"Well, that was nearly shot to hell in a hand basket," Jesse growled as he pulled himself up from the floor, "what did Cavalry Command teach you to fly? A truck?"
Debbie rolled her eyes, "as if you would have done any better," she scoffed.
"Hmm, so nearly splattering us all against the moon is the latest in hot-shot flying techniques?" Jesse purred dangerously.
"Jesse, Debbie, shut up!" Saber snarled, as he tracked the battlecruisers' movements, "bank hard now!"
Ramrod rolled to avoid the volley of plasma belching from one of the twisting appendages of the many Ghidoraus. NeoKansas' defense force hadn't stood a chance against the writhing battlecruisers. The sheriffs were hard pressed themselves.
Nemesis must have used Mihara to take measure of Ramrod's counter-attack abilities. Now it seemed as if the Ghidoraus at least a half more deadly in their firepower, and thrice as fast. Ramrod was taking a pounding unlike anything it had faced before.
And there wasn't even a renegade unit present.
In any case, Jesse found himself on the floor of Ramrod's control center once again.
'How the hell am I suppose to be advising these idiots,' he silently seethed, 'when I can't even stay on my feet?'
He crawled over to the central bank of computers, and, griping the handle of a repair access panel, he pulled himself to his knees. He was just able to see the main screen.
There was no other sight on the screen save the enormous bulk of a Ghidoraus cruiser coming head on towards the equalizer unit. At Cavalry Command, who had been listening in on the sheriffs and monitoring the battle, all they heard was a dead silence; all aboard Ramrod were holding their collective breath.
Then with a grace impossible for something so large, the Ghidoraus rolled out of the way. Well, mostly out of the way. There was horrifying shuddering in the control center, as a side of Ramrod's outer paneling was scraped and torn. The equalizer unit found itself in a uncontrolled tumble.
Finally the silence of Ramrod's bridge was broken by shouts and screams as the sheriffs struggled to get their ship back under control. It took all their efforts but Ramrod ceased its rotation.
"Where'd they go?" Colt wondered aloud, voicing everyone's thoughts.
The space around what was left of NeoKansas was devoid of any Outrider battlecruisers.
Saber looked over at Jesse, "Any ideas?"
Slowly shaking his head, Jesse surveyed the scene, "Not a clue, something doesn't feel right. Nemesis wouldn't call his ships back unless he has something else planned."
"Well, whatever he's planning, we're not going to be able to face it unless Ramrod is repaired," April declared tiredly. She had completely re-fitted Ramrod, and it had been about as useful as a wetsuit in the desert.
"Agreed," Saber gave a short nod, "is Ramrod able to make it back to base without assistance, April?"
"Yes, but I need to shut down nearly all the port side stabilizers. It's going to be rough trip home, guys."
With that Ramrod began its limping journey back to Yuma.
When eyes meet in silence
A pact can be made
A life-long alliance
That won't be betrayed
Befriend me now... 
Despite the equalizer unit disturbing tendency to try and spiral, the sheriffs managed to take advantage of the prolonged trip time to relax. April, having shouldered the lion's share of the temporary repair work, begged off and went to collapse in her bed. The remainder, still too high on adrenaline, gathered in Ramrod's lounge/meeting room.
Saber, Colt, and Debbie (Ramrod's new pilot, as tall as Saber, with a mane fiery red curling hair to match her friendly, if brash manner) sat around the table, playing a lazy, loose card games. Jesse curled himself up on a couch in a corner, was reading an old novel he had some how gotten out of Saber's quarters. If truth be told, Jesse seemed more interested in surreptitiously watching the others. Saber, just as covertly, was keeping an eye on Jesse, hoping for a chance to draw him out; this war was going to have to be united effort and that mean they all had to be comfortable as possible with one another.
"Hope the base bookstore's open when we get back," Colt drawled as he lay down his hand, "I was thinking it'd be nice to get my girls that book they've been bugging us about."
"Royal flush," Debbie grinned as she lay her hand down as well, "What book?"
" Ben Aday's 'Danny and the Red Banana'; the girls have been waiting this one for a long time," Colt explained.
Jesse nearly dropped his book. He stared at the back of Colt's head, and mouthed, "'Danny and the Red Banana '?!?" to himself, his face freezing with an expression mixed of amused horror and disbelief.
Saber blinked, then had to hide his own reaction to the look on Jesse's face. It was too funny.
"That's the sequel to 'Danny and Two Blue Oranges', right?" Saber asked, hoping to obliquely explain to Jesse that these were 'let's learn colours and number' books for children. However, at the sound of the other title, Jesse's eyes only got wider and his expression a little more stunned.
"Yep," Colt nodded.
Shaking his head, Jesse resumed, or tried to resume reading his book.
"Why don't we do something useful and really get to know each other?" Debbie smiled as she raked in the poker chips.
"Excellent suggestion, Debbie," Saber said quickly, "perhaps we all should make the attempt to bolster our team spirit," he gave a quick glance over at Jesse.
"Yeah, well, how we suppose to do that, Top Sword," Colt scratched his head, "I mean you know me."
"Does he really?" Debbie asked lightly, "I've kept secrets from my twin and she's identical. So you can never say you really know a person," she pause thought for a moment, then her eyes went 'bingo!' "How about embarrassing secret habits? Stuff your closest friends don't even know."
Colt nodded backwards, gesturing towards Jesse, "ya' think that's such a good idea."
"A fine idea," Saber persisted, "I'll go first. My most embarrassing secret habit is that I read the endings of novels before I finish them."
Jesse looked up again from his novel, and shook his head. A smile was tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"That's...interesting," Debbie said in a tone that suggested she thought it was rather boring habit to confess to, "I save chewing gum."
"Excuse me?" Colt raised an eyebrow, "save chewing gum?"
"You know, I've already chewed it, but then I have to do something that requires I not chew it, so I take it out, wrap it in wax paper, and save it for later," Debbie explained.
Both Colt and Saber looked like they were going to gag.
"That's disgusting!" Colt sputtered.
Debbie shrugged, "I did say embarrassing secrets. So Colt, what's yours?"
Colt felt a sudden flush creep over his face, "I, uh, well, I sometimes..." the rest was lost in a mumble.
"What was that?" Saber queried.
"I said, I sometimes look at, well, you know, those types of websites not appropriate for kids."
Debbie appeared to understand was he was getting at and giggled a bit. But Saber looked at him blankly.
Colt blushed even redder, "ah, you know, Top Sword, uhm, sites where ladies don't have no clothes on."
There was a muffled, sniggered, "Why am I not surprised?" from behind him.
"What about you, Jesse? Any disgusting habits you wouldn't want anyone to know? Besides betraying your kind, o'course?" Colt asked, twisting around to look at Jesse.
Saber Rider frowned at Colt. The idea was to try and establish some sort of rapport with Jesse, not drive him further away.
Jesse shut the book he was trying to read. He shot Colt a glance that would have frozen lava. He rose from his chair and stalked over to the door. He paused and looked back at the trio. He bit his lip. He looked from face to face, finally being caught by Saber's eyes. He asked for more than he knew he deserved; Saber slightly nodded.
"I bite my toenails," then he was out the door.
Saber raised his eyebrows as looked from Colt to Debbie. They both shrugged. They were all astonished Jesse had even answered.
Finally Colt yawned and searched, "How about we call it a night?"
"That was how you got to be a power in the land, he thought.
You never cared a toss about whatever anyone else thought and you were
never, ever, uncertain about anything." 
Commander Eagle was waiting with Charles when Ramrod touched down. He could barely hold on to the squirming little boy when they saw the ramp finally touch the ground. For unbearably moment he thought perhaps something had happened, that, despite the frequent communications, the sheriffs were incapacitated somehow.
April and Colt finally quietly walked down.
Charles let out a surprisingly loud whoop, and wriggled his way out of his grandfather's arms. He was half way to his mother before anyone could react. He was nearly flying when he jumped to try and hug his mother around her waist; he ended up hugging her thigh. Turning his face up to her, and with all the innocent common sense of a three year old, he began to chatter to her his latest preschool adventures.
April looked down into his big brown eyes almost blankly. Mechanically, she reached down and took him up in her arms. Only then, when the warmth of son was in her arms, did it register that he was actually there, and her arms tightened as if she were trying to mold him back into her flesh.
Colt watched with a quiet, envious smile. He silently bide her goodbye with his eyes. He nodded to the Commander, then set off to return to his own family.
"April," Commander Eagle held out his arms to embrace his daughter and grandson.
After a few moments they broke apart; Charles had begun giggling at the scratchiness of Eagle's whiskers. Eagle stepped and seriously looked his daughter over.
'She looks as if she'll shatter in the slightest wind,' he thought despondently, 'she's not as ready to deal with this without Fireball, as she likes to think.' But he forced a smile; she would only bristle under his concern.
"It was rough, Dad," April began, unconsciously rocking side to side, Charles' head resting on her shoulder, "Nemesis has built some extremely complex ships."
"So we gathered from the data you sent during the battle," Eagle replied, "we're going to go over with a fine-toothed comb," he nodded to Debbie as she left Ramrod, "and I'm going to have a discussion with Blue about why he failed to mention that those Ghidoraus could split in three."
"Not quite into three, Dad, they just sort of developed three separate extended bows, like a three-headed dragon," April darkly scowled, "damn things nearly ripped us apart."
The two adults looked at the child they had so quickly forgotten was there. His eyes were huge with fear.
April looked back at her father, "I'm going to take him home. Say goodbye to Grandpa now, Charles," she made her voice light, "We'll all have dinner together later, I promise."
"Of course," Eagle nodded, accepting his daughter's indirect dinner invitation, "We'll finish that puzzle then, Charles," he leaned over and kissed both their foreheads, "Until later."
April sort of bobbed, then went off, letting Charles babble at her about what he wanted for dinner.
Eagle, followed by considerable number of junior officers, went up Ramrod's ramp where he was met by Saber Rider.
"Permission to come aboard," the senior commander asked of the other commander.
"Sir," Saber saluted, and they fell in step with one another as they headed towards to Ramrod's meeting room/lounge.
"I didn't want to ask April, but how bad is it really, Saber?" Commander Eagle asked hesitantly.
Quiet for a moment, Saber looked to the floor, "To be honest, Charles, we were badly out-gunned. If it weren't for some very questionable circumstances, we should be space debris."
"What did Blue have to say?"
"He hasn't said much of anything," Saber bit his lip, "I'm not certain, but I think he wasn't expecting some of the surprises Nemesis threw at us."
"He's a very good actor," Eagle growled, "where is he now?"
"In his quarters," Saber turned to the comm-unit, "I'll call him up here."
"Yes," Eagle nodded.
Saber tapped the unit, "Jesse, Commander Eagle is here and would like to speak with you."
There was a pause before there was an answer, "Yeah, sure, gimme a few minutes."
Eagle leaned forward, "No, now, Blue."
"Okay, now is it then," came the sharp reply, then there was dead air.
"Commander," Saber murmured, "I've come to realize that Jesse has to be handled with a bit more...delicacy and tact."
One of the officer with Eagle hrumphed, while another snorted in disbelief.
"Saber, I realize Jesse may have made himself seem harmless, perhaps even a bit vulnerable, but after having been his prisoner, I can tell you he's a devious, calculating bastard," Eagle explained, perhaps a bit patronizingly.
Then the door to the meeting room opened.
And Jesse came in.
Wearing a black towel.
While drying his hair with another towel.
And that was it.
"So, what's so important that it couldn't wait until I got dressed?" Jesse asked casually.
No one said anything.
With a shake of his head, Jesse flipped most of his hair over his shoulders. He slung the hair-drying towel over his shoulder and smiled, almost brightly. He noticed one of the female officers looking a bit more transfixed than the others.
"See something you like, honey?" he sneered slightly, shifting a bit so that the mane of hair down his back rippled with his muscles.
That broke the frozen silence that had settle on everyone else. Commander Eagle looked apoplectic, most of his officers looked horrified and angry, and Saber, well, Saber looked as if he were trying very hard to be angry and horrified, except his lips kept twitching into a smile.
Finally Eagle decided pointedly and coldly to ignore Jesse's state of undress, and began to interrogate him about the recent battle.
Jesse responded by telling Commander Eagle, in full detail, what he could do with himself, three featherdusters, a box of nails, mice, some figs and jar of honey, "...and the horse you rode in on!"
Silence once again fell in the meeting room.
Saber cleared his throat, "Jesse, go get dressed. We'll discuss this meeting later."
Commander Eagle was about to countermand that order, when Jesse turned to Saber.
"Yes, sir!" Jesse gave Saber a sincere salute, and walked out.
Another awkward silence fell.
"You realize that he did that to get your goat," Saber said woodenly.
"Undoubtedly," Eagle sighed.
"I'll try and get the information out of him later. Dealing with Jesse is like petting a porcupine," Saber tried to explain, "you have to be very careful about the direction you stroke."
"I see," Eagle did not sound happy, "I'm going to discuss this with the council, Saber. In the mean time, whatever you get out of him gets reported immediately."
"Yes, Sir," Saber agreed.
Eagle and his coterie of officers left Ramrod.
Saber sat down heavily on a couch.
Don't you cry
Wipe the tears from your eyes
You know I need you to be strong
And the day is as dark as the night is long
Feel like trash
You make me feel clean
I'm in the black
Can't see or be seen
Baby Baby Baby light my way... 
Robin sat before the mirror brushing her hair, or trying to. The brush kept slipping for her hands.
'I should really get it cut, its almost as long as April's use to be,' she thought irrelevantly.
Twice now the Ramrod team had faced the Outrider resurgence, and twice, from the little bits she could glean from the news reports and from Commander Eagle's slight slips, the victory, or at least the finish of the battles, had come very close to defeat. Finally she gave up and set the brush down. Robin stared in the mirror, trying to figure out why her reflection had tears streaming down her cheeks. She scrubbed her cheeks with her fists, the tears refusing to be checked. She sniffled, and caught herself.
'Colt'll be mad at me if I end looking like some haystack-haired witch,' she tried to laugh at herself.
Robin picked up her hairbrush again, beginning her next attempt to smooth out her hair. But her hands were slick with tears and stress sweat, and the brush slipped from them.
And a strong familiar hand caught it.
"Howdy Gorgeous," Colt softly drawled, as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and kissed the crown of her head softly. He breathed in her scent like dying man drinking in oxygen.
Robin leaned back into him, letting her tears fall freely. The chill she didn't realize was surrounding her melted away under her husband's heat.
"Shh, shh, Robin, shh, oh sweetheart," Colt dropped to his knees, and wrapped his arms around Robin's waist. He closed his eyes, and just reveled in holding his wife in his arms.
Then came the soft pounding of small feet, and three small blurs rushed into the room.
Colt and Robin found themselves being climbed all over as their three small girls vied to get closest to their Daddy. Colt solved the problem by placing two year old twins, Cathy and Kelly on their mother's lap, and letting five year old Laura climb up on his back. One arm he twisted behind his back to keep her from falling, the other he wrapped loosely around Robin and the twins.
Colt smiled at Robin in the mirror, and felt a moment of complete contentment when she smiled back.
"Don't stop, baby, dreaming"
"Don't stop, baby, loving"
"Don't stop, babe, believing"
"Don't stop, baby, dreaming"
"Don't stop, baby, loving"
"Don't stop, babe, believing"
...I will always love you,
even though we're far apart. 
April was exhausted from playing with and reassuring her son. Charles had been wound up tighter than spring. Dinner had been some what calming, in spite of herself, she had laughed when her father recounted the incident that afternoon.
But now, with Charles in bed and her father off where ever he went off to, she crashed in her bed and tried to sleep. No matter how she shifted, or turned, she just could not get comfortable. The absence of body that was suppose to be beside her was more tangible than she ever imagine it could be.
'This is ridiculous,' she thought depressed, 'when one of us was off-planet I slept alone.'
April settled herself in the center of the bed and closed her eyes trying summon sleep through a feet of will. She succeeded into fall into a fitful slumber
If she had been awake, she would have seen the right side of the bed dipped down some, as if someone had just gotten into it. If she had been awake, she would have seen the sheets and blankets shift as someone made their way over to her side. If she had been awake, she might have screamed.
As it was, she sighed softly as warm unseen fingers began to ruffled through her short hair and traced down the line of her jaw. April slightly turned towards them. The shoulder of her nightgown was gently pushed down. A line of soft butterfly kisses ran from her shoulder to the joint of her neck. She blindly reached out, and found hands taking hers and kissing them, nibbling them, teasing them. The buttons of her nightgown came undone, and warm hands carefully, adoringly smoothed it off her. Her arms circled around someone warm and gentle. Her breath caught as a remembered fire began to fill her.
She sighed contentedly, sensually, again, "Fireball."
An innocent killer's twisted mind lost
Among the broken toys of my childhood
Among the cobwebs and the candy floss
Watching my deadly obsessions
I delicately flirt with the nightmare lord
a body? no, skin...dull, shiny, metal-plastic skin, clumps of wire hair. empty eyes. a mannequin, a hollow doll, such a face. so pretty, so fatal, so ugly. doll. puppet. marionette. such a familiar face. a mirror face. cracked. broken. violated. so sad. glittering black tears welled from empty eyes. empty tears. dead tears. poor dolly. so lonely. never grieved for.
the lightning's hand.
impossible not reach out. touch. try to comfort. black tears moving.
quicksilver-like. drenching fingertips.
shake it off! shake it off! obsidian iridescence climbing, clawing, swallowing hands, arms, torso... melting through skin. slicing through skin.
liquid filling lungs, shredding lungs, becoming lungs.
dancing...stumbling...dancing...laughing...dancing...flying...smiling above it all...pretty marionette...strings pulled so gently...pulled so chokingly....
pain and light and pleasure and darkness and destruction
oh look other dolls want to play. such dolls. such fragile dolls. dolls that jump and scatter and burn.
oh look that poor doll is broken already. smashed. such a shame. a favorite doll. fix poor red dolly. oh yes, we can fix the doll.
begging (for release) begging (for pain) begging (for nothing) begging (for anything) begging (for hope) begging (for death)
fires dance and stone dances in fluidity with it.
laughing, laughing, joy, pleasure, destruction
reaching out, reaching out, reaching out
please help me!
and the green-eyed lord of nightmares, with amus7ed compassion, reaching back
A true hero reaches out
To the falling lost soul
Though the cost is falling himself
He found himself drifting in a pleasant warmth, fresh wind and wild flowers. Soft laughter reached his ears and he knew that if he opened his eyes there would be his friends and family nearby having a picnic.
Which was why it was a rude shock when someone painfully grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. His eyes flashed open.
He did not recognize the man before him. Nor was he any where near a picnic. In fact, it seemed more like he and the stranger were in a grey void. Standing on nothing. A unexpected wave of vertigo torn through him.
"You're dreaming, stupid," the man gave him a lope-sided smile. The man brushed back some black hair from his face, "We could do the tango here and we still wouldn't fall."
He stepped back.
The man's eyes were bi-coloured. One such a solid pale blue it resembled a chip of glacial ice. The other seemed filled with red at first, but then it flickered like there was a literal flame within. The man smiled again, a decidedly unpleasant smile. Then...then his eyes completely changed, in normal, human green eyes.
"You brought this on yourself, you know, and you won't remember much," The man informed him, as his wrist was crushingly grasped again, "but remember this, it's going to be worth it."
And he found himself being flung like a rag doll through darkness.
The man's voice filled with a strange mixture of fondness and pity echoed in through it as well, "catch him."
He felt the bone-jarring, nausea-inducing impact of having a fall broken by concrete. With a supreme effort he sat up. He looked around.
This place was familiar. If only her could remember why.
There on the concrete was a fallen banner of some sort. He could just make out:
But the missing letter were either hidden by folds in the material, or burned away.
Then the rest of this new dream-world kicked in with a vengeance.
Piercing shrieks filled his ears. The stench of roasting flesh assailed his nostrils.
He finally saw the panic and destruction surrounding him. There was another flood of amnesiac recognition as he saw an empty vermilion vehicle, but he couldn't name it. Nor name the stick figures carrying a carrion bundle away from it.
He tried to reach out to help a woman burnt and bleeding, only to have her dissolve into ashes in his hands.
And then he was looking down on himself looking up looking down.
He felt a surge of delight as the ashes sifted through his fingers, as the world began to catch fire.
He grieved that there was nothing he could do but watch the world burn.
Pleasure and pain and light and darkness and destruction converged on his soul.
He was enjoying this. He was horrified by it.
please help me
He could see a figure walking toward him, (or was he walking towards himself?) bursts of lasers dancing about it. He could not make out who it was, (but he could, couldn't he?) didn't want to, but the ground beneath the figure's feet began to bubble up as molten rock. A whispering, mocking laughter (or were they sobs?) swirled in the ash-filled air cutting through the screams like a razor.
It...He...came closer to him, closer to itself.
And the pressure that had been building up erupted in a scream of self-recognition (but that's not me?).
Saber tumbled from his bunk to the floor. His throat aching from the scream that had woken him up. For a moment he swore that his heart was going to burst out of him from the way it was pounding in his chest.
He patted himself down and pinched himself to make sure he was really awake. The nightmare was already fading from his mind, but he would never forget the terror it evoked. It had put him through the emotional wringer.
"Bloody hell," he gasped out, breathing hard. He stilled for a moment to collect himself, then climbed back up to sit on his bunk.
Looking at his pillow he realized that he would be getting no more sleep tonight.
'I'll take Steed out for a ride,' he thought to himself, 'that's always soothing.'
He got up and quickly dressed.
Mental wounds not healing
Life's a bitter shame...
Mental wounds still screaming
Driving me insane
I'm going off the rails on a crazy train... 
Jesse thrashed awake, still fighting the fine fluid until a very undreamlike pain tugged at his head. That woke him up completely. He moved his hand again, and yelped.
'This is embarrassing,' he thought ruefully, 'I'm tangled up in my own hair.'
As carefully he could, he untangled himself (with quite a few pulls that made him howl), and sat up. Jesse finally allowed himself to really look around. The room was somewhat better than the cell they had put him in at Cavalry Command's headquarters. It still had too much grey metal, but there was a view screen which could be set to view the outside, or at least some programmable landscape. It was from the dim light of that screen that he was able to contemplate his quarters. If he tried, he was fairly certain he could wrangle his way into some prints and posters to cover up most of the metal. Yawning he lay back again, only to have his hair pull again when he misjudged where it was. He sat up again, irked.
"Okay, it's served it purpose," he said to no one, "it's time it came off."
He swung his legs over the edge of the bunk, and stood up. There was another thing he liked about his quarters on Ramrod: a private bathroom. It was small and cramped, but it better than anything he had had in the last seven years.
It only took four strides to get to and through the bathroom door. He reached back and tapped on the lights. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the brightness. Because of its position, he was looking directly at the mirror.
Jesse's head snapped back in shock, his breath knocked out by surprise. His guts were hanging out. There was blood all his abdomen and legs. His hair was drenched and sticking together in thick rat-tails. Lifting up his hand he saw them hopelessly stained as well. His breath hitched, and he knew he was going to scream. He slammed his eyes shut as he hit blindly backwards to turn off the lights.
For a long time there was nothing but the sound of deep, panicked breathing. It took a forever before Jesse worked up the courage to turn the lights back on. He slowly opened one eye, then the other. He ran a blood-free hand over his scarless belly.
'Hold it together, Jesse,' he chided himself, 'that's all over with, you moron.'
He calmed himself, and stepping up to the mirror he looked through the small medicine cabinet by its side. Jesse found a small pair of scissors, 'Great, this will take all night!' he thought as he began cutting his hair.
Death is so final to only the living
The spirit will always remain 
Saber petted Steed's cheek, as the mechanical horse whinnied softly.
"S'okay lad, we're just going for a ride," he murmured soothingly, "just to clear my head," he climbed onto Steed's back, "let's go."
Steed trotted down the ramp, then, at Saber's urging, took to the air, heading to the base's no-man's zone. Much against regulations, Saber was not wearing his helmet, enjoying the feel of the crisp night air on his face. Trusting Steed's abilities he would look up at the stars and marvel at how something as beautiful as stars could hold so much danger.
Out here he was completely alone and, for a moment, completely at peace. Or he was, until he heard the lone engine of a motorcycle tearing across the desert. He looked down to see if it were a patrol by a base guard. It was not.
Saber ordered Steed down to fly closer to the ground.
No, it definitely was not a base guard. Cavalry Command uniforms were either a light tan, or a grey, this rider was wearing black, with silver lettering glinting off the back.
Steed swooped down next to the bike and through various maneuvers indicated that Saber wanted the rider to stop. For a moment it seemed that the rider was going to speed up, but as Steed landed the motorcycle braked a bit and circled back. It made a wide circle around Saber and Steed, before it stopped shortly ahead of them.
The rider kicked down the stand, and swung off the bike. As the rider turned to Saber he could see that is was a woman.
'And what did you expect with a jacket that had Stainless Steel Rose on the back of it, you bloody idiot?' Saber's mind kicked him.
She was wearing an open black leather motorcycle jacket with the forementioned moniker picked out in steel studs on the back, and what Saber assumed was black leather riding suit underneath. Whatever she was wearing underneath, it was just tight enough around the curves of her body to get his imagination going, although not so tight to be considered in poor taste. He wished the boots she wore were dainty, but they were practical, clunky, cycle-boots. His eyes were drawn back up as she removed her helmet ( was it a trick of his eyes, or was there a faint silver design traced over that black helmet?). Her heart-shaped face was pale, but tinted with the faintest shade of pink. Her hair was black, and shiny and short, bobbed to the rounding of her jaw. The starlight played along her high cheek-bones and straight nose. A set of clear silver-grey almond shaped eyes blinked under fine softly curved black eyebrows. She gave a faintly puzzled smile. (it was not his imagination this time, there was a shimmer of silver on the black lipstick...what was with this woman and black?) As she stepped forward, she removed her riding gloves revealing long slim fingers with long nails painted black with a small silver rose etched in the darkness.
Saber wasn't certain how he could be making out details like that in the starlight, but then this woman seemed to be more real, more there, than any other woman he had ever met before. He took a step backwards.
"Well, stone the damn crows," She said in astonishment, "you can see me."
There was silence for a moment.
"You can put your eyes back into your head now," she chuckled huskily, "I'm not here for you."
Shaking himself, Saber finally found his voice again, "I'm sorry, what?"
"Don't worry about it," the woman reassured him, "You're Richard Rider, right?"
"Err, yes, yes I am, how did you...?"
The little crinkle of skin between her eyebrows wrinkled, and her eyes widened a bit in surprise, "You mean, you don't know who..." she stopped, and continued smoothly, "I watch the news; you've been in the news a lot lately."
Ah, he thought, that explains that, except how she knew his proper first name. Perhaps some reporter had dug it up, he dismissed.
"I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Miss?"
"Sophia, Sophia Hagia," the woman said, "but I go by Stainless."
There was more awkward silence.
Saber finally remembered why he had tried to stop her, "Well, see here, Miss Hagia..."
"Ah, Stainless, this is Cavalry Command testing grounds, and off-limits to civilians. It could be quite dangerous. I'm afraid I must ask you leave," Saber tried to sound authoritative, but failed miserably as he was distracted by the ripple on the skin of her throat as she began to laugh.
"Off-limits? To me? You're too funny," Stainless was breathless for a few more moments. When she calmed down, she smiled again, "but for your peace of mind I'll leave," she turned to walk back to her bike.
"Wait," Saber called out slightly more frantically than he wanted to sound, "Shall I see you again?"
Stainless turned back, and walk towards him until there was only a half-foot between them, "You are a funny one, aren't you? Most men don't ever want to see me at all," she sighed, "but yes, you'll probably see more of me than you really will want to have."
She leaned down, (how could he have missed that she was considerably taller than himself?!?) and brushed a soft kiss on his cheek, whispering, "don't fall in love with me, kid. Bad things happen when people fall in love with me. Bad things happen to people who fall in love with me."
Stainless left him standing there, as she put her helmet back on, mounted her bike, and roared off into the night.
Finally Saber Rider shivered like a man waking from a particularly strange dream, again. He found he had the sudden urge to return to the security of Ramrod.
And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth
Which you can't reveal to the Ears of Youth
Except to say it isn't worth a dime 
The door to the Ramrod's bridge irised open and General Whitehawk stepped through. He paused, momentarily taken back by the change in Jesse's appearance; Jesse's hair was now shoulder-length with lines so sharp that it could have been cut with a level. Whitehawk approached the former Outrider commander fearlessly. A long moment they just stood, side by side, watching the sky.
"Hhmm, why is it when Eagle-breath wants to talk at me he has the whole bloody Swiss Guard with him, but you seem to think I'm not dangerous even to rate a single body-guard? It's almost insulting."
Whitehawk laughed slightly, "Commander Eagle has his reasons, and I have mine, Jesse."
Jesse looked at Whitehawk from the corner of his eye, "Does this have something to do with Trista?"
"Does it?" the General asked mildly.
"Well, does it?" Jesse sounded less than please to have been answered with a question. He stared out at the night sky, although most of the stars had been blotted out by the base's and the nearby city's lights. He hated that.
"Esperanza's a beautiful child. Very much like her mother," Whitehawk smiled, his eyes softening, "all the hope of the world in her. All the potential as well. I'm biased of course, but I'm certain she'll be the greatest of her generation. I can see that in her eyes."
"I wouldn't know about that," Jesse replied tiredly, suddenly feeling very cold. Although his eyes still felt hot enough to be burning. Why the hell did he have to bring her up?
Whitehawk was silent for a few short, eternal moments, "it was in her father's eyes as well."
A fraction of second too late, Jesse snorted, "Bob never seemed to be the sharpest pencil in box to me."
Whitehawk turned to look at him, "we both know I'm not talking
Jesse bit his lip, "leave me alone, Whitehawk."
"As you wish, Jesse," Whitehawk nodded and walked to the door, "whether you believe it or not, not everyone believes you're the monster you claim to be. Some of us know better," The general walked through the doorway.
"Whitehawk?" Jesse called out, "You and Trista, do you read Esperanza any books by," he paused, remembering the author's name, "Ben Aday?"
"You the 'Danny and the...' books?" Whitehawk's lips quirked in to smile.
"No, for some reason Trista and I just could never bring ourselves to buy them."
And the door slid shut behind a chuckling Whitehawk.
Jesse watched the sky for a few more, uncomfortable, moments.
"Dammit," he mumbled, and he left Ramrod's control center. He wondered the hallways until he came to Ramrod's galley.
"Ah food, the second best thing to sex for comfort," he laughed somewhat bitterly to himself, and set about rummaging through the stores.
A few moments later he was dubiously poking at a prepackage chocolate cake. He read the labeling on the package, his nose wrinkling in disgust.
"It's a wonder they're not dead from this crap yet," he snorted in disdain, as he chucked the offending food product in to the garbage chute. "Well, it seems this is going to have to be the hard way," and he began to pull various ingredients out of the cupboards.
Midway through adding the eggs, Jesse felt a arctic cold presence developed behind him. He half way turned to look.
"I had wondered where you had gotten to," he sneered, "screwing your widow in her dreams, right?"
Fireball's face contorted in anger.
"I call it as I see it," Jesse shrugged insouciantly, and returned to mixing his cake batter. He stopped for a moment as if hearing something, "You think I was crazy enough to trust those treacherous morons to cook for me? Anyway Outriders couldn't cook their way out of paper bag. Well, not human food anyway, and take it from me, Outrider cuisine leaves a lot to be desired."
The spirit suddenly seemed to stand a little straighter and appear a bit more solid...and even more angry.
"It was not my fault," Jesse growled, not liking the turn this communication was taking, "If I could have stopped Nemesis I would have."
Fireball indicated that that to him, that was just so much bull.
"Fine, believe what you will," Jesse said sourly, "but just remember I haven't done anything to harm anyone so far."
Jesse's back stiffened as he felt...something nasty, cold, ethereal stab through his spine. A sense of a deeply denied reality threaded itself through Jesse's being. A reminder of what had happened through out seven years.
"You son of a bitch!" Jesse sputtered. He spun around, and lobbed a dollop of batter at the phantom, knowing full well it was only a futile gesture.
Unfortunately, the galley's door opened at that precise moment.
Time slowed down for a moment as the Star Sheriffs' commander stood there too shocked to wipe the chocolate goop off his face. Jesse couldn't force himself to move. Afraid that if he did, the gale of laughter building in his throat would escape.
Saber Rider eventually reached up to touch the cake batter covering half his face. He hesitantly swiped up a small bit of it on a finger, and tasted it.
"Quite tasty," Saber said dryly, "Any reason why I'm wearing it?"
That did it, Jesse started laughing. After a moment Saber's facade cracked and he laughed as well.
Only when they were both so breathless as to nearly collapsing their knees, did Jesse attempt to explain. Or rather fabricate an explanation.
"The...door...the door...opening startle....startled me, and then the batter...your face!" Jesse almost dissolved back into giggles at the memory.
"And the reason you're making chocolate cake at three in the morning?" Saber asked as he went to the sink to wash the batter off.
"Chocolate cake for breakfast?"
"Can you think of a better time?" Jesse asked right back at him.
"No, but we have chocolate cake all ready made," Saber said, as he dried his face with a dish towel.
Jesse made a face, "you mean that prepackaged, lard frosted, preservative-filled, chemical brick that was in the freezer?
"Thank you so much for that description," Saber gagged, "I'll never be able to look at Ramrod's stores the same way again."
"As I said before, I call it as I see it," Jesse replied loudly as he resumed mixing the batter.
Shaking himself, Saber yawned, "This has been the strangest night," he sat down in the chair by the door.
For ten minutes all that was heard was the making a of chocolate cake. Saber began to doze.
"Don't even think it," Jesse said sharply.
There was a clatter as four metal bowls crashed to the floor.
Saber was up and looking around for someone to shoot. Jesse looked both annoyed and startled as he held up his hands to show they were empty.
"What was that?" Saber demanded.
"What does it look like? I...accidentally knocked over some bowls," Jesse seemed to be eyeing the offending bowls with a great deal of suspicion.
"Ah," Saber yawn again and stretched, "I guess I'll go see if I can catch any sleep."
"Err, I don't suppose...?"
"You want cake, don't you?" Jesse glared evilly at him as if he were asking for the moon.
"Never mind," Saber quickly said, and left the galley.
Jesse smirked to himself.
However, later that morning Saber found a container in the refrigerator, labeled "Tin Star sr." containing some of the best chocolate cake (after scraping off the prickly pear jam glazing it) he had ever tasted .
Bring my bow
Fill my head with flame, and we must
Let them know that the torch is lit again
Crystalize the pain behind your eyes
Are you ready to fight? 
The next few days were almost boring. There was a sense of urgency, but the repairs to Ramrod could only be rushed so fast. No wanted a malfunction mid-battle, not with the stakes being what they were.
Commander Eagle did not attempt to speak directly Jesse since the "towel incident" as it had gotten dubbed on the base. He either worked around Jesse in meeting where Jesse was present, asking Saber to ask Jesse to get the information, or ignored him completely. Jesse, for his part, was more than glad to not have to deal the Commander.
Jesse was spending more time in his quarters than anywhere else. However, avoiding people seemed also to have become a sport to him. Too many times some poor cavalry officer had been sent to get him for a meeting, only to reach empty quarters. He took a perverse delight in leading whoever it was on a merry chase through Ramrod, and always, always had plausible explanation for his actions.
April divided her waking hours equally between Ramrod and her son, while Colt took every chance he had to spend time with his wife and daughters. Debbie evidently had boyfriend stashed somewhere, because the deeply contented look she would come back with whenever she left the base made a few people envious.
And when the skies over Yuma were darkened by the renegade unit, Kiilakru, everything came to a terrified stand still.
Dreams of war
Dreams of liars
Dreams of dragon's fire
And of things that will bite. 
The Kiilakru resembled a cross between an up-right medieval European dragon and jaguar. Sleek, blackish green, scaled, it was armed to the teeth with conventional weaponry and the more organic fangs and claws. And it just floated there in the sky. Waiting.
The sheriffs scrambled to take off, barely waiting for the remaining repair crew to skitter away from the equalizer unit.
"April, how had the repairs progressed?' Saber asked urgently as he settled into his saddle unit, and began scanning his systems.
"We were almost done," April was running her own systems check, "what was left was predominantly cosmetic."
"You're going to want to get up to speed immediately, and put all other power to the forward shields." Jesse was going a mile a minute, "We're going to have to ram that son of bitch and keeping going until we're out of the atmosphere."
"Why?" was all Debbie wanted to know as Ramrod lifted off.
"Because we don't want that thing to drop a probable payload of enough radiation and bio-toxins to kill this planet in less then five minutes," Jesse explained without a trace of his normal disdain.
The sheriffs remained silent except for their feverish work. Ramrod reached full power, and Debbie brought it round in one wide circle to build up velocity.
"Hang on everyone!" she called as she aimed Ramrod's bow at the Killakru's mid-section. The impact shook Ramrod stem to stern, but the equalizer unit kept going, pushing the Kiilakru with all its power.
All Jesse could think of was, 'not again,' as he did his best to remain somewhat up-right. 'when this is over, I'm going to have a long discussion about passengers in the control center.'
"Firing forward plasma cannons," Colt called out.
With a volley of blinding intensity the Kiilakru was propelled through the last layers of Yuma's atmosphere, and, April noted with some pride, past the planet's small second moon. Ramrod followed, closing the gap between them. There was no way this side of hell the star sheriffs were going to let that monster of a renegade near Yuma again.
"We're going to have to going to challenge phase. April?" Saber spared a glance to see if she had any reason why they shouldn't.
"Ready to go, Top Sword," She answered.
"Jesse, you're going to have to..."
"I know, I know," Jesse whined irritably, "stay close to you while this thing transforms."
"Initiating challenge phase."
The control center changed, twisting, spinning, rising, just as Ramrod's exterior was shifting form. It was rather like being on a militaristic merry-go-round. And, if you weren't actually in one of the saddle units, inspired motion sickness. Well, maybe it wouldn't have if Ramrod hadn't needed to make lurching dodge to escape a flare of plasma mid-transformation.
"Kiilakru have three weak points: the joint between tail and the torso; if it loses its tail, it loses its toxic goop; the 'eyes,' and underneath the 'chin.'" Jesse recited as if he were reading a manual, "The problem in the damn thing is so fast and flexible that getting a direct shot in any of those places is difficult at best."
"You sure..." there was pause as an offensive maneuver caused the Kiilakru to back-flip to avoid a lazer blast to its eyes, "you sure know a lot about this critter," Colt wondered aloud, rather pointedly.
"I should, I came up with the basic design eight years ago," Jesse kept his eyes on the main screen, "Nemesis has probably added his own tricks."
"Wonderful," was all April said with a rolls her eyes.
Jesse found himself once again losing his balance and falling to the deck.
'Maybe I should change my name to Jesse Black & Blue,' he sourly thought. Jesse pulled himself up on his knees. He put a hand down to stabilize himself when another blast rocked the equalizer unit. He pulled it up like it was burnt, 'what the hell?'
His eyes grew wider as he watched the tiny bumps on the deck go flowing along like waves. Head tilted, he saw them heading for command center's core computer.
"Dorratus," he breathed.
'That's why Nemesis called off the last attack,' he thought wildly as he got to his feet, 'when that Ghidoraus collided with us, it was delivering a load of those little buggers,' he managed to stagger over to the core, 'destroy the leader, the rest will deactivate, I hope. Unless Nemesis changed their programming as well,' Jesse pulled open repair access panel, 'if this isn't a case of deja effing vu, I don't know what is. Need to crush the little monsters.'
Dorratus were tiny golden, spiderlike mechanoids designed to attack a target from within by scrambling its systems. This swarm had hidden itself deep within Ramrod's inner workings, and obviously had been waiting for the sheriffs to rush into battle.
'Cripple Ramrod, then force the sheriffs to watch Yuma being destroyed, then destroy them,' Jesse reasoned as he waited to feel the clicking of mechanical little legs, 'sounds like something Nemesis would plan. Sounds like something I would plan...' he frowned, unsettled, 'did I plan it? Maybe I should tell the tinstars about this?" for the first time he really noticed he had his hand stuck in Ramrod's computer system, "What the fuck am I doing?!?'
Then he felt it. The mandibles of a hundred tiny arachnid machines sinking into his hand. Jesse gave a yell.
"What in tarnation are you doing? Top Sword, he sabotaging us!" Colt yelled, distracted from his shot, as he halfway got out of his saddle unit.
"Get out of your saddle units! Get out now!" He pulled his hand out from the computer. It was covered with Dorratus and a slick, black iridescence; Jesse began screeching like a banshee, "get out!"
Colt left his unit, to try and tackle Jesse. And missed as Debbie pulled Ramrod up to avoid being tackled by the Kiilakru.
"I thought he was the one who thought being splattered across a moon was a bad idea," she muttered.
Saber immediately got out of his saddle unit, torn between helping Colt and following Jesse's panicked demand.
April's shriek as she was shoved out of her unit by apparently thin air went unnoticed, because a second later it happened.
There comes a time.
There's a place,
a change of heart.
An about face...
Amnesty is granted. 
When it was over, an eerie, almost numinous silence stifled Ramrod's bridge. The sheriffs' breathing was muffled y their armour, and Jesse's seemed to have cease all together. Thin silent crackles skittered over all the surfaces, before even they died out and left the control center in darkness.
"nnn...never again," someone moaned, "never again. s'not worth it."
Jesse made an effort to sit up, but gave up after the floor reach up and pulled him back down hard.
'What just hit me?' he wondered as pretty little sparklies swirled before his eyes, then he remembered to open them, 'Ah! Pitch black darkness, always a good sign,' he thought glumly.
Ramrod's back-ups chose that moment to turn on the emergency lights, lending the bridge a murky greenish hue.
Jesse again tried to sit up, succeeding this time.
"Oh shit," he murmured rancorously, finally remembering the event of the past few minutes.
A few seconds later, a stench assailed his nose, and he looked around. None of the sheriffs were conscious, so far as he could tell anyway. And one...
Jesse controlled the bile rising in his throat, as he looked at the piloting saddle unit.
'Well, she's crispy critters,' he thought, turning away. He pushed away the useless rise of sudden sorrow, and got to his feet.
The Kiilakru was drifting across the screen.
Unaccountably, Jesse found tears in his eyes. Somehow, whatever the Dorratus had done to Ramrod, it must have triggered Ramrod's weapon's systems. Somehow, when they went off, the blast had hit the Kiilakru's thick tail, vaporizing it; destroying the storage place of its toxic weaponry. At the very least, they had spared Yuma that.
The Kiilakru gave shiver and powered up again. It looked towards Ramrod, and Jesse would have sworn on his own grave that it sneered. The Kiilakru turned towards Yuma.
Jesse prodded Colt with his boot.
'They're down for the count,' Jesse hesitantly touched Colt's saddle unit. Nothing happened, so he sat down in it and he began to run through the systems, 'okay, let's see what I can do. Life-support systems ninety percent, navigational systems forty percent, weapons systems seventy percent, but the controls look a little roasted, communication systems...'
The communication system blared to life.
Commander Eagle was demanding status reports.
"We don't have time that now, Eagle," Jesse muttered just loud enough so it would be heard.
"Blue?!? What are you doing? Where are the sheriffs? Where's my daughter? What's..." Eagle kept up a steady stream of questions peppered with insults.
Jesse mostly ignored Eagle as he feverishly began to try and redirect systems to optimize what abilities Ramrod had left. Nerves fraying, he finally snapped out:
"I don't know what weasel flew up your butt, Eagle, but if you don't stop yammering at me you're gonna be down one equalizer unit, and get Yuma blown to hell too. Now SHUT UP! Blue out."
Jesse grinned as he flipped switch, and watched as two missiles launched from Ramrod. They didn't do much damage, but they got the Kiilakru's attention.
"That's right, ugly, you're not done with me yet," he smiled wolfishly. It felt like he was trying to guide a blind hippo through molasses in midwinter, but just being back at the controls made him feel more himself. Even the familiar chill radiating from where April lay on the deck, he simply ignored it.
'Have to give April her due, this junk-pile is still holding its own,' he absently thought.
Without its balancing tail the Kiilakru's flight was clumsy, albeit still faster than Ramrod's own flight abilities. The two mechanical giants stumbled more into lucky hits, than planned attacks. Jesse was having the time of his life.
Ramrod's communication system crackled back to life.
Jesse spat, and yelled, "Not now, Eagle."
It was not Eagle's voice that spoke. It was a familiar voice, corrupted, cold, venomous, with echoing mechanical undertones. It ran razor blades over his nerves, and made his blood run cold. A vile, seductive voice whispering complimenting insults. Jesse fought with himself to remember to breath, to prevent himself from losing the contents of his stomach. It would be so easy to listen, to believe, to turn back. It was turning him inside out.
Blindly, he began smashing a fist down on the communication panel; it shattered into tiny pieces, silencing Nemesis. Blood flowed freely from his hand for a moment, then stopped. He stared sightlessly at the controls, watching with distant interest as the control console in front of him sizzled, smoked slightly. Jesse seemed almost boneless as he slumped forward, there was nothing he could do. It was inevitable. Time to give in.
"Are you okay, mister?"
Jesse took in a sudden breath and sat up straight. His eyes snapped to the screen. The Kiilakru was beginning to turn away from the drifting Ramrod. His hands shook, as he piloted the increasingly sluggish vessel. Jesse tried to fire Ramrod's cannons one-handedly, only to have sparks bite at his fingers.
'I need to bypass that system, put all the power we have into weapons,' he thought despairingly, 'I can't dammit. If I let go of these flight controls to do it, I'll lose what little response I'm getting.'
There was certain increase in the intensity of the localized chill.
'He's looking at me,' Jesse looked over at the spirit of Fireball. He was a fraction of a second too late, Fireball had redirected his attention back at his widow. But Jesse knew what his face must have been like -- angry, resentful and unforgiving.
"How many times do I have to say I'm sorry? If I could have done something I would have," evidently that wasn't enough to get the shade's attention, "April's gonna die now, if you don't help me," something insidious inside was raging to be let out, "dammit, I tried, I couldn't. I wasn't strong enough. And I'm afraid I'm not strong enough now," Jesse managed through gritted teeth has he felt the heat from the damaged weapon controls begin to burn his hands, "I'm afraid."
Fireball looked up from April, a sad smile quirking his lips. He nodded, and faded away.
"Dammit," Jesse nearly cried from frustration and fear. Then he felt something jerk the flight controls from him, holding them steady. He sighed in relief, "twenty seconds, that's all I ask."
The bypass was done with two seconds to spare.
'This is it then. Maverick firing system powering up. Now or never.'
One blast erupted from Ramrod, then all but life-support went dead.
It was enough.
It took the Kiilakru's head off.
There was a chorus of groans heard on Ramrod's bridge.
"What just happened?" Colt muttered as he sat up. Saber and April were recovering consciousness more slowly
"We stopped it," Jesse said wearily, "We won this one...I think I'm going to pass out now...."
It's so simple right before your eyes
If you'll look through this disguise
It's always here, it's always there
It's just love
and miracles out of nowhere 
To Be Continued.
I'm still ending them abruptly, ne? ^_^
 From The Master and Margarita By Mikhail Bulgakov; Translated by Mirra Ginsburg
 Excerpt from "A Friend Is A Friend" By Peter Townsend.
 Excerpt from Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett
 Excerpt from "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" By Bono
Excerpt From "Wasurenaide" (Don't Forget) By Aran Tomoko
Translated by Michael House & Shin Kurokawa
 Excerpts from "Crazy Train" By Ozzy Osbourne
 Excerpt From "Back on Earth" by Taylore Rhodes & Richie Supa
 Excerpt From "Closing Time" By Leonard Cohen
 Excerpt from "A Call To Arms" By Michael Rutherford & Christopher Neil.
 Excerpt from "Enter Sandman" by J. Hetfield, L. Ulrich, & K. Hammett
 Excerpt from "Amnesty Is Granted" by Sammy Hagar.
 Excerpt from "Miracles Out Of Nowhere" By K. Livgren