By: Frederick P. Kopetz

with note to the following:

STAR BLAZERS, SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO, and all related names and elements are copyright © 1999 by Leiji Matsumoto and Voyager Entertainment, Inc. Star Blazers is a registered trademark of Jupiter Films, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE: This story and its successors represent an Alternate Reality that may or may not coincide with the events portrayed in the STAR BLAZERS and SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO series and movies.

Thanks to Derek C. Wakefield for aid and assistance lent to this tale. All original concepts contained herein are copyright © 1999 by Frederick P. Kopetz.

Special Thanks to Gail R. Kopetz (FLUFFY!!!) for her aid and assistance (including chips, beer and sandwiches).

No Small Animals were harmed in the creation of this ATSF.



The Great Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Saturday, January 2, 2202

1102 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

Senior Lieutenant Jefferson Hardy sat cleaning out files in his office at Idlewild Space Naval Air Station when a knock came at the door.

"Come in," he said.

The door opened, and Hardy was pleasantly surprised when he saw a familiar figure standing there in standard blues with a few files under his arm. "Kyle!," laughed Hardy as the newcomer stood there greeting his old friend  Lieutenant Kyle Grant, an African-American pilot he had known since his days in the Space Fighters' Training School.

Hardy returned the salute, and then, just as quickly, ushered Kyle Grant into his office. "How have ya been?"

"Fine," replied Kyle

"Where were yuh durin' the past few weeks?," asked Hardy as Grant shut the door.

"Well, you know I was on TDY at Moonbase after I spent a tour on the Hermes during the conflict with the Cometines," said Kyle.

"..and I thought you bought it there," said Hardy. "What happened after that?"

"Well, not long before Saturn-Titan," said Kyle, "they reassigned me again. As a result, I was commanding a squadron in Australia for a few weeks, still on a TDY basis. What happened to YOU, my friend?"

"What do you mean....?"

"Well...I heard that you bought it in the attack on the Comet Empire City."

"I almost did," said Hardy. "I got pretty well messed up in that battle, just like Conroy did," said Hardy, referring to Pete Conroy. "Suffice it to say, I'm fine now, same as Conroy. What'cha doin' here?"

"Getting ready to assume command of a Super Starfighter squadron known as the Silver Dragons," said Kyle.

"No way!" laughed Hardy. "That means you've got some big shoes ta fill."

"Who was in command of this squadron before me?" asked Kyle.

"Wildstah," said Hardy. "It was on a TDY basis, natch."

Kyle looked around the office, noticing a squadron crest on the wall. "Let me guess, Jeff, you were in command of the Red Centaurs, right?"

"Yeah. Also on a TDY basis," said Hardy. "And, as yoah comin' in, ah'm gettin' ready to pull on out."

"Where are you being assigned, my friend?" asked Kyle.

"You'll find out when yuh get a look at the new make-up job on mah plane," said Hardy as he grabbed up his flight jacket. "Put down those folders and follow me to the hangar. "Then, we'll get some food and stuff and shoot the breeze for a while; just like old times, okay?" asked Hardy.

"Great," said Kyle with a nod. "Lead the way..."

A few minutes later, Grant and Hardy stood together in a hangar walking around several Astrofighters. Most seemed to be in the regular burnt orange and gold ground-based colors, but a few were still in the blue and gold colors standard for ships in the Fleet.

"This one's goin' back to the Akagi," said Hardy as they walked past a plane, "...and this one's gonna be assigned to one of those new space battleships when they finish it up later this month," he added. "And...over mine," added Hardy, pointing to a Type 2A whose gun emplacement was just about visible.

"Black?" muttered Kyle.

"Well, you'll see why in a minute," said Hardy, "...and then, I'm sure you'll also guess where ah'm gonna be reassigned next."

Hardy and Kyle walked around to the CT II, Type 2A with the visible black gun emplacement. Hardy smiled as he extended a hand, showing off the plane to Kyle, whose eyes bugged out a little as he got close to the plane.

Kyle recognized the make-up job well, because, after all, he too was a veteran of the Star Force, having commanded one of the Argo's two Super Starfighter squadrons during the Star Force's original mission to Iscandar.

The astrofighter was painted in a black, gold, and red make-up job that looked very similar to the make-up jobs applied to the old Black Tiger astrofighters of the Star Force during the Argo's original mission to Iscandar. The make-up job had to be varied a little in order to suit the different lines of the Cosmo Tiger II, but, all in all, Hardy's plane now looked very much like a Black Tiger.

"Guess that means you're going back to the Star Force," chuckled Kyle.

"I'd say that you're absolutely right," said another voice behind them.

At that, both men turned and saluted as Senior Lieutenant Peter Conroy, the Group Leader of the Argo's Black Tiger Group, came up behind them and returned the salute. Both men also noted that Conroy was wearing his black and gold Star Force uniform.

"It's been a while, sir," said Grant. "How have you been?"

"Let's just say I've been better," said Conroy. "When I was wounded fighting the Cometines, my wounds put me out of circulation for a while. I spent some time convalescing at Central Hospital and then spent a little more time resting at my new house after they let me out of the hospital at last on the 28th. But, well, I just passed my qualification physical this morning, and I've gotten my certification back. Took long enough," said Conroy as he leaned against a plane. "What's up with you guys?"

"Well, ah was on TDY here at the base as head of the Red Centaurs," said Hardy. "Mah job consisted of retraining' a whole group of former recon pilots to fly the Tiger II, Type 2A. Most of 'em were Starseeker pilots, and, with the exception of Nova, most of 'em weren't exactly... the top of the line, if you know what ah mean."

"Oh, grow UP, Jeff!" laughed Grant. "So, what else happened?"

"Well, Wildstah had a similar sort of job, namely, trainin' former Tiger pilots to fly Super Starfighters as part of those new emergency ground-based squadrons they're settin' up. We were in a trainin' exercise...raight around the time ah was supposed to begin movin' into the new house they gave me as a Star Force veteran, when the exercise turned too real."

"Yeah, I heard the Cometines jumped you guys," said Kyle.

Hardy nodded grimly.

"I heard the same thing," said Conroy. "How bad was it?"

"Well, both our squadrons lost some people," said Hardy. "In Wildstar's squadron, they lost someone named Wojenski, and in my squadron, we lost a pilot named Schaefer. But, both of us took out a lot of their planes and part of their task force. Problem is...we don't know when, or if, they'll be back. So, even though it was to be reassembled anyhow in order to train parts of a new crew, the Star Force is also bein' reformed..."

"That's in order to investigate the origin of this attack," said Conroy. "I know. Venture briefed me as soon as I got out. We're getting roughly half the trainees from both squadrons to help us fill out the ranks of the Tigers."

"And I'm getting the others to form the nucleus of a new ground-based Group," added Kyle.

"Who are you getting?" asked Conroy.

"So far, based on what I know of," said Kyle as he opened his folder to glance at a roster, "I'm getting Ensign Shin Takayama, Ensign Kristina Barrington, Ensign Domingo Sifontes, and a Junior Lieutenant Samantha Halleck. And, finally, last but not least, I'm being assigned an old shipmate of mine from the Hermes," said Kyle with a sly look on his face.

"Who?" asked Hardy.

"Well, she's female, and she's very good," said Kyle.

"Another one?" said Hardy. "Shoot, ain't we got enough of 'em?"

"Jefferson, I don't subscribe to the typical "This Man's Navy" bull like you do, and you darn well know that," said Kyle

"So, who's the pilot?" asked Hardy.

Conroy just shook his head and smiled as a striking young African-American woman with dark brown eyes and a natural mane of unruly hair came up. To Hardy's amazement, she looked just as confident and the rest of them, even in her female-pattern uniform. She immediately greeted Kyle with a hug and a smooch, following that up with a handshake for Conroy.

Hardy stood wide-eyed as he asked, "Who's this?"

"Jefferson, " said Kyle as he gallantly introduced the new arrival, I'd like you to meet Mrs. Keesha Grant, one of the best pilots I know, and..."

"...his wife, got it?," smiled Keesha.

"WIFE!" cried Conroy.

"SHOOT!" went Hardy. "Kyle...congratulations! When didja get married?"

"We were married in early September," said Keesha. "Kyle and I met at Ellington Field in Houston while he was serving with the Dragon Slayers and while I was serving with the Golden Eagles."

"And...Conroy, ya didn't tell me?" barked Hardy.

"Yeah, and what about ME, Keesha?" asked Conroy.

"Well," said Mrs. Grant chidingly. "It happened like this! Kyle and I only had a few days to get everything arranged before he had to report for duty at San Diego while I served with a Tiger scout squadron at Carswell. We got married in Fort Worth, at Carswell AFB the only chance we had. It was a little ceremony; we were both in uniform before the Base Chaplain, with some buddies as witnesses. Then, we went off to the Texas Hotel for a short but fun honeymoon," laughed Keesha devilishly as she looked longingly at Kyle.

"Then," said Kyle, "Keesha tried to call her parents but couldn't reach them, and I tried to call you but couldn't reach you on Moonbase. Then, what do you know, we find out on the vids the next day that the Star Force reunited and stole the Argo, and then we had to find out through the scuttlebutt grapevine that you guys skipped out at Moonbase to rejoin the Star Force. Is it true you guys made peace with the Gamilons, or is that more BS the government made up?"

"It's true," sighed Pete. "We made peace with the SOB's after Desslok got a change of heart and decided to be nice to Wildstar and Nova. He did give us some useful information, but, personally, I would've preferred it if the blue guy had repented before his planes torpedoed the Argo's lower hangar deck and killed a lot of our guys."

"Who bought it down there?" asked Kyle.

"A lot of guys from your old Super Starfighter squadron," said Hardy. "Melniker, Heath, Bainbridge, Baker...."

"...and Bob Muller," added Conroy. "Bob bought it when he was trying to climb into his Tiger and it fell right into the blast and took him with it. I still shiver when I think about how that guy died."

"Damn," said Kyle as Keesha held his hand tightly for a minute.

What Kyle thought, but wouldn't say out loud, was that he could've very easily joined his old buddies in the Choir Eternal at that very moment.

"So, where'd you guys spend your honeymoon?" asked Conroy, as another voice chimed in with, "Sir, would you tell me who these two mooshnik lovebirds are? Bozhe Moi! I thought I saw enough of that thing to last a lifetime at Captain Wildstar's wedding!"

"Oh," said Hardy as he turned around to the dark-haired, very serious-looking young woman. "Miss Lubyanska, this heah's Kyle Grant, the guy who kinda grew up with me, and, his wife, Missus Grant. Kyle, Keesha, this is Junior Lieutenant Tatiana Lubyanska, one of the heroes of the Battle of Denver. She brought down two planes in that battle..."

"And I wish I could've brought down more of them! What a battle it was! Better than training!," said Lubyanska spunkily.

"So where are you going to be assigned?" asked Keesha.

"The Star Force, where else?" said Tatiana.

"Congratulations," said Kyle, extending a hand. "I think you've earned it. The best of luck to you."

"Oh!!...thank you," said Miss Lubyanska as she shook hands with Kyle and then with Keesha. Tatiana was surprised, expecting more of the typical "Boys' Club" sort of mentality from Kyle, and she was glad to see that he didn't seem to have either a patronizing or impertinent attitude about her being a pilot.

Everyone was interrupted when they heard the loud, distorted notes of a cover version of Norwegian Wood coming out of a boombox being carried by someone. Hardy immediately groaned to himself when he recognized the newcomers, namely, Bryan and Angie Hartcliffe, bopping along arm-in-arm.

"Who's the village idiots?" whispered Keesha.

"'Ay, we've just 'eard!," said Hartcliffe. "We're both assigned to the big red and blue Noomber One!"

"Which I'd prefer to hear you refer to as the Argo, Mister Hartcliffe!" snapped Conroy. "You're both assigned?"

"Yes, both of us," said Angie.

"You're aware there is such a thing as Protocol Regulations, you two?" asked Conroy.

"I know. I can't touch 'er when we join the ship. So, I'm gonna do it now."

"Bryan, STOP it!" giggled Mrs. Hartcliffe as she slapped her amorous husband away.

Kyle came forward, clearing his throat. "Mister...Hartcliffe...that was?"

"Aye, sir," said Hartcliffe.

"I hope that you're aware that I don't paw my wife like that in public, Mister."

"She's yer wife?" asked Hartcliffe. "Shoot, mate, I thought she was yer sister."

"That's sir to you, Mister!" snapped Kyle. "As you should be aware of by a look at my collar, I outrank you, and this is still a military outfit! So, stow your crap!"

"Right," said Mister Hartcliffe, looking at the deck.

"Mister Hartcliffe," said Conroy. "I'm glad you're here. We're having a party at my house tonight to welcome you, Mrs. Hartcliffe, Miss Lubyanska, and the other new Black Tigers aboard. If you can act halfway decent, you're invited."

"Sir, we..."

"We accept," said Angie. "What's the address?"

Conroy withdrew a notepad from an inner pocket of his flight jacket and took out a pen. "My new place is at the end of Bannisters' Lane, the road a few kilometers east of the Inlet Wildlife Sanctuary Area by the ocean. I chose a place there because I always liked the surfing," he laughed. "See you two there."

"Thanks, sir," said Bryan as he looked hard at Kyle and Hardy. "C'mon, luv," he said to Angie. "Let's get goin'. I think we've got some things to do."

"Righto," said Mrs. Hartcliffe. "See you later, Tatiana."

"Good flying, Angelique," said Miss Lubyanska with a smile.

"Yeah, you too," laughed Angie as she and Hartcliffe left.

"Bozhe moi, what a bubblehead!" laughed Lubyanska when Bryan and Angie were out of sight and earshot.

"They got a waiver to serve together?" asked Hardy with disbelief.

"I'm not sure," said Conroy. "I'll have to check this one out myself. It's kinda hard to believe."

"You know, such things do exist," said Kyle.

"How wouldja know that, mah friend?" asked Hardy.

"Easy. We have one," said Kyle.

"Whaaaaat?" howled Hardy. "Who do you know on the Defense Council, Kyle? Or did yew two just say you were the Torolevs?" asked Kyle. He was referring to a famous and respected husband-and-wife team of explorers who had received permission from the old UN Space Defense Forces to explore much of the solar system working together as partners in one of the old survey ships in the last century before disappearing under mysterious circumstances while exploring the Pluto region. Several books and tri-v films had been made in the sixty years that had elapsed since their disappearance. "..or, did you guys just walk into Defense HQ and say you were Derek and Nova Wildstah?"

"Actually, it was none of those things," said Mrs. Grant. "We were serving together aboard the Hermes, but in separate groups. Kyle was part of the Red Rippers, the carrier's Astrofighter Group, while I was part of the Cosmo Rangers, the carrier's Scout/Astrofighter Group. The carrier's third group, the Executioners, was the carrier's torpedo plane group. We all served separately, until the carrier got attacked at Saturn-Titan. After we took a lot of losses, the CAG signed a waiver putting us together in the Red Rippers for a while until the ship came back to Earth. The same waiver stuck, and has carried on into the Red Centaurs."

"Besides," said Kyle, "...there have been a few waivers of that type. You just don't hear about them much."

"Well, ah wish that Mio Hoshiyama would join the defense forces and that we could get a waiver like that," said Hardy.

"Who's Mio Hoshiyama?" asked Kyle as both of them heard a set of footsteps approaching.

A moment later, a young woman with shoulder-length red hair and light brown eyes approached the group. She was dressed in the scarlet and black jumpsuit and white boots of the Ministry of Science Survey Corps; over that, she wore the distinctive dark black and purple dress peacoat of the Corps, which was similar in cut to the standard peacoat of an EDF junior officer but rather different in color, to say the least.

"Are you talking about me?" asked the newcomer softly.

"Mio!" cried Hardy in an elated voice as he greeted her with a light smooch. "Kyle, Keesha, Pete, ah'd like yuh to meet Survey Team Group Leaduh Doctor Mio Hoshiyama of the Ministry of Science Survey Corps."

"Pleased to meet you," said Pete.

"Likewise," said Kyle.

"If I may ask, what's your specialty?," asked Keesha.

"My specialties are Terrestrial Archaeology, Paleontology and Xeno-Archaeology," said Hoshiyama. "My pet project has been trying to discover who else occupied this solar system before we expanded out into it. We've developed some answers, but they aren't altogether conclusive. I'm hoping that I can find out some more when we get to Brumus and take up the work that the Dowling team had to stop when this mess with the Comet Empire began."

"You mean, you're goin' out at some point?" asked Hardy.

"Yes. They've authorized a limited-duration in and out exploration of Brumus with the Nicholas Torolev later this month. Basically, we're going in, getting a look-see at the physical evidence, and pulling out again in a week, all under cruiser and frigate escort, so we should be quite safe. I have some theories about the ancient civilization on Brumus that can only be confirmed by taking another quick look at the evidence. I understand you're going out again, too, Jeff."

"Yeah...and given what we're lookin' for, ah'm not so shure that it's a good idea for you to be goin' out, Mio," said Hardy.

"Why? Do you think there's still a danger from the Cometines? Wasn't that attack on Denver just a last gasp like they were saying?"

"We don't know," said Hardy grimly, while looking at Mio with some concern.

"If you don't mind," said Pete after an uncomfortable pause, "How'd you two get together? It seems that this isn't the only bit of news I've heard today."

" it all right?" said Hardy.

"Tell away, Jefferson," she said with a cute smile.

"Okay," said Hardy. "This is the story of how Mio Hoshiyama and I managed to get together. It was laike this..."

"On December the 12th, last yeah, ah was at a weddin' ceremony heah at the base Chapel. At that time, the two Hartcliffes were getting hitched in a ceremony that, as rumor had it, was somethin' of a shotgun weddin'. While ah was theh, this girl from Wildstar's trainin' squadron, Ensign Kristin Pawlings, tells me that this heah girl is interested in me. She tells me that a blind date's been arranged by heh on Wednesday, December 16, at 1900 hours at a set of coordinates she gave me in a note. When ah opened the note later on, ah found out that the meeting' place was Patsy's Italian Restaurant heah in the Megalopolis on Clearview Boulevard, and that theah, at exactly 1900, ah was to meet a girl with dark brown hair, who'd be wearin' a dark purple coat, denim skirt, and black boots. No further description given."

"So," continued Hardy, "on December 16, at 1855, ah arrived at the meetin' place. Theh, at 1900, a girl meetin' that description walks down the street. Ah kinda introduced myself by asking', "Excuse me, are you supposed to be heah now to meet someone?" She said, "Yes, I am."

Then, I asked, "Would this person happen ta be a pilot?" She replied, "Yes." Then, I said, with a bow, "Ma'am, Senior Lieutenant Jefferson Davis Hardy at yoah service."

"What happened then?" asked Keesha as Mio stood there with a slow smile building up.

"Then," continued Hardy, "she said, "I'm Doctor Mio Hoshiyama of the Ministry of Science, and I've been waiting for you, Jefferson Hardy. Shall we go inside for some lasagna and a talk?" At that, ah agreed. We went into Patsy's, got a table, and sat down to enjoy ourselves."

"What did you two talk about?" asked Conroy.

"The usual," said Mio. "I told him that I had heard a lot about him; I heard my friend Kristin knew him, and I thought maybe it'd be nice for us to get together. I told him a little about what I did, and he told me a lot about what he did. When he told me who was in the squadron he was training, I told him that I knew a few of those people but didn't elaborate. You see, I didn't want to tell him that I had flown with Pamela Daniels, Tania Carefay, Kristin Pawlings, and Nova Forrester in the past year. I also didn't wish to say I had spent a good deal of time working with Daniels and Forrester on digs in the South Pacific last year, some of which included living with them in tents for a few days running. I had quite a few interesting experiences myself, to say the least. I told him I hoped we'd get together again soon, telling him that I had a commitment I had just accepted around the holidays."

"As it turned out," continued Mio, "we had accepted the same commitment; namely, Honor Guard and bridesmaid duty at Nova Forrester's wedding. We found out that we were to work together when we met at the right church in Boulder on the evening on Wednesday December 23rd, a week later! There, we got to know each other just a little better. Jefferson was in his Star Force uniform and a flight jacket, and I was in a blue dress and boots. I think I must've attracted him so much that it went in one ear and out the other when I told him that my father was Commodore Hoshiyama. He liked it more when it turned out he was supposed to be my escort, but we were really embarrassed when Nova, standing there in a long white dress, tells us, "If any one of you want to kiss, do it under the mistletoe and bring us good luck...."

"Did you two kiss?" asked Kyle.

"None o' your business, bud!" laughed Jeff.

"Are you going to tell them about when we kissed?" asked Hoshiyama.

"Ahh...uhhh...err..." stammered Hardy.

"Yeah...tell us," said Keesha wickedly. "I'd really love to know where you two kissed the first time."

" was..." began Hardy.

"It was in the Forrester residence on Christmas Eve," said Hoshiyama softly. "The night began in church. You see, Nova and her mother had this idea that she wanted all of the bridal party to attend Midnight services with the family before we joined them at their house for a late-night Christmas Eve get-together. So, at about midnight, not the time I'm used to going to church at, I found myself sitting in a pew next to Jeff. I had another outfit on: this time, I was in a dark green dress, white blouse, and white pumps. Jefferson was in a black blazer with mustard-colored slacks, a white shirt, and a gold tie, and he was wearing a little Tiger pin that I thought was so cute!"

"Well, that holly sprig looked cute on you, too, Mio," said Hardy as she smiled and blushed a little.

"Well, may God forgive me," said Hoshiyama, "but, I spent more time at that service looking at Jefferson than at the rest of the service. Luckily, I didn't feel too bad; I wasn't the only one in that pew doing that."

"Who else was playing lovebirds in that pew with you?" asked Keesha with an evil glint in her eye.

"Wildstah and Nova," said Hardy with a chuckle. "But, almost no one noticed; they were really very decorous about it, mostly whispering to each other and holdin' hands throughout the service as they both read outta one of those hymnals together. They didn't notice Mio and I, but the girl next to us did."

"Who was that?" asked Kyle.

"Nova's cousin Jane," smiled Hoshiyama. "She was sitting next to us with Sandor; I don't know where Venture was. I got tapped a few times and reminded to get up at the right places. I kind of felt like I was five years old again," she joked, "especially when she whispered "behave yourselves!" as she went up behind Nova to get Communion later on. Of course, she didn't seem to notice, or mind, that her little cousin went up the aisle holding hands with her fiancée the whole time," giggled Mio.

"I don't think that too many people would expect anything different from a couple about to get married," said Conroy.

"Tell them about the mistletoe," prompted Hardy.

"Do we have to?" said Hoshiyama.

"You have to," said Kyle.

"Okay," continued Hoshiyama with a little sigh. "When we got to the Forrester residence at around 0100 on the 25th, the party was already in full swing. Nova's mother had ham, sandwiches, the whole nine yards, floating all over the place. It also seemed that a few people began opening their presents then. Everyone applauded like crazy when Wildstar, standing there in his Captain's outfit, opened up this present Nova gave him; this little snow-globe with a model of Denver in it, followed by this very expensive new wrist chronometer. When Nova opened up this necklace that Derek gave her, she squealed, and they hugged while he was putting it on her; she looked cute, being in this white dress with a scoop neckline, and pink pumps. Then, they got dragged over to the mistletoe by this doorway to kiss..."

"Who did the dragging?" asked Kyle.

"Nova's little cousin Kristin. She was already in her sleepers waiting for Santa Claus. After Derek and Nova kissed, I decided to give Jefferson a little hug, and then..."

"Then what?" asked Conroy as Mio blushed.

"Then, Nova saw us, winked at Wildstar, and gave Jefferson and I a little push under the mistletoe, and whispered, "kiss, you two!" at us."

"Then...?" asked Keesha.

"Then, ah got kissed!" said Hardy. "And, then, ah kissed back!" he laughed. "After that, we had some eggnog, and went off someplace private to kiss some more."

"Where'd you guys go?" said Kyle, not sure he'd like the sound of this.

"This white-paneled bedroom, with red hurricane lamps on the wall," said Mio. "It seemed very, very "girly" in there. There was this pretty, white four-postered bed, a picture of a butterfly on one wall, and a painting of a swan on another wall, and there was a white garment bag hanging near the closet. It looked like it had just been picked up that day. We hid out in there and smooched for a while until I told Jefferson he was getting a little too frisky for that night. So, we went downstairs to the rec room, and, we got two drinks from the bar down there, a bar that didn't seem to be quite in use at the moment. And, while we were down there, having the synthetic Tennessee bourbon Jefferson had picked out, we heard whispering and smooching. Jeff shushed me and went over to look!"

"And what did you see, Jeff?" sighed Kyle.

"Ah saw the door to this storage room open, and, ah happened to see Wildstah and Nova balanced on this step-stool near a shelf, smooching each other's lights out," chuckled Hardy. "Our intrepid Captain had his peacoat undone and his ascot all over the place, and Nova had her shoes off and was standin' there on tiptoes balanced on that stepstool. They had two Lionel train boxes o' recent vintage on the floor, but they shure weren't playin' with trains! That gave me some inspiration, so ah shushed Mio..."

"...and then, he kissed my lights out," smiled Hoshiyama. "After that, he decided we'd better get upstairs, so we got ourselves...back upstairs, before anyone noticed us. Five minutes later, Derek and Nova were back up, carrying their train boxes and looking just as neat as ever. Then, we got to know each other a bit better at the wedding, sharing more than a few dances and drinks, and, here we are, in the present."

"As she puts it, we're an item," said Hardy.

"Well, Keesha and I are a little more than just an item," said Kyle with a smile as he hugged her close.

"Know what ah have to say to you, Kyle Grant?" said Hardy.

"What?" asked Kyle as Pete and Keesha looked on smiling.

"You ah one lucky son of a gun, son!" laughed Hardy.

"Hey, do you guys all want to come to the party tonight?" asked Conroy.

Keesha and Kyle nodded, as did Hardy and Mio.

"Okay, great!," said Pete Conroy. "Let me give you guys the directions to my house..."



The Megalopolis

85 Bannisters' Lane

(Pete Conroy's Residence)

Saturday, January 2, 2202

2002 Hours-Spacetime

Jefferson Hardy and Mio Hoshiyama soon discovered that Pete Conroy lived in a large split-level house that was near the edge of several hills and a beach when they got to the end of Bannisters' Lane and found the last house, which was off by itself. It was a good thing that it was an isolated house, especially because a party was noisily in progress.

Hardy gallantly helped Mio out of his black aircar when it stopped. He was again in a black blazer, gold slacks, black boots, a white shirt, and, this time, a tiger-striped tie. Mio, on the other hand, had on a long navy-blue vinyl coat, white pullover, purple knee-length skirt, and matching purple sandals.

Nearby, there sat another black aircar trimmed in gold stripes. Out of it came Kyle Grant, who was wearing blues and a flight coat, accompanied by Keesha, who had on a black jacket, light-blue sweater, black suede miniskirt, and calf-high black boots.

"Hello," said Kyle as they both came up.

"Hi again, Kyle," said Hardy as he and Mio drew near. "You two ready to have a good time?"

"What does it look like?" laughed Kyle. Mio noticed, with a smile, that he never took his eyes off his wife for one minute as they approached the doorway and he gallantly opened the house door for her. Naturally, Mio didn't look at them for long, since her mind was on Hardy.

Hardy held the door open for Mio as Kyle helped Keesha out of her jacket and hung it in a hall closet. Inside, the music was louder, but things seemed to be under control.

Hardy noticed that Pete seemed to have a pretty good-sized house, or would have had a pretty good-sized house, if it wasn't so crowded. The living room, dining room, and kitchen area were co-joined, but on different terraced levels. The living room, in particular, was filled with people, many of them in very new-looking Star Force Flight Group uniforms. A Black Tiger crest hung prominently above the mantelpiece.

However, Hardy's heart dropped a little when the first person who walked towards them happened to be none other than Ryu Hoshiyama himself!

"Well, Jefferson," said Commodore Hoshiyama jovially. "I see you're in very, very good company tonight. Are you taking good care of him, Mio?"

"Well, he looks happy and well-fed, doesn't he?," laughed Doctor Hoshiyama.

"He'd better be," chuckled Ryu Hoshiyama. "He's a very important part of the festivities tonight as we welcome twenty-two new Tigers to our honored Group. This'll be the first time you've ever been to one of these celebrations, of course."

"There won't be twenty-two new ones here," said Conroy.

"There won't be?" asked Commodore Hoshiyama.

"Nope, there won't be," said Conroy as he rolled up his eyes. "There'll be...forty-two of them."

"Forty-two?" asked Ryu as some other pilots in Black Tiger uniforms bopped into the house in the background. "That's almost the entire Group! What happened to the rest of you?"

"Casualties," said Conroy as he bowed his head. "All told, there are now only nine Black Tiger veterans left, myself included."

"Who?" asked Ryu.

"Myself, Hardy, Buzz, Kyle Grant, Dan Garrett, Dave Packwood, Rory Pfeiffer, Pete Hammond, and Blake Stemmerman. And, three of them, namely, Grant, Garrett, and Stemmerman, aren't going out with us, because they've accepted commands on other vessels."

"Forty-two new Tigers," whistled Hoshiyama.

"We've used up a whole bottle of your blend just for them," said Conroy, who grinned a little as he realized that Doctor Hoshiyama had no idea what he was talking about.

"That means this is going be one of the crazier celebrations, I'll bet," chuckled Commodore Hoshiyama.

"'ve told me all about them," said Mio.

"Hardy," said Ryu conspiratorially as he looked towards Hardy, " look out for her tonight. And don't get any.... ideas, either. You and I both know that these initiations can get a little crazy at times."

"Initiation?" asked Doctor Hoshiyama. "You never put it in those terms before, Daddy."

"Mio, you're about to learn an important fact o' life tonight. No one, man nor woman, ever files as a Tiger without at some point in their lives receiving the initiation into the brotherhood. The Black Tigers have always been and always will be the tightest, most well-trained Flight Group in the entire Defense Forces. As one of their two founders, I can tell you that the Black Tigers have always been at the forefront of it all...ever since the day they were first founded in early 2199."

"To be part of the brotherhood, you have to think like us and act in accordance with us. The Black Tigers is the only flight Group that thinks that way, like an extended family. That's why it's unique. If you decide to date a Tiger, you'll find you've got someone special, but you'll also find that you've got yourself  a mighty challenge on your hands."

"I think...I'm beginning to learn that...but I'm up to it," said Doctor Hoshiyama bravely.

"Good. Mio, make your father  proud, and remember everything I taught you."

"I sure will," said Mio.

"Hardy..." said Ryu as he drew Jefferson away in a friendly fashion for a moment. "Congratulations, so far. Remember your training, though. You don't always have to take the offensive, and you don't need to share more than the customary libation tonight...especially...tonight," said Ryu with careful emphasis.

"Things'll get a bit...rough tonight. You bloody well know that. When the time's right, jink outta here on full military turboburners, and get your old instructor's daughter home in one piece, got it? No one'll say a thing about it. I shall make sure of it." said Ryu with a smile.

"Aye, aye, sir," said Hardy with a respectful expression.

Well, thought Hardy. We'll have to party like mad some other time, I guess. Nothin' else to be done for it. Gotta listen to the Old Man, regardless...

In the meantime, Kyle Grant looked on with some degree of distaste as Bryan Hartcliffe (in a new Tiger uniform) and Angie Hartcliffe (in a female Tiger uniform with her boots stripped off and thrown somewhere) sat at a nice, new piano with drinks bopping away and singing loud, obscene versions of current hits, surrounded by quite a few new Tigers.

"Now, you wanna know how bloody tough I am?" he bellowed. "I'm too tough and too frisky for me shirt! I'm a love machine and a bloody flyin' machine and a rock and roll fool! Man, ah'm so tough, that I ain't scared o' nuthin! When the Cometines came up me butt once, twice, three times, I wasn't scared! How many o' you people are still cherry, like, y'know, in terms o'combat, man?"

About ten or twelve hands went up.

"Well, you people have got a lot to learn!" bellowed Hartcliffe. "Why, Angie and I know more than most of all of you! Even some of you old hands don't have the fire we've got!"

Yeah, right, thought Kyle in silence with an annoyed look as he shook his head. Mister, I've been doing this for much longer than you've ever been. You're as green as the rest of  them...

Hartcliffe noticed Kyle' s look of disgust and snapped, "Mate, what the 'ell do you know about combat and trashing stuff?"

"More than you'll ever know," said Kyle in a low and somewhat nauseated voice. "I was with the Star Force when you were still a midshipman, my friend."

"Yer callin' me dumb?" snapped Bryan Hartcliffe as he banged out a loud, long chord.

"You said it...I didn't," said Kyle.

"Bryan, like, cool it!" snapped Angie Hartcliffe.

"And...yer better than me?," asked Bryan.

" least I'm a real veteran," said Kyle with a little more heat. "Unlike you."

"And what's that yer insinuati...MMMMMPPPHH!!!" said Hartcliffe as a feminine hand went over his mouth.

"I'm sorry, sir," said Mrs. Hartcliffe in a very serious tone. "I'm afraid that he sometimes goes off the deep end a bit."

"MMMMMPPPHHHMMMMMMMMPPHHNH Ya bloody..!" gurgled Bryan in strangled tones as he tried to struggle away, but was kept firmly in his place by Angie as she hooked her long legs around him and hooked her toes over the far edge of the long padded piano stool for good measure. Mister Bryan Hartcliffe now looked totally ridiculous.

"Well, you said at least one thing right; you're sure a rock and roll fool! I think we'll talk another time, Mister," said Kyle with a smile. "Then, we'll see more of what you're really like without a crowd of Ensigns to listed to your exaggerated exploits. C'mon, Keesha," said Kyle Grant in a calm voice. "Let's not let him crash and burn too hard, now."

"He's more than crashed and burned," said Mrs. Grant. "He's crashed, burned, and been turned into a crispy critter by the heat of his own fire," she said with a smile.

With that comment, they ignored Bryan.

After a while, Hardy and Conroy turned to Paul Rosstowski, who had also been invited to the party. He was quiet, having a beer in a corner in the kitchen.

"Enjoying yourself?" asked Conroy.

"Yes and no," sighed Rosstowski.

"Whatcha mean by that?" asked Hardy.

"Yes, I'm enjoying myself because I like hanging out with you guys and remembering the old days," said Paul. "No, because I don't really fit in here with the rest of you pilots."

"C'mon, Paul," said Hardy. "You know yoah heah because you were once one o' us."

"For one mission?" said Rosstowski. "A mission that was a fiasco? A mission in which I slammed one of those Black Tigers into the deck like a stinking pancake?"

"Ah did that once, too" said Hardy. "You know what they say. Any landing you can walk away from..."

" a good one," sighed Rosstowski. "Okay. I was lucky. Out of four of those enlisted boat pilots from Combat that you, Conroy, and Avatar tried to make into fighter pilots in a few days so that we would have more fighter cover around the ship at Rainbow Galaxy, I was one of the two that came back. When I saw what happened to Farrell and Jackson that day, and when I almost became a pancake after a stray Gamilon got off a potshot that screwed up one of my wings, I swore you'd never get me into one of those things again!"

"But you know, out of all of them, you're the only one who racked up kills," said Conroy. "You did darn good."

"Yeah, I guess I did. But can you blame me for feeling more secure behind armor plate?"

"Guess not," said Conroy.

Hardy slapped Rosstowski on the back and said, "Ah still think you should think about flight school one o' these days, son. May help yoah career."

"Yeah, sure," said Rosstowski.

"Well, looks laike a reunion of the old Tigers!" yelled Hardy as he grabbed someone by the arm and dragged him over. "Paul, ah'm sure you know Kyle Grant, right?"

"Yeah...we've met," said Rosstowski.

"How have you been?" said Kyle Grant.

"Fine," said Paul with a somewhat wan smile. "Who's your significant other?"

"Keesha Grant," said Keesha as she shook hands with Rosstowski. "I've heard a lot about you from Kyle."

"So, you're an officer now?" asked Kyle.

"Yeah," said Rosstowski. "Battlefield commission. It''s a long story."

"Did I overhear someone saying you were thinking about flight school?" asked Keesha innocently.

"You must've misheard it," said Paul softly. "I'm a gunner," snapped Paul, with some emphasis on the word 'gunner'. "I've flown different ships, but they were mostly boats. I had a few training flights in one of the old Black Tigers and one mission, which was a fiasco, at Rainbow Galaxy with the Star Force."

"Actually, he did quite alright," said Kyle with a little smile. "Didn't you, Paul?"

"Yeah, right," said Paul with a sickly grin. "Next thing you know, you guys'll be sticking people like Nova Wildstar in fighters."

"You didn't heah? Because of the retraining' regimen transferring' people from flyin' Type 100's to Type 2A Tigers, we hadda do just that!" said Hardy. "I had her in my trainin' squadron during December, and Mrs. Wildstar wasn't half bad, either, even in combat!"

"Combat?" said Rosstowski with a raised eyebrow. "She didn't tell me about that at her wedding."

"The battle of Denver," said Conroy. "You mean she didn't tell you?"

"I just said no," said Rosstowski. "Never came up in any of the conversations I had with her."

"What never came up?" asked a New York-accented voice behind them.

"Venture!" said Conroy. "Glad you could make it."

"Well, I'm just here because you needed the Argo's new Deputy Captain here tonight," chuckled Mark, who quickly cast his eyes downwards.

"And ah'm glad you came, son," said a strongly-accented voice from Venture's right. "We need you here tonight to help us initiate forty-two new Tigers into the Group!"

"Good evening, sir," said Venture as he stood up and saluted Ryu Hoshiyama, followed by Rosstowski, Kyle and Keesha, and all of the others who were nearby.

"Sit down," chuckled Commodore Hoshiyama. "You people should know you aren't exactly in Earth Defense Headquarters. I trust you have the libations ready?"

"Yessir, both of them. They're in the alcove, back there, on a cart."

"Great. We can have some Ensign push the cart out at a fitting point during the party. Havin' a good time?"

"'s a little tough being a host all on my own, though."

"Like I haven't helped?" asked Keesha in a tart voice.

"Well, you have, but, I mean, I had to plan all this out myself, and"

"I think you're just trying' to say it's a little tough being unattached and all alone in a new place, Conroy?," asked Commodore Hoshiyama helpfully.

"Yeah. A place that forty-two new pilots and their dates are turning into a major mess," chuckled Conroy as some discordant notes came from the piano in the other room.

"Damn," muttered Hoshiyama. "Looks like we'd better get them in order before they wreck your place, Mister."

"How would you do that, sir?" asked Conroy, who felt very stupid as Hoshiyama chuckled, "Begin the ceremonies, of course."

Then, Ryu Hoshiyama could be heard across the house, calling out, "All new Tigers, get into the living room at once! I believe we have a ceremony to perform!"

"What's going on?" asked Keesha as she looked towards Kyle.

"Didn't you hear about this in the Fleet?" asked Kyle.

"I...don't think I did," said Keesha.

"It's easy," said Hardy as he stood up. "They're about t' be initiated into the ranks of the Black Tigers...raight, Pete?"

Conroy, nodded, smiling to himself as he and Hardy went into the living room, where Venture and Hoshiyama were gathering up the forty-two new Tigers present in four ranks of ten before the mantel with the Black Tiger crest as they stood talking for a moment. Conroy, Hardy, Buzz, and Kyle Grant joined the others up front as the room gradually turned quiet.

Hardy, aware of what was going on, noticed that Tatiana Lubyanska was at the very front of the group, looking both tight and professional in her new Tiger uniform as she stood next to Laurel Hartmann. Apparently, they were starting to become friends.

"Gentlemen...and ladies," began Conroy. "It is my pleasure to introduce to you the squadron leaders who will lead us during this mission. I will once again lead the Group, as well as the first fighter squadron. Mister Jefferson Hardy will be in command of the second fighter squadron, and Buzz Rutherford will be in command of our third squadron, namely the first strike-fighter squadron. If he were available, Kyle Grant would have been in command of the fourth squadron, which is now a scout/recon squadron. However, since he has been assigned to lead a ground-based Super Starfighter Group, namely, the Silver Dragons, which some of you are veterans of, we have had to name a replacement. That replacement is a veteran of  the Denver Incident and a top-flight pilot. May I introduce to you the new leader of our scout/recon squadron, Miss Tatiana Lubyanska."

Tatiana stepped forward and nodded to everyone as some cheered and applauded, some stood in silence, and some (all of whom Lubyanska noticed with distaste were male) blew wolf-whistles, catcalls, and other rude noises, including a few boos.

Someone even had the nerve to mutter, "We're smeggin' dead, man!"

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," snapped Lubyanska authoritatively over a few more soft hisses.

"All right, now," said Venture as he stood front and center and signalled for quiet. "As you know, Commodore Hoshiyama has recently been promoted to a Fleet command as part of the rebuilding of the Defense Forces. It is my pleasure to inform you that in less than a week from now, on the eighth of January, he will be assuming command of the fourth new Andromeda-class space battleship to come off the ways; namely, the new space battleship Perseus. In recognition of that occasion, as well as in recognition of our absent ...and well...preoccupied... Captain," stammered Venture as several pilots guffawed, "and other absent comrades, as well as to the success of our upcoming mission, we will drink a toast in Bourbon whiskey before the initiation of the new members of the Black Tigers."

Conroy nodded, and, apparently, by pre-arrangement, a quiet-looking, curly-haired new Tiger known as Ensign Brandybuck came out of the ranks and went into the kitchen.

Soon, he was coming up the short rampway with a cart covered with shot glasses on both shelves. The shot glasses on the upper level were half-full, each filled with a dark golden-brown liquor that the more experienced pilots recognized as good Tennessee Bourbon as it was handed out to each of them. The lower shelf looked a little more disappointing; it was covered with shot glasses that looked to be filled with a slightly golden-colored fluid.

Soon, among the mutters and guffaws of a few of the pilots, Brandybuck took his place back in ranks when everything was done and all the Tigers, both old and new, had shot glasses, along with Ryu Hoshiyama and Mark Venture.

"And now," began Venture, "A Commodore Hoshiyama and the crew of the Perseus, as well as to absent friends, and the success of our own upcoming mission...cheers!"

"Cheers!" bellowed out the new Tigers as they held up their glasses. Then, following Venture's lead, they all drank.

Some of the older pilots took the strong whiskey in stride, but some grimaced, and some even made grotesque noises as they drank, to the hoots and guffaws of many of the others. As she glanced back into the ranks, Laurel Hartmann noticed with distaste that three of the pilots were pointing and laughing at some of those were grimacing. The offenders were Hartcliffe, his crony Ensign Jason "Jock" Jablonski, and their mutual friend Ensign Shigeru Sakamoto.

"Now, for the main event," muttered Hoshiyama.

"Is that what I think it is?," asked Buzz Rutherford with a satisfied grin as he looked at the cart. "The infamous Gekkikan Imperial brew?"

"It is, son," muttered Hoshiyama.

"Uh-oh," said Venture. "Uh, offense, but I'm not sure I want to stay all that much longer."

"Why not?" asked Pete with some concern.

"Sir, is that some of your infamous sake from Great Island?" asked Venture.

"It is, son. But you're not a Tiger. You don't have to imbibe if you'd rather not," said Commodore Hoshiyama helpfully in a low voice.

"It's not that," said Venture. "Even though...well...I'd rather not imbibe."

"Well, then, what is it, Venture?" asked Hardy. "Scared, suh?"

"Hardy, stow it" said Venture in a low but dangerous-sounding voice. "It's personal, all right? I've just had my brain scrambled enough by the events of the past few weeks. I'd rather not make it any worse by taking some of that junk Wildstar once made me drink on a dare on a beach on Iscandar, all right?"

"Oh," said Buzz. "Sir, is that the time Nova found you two passed out on a beach and had to throw water on both of you to...?"

"That's right," said Venture with a slightly cockeyed grin as Brandybuck began to take the cart around again to some very puzzled-looking new Tigers. "And, well, Commodore, Conroy, Hardy...once is enough for me. I'd rather not imbibe again, or see what'll happen when they imbibe. Sorry I snapped at you, Hardy. I think I want to leave. My head's...just not in this tonight."

Hardy nodded, and then, Conroy said, "Shall I show you out?"

"No, I can get my coat and head out myself," sighed Venture. "I did my part. Sorry I don't feel like staying longer. Good night, everyone."

"Very well. Good night, Commander," said Ryu Hoshiyama quietly as he shook Mark's hand. Venture exchanged salutes with him and the others, and he quietly slipped out of the house.

"Wonder what that's about?" asked Hardy.

"Jefferson," said Hoshiyama with a strong but firm hand on Hardy's shoulder. "You don't argue with a man's motives when he's just suffered a major loss, nor do you question a man in that place. Someday, son, you'll be in his shoes, if you aren't already. When a man's in that state, you let him mourn in any way he sees fit. All right?"

"Right, sir," said Hardy with a sheepish look on his face. He noticed that Mio was giving him a slightly dirty look.

"Now, back to our festivities," said Hoshiyama with a grin as he took his shot glass and took his place in front of the group.

"Uh oh," muttered Buzz. "Pete, I think I know what's up. Y'guys ever hear that story about what happened after I graduated from the Space Fighters' Training School and was selected for the Star Force?"

"Yes, we heard," said Kyle Grant quietly as he rolled up his eyes.

"You mean the night the Commodore said we were finally real fighter pilots? The night when he fed us our libations?" asked Pete.

"Youah talkin' about that party that it took you two days to recover from, Pete?" jibed Hardy.

"Hush," whispered Mio in an annoyed tone. "Daddy's ready to talk to them now."

"Gentlemen...and ladies," said Hoshiyama. "Now that we've concluded the formalities with your Deputy Captain, we're now ready to commence your initiation into the brotherhood. The Black Tigers are a team. They've been a team since Captain Avatar and I founded the group a while ago before the Argo, then called the Yamato, was even finished, and they're still a team now. To be part of the team, you have to prove your mettle by having an excellent record, even though I am told that in the case of a few of you, we were forced to overlook a few blemishes here and there," said Hoshiyama as a few people chuckled. Not many did because of the sense of awe and respect that hung around the old veteran.

"At some point, as you may have heard, I have one last test that I expect every Tiger to pass, regardless of whether I'm actually around to see it or not."

Hoshiyama paused as he looked at what were soon to be, in actuality and in spirit, "his" Tigers, and said, "Long ago, on Great Island, my family had a tradition of taking the best sake of the day and, well, enhancing it by adding ingredients made by my ancestors from the year's crop. For ages, members of my family have consumed this blend before going into battle. When the Tigers were first deployed I extended the custom to all in the Group. "

Hoshiyama paused again as he said, "Now, let's drink this, my special blend, to the Black Tigers, and a successful mission!"

"To the Tigers and a successful mission!," barked back the new Tigers.

At that, Hoshiyama drained his shot glass.

The others followed, gasping as they drank the strong brew.

Even with the small quantity, quite a few of the new Tigers gagged. Tears came to every eye there, and they all gasped in pain and shock as the pungent sake burned its way down their throats like white fire. As everyone, veterans and newbies alike, stood recovering from the experience, ragged applause began, followed by bursts of full applause and hoarse cheering as the brew began to loosen their inhibitions.

Soon, all forty-eight members of the newest incarnation of the Black Tigers were cheering and whooping as hugs, backslaps, high-fives, and handshakes were exchanged between the veterans and the newbies, now all one brotherhood in spirit, if not in actual fact, since Ryu Hoshiyama knew the real test would come when they were on the Argo and the Group flew out in force for the first time against the enemy. But, as he looked at the new Tigers, he had no doubts that they would pass...when the fighting and the dying began.

He smiled to himself as the party got back into swing. As the group broke up, Ryu Hoshiyama turned to Conroy and said, "Now, it'll really start."

"I'm quite aware of that. Eventually, of course, they'll chill out sometime..."

"For now, let them have their fun. They've earned it, and they'll need the chance to unwind before they land on that red and blue battleship for the first time."

"They sure will," sighed Conroy.

Conroy noticed that Hardy and Mio were talking a few meters away, their dispute apparently settled. What they were saying was inaudible over the noise and suddenly renewed music as someone found a stereo and turned it on, making sure it was up loud.

A moment later, they came up to Commodore Hoshiyama and Hardy said, "Suh, if it's okay with you, Mio and I have decided to leave in about a half hour as soon as I say goodbye to my friends."

"We're going somewhere quiet to eat," added Doctor Hoshiyama. "We've both observed that it seems to be getting a bit..."

"...crazy" chuckled Ryu. "I'd say that's excellent command judgment on both of your parts. I'll be heading out in a while myself. Take your time, Hardy. Make sure..."

"...the brew wears off, right?," smiled Hardy as Mio smiled back.

Hoshiyama nodded. "Wise choice, Mister. And mind the punch; it's reeking with enhancements I don't even care to think about."

"Oh believe me, ah know that," smiled Hardy. "Ah know that..."



The Megalopolis

85 Bannisters' Lane

(Pete Conroy's Residence)

Sunday, January 3, 2202

0102 Hours

Later that night, after Hardy left, Ensign Paul Rosstowski was trying in vain to find a quiet spot in the Conroy residence as he noticed someone playing the piano discordantly in the next room.

"What's going on?" he asked as Conroy came into the kitchen.

"Easy," said Conroy. "The older and more responsible pilots have already left, so I have to deal with calming down some of these crazy young Ensigns."

"I'm an Ensign, sir," chuckled Rosstowski. "I take it you want me to leave."

"He didn't mean you," said Kyle Grant as he came into the room, followed by Tatiana Lubyanska and Laurel Hartmann. "You're a veteran, Rosstowski. I think he was talking about all these crazy graduates we have running around."

"Some of them are really out of it," said Rosstowski. "I hope they've got designated drivers."

"They don't," smiled Conroy with a rueful grin. "I made a few of them give up their aircar keys, and steeled myself for some unwelcome guests."

"Which won't include Keesha and I," said Kyle. "We were getting ready to leave."

"So, where IS Keesha?" asked Conroy.

"The head."

"Good explanation," said Conroy. "At least she's safe from this bunch in there."

"You can say that again," said Laurel. "There's a few pilots in there that are absolute perverts."

"Like who?" asked Conroy.

"Jablonski, Sakamoto, and his buddies, and especially that stupid Brit..."

At that, everyone's ears perked up as they heard Bryan Hartcliffe yelling like crazy. "AY! Let's play some American style football, eh? Not British style, ah mean American! C'mon, lads! Where's the center? Where's the ball?"

"Ball?" asked Tatiana.

"One of those idiots must've brought a football," sighed Conroy. "If they wanna do that, they can go outside, and..."

As Conroy began to go in, Kyle' s blood froze as he heard Keesha screaming.

Kyle ran in just in time to notice Keesha on her knees, kicking back towards Hartcliffe as he made a grab at her, yelling, "Where's the ball? Where's the bloody signals? Hike it, ya dumb broad, hike it!"

"You creep!" yelled Keesha. "Keep your hands OFF me! Sakamoto, get out of the way!" she snapped as she tried to reach for a table and Sakamoto blocked her path. "HEY!"

"Serves ya right," said an obviously inebriated Shigeru Sakamoto. "Little girls shouldn't be playin' boys' games! Why don'tcha go the heck home and play with dolls?"

"Where's the ball, luv?" chuckled Hartcliffe as he grabbed at Keesha again with his left hand. "Is it up 'ere?" he said, twisting his right hand a little.

Hartcliffe never got to finish his second grope, since, before he knew it, Kyle Grant waded in, shoving Sakamoto into the endtable with all of his might. He didn't care where Sakamoto landed because a bare moment later, Kyle let loose with a full punch right in Mister Hartcliffe's mouth.

"Kyle!" yelled Keesha. "You don't have to kill him! Kyle!" she screamed.

Kyle totally ignored his spouse for the moment as Hartcliffe tumbled across the room like a sack of onions. Mister Grant reached down, grabbed the stunned and bleeding pilot by the shirt, and snarled, "What did you think you were doing, Mister?"

"Playin' football?" muttered Bryan. "I thought the dumb bird had the ball, man. I didn't know she was yer wife..."

"Shut UP!" bellowed Kyle as he threw Hartcliffe against a wall to batter him again. But, before his punch landed, Bryan ducked, and pistoned out with his boots, causing Kyle to stagger for a moment as he caught a blow in the shins.

Hartcliffe took advantage of the delay to throw a right at Kyle's head. Grant snapped his head to the left, but still caught a little of the blow, responding with a left to Hartcliffe's stomach.

Hartcliffe fell to his knees with the wind knocked out of him as Kyle reached down and pummeled Bryan in the face twice. Both blows drew blood as the inside of Hartcliffe's mouth was cut, and then as the outside of his face was both cut and bruised.

The third blow, which would have shattered Hartcliffe's nose like a tomato, never quite landed, because someone came up behind Kyle, grabbed his arms, and pulled him off Hartcliffe.

Grant turned around just in time to notice that Keesha, Laurel Hartmann, and Paul Rosstowski had pulled him off Hartcliffe. Looking up, he noticed that Bryan Hartcliffe was being held back by Angie, Tatiana Lubyanska, and "Jock" Jablonksi.

Bryan Hartcliffe glared at Kyle, bellowing, "Let me GO! I'll kill that smeggin' piece of Yank in a minute if y' give me a fair shot!"

"Yeah?" barked Kyle. "You and what army? No one touches my wife like that and gets up to tell about it!"

"Kyle!" barked Keesha. "That's enough!"

"But, Keesha..."

"You heard me!" snapped Mrs. Grant.

Conroy and Buzz came in just a moment later, and almost the entire room snapped to attention. "All right," snapped Conroy. "What just went on in here?"

"Let me explain," said Kyle Grant. "C'mon, you guys, let me go!"

"I won't let you go until you promise me you won't start anything else with him," said Keesha.

"Keesha...he groped you..."

"I can take care of myself in those situations," snapped Keesha. "I don't need you committing manslaughter on my behalf, Kyle!"

"All right, I won't do anything else to the dishonorable jerk," snapped Kyle.

"What the hell did you just call me, Yank?" snapped Bryan Hartcliffe.

"I'm not a Yank! If you say one more thing," snarled Kyle.

"Both of you, stow it!" snapped Conroy. "Now, what happened?"

"Conroy," said Mister Grant. "Well, it was like this. I heard Keesha yelling, and I found that pervert groping at her from behind while he was pretending to play football with her. After he kept on putting his paws where they didn't belong, I reached in to stop it, and."

"I could've taken care of him myself!" protested Keesha. "Another second, and I would've given him a good shot where the sun doesn't shine..."

"Yeah, and I woulda broken yer neck," snarled Hartcliffe. "It was only a joke; a smeggin' game! I didn't know it was Mrs. Grant from the back!"

"Yeah, sure," said Keesha. "Any other females running around with my hairdo?" she snapped as she pushed her natural back into place.

"You admit it, then?" asked Conroy.

"Yeah, I was just playin' around, sir!"

"Sir," said Sakamoto.

"What?" asked Conroy.

"It was an accident, sir. I think Mrs. Grant and Mister Grant are blowing this all out of proportion, sir. Just goes to show you what'd happen to the Tigers once we began accepting females."

"What I think of that is irrelevant, Mister," said Conroy. "It should be the same for you. Mister Hartcliffe. Get up, shake hands with Mister and Mrs. Grant, and apologize!"

"Sir, do I..."

"DO it!" snapped Conroy.

"Yessir," said Hartcliffe, who walked towards Kyle and Keesha. "Sir, my apologies..."

"Yeah, sure, turkey!" said Kyle as he took Hartcliffe's hand once, squeezed it hard, and dropped it. "You just keep out of my sight, and hers, in the future, Mister."

"Right," said Hartcliffe. "Mrs. Grant..."

Keesha took his hand, shook it, and then withdrew it, refusing to say a single thing to Hartcliffe.

"I've apologized, sir," said Hartcliffe.

"Mrs. Hartcliffe," said Conroy. "Take your husband, get out of this house ASAP, and remind him this'd better be the last problem he ever causes while he's under my command."

"Yessir," said Angie. "We just have to gather up my boots and other things. C'mon, Bryan."

At that, she led him out of the room. Laurel looked at Sakamoto and said, "What was that you said about female pilots, Ensign?"

"Nothing, ma'am," he lied, aware by now that Hartmann was a superior.

"Good. We'll be serving together, so you'd better keep it that way," said Laurel as she walked out of the room with a fiery glance towards Shigeru and his friends as the party cautiously began to start up again.

"Kyle, Keesha," said Conroy. "Come in here a minute..."

"Right," said Grant, nodding to his spouse.

When they were seated in the kitchen, Conroy said, "Either of you want a drink?"

"No, we have a bit of a drive back to the base," said Kyle.

"Okay," said Conroy as Paul and Buzz sat down. "Kyle," he began. "I've known you a long time, and I've known how you are about honor..."

"What's wrong with honor?" said Grant.

"Kyle, honor is fine, but you can go a little far in defending it," said Keesha.

" know where he had his hands...!"

"So?" she retorted. "In this fleet, gentlemen, that's nothing new! Most females that I've known can recite tales like that, as well as even worse."

"But it's not right," muttered Kyle.

"That's right, it's not," said Keesha. "It's disgusting, as a matter of fact. But I don't aim to commit manslaughter because of it. And you don't have to, either."

"But I'd..." said Kyle, who was shushed by Conroy.

"But you don't," said Conroy.

"Pete..." protested Kyle.

"Kyle...let me give you a little bit of advice, since I had her in a class when I was training people in late 2200 at the Space Fighters' Training School after we got back. If you stand up for her, she's gonna get ticked off. If you don't stand up for her, she's gonna get even more annoyed."

"If I don't stand up for her...?"

"I would've liked it even less," snapped Keesha.

"So what do I do?"

"Learn to live with it," said Conroy. "That's all you can do."

"Look at the bright side, Kyle, " said Rosstowski. "After all...they always say a little mystery adds spice to a marriage, right?"

"Oh, trust me,'s not the spice I'm worried about. It's those chili pods in the chili mix I keep biting into that bother me."

Everyone laughed except Keesha, who sat there glowering at Kyle. "So, I'm a chili pod?"

"I didn't say it, Keesha. He did."

"You still laughed. That's strike two, Kyle."

"Oh, Geez," muttered Kyle.

"See? I've come to learn that she can take care of herself, even though I don't like the situation much," said Conroy. "And, you know, this isn't the first time I've seen something like this happen. During our trip to Telezart, I wanted to take apart some Space Marines once because they were being very disrespectful to Miss Forrester after they wrecked the messhall on her account."

"Did you?" said Kyle.

"Luckily, as it turned out, I didn't."

"Why not?" asked Kyle.

"Nova had enough brains to defuse the situation  herself by telling all of us to chill out and clean up the mess, that's why," said Conroy. "That's the first time I began to really notice that these females can really take care of themselves in the Fleet..."

"Good for you," smiled Keesha.

"Even though I don't quite agree with them being here," said Conroy.

"And why not?" asked Keesha.

"I do feel this is a man's job."

"So, what would you do?" challenged Keesha. "Let the Bryan Hartcliffes and Shigeru Sakamotos of this world make it miserable for us?"

"No, even though it's against my personal feelings on the matter."

"Why not?" asked Keesha.

"So far, you females seem to have sort of proven you can look after yourselves...and hell...even fight a battle or two in astrofighters, and because the regs say I have to keep things fair and square in my Group. As long as I command the Black Tigers, everyone's gonna get a fair shake, aside from how I feel about it."

"How do you feel about it, sir?" challenged Miss Lubyanska.

"Okay. You've got that uniform and you've got a few medals, even though I personally think you should either be home...or in a non-combatant post, out of direct danger."

"Sir, in case you haven't noticed, even Type 100 pilots have been shot at every now and then," said Lubyanska. "That's why they've put recon pilots in Tigers, even in the case of Living Officers!"

"And..." said Keesha.


"Sir," said Keesha. "Everyone on a warship is in danger, no matter what they do."

"But we have a special kind of danger to face," said Conroy.

"Mrs. Grant's done a very good job of facing that sort of danger to date," said Kyle. "We've fought together...even though I haven't quite agreed with it, either."

"Not you too!" snapped Keesha, who took a drink as Kyle stared at her for a moment.

"Yes, me too," said Kyle.

"Why? Are you like Sakamoto?" grinned Keesha.

"No, I'm your husband," grinned back Kyle. "Most husbands feel that way about their wives in the Fleet."

"Really?" said Keesha.

"I happen to know Wildstar feels that way about Mrs. Wildstar," said Conroy.

"What about Mister and Mrs. Hartcliffe?" said Keesha. "I didn't see that little piece of scum looking out for the honor of his wife tonight."

"Keesha, I'd prefer you not mention his name in my presence tonight," said Kyle.

"Why? Afraid he might come out of a closet and grope me again?" smiled Keesha. "If he did, Kyle, be assured...he'd find out what my boot feels like being bashed into his crotch. Nonetheless, thank you for being honorable on my behalf. Just don't go to the edge of deadly assault next time, all right?" she grinned, extending a leg out towards Kyle for a moment. "C'mon, Kyle. Have another beer."

"But..." said Kyle.

"Shut up and drink, " smiled Keesha as she pushed a bottle of beer towards her husband. "C'mon...before you nearly kill someone else defending my honor," added Keesha with a scowl in her eyes, but with a little smile on her lips.

Kyle, guessing he was beaten, sighed, gave up, and popped open his bottle of beer. "To our future in this Man's Fleet..."

"Prosit," smiled Keesha as they clinked bottles.


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