Dray, a top cadet at the Terran Pilot's Academy, has finally managed to capture the attention of Jordan, the only other cadet who can match Dray's pilot skills. But Dray has little time to explore her growing attraction to Jordan before their academic world is thrust into the middle of the smoldering Vtaryn war. The two young women must give the best of themselves to the Academy and to each other to protect what is most dear to them.
Disclaimer: This is an original work of fiction. All characters, worldbuilding and story belong to the author.
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"Pull up, Dray! You're going to bounce us right off the atmosphere."
An evil grin creased Draybek's face as she angled their FX-27 star fighter into the upper atmosphere of the Vtaryn homeworld. Her co-pilot shouted obscenities through her headset, but she ignored him. Ford was an unimaginative putz and he knew it. She drummed her fingers on the console, beating out a tune that rambled through her thoughts as she waited. The holographic readouts flashed half-dozen warnings beneath her fingers.
Ford's frantic voice screamed through the headset again. "Pull up or I'll take control of this ship!"
Dray's fist shot out and grabbed Ford's flight suit just below his sweaty collar. "Touch my flight pattern and I'll stuff you down the waste recycler."
Ford slid down in his seat harness, sulking. "Dammit Dray. Why does every flight have to be a freakin' death match between you and Jordan?"
Dray's grin widened. "Because she's the only competition I have in this wimp-fest, now shut up."
Dray watched her readouts, calculating the precise trajectory she needed to pull off this stunt. The ship's hull rattled around her. Three seconds, two seconds. One.
"Fire booster three!" she shouted.
Ford did as ordered, while Dray redirected the FX-27, timing a perfect atmospheric bounce that threw them up and over Jordan Bower's star fighter that had been strafing them from behind with small weapons fire. Dray flicked on their rear viewers and watched with glee as Jordan's fighter turned into a yellow ball of fire burning through the Vtaryn atmosphere.
"Yes," she whispered.
Dray let Ford handle their landing on Base Station Zenon, while she basked in her triumph. She waved goodbye to the silvery glow of Beta-five's moon as Ford coasted into the landing dock on Zenon. A minute later, the lights in their cabin changed from amber to green. Ford pushed open the cabin door and stepped out. Dray walked out and was accosted by the cheers and congratulations of her fellow students in the simulator classroom. She closed the door to her flight simulator, pulled off her helmet and ran fingers through her short blonde hair, unplastering it from her head.
Dray watched as Jordan and her co-pilot emerged from the adjacent flight simulator. Jordan pulled off her helmet and let loose her shoulder-length black hair. She gave Dray a mock bow as her own well-wishers came over to console her. Dray let her eyes linger over Jordan a moment longer before returning to her own cluster of followers.
Their celebration was cut short when Instructor Fenton slammed open her office door.
"Cadets Draybeck and Bowers, in here now!" Fenton shouted, barely showing her gray-haired head before recoiling inside her office.
Jordan gave Dray a wry smile as the two entered Fenton's dungeon. The all-steel interior to the Instructor's office carried no warmth, much like its primary occupant. Fenton sat in her black-mesh chair, thick arms folded over an ample chest.
"What is the purpose of this academy, Cadet Draybeck?" she asked, her raspy voice sending a wave of discomfort over Dray.
"The academy trains pilots to fight against the Vtaryns, Ma'am." Draybeck knew the drill, but refused to make this lesson easy on any of them. She hadn't done anything wrong, strictly speaking.
"That's it?" asked Fenton. "What about you, Cadet Bowers. Are you here to become another weapon of destruction for the Terran Alliance?"
Dray watched as Jordan stared at the wall above Fenton's head. "We're here to learn how to lead the Alliance, Ma'am."
Dray suppressed a sigh. Jordan played by the rules, as usual.
"Precisely, Cadet. You train to be leaders. And what kind of leadership mentality did you both showed in that last simulation? Either of you?"
Dray sensed Jordan's discomfort under Fenton's glare. Thick-necked administrative pain in the?
"Cadet Draybeck, you have something you want to say?" Fenton's cloudy gray eyes turned to her.
"Ma'am, the simulation was over. We crushed the Vtaryn outer defenses," said Dray, staring back at Fenton.
"And you thought you'd have a bit of fun trying to kill each other, eh?" Fenton's voice oozed disapproval.
"With respect, Ma'am. The simulations can't match the challenge of one fighter against another," said Dray.
"With respect, Draybeck? Spare me. The only person here who garners any of your respect is Cadet Bowers."
Dray felt a warm blush creep up her cheeks. She forced herself not to look at her fellow student. "She's a top pilot, Ma'am."
"Hmph. What about you, Cadet Jordan. Do you also think you are too good for the simulators?"
Dray held her breath, waiting for Jordan to toe the line and cave under Fenton's icy glare.
Jordan's quiet answer shocked Dray. Was she agreeing with her, against Fenton? Dray turned to her co-conspirator in time to catch Jordan's shy smile. A warmth flooded Dray that had nothing to do with Fenton's critical attention.
"I see," said Fenton, unfolding her arms and standing. At six-foot three, the older woman towered over the two cadets. "Follow me."
Fenton led the way out of her office and through the hushed gaggle of cadets waiting in the simulator classroom. They marched through the class and down three flights to the Administrator's office.
"Jim," said Fenton, calling the commander by his first name. "You wanted two more for the 28th squadron, right? Well here's your two."
Fenton gave them a slim grin and marched back toward her office. Dray and Jordon stood in stunned silence as the commander eyed them over his silver reading glasses.
"So, you come with Fenton's recommendation, eh?" He stood up and stretched out his hand. "Welcome to the 28th. You'll train on a real ship starting tomorrow."
Dray shook his hand. "Thank you, sir." Her earsplitting grin was matched by Jordan's.
"You'll move quarters tonight to the pilot's wing. Since you came in together, you can bunk together. Chief Petty Officer Marin can give you the details."
The commander returned to his chair and his work. Dray and Jordan wandered back into the hallway.
"Can you believe it?" asked Jordan in a whisper. "I thought we'd get detention for sure."
"Not for us," said Dray. "We're the Academy's finest."
Jordan laughed. "Modest, aren't you?" she teased. Jordan slipped her hand in Dray's. "Come on, let's find our new quarters." She turned back to Dray. "You don't mind bunking with me, do you?"
Warm brown eyes studied Dray. She felt a flush crawl up her freckled cheeks again. "No, don't mind at all," she said.
Jordan pulled her along the hallway. "You're cute when you blush," she said, grinning.
No, Dray thought, she wouldn't mind these new arrangements at all.
Dray managed to tuck her one metal box of personal belongings under her drab steel bed frame in the new quarters she shared with Jordan, before a heavy thud on the door announced a visitor. Jordan pulled open the door to reveal another training pilot, his brilliant red hair and burnt orange skin radiating from his grey-blue Academy uniform. A Tarquin male, just what every girl wanted for a dorm neighbor.
"Good evening, Ladies," he said as his deep green eyes rolled up and down Jordan's lithe figure. A hint of deeper orange rippled across his exposed skin.
Great, thought Dray. A Tarquin male in heat. She was about to push him back out the door when Jordan invited him inside. She stared at her recently-acquired, new roommate. Did Jordan actually like this overbearing bundle of male hormones?
"Hi, I'm Jordan Bowers and this is?"
"Dray," she interrupted, grabbing the hand that the Tarquin intended for Jordan. He turned his large green eyes on Dray and smiled, revealing white teeth and a pronounced set of canines.
"A pleasure," he purred, placing his lips to the palm of Dray's hand before she could jerk it away from his smooth grip. He ignored her discomfort and pressed an orange hand on his chest. "I am Red Barron."
Dray couldn't stop the laughter that spilled out from her. Even the ever-polite Jordan covered her mouth to contain a chuckle.
"Red Barron? You've got to be kidding," said Dray.
"Alas, no. My proper name is not pronounceable to the human tongue. Your Terran immigration officers seemed to enjoy their pun on my natural skin color." He grinned, diffusing any notion that he was offended by his name.
"So are you in the 28th?" asked Jordan as she sat down on her own Spartan bed.
"Yes," said Red. "And the two of you are our newest recruits, yes?"
Jordan nodded. "How long have you been here?"
Red stood a polite distance away from Jordan, though his skin continued to ripple his attraction to her. "Just over one cycle. I would be advancing this cycle, but I had to take time off to return to Tarquin."
Dray's eyes widened. "The Academy let you leave and come back? I thought if you left, that was it. Your spot was given to someone else."
"Tarquins are given special dispensation for our Min'Tak ceremony."
Dray ignored the blush she saw creeping up Jordan's cheeks. "You mean you just became a full grown male this cyle?" She stared at the hard, muscular contours that his tight uniform revealed. She found it hard to believe he'd been a Tarquin female less than a cycle ago.
Red gave them a flamboyant bow. "Full male for a half-cycle now."
Amazing, thought Dray. Curiosity kept her from being annoyed by his male bravado. "So, when did you know that you'd be male?"
"I knew before my fourth birthday." He clasped his hands behind his back, warming up to the conversation. "It is a hard concept for Terrans to understand, since most of you are born to your permanent gender. Even though all Tarquin are born as what you would consider immature females, we learn our real gender long before sexual maturity."
"Is it painful, the ceremony?" asked Jordan.
"It is a natural process for us," he said. "Our bodies mature much the same as yours. We just do it in a matter of weeks instead of years. Human maturity takes such a long time. Very inefficient," he said with a wide grin.
Dray laughed. "And not very enjoyable, believe me." She remembered her own awkward puberty and shuddered.
"I must return to my quarters," he said. "I am glad you are both here to join us. I look forward to many lessons, taught and learned between us." His eyes lingered over Jordan once more, causing her to blush again before he let himself out of their room.
Dray sat on her bed, unsure of herself now that she and Jordan were alone again. She wanted to say or do something, but how could she compete with a newly matured Tarquin male? And nearly a cycle more advanced in training that she was.
"We're small fish in a bigger sea now," said Jordan, echoing Dray's private thoughts.
"Yeah. Are you nervous?"
Jordan's hands fidgeted in her lap. "Maybe a little." She looked up at Dray. "How about you?"
Dray smirked. "Nah. I think we'll hold our own."
"Always the voice of confidence," said Jordan, smiling.
"Yep. Stick with me and we'll blow this place apart."
Jordan flung her Academy-standard pillow at Dray. Not the response Dray had hoped for but at least she no longer felt like the ghost of the Red Barron stood between them, for now.
Chief instructor Ngollo, a tall dark-skinned woman, stood on a crate in the landing zone, tapping instructions into her com-board. "Listen up," she said. "We'll be training on the Cygna class cruiser today."
A disgruntled sigh arose from the group surrounding the instructor.
"A Cygna?" Dray groaned.
Ngollo silenced the cadets of the 28th with a wave of her dark hand. "Yeah, you're all wiz-kids at the star fighters, I know. But seventy percent of the Alliance fleet is composed of frigates, cruisers and troop transport. You'll be wiz-kids at all make and class of Alliance star ship by the time you get your full pilot credentials."
Jordan slipped through the group and stood next to Dray. Her face was pale but her eyes studied the Cygna cruiser behind the instructor.
Ngollo scanned her com-board as she spoke. "We'll go out in five groups, six pilots to a cruiser. We'll rotate three on, three off once we're clear of the station." She looked up from her com-board. "Where's Draybeck and Bowers?"
Dray and Jordan raised their hands.
"As the newbies, you'll each be assigned to a senior cadet who'll act as your mentor and be responsible for anything you do for the first twenty rotations, got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," they said in unison.
Ngollo nodded then looked back down on her com-board. "Okay. Dray, you'll be with Tomiko on Cygna 324 and Bowers, you're with Barron on Cygna 187. The rest of you know your groups. Get on your ships and prepare to launch in five."
Jordan gave Dray's hand a light squeeze, then trotted toward her ship. Dray's heart sank as she watched Red's tall orange figure gathering his group and Jordan onto his cruiser. Just what she needed was to have the Tarquin dominating Jordan's first rotations of real pilot training. She watched in frustration as Jordan ascended the ramp into her cruiser, with Red chatting at her side.
"Draybeck? Helena Draybeck?"
Dray winced and turned to face her accuser. A small Asian woman looked up at her expectantly.
"I'm Jenny Tomiko. I'll be mentoring you." Jenny offered her hand and Dray grasped the small hand in her own.
"Call me Dray," she said, letting go of the hand and her frustrations over Red.
"Great, our ship is the first in line, over here."
Jenny led the way past the other cruisers to Cygna 324. Dray felt her own excitement rise as she ran a hand along the cool metal hull of the cruiser. A real ship, finally. No more simulations. So who cares if it was a twenty cycle old model used for tactical command and control? It was real and she'd be flying it in space today.
They entered the cruiser and Dray strapped in to one of the passenger seats that lined the walls. Two other cadets sat to her left, while Jenny and another senior cadet sat in the co-pilot seats at the front of the cruiser. The main pilot seat remained empty. Dray nudged the cadet next to her. "Who takes over as commander on these runs?"
The cadet jutted his chin toward the door, "She does."
A lithe, blonde woman marched up the ramp wearing the solid blue uniform of a junior pilot. She ignored the cadets and slid into the pilot's seat. Strapping on her com helmet she began rapid-fired commands to Jenny and the other co-pilot.
"J.P. Malory Grace," the cadet continued.
"Junior pilot. Friendly?" asked Dray.
He huffed. "What do you think?"
Dray watched the cool, distant junior pilot as she supervised the launch of their cruiser. The woman kept her gaze fixed on her holograph control panel, ignoring the visual experience of watching the ship pull clear of Base Station Zenon. Dray didn't ignore her first real launch. The black outer hull of the base station drifted by her view port. Grinning, she felt the engines beneath her shift from dock speed to level two thrust. Simulators couldn't match that.
A hand came into her view. I'm Bello," said the cadet beside her.
It wasn't until Dray shook the offered hand and felt the webbing between his fingers that she realized he was an Aquaran.
"Dray," she said, studying his humanoid face and seeing no sign of the Aquaran gills.
"Terran mother, Aquaran father," he said, anticipating her next question. "To my father's eternal shame, I can't swim more than twenty minutes under water without an oxygen tank."
"But he's proud of you for being a pilot I bet."
Bello shrugged. "Who cares. It's what I want."
Dray's attention returned to the front of the cruiser as the pilots maneuvered away from the other cruisers, heading to port, quadrant three.
"How far out do they take us?" she asked.
"Just shy of the asteroid belt around Beta-seven. Then we each have a go at responding to Junior Pilot Grace's flight patterns."
As the newest cadet, Dray had to wait until the final maneuvers before her turn came up. J.P. Grace's smooth voice filled her com-link. "Draybek and Tomiko, strap in."
Dray nodded to Jenny and took her seat to the left copilot seat. She'd barely buckled when her heads-up display flashed into life and a stream of commands filled her ears from Grace. Her hands flew over the controls, instantly matching Grace's navigation decisions. She felt a grin spread across her face as her eyes flicked between her display and the front view port. She could see the distinct trails of three other cruisers within her view, each maneuvering closer to the base station as the lessons progressed.
"Tomiko, your bleeding the right tail fuselage. Check your throttle."
Grace's voice locked Dray's focus back on her own readouts. She noted the decreased efficiency on Jenny's maneuvers, but the results were within the accepted limits. Smoothly, her mentor pulled back on controls and the readouts responded nicely.
"Watch your port side, Tomiko."
Dray frowned. She saw nothing on the readouts to match the pilot's warning. She looked through the view port and all she could tell was that they were within fifty clicks of another cruiser. At their current speed, it would take twenty minutes to be within collision distance. She saw the tension in her copilot's expression as the other woman responded to Grace's critical commands.
By the time they docked back on Zenon, Dray had listened to a barrage of criticisms leveled at her new mentor from the junior pilot. When they were safely docked, J.P. Grace opened the door locks and marched out without another word to the rest of them. Dray looked to her mentor, but Jenny avoided eye contact. Dray turned instead to Bello and grabbed him by the elbow as they made their way down the ramp.
"What gives? Is Grace that harsh on everyone?" asked Dray.
Bello waited until the rest of their group drifted away before answering. "She's got it in for Tomiko. They were lovers until Grace got her J.P credentials. Now it's like fire and ice with them."
Great, thought Dray. Her mentor and their training pilot hated each other.
"This isn't going to be fun, is it?"
"Hazings seldom are, Dray."
Dray stood in the darkened air lock with her bunkmate and tried to control her fidgeting hands. The engines of the carrier class frigate rumbled beneath her boots as they waited for the rest of squadron 28. Being alone, in the dark, with the woman of her dreams, it all should have been better than this. But a hazing waited, and not only did she have to pass muster, she had to keep her cool in front of Jordan. Twice the pressure meant less than half the fun. Would they show up already?
As if on cue, the amber lights came on. Dray scanned the tight confines of the air lock. A sprinkle of stars disappeared from the airlock view port, replaced with a reflection of Dray and Jordan in their cadet uniforms. To their left, hung two space suits, complete with air tanks and tether ropes. This didn't look good.
"Welcome to the 28th." Red Barron's deep baritone held a note of suppressed laughter, notable over the intercom.
Jenny's lighter voice replaced his. "And congratulations on your first excursion through Beta-seven's asteroid belt."
Dray remembered the unbelievable view of asteroids and matter clouds as their frigate steered through the belt that morning. She and Jordan had nothing to do with but watch as their mentors acted as copilots for the frigate, under Ngollo's command. The trip would be worth any hazing, she thought as she eyed up the space suits again.
"As you probably surmised," said Red. "You'll need those handy suits for this evening's festivities. Please suit up, newbies."
Dray watched Jordan's face pale and hoped her own didn't reflect her inner fears quite so apparently. She unhooked the first suit and passed it to Jordan. "We'll be fine," she said, stifling her own fears to bolster her friend.
"Have you spacewalked before?" asked Jordan as she struggled into the bulky suit.
"Nope," said Dray, pushing her head through the suit top. "How hard can it be?"
Jordan snapped on her gloves. "So, nothing scares you, eh?"
"I wouldn't say that." Dray took the helmet from Jordan's struggling gloved hands. She put the helmet over Jordan's head, trying not to let her hands tremble as she pushed Jordan's soft hair off her face and slid the helmet into the locked position.
"You scare me," Dray mumbled once her own helmet was sealed.
A gloved hand slid under her arm, turning her. Jordan's resonant voice clicked in over the helmet-com. "I scare you?"
The comlink was open? Dray felt her cheeks flush as she tried to think of a good excuse for her ill-timed confession. She saw confusion in Jordan's open expression. How was she going to talk her way out of this?
Red's voice over the air lock com saved her. "Are you ready, ladies? Please tether yourself to each other. Once the doors open, you will follow standard space-walk protocol - one leader, one anchor."
"Anchor or lead?" Dray asked, glad for the diversion.
Jordan's nervous voice cracked as she responded, "Anchor."
"Tethered and ready," said Dray as Jordan's gloved hand slid into hers. The grip wouldn't help in the vacuum of space, but Dray felt a wave of calm washed over her.
"We can do this," said Jordan, sounding more confident as the airlock door slid silently open.
The stars of the Betal Galaxy spread out before them, glittering diamonds on a black velvet landscape. Jordan locked her end of the tether rope to the safety hook just outside the airlock.
"Lead, follow the guide rail to the port side," Jenny announced. "Keep one end of the tether locked at all times."
Dray stepped out of the airlock. The expected weightlessness was countered by the magna-locks on her space boots, pulling her to the outer hull. Four paces along, she locked her end of the tether and waved Jordan out. Dray saw the wide grin on Jordan's face as she joined Dray and locked her tether. Dray led them along the rear of the frigate until the came around fully to port.
The green surface of Beta-seven dominated the starscape, but the vision that made both women gasp came from the swirling mass of asteroids that stretched across their view. Gray rocks gave way to giant multicolored asteroids pushing their way through illuminated matter clouds. It was a view no artist could replicate.
"It's beautiful," said Jordan.
An airlock door slid open further along the port side. The rest of the 28th streamed out, followed by a table-sized propelled drone. The squadron drifted beyond the frigate, pulled along by their tethers connected to the drone.
"Welcome to your first space party," said Red as he waved at them from the drone.
Jenny maneuvered the drone from within the frigate, sending it toward Dray and Jordan so they could re-tether to the drone along with the rest of their squadron. "You've got an hour and a half on your air tanks. Welcome to the 28th, and enjoy the view."
Dray pulled the pillow over her head, muffling the sound of the shower. She desperately wanted to sleep in on their first free cycle since joining the 28th. Why Jordan was up and showering already would remain one of life's mysteries. Dray's mind drifted back toward dreamland when the annoying buzz of her comlink went off, destroying all hope of renewed sleep. She reached out her hand and fumbled for the comlink on the bedside stand.
"Someone better be dead or dying," she grumbled into the activated comlink.
"Not yet," Jenny replied, laughing. "But I have high hopes for the future."
Dray sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. "I thought we had the cycle off?"
"Mostly. But we have attack drills tomorrow on the FX-27s. Red and I thought we'd take you two out for a test run."
"Excellent!" Dray hopped off the bed and scrambled to find a clean flight suit.
"We'll come get you in ten."
Dray clicked off her comlink. Finally, she thought, they'd have their chance on a star fighter. Not entirely a solo flight since the FX-27 had pilot and gunner/co-pilot seats, but at least it was a fighter. She pulled on her least wrinkled flight suit. The bathroom door opened behind her as she zipped up the suit.
"You'll never guess what we get to do," she said, turning toward Jordan.
A wave of warm, humid air drifted to Dray as she stared at her roommate. Jordan wore loose, white boxer shorts and a thin tank top that clung to her firm breasts. She worked a towel through her wet, black hair. Dray felt herself transfixed by the sight as heat rose in her cheeks. The ability to talk or move left her. Even the star fighter couldn't compete with the sensual vision of Jordan's scantily clad body.
"Well? Are you going to tell me the big secret?" asked Jordan, a smile pulling at the corners of her lips.
Dray blinked, struggling to control her desire.
"Dray? Base station to Dray, do you read me?"
"Um, yeah." Dray started at the floor between them, but not before she saw Jordan's flirtatious smile. "Jenny called. We get to test out an FX-27."
Jordan tossed her towel back into the bathroom. "Really? When?"
A knock on the door announced their mentors.
"Right about now," said Dray.
"Don't let them in yet." Jordan grabbed a suit out of her closet and ran back into the bathroom.
Dray suppressed a laugh as she opened the door and let in Jenny and Red. Both wore flight suits like her own though with markedly less creases. She really aught to sharpen her appearance. Some day.
Red graced her with a brilliant smile. "Are you both ready?"
"Jordan's just getting into her flight suit and then we're ready to go," said Dray. She watched the faintest ripple of deep orange on Red's face as he glanced to the bathroom and back. She had to give him credit for balancing his attraction to her roommate with his responsibilities as mentor. Dray didn't want to dwell on what would happen in a few cycles when that responsibility ended.
The object of both their desires emerged from the bathroom in a well pressed flight suit. Jordan's dark, wet bangs clung to her forehead, matching well-shaped eye brows over a pair of brown eyes that glanced across each of them and settled on the neutrality of Jenny. With cheeks turning red, Dray felt her own attraction to Jordan as exposed as the Tarquin's rippling skin tone.
The group stood beside two FX-27 star fighters while Jenny explained the test maneuvers they would cover once clear of the base station. Dray's attention split between her mentor's instructions and the sleek fighter beside her. Once Jenny finished, Dray indulged in her first full pilot's pre-flight check on the star fighter. She inspected propulsion, hull integrity, and landing gear as she walked around the fighter. Beneath each extended wing, she noted the quad-pack of drone munitions, the small-weapons training ammo that would verify a hit on any target but would do only superficial damage to another star fighter in the event of an accident.
Dray turned to her mentor. "Flight pre-check clear, Ma'am."
"Then let's get out there, cadet Draybek." Jenny's warm smile relieved some of Dray's tension as they strapped in, pulled on helmets, and prepared to launch.
Jordan and Red sat in the fighter next to Dray. Jordan gave her the thumbs-up signal and ignited her launch engines. Dray watched her friend's precise control as the other fighter cleared the landing dock and shot out into the stars. She clutched her own controls and waited a heartbeat before starting her launch engines. The fighter glided off the launch bay floor and hovered, waiting for Dray's next command.
"It's just like the simulator," said Jenny through the helmet com.
Dray glided the fighter out into open space. Once clear of the base station, she turned on main propulsion and the fighter flew into open space. Her heart raced with the fighter as they screamed passed the outer perimeter satellites that marked the edge of base station Zenon.
"That's good Dray, but next time not quite so much acceleration within Zenon's control zone, eh?"
"Sorry. Just excited to be out here." Dray turned on the navigation computer and entered their target coordinates.
They flew phantom attack and evasion drills for two hours. Jenny entered phantom fighters from her command station and ordered Dray to either seek and destroy, or evade. Dray flew through the prescribed classic patterns at near top speed, her instincts controlling the real star fighter in much the same way she had adroitly maneuvered the simulators. Her drone munitions fired at empty space, targeting the phantoms created by Jenny.
"That's it, Draybeck. You've shot down all I had programmed for today. I can't wait to kick some butt in tomorrows exercise. We're up against the 14th squad." Jenny's praise flowed over Dray like a cool mist, bringing her back from the intense concentration of a fighter pilot to the excited cadet again. They coasted along at the end of the drill, waiting for Jordan and Red to join them before returning to base.
Dray's security console flashed yellow. "Must be Jordan," she said, watching the approaching star fighter on her screen.
An instant later, the perimeter breach alert clanged in her ear. Her hands locked onto her controls and she kicked into full propulsion, rotating the star fighter into a 260 degree lateral just as the view screen in front of her lit up with the traces of small weapons fire.
"Who's targeting us? Report pilot Draybeck!" Jenny screamed in her ear.
Dray scanned her console to verify what she already knew. "One FX-27, Ma'am. Using drone munitions." Dray grinned broadly. "Permission to return fire?"
Jenny laughed. "Are you two always like this? I can't believe Red let her fire on us."
A dozen more streaks of munitions fire passed within meters of their hull as Dray launched the fighter into another series of reverse loops and came up behind Jordan's fighter.
"Permission granted. Fire at will Pilot." Jenny's voice held a note of laughter as Dray fired her drone ammo at Jordan's star fighter.
Jordan dropped speed and banked to port, but not before Dray saw the black streaks on her tail section. "Yes!" she said.
"Good hit, Dray!" said Jenny.
Their triumph was short-lived as they felt the rattle of drone ammo ping off their own hull. Then their shared remote com-link clicked into life.
"Senior Cadet Tomiko! Stand down and return to base!" J.P. Malory Grace's harsh voice washed away all humor from their exploits.
"Yes, Ma'am," Jenny responded.
Dray eased up on the thrust and headed back to Zenon. Jordan's fighter flew in formation beside her. She glanced over at her friends. Red raised his hands and shrugged, obviously not as upset by Grace's orders as Jenny seemed to be. In silent communication, the two fighters glided in perfect unison into the launch area and landed. Dray hopped out of her fighter and examined the hits she'd received. To her dismay, she had more black strafes on her wing and tail than Jordan had. She'd been out-gunned.
Jordan came up beside her and ruffled a hand through Dray's short blond hair. "Got you."
"You got lucky," said Dray, smiling.
The thrill of their first flight ended when J.P. Grace marched up and glowered over Jenny. The smaller woman kept here eyes averted, but Dray saw the color draining out of her mentor's face.
"Tomiko, your actions were out of line," said Grace.
Red interrupted her. "Come on, Malory. They were just having some fun. It's not like the ammo can't be cleaned off with a good blast cleaning."
Grace's face tightened in anger. "You'll address me as fits my rank, Senior Cadet, or I'll have you on report."
Red's broad smile never wavered as he looped an arm over Grace's shoulder. They were both of matching height. "My apologies J.P. Grace. I meant no disrespect." He began leading her away from Jenny as he soothed over the incident. "Remember the time you and I went out after hours? You covered my fighter in black streaks that took me half a cycle to clean off."
Grace laughed. "I always had you beat, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did."
She turned back to Dray and the others. "I want those fighters cleaned until they glow, you understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dray, glad for once of Red's unerring charm.
She relaxed once Red led Grace out of the launch area, but Jenny's pale expression revealed her mentor had yet to shake off the experience.
"Sorry about that," said Dray. "Why don't you go on ahead. Jordan and I can finish up here."
Jenny looked between the two of them. "I should stay and help. I did let this happen."
Dray gave her a friendly nudge. "Yeah, so did the big Red Menace, but you don't see him standing around with a jet blaster in his hands, do you? Go on, we'll meet up with you later."
"Thanks." Jenny gave her a quick hug and then left the launch area, heading in the opposite direction than Red and Malory had taken.
Dray turned back to Jordan, who was frowning as she watched Jenny leave.
"What's up?" asked Dray.
"Hmm?" Jordan glanced at her and then back to Jenny. "Nothing. Clean up time, I guess."
Jordan opened a storage bin and pulled out two hand-held jet blasters. She gave one to Dray and then walked around to her star fighter. Dray turned on the blaster and felt the powerful tool hum in her hands. The cleaning tool made quick work of the black streaks on Dray's fighter. She ran her hands along the cleaned hull one last time before putting away the blaster.
"Should we go find the other two?" asked Dray as Jordan handed her the other blaster.
Jordan stuffed her hands in her flight suit pocket. "I think I'll just go back to the dorm."
Something was bothering Jordan, but Dray hadn't a clue what it might be. Was she upset that Red had left with Grace? She hoped not.
"Okay, I guess I'll see you later then." Dray hesitated leaving her friend, but Jordan turned away from her and walked out of the launch area without another word.
Dray really hoped this didn't have anything to do with Red.
The 28th squadron lined one side of the fighter launch bay and the 14th lined the other. Ngollo stood on a crate in the middle, addressing both teams. Jordan had been up hours before roll call, chattering nervously about the day's event. Not that Dray had been sleeping either. She felt the thrill of her first battle exercise as she listened to the instructor's explanation of the game. Jordan and Dray stood in the back row since they were lined up by rank and seniority.
"Each FX-27 has been equipped with infrared detectors that will register a hit on your ship and rate the damage based on simulated small weapons fire or missile attack. Your fighters likewise have been altered to carry four simulator class-two Singer missiles and two quad-packs of simulated ammo. If your fighter registers as destroyed, you'll slink back to base with your tail between your legs and hope the rest of your team does better."
A ripple of laughter spread across both teams. The 14th squadron had no newbies on their team, and they would likely use that to their advantage. Dray's excitement wasn't dampened by the notion that she and Jordan would be the first prime targets out there, assumed as the weakest links. She knew what they were capable of and their mentors agreed. Red and Jenny would be flying with them as gunners.
"The last team to have surviving fighters wins. The 28th are in the blue coated FX-27s and the 14th are in the red. Oh, and for the newbies - the losing team gets to jetblast both sets of FX-27s to remove the red and blue drill markings. Pilots to your ships and good luck."
Ngollo hopped off her crate and trotted off the launch area as the two squadrons scrambled to their ships in an effort to be the first team fully launched. Jordan and Dray were in the sixth launch team, splitting off from their red adversaries as they cleared the base station. Red, as lead pilot for the 28th, set their initial attack pattern, putting Dray and Jordan side by side as an opening taunt to the 14th. Bello guarded their back, while two of the 28th's top pilot/gunner teams waited on the opposite side of the formation to strafe the 14th's exposed flank.
A beep on the remote comlink signaled the start of battle. Star fighters streaked across the empty gap between the two teams. As expected, a cluster of fighters came after Dray and Jordan. They anticipated two easy kills. What they got was a flood of expertly aimed small weapons fire. As the red fighters scrambled to evade the attack, Bello let off one of his Singer missiles, taking out two fighters and all but crippling a third.
"Yes!" shouted Red over the team's private com-link. "That's an early lead but lets not get cocky."
As the pilot for the 28th's lead cadet, Jordan had to follow Red's navigation guidance so he could control the attack. Dray had more freedom to strike at their opponents and took full use of it. In the first ten minutes of battle, she'd strafed three fighters and sent another sulking back to base.
"You've got two on your tail, Dray," warned Bello.
"I see them. I'm going vertical. If you take the first fighter, I'll come back down on the second." Dray banked to the left as a diversion and then shot up out of the plain of attack. Her security console registered Bello's hit on the first fighter, but the second remained on Dray's tail, shadowing her moves.
"180 and swap with me," said Jordan, appearing to Dray's left.
"You got it." Dray followed Jordan's flight pattern and then pulled out, making her attacker follow her and ignore Jordan coming in on his flank. The mistake cost him his fighter.
"I owe you one," said Dray, sending her fighter back into the fray.
"We've barely got the lead," said Jenny, reading out the numbers of remaining ships on either team.
"Not any more. Only four fighters left for each of us?" Dray's eyes switched between her security console and the view port, watching for red fighters. She watched in mock horror as two blue fighters fell into an obvious trap set by the lead red fighter.
"Move out Bello! She's got two above you!" Dray's warning came too late as the red team set of two simulated Singer missiles. Bello and his winger dropped out of the battle zone, defeated.
"Not to shabby," said Red over the com link. "Two newbies against red lead and three wingers."
As he spoke, one red fighter redirected to Dray while the other three streamed after Jordan and Red.
"I don't think so," said Dray, her hands flying over her console. "How many Singers do we have left?"
"Two," said Jenny.
"We'll come at them from within Jordan's shadow. They'll never see us coming."
"You sure you can match her flight that tightly? It could get us both shot down."
Dray grinned. "I know every move she makes."
Jenny laughed. "I see."
Dray ditched the red fighter coming at them and pushed it to top speed as she spun right and came up behind Jordan's fighter.
"Shadow to Leader, We've got two Stingers and are ready to play," said Dray.
"You got it, Shadow. On my mark." Jordan's voice echoed in Dray's ears as she matched her friend's maneuvers in a deft display of synchronized flying. The red squad hadn't detected her yet.
"Now, Dray!" Jordan dropped speed and altitude, bringing one red fighter with her.
Dray's fighter came within view of the other two red fighters, including red lead. "Smile boys and girls, I've got candy enough for everyone. Fire missiles, gunner!"
Jenny locked target and let fly their two remaining Stingers. Lights illuminated both red flyers in wide patches and their defeated ships dropped out of the attack zone.
"One a piece now," said Red. "Take your pick."
Dray eyed the two red fighters in formation below them. She banked to port and came at one fighter head on, as Jenny strafed the red fighter in small weapons fire. To her left, Dray saw the other red fighter glowing, a hit from one of Jordan's missiles. Within seconds, Jordan joined her in destroying the last red fighter. As it dropped out of the attack zone, Jordan and Dray took one triumphant lap of the now empty zone before flying in formation to base station Zenon.
They emerged from their fighters to the hearty cheers of the rest of the 28th. Dray tossed her helmet into her seat and jumped down to the launch bay floor. Cadets swarmed around her and Jenny, but she pushed her way through to Jordan who was also swamped with congratulations.
"We did it," she said, grabbing Jordan's arm.
Jordan turned to her. With the widest smile on her face, she through her arms around Dray, picked her up and swung her in a wide arc. When Dray's feet again touched the ground, she felt Jordan's soft lips on her cheek.
"Of course we did, we're the Academy's finest," Jordan whispered in Dray's ear before the crowd around them pulled them apart.
Dray felt herself lifted onto the shoulders of her fellow cadets. She saw Jordan similarly hoisted and the triumphant crowd marched out of the launch area, leaving the defeated team to clean up after them.
Dray munched on the remnants of her dinner while the news vid droned on multiple screens around the cafeteria. She ached in every muscle she owned. After nearly a full rotation as junior cadet on Zenon at 95% standard gravity, she went with the rest of the 28th to spend the day on the surface of Beta-seven, which had 1.5 times standard gravity. Multi-atmosphere training they called it. More like torture, she thought as she tried to shift her aching thigh muscles.
"What's on the vid tonight?" asked Red as he and Jenny joined her at the table. Dray felt gratified to see each of them ease uncomfortably into chairs. At least she wasn't the only one ill-prepared for alternate gravity situations.
"I don't know," she said. "Some anti-war protest. Vtaryn sympathizers."
Jordan pulled up a spare seat and joined them. "Is it the Terran Universalists? They're a wiggy bunch."
"No idea," said Dray. "Does anyone else feel like they've just been pushed through the trash compactor?"
"Oh yeah," said Red. "We were heading for the hot tub. Care to join us?"
Dray turned to Jordan, who nodded her agreement. "Sure thing. We'll meet you there in about ten minutes."
They all eased slowly out of their chairs.
"Make that twenty," said Jordan with a weak laugh.
Two rows of steaming communal hot tubs lined the rehab room four stories below their cadet quarters. Some other members of the 28th soaked in the first tub, but Red and Jenny waited for Dray and Jordan in the last hot tub in the room. They passed a mixed collection of cadets, junior pilots and other officers soaking in the tubs, one of the few places on Zenon where rank and formality disappeared in favor of swim trunks and relaxation. Dray wore pylex shorts and tank top, preferring the fast-drying material to a simple nylon suit. She didn't know what Jordan wore, since her roommate had wrapped a terrycloth robe around herself.
"Come on it," said Jenny. "The jets are doing wonders for my aching back."
Dray dropped her towel beside the sunken tub and lowered herself into the steaming water, turning as Jordan took of her robe. A sleeveless nylon body suit clung to her roommate's torso from mid-thigh to neck. On someone else, the suit would have been modest to an extreme. On Jordan, it was a sensual vision that covered her and yet revealed every detail of Jordan's fit body. Dray was glad of the steaming water as an excuse for the flush rising in her cheeks.
Jordan lowered herself into the water with a sigh. Swirling, bubbling water covered her to the neck, giving Dray the ability to pull her eyes away from her roommate's body for a time. She turned to the other two and saw an appreciative look from Jenny and Red struggling to hide most of his tell-tale rippling skin under the water. Dray almost felt sorry for him, but then she remembered that as of tomorrow, they would no longer be mentor and cadet. The mentoring period over, she dreaded the freedom it gave Red to fully express his feelings for Jordan.
"So, you two are on your own tomorrow," said Jenny, breaking the silence.
Red sat up in the water, regaining control of his skin tone for a time. "Yep, there are four newbies in the 4th squadron starting soon. You'll have someone to pick on."
Dray laughed. "We learned a lot from you guys, but I'll be glad to have someone else bear the brunt of the newbie jokes."
"What's that on your chest?" asked Jordan, pointing to Red.
Dray looked to where Jordan pointed. A blue tattoo outlined the shape of a small flame on Red's hairless orange chest.
"It is the mark of the Flame. It symbolizes the fire within, connecting all to the Eternal."
"Tarquin religion?" asked Dray.
Red puzzled over her question for a moment. "You mean like your Terran religions? I suppose there is similarity, though I like to think the Flame burns in all true religions."
"What sort of rituals go along with belief in the Flame?" asked Jordan as she squeezed water out of her wet hair.
Red smiled, "None. At least nothing formalized. You accept the Flame or not. If you accept it, then the Fire within guides you."
A loud, annoying voice interrupted their conversation. One look at Jenny confirmed Dray's fears. She turned to the source and saw Malory Grace hanging on the arm of an unimpressive looking older woman. They two of them cavorted in the next hot tub in a manner unbecoming for a public place. All color drained from Jenny's face. Dray couldn't tell if she was offended by her ex-lover's public behavior, or hurt by the obvious lack of tact the woman showed in an awkward situation.
A plan formed in Dray's mind that would give a certain obnoxious junior pilot something to think about. "How are the aches?"
Jenny stretched and rolled her head. "I have a nice knot between my shoulder blades. The jets don't really help."
Dray walked around the tub and repositioned herself behind Jenny with one leg dangling in the water to either side of her mentor. Dray and Grace were eye to eye across the span of two hot tubs, and her movement had garnered Grace's attention.
"Lean back and let me see what I can do about that shoulder knot."
Jenny leaned back, sliding between Dray's legs. To Dray's amusement, Grace sat up on the edge of her own hot tub to get a better look at what Dray was up to, all but ignoring her own companion. Dray massaged Jenny's shoulders, working through sore muscles. She felt the tightness dissolve and Jenny's head lowered, relaxing into the massage. When Dray pushed through the knot between her shoulders, Jenny let out a low moan.
"That's better than sex," said Jenny, rolling her shoulders with ease.
To Dray's amusement, J.P. Grace hopped out of the hot tub and marched out of the steaming room, leaving her confused companion behind. Dray withheld a long laugh until after the door closed shut behind Grace. Even Jenny seemed amused by the other woman's ungraceful exit.
Dray's short-lived glory ended when she made brief eye contact with Jordan. Her roommate's brown eyes bore into her for a heartbeat, then turned away. Jordan stepped out of the water and into her terrycloth robe, water dripping off the ends of her hair.
"I'm heading back," she announced.
"I'll join you," offered Dray.
Jordan grazed her with an icy glare. "Don't bother. I'm sure Red will see me back."
Red glanced from Dray to Jordan. "Yes, of course," he agreed, his voice subdued.
Dray sat by the edge of the hot tub in stunned silence, watching Jordan leave with the orange Tarquin at her side. Had Red made his move for Jordan so quickly, while she was busy annoying Malory Grace? The door closed behind the pair and Dray heard the echo of it like the voice of doom for her own unexpressed desires. Why hadn't she ever told Jordan how she felt? And now, as the two left with no impediment between them, it was likely too late.
She lowered herself into the water and under, letting the hot jets pummel her head and neck. When she resurfaced, she saw Jenny sitting outside the tub, dangling her legs in the hot water.
"Problems?" asked Jenny.
"Probably not anymore," said Dray in despair.
Jenny jerked her head toward the exit. "You think something's going on between those two?"
Jenny laughed. "Red can't exactly mask his emotions, can he?"
"No, not much." Dray smiled despite her inner gloom.
"Do you think Jordan likes him?"
Dray sighed. "I can't tell. I'm a little biased when it comes to her."
"Yeah, I can see that. But I can also see the way she looks at you sometimes, too. I'd say you're still in the running."
"Really?" Dray didn't try to hide the hope in her voice.
Jenny just laughed again. "Not that I'm any expert in this area. And thanks, by the way, with the Malory thing."
It was Dray's turn to laugh. "She didn't much like that, did she?"
Jenny looked down into the bubbling water. "No, I guess she didn't."
"Can I ask you something?" Dray stood up in the water, letting the jets beat at sore leg muscles.
"Why did you leave her?"
Jenny kicked at the bubbles. "I didn't, she left me when she made Junior Pilot. I guess it didn't help her career mobility to be tied down to a cadet."
Dray pulled herself out of the water. "If she left you then why is she always dogging you?"
Jenny shrugged. "I wish I knew."
"Come on," said Dray, drying off. "Let's drown our girl troubles in some stout Terran ale."
By the time Dray dragged her exhausted body back to the dorm, most cadets were long since asleep. The door to her quarters creaked as she opened it and stepped into the dark interior. Relief washed over her at the sight of just one body lying under the covers in Jordan's bed. She padded silently into the bathroom to change into sleep clothes. When she came out, Jordan was sitting up in her bed, her bare arms wrapped around her knees. A small bedside lamp lent the room a soft, yellow glow.
"Hey," said Dray. "Sorry I woke you."
"It's okay. I've only been back a few minutes myself."
"Oh." Dray's heart sank.
"How did your night with Jenny go?"
"We went for some beers." Dray sat on the edge of Jordan's bed, unsure of herself yet still craving to be close to her friend. "How about you and Red?"
"No beers, but we talked a lot."
Dray nodded, unable to ask what they had to talk about and not wanting to know.
"So, did you kiss her?"
"What? Who?" Dray frowned, taken off guard by her roommate's odd question.
Jordan pulled her arms tight around her legs. "Jenny."
Dray's eyes widened. "No. Why would I?"
"Well, she's not really your mentor anymore, is she?"
Dray folded her arms around her chest. "Well Red's not your mentor anymore, either."
"So did you kiss him?"
"Red?" Jordan frowned. "No. But I wasn't giving him back massages in the hot tub, either."
"Shoulder massage," Dray corrected with a smile. "And that was for the aggravation of one Junior Pilot Malory Grace."
"You mean the woman who had a fit over our FX-27 training?" Jordan's expression softened.
"The very same. Seems she dumped Jenny when she made J.P. but hasn't quite managed to let go yet."
Jordan's eyes held Dray's. "So you haven't been flirting with Jenny?"
"Only for Malory Grace's benefit and Jenny knows that."
Jordan smiled, "You're evil sometimes, you know?"
"So I've been told." Dray ignored her fears and asked the question she'd been thinking about all night. "Are you and Red, you know?"
Jordan unwrapped herself and let her legs stretch out behind Dray. "No, I don't know or I don't want to know what you've been thinking. And no there's nothing between us."
Dray relaxed for the first time since entering the room. "Glad to hear it."
"Really," Jordan teased. "And why's that?"
"He's not right for you," said Dray as she played with the edges of her sleep shorts.
Jordan uncrossed her legs, brushing her bare skin against Dray's back. The scent of Jordan's freshly washed body filled Dray's senses as her eyes moved up Jordan's long legs, to the barest hint of stomach peeking out from Jordan's top. Her hands trembled and she clenched them into tight fists to control herself.
"So who is right for me?" asked Jordan in a whisper.
Dray blinked and refocused her attention from Jordan's legs to her clear, brown eyes. She fumbled for something to say but words wouldn't come. Color flushed Jordan's cheeks. Her eyes held Dray's for a moment, then she looked down. Dray's mind went blank as she struggled with how to answer Jordan's question without sounding like a lovesick teenager.
Her struggles faded when she felt the barest touch along the back of her clenched fist. Her eyes dropped to see Jordan's finger tracing the outline of Dray's hand. She relaxed her fist, opening her hand to Jordan's tenous touch. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as she felt Jordan's fingers caress her palm. Dray let her own fingers feel the softness of Jordan's hand. Desire heated her cheeks, and a different heat focused below her stomach. She traced her fingers along Jordan's wrist and caressed the inside of Jordan's arm. She braved looking back into Jordan's face. Brown eyes, dilated by desire, stared back at her. Jordan bit her lower lip, a red, moist lip that Dray wanted to feel on her own lips. She leaned closer, watching Jordan closely for any sign that her friend might pull away from her.
Jordan leaned in, closing the gap between them. Dray closed her eyes just as soft, warm lips brushed against hers in the lightest kiss. Dray lifted her free hand to slip through Jordan's long black hair, its silky strands brushing along the back of her hand. Dray pulled Jordan closer, deepening their first kiss. She tugged Jordan's lower lip, feeling a soft moan escape from her friend.
Jordan pulled slowly out of their kiss, and Dray froze, fearing she had pushed the other woman too far. She opened her eyes to see Jordan's shy smile and relaxed.
"You didn't really answer my question," said Jordan, leaning away from Dray but keeping their fingers entwined.
Dray smiled, "Funny, I thought I just did."
"Hmm, that's a bit like cheating, I think. But I won't argue with you tonight, sweetheart. We've got Ngollo's lecture first thing tomorrow and I'd like not to be too sleepy to follow her lesson."
"Okay," said Dray, resigning to the fact that Jordan was setting the limits on their new relationship. "Don't suppose you'd want some company tonight, you know, just to keep warm?"
Jordan's cheeks burned red as she gave Dray's hand one last caress before letting go.
"Can't blame a girl for trying," said Dray, returning to her own bed.
A pillow grazed off the top of her head.
"Pushy," said Jordan, smiling.
The 28th squadron milled about outside the lecture hall, waiting for Instructor Ngollo. Dray and Jordan leaned against the bare steel wall, their shoulders just touching and fingers intertwined. Her concentration focused entirely on Jordan, Dray didn't hear Jenny and Red come up until Red tapped her on the shoulder.
"Oh, sorry," she said.
"You seem distracted this morning," said Red with a wink.
Dray looked up into his wide red eyes, puzzled, until Jordan whispered in her ear, "What do you think he and I talked about last night?"
Dray pointed to herself in surprise.
"Am I missing something?" asked Jenny.
Red dragged her into the lecture hall as Ngollo opened the doors from the inside. "I'll tell you all about it."
Dray, her face flushed up to her ears, followed them into the lecture hall, still holding Jordan's hand. They separated as they took adjacent seats. Ngollo waited for the squadron to settle into their seats, and then she flicked on the vid-screen. A modified Cygna-major troop transport illuminated the screen, superimposed over a planet that Dray didn't recognize. A handful of groans from her squadron mates suggested some of them did recognize the planet and not in a good way.
"Okay, as some of you already guessed, we are going on an excursion today," said Ngollo, standing to the side of the vid-screen. She pointed to the gray-brown planet. "This is Beta-1. It has near-Earth gravity but negligible atmosphere. We'll take the Cygna-major transport and practice landfall and planetary take off. As you can imagine, this will take a few days."
More groans emerged from the class.
"It's not the prettiest scenery, but you'll get no atmospheric interference. And the Cygna-major has ample room for two full squadrons and supplies. Anyway, I'll expect each of you?"
A short tremor rolled through the metal infrastructure of the classroom. Dray looked around, confused, as Ngollo paused in her speech. The squadron sat in silence, as confused as Dray was. Two more tremors shook the classroom, rattling chairs and Dray's nerves. She heard a muffled rumble, like an engine starting, from somewhere above them.
Ngollo marched to the door. "Barron, take over." She flicked on her com-link as the door slid shut behind her.
Red walked to the front of the class. His steady composure seemed in stark contrast to Dray's nervousness. Base stations don't rattle, at least not in her experience.
Red stood in front of the vid-screen. "As Instructor Ngollo was saying, each cadet must bring full combat and survival gear. While we won't be leaving the transport, this is still a simulation of real combat situations."
They all heard the echo of a remote explosion of some kind. Seconds later, the emergency alarm clanged in three rapid segments, paused, and then repeated the alert while the classroom com-link roared into life.
"Station emergency. Enact lockdown procedures. Repeat. Station emergency. Enact lockdown procedures."
The message blared in a continual loop until Red turned down the volume. "Bello! Hold open that door until Ngollo gets back in here!"
Closest to the door, Bello jumped out of his seat and stood before the door. When the automatic open didn't trigger, he banged on the manual door open pad.
"It's too late," said Bello. "We're in lockdown. We're stuck in here until this drill is over."
Red marched to the door and pushed against it in frustration. Another tremor rolled through the classroom. "This is no drill."
"What do we do now?" asked Dray.
Red returned to the front of the classroom. "We wait. Whatever the problem is, we're in lockdown now. Every lecture hall has been automatically shut, and likely every major section of the station is in isolation by now. If it's a hull breach, we'll be released as soon as they have the section isolated and verify the rest of the station."
Jordan turned to Dray. "And if it's not?"
Dray shrugged, masking her own nervousness. "Probably a cadet just blew a landing somewhere."
An explosion rumbled somewhere above them, strong enough to throw the vid-screen out of focus. Half the squadron jumped out of their seats, pushing toward the locked door. Red hopped on top of the front desk.
"Back to your seats. That's an order." His voice boomed over the upset cadets. Most obeyed. A few stragglers waited until Red stood over them, his muscular orange bulk staring down at them until they shuffled back to their seats.
"There are over three thousand people on this station," he said. "Including two full fighting wings in active status."
His words sent a wave of calm over the squadron. "Whatever is going on out there, they are more than able to take care of it, and we are better off right here, out of their way."
Within an hour, the squadron had relaxed into the monotony of their forced isolation. A group of seniors huddled around a game of electro-dice, while a handful of others practiced martial drills in the back of the room. Dray and Jordan sat with Jenny on one of the side tables. They kept away from Red, so as not to detract from his status as de-facto commander of the squadron. From time to time, Jenny went to him to talk.
Another explosion rattled through the base station.
"I wish that would stop," said Jordan, who sat on the desk with her arms wrapped around her legs.
Dray rested her head on her arms. "There's less of them now."
Jordan gave her a wane smile as another explosion shook the classroom.
It was two more hours, accentuated by repeated, distant explosions, before the silent com-link changed the lockdown message. Jenny pointed out the change to Red, and he turned the volume back up.
"?systems failing. All squadrons report to your evacuation launch point. Repeat - Zenon has been compromised. Life support systems failing. All squadrons?"
The door that Bello was leaning against slid open behind him as he jumped back. Fear of the unknown gripped most of the squadron, who were no longer anxious to leave the relative safety of the classroom. Bello leaned out of the door, then came back inside.
"Two other rooms are marching double-time."
Red joined him at the door. "Any sign of Ngollo?"
"Not that I could see."
"Okay, we've done this as a drill before. We stay as a squadron. The nearest evac pad for us will be launch bay five. That's four levels above us."
The squadron lined up behind him, in formation.
"We go two by two, double-time. Senior Cadet Bowers?"
"Yes, sir," answered Jenny.
"You are in front with me. Bello, take the rear with Samson."
In military order, the 28th squadron trotted down the hallway with one other squadron trotting along side of them. Dray kept pace with Jordan near the front of the column of cadets as they made their way to the fire-safe stairwell that would lead them up to the launch area. The 28th led the two squadrons up the metal stairs. The precise clang of boots on metal gave Dray renewed confidence. Whatever situation faced them, they were prepared to handle it. They were trained for emergencies and they would all come out of this together.
The column stopped progressing up the increasingly dusty stairs after two levels. Word came down the line that debris blocked the stairwell above them and they would have to pass through the current level to another stairwell to make it to the evac site. By Dray's reckoning, they were on Level Twelve, where the advanced pilots stayed.
"Okay," said Red. "We don't know what's beyond this door, but obviously there's been a lot of damage to the station in this section. We'll go out in groups of six. Keep your eyes open and stay together."
Red opened the door and led the first group of six. Dray and Jordan waited by the closed door with Jenny, who would lead the second group of six. Dray scanned the remnants of the staircase leading up to the next level. Metal rods protruded from where the steps attached to the steel walls. She leaned down and picked up a piece of the shattered plasteen wall.
"Jenny," she said, handing the fragment to the senior cadet. "The edges are melted."
"What are you thinking?" asked Jenny as she examined the plasteen.
"Looks like weapons fire."
"And we just sent Red and five others out there unarmed," said Jenny, finishing Dray's thought.
Jordan examined the fractured wall leading up to the next level. "She's right. There's clear laser burns all the way up to Level Thirteen."
"Okay, send word down the line. Tell them to go down a level and make their way to the evac site. Bello is in command."
Dray looked at Jenny. "Bello? What about you?"
Jenny turned to the door. "I'm going after Red."
"Not on your own," said Dray.
Jenny turned back. "I can't order you to come with me."
"And you can't order us to stay behind," said Jordan.
"Okay," said Jenny. "Warn the others that the station is under attack. Tell them to arm themselves."
The two squadrons slowly moved back down the stairs behind Dray. "Where's the nearest weapons cache to us?"
"The central stores depot, half way across the station," Jenny answered.
"Dismal. Let's get going," said Dray.
Jenny hit the manual door open button. The door slid back half way before it stuck in its track. The three women squeezed through the opening and into the nearest dorm room. Jordan examined the room's contents while Dray scoped the activity down the hallway. A haze of smoke occluded her view but she heard the distinct ping of projectile weapons being fired in the distance. She saw no sign of Red and his group of cadets.
"Nothing useful in here," said Jordan. "Whoever lives here is a slob."
"Let's work our way down the hallway and check each room. These are officer's quarters and some of them must have weapons," said Jenny.
They trotted in and out of multiple rooms as they made their way down the deserted hallway. All they managed to pick up were two metal-tipped canes and an antique survival knife. An open doorway in front of them led to the shared common area. Jenny leaned through the opening.
"Anything?" asked Jordan.
"Something is burning. I can't see beyond that. No wait. There's a group huddled behind the counters on the near side."
"Red?" asked Dray.
"I can't tell, but some are wearing cadet uniforms." She ducked back into their hallway. "Are you ready? We're in open area between here and the group. If there are enemy forces in there, we'll be easy targets."
Dray gripped the survival knife, wishing it was an APC laser strafer or at least a projectile pistol. "Let's go."
In a crouched position, they scrambled from their relative safety to the counters with the other group. Dray saw Red watching their approach.
"Where are the rest?" he asked.
"I sent them back down a level. Dray figured out the station was under attack," said Jenny, crouched next to Red.
"Good thinking. We haven't seen the enemy yet, but we can't see much beyond that burning storage bin," said Red. "I'm going for recon. If it's clear, I'll signal for the rest of you to follow."
"We should go back," said Jenny. "We can follow the rest of the squad on Level Eleven."
"I can't. Did you count? There's only five of us here. Paxton panicked and ran ahead. I have to get him back."
Jenny nodded. "Take this." She handed him the cane. "It's all we could find."
Red grinned. "Thanks."
He gripped the cane and scrambled from their cover to the nearest overturned table. The smoke from the burning bin filled Dray's nostrils as she tried to track Red's progress through the common area. He zigzagged across the open space until he was even with the fire. As he scrambled out from his last cover, shots rang out, echoing through near-empty area. Red lay on the ground.
"He's hit!" Jenny shouted. She ran out into the open before Jordan could grab her.
"What's she doing?" Dray asked, a sense of panic rising in her voice.
Jenny scrambled from table to table, following Red's path.
"She's going after him," said Jordan.
Two more shots rang out as Jenny ran from cover to cover. When she makes it to the last table, she'll be and easy hit if she goes for Red, thought Dray. She turned to the other four cadets huddled with them. Carson and Petros were senior cadets, sitting like frightened rabbits. Ketal sat wiping tears from her eyes. They wouldn't help. That left Venkata, a gray, hulking Gilgaran female sporting black protective eye covers and an air filter that generated the atmospheric content of her homeworld.
"Venkata," she said. The gray Gilgaran turned to Dray. "Is it true that Gilgarans can simulate any sound they've heard."
"Yes," said Venkata, mimicking Dray's voice pattern.
"Nice," said Dray. "Can you make sounds like weapons fire?"
Venkata looked down the smoky space separating them from where Jenny paused. "Yes, just tell me when."
"When Jenny makes her move for Red, you make it sound like half the Alliance is laying down cover for her, got it?"
Venkata nodded and pushed her way forward. With arms the size of a man's thighs, there was room for no one else by the edge of their cover besides Venkata. Dray prayed the Gilgaran would come through. A heartbeat later, Venkata through her head back and the sound of realistic laser fire came forth from her massive lungs. The sound was enough to send Carson and Petros ducking to cover their ears. When Venkata stopped for a long breath from her air filter, Dray scrambled around her and looked down the hall.
"Yes! It worked. Jenny's got Red with her behind the last table," said Dray.
"Now what?" asked Jordan. "If he's hurt, there's no way she can drag him all the way back here."
Before Dray could answer, she heard shouting coming from the hallway where they had first come into the common area. The distinctly female voice continued shouting and banging her way down the hallway. If she continued making that noise, she'd be a sizable target for whoever was firing on them.
"I have to go shut that idiot up," said Dray.
Jordan grabbed her by the arm. She held Dray with her eyes, pinning her with unexpressed fears. She slid her hand down Dray's arm and came to rest with her hand in Dray's.
"Please be careful," she whispered.
Dray lifted Jordan's hand to her lips and kissed it lightly. "I'll be back soon. With that screaming idiot in tow or unconscious."
Jordan let go of Dray's hand. Dray clenched her fist around her knife and sprinted back down the common area. Behind her, Venkata sounded off another round of simulated fire to protect Dray's dash to the hallway. Dray slid to a stop just inside the dorm hallway. She could hear the woman clearly now, storming from room to room, shouting Jenny's name. Dray ran to the nearest dorm room just as a beautiful blonde woman emerged, holding a laser strafer aimed at Dray's chest.
"Easy! I'm Dray from the 28th squadron!" Dray held up her hands, dropping her nearly useless knife.
J.P. Malory Grace lowered her weapon. She grabbed Dray by the cuff of her collar. "Where is she? Where's Jenny?"
"She's safe," said Dray.
Malory Grace let out a low sigh. "I heard weapons fire."
Dray loosened the other woman's grip on her clothes. "Most of that was simulated fire. Jenny's safe, but she's pinned down by a sniper along with Red. He's injured, but I don't know how badly."
"Take me to them."
Grace pushed Dray forward. Dray picked up her knife and trotted to the nearest cover from the hallway door. That was enough to set Venkata sounding off cover fire again. Grace hid back, but Dray grabbed her.
"It's simulated cover fire. We have to run fast before she gets out of breath."
The two sprinted to join the rest of the group, ducking behind their cover just as Venkata ran out of breath. Grace scanned the small group then turned back to Dray, the panicked expression returning to the junior pilot's face.
"She's not here," said Grace.
"I know. She's trapped out there." Dray pointed down the open space between them and the overturned table where Jenny crouched with Red lying prone beside her.
Grace's expression turned from fear to determination.
"What's your plan, J.P. Grace?" asked Jordan.
"Malory, just call me Malory," she said. "Where's the sniper, do you know?"
"No idea. Somewhere on the other side of that fire," said Jordan.
"I'm going after them." She took her eyes off of Jenny for a moment, turning to Dray and Jordan. "I need your help. If Red can't walk, I'll need you two the help Jenny get him back here, while I try protect you from the sniper."
Dray nodded in unison with Jordan. On signal, they darted from their cover and scrambled from table to table until they joined Jenny and Red. A small pool of unnaturally light blood lay by Red's side from a wound below his ribs.
Malory grabbed Jenny and pulled her into a frantic hug.
"Glad you could join the party," said Red, shifting to a sitting position. The effort painted a grimace across his pale orange face.
"Wouldn't miss it for anything," said Dray.
Jenny gently pushed Malory back. "Why didn't you evac with your own pilot squad?"
Malory sat back on her heels. "I couldn't. I needed to know you were safe." She looked around at their sparse shelter. "Obviously I was right to come."
"Thanks," said Red. "Now if we could move this happy reunion to someplace else?"
"Yes," said Dray. "Someplace less in-the-line-of-fire?"
Jordan examined Red's wound. "Can you walk?"
Red shifted painfully to a crouch. "I think so."
"Okay, you three go for it," said Malory. "Venkata should do her magic once she sees us on the move. I'll take up the rear."
Dray and Jordan waited on either side of Red, with Jenny in front to set the pace. On Malory's signal, they moved out. With the sounds of Venkata's simulated fire mixing with Malory's real weapon fire, they moved from cover to cover. When Red stumbled, Dray and Jordan hoisted him up by the shoulders and helped him make the final length to the rest of their small group. He collapsed to the floor as fresh blood oozed from his wound.
"Not as bad as it looks," he said, holding his side. He orange hand came away covered in pale blood. "Tarquin's heal fast."
"Okay, let's move out of here," said Malory. What evac site were you headed for?"
"Up on Level Fourteen," said Dray. The stairs are destroyed back there, though."
"We'll go down a level and across," said Jenny.
Red pulled himself up. "Let's go."
The small group worked their way through the deserted Level Eleven. In stark contrast to the level above, this level had no visible sign of attack or debris. It also had no further weapons that they could find. Even the evacuation alert was silent now.
"How are you doing?" asked Jordan as she helped Red walk through the quiet hallway.
"The bleeding's stopped," he said, examining his side. "Do you think everyone made it off from this level?"
Jordan looked around. "Seems so, yes. Do you know what's going on?"
"Not much more than you. It looks like a full-fledged attack. Vtaryns if you ask me," said Red.
Malory joined them. "Did you see any Vtaryns?"
"No, but who else would attack a base station this far into Alliance space?" he asked.
They reached the stairwell on the far side of the common rooms after a successful foray into a small arms cache. They each picked out a laser strafer and shock grenades. Carson and Petros scouted ahead on the stairs as the remainder waited for their report. Dray kept her eye on Malory Grace, not trusting why the junior pilot had joined their group. Malory sat on her own, unusually quiet, while Jenny stayed with Dray, Jordan, and Red. Dray tensed at the sound of boots stomping down the stairs above them. She remained alert when she saw only Petros coming down the stairs.
"We found Ngollo," he said, out of breath as he reached their level. "She's with a group of junior cadets, holding position outside the evac area."
Red stood up with the help of Jenny and Dray. "How many enemy combatants are there?"
Petros shrugged. "No idea."
They worked their way up the staircase to Level Thirteen. They had to scramble over debris from numerous explosions blocking their path.
"Where to?" asked Malory, leading the group.
"To the left. She's in the control room. Announce yourself first. They're a little trigger-happy right now," said Petros.
Malory followed Petros' directions, shouting her name and rank as she neared the hallway leading to the launch bay control room. Two juniors came out of hiding to give the all clear signal, letting the group proceed behind their makeshift barricade.
Red squatted down beside the juniors. "Malory, I'll stay here while you go talk to Ngollo."
"Alright" said Malory, her usual arrogance completely absent.
The rest of the group split up along the barricade for extra protection while Dray followed Malory into the control room. Not that she didn't trust the junior pilot, but Malory's earlier bravery didn't make up for cycles of mistreating Dray's friend. Dray wanted to be sure of an accurate account of Ngollo's orders.
Ngollo stood over the holo-screens, the glow of their displays reflecting off her dark skin. Covered in dust and spots of dried blood, the instructor looked far worse than most of their own group, except for Red.
Ngollo turned to them as they entered. "How many in your party?"
"Eight, Ma'am. One wounded," Malory reported.
"Who and how badly?"
"Red Barron, Ma'am. A projectile wound on his side. The bleeding has stopped," said Malory.
Ngollo turned back to the holo-screens. "What are the ranks in your party?"
Malory thought a moment. "Four seniors, three cadets and one junior pilot."
Ngollo swore under her breath. "I've got fifteen juniors here." She looked back up. "That means you're second in command J. P. Grace. You better be up to it."
Dray watched the color drain from Malory's pale face. It hadn't occurred to Dray that rank would play a role in their escape, but of course, this was a military site and a military emergency. Dray regretted forcing herself into this meeting with Ngollo. Only one step above a junior cadet herself, she felt out of place and out of line.
Dray felt Ngollo's stare as the instructor's attention turned to her. "Draybeck. Can I assume Bowers is here as well?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Dray felt a trickle of sweat slip down her brow.
"Good. We need all the pilots we can get. Come here, both of you."
Dray and Malory joined Ngollo at the holo-screens. To Dray's dismay, three of the four screens showed scenes of destruction. Twisted metal and melted plasteen jutted out from billowing clouds of smoke and fire. Dray turned to the fourth screen. It took a while for her to make out the dark images displayed there. When she did realize what she saw, she turned away in disgust.
"It gets worse," said Ngollo. "That was a group of veterans trying to break through the blockade so our group of juniors could evacuate. The enemy had the corridor mined."
Dray closed her eyes, forcing the bile back down. "Is it Vtaryns, Ma'am?"
Dray opened her eyes again, shocked. The Alliance had no other enemies in this quadrant of space.
"They're humans," said Ngollo, her voice tinged with disgust. "Ever hear of the Universalists?"
Dray and Malory nodded.
"Well they've started a new kind of offensive to protest our war with the Vtaryns." Ngollo turned back to the holo-screen. "I can't tell how many there are left in this area."
"Ma'am?" Dray interrupted.
"Did the others, did anyone evac from this area?"
Ngollo looked down. "Not that I've seen, Draybeck. They've cut off external communications and vid-screens. We can't see how many evac ships made it off the station."
Ngollo punched up a different holo-screen. This one displayed a map of their region of the base station. "You remember our class was going on an excursion on the Cigna-major transport?"
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dray.
"That's where we are heading. It's geared up in one of the training launch bays. I'm hoping the Universalists didn't think to take over those areas."
Ngollo straightened up, wincing from a wound on her shoulder. "Are you all armed?"
"Strafers and shock grenades," said Malory.
"No stun launchers?"
Ngollo shrugged. "It'll do. Let's move out."
With Ngollo leading their combined group, they worked their way down six levels without incident. Red had regained most of his mobility and took up position as rear guard with Dray and Jordan. Ngollo kept Malory at her side in the front, feeding her instructions along the route. Dray felt sorry for most of the junior cadets, some of whom were not even adults yet. They met no one else on their circuitous route through the station. By the time they reached the final level, the group had regained some semblance of calm, though Ngollo kept strict military order in the group.
It came as a shock when shots rang out in the front of their group. Some of the juniors panicked, trying to run back down the hallway. Dray and Jordan pulled them behind storage bins for cover. The rest of the group managed to hide as well, while Red made his way silently up the corridor to see what happened. Half way along, Malory stepped into the corridor, giving the all clear signal. Her face was ashen and blood streaked her uniform. Dray and the rest trotted forward, catching up with Red as they joined Malory.
As the group parted, Jenny was huddled over a body on the ground. Red leaned over her, then fell to his knees. Dray pushed her way through and stood over the still form of Instructor Ngollo. By the size of the hole in her chest, there was no doubt that the older woman's death had been mercifully quick.
Red clenched his fists and let out a roar that could only compare to that of a Terran lion. His face clouded a deep red. "How?" he asked, staring at Malory, who backed up a step.
"We didn't see him," she explained. "He fired one shot." She pointed beyond their group. Dray turned and saw for the first time that Carson and Venkata held a straggly, bearded man in brown fatigues, bleeding from a laser wound in his leg.
Red growled, then charged the prisoner, raking the man's chest with his claws before Venkata could pull him off.
"Leave him," she said. "It won't bring Ngollo back."
"Why?" said Red, panting. "The filth deserves to die!"
"We need him," said Malory, stepping away from Ngollo's body to put a hand on Red's shoulder. "If he's down here, there could be more. Or they could have mined the training launch bay as well."
Red pulled away from them and leaned against a nearby wall. Jordan, kneeling by Ngollo's body, did the unpleasant task of stripping the instructor of her weapons and grenades, as well as her com-link. She unclipped one of Ngollo's ID tags and stuffed it in her pocket.
"Why?" asked Dray in a whisper.
"Just incase these sick bastards incinerate this station." Jordan looked at Dray with tears forming in her eyes. "I want to give something to her family, to remember her."
Dray brushed her hand along Jordan's cheek, drying her tears. She prayed they would all get out of this alive.
"We need to keep going," said Jenny, turning to Malory.
Malory pushed her blond hair back, fear and uncertainty shown in her blue eyes. "Yes, you're right." She clutched her weapon to her chest and looked back to Ngollo one last time. "She wanted us to try the Cigna-major. The launch bay is just around this corner."
She turned back to their prisoner and leveled her weapon at his temple. "Is it mined?"
His pale gray eyes widened, but he said nothing. Malory frowned, and then lowered her weapon. "Red? I need your?assistance here."
Red pushed off the wall and walked to her side. The prisoner shrank back in fear.
"I'm not afraid to die," said the prisoner, his voice shaking.
Malory grimaced. "Have you ever met a Tarquin before?"
The prisoner shook his head.
"Did you know they used to hunt each other? Cannibals is what we'd call it on Earth."
The prisoner's hands shook.
"You have a choice," said Malory. "You can cooperate, or you can become lunch for my friend here. Tarquin males have excellent canines for gnawing the flesh off bones."
Red stepped forward, baring his white teeth.
"No," said the prisoner, holding his arm over his face. "No mines."
"And anyone else?"
"No. I'm not even supposed to be down here. I just?"
Malory sneered at him. "You deserted."
The man nodded.
"What's your name, deserter?"
He kept silent.
"Fine with me, we'll just call you Deserter." She turned away and marched back to the group with Red.
"We keep with Ngollo's plan," said Red, taking his position in the rear again.
Malory pushed the prisoner in front of her. "Lead the way, Deserter."
"Franklin," he said. "My name's Franklin."
"Just lead," said Malory, pushing him along. "If your friends did put mines down here, you'll be the first to pop."
In single file, they followed Franklin and Malory down the final corridor and into the open training bay.
Cautiously, they made their way to the Cigna-major transport ship marked for the 28th squadron's training mission. Jenny and Carson scanned the interior of the ship while the rest remained on guard outside. Dray waited impatiently with the juniors. She hated their position, in the open with nothing between them and any attackers entering the area. At least they hadn't felt any more explosions rattling the station lately.
"Clear," said Jenny, poking her head out of the access ramp. "And it's got full provisions."
Carson's voice echoed down the rampart, "But no weapons."
"Hopefully, we won't need any," said Malory. "Let's go."
The group trotted up the ramp and into the transport ship. Five times larger than the normal Cygna class ship, the Cygna-major had ample room to hold their small group. Dray trotted up the ramp with Red following behind her. He seemed to keep as far from the prisoner as possible, and Dray didn't blame him. She'd never seen Red lose his composure before, and it was a frightening sight.
By the time Dray boarded the ship, the rest of the group had buckled in along the front side seats. Jenny and Malory sat in the dual pilots seat, leaving the main pilot seat open for Red. The prisoner was restrained in the far seats, with two guards at his side. Red walked to the front and leaned over Malory. Dray couldn't hear their quiet conversation, but Malory unbuckled and moved to the main pilot seat, letting Red take her place in the co-pilot chair.
Malory swiveled her chair to face the group behind her. "Ngollo said we should fly clear of the station, but stay within Zenon's perimeter until the rescue team arrives. There will be a good twenty evac ships out there with us, so we'll be in good company."
She turned back to the front and locked her chair in the forward position. "Prepare for launch."
Dray watched the long rampart fold up under the ship and the access doors seal shut. She felt the engines rumbled beneath her boots as Jenny and Red worked their way through launch preparations. Jordan slid her hand under Dray's as she leaned over and kissed Dray's cheek.
"This nightmare's almost over," she whispered.
Dray trailed her fingers through Jordan's dusty black hair. "Thank God," she said. She leaned in and sighed as her lips pressed against Jordan's.
"Clear to launch," said Red.
"Take us out of here," said Malory, staring out the ship's view port at the black expanse of space beyond the launch bay.
The transport rose and hovered over the launch bay a moment, and then moved toward the black open space. Dray let her eyes drift shut, relaxing into the smooth acceleration of the transport.
"We're clear of the launch bay," said Jenny.
Dray opened her eyes and watched the expanse of empty space visible through the view port behind her seat. Pinpoints of light marked the distant stars, but she saw no evidence of other ships in the vicinity.
"Take us around to planet-side," ordered Malory.
The ship turned slowly to the right and accelerated toward the far side of the base station. Dray studied the station as it passed beyond her view port. It looked the same as always, a metal behemoth in orbit around Beta-five's largest moon. As Jenny steered the ship toward Beta-five, the rest of the station came into view.
"Look," said Jordan. "There's where they blew out the launch bays."
Dray kept her eyes on the damaged station, unable to resist gawking at the destruction. Why did they attack Zenon? It was predominantly an Academy post to train cadets. Dray turned to their prisoner, wishing he were closer so she could question their motives.
"We've got debris," said Red as his hands flew over the ships controls.
Scraps of metal drifted across the front view port as Jenny and Red guided the ship through the debris. Dray frowned, wondering why parts of Zenon were drifting beyond its core orbital range. And where were the rest of the evacuation ships?
Malory cursed in her chair and covered her face with her hands. "Why?" she asked, raking her fingers through her blond hair.
Dray watched metal drift past her view port. Her heart sank as she read the letters on the piece of twisted metal.
"They blew up an evacuation ship," she said, disbelieving the evidence in her view.
The perimeter alarm clanged, sending Dray's heart racing.
"We've got hostiles," said Malory. "What's our weapons status?"
"Non-existent," said Red. "We're equipped as a training ship."
"We're not alone out here," said Jenny. "I'm picking up one more evac ship." She turned to Malory. "It's between us and the hostiles."
"What class are the enemy ships?" asked Malory.
"They read as standard FX-27s," said Red. "If they've taken our training fighters, they may not know they've got no fire power either."
Malory leaned forward. "Let's hope so. Bring us along side the evac ship. We'll see if we can intimidate them with size."
Jenny steered the transport toward the lone evac ship, accelerating into the turn.
"Three hostiles heading for the evac ship," Red declared.
Dray stretched in her restraints, trying to get a clear view through the front view port. She could make out the oblong bulk of the evac ship, but the fighters were too small to see from a distance. Jordan shook her arm.
"He knows something," said Jordan, pointing to the prisoner.
Dray glanced over to Franklin and saw the sardonic grin on his face. She pulled at her restraints, wanting to unbuckle and force him to confess what he knew.
Jordan grabbed her wrist. "Don't. It's not safe."
"But he can tell us what they're up to."
Red interrupted them. "No sign of weapons fire yet."
Dray strained to see the fighters. As Jenny steered closer, Dray made out three specks approaching the evac ship. She wondered if it had any defensive capabilities. She got her answer when the black space between the fighters and the evac ship lit up with glowing trails of weapons fire. One of the attacking fighters transformed into a glowing ball and then disappeared.
"Score one for the good guys," she said.
They had a clear view now of the evac ship. Dray counted two close fighters and the telltale specks of five more fighters approaching. Weapons fire traced across the black space again, but the two remaining fighters avoided the attack, flying closer to the evac ship.
"Have the hostiles fired any weapons?" asked Malory.
"Negative," said Jenny. "So far only the evac ship has fired."
Dray leaned forward. "What are they up to?"
The closest hostile fighter turned hard and then flew into the command deck on the evac ship. A mushroom of fire engulfed the front section of the ship as the second fighter slammed into the aft deck.
"Pull out! Pull out!" Malory commanded. "They're suicide runners!"
The Cygna-major forward engines roared to life as Jenny and Red tried to reverse direction. The ship turned hard to port. Dray's heart pounded as she watched the burning ruins of the evac ship drift out of view. She twisted in her seat, trying to see through her side view port. She saw Jordan's face in profile, tears tracing a path down her cheeks. She wanted to reach for her friend, comfort her, but then the remains of the evac ship exploded and then dissipated into a debris field. Dray saw the unmistakable signs of four other fighters heading for their transport.
"Bring up the hyper-engines," Malory shouted.
"We have no flight plan," Red replied.
Malory swore. "Can we outrun them?"
Jenny scanned her display. "Not with in this crate."
Dray watched in dismay as two fighters came in full view. She heard the high-pitched whine of the hyper-engines, but with no flight plan, they would be as good as dead if they jumped to hyperspace.
"Grace!" Dray shouted. Malory looked at her over her shoulder. "Pull up the ship's travel log. Look for the last hyper jump."
Malory's face lit up. "You heard her, Red. Find us a flight plan."
Red's orange hands tapped out commands on his console as Jenny lurched the ship away from the nearest fighters.
"I've got one. Last used nearly a full rotation ago," said Red.
"Where to?" asked Malory.
"Not sure," Red studied his display. "An unmarked semi-habitable planet in the demilitarized zone."
Malory ran a hand through her disheveled hair. "Anything else?"
"No. That's the only hyper-jump in the log."
"Well, that's where we go then." Malory sat back in her seat. "Punch in the flight plan and take us out of here."
Carson squirmed in his seat, leaning forward. "Are you mad? That could be a Vtaryn base for all we know."
Malory glared at him. "Keep silent, cadet. That's an order."
Dray watched two more fighters heading toward their left flank. They were close enough to read the identifying letters on the fighters.
"Flight plan ready." Red announced.
"Take us out of here," said Malory.
Dray grasped Jordan's hand and held tightly as the hyper-engines roared. She'd experienced only one other hyper-jump, when she arrived at Zenon. It wasn't a pleasant experience.
"Jump engaged," said Red.
Dray's stomach lurched as the ship accelerated. Then everything changed. Sight, sound, all senses faded, leaving her with the sensation of falling from an immense height. She couldn't feel the seat or her restraints, nor could she feel Jordan's hand in hers. All she felt was the nauseating sensation of free-fall. Her mind knew it was an illusion created from the lack of sensation in hyper-space, but that didn't stop her from wanting to hurl.
Moments later, she slammed into her restraints, feeling them stretch across her chest. Sight and sound returned as well and she blinked to focus. The ship decelerated as it approached a massive gray planet illuminated by a binary star set.
"You're hurting me," said Jordan.
"Oh, sorry." Dray let go of Jordan's hand, embarrassed at how tightly she had been clutching it.
"Ship status?" asked Malory.
"We're just outside the planetary orbit of an unmarked giant-class planet," Jenny replied. "No sign of local technology or habitation."
"Planetary vitals?" asked Malory.
"Gravity is 1.1 Terran-standard. Atmosphere is borderline," said Jenny.
"Which means?" asked Malory.
Red turned to her. "It means the air is breathable to humans but only for short periods. After three or more hours, the air will have detrimental effects. Human's will be ship-bound most of the time."
Malory leaned back. "Does this ship have a distress beacon?"
"We've got three," said Jenny.
"Good. Send off one with our situation and coordinates. Then take us planet-side."
The group spent a full cycle inside the transport after it landed, hoping in vain for a quick rescue. They took turns watching the prisoner after the binary stars set and an icy wind howled across the desolate landscape outside the ship. As the planet again lightened under the twin suns, Dray slid off her cot in the rear section of the transport. As a Cygna-major class ship, there were double the number of single-bunk sleep cubicles than their small group needed.
For the first time in months, Dray spent the night in a room without Jordan. She tossed fitfully and woke with a dull headache. Pulling on her wrinkled cadet uniform, Dray emerged into the center corridor. She walked toward the break room for food, pausing outside the cubicle that Jordan had chosen long enough to determine that her friend was either still asleep, or already at breakfast.
Dray stepped into the break room and greeted Jenny, who sat alone by the blank vid-screen.
"Where is everyone?" Dray asked as she poured herself a steaming mug of synth-coffee.
Jenny munched on a muffin. "Already out, most of them. Malory sent out exploration parties. I think she just wanted to give the younger cadets something to do. It's their first excursion off Zenon since they were accepted at the Academy."
"Jordan left too?"
Dray felt her head throb as she sank into a plasteen chair across from Jenny. She felt disappointed that Jordan hadn't woken her for the trip.
"What about you? How come you are still here?" Dray asked as she bit into a dry muffin.
"I just got off guard duty for Franklin. He's an odd one."
"Do you want to go exploring?" asked Dray. The thought of sitting inside the ship for another cycle seemed unbearable, especially with Jordan already outside somewhere.
Jenny drained her drink. "Sure. I'll report our plans to Malory, and then meet you by the rear doors in ten minutes."
Dray watched Jenny leave and then finished off her dull breakfast in a few quick bites. At least the ship was well stocked with two squadrons' worth of food and supplies. Maybe time planet-side would ease the ache in her head and her sense of loneliness.
"How long to do we have?" asked Dray as she clipped on a com-link and strapped a laser strafer over her shoulder.
Jenny tightened the straps on her backpack. "Malory's keeping trips down to an hour, just to be on the safe side. Red and Venkata have already gone off on a longer trip, since the atmosphere doesn't affect them."
Dray and Jenny hiked in silence along what looked like an ancient riverbed that sliced a narrow canyon between two towering cliffs. The air blew warm across Dray's exposed face and hands as they scrambled over boulders. It was already warming up and by the mid-day meal, they would all want to be locked inside the simulated climate within the transport ship.
"Any news on a rescue?" Dray asked.
"Nothing yet. But we've got an encrypted distress signal going from the ship as well as the beacon we sent back to Zenon before we landed. They'll come for us soon."
Dray brushed a dusty hand across her brow. "So, how's it going with you and Malory?"
Jenny frowned and looked away. "What do you mean?"
"Come on, she did the whole hero thing, back on Zenon. That's got to mean something."
"Yeah, I just wish I knew what."
Dray picked up a rock and tossed it along their path. "So is she back to her old self, then?"
"No. She's been very kind to me, actually. But she hasn't, well, we haven't really talked."
"Hmm. Not that I'm taking her side or anything, because I'm not. She's not good enough for you."
"Anyway, she's our C.O for now. And the commanding officer can't exactly be romancing one of the troops, now can she?"
"I suppose you're right." Jenny sighed. "I'm not even sure I want her to anyway. I mean, how do I trust her again?"
Movement caught Dray's attention and she didn't respond. She studied a series of rock formations jutting out from the left hand side of the canyon they were in. Something changed, shifted on the top of the rocks.
"Look," she said, pointing. "Did you see that?"
"What?" Jenny turned toward the rocks.
"Something up there. It moved."
Jenny pulled out a pair of binoculars and scanned the walls of the canyon. "I don't see anything."
She handed the binoculars Dray. Dray lifted them to her eyes and adjusted the focus. She scanned the rock formation again. When nothing out of the ordinary showed up, she flicked on the heat monitors and looked again. A dim haze of yellow and orange was superimposed over the face of the canyon walls, showing where the suns heated the surface. She saw nothing giving off any unusual heat reflection.
"Maybe I'm hallucinating," she said, handing the binoculars back to Jenny.
"I don't think so," Jenny laughed. "We'd have to be out here another hour or more before the atmosphere started playing with your mind."
"Then I'd start hallucinating?"
"Not right away. First you'd just get silly, like drinking too much alcohol. Then you'd hallucinate."
Dray stretched her back. "Then I'd drop dead?"
"If you're lucky. If not, you'd linger in a vegetative state for rotations, well into your old age."
"Nice," said Dray. "Feel like heading back?"
Jenny laughed. "Sure. You've seen one pile of rocks, you've seen them all."
Jenny entered the grounded transport in front of Dray. As they turned down the central hallway, they came face to face with Malory. The junior pilot's somber expression lifted as she smiled at Jenny. Her eyes flicked to Dray and her smile faded. Dray shrugged and walked past her in search of Jordan. If Malory didn't like her, the feeling was mutual.
Not finding Jordan in the break room, Dray continued to the back of the transport where Franklin was locked up. She found her friend sitting outside his make-shift cell, sipping a cup of ice water.
"How long have you been on duty?" Dray asked as she curled up at Jordan's feet.
Jordan pushed Dray's blonde hair away from her eyes. "I haven't been here too long." Jordan's welcoming smile faded and her hands fell back into her lap.
"What's wrong?" Dray sensed Jordan's somber mood. Did she do something to upset her friend?
Jordan stared at the black metal floor. "Nothing."
Dray shifted until she was centered under Jordan's face again. "Hello? That was a very unconvincing nothing."
Jordan's smile returned briefly. "I just don't much like being here."
"On the planet?"
"No. Here with Franklin."
Dray ire rose. "Has he been bothering you?"
"No." Jordan brushed a finger along Dray's clenched jaw. "Nothing like that. It just, what he says. It's confusing."
Dray stood up, her face masked in anger. "Let me in."
"Are you mad? You can't go in there with him." Jordan laced her fingers over Dray's hand. "Just sit here with me, okay?"
Dray felt her anger waning. She gave Jordan's hand a squeeze and then slipped her hand free. "If he's upset you, I want to know what he said." She stood facing the door, waiting for Jordan to open it.
With a sigh, Jordan keyed in the unlock code. The door slid silently open. Dray scanned the interior of the brightly lit room. A gray table and chair lined one wall, while the opposite wall had a makeshift bed on the floor. Frankly jerked up in his bed when the door slid open, his disheveled brown fatigues clung to his thin frame. Dray locked her gaze on him and stepped inside. Jordan hung by the door, warily holding her laser strafer at chest height.
"You've got something to say?" asked Dray, her voice hard with authority.
Franklin stood up against the far wall, his eyes drifting from Dray to the weapon in Jordan's hand. "Why should I talk to you?"
Dray folded her arms across her chest. "I don't see anyone else volunteering to listen to your dribble, traitor."
"I'm not a traitor." His scraggly beard stuck out from his chest.
"Deserter, then. You did leave your own group of rebels behind. If you've got something important to say, then let's hear it."
Franklin sank down onto his unkept bed. His posture relaxed but his eyes still flicked between the two women. "You're all bluster and bullets, warmongers. Do you even know who you fight against?"
"Vtaryns," said Dray.
"Yeah, Vtaryns. Did they teach you at that Academy of yours who the Vtaryns are? Or who started the war?"
"Vtaryn atrocities are on the daily vid-screen. There isn't a person in the Alliance who doesn't know who they are or why we are fighting them," said Dray.
Franklin laughed. "And of course the vid-screen never lies. Go away, you're nothing but a pack of lost children."
Dray bit back and angry retort. "Well why don't you educate us, then. What do you know that the vid-screen and the Alliance isn't telling the rest of us."
Franklin stared at her for a long moment. He shifted to the edge of his bed, scratching at his beard. "What you see on the vid-screen, those aren't Vtaryns."
"Go on," said Dray, keeping her voice neutral.
"What you see, what the Alliance lets you see, is just the warrior caste."
Dray shrugged. "Kind of like our military, then?"
Franklin shook his head. "No, nothing like that. Vtaryn society, what we know of it, is not just a strict caste system. It's made up of different, co-dependent species."
Dray raised an eyebrow as Franklin continued.
"The warrior class act like blind defenders. Like worker bees at a hive on Earth. If the hive is threatened, they attack on instinct."
"So, what's your point?" Dray considered his words. She might be able to verify some of it if she got time on the central database.
Franklin opened his mouth to continue, then froze. Dray felt a presence behind her and turned in time to see Carson and Petros pausing outside the door. Carson's disdainful expression irritated Dray more than anything Franklin had said yet.
"Were you authorized to talk to the prisoner, cadet?" asked Carson, pulling rank on Dray.
"There were no orders to the contrary, Carson." Dray nodded to Jordan and the two of them stepped out of the room. Jordan closed and secured the door behind them.
"I wouldn't waste my time with him, Draybeck," said Carson. "He should have been left at the station, if you ask me. I don't know what Malory was thinking, dragging him along."
Jordan stiffened next to Dray. "Our commanding officer made a logical choice during a hostile takeover," she said, her voice, smooth and cold.
Carson gave her a wide-eyed stare and then shrugged. "Come on, Petros. Let's leave the cadets to their busy-work."
Dray watched the two senior cadets saunter back down the quiet hallway. She didn't like Carson. Worse, she didn't trust him. Something about the way he referred to Malory bespoke of trouble to come.
Jordan's hand pulled at her sleeve. "Don't let him get under your skin. The two of them are just looking to stir up trouble." Jorden led Dray back to the chair.
"How much longer do you have on duty?" asked Dray.
Dray leaned against Jordan's leg. "I'll keep you company."
She itched to research the information Franklin had given them, but she didn't want to leave Jordan alone. In fact, she seriously considered requesting two guards be stationed with Franklin at all times. She didn't feel comfortable airing her concerns to Malory directly, but Red handled the duty roster. She'd suggest the change to him and emphasize that Carson and Petros not serve on the same shift.
After a night of searching through the ship's database, Dray uncovered enough information about Vtaryn battle strategies to suggest that at least the front lines of the Vtaryn forces acted much like the bee metaphor than Franklin revealed. She couldn't find out anything more about the Vtaryn caste society, but she did search up the reports on the first Vtaryn attack on record. A Terran vessel had landed on an uncharted world that ended up being deep within Vtaryn controlled space. It's possible that the warrior caste took that as an act of aggression. The end result was a complete slaughter of the ship's crew, all three hundred Terrans.
Dray wandered into the break room with these puzzling thoughts on her mind and nearly stumbled into Carson's back. She stopped short and scanned the scene around her. Carson, Petros, and a few of the juniors stood on one side of the break room. On the other side, Malory Grace sat at a table, holding a warm mug. Something about Carson's cold sneer put Dray on the defensive. Keeping him in view, she pushed past his group of followers and walked to the syn-coffee machine.
"You're wrong, Malory," said Carson. His belligerent tone grated on Dray.
Malory looked up from her mug. "You'll address me by my rank, senior cadet."
Carson's sneer harded. "As you wish, Junior Pilot. Your decision to remain planet-side is wrong and you are risking all our lives by staying here."
"I don't recall asking for opinions on my decisions, Carson." Malory wrapped long fingers around her mug and eyed him coolly across the small break room.
Carson's stance worried Dray. He wasn't here just to question Malory's decision. Dray wasn't sure what else he had in mind, but she thought the numbers certainly weren't in Malory's favor. She didn't know if Malory even recognized the danger she might be in, if Carson had more in mind than simple insubordination. She decided not to wait and find out.
"J.P. Grace, Senior Cadet Barron sent me to find you, Ma'am. He's wants your approval on the new duty rosters."
It was a flat out lie and Malory knew it. Luckily, Carson and company did not, and Malory accepted Dray's excuse and left the room. Dray lingered, eyeing Carson over her cup of synth-coffee. He sauntered over to her, followed by Petros and the juniors.
"So whose side are you on?" Carson asked, his arms crossed.
Dray sipped her cup before answering. "I'm not sure what education you received, Carson. But my Academy training clearly taught me to obey my C.O. and follow directions."
Carson snorted. "Figures. No spine."
He turned his back to Dray. Big mistake, she thought. Dray grabbed the loose material at his collar and spun him around to face her. He had a handful of centimeters on her in height but the way his eyes bulged told her all she needed to know about his inherent bravery.
She leaned in and whispered so only he could hear her. "Insubordination is one thing, Carson, but leading others to mutiny during a military action is cause for summary execution. And I'd be first in line with a strafer if our C.O ordered your head on a platter."
She released his collar and addressed the group. "We are in a military emergency and under the regulations you all signed onto when you joined the Academy, the highest ranking officer is in command. She expects your obedience and so do the rest of us."
Dray saw the fear reflected in the juniors' expressions as they backed off, leaving Carson and Petros alone. Dray stared at the two of them until they skulked off in silence.
Jordan passed the two glum senior cadets as she entered the break room. She looked between them and Dray as she approached.
"What's up with those two?" she asked.
"Nothing good. How'd you sleep?"
Jordan placed a light kiss on Dray's cheek. "Not as well as I used to on Zenon."
Dray felt a rush of heat fill her cheeks and much lower down. "We don't have any major duties this morning. Want to go exploring?"
"Sure. Red and Venkata found a nest of some sort yesterday. Maybe we can go poke around there."
Dray and Jordan scrambled up the steep rocky incline that Red directed them toward. The Tarquin failed to mention how difficult the terrain was. Dray bruised knees and elbows, but she kept her minor pains to herself. Jordan didn't seem to be bothered by the climb and she certainly wouldn't be the one to give up on their excursion first. It was their first time alone in a few cycles, and Dray wouldn't give that up for a few scrapes. Besides, the transport had become a metal hull of dullness with no real sign of rescue yet.
She shifted her backpack and pushed herself up over the edge of the rock shelf. She turned back and offered a hand to lift Jordan up. They sat, back to back, catching their breath while scanning their new surroundings. The flat surface around them was not more than three meters wide. The terrain then split into a series of scraggly canals spotted with rocky caves and scattered dry brush.
"Where to next?" asked Jordan, shifting to take a flask of water out of Dray's pack.
Dray opened her GPS locator. "Red's map puts the nests in a set of caves twenty meters south and then another fifteen down inside the canal."
Jordan handed Dray the water flask, then checked her watch. "We've got a little under an hour before we have to head back."
"Okay, let's move."
Dray led the way along the flat shelf for twenty meters, then checked the GPS locator again. "Down here somewhere."
She sat on the edge of the shelf and lowered herself down. The loose footing caused them to go slowly down the rocky surface as gravel slipped beneath their feet. Dray paused at the bottom to brush herself off. A light wind blew through the canal, creating an eerie whistling noise as they wandered around the massive boulders along the bottom of the canal. The dark entrances of caves lined their path, some at ground level, others a meter or more up the face of the canal walls.
"What do you think we'll find?" asked Jordan.
"Twigs and bird droppings, likely. But if we are stranded here for long, it would be good to know if any of the indigenous life is edible."
Dray pulled out her binoculars and scanned the visible portions of the canal walls. She saw nothing of interest. She turned to give the binoculars to Jordan when she saw movement along the boulders to their left. She put a finger to her lip and then pointed. Jordan turned in time to see a small, pale creature scramble behind a rock.
"Was that bipedal?" Dray asked in a whisper.
Jordan nodded as she crept forward, with Dray following. Silently, they moved to the boulder and peaked around the side. The small biped sat on the other side of the boulder, staring up at Jordan with large black eyes. Closer to the creature now, Dray realized its pale skin was covered in iridescent, thin fur.
Jordan kneeled down and signaled Dray to follow. "Did you bring any snacks?" she asked.
Dray pulled out some dry crackers and handed them to Jordan. With the patience of someone coaxing a stray animal home, Jordan sprinkled the ground between her and the biped with crackers. It stared at her with over sized eyes, then inched closer. Picking up the first cracker, it sniffed it, and then a tiny silver tongue flicked out and licked the cracker. The creature emitted a series of clicks and whistles, and then munched on the cracker.
Jordan smiled as she moved closer. The creature watched her for a moment, and then shuffled up and sat beside Jordan.
"Figures," said Dray. "You could charm anything."
Voices from further down along the canal startled them all. The creature trembled and chattered faster, looking to Jordan for what Dray assumed was protection. Dray signaled for Jordan to stay put, and then she made her way silently down the canal toward the voices. As she neared, she realized they were human voices, and she relaxed. She considered walking back to Jordan when she recognized Carson's distinct voice.
"We should finish them off," said Carson, his voice pitched high and shaky.
Dray crouched low and made her way closer. She lay flat on the ground and peered around the edge of a boulder. Carson and Petros stood over the corpse of an adult version of the creature that sat with Jordan. Hovering over the still form were two more of its offspring.
"They're just babies," said Petros.
Carson pointed his strafer at the nearest of the small creatures. His hands shook.
Dray stood up from her hiding spot. "What have you done, Carson?"
Carson jumped, and then pointed his strafer at Dray. She dove behind the boulder as the laser fire crackled overhead. She bolted back the way she came, ducking behind boulders and over rocks as Carson fired at her. As she came within sight of Jordan, she shouted, "Grab the baby and run!"
Jordan scooped up the frightened creature and ran along the canal. Dray caught up with her and pulled her through an opening in the canal wall that joined it with a different path. They scrambled through heavy, dry brush as the creature chirped and wined in Jordan's arms. Dray scanned the canal walls, searching for a possible defensive position. She unstrapped the strafer at her side and risked a look back along their path. She could hear the two senior cadets shouting behind them, but no one as yet had come through the crevice they'd taken. If Carson and Petros climbed up to higher ground, she and Jordan would be easy targets in the narrow canal.
"Head for that cave," said Dray, pointing at a dark opening ten meters ahead.
Jordan scrambled up the loose gravel that led to the cave opening. Dray holstered her weapon and took Jordan's free hand. She pulled Jordan up the slippery slope, sliding once and muffling a curse. They crawled into the dark cave, Jordan and the creature huddling in the back while Dray pulled her weapon and peered out the cave opening. A curve in the canal kept them out of open view as Dray watched for signs of Carson and Petros. After a few moments of tense silence, she left her post to join Jordan.
"I can't see or hear them," she said.
"Who was it?"
"Carson and Petros. From the looks of it, they killed this baby's mother and were about to slaughter its siblings."
Jordan instinctively held the creature closer. Its whimpering subsided, turning to a low rumble, like a purring kitten. Dray looked down to see the creatures eyes closed, its small clawed hands clinging to Jordan's dusty shirt.
"You do have a way with wild things," said Dray with a smile.
"I tamed you, didn't I?" said Jordan.
Dray stifled a laugh as she crawled back to the cave front. She pulled out her binoculars and scanned their surroundings. No sign of the other two cadets. She leaned back against the cave wall, holding her strafer across her lap and watching for any sign of movement. She wasn't sure how long she'd sat there before Jordan joined her.
"Where's the baby?" asked Dray.
"Sound asleep in the back, near as I can tell."
Jordan ran her fingers through Dray's short hair. "You're quite the hero, you know."
Dray chuckled. "Not really. Mostly, I just stood up and painted a bulls-eye on my chest."
Jordan laughed. "Very smooth."
"That's me, smooth." Dray put down her weapon and slipped a hand behind Jordan's head, pulling her closer. "I'm persistent, too."
Jordan leaned into her. Dray's pulse quickened when she felt Jordan's warm lips pressed on hers. She wrapped an arm around Jordan's back and then lowered them both down onto the cave's dirt floor. Something in the back of her thoughts screamed that this wasn't the place or the time, but mind felt oddly free, and her body wanted this. Dray sighed as Jordan's body pressed down on top of her. She felt Jordan's strong legs intertwine with hers.
Jordan lowered her head and traced her lips along Dray's jaw, ending with a nip at Dray's ear. A bolt of desire electrified Dray. She pushed her leg between Jordan's thighs and felt Jordan press against her. She pulled at Jordan's shirt until she could slide a hand under it, feeling Jordan's warm skin under her fingers.
Jordan moaned as Dray caressed her back. Dray rolled them over, positioning herself on top. She lowered her head to brush her lips along the edge of Jordan's collar. She lifted a trembling hand to cup Jordan's firm breast beneath the thin material. Jordan pulled her closer, thrusting her hips into Dray's thigh. Dray pressed her own throbbing need hard against Jordan.
"Touch me," Jordan whispered, stroking Dray's arm and lowering Dray's hand.
Dray shifted her leg from between Jordan's thighs and replaced it with her hand. Jordan arched up to meet her, pressing herself against Dray's palm. Dray wanted her, wanted to touch her, undress her, but not here, not in the dirty cave. She moved her hand, but Jordan held it.
"Harder," Jordan moaned.
Jordan wanted it, wanted her, and she wouldn't deny Jordan anything. Dray pushed against her, feeling Jordan's heat through the fabric of her trousers. Jordan's building excitement filled her, drawing her own desire along with it. She rocked against Jordan's thigh as her fingers circled harder against Jordan. Jordan kissed Dray's neck, and then moaned louder as her body trembled under Dray's urgent fingers. Dray's desire rose in time to Jordan's, their two bodies working together, rising together to peak in an explosive climax.
Dray collapsed beside Jordan, her heart pounding, and her breath coming in short rasps. She felt strange, lightheaded. Jordan curled up and draped her arm across Dray's stomach.
"Thank you," she said, her eyes closed and a soft smile curving her lips.
"My pleasure," said Dray, grinning. Her head felt fuzzy. She yawned.
"Hmm. Time for a nap?" asked Jordan.
"I'm not sure we should." Dray's eyes drifted shut. She felt groggy, like she'd drank too much alcohol. Maybe Jordan just had that affect on her, she thought as her tangled thoughts drifted off to sleep.
Dray's first sensation came from the aches in her body. Her eyes felt dry and pain radiated from her shoulders when she tried to lift her arm. Where was she? Her mind refused to focus. She wanted to go back to sleep, to escape the pain, but the throbbing in her head wouldn't allow that. She forced her eyes open.
Venkata hovered over her, the Gilgaran's black eye covers reflecting Dray's pale face. "You are awake," said Venkata, leaning back in her chair.
"Where am I?" asked Dray. Her voice sounded raspy in her ears.
"Still on the Cygna-major in the middle of nowhere. How are you feeling?"
"Not so good."
Venkata leaned closer. "What can you remember?"
Dray concentrated. "We were in a cave, I think." The sensations of Jordan in her arms flooded back to her, and she felt her face flush.
"Excellent. That's good, considering you were outside at least three hours past your limit."
"I don't understand."
"When Carson and Petros went missing, Red and I went searching for them. Lucky for you two we found you first. I don't think the other two fared as well. They had five hours over-exposure to the atmosphere here."
Dray wanted to say something about Carson, something important, but her mind wouldn't focus. "What about Jordan?"
"She's doing well. She woke up a few hours ago. Those critters you brought in won't leave her side."
Dray struggled to remember how they'd found them. "I only remember one baby."
Venkata patted her arm. "You were over-exposed by three hours. Some memory loss is expected, but I don't think you'll suffer any permanent damage."
Dray rolled away from Venkata. The Gilgaran's words didn't sooth her frustration. She clearly remembered only one baby in the back of the cave when she fell asleep in Jordan's arms.
Hours later, Dray pulled herself out of bed. Her head still throbbed, but her other aches subsided. She needed to see Jordan, to see for herself that Jordan was okay. She stepped out of her room and leaned against the cool metal wall, waiting for a wave of dizziness to end. She paced down the corridor to Jordan's room but found it empty. Her head pounded its resistance, but she continued down the corridor, following the sound of voices coming from the break room. She squinted as she came into the brightly lit room. Jenny and Jordan sat on the floor where three small bipeds played between them.
Jordan looked up and smiled at her. "Finally waking up, sleepy?"
Dray tried to smile in return, but the effort made her head ache. Something in her face must have startled her friend. Jordan jumped up, frightening the babies and sending them scuttling under a table. She came over to Dray and wrapped an arm around her waist. Dray leaned on her and let Jordan lead her to a chair.
"You should still be in bed," Jordan admonished, studying Dray's face.
"I feel better than I look."
"You're a bad liar," said Jordan. She leaned down and picked up one of the babies that whimpered at her feet. "This one is Merry, short for Meriweather."
"You named them?" asked Dray.
Jordan blushed, "It was Jenny's idea."
Jenny brought over a steaming mug of broth and handed to Dray. "Well, it was easier than saying this one, that one, and the other one."
Dray sipped the broth, feeling it warm her stiff body. "What do you call the other two?"
Jenny pointed, "Flora and Fauna."
Dray suppressed a groan. "The fairies from Sleeping Beauty?"
"It seemed appropriate," said Jordan.
"So do we know what they are?" asked Dray.
"No," said Jenny, frowning. "But Franklin does. He's the one who told us how to feed them."
"Franklin? So what are they, then?" asked Dray.
Jenny leaned down to push one of the babies away from the supply cabinets. "He won't say, and Malory's fit to be tied about it."
Dray laughed, easing some of the lingering fuzziness in her mind. Jordan looked good. In fact, she looked great. "How come I feel like a used up hydro cartridge, and you look fine?"
Jordan wrapped Dray's hand in her own. "I've been awake longer, love." She leaned in and placed warm lips on Dray's, lingering just long enough to stir Dray's desire. "You'll feel better soon, I promise."
"I feel better already," said Dray. She studied Jordan, suddenly untrusting of her own memories. "Do you remember what happened in the cave?"
Jordan's cheeks flush. "Yes. Do you?"
Uncertainty seemed to wash over Jordan's face. Could she possibly doubt how Dray felt about her?
"I don't remember much before then, but I remember everything in the cave." Dray squeezed Jordan's hand.
"You don't remember before that?" Jordan asked.
Dray swallowed nervously. Was there something important that happened between them before the cave? She lowered her head into her hands, trying to force the memories back. "No, I can't really remember. I'm sorry."
"You don't remember meeting Carson and Petros?" asked Jenny.
"No. We didn't leave with them, did we?" asked Dray.
Jenny whistled. "That's unfortunate. Jordan says you were the only eye-witness to what Carson did."
"What did he do?" asked Dray. Carson's name brought up a strong sense of disgust in her, but nothing solid.
Jordan hugged her. "Don't worry. Even if you can't remember, we have enough evidence to convict him and Petros."
"Assuming either of them regain their sanity," Jenny added. "They're both under heavy sedation for now, for their own protection."
"But what did they do?" Dray repeated.
"They killed the mother of these three," said Jordan. "And then tried to kill us as well. If you hadn't come up on them, they'd have killed the babies for sure."
"If you're up for it, you should report to Malory. She'll want to know anything you can remember, for the record," said Jenny.
Dray stood up, ignoring the wave of dizziness that threatened to unbalance her. "I can't tell much, but I'll give my report anyway."
Dray caught up with Malory Grace outside Franklin's makeshift prison. By the expression on the junior pilot's face, the meeting hadn't gone well.
"Glad you're awake," said Malory, though her expression didn't match her words. "Are you ready to give your report?"
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dray.
Malory led them to the communications room she used as her office. Malory didn't sit down, but leaned against the back of a console table. Dray's dizziness returned. She hoped she was standing still and not swaying to match her spinning head.
"Tell me about your trip," said Malory.
"I don't remember much. Jordan and I went for a hike, looking for the nests that Red found the other cycle. I don't remember meeting up with Carson at all."
Malory's voice remained calm, dispassionate. "There was evidence of laser fire. Did you discharge your weapon, Draybeck?"
"Okay, what else do you remember?"
Dray felt her face flush as she thought about her time with Jordan. How much should she tell of that? "Jordan and I were in a cave. We had only one baby with us, I'm sure of that."
"The other two must have followed you, after you fell asleep." Malory's voice wavered enough for Dray to know that she and Jordan must have been found in each other's arms.
"I don't remember anything else that would be useful."
Malory clenched the edge of the console. "One last thing, Drabeck. Off the record."
Dray raised her eyebrows. "Yes?" she asked, cautiously.
Malory stepped forward. "I don't know what game you are playing, and officially, I can't say or do anything about it. But if you hurt Jenny, I'll be on your tail like a bad afterburn."
"Jenny?" asked Dray. "Off the record, Malory, you are the only one on this ship that's hurt Jenny."
"I know I have no chance with her now." Malory's shoulders slumped. "But I won't sit by and watch you dance between her and Jordan Bowers. As your C.O., I can't do anything about it right now. But once we are off this rock, I can and will."
The fire in Malory's eyes took Dray by surprise. "You still love her, don't you?" she asked.
Malory nodded, then looked away.
"Not that you have a right to know," Dray began. "But Jenny and I are just friends. We've never been anything more. I love Jordan."
Dray felt the truth of those words sink in. She'd known for awhile that she loved Jordan, but she never admitted it to herself. Ironically, Malory Grace held the honor of being the first person to hear Dray's true feelings.
Malory studied her. "Nothing between you and Jenny?"
"Nothing," Dray repeated, with a smile. "Jenny's still in love with someone else."
A wave of hope washed over Malory's face.
Dray closed the gap between her and Malory. "And since we're talking, off the record, if you hurt Jenny again, I'll stuff your sad, blonde ass out an air lock."
To Dray's surprise, Malory laughed so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes. When she finally calmed down, she seemed more relaxed than Dray had ever seen her.
"If you weren't so damned arrogant, Draybeck, I'd almost like you. Now get your butt back to bed before you pass out."
Dray left Malory and walked back down the corridor. She wanted to take Malory up on the offer to go back to sleep, but she had one more task to do. She nodded to the two juniors on duty outside Franklin's room, and then let herself in. The disheveled prisoner glanced at her from his bed and then returned to staring up at the ceiling.
"Don't you get tired of poking sticks at the traitor," he said.
"What do you know about the babies?" she asked.
"I told your blond bombshell pilot all I know."
Dray stumbled into the lone chair. "Will somebody come for them?"
Franklin sat up. "What are you getting at?"
"They're sentient, aren't they?"
"My my," said Franklin, with a smirk. "A military brat that can see beyond the tip of her own nose. Are you sure you aren't on the wrong side in this war?"
"Just answer the question, traitor." Dray's head pounded as she focused on Franklin's answer.
"Yes, they're sentient, and yes, someone will come for them. Pray to your god of choice for a quick death when they come."
Dray left, stumbling back to her own room. She found Jordan asleep on her bed. Smiling, she curled up next to her on the small mat. Sleep wrapped her in its silent embrace.
The pounding noise in Dray's dream turned to reality when she opened her eyes and realized someone was knocking on her door. She tried to uncoil herself from around Jordan. When she moved, Jordan groaned and rolled to the other side. She rolled completely off the bed and ended in a surprised clump on the floor.
"I'm sorry," said Dray, laughing. "All the mats on this ship are singles."
Jordan rubbed her sore backside. "If you were sorry, you wouldn't be laughing."
The incessant knocking on the door kept Dray from inviting Jordan back to bed. She opened the door to see Red standing outside, shuffling from foot to foot.
"About time you two woke up," he said, his eyes sparkling with some hidden news.
"What's the big emergency?" asked Dray.
"We've got a signal. Terran security band. Looks like we'll be rescued sometime this cycle."
Dray and Jordan joined the rest of the crew outside the ship. Malory ordered full preparations for departure and that meant dismantling the temporary processing stations they'd set up since landing. They joined Venkata at the solar converters that stretched out in a wide pattern behind the ship. The portable energy panels required two people on either end to retract them into storage bins. By the time they finished that task, the rest of the external stations had been stowed for takeoff.
"Any sign of the rescue ship?" asked Dray as she skipped up the ramp into the Cigna-major.
"Not yet," said Jenny who sat at the com-station with more patience than Dray would have managed.
"Where's everyone else?" asked Jordan, taking the empty co-pilot's seat.
Jenny pulled off her communications earpiece. "Malory set the juniors to task, scrubbing down the storage bays. It'll keep them from loitering around here, waiting for news."
"You mean like us," said Dray, laughing.
Jenny smiled and shrugged, "If the space gear fits?"
"Okay, we can take a hint," said Jordan as she stood up.
A signal whistled from the console behind Jordan. "I didn't touch anything, I swear."
Jenny left her post to scan the console by Jordan. She frowned as she typed in a series of commands, one of which turned off the signal.
"It's the proximity detector. It's showing we've got one incoming vessel," she said.
"That's great," said Jordan, leaning in to read the report over Jenny's shoulder.
"I'm not so sure," said Jenny. "If it was our rescue ship, why wouldn't they have signaled us by now?"
Dray stood up, "Where's Malory?"
Jenny turned to her. "She's outside, doing a final inspection of the ship before we take off. We're supposed to meet the rescue ship in orbit and be towed back to Zenon air-space."
Dray spun around and left the ship in search of Malory. If something other than the Terran ship was landing, then the C.O had some hard decisions to make. She ran around the back of the ship and found Malory with Red, examining the rear thrusters.
"We've got an unknown ship heading our way," said Dray, coming to a stop next to Red.
Malory stood up too quickly, slamming her head into the metal flange overhanging the thrusters. "Can you identify the vessel type?" she asked, rubbing her scalp.
"Not yet," said Dray. "But Jenny and Jordan are working on it."
The three ran to the front of the ship and up the ramp. Jordan and Jenny were seated in the co-pilots chairs.
"Status," ordered Malory as she took the pilots seat and turned up the readouts.
"Unidentified vessel is about to do a flyover of our position," said Jordan as Dray stood behind her, scanning the console.
Dray strained to hear the sound of engines above them, but the thick hull of the Cigna-major blocked out any noise from the approaching ship.
"Ma'am," said Dray. "We should run a full scan on the unknown. If it doesn't match our database, the Alliance will want to have as much information as possible on it for later analysis."
"Agreed," said Malory. "Bowers, record all data."
Jordan punched in her password and started the record stream.
"It's circling around, landing gear down," said Jenny.
Malory cursed, then turned on the ship's intercom. "Prepare for emergency takeoff. Repeat, prepare for emergency takeoff."
She turned off the intercom. "Red, go down to the bays and make sure those kids are strapped in. Copilots, start the forward engines."
Just as Dray left the command area to strap into a seat, an explosion rocked the ship, sending her sprawling across the metal floor.
"Report!" Malory screamed.
"They've hit the rear thrusters," said Jenny. "We're grounded."
"We're an easy target in this ship," said Dray, pulling herself back up.
Malory swung out of her pilot's seat. "Draybeck, get whatever weapons we have and arm the seniors before the juniors. Jenny and Bowers, find us the emergency comm-station and oxygen tanks."
Dray ran down the central corridor, pushing her way through the dazed cadets standing around. "Strap on whatever weapons you've got and meet up in the front. We're under attack."
She paused by the door to Jordan's room, hearing the cries of the three bipeds. "I'll come back for you," she promised as she ran on. She found Red in the storage bays as Malory's voice came over the intercom again, ordering the evac of the ship.
"I need your help," said Dray. "The seniors are armed and ready. Can you lead the juniors out?"
"Yes," said Red. "But what are you doing?"
"Getting a baby-sitter for the bipeds."
Dray ran back to the central corridor and then down the hallway that led to Franklin's prison. She passed by the thrashing bodies of Carson and Petros, but there was nothing she could do for them. Their minds were so far gone that they were uncontrollable without the restraints that held them to their beds. She rounded the corner to Franklin's room. As expected, his guard had already left. Dray punched in the unlock code and the door slid open. Franklin sat in a ball under the one table in his room.
"What the hell is going on?" he asked, recognizing Dray.
"Get your boots on, Franklin. The ship's under attack."
He scrambled out of his hiding place and shoved on his boots. "How bad is the damage?"
Dray led the way down the hallway, "So far only one hit to keep us on the ground."
Franklin grabbed Dray's arm. "Did you ID the attacker?"
"Not yet. It's not in our database. Come on."
Dray skidded to a stop outside Jordan's room. When she opened the door, the three bipeds clamored out and wrapped themselves around her legs. She pulled one off and handed it to Franklin. "They're your responsibility, you understand?"
He nodded, pulling up a second biped. "This is what they're after, you know that, right?"
"What do you mean?" Dray studied Franklin's scraggly face. His dark eyes were glistening in the light.
"I thought you'd figure it out," he said. "These are Vtaryn babies."
Dray turned to the last biped clinging to her legs. Her mind wanted to reject Franklin's words, reject the idea that these were her enemy. "They'll grow up to be those killers?"
"No. They're not the warrior caste. These are real Vtaryn children, the ruling caste."
She studied the baby's thin neck and arms. "They seem so fragile."
"They are. That's why they joined with the warrior caste. Two co-dependent species developed on one planetary system."
Dray scooped up the last baby. "Come on, we've got to tell Malory."
Franklin hesitated. "You trust your blond bombshell? These babies are the only thing keeping you alive right now. If she harms them, the Vtaryns will turn this ship into a sizable crater."
Dray held the baby to her chest. "I trust her, but she needs this information. Let's go."
Dray led them up the corridor to where the rest of the crew waited. She pushed through the crowd, hearing grumbles behind her as they recognized Franklin carrying two of the bipeds. She didn't have time to deal with sensitivities and prejudices. She trusted Malory mostly because she knew the junior pilot would believe Jenny, and Jenny wouldn't let any harm come to the babies, even if they were Vtaryn. But Dray didn't trust the rest of the crew if they found out who was outside the ship, and what they were after.
"Malory," she said in a quiet voice. "There's something you need to know about the attackers."
"Now?" asked Malory.
Dray nodded, passing the baby off to Jordan as she pulled Malory back into the pilot area where Jenny sat, still scanning the incoming vessel.
"What is it, Draybeck?"
"Franklin told me the bipeds are Vtaryn babies. And our visitors there have come to retrieve them."
Malory leaned on the back of Jenny's seat. "And you believe him?"
"Makes sense. If they wanted us dead, they could have blown this ship to bits by now. They want something, and that something is inside this ship."
Jenny turned and rested her hand on Malory's. "You can't let the rest of the crew know about this. Too many of them lost parents or siblings in the Vtaryn wars. Someone's bound to take it out on the babies, whether Franklin's telling the truth or not."
"I know," said Malory. "Where's the ship now?"
Jenny returned to her console. "Landed about two hundred meters away."
"Can you get a visual?"
Jenny focused the external viewers and piped the video to her console. The unknown vessel shimmered from the heat of its engines. As they watched, a contingent of Vtaryn warrior troops emerged. Their massive black encounter suits seemed to swallow the surrounding light as they marched in formation down the ship's ramp.
Red shouted from the midst of the juniors, "J.P. Grace, the crew is awaiting your orders."
Dray turned to scan the faces of her fellow cadets. Nervous energy abounded in the crowded main cabin. Grim-faced seniors held their weapons in white-knuckled grasps while the frightened young faces of the juniors looked to the towering figure of Red for protection. He stood amid the group, his skin a dark orange color. Dray wondered what emotion that reflected, though if it was anything like what she felt at the moment, it wavered between frustration and dread fear.
"Options?" asked Malory in a low voice.
"I recommend splitting the group," said Dray. The juniors and half the seniors to the rear exit of the ship. Then we wait and see what the Vtaryns do. If they attack, we hold them here while the rest escape from the back."
"The less people who know there are Vtaryns outside, the better," said Jenny.
"Okay," said Malory. "Red takes the juniors and others to the back with Jenny."
"No way." Jenny jumped out of her chair to face Malory. "Respectfully, Ma'am. I belong here."
Malory grasped Jenny's thin hands in her own. "Please. I need to know you're safe."
Jenny took a step closer. "I'm not leaving you."
Regretfully, Dray interrupted them. "We need to act before the Vtaryns come into view."
Malory dropped Jenny's hand and turned to face the crew. "Our attackers are approaching on foot, possibly to parley. Red, take the juniors and half the seniors to the back exit. The rest of us will stay here and deal with whomever comes. If it goes badly, take the remote com station and get out the back exit."
Red chose his seniors and with one final look back, he led them down the corridor and out of sight. Two seniors stood with Franklin and Jordan and the babies.
"Okay, here's the deal. We've got a contingent of Vtaryns coming our way, and we've reason to believe they want something from us," said Malory after the others had left. "I don't want anyone getting trigger happy, understood? All we need to do is keep them at bay until the Alliance rescue ship gets here."
The small group waited in silence around the main vid-screen where Jenny piped the images of the Vtaryns approaching. Dray counted at least twenty hulking figures kicking up a dust cloud that distorted the electronic images. "Does anybody know how Vtaryns communicate?" asked Dray.
No one spoke up at first. Then, Franklin coughed and stood, looking awkward in his scraggly beard and clothes. "The warriors don't communicate," he said. "At least not that anyone's ever recorded."
"Great," said Malory.
"They, um," Franklin continued. "Their encounter suits are resistant to projectile and laser fire, but if you can detonate a shock-grenade near them, it may trigger a systems malfunction in their suits. Not enough to kill, but it could give you the chance to run like hell."
Jordan spoke up from the co-pilot's console she'd taken a seat at. "They're in visual range now, coming around the rear of the ship.
Dray prayed that no one in Red's party decided to open the back hatch while the Vtaryns marched past. Sweat trickled down between her shoulder blades as she waited. When the first Vtaryns came into view, she felt a wave of dread threaten to engulf her. These were the enemy, the vicious killers that were shown on the vids, night after night. What made her think they could negotiate with these deadly behemoths?
The Vtaryns formed a wide arc around the side of the ship, twenty paces from the closed front ramp. They stood, black and unmoving. Dray couldn't look away, couldn't break the lock of fear that permeated the main cabin around her. She felt Jordan's warm presence beside her, comforting on her raw nerves.
Something moved within the Vtaryn wall, a subtle parting of the black-clad troops. Dray leaned closer to the view port as one lone figure emerged from the Vtaryn wall of warriors, smaller in stature, wearing a simplified steel gray encounter suite. The figure walked a few paces in front of the Vtaryn warriors and then made a show of taking out its weapons, placing them on the ground, and then walking away from them, closer to the Cigna-major.
"Nice show," said Malory. "But what about the wall of death behind it."
Dray called Franklin forward. "Is that one of them?"
"Yes," he said. "This must be some kind of breeding ground for them. The mothers go into isolation when they lay their eggs."
Jordan joined them, holding one of the babies in her arms. "So that could be Daddy?"
"Vtaryns are gender-neutral," said Franklin. "Limited observation suggests any of them can bear or fertilize eggs in another. But yes, there's a good chance that the Vtaryn standing out there is a primary parent for these three."
"We've got an incoming transmission," said Jenny. "The Alliance rescue ship has detected the Vtaryn vessel." She turned away from her console to look up at Malory. "They're coming in fully armed."
Franklin grabbed Dray's elbow and whispered frantically in her ear. "You can't let the Alliance have the children. You don't know what they'll do to them."
Jordan overheard him. "Dray, we have to give the babies back to their family."
Dray nodded and walked back to Malory. "If we give the bipeds back to the Vtaryns, we may save a lot of bloodshed here. They can be off planet before the Alliance ship gets in target range."
Dray studied Malory as the junior pilot watched the lone figure waiting outside their ship. "They want the babies alive. They won't attack us so long as we have them onboard." Malory turned to Dray. "You don't want the Alliance getting those babies do you?"
"Would you? Enemy or not, they are children and innocent in this war."
"I won't order anyone outside this ship," said Malory.
"You won't need to," said Jordan, coming up behind Dray. "I'll take them out."
"We'll take them out," Dray corrected.
"You could both end up dead," said Malory.
Dray and Jordan stood silent.
"Alright," Malory sighed. "But you take a couple of shock grenades each, you hear? Jenny, where's the Alliance ship?"
"In low orbit. ETA in ten minutes."
"Make this fast, Draybeck," Malory ordered.
Jordan waited by the front exit ramp, holding two of the babies. Dray stuffed her pockets with grenades and then scooped up the remaining baby that clung to Jordan's legs.
"I hope these tikes don't miss us too much," said Jordan.
Dray saw the sadness in her lover's eyes. She smiled mischievously, as she stripped off her name tag and Jordan's, and attached them to the two babies Jordan held. "Something to remember us by."
The baby in Dray's arm tried to pull off a nametag from its sibling. Dray took off her Alliance cadet insignia and gave it to the baby. It made a series of happy clicking noises as it fingered the patch and tried to bite it.
"Ready?" asked Jordan.
Dray nodded. Jordan keyed in the unlock code and they watched the long metal ramp lower to the ground. Side by side, the two women walked down the ramp and onto the dusty ground. Dray wondered if Malory would close the ramp once they were clear, but she didn't. Their return path waited for them, incase they needed to make a run for it. Facing the wall of black Vtaryn warriors at ground level, Dray prayed they would not have to make a hasty retreat.
Once clear of the ship, they walked slowly toward the lone Vtaryn figure. It approached them, meeting them half way between the Cigna-major and the Vtaryn warriors. Dray glanced back at the black behemoths, holding her fear at bay. The hulks each carried two heavy blasters strapped across front shield armor, but none held the weapons in a firing position. She kept her own hands clear of the grenades in her pockets as they stopped a few paces before the Vtaryn ruling caste figure. It stood a head span taller than Jordan, watching them through a reflective view panel. Dray had never seen a ruling caste member, but she could detect the similarities between it and the baby in her arms.
The Vtaryn lifted an arm and unhooked its gray helmet, taking it off to reveal a face covered in iridescent thick fur surrounding black lips and clear black eyes. It made a series of deep whistles to which the babies responded in kind. Dray went down on one knee, keeping her eye on the Vtaryn as she put the baby on the ground. It looked up at her with its own black eyes, clicking and clutching her Alliance patch. Then it toddled over to the Vtaryn who squatted down to greet the baby.
Dray saw Jordan kneel down and let go of her two babies. One ran to the Vtaryn and its other sibling, but the other, the one they'd had with them in the cave, held onto Jordan's hand.
"You have to go," Jordan said.
Dray took her eyes off the Vtaryn for a moment and saw a tear slid down Jordan's cheek. She stepped over to Jordan and picked up the last baby, uncurling its tiny hand from Jordan's pant leg. Jordan wiped at her cheek. Dray turned and walked two paces to the Vtaryn who had the other two babies at its feet. Dray held out the third baby and the Vtaryn gently took it from her and held it, stroking its soft, fine fur with long fingered hands.
The unmistakable sound of a spaceship engine whined from the distance. Dray glanced up to see the Alliance vessel approaching.
"Go," she said.
The Vtaryn looked up at the vessel, but did not move.
"Go," Dray urged. She pointed up at the ship and then down at the Alliance patch that the baby held. "Go before they capture your children."
Whether it understood her words or not, the Vtaryn scooped up two children in its long arms and let the third ride on its shoulders. It stared at Jordan and Dray a moment longer, emitting a low series of clicks and whistles, then turned and paced back to its warriors. The black wall absorbed the gray-clad figure once again, and then marched back toward its own ship. Dray turned back to Jordan and then kicked something at her feet. She looked down at the helmet the Vtaryn parent had left behind. She picked it up, and trotted back to the Cygna-major with Jordan at her side.
Dray stood alone in the new quarters that she and Jordan shared on Base Station Zenon and straightened out the sleeves on her new gray-blue dress uniform. They lived on a different level of the station now, far from the destroyed evac launch sites. Much of the station had changed in the few cycles they'd been away, but the most drastic change appeared when they'd first entered Zenon space behind the rescue ship. The boarder region was now heavily mined and required secure access codes to navigate the mine field that formed a protective layer around the base station. There were also four full fighter squadrons docked on Zenon at all times.
The new station commander had arranged a banquet for station personnel two cycles after Dray's group had returned. Dray scrutinized her appearance in the full length mirror as she prepared for the banquet. She'd pressed her new uniform and even visited the station barber to trim her short blond hair. She bent down to the low table at her side and picked up her new name tag. She placed it on the right side of her uniform, playing with it to make sure it was perfectly straight. Draybeck, S.C. it said. Senior Cadet. She smiled at herself. Malory had put in for a field promotion for her and Jordan.
She frowned. She hadn't seen Jordan since the noon meal. Her lover managed to slip out of their quarters earlier under the excuse that she was helping Jenny dress for the banquet. Dray shrugged at her image in the mirror and marched out of their quarters. She looked as good as she was going to.
When Dray opened the doors to the banquet hall, she was overcome by the delicious scent of the buffet tables lining the near wall. She hadn't eaten since lunch, but her priority was to find Jordan. She scanned the crowd, some lining the walls, some eating, and a good many dancing on the large open floor space in front of a live band. The new commander got bonus points for that touch, in Dray's mind. She walked around the periphery of the dance floor. She found Red standing by the side wall and joined him.
"Good evening, Senior Cadet," he said, smiling.
"Yeah, yeah. I feel like a poser."
"You earned your status, Dray. I've heard the story re-told so many times now, that it sometimes feels like I was there with you."
"Have you seen Jordan?" she asked, changing the subject.
"No, but if she looks as beautiful as you this evening, then I must beg for the honor of a dance with each of you."
"No guarantees," said Dray, laughing.
When Red's skin rippled a deeper orange, she felt a twinge of jealousy. She elbowed him in the ribs. "Who's got you getting all colored again?"
Red stared across the room and Dray followed his gaze. To her relief and amusement, she saw Venkata enter the hall. The massive Gilgaran scanned the crowd until she locked eyes with Red.
"You will excuse me?" said Red as he moved off.
"Have a good time," said Dray as he made his way through the throng to Venkata. She wondered briefly what sort of rainbow children they'd create, assuming their species could produce offspring.
She turned to her left and saw Jenny. The young woman's hair was pulled up into a loose bun, with tendrils of black hair curling around her ears. Definitely Jordan's touch, thought Dray. She watched for a moment as Malory Grace stepped up to Jenny. Dray could sense the junior pilot's uncertainty from across the dance floor. Jenny reached out and pulled Malory closer, whispering something in her ear that made the junior pilot's face turn red as she smiled.
Dray scanned the banquet hall in earnest. Jordan should be somewhere in the crowd by now. As the band started a slow beat instrumental, Dray found Jordan standing on the edge of the dance floor opposite her. Jordan's hair was similarly styled to Jenny's, her long black hair pulled up off a graceful neck. Jordan's eyes met Dray's and Dray felt her heart skip. She moved through the dancers as Jordan walked toward her. They met half way across the floor.
"You're beautiful," said Dray.
Jordan blushed. "So are you, Senior Cadet."
Dray laughed, looking down at the new name tag on Jordan's uniform. Bowers, S.C.
"Would you like to dance?" she asked.
Jordan slipped her arms over Dray's shoulders. "Oh yes."
Dray wrapped her arms around Jordan's thin waist and pulled her closer as they moved to the slow music. She sighed when Jordan's body pressed against hers, and Jordan lay her head on Dray's shoulder.
"I love you," Dray whispered.
Jordan lifted her head and gazed into Dray's eyes, smiling. She leaned in and placed a slow, lingering kiss on Dray's lips. When Jordan pulled back, tears glistened in her eyes. "I love you, too."
"Write to me," said Dray, handing Franklin a card with her cyber address on it.
"They'll censor anything important," he said, pocketing the card.
"You made the analogy once, about Vtaryns and bees."
Dray shook his hand. "Then teach me about bees, Franklin."
He held her hand for a heartbeat. "I will. Promise me you'll do something with that information."
"I will." Dray turned and left Franklin's holding cell, nodding at the military police on guard outside. She wanted nothing more than to collapse in the new quarters she and Jordan shared, to be wrapped in her lover's warm embrace. She took the express lift to the senior cadets' level and hurried down the corridor to their quarters. When she opened the door, Jordan waited for her in the small kitchenette.
"You're home," she said.
"Yes," said Dray, wrapping her arms around Jordan. "I am."