ship as Nelson snarled. "Get down!"

The pilot dropped to a crouch, Nelson's command enough to jar her instincts into play. Four soldiers rushed around from the other end of the wreckage and shouted victoriously as they raised their weapons. "Found you bitches!"

This was it. This was how she was gonna die. Not behind the fuckin' stick, not in some glorious, fiery blast...but from a bunch of jacked-up assholes out in the middle of fucking nowhere. The wrench was over her head as if it might provide her one final service in her last moment of life, and she wished she'd had more time to thank it properly for everything it had done for her over the years.

She was surprised that she heard the shots at all. Maybe they were gonna blow away Nelson first -- that trick with the coat was pretty slick, but at least one of them had to recognize her, right? One-two-three-four...quick enough to sound like a single burst. Surprisingly controlled for how insanely aggressive these fuckers seemed to be.

And thumps.

...That didn't sound right.

And she was still breathing. Why was she still breathing.

Ashley slowly lifted her head and blinked while examining herself, turning one hand slowly over to make sure she wasn't dreaming. But no. No bullet holes. Not even a lucky graze. She hesitantly glanced toward the soldiers...and promptly did a double-take when she saw all four of them sprawled on the ground, nary a twitch between them.

She was almost afraid to turn back around toward Nelson, shocking herself with the relieved gasp upon seeing her alive and...well, still in the same fucked-up condition. But alive, at least. It was then she noticed the revolver clutched in the rebel's grip, barrel still smoking as her other hand remained poised over the hammer. It took Ashley a moment to realize the burst of shots had come from her. Her jaw dropped as she stared between the pistol and the stony look on Nelson's face. "Holy...fuckin'...shit, are you a fuckin' cowboy in your spare time?! Christ, you..." She glanced back over her shoulder -- yeah, they all looked super dead. "You got them all."

"That was the idea," Nelson replied dryly, forcing herself to take a deep breath and lowering the revolver. "Fuck's sake, woman, you nearly got us killed. Who actually yells after knocking an asshole out, what are you, ten?"

"Uh, again, you're welcome," Ashley retorted, even as she sheepishly scratched the side of her head with the wrench. "Okay, so that was a little dumb. Look, uh. Hey, we're all alive, right!" She grinned and held up both arms as Nelson looked at her flatly. "Well, I mean, these guys aren't. Well. This guy is. Maybe." She kicked the potentially-unconscious one lightly while trying not to look too terribly guilty. Maybe she did have just a bit of blame to accept for this one.

"Easy enough to fix that," Nelson growled as she pointed the revolver at him.

"Aw, c'mon, leave him alone," Ashley protested, hopping over his limb body and waving the wrench around. "Let's just get the hell out of here, save your bullets in case we need to...go hunting or something."

Nelson probably would have had to struggle to look more annoyed than she did at that moment. "Hunting? If we're stuck out here that long, I'm saving the bullets for myself," she muttered before grimacing as she jerked her head toward her leg. "Anyway, I'm not going anywhere until we either splint this or you find a fucking wheelbarrow."

"Well you're being about as positive as a load of bricks, so I guess that'd be appropriate," Ashley huffed, ignoring the horrible look fired up at her. "Okay, okay. Splinting it is. Because while our radio is broken for some reason." She paused long enough for Nelson to look the tiniest bit cowed. "...Theirs might still be intact."

Nelson frowned but nodded slowly. "What are the odds their ship isn't just. A burning wreck, though?"

"Uh." Ashley hadn't considered that. They were on fire when she saw them going down. "Okay, those aren't great odds."

"We also have no idea where they came from, and I'm not exactly trained in tracking -- more the trained-to-kill-people-in-various-ways background," Nelson added with a grumble.

"Yeah, no shit," Ashley snorted as she jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the four dead bastards. "Okay, so options are...try to find the other dropship, which may or may not be on fire..."

"...Find our way out of the forest and to the nearest outpost," Nelson added in a mutter.

"...Or just stay in these woods forever and become fuckin' nymphs and live with the tree spirits," Ashley concluded. Nelson rolled her eyes but Ashley only grinned. "Hey, option three sounds pretty fuckin' good to me. You'd make one helluva scary wood nymph."

Nelson snorted...though Ashley swore she saw the tiniest hint of a smile. Maybe the ice-queen had a sense of humor inside there somewhere. But for now...

"Okay, so seriously -- I guess your idea isn't so bad," the pilot admitted with a grunt. "We did fly over a highway before we got knocked the fuck outta the sky."

"Probably the one my team arrived by," Nelson muttered, a dark look crossing her features for a moment as she shifted her eyes to the side. "Don't know where you passed it, was about an hour from the last settlement we passed. So should be less than an hour away."

"Yeah, in a vehicle," Ashley noted with a brief flail of an arm. "That's like. Five hours on foot, and that's without your broken leg."

"I'll manage," Nelson grunted before gesturing to one of the nearby branches that had broken off and fallen near the ship. "Get me a few sturdy sticks. I'll walk you through the split."

"Ugh, I know how to splint a leg,' Ashley grumbled with a huff. "This ain't my first rodeo." She liked her idea...she didn't like the condition the rebel was in, however. Well. Best to get moving for now, at least, and keep playing it by ear. "Okay, fine. We do your thing, but...we'll stop as often as you need and, uh. If we have an opportunity to steal a car..."

She peered at Nelson, who only looked back at her mildly. "What part of me looks opposed to stealing a car?"

"I don't fuckin' know! The other stupid rebel-types I know have this stupid sense of...honor or some shit, so I got no idea what to expect with you fuckers," Ashley grumbled as she gathered two sturdy branches and returned to Nelson, who had already removed her fatigues with a scowl to start tearing off strips.

Ashley paused and then grinned as she poked Nelson's good leg with one of the sticks. "Now who's wearing just a bra?"

"Just you, I still have your jacket," Nelson replied calmly. "And just so you know, it's doing a great job absorbing all my blood. So thank you." Ashley was pretty sure she saw another near-invisible smile as they started to work together to splint up her leg.

"...Aw, goddammit, you bitch."

It was gonna be a long walk.