Tomorrow Never Knows




Quantico Space Marine Base

November 21, 2201.

1210 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

On a nice, cool autumn day, Derek Wildstar, clad in a set of green coveralls over his EDF blues, was walking around in a clearing in a large wooded area of the EDF Space Marine Base at Quantico on the North American continent in the State of Virginia. Like many others he knew, he had been sent here as part of a few days’ worth of refresher field training, which took the form of an elaborate set of wargames that had been going on since the evening of the 18th.

The field training was an extension and continuation of the basic survival training given to all EDF personnel who might face ground combat. This training involved fighting in space in zero-G and on an airless satellite, and in several different Terrestial environments, namely, an arctic, desert, urban warfare, and forested environment.

A few days’ worth of maneuvers had been done in Arizona in the desert environment, and they had also fought in zero-G at an orbiting space station and had done some maneuvers on Moonbase. They had just completed a round of urban warfare here at Quantico in a simulated city course, and now they were doing a period of training in a forested environment; this training phase had been added again since a great deal of forest had been discovered recently by a patrol ship on a planet orbiting Barnard’s Star in the cleanup phase of searching Earth’s environs for any Cometine stragglers.    

The wargames involved many different companies, all involved company against company in different areas of the sprawling base. The mission of each company was to take the headquarters of the other while defending their own headquarters against attack. The members of each company, from the company command all the way down to the lowliest private, would be graded on their role in the exercise and given pointed advice and criticism afterwards on how each man and woman, and how each squad, unit, and company, could perform better in their objective.

Supplies, especially for those in the field, apart from the headquarters, were to be minimal, so the exercise was a test of survival skills and land navigation as well as a test of how well each EDF member could perform in hand-to-hand infantry combat.

At the moment, Wildstar was on patrol, having decided to scout ahead of his company a few hundred meters. Wildstar took a moment to set down his AK-01, loaded with low intensity, high-visibility practice rounds (carried in conjunction with his Alex's Astro-Automatic, found on Titan, which he considered something like a good-luck charm) and he caught a deep breath. I've forgotten how huge this base is, he thought as he took his canteen off his belt in order to take a drink. I'd also forgotten how huge this exercise is with a couple of different companies holding different small-unit wargames on different parts of the base..., he added to himself. I knew that Hardy, who's just gotten out of the hospital, would be on this exercise, and, the other day, Nova told me she was going to be on this exercise, but I haven't seen either of them yet. I guess they were assigned to different units, or different parts of this unit. They call this a "Company", but it seems a lot bigger than that.

For all I know, he thought. They could be on the other side...on Charlie which case they''d be the enemy, in which case, I'd have to deal with them if I met them. Well, war is war. What was that Desslok said, according to Nova? "Love is the first casualty of a war."

And...., thought Wildstar, I'd...

At that, Wildstar's train of thought was derailed by a snapping twig. Moving as quickly as possible, he put his canteen on his belt, picked up his rifle, and turned quietly in the direction of the sound.

Wildstar waited for a moment, and tensed as a few more twigs snapped.

Finally, he saw a shape. "HALT!," he demanded in a firm voice. "Identify yourself!"

The interloper ducked behind a tree, and Wildstar, guessing he was hostile, aimed his rifle in his direction. A few more snaps came, and Wildstar continued to keep tensed...

..until, a moment later, he felt a strong arm go around his midsection.

Wildstar, familiar with the martial arts, went straight into action as he stomped on the intruder's foot, and then viciously kicked the intruder in the shins, causing him to loosen his grip. Using his opportunity, Wildstar broke free, and turned to face his opponent.

His opponent, clad in Space Marine greens, snarled at him and threw him back to knock him off-balance, his helmet coming off as he struggled. The imposing bald African-American then swung a vicious right hook directly at Wildstar's head.

Wildstar ducked, and responded with a punch to the intruder's gut.

As the intruder dealt with the punch, Wildstar responded by punching him, very hard, in the head.

The punch connected, causing the Marine to wobble on his feet for a moment.

As Wildstar prepared to swing again, the Marine responded by throwing himself right on top of Wildstar. Wildstar, off balance, fell to the ground, and held off the Marine as he snarled and attempted to shove Wildstar's face into the dirt.

The two men rolled, cursing and punching, as Wildstar looked away to see his dropped rifle lying on a pile of leaves.

Taking a deep breath, Wildstar pulled himself out from under the Marine, kicking once at his opponent as he leaped for his rifle.

The Marine leaped for him, trying to disarm him, but Wildstar kept his grip on his rifle and hissed, "Hands UP!! You know the rules, Mister! If I have to shoot you, even at practice intensity, it's gonna hurt!"

The Marine snarled, looking for his own dropped weapon, but Wildstar noticed where it was, and kicked it into another pile of leaves. "You gonna surrender!?," hissed Wildstar.

The Marine looked around, looking for a rescue, but, seeing no one around from his unit, he said, "Yeah. I'll surrender," in a deep, angry voice.

"Turn around," snapped Wildstar as he searched his enemy for hidden weapons. He found a combat knife, which he promptly took.

Wildstar then took some rope from his opponent and bound his wrists behind his back while holding his rifle on his enemy. After he was secure, Wildstar snapped, "Who are you?"

"Ensign Paul Hemsford," said his enemy.

"Which unit were you with?"

"Third Marines, Charlie Company."

"What were you doing here?"

"Scouting our perimeter. We were holdin' this area in conjunction with Charlie Company regulars."

"Where's your headquarters?"

"I ain't telling you THAT much, sir," snapped Hemsford. "You wanna find that out, you're going to have to perform some more scouting."

"I mean to do that."

"With a prisoner?," snapped Hemsford.

"Hell no...I'm turning you over, first. Now," continued Wildstar, "I..." At that, he spotted something lying on a pile of dirt. "What's this?", he demanded.

"I've no idea," said Hemsford.

"Really?," demanded Wildstar.


"Well, I'm going to take a look at this," said Wildstar. " looks like a manila envelope. I wonder what this is?," he said out loud.

Wildstar grabbed at the envelope, bending down to pick it up.

A moment later, he found himself hanging by his ankle in a noose dangling from a tree branch.

"What the...HECK!?!?," yelled Wildstar as he dangled three meters above the ground.

Then, from another tree, someone jumped down and stuck an AK-01 in his back, hissing in a muffled but familiar voice, "You're my prisoner, Mister. No funny moves when I cut you down, GOT it?"

"Right," muttered Wildstar. He looked at his enemy's boots, and guessed their owner was a woman because they looked rather narrow.

While thinking nasty thoughts about being captured by a girl (and being outsmarted by one), he was cut down and turned over with a light kick. Then, he pushed back his hair and his tormentor opened her blue faceplate, all in time to reveal his RATHER surprised fiancée standing there in green woodland camo fatigues! Nova's open-mouthed intake of breath and wide eyes turned to a smile when she said, "Well, I think my CO's going to like THIS when I bring you into Charlie Company's camp as a prisoner!"

"You know I have a duty to escape…!"

"And I'd move all these woods to hunt you right DOWN again, wouldn't I, Hemsford?."

"Far as I know, you sure would, ma'am," laughed Hemsford. "Are you gonna get me out of these cuffs?"

"In a moment. First I've got to cuff MY prisoner," snapped Nova as she bound Wildstar's wrists in the same manner that he had bound Hemsford's wrists. After whispering, "Sorry, Derek…I'll take care of it for you," she also took Derek's Astro-Automatic, looking at it for a moment and confirming that it was the same weapon that had once saved them both on Titan in 2199. She also remembered that, on Iscandar, Derek had offered to return the weapon to his brother, but the elder Wildstar had refused it.

"You're going to be interrogated, you know," said Forrester as she forced him up (seeming to enjoy this). "Hemsford, it'll be your job to guard our prisoner," said Nova as she freed her Marine comrade's wrists.

"Aye, AYE ma'am," he said.

Wildstar snarled at Hemsford. Given the tussle they had earlier, Wildstar guessed that Hemsford wouldn't be particularly nice to him. He then stared at Nova, giving her a less-than friendly look.

Nova whispered, "I'll apologize later. Right now, this is WAR, Derek. Got it?"

"Okay," said Wildstar.

"Hey, Wildstar," snapped Hemsford.


"Are you two, you know, as tight as I heard you were?" asked Hemsford with a leer and wink.

Nova briskly replied, "This is irrelevant to this exercise, Mister."

"You two looked pretty chummy back there. How close have you gotten?" he chuckled.

"You haven't heard?" asked Wildstar.

"No. I've been in training since before Saturn-Titan. Just got back planetside a few days ago. I didn't like my surrender orders...I had ideas about those."

"So did we, Hemsford," said Wildstar with a grim smile.

"And if you must know the truth about Derek and I, we're engaged and getting married in about four weeks, Mister," said Nova snappily.

"Oh…THAT's it!," laughed Hemsford. "Wildstar, you're gonna LIKE what happens to you when we get back to camp!"


"She's one of the heads of the Special Ops Platoon. One of her jobs is the interrogation of prisoners. Maybe if she's REAL nice, she'll do it herself. C'mon, sir," said Hemsford with a smile. "We've gotta get moving!"

Needless to say, Wildstar did NOT like the sound of that.                                              

A while later, Wildstar, walking with his hands up, found himself escorted to a temporary pre-fab shelter unit by Forrester and Hemsford.

He was walked inside, escorted briskly through two rooms that seemed to be offices, and then marched into a compartment that contained a straight-backed chair, a bunk, a desktop light, and a small table.

"This is where I have to leave you," said Hemsford in his deep voice with a peculiar emphasis. "You'd better behave, got it?"

Wildstar replied only with a curt nod. He glanced over at Nova, and then he glanced behind her, noticing that they weren't by any means alone.

"So, you brought a prisoner?" chuckled a young dark-haired woman as she stood up and faced Nova. The young woman, Wildstar noticed, was Nova's friend, Natalie Fisher.

"I did," said Nova.

"Hold it," said Wildstar. "Aren't you a nurse?"

"You're not permitted to speak until you're spoken to, prisoner," snapped Fisher. "But, if you must know, I've been assigned as an assistant Intelligence officer for the duration of this wargame. My job is to see to the preliminary interrogation of prisoners. Miss Forrester was assigned as a perimeter scout, and I must say, she's done a great job in brining us a prisoner of your caliber, Captain Wildstar. Now, enough of these pleasantries. If you wouldn't mind, what was your mission?"

"You know I can't tell you that," said Wildstar respectfully. "I'm bound not to reveal anything to your benefit. My name is Lieutenant Commander Derek Wildstar. My service number is..."

"That's NOT what we're interested in!" snapped Natalie. "What we're interested in, sir, is your mission. What were you up to in our perimeter?"

"I can't tell either of you that," said Wildstar simply. He sat back and caught a whiff of food outside. "I'm hungry. Could one of you get me something?"

Nova shook her head. "We can't leave you unguarded, Derek. You know that."


"If you were wondering, I asked an enlisted man to prepare you something on our way in when you were talking with Hemsford," said Nova. "It'll take them a little while, since the enlisted scouts have to be fed first, but, if you'll cooperate, we'll see about getting you out there ASAP to eat with us. Okay?"

Derek looked, and noticed that Nova was smiling kindly at him. On the other hand, behind her desk, Natalie looked very irritated. Then, he figured it out. It's an act! The old "good cop- bad cop routine!" Nova's the nice one ready to give me everything if I'll talk, while Miss Fisher's the one who's waiting and ready to rip out my fingernails if I don't talk! AHA! They must've had this set up...for whomever stumbled into their clutches! Okayy...let's see how you like this... he thought with a grin.

"You know, I wish I could cooperate, but I can't," said Wildstar.

"Why not?" snapped Natalie.

"'s so simple," said Wildstar. "Nova, you remember how we sometimes saw classified information handled while we were with the Star Force, right?"

"What do you mean?" she asked, puzzled.

"Often, lower-ranking personnel weren't told everything about a mission that we sent them on, particularly when they didn't have a strict need to know. That's how we handled things with some of the Space Marines, if you remember. If you remember how we handled the Gamilon pilot, you know, the one who had his memory taken away, you'd..."

Derek stopped. Nova was whispering fiercely to Natalie, and Natalie nodded.

"WE don't buy that line of reasoning!" snapped Natalie.

"Well, what do you mean? They didn't tell me everything..."

"Nova informed me that her trap was baited with fake plans. Anyone reaching for plans would have to, by necessity, be on a spy mission, wouldn't they?"

"I wasn't engaged in espionage against your unit, except for the sort one might expect from a commander scouting ahead of his company."

"All right," said Nova. "What was the company?"

"I can't really tell you that, can I?" said Derek in a charming voice.

"Come on," said Nova. "Don't make it any harder on yourself than it has to be," she said imploringly. "What was the company, and what were you up to around our lines?"

"Can't tell you...I'm sorry," he said softly. "I can't compromise my unit."

"Okay, then," said Natalie. "If you won't talk...we're going to have to make you talk."

"And how do you plan to do that?" demanded Wildstar.

"Hey, Nova, want some soda?" asked Natalie.


"I'll go and get you one, and I'll get one for myself. But NOT for our prisoner. He won't get anything until he talks."

"Is that humane?" asked Nova. "Natalie, that sounds very cruel."

"It's war," said Natalie with a wicked grin. "If he's thirsty, when he talks, he drinks. If not...well...he'll just have to be thirsty, that's all."

After about two hours' worth of questioning, as Natalie and Nova had their sodas, Wildstar grew ever more thirsty. Seeing the two of them also enjoying candy bars (which they also denied him) didn't help very much, either.

Especially...not when Nova asked Natalie, "When's dinner coming?"

"Later," said Natalie.

"Why?," asked Nova.

"Well, we have our prisoner. We can't feed him until he either talks, or until it's necessary to feed him."

"Natalie," said Nova. "I think this is going a little far. He has to eat sometime."

"But when?" asked Natalie. "Let him determine that," she said as she began to eat another candy bar. "Want one?"

"No, thanks," said Nova. "If I eat too many of those, I'll never be able to fit into a decent wedding dress. "

"When's the blessed event taking place?"

"Derek and I have plans to get married on the 26th of December, which isn't that far away. "

"About a month. Not bad," said Natalie. "Hey," she whispered.


"Are you going to let him eat and relax our guard then?"

"Of course I am," said Nova huffily.

"Can I eat now?" demanded Wildstar.

"Only when you talk," blurted Natalie.

"Wait," said Wildstar. "I'm ready."

"Ready to do what?" demanded Natalie before Nova could put in her two credits' worth.

"I'm ready to talk," grinned Wildstar, as he thought, I am ready to talk. But, all they'll get is misinformation. Misinformation that'll lead their side right into a trap I'll set up when they let me go...Sorry, Nova, he thought. But love is love...and war is war. Right now, you have the bad luck of being on the enemy side...and I'm sworn to beat you.

And, at that, Derek began to tell a wonderfully detailed story about his mission, his objectives, and the plans of his side. Natalie eagerly took down every detail of his confession, with Nova's help as she questioned him, seeming to turn rather thoughtful after a certain point.

Finally, when Derek was done talking, Natalie eagerly closed her notebook and said, "Okay, now, prisoner. We'll get you your dinner, and anything else you want. Thanks so much for being cooperative."

"You're welcome," said Wildstar with a smile.

"Nova, can you see to it that he's fed while I give this report to our superiors?"

"Sure," said Nova hesitantly. "Go right ahead. I'll get his chow in a minute."

Natalie left, leaving Derek and Nova alone. Finally, Nova looked him straight in the eye and asked, "Derek, did you tell us the truth?"

Wildstar only smiled. "I told you all that I know," he said in a soft voice. "I was patrolling that ridge, because it does lead to the best attack route to our headquarters, namely, through the gully past Hill 347. If you lead a patrol through that gully, you can slip around most of our perimeter and attack us, fair and square, with only a few guards in that area."

"Are you sure about that?" asked Nova.

"Why do you ask?"

"I know what you're like, Derek. You don't give up that easily. You're going to have something waiting for us there, aren't you?"

"Just the normal perimeter patrol. That's it. If your side can overpower them, you can hit our headquarters very, very easily."


"Really, Nova," he said calmly. "Give it a try. C'mon."

"Okay. But this had better not be a trick."

"Nova, would I trick you?" he said with the earnestness of a little boy.

"With you, I'm not so sure..."



Quantico Space Marine Base

November 22, 2201.

210 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

It turned out that, after Natalie's report was accepted by the commander of their unit, a group was prepared to ambush the opposing side's headquarters, which, based upon information from other scouts, was concluded to be exactly in the location that Derek had reported. Natalie was chosen as one of the scouts to lead the unit to the headquarters and ambush it.. Natalie accepted the assignment with glee.

To her chagrin, Nova was selected to assist in the operation. The unit commander, a crusty Space Marine Major known as Horowitz, had listened patiently as Nova explained that she suspected the information obtained from Wildstar was probably tainted. Horowitz remembered that Nova had argued, "He has to have something up his sleeve, sir!"

"And, why do you suspect that?" said Horowitz.

"Well, sir, you know he's the Commander of the Star Force. Personal considerations aside, sir, I've served with him and under him for over fifteen months, and can tell you that Derek Wildstar is not a man who gives up easily. He's confounded both Gamilons and Cometines with some of the stratagems he's pulled off...and a lot of them involve surprise, stealth, and deception, sir."

Horowitz had laughed, and said, "Where's the surprise and stealth in a man who eats like a hog and then falls asleep for a few hours? I think he's resigned to his lot."


"He's not trying to escape, and he's been a model prisoner."

"Why would he talk so readily, sir?" Nova had asked.

"Those are the actions of a man who's a good loser. In the battles you've been through, Earth's fate has been at stake. This is just a wargame, Forrester. Can't a man throw a wargame every now and then?," Horowitz had chuckled.

"You don't know Lieutenant Commander Derek Wildstar. I do. That's all I have to say, sir," Nova had said.

"Very good, Forrester," Horowitz had replied. "If you want to go off and follow your...romantic can lead a six-man point recon squad all by yourself, okay? That's your job. Get out of here."

And, so ordered, Nova had been sent, given a Marine Tech Sergeant named Howard Brody as an executive officer, a regular EDF line Sergeant named Karachek as a second exec, and a squad consisting of two Lance Corporals and two Privates.

Nova's unit was the third "point" squad, following the units that Natalie Fisher and Hemsford had been assigned to. Natalie's unit and Hemsford's unit were advancing on the left and right flanks, and Nova's unit was taking the direct route down the gully that Derek had spoken of.

In the moonlight, Nova ordered a halt with a hand signal that Brody had to strain his eyes to catch, since Forrester had done an effective job in making herself and the others hard to spot at night with green camo face paint, camo helmet covers, and bits of brush attached to their helmets.

"Now, what's she doin?" muttered Brody.

"What's that, Sarge?" whispered Lance Corporal Saraven, who was right beside Brody.

"This officer dame's nuttier than a fruitcake, and very stubborn." muttered Brody. "Start, stop, smell the ground, listen to radio signals, creep forwards a few more meters, stop again. What's she think? There's a boobytrap on every corner?"

"There could be boobytraps, Sarge," said Saraven helpfully.

"Around a route that Wildstar says is the best way to his Headquarters?," sneered Brody. "He got tortured or somethin', and he turned chicken and confessed. Why don't we go in a bit faster, and..."

Forrester came up on top of them again a moment later, moving very stealthily, and whispered, "Sergeant, CUT the chatter out."

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. "What's up?"

"I just received a dispatch on the command frequency. We've got to be very careful."


"The base camp reported that Wildstar just escaped," whispered Nova in a dismayed tone that not even her whispers quite hid.

"Have they found him yet?," asked Brody.

"No. And...about that..."


"I think he's set a trap for us...or is about to...."

"How could he do that?" sneered Brody softly as Karachek showed up with his two Lance Corporals.

"I don't think we were told everything about this terrain," whispered Nova.


"When I was off on point, I heard some running water up ahead, in a course parallel to ours. Wildstar said nothing about running water or a stream bed in the area, so I'd better check this out. Sergeant, you take your men and proceed a klick up towards the headquarters. I'll take Karachek and his men and check out that other gully."

"Got it," said Brody with a nod of his chubby face. "Where do we meet up?"

"Two klicks ahead. I'll navigate back to this gully after I check out the stream," whispered Nova as she set her compass.


Unknown to everyone, Derek Wildstar was advancing stealthily up the hill just three kilometers away, up the real best route of attack against his headquarters, a stream that led to the hollow where his unit's headquarters complex had been set up. The gully that he had told Nova about was nothing but a dead end that led to another tributary of the stream; a tributary that took a course that could best be called torturous before it got to the main stream itself.

Wildstar had figured this stratagem out as he was tied to the cot and thought about the lay of the land that he knew about, but guessed Forrester and Fisher hadn't. He realized that the plot would've been given away at once if Nova had actually explored the area herself beforehand. However, he knew that Nova's lack of an immediate objection to his con game gave away her lack of knowledge of the area.

Now, his hope was that her unit could be silenced soon by running into the perimeter guards that guarded the region...guards he had also neglected to tell them about.

Picking up the portable radio that he had stolen from one of his poker-playing guards after having disabled and disarmed him with a good, unexpected kick in the middle of a poker game, Wildstar whispered, "Bravo two-zero? Over."

"Bravo-two," said a familiar voice from out of the handset. "Wildstah?"

"Hardy, still out there?" whispered Wildstar.

"Yeah. Got some radio traffic. Ah think ah found out where they are, Wildstah. Where WERE yuh?"

"I was their guest for a little while," whispered Wildstar.

"Captured? Shoot!"

"But I accomplished my objective and got away. Now I know where their base is...and I told them that the best way to our base is up the West gully," whispered Wildstar with a note of a chuckle in his voice.

"Up Roach Motel Ridge, Wildstah?"

"Yeah. They'll check in, but they won't check out," he chuckled. "Hardy, get some boys over there and at Heartbreak Rock to throw a party for their scouts and shut them up. I'll meet you back at Headquarters later. And wait until I tell you who interrogated me," chuckled Wildstar. "Over and out," he whispered as he advanced onwards along the stream, being sure to get himself hidden as soon as he heard a twig snap some distance away.



Quantico Space Marine Base

November 22, 2201.

248 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

Nova now had Karachek convinced she was crazy as they climbed laboriously over one of the biggest boulders in the area that any of them had ever seen. The stream they had been following cut a path past this boulder, but the channel was so narrow that even Forrester found it impossible to get her slender form through it. Karachek and the two Marine Lance Corporals who followed him loudly wished that they had worn their rubber boots as they made this climb. Nova herself thought that the light rock-climbing shoes she had used once as a girl in the Rockies would have been a better choice, but she wasn't in a very talkative mood at the moment.

"Made it," muttered Karachek as he dragged one of his puffing Lance Corporals over the rock.

"Shh," hissed Nova.

"What?" said Karachek in silence with a raised eyebrow as Nova listened.

"A twig," she said softly, motioning for her men to get down.

"I'll go ahead," she whispered.

"Ma'am, that's crazy. You're...."

"The quietest walker of this bunch," she countered. "Keep your ears peeled on the radio."

Karachek nodded as Nova closed her Marine-style helmet visor and tiptoed forward with her AK-01 Carbine (loaded, of course, with practice rounds) at the ready, looking hard for any signs of movement in the brush next to the stream.

"Got yuh in mah sights," whispered a figure a few hundred meters away as he spotted Nova in his night-vision sight. "Just a little closer, up towards Manley and Kayan's positions...there...good," whispered the figure. "Now, one Charlie in the BAG!" he whispered as he fired.

"Huh?," cried Nova as a blue streak of light whizzed past her in the darkness. She ducked, and hit the dirt, squeezing off a round in the general direction of the enemy as she fell. She cursed herself a second later as a practice round from the right crackled loudly in a burst of laser pyrotechnics against her overall-clad upper thigh, causing it to twinge painfully with a sensation like an electric shock as two men rushed up out of nowhere to grab her.

Nova got off one kick with her good leg, but, a moment later, a third figure ran up and butted her carbine out of her hands with a practiced swipe.

As Nova faced down her attackers, she had just enough time to yell, "Karachek!" into her lip mike before she found herself surrounded by four men. The leader held a rifle menacingly in her face and barked, through his visor, "Get UP!" in a familiar voice.

"Huh?" Nova said as she put up her hands and limped up. The leg that had been shot still twanged and felt rather weak. "Hardy?" she said, recognizing her longhaired former shipmate from the Argo.

"Miss Nova?" he asked. "What'cha doin heah?"

"Training, like the rest of you," she snapped.

"Yew on our side?" he asked.

"Nope. I'm a scout from Charlie Company. "

"Yeah!" yelled a stout, short figure who turned out to be Manley. "We got one! Can we rough her up a bit, sir?" he said, taking a playful shove at Nova that made her stumble for a minute as she looked on in anger and surprise.

"Hell no!" said Hardy. "That wouldn't be ONE bit gallant, boy!" he snapped. "So you're the one Wildstah was talkin' to when he was a prisoner, huh?"

"How'd you know that?" asked Nova as she heard yells and shouts over her helmet headset as one of the men pulled it off her head. She guessed that Karachek, Brody and his men had fallen into the same trap.

"Easy," said another figure as he came up, and Nova recognized it as Buzz. "Wildstar radioed us with a radio set he stole. Now, based on his information, we'll launch a night attack on your headquarters, and then we can all joke about this in the morning," he said as Nova fumed, noticing that her helmet (and radio) were in the hands of Jeff Hardy. No way to get them back and warn the base...DARN, she thought with a fair measure of disgust.

"That idiot!" squeaked Nova.

"Who, Wildstah?" asked Hardy.

"No, our Company Commander. I tried to tell him this would happen! I tried to tell him that Derek was pulling a trick...but did he listen? No...he didn't!"

"Ma'am," said one of the other men. "My name is Junior Lieutenant Sanjeeva Kayan. As one of your captors, it is my duty to inform you that you have been captured by enemy forces and neutralized. You will reveal your name, rank, service number, and any other information we deem as useful to our cause. You are to come with us at once."

"Right," sighed Nova as Buzz patted her down and took her canteen and other gear. As a mildly gallant gesture, he let her tuck her dark green-colored ascot (which had come undone during the struggle) back into the neckline of her coveralls "Well, let's go..." she sighed.

"Nova," said Hardy.

"Yes?" she sighed.

"Ah must say, you look ravishing in camo makeup! Gonna do yourself up like this on your honeymoon for Wildstah?"

"Hardy, shut UP!" barked Nova as the others laughed. They're acting like a bunch of jerks...although at least Star Blazers are nowhere near as bad as Space Marines, at least, thought Nova with a sour look on her face as her hands were found in front of her and bound.

"Shaving cream!" chuckled Buzz. "Hey, Hardy. Ya still got that shaving cream in the tent?"

"Yeah, ah do," he said.

"Maybe we can use it later!" he cawed as the others laughed.

Now what, thought Nova again as she looked at her former comrades with her hands tied, would these guys be talking about?



Quantico Space Marine Base

November 22, 2201.

1027 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

The night attack on Charlie Company Headquarters, based on Wildstar's information of the whereabouts of the base, came off very well. With all of Charlie's scouts bagged at the Delta perimeter, there was more than enough time for the men and women of Delta Company to come up the stream bed and through the woods in force to attack the Charlie Company Headquarters and defeat the enemy after a vicious but quick night battle. The results were relayed through the Delta Headquarters when soldiers from Delta came back triumphantly with Charlie Company's captured Company colors and captured Company Commander, as Major Horowitz himself was marched, with his hands bound, in front of the Delta Headquarters tents as all of the Deltas cheered.

After the end of the part of the wargames in which Delta and Charlie Company had participated, everyone was trucked to another part of the base for breakfast before a formal briefing about the exercise.

Wildstar was sitting in the back of an open armored aircar as Nova walked by, still wiping some of the camo makeup off her face in the morning sunlight. She wasn't limping any more, since the effect of the practice-intensity hit had worn off after about an hour. For that, she was grateful, especially since she had heard that, in another company, Logistics had confused a practice-intensity cosmo-rifle battery pack with an actual combat-intensity pack, and some private had taken a shot that had taken off his hand!

"Nova!" he called. "You wanna come over here?"

"Oh? Do you want to interrogate me, too?" she teased as she climbed into the aircar.

"No, why should I? It's over with. We won."

"I know you won," grumbled Forrester, but with a little smile. "We would've won if the Major had listened to me," she said as the car began to drive off.

"Oh?" asked Derek.

"I suspected that there was something you were leaving out of your story," she said as she passed Derek a canteen of water while the dark green-painted aircar roared over the countryside.

"Hardy and Buzz told me that you had almost discovered the real path to our base when you were captured, and before you could report to your side."

"I was beginning to report when they captured me," countered Nova.

"Well, that was still a pretty good example of scouting, Nova," said Wildstar.

"Thanks," replied Nova with a smile. "But I still hate losing. I should've argued further with that Horowitz," she said, "but he dismissed everything I said."


Nova sighed. "The "Man's Navy" thing that all of you men buy into. He just about made it clear to me by his attitude that he thought I was a little girl with a case of the screaming meemies who wasn't worth listening to. And, so, he lost," pouted Nova.

"Nova," said Derek. "It wasn't your fault..." he said quietly.

"It wasn't?"

"Nova, as one of his can't be blamed if he wouldn't listen to you. Truth be told...I had a hard time convincing our side of the location of your headquarters and launching the attack."

"What'd they think?" asked Nova.

"Well, do you remember what happened when the Comet Empire wouldn't let their pilot, Mazar, back into their ranks after we captured him and after he escaped...probably because they thought he was tainted by contact with us? Well, MY CO, Marine Major Corcoran...a guy who's held that rank for two years...longer than I've been a Lieutenant Commander, thought the same thing about me. I had a hell of a time convincing him to start that attack."


"It could've gone either way, Nova...and things weren't easy for either of us. But we both learned something..."

"Yes," said Nova with a grin. "You learned how to be even sneakier than ever, and I learned never to trust someone who's too obliging."

"Will that have an effect on our personal life, madam?" he whispered.

"Not if you take me out after we get back to the Megalopolis tonight. Make it at nineteen-thirty hours, at that sushi place you were telling me about," smiled Nova.

"Consider it done," said Wildstar with a squeeze of his fiancé's hand.

At the briefing, which was just one of several being held that day, Delta Company and Charlie Company's members sat in a huge auditorium. There, a Marine Colonel serving as the referee for the company-level exercise they were involved in reviewed the results of the exercise on a large computer screen, discussing each aspect of the contact, skirmishes, reconnaissance, and raid. Nova tried not to groan too much as Wildstar's name was mentioned several times in a positive light, but she ended up blushing for a bit as she found out that her objections to Derek's "reliable" information had at least been recorded by Major Horowitz. They were noted with distinction by the referee, who said, "As a unit commander, this makes it absolutely clear that you ignore the intelligence of your subordinates with peril. Although perhaps not as important in the overall picture as Lieutenant Commander Wildstar's quickly devised stratagem and escape, we must recognize that at the very least, Lieutenant Forrester performed well in her task as an Intelligence Officer by using her knowledge of her enemy to temper reports. She acted far better than Miss Fisher, who accepted this intelligence entirely at face value...."

As the Colonel droned on about another part of the exercise, Nova accepted a squeeze from Derek's hand, and a shake of the head and a silent sigh from Natalie, who was sitting nearby. "Don't worry," whispered Nova. "You can still be maid of honor at the wedding...even if you get a poor fitness report for this exercise because you messed up."

"," whispered Natalie with a sour look on her face.

"Hush, or they'll put some more shavin' cream in youah hair, Miss Fishah," whispered Hardy from beside her.

"Isn't torture a war crime, Hardy?" she shot back.

"Cool it," muttered Wildstar. "We're supposed to be listening."

"Aye, aye, sir," said Natalie with a sour look on her face, as she wished she could put some shaving cream in Hardy's hair. Maybe then it wouldn't hang in that eye of yours and look like some psychotic mop, she thought with disgust. I think you got over that back injury TOO well, Mister Hardy, she thought again.

Later, that night, after they arrived back in the Megalopolis, Derek, wearing his peacoat and his blues, met Nova at her apartment, sitting down behind her little dining counter when he got there. To his pleasure (and hers) Nova had succeeded in getting rid of every trace of the camo face-paint, and, as a result, looked more than ready for their date. She had, of course, exchanged her coveralls, uniform, and muddy service boots for the new pink dress and sandals she had purchased five days ago at Bloomberg's.

"You look great," said Derek as she made her appearance in her new dress and they kissed.

"I feel much better after the nap I got to take this afternoon, too. Were you able to get some sleep?"

"Yeah. Is your leg all right?"

"How'd you hear about that?" asked Nova.

"Hardy told me. He wasn't gloating, either. Matter of fact..."

"I know, Derek. He apologized before."

"Are you sure it's okay?"

"Derek," said Nova with a huff as she stepped back and raised the hem of her dress a little. "See this spot, right here?" she asked, indicating a spot on her bare lower thigh. Go on, you can come closer," she said with a blush. "There was a red mark, right here, for about two hours after I was shot, but then it went away. Were we so inclined, I could spend the evening dancing in your arms with no problem, okay?" said Nova as she lowered her dress back down over her knee. "I'm fine."

"Good," said Derek with a sigh of relief. "I was just afraid we'd hurt you."

"And, tell the guys that all the shaving cream came out of my hair in the shower, okay?"

"They did that to you, too?" asked Wildstar.

Nova nodded. "Although, I must admit, I didn't get it as badly as Natalie did. Buzz and Kayan really went to town on her, poor thing. It's not too cold out now, is it?" asked Nova.

"Not really. Oh, where's your stockings?"

"There's a shortage on," said Nova brightly. "All my regulation stockings are being kept safely in a drawer so I can pass inspections in my Administration uniform at Headquarters with no problem if I'm called in one day. They're still rebuilding the records, at Headquarters you know, and the Commander said I may have to come in on an off-day from training if I'm needed. Besides, haven't I told you I don't like wearing hose with sandals if I can avoid it? It's not THAT cold today, Derek."

"Oh, that's right. Good thing it's not January, or you'd catch frostbite," chuckled Wildstar.

"If I have to put my heel in your boot, Derek, you'll find it'll hurt."

"Don't know if you can do that in this restaurant."

"Why not?"

"Didn't I tell you it's classic Japanese style? Your shoes come off at the door, madame."

"There goes attack plan one if you get naughty," sighed Nova as she flexed her toes. "Oh, well, I can still elbow you if I have to..."

"Okay, I promise I won't do anything naughty."

"Thank you," said Nova gently as she gave Derek a hug. "Well, shall we go?"

"All right," he said.

Later, at the restaurant, as Nova and Derek shared a large house special, which included every kind of sushi and sashimi one could think of, Derek asked, "Did you hear anything through the scuttlebutt grapevine about your flight instructor, yet?"

"Such as?"

"Well, who it's going to be?"

"No. I didn't hear a lot of scuttlebutt down in Quantico, as you might guess...although I did hear that Hardy and Buzz are going to be training people. They haven't been told who, yet, of course...but..."

"So, you haven't heard anything."

"That's right," said Nova as she picked up a piece of pink tuna and rice with her chopsticks before dipping the whole concoction in her little dish of soy sauce mixed with hot green wasabi.

"I take it you didn't hear anything about your students, either?"

"No, except that I've been made aware it'll be fighter-interceptor training. I'll be teaching a squadron, as I think I've told you before, of Super Starfighter pilots."

"Isn't that dangerous?" she asked.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's gonna feel good to be back on duty again after all these days, even if it's a TDY assignment. I'd like to wish you luck, by the way, Nova," he said as he raised a cup of sake' to her, the first he had drank that evening.

"Won't that mess up your equilibrium tomorrow, Derek?"

"You know I won't be flying. Neither will you. We'll both be in ground school for those first few days...."

"...only you'll be lecturing, while I'll be learning," said Nova as she raised her cup of warm sake'.

"Geez...I think you'll have the easier job," said Derek.


"I never...taught before."

"Well, here's to your first lecture as an instructor, tomorrow, Derek," said Nova in a bright, merry tone.

"And here's to your upcoming first flight in a Cosmo Tiger, Nova. Kampai!"

"Kampai!" repeated Nova. "And...happy landings to both of us."

They clinked their cups and drank, hoping that they'd have a good day tomorrow.



Federal Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Building 301

November 23, 2201

0646 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

The next day came. Early in the morning, Wildstar was sitting in a small office on the second floor of one of the classroom buildings at the base...which would be his office as a flight instructor for the next few weeks, looking at the twelve personnel jackets that belonged to the twelve students he had just been assigned. He was unaware of their identities until this moment, by design, since the EDF didn't want its instructors to have any prejudices either for or against their students before they met.

"Can't believe this one," he muttered to himself as he shook his head over a file. "And the one before it! How did this clown from Anglia make it this far in the EDF with this kind of record? I'd love to know the answer to that one," said Wildstar to himself as he drank some nice, strong coffee from a Thermos container. He knew it would be strong because Nova had made it for him at about 0400. She had dropped it off at his quarters with a kiss right before she left the housing complex to come to the base for PT and the orientation meetings she'd have to endure before meeting her flight instructor with her class at 0815 that morning.

A knock came at the door from the other side of the pebbled-techtite privacy window in the office door with the new nameplate LT. CMDR. DEREK WILDSTAR mounted on it, interrupting Wildstar's reverie. "Who is it?," he demanded.

"Hey, ah thought you wouldn't maind talkin' to guy who's just in the office next to yoahs, Wildstah!"

"Oh! Hardy! C'mon in!," said Wildstar.

The door opened, and Jefferson Davis Hardy, dressed, like Wildstar, in standard duty blues, came into the room, carrying a very thick brown cardboard portfolio like the sort that Wildstar had found the personnel files of his students in. "What'cha doin?" joked Hardy.

"Looking over what I've got to meet in Room 124 at 0830," said Wildstar. "I can't believe some of these records!"

"Oh, you mean you're learnin' about the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, too?" asked Hardy.

"Yeah. I've got two here that I've just read. They're both combat veterans, both from the same ship, as a matter of fact, but, otherwise, they've led totally different lives, and have had...totally different records. Sit down, Hardy, right over there, and put yours on that table. Since we've got the time, we might as well compare notes."

Hardy did so, and then he shut the door behind him, setting the files on a small table that held a computer console. Hardy pulled out the chair from under the table and twisted it around to face Wildstar's desk and the stiff, hard office chair that had been intentionally placed in front of it for students to sit in when they were ordered to "drive around" to their instructor's office for either evaluation or discipline.

"Females," said Hardy in a soft voice. "A little more than half a' mah students are females! You believe that?"

"So are three of mine, Hardy," said Wildstar.

"They're teachin' females to fly Super Starfighters? You gotta be kiddin' me, Wildstah!"

"I'm not kidding, Hardy. I have twelve students, and three of them are females. One of them's a combat veteran, as a matter of fact."

"How's that?" asked Hardy.

"Well, she was one of the two I couldn't get over that I was reading about just now. She's one of the pilots who was assigned to the spacecraft carrier Akagi not long ago."

"Ah heard about the Akagi! Isn't she still on her way home?"

"She's still being repaired, last I heard. Well, this pilot was a member of the White Wolves...and...."

"The White Wolves?" asked Hardy. "You mean the bunch that managed to get two flights up in the air and off their carrier's deck right before the Cometine bombers showed up?"

"Yeah, and they managed to kill quite a few of those Scorpion boats, too. The four out of six who made it back to the ship and managed to land through the smoke all got Distinguished Flying Crosses out of the bargain, and I've got two of them in my squadron to teach."

"Who were they?"

"The guy's name is Bryan Hartcliffe...he's one of the...well...he's one of the "Bad" in my squadron."


"Meaning that if he doesn't watch out, he could be heading for a Bad Conduct Discharge, Jeff. You name it, this Brit's done it," said Wildstar as he showed Hardy his picture.

"Hey, why's he wearin' his hair in one eye?" demanded Hardy. "Only AH can do that!"

"Yeah, they all say that," said Wildstar, winking at his friend. "At least you don't have these little beady-eyed glasses and mustache like this guy. He looks just like one of the Beatles, although I can't remember which one at the moment."

"The Beatles?" asked Hardy. "Who the hell were they? Were they related to Elvis?"

"The Beatles were this famous old twentieth-century rock band that Nova has a fixation on," grinned Wildstar. "She showed me a picture of them once on one of the covers of the albums that resurfaced after the Unification Wars and the Gamilon wars, and they all looked like that guy."

"That's weird," said Hardy. "They were hippies then?"

"What were hippies?" asked Wildstar.

"Weird dudes that grew their hair long, didn't take baths, believed in doing it liake rabbits, and protested against the Vietnam War."

"Strange bunch," said Wildstar. "Although when I took History, I always thought that the old U.S. government shouldn't have been in Vietnam unless they were going to go all out and commit to win the war. Just another example of the politicians taking over the wars, like we went through with the Earth Defense Council. From what I've been able to learn about history, the Beatles were among the people protesting the war, so, I guess they're all right in my book. Their songs didn't sound too bad, either."

"What'd they sound like?"

"This," said Wildstar as he flicked on a cassette player and the sounds of While My Guitar Gently Weeps filled the office. "Nova likes that one," said Wildstar as he continued to shake his head over the personnel jackets on his desk. "The things you have to watch out for with this Hartcliffe guy are booze and women. He has a bad record with both."

"Protocol violations?" asked Hardy.

"Well, there was one Article Fourteen hearing with him, and a hell of a lot of warnings," said Wildstar.

They were interrupted by another knock at the door. "Enter!" barked Wildstar.

"Good morning, sir," said the enlisted man who came in and saluted, carrying a large object under his arm. "I was told to bring your new squadron crest here and leave it in your office for mounting. Also, sir," he said, looking at Hardy, "I have a memo for you from Captain Priceman, the Base commander."

"Thanks," said Hardy as he took the memo. The enlisted man was left holding the sign.

"Could you mount it, Private?" asked Wildstar. "There's a metal strip behind my head above the bulletin board."

"Aye, aye, sir," said the enlisted man as he hefted up and mounted a magnetically secured squadron logo. It read: 72nd Astrofighter Interceptor Group-SILVER DRAGONS around its edges, and curled up amidst a black, star-covered background, there was a fierce-looking Chinese-style flying dragon in silver, holding a flaming sword in one front claw.

"Huh, another old squadron reactivated, huh?" said Hardy.

"Yeah," said Wildstar after he dismissed the enlisted man, who closed the door behind him. "This was an old Gamilon War squadron that all died in 2196 defending the old Mars Perimeter."

I hope we have better luck than that."

"All we're gonna be doin' is trainin'," said Hardy.

"Yeah, but I understand they're going to activate all these groups next year as full-fledged Groups with the appropriate numbers of planes and new assignments. Didn't you hear the briefing?"

"Yeah. And the best of the pilots we train are gonna be the nuclei of these new Groups," said Hardy. "Who's the female in your squadron you were talkin' about?"

"Oh...yeah. The one who was serving beside Bryan Hartcliffe also won a Flying Cross, and shot down one more Scorpion than he did. Her name's...Laurel Hartmann."

"Ah heard about her!" said Hardy, nearly falling off his chair. "She's supposed to be darn hot!"

"I hope you're referring to her ability as a pilot, Hardy."

"Damn straight, Wildstah!" laughed Hardy, looking over at her picture on the front of her personnel jacket. "Boy, she's good. Who else do you have who's notable?"

"Two guys from the Hermes…" said Wildstar. "Namely, Sanjeeva Kayan..."

"He's a good guy to work with," said Hardy. "Ah met him on the weekend, durin' the wargames."

"Oh? On whose side?"

"In my squad, Wildstah!"

"Oh. Well, least you were on our side."

"Who's the other guy from the Hermes?" asked Hardy.

"A Nebraskan kid, named Darryl Pulvan. He's just twenty-one, too," said Wildstar. "One of my youngest. Would you believe, three kills already?"

"We had more than that when we were twenty-one. Way more," said Hardy.

"Yeah, I know. But we were with the Star Force. From what I read, this Pulvan guy had just joined the ship a week beforehand and he took out three planes in his first flight. Not bad."

"Yeah, not at all," said Hardy. "Wanna hear about my bunch?"

"Go right ahead...and… the way...what's your Group called?"

"They're a Group that's switched roles. Now, they're the 17th Astrofighter/Scout Group, but, in their original history, they were known as the 117th Astrofighter Group, and..."

"The RED CENTAURS?" asked Wildstar with surprise.

"Yeah. Why'd you look like a goose just walked over yoah grave, Wildstar?"

"Because that was Alex's old group at one time!"

"Yoah brothuh was in that Group?"

"Yeah. For a while, Hardy, Alex was the Commander of that Group. He served two hitches with them; his rookie hitch, and then, later on, years later, he was their CO. As a matter of fact, he was assigned to that Group right before he was transferred into missile boats. He told me, right before he left, that he liked the coincidence that he had served as both the Commander of the 17th Astrofighters and was then the commander of Missile Ship Number 17, the Paladin. Would've been funny if I had gotten command of that Group, huh, Hardy?"

"Yeah, said Hardy, as he glanced at the memo.

"What does the CO want?," asked Wildstar.

"Not much. He just wants to see me before class," said Hardy. "Guess ah'll have to stop there before I meet my class. You were sayin'?"

"Well, who's in your Group?"

"Well, ah told you ah have five females, and five males that ah know of. Ah haven't received two a' my jackets yet."

"Anyone with combat experience?"

"Just four. And half of 'em are females."

"How's that?," asked Wildstar.

"Well, a lot of these pilots were former survey pilots or members of Living Groups that flew Astro-Foxes, although not all of them were," said Hardy. "Six of them flew 'Starseekers' ", said Hardy, referring to a colloquial name for the Type 100 recon and liaison spaceplane, "…and three of them flew straight Tigers on other assignments. One of 'em even flew Super Starfighters at one time," said Hardy.

"I wonder why they did that, Hardy?"

"Because the type of Tiger they'll be flying is both a recon plane and a fighter, as you know. Some of the pilots will be doing survey work in these planes, while others will be flying recon-type assignments," said Hardy as he pulled a number of personnel jackets out of his folder.

"That sounds a lot like Nova's description," said Wildstar. "Is she in your squadron?"

"Not as far as ah know...although, as I said, I've gotten only ten personnel jackets out of twelve so far."

"Where's the rest?"

"Admin tells me they're sending the last two over for me and they'll have 'em when I meet my squadron. They say one jacket's being updated with an award citation, and the other's having an Article 15 slip added to it."

"Who's the first combat veteran that you were talking about?" asked Wildstar.

"The crazy one," said Hardy. "Almost as crazy as you, Wildstah. Her name's Tatiana Lubyanska, and she served on the Triton Base on Neptune during the recent conflict with the Grim Reapers. She's one of the reasons why the Cometines never took Triton."

"What's her record like?"

"Seven kills in the battle of Triton, and two kills in skirmishes beforehand with various loose Cometine squadrons. Her only disciplinary problems have been related to fighting, would ya believe?"


"Yeah, Wildstah. She's supposed t' be a tough little one. But she ain't mah biggest potential disciplinary problem."

"Well, who is?"

"Someone who matches your Bryan Hartcliffe in the amount of protocol violations and warnings for drinkin' she's received. In one of those violations, as a matter of fact, ah think they found her with Hartcliffe!"

"What's her name?" asked Wildstar.

"Angelique Burkhardt," said Hardy. "Lookit her picture," said Hardy as he tossed over the personnel jacket, held closed with a rubber band. "Ain't she a cute one?"

Wildstar found himself staring at a cute, deceptively innocent-looking young woman with golden blond hair, large semi-rounded glasses, and dark brown doe-like eyes. "What's kept her out of a court-martial?" asked Wildstar as he turned off the tape player at the end of Rocky Raccoon.

"Her record as a recon pilot. She served on the patrol cruiser Bosporus. Remember the battle ah just told you about around Triton?"


"Well, her ship was doin' picket duty, and she spotted the Cometines comin' in, got in a full report, and managed to hightail her Astro-Fox back to the ship to make her report after having been shot up a bit. She didn't suffer a scratch herself, though. Ah think she's got a "Luck Factor" of 100 percent."

"Where'd they catch her and Hartcliffe?"

"In a broom closet, on Titan Base, six months ago, Wildstah," said Hardy while shaking his head. "Report says she didn't seem to mind bein' with the boy, either. If he's around...."

"Yeah. We'd better keep an eye on them."

"We'd better keep an eye on them and on Tatiana. Even though Tatiana pulled a lot of brownie points out there at Triton, rumor has it she's out to get the recon pilot that spotted the planes…and she learned through the Scuttlebutt Express that Angie is that pilot."

"WHY?" asked Wildstar.

"Easy. She wants to get the person who got her in that furball in the first place. She feels it was all her fault."

Wildstar took a deep breath. "So, since you'll be assigning student flight leaders, based on grades, I'd suggest that you assign someone with top grades as a tough flight leader for Angie's flight and a tough flight leader for Tatiana's flight, and keep them apart. If this Tatiana learns that Burkhardt is the one who got her in this jam, she'll..."

"Word has it she knows."

"Shoot," said Wildstar. "Two people who hate each other in the same squadron. Just like Hartcliffe and Hartmann."

"What's up with them?"

"Word has it those two have a rivalry that makes my old thing with Venture seem tame by comparison. But that's my problem," said Wildstar, sipping at his coffee. "What about yours?"

"Well, ah tried to get Angie transferred out, but they said no dice...and ah didn't know what the hell ah'd do and ah still don't."

"Don't you have to go soon?" asked Wildstar.

"Oh, yeah, I do."

"Have a nice day, and good luck," said Wildstar calmly as he and Hardy exchanged salutes.



Federal Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Building 301

November 23, 2201

0756 Hours-Spacetime

"At ease," ordered the muscular dark-haired officer from behind his mirror-lensed aviator glasses as Hardy relaxed a little before his desk in the luxuriously carpeted office. The nameplate on the desk read CAPT. RAYMOND PRICEMAN, but everyone and his grandfather referred to this tough former pilot and CAG (he had been the first Carrier Air Group Commander of the spacecraft carrier Hornet until October, not long before Saturn-Titan and his latest promotion) as the "Iceman" because of his cold, uncompromising manner.

"First," said Priceman. "I'd like to give you a little friendly advice, Hardy. Your Star Force has been known for its bravery, but it's also been somewhat known for a lack of discipline. I'd just like you to understand that I like to run a very tight ship here. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

"Yessir," said Hardy.

"Next," said Priceman. " I will tell you, again as all the others will be told, that it is imperative to keep a firm hand on your trainees. We don't need any shenanigans or garbage in this training. We need people trained to fly these planes, and trained to fly them as efficiently as possible. I asked for some of Earth's best officers at this base, and it looks like Command followed my request. Don't let me down, Mister."

"Yessuh," said Hardy firmly.

"I don't think much, between you and I, of the idea of training so many women in your squadron, if you'd ask me," said Priceman.

"Permission to speak candidly, suh?," asked Hardy.


"Neither do I. Ah think they'll be nothin' but trouble."

Priceman nodded his head. "I honestly don't think women belong in the cockpit of high-performance astrofighters at all, if you ask me. Still...we have something of a temporary shortage of trained personnel, so Command's inflicting them upon us. I want no trouble, no catfights, and NO instances of fraternization among your trainee pilots, or, for that matter, among your people and people from the other five Groups I'm training here. If it happens, and I can trace any of this back to you, I will have you in here for a gripe-out session, Mister Hardy, the Comet Empire notwithstanding."


Captain Priceman then gave Hardy two personnel jackets. Hardy noticed one was rather thick, and began to look at it, but Priceman snapped, "You can look over it later, Mister. That one belongs to a double Sunburst of Honor winner. I expect you to use her to keep the other females in line. Like it or not, she's proven herself in my book, although NOT, I stress, as a Recon/Fighter pilot."

Hardy began to ask, "Suh...a DOUBLE Sunburst of Honuh winnuh? Who is she?"

Priceman snapped, "You'll be meeting her in ten minutes, Mister. And I want you to keep your eye out in regards to this other pilot. He's named Wainwright, and he's something of an idiot. We just gave him an Article 15 for malingering. He's a major attitude problem. If he does something else, I'd like you to see me so we can arrange to have him up before me again. If he doesn't wash out, that is."

"Wainwright's the bad one. Name of the other one? Just kinda curious..."

"No time. Take your jackets...and get over to your classroom ASAP. I think they're waiting for you."

"Yessuh." The two men exchanged salutes and Hardy left.

Hardy checked his wristwatch as he washed his face in the Men's head. Ten minutes left. Not bad. He dried his face, and opened his portfolio to glance at his lesson outline. Nine minutes left. Not bad, he thought. Maybe I'm gonna survive this heah day.

He checked his hair. It looked okay. Eight minutes left. His uniform looked fine. He stepped out in the corridor and took a drink at the fountain. His mouth felt a little less dry.

Then, Hardy went up the stairwell to the third floor. He passed Room 301 and started a little as he heard Wildstar's voice through the closed door. Glancing through the window, Hardy saw that Derek had begun class early, and was already pointing to various parts of a huge pull-down schematic of a Super Starfighter.

Voice, presence, poise, thought Hardy as he walked down the corridor towards the closed door of Room 302. Command presence, boy. And don't tolerate insubordination from any of them. Shoot. Six minutes left. What am I gonna do? Ah'm dead, you heah me Lord, ah'm dead!

"You think it's going to be hard?" whispered a young man who was sitting right behind Ensign Angelique Burkhardt in Room 302. There were twenty-four high-backed briefing chairs, like in a ship's ready room, permanently attached to the deck in the classroom. All of them faced a dais that held a podium, a blackboard, a huge video panel, and a section for pull-down schematics in rolls in a carrier. However, only twelve of the seats were filled, so the students sat three to a row in the rows of six, with one seat between each student, even though each student had someone either behind or ahead of them. Seating had been by a predetermined seating chart, and each student had been assigned a seat, a seat where each would sit during all of ground school and during subsequent meetings of the group each morning in this classroom.

"I don't think so. What's your name?"

"Pearson. Ted Pearson. I'm just an Ensign, ma'am...and..."

"That's all right," said Angie with a soft smile, softly flipping some of her blond hair up over her white uniform collar. "We'll make it through this together, all of us."

"Really?" he whispered. "Look at your friends up there...the dark-haired girl...and...."

"And who?" asked Angie.

"You know. Her. She's already filled out the Orientation packet and she's starting on her notebook. I've never met someone with a record like that...let alone sat through training with someone that famous. "

"She's like the rest of us. She's here to learn," whispered Angie. "And as for that other girl, she's no friend of mine. She's...."

"Do I hear you talking about me, Burkhardt?" asked a raven-haired girl with piercing blue eyes who spoke in a whisper, but with a menacing Slavic accent.

"Not really," said Angie. "I'm simply mentioning that I don't really know you that well."

"Good," she said. "Because I'm going to do so well here that I'm going to make you wash out, Burkhardt. Then you can go home to California and cry in your mother's apron. You..."

"Excuse me," said the honey-blonde who sat one seat to the right of Tatiana Lubyanska. "Aren't we supposed to be quiet until the instructor shows up, Tatiana?"

Tatiana was about to snap a retort at Nova Forrester, but she thought better of it when she compared Nova's blue uniform collar (her prerogative as a Group Leader and Senior Lieutenant) to her own white Junior Lieutenant's collar. So Tatiana replied, "She's right, darlink," while looking acidly right at Burkhardt. "I think we'd do well to stifle our impulses, wouldn't you agree?"

Angie nodded coldly, wondering exactly what Tatiana had against her. She had never even met the girl face-to-face until PT that morning, and it seemed that, for some reason, Lubyanska just hated her on sight. She had been staring her down constantly while Nova, by virtue of her rank as the senior-most student of the squadron, had led the Red Centaurs through their calisthenics and run around the base that morning when they had met in formation before the Base monument on the cold parade ground, just as eleven other training squadrons were led through their morning routines in sweats by the senior student present as an exercise in group bonding. Angie wondered if Tatiana had tried to elbow her during part of the morning run. She had no idea if that was the case or not, so she had said nothing to anyone.

Angie also swore that, during the run, she had glimpsed Bryan Hartcliffe in one of the other training squadrons that ran past them in their run around the base. If that was the case...well, if that was the case, then Angie knew that she'd have to watch herself. That time with Bryan had gotten her into trouble, and she hadn't seen him again...but part of her wanted to see him again, while part of her hoped that she'd never see him again.

In short, at this point, Angelique Burkhardt didn't know if she loved Bryan Hartcliffe for being an adventurous party animal (somewhat like herself) or hated him for being such a cad. The nerve of him, getting me drunk like that and then taking advantage of me...even though it was so much fun being taken advantage of, she thought as she found herself sketching a picture of him on a blank page of her notebook, and then found herself scribbling it out as she looked up for the instructor.

Looking down towards the door, she spotted Nova Forrester, of all people, looking out the window with something like an almost dreamy look on her face as an authoritative voice that Angie didn't recognize filtered through the wall of the next classroom, somewhat muffled by distance and the substance of the wall itself. Angie caught Nova writing something in her notebook, and then looking down, glancing through long-lashed eyes at the notebook before fixing her gaze on the door.

Is she looking for the instructor...or thinking about something else before class starts? thought Angie, totally unaware that the authoritative but quiet senior officer of their squadron had been on a similar wavelength with her for a moment, but from a different end of the spectrum, namely because she recognized, all too well, the voice in the next room that sounded like a blur to Angie and the others. But, while Angie was thinking about an illicit romp in a closet with Bryan Hartcliffe, Nova Forrester had been writing, in small, fine letters in her notebook: the words: November 23, 2201--. So close...and yet so far. I wish the instructor would show up. Hearing HIM in the next room is just driving me mad! Why hasn't class started yet? Worse yet, why isn't it December 26th yet?

Luckily, no one saw Nova's small note to herself...a note she'd dutifully transcribe in her diary that night, as was her wont. Likewise, no one saw the doodle that Angie Burkhardt had drawn...a doodle she was blushing at as she looked through the scrawled lines on her paper.

Angie looked up at the clock. 8:14, she thought. When's that guy coming in?

8:14, thought Tatiana as she finished filling out her orientation packet. When's that instructor showing up so that I don't have to concentrate on this vapid Amerikanski next to me with the freaky glasses who almost cost me my life?

8:14, thought Nova as she covered over her diary entry with the first page of what would be her notes, with spaces prepared for the instructor's name, office location, and office hours. It was just as she had done for three years, without fail, during her time at the University of Colorado under the near-universal accelerated course of those days. The habits earned there also served her well in her subsequent active-duty training courses. When's class going to start? At least Derek's calmed down a little in there. I hope I didn't make his coffee TOO strong this morning....

8:14, thought Hardy as he stood outside, making sure his lecture notes were ready. I hope I don't make a jackass outta myself today....

Hardy then checked his chronograph. 8:15, he thought. Launch!

Thinking that it would be a neat idea, since he thought it was cool when the old-line instructors like Commodore Hoshiyama, Admiral Gideon, and Rear Admiral Eckart had started class each morning in this manner at the Space Fighters' Training School, Hardy made a decision. He was going to give them some old-line military snap on their first day. He was sure everyone in that room had either been exposed to those old salts or someone like them in their careers as cadets regardless of whether or not they had gone to the SFTS or some private school where they had been in ROTC. He walked up towards the door, pivoted, and then rapped smartly three times on the doorjamb before opening the door.

His blood froze a little as he heard the unmistakable voice of Nova snap, "Room, ATTENTION!," as she came to her feet, followed swiftly by eleven others, with the whole room at attention when he opened the door and strode in, giving the room a sharp glance before walking up to the podium and snapping his portfolio down sharply onto the podium.

"Good mornin', class," snapped Hardy.

"Good morning, SIR!" snapped all twelve trainees, their instincts and thoughts submerged in the group mind for the moment.

Hardy stood there, looking at the class. Ah don't believe it, he thought. I got Nova in mah class. The same lady that Buzz, Kayan and I did up with shavin' cream is one a' mah students! Oh, GREAAAT! If ah mess up, Wildstar's gonna KILL me! Still, gotta carry on!

"All hands...SEATS!" he snapped.

Everyone, at once, sat down, and sat with their pens at the ready.

"Good morning, everyone, mah name is Senior Lieutenant Jefferson Hardy. I'm heah because I've been assigned to teach all of you how to fly the Cosmo Tiger II, Type 2A, an all-purpose, multi-mission Astrofighter/Recon Aerospaceplane. Today, all of you are the 17th Astrofighter-Reconnaissance Group, known informally as the "Red Centaurs." Our purpose, and ouh mission, is to learn the specifications, mechanics, and particulars of the Cosmo Tiger II, Type 2A on the ground, put yuh in a simulator for a short time, and then put you in the real bird, first, with an instructor, and then in solo flight."

"After all of yew pass your solo check flight, provided you all pass, we will then concentrate on learning the fighter and reconnaissance tactics yew will all need to know to survive in the atmosphere and in space as a group. Then, if we have time, and if such a vessel becomes available because of the current material situation of the Fleet, ah'd like to have all of yew practice takeoffs from and landings aboard a capital warship before we progress to the final stage.

That final stage will be a simulated mission in which all of you will have the opportunity and the imperative to practice your recon skills and fighter tactics in a simulated battle that could easily make you a casualty in real life at full weapons powuh. It will be so challenging that if you mess up your flyin', you won't have to worry about washin' out, no more, 'cause you'll either be in a hospital bed for ages or standin' up before the Pearly Gates. However, none o' you are gonna mess up like that this cycle. See, the base commander's got a chip on his shoulder because two of his instructors screwed up and let people die in the last trainin' cycle. I ain't planning' on letting anyone die. If someone here doesn't have the right stuff, I'd sooner wash you out and letcha live than see you...mess up and die and take several million credits' worth of Government Property with yew!"

"If none o' you think you have the...stuff..." said Hardy, correcting himself yet again, substituting "stuff" for "cuyones" in his rant because he knew that 50% of his students didn't possess the anatomy necessary for that comment to make any sense as he paused. "If you think you don't have it, then you can march outta here, go see Captain Priceman, and request assignment to somethin' safer and less challenging than high-performance recon/fighter trainin' in the new model! Anyone want to leave?" asked Hardy as he walked over to the door and threw it open.

No one left.

"Good," he said as he quietly shut the door and took his place again. "Now, let's get those orientation packets done. Before we begin, I'll go around the room. I'm sure all of you got acquainted this mornin' durin' PT, but if yew didn't, I'll have every one of you sound off as I take your packet from you, givin' your name, rank, Group Assignment, and last assignment so we know what this new squadron's made of. Got that?"

Everyone nodded.

"Then, after we do that, I'll start telling' you all about the Cosmo Tiger II, Type 2A. You've got five minutes. Finish your packets if you haven't already!"

Hardy leaned against the podium and took a welcome breath as he watched the students filling out their packets. These were basically several sheets of paper stapled together to form a questionnaire in which each student gave their name, rank, quarters location, experience, awards, honors, and decorations, flight experience, and ultimate service goals, including assignments hoped-for in the next six months.

Five minutes passed as everyone wrote, with those who had completed their packets going over them again. Hardy gave them an extra minute, and then, he strode back to the rear of the room, to the far corner, near the windows.

"I'll take that," he said, taking the papers from a young Afro-American woman. "Sound off, would'ja?"

"Sir, my name is Pamela Daniels. My rank is Ensign, and I've been a Living Officer. My last assignment was as an environmental survey officer in Indonesia, where I flew a Type 100 "Starseeker". In six months, I hope to be assigned to a new space warship as part of her Living Group."

"All right," said Hardy. "Next."

"Sir," said a young Oriental man as he came to his feet. "My name's Junior Lieutenant Yasuo Kirishima. My last assignment was at Moonbase, where I flew a Cosmo Tiger as part of one of the Groups flying from the Moon Surface Air Station. I got to bring down a Cometine recon plane during the crisis, but I was on medical leave due to an inner-ear virus when Zordar attacked and melted the moon and killed many of my comrades. Since I've been assigned to learn Recon duty, I hope that my next assignment will be aboard a new carrier, where I can spot any enemy forces and report them ASAP."

Hardy nodded, and went on to the next officer. "Sir," said a red-haired young woman as she came to her feet. "My name's Lieutenant Colleen Schaefer. My last assignment was aboard the patrol cruiser Volga, from which I flew a Type 100 as a recon pilot. I hope to be reassigned to either a larger warship or a base, flying the new model. The most momentous moment of my life was watching a man I cared about die on my ship when a Cometine plane attacked us. I never got out in combat, though. I wished my plane would've had weapons so I could've gone out and given them what they deserve. I can't wait to get ready to do the same with the new model."

"Good sentiment," said Hardy, "but recon pilots don't LOOK for trouble. They look to get out of it. Your weapons are meant to give yuh that chance, not to settle scores. Next?" he said as he went over the far portion of the next row.

"Sir," said a dark-haired young woman. "My name's Ensign Tania Carefay. "I last served in Hawaii, flying out of Pearl as an environmental survey pilot in a Starseeker. I haven't done that much in my life, and haven't met so many distinguished persons before, sir. I hope to go on in the Fleet, serving in another such environmental survey post, maybe even on an interstellar ship. Maybe even..."

"The Star Force?" said a mocking, Russian-accented voice from the front of the room as several persons chuckled. Hardy raised his hand and snapped, "If anyone else laughs or makes any rude comments, you'll be doin' PT with me after class in mah office! Ah don't need no malarkey today! GOT THAT?"

Silence reigned for a moment. "Good. Most o' yew probably heard where ah been last. Anyone in this room can get there given the proper determination and skills, so it ain't a joke to think any o' you can make it there. Some o' us have, and we're just people who put on our pants one leg at a time like the rest o' you! No one in this heah room is a plaster saint, and no one in heah is little Mister or Miss Nobody! GOT that?!" snapped Hardy, surprised that his thoughts were coming that fast.

Silence reigned again as Hardy went to the next person. "You are?"

"Sir, my name's Ensign John Wainwright," said a tall, thin, man with his dark hair in a crewcut as he stood up and Hardy thought Yoah the one the Old Man warned me about. What's yoah problem?

Hardy looked on as Wainwright continued with, "I last served on Mars Base. I was a recon pilot flying a Starseeker. Never been in combat, though. I'd like, sir, to serve on a carrier in a recon squadron. I've got no scores to settle...I'm just Joe Average, I guess," he joked. "That's all there is to it."

Hardy went on to the next person, a stocky man who wore a senior officer's blue collar. "You are?"

"Sir, my name's Senior Lieutenant Eric Wojneski," said the young dark-haired man. "I last served on the spacecraft carrier Hornet where I flew a Tiger. I was home on emergency leave due to a death in the family when Admiral Gideon called the Fleet to Saturn-Titan, and so, I guess I missed everything. I liked the camaraderie as a squadron member on the Hornet, and I'd like to be on another boat soon as a Recon Squadron leader. However, I'll settle for a base if I have to go anywhere else. That's all, sir."

"Okay," said Hardy as he mentally pegged the mature Wojneski as a potential flight leader, and not just by virtue of his rank, either.

"Going down the line are?"

"Ensign Zvi Mendelmann, sir. I flew a Type 100, and served as an environmental survey pilot flying out of Iran, sir. I'd like to be assigned to a planetary base, flying survey missions. I'm glad I was assigned here, sir."

"So am I," said Hardy. "You sound like yew have a good attitude. Next. Yew are?"

"Sir, my name's Ensign Ted Pearson," said the young blond-haired man confidently. "I flew an Astro-Fox out of Mars Base until recently, and I'd like to take the new model and fly recon missions out of the outer solar system. I'm looking forward to flying the new model, sir. That's that."

"Next?" said Hardy, standing before an Afro-American man.

"Sir, my name's Lieutenant Gabe Jackson. I flew both Type 100's and Super Starfighters in my career. My last assignment was to the 23rd Interceptor Squadron, the Silver Foxes, flying missions out of Ganymede Base. When Zordar showed up, I took care of some stragglers. And if anyone here thinks combat is fun, it's not...not when you see your buddies buy the farm out in deep space. I'd like to get on a carrier or battlewagon if I can, when we build more. Never flown off a ship before, so I'd like to learn."

"Good career objective," said Hardy. "Now, ah'm up heah in the front row," he said, looking down at Forrester, Lubyanska and Burkhardt. "If yew don't maind a joke, if any one a' you gives me a guy's name, you'h in trouble!," he snapped, making the room laugh a bit. "Now, hopin' that yew three ain't named Frank, Steve, or Joe," he said, going on down to Angie, "Would you mind telling me your name?"

"Sir, my name's Ensign Angelique Burkhardt. I was in combat, and, well, I flew a Starseeker," she said in her breathy California-type voice as two guys in the back of the room snickered.

"Who was that?" barked Hardy.

"Us, sir," said Kirishima and Wainwright as they stood to attention.

"And why were you laughing at Miss Burkhardt?"

"Because, sir, she sounds like she's from California," said Wainwright.

"Yeah. We thought she sounded like she came straight from the beach," said Kirishima.

"Well, can she help where she comes from?" snapped Hardy. "Can you, Kirishima, help it cause you come from Great Island, or you, Wainwright, sound laike you come from Whitebread, Nebraska?"

"No, sir."

"You remain standin' until we're done! After everyone's done, you two idiots will meet me on the parade ground, drop and gimme thirty good ones. GOT THAT!??"

"YESSIR!" they barked.

"Continue, Miss Burkhardt!" snapped Hardy.

"I...well...I flew my Starseeker off the patrol cruiser Bosporus. I'd like to serve on another ship, if I can manage it...a bigger ship," she said with a blush. "That's all I've got to say, sir," she said.

"Be seated, then," said Hardy. "Next. YOU," snapped Hardy as he pointed at Tatiana.

"Sir, my name's Tatiana Lubyanska. I was in combat, too. I had seven kills in the battle of Triton, flying a single-seat Cosmo Tiger II. I enjoy fighting and I enjoy combat! My most exciting moment, recently, was seeing three Cometines fall prey to my lasers in just two minutes flat! However, I'd like to diversify my career a little, so I'd like to serve a hitch flying recon planes, as well. I got my wish, sir. I consider myself lucky. Someday, I would like to command a fighter Group of my own, though. That's my life goal, sir."

"Well, you're smart, you're tough, and you don't have an assertiveness problem," snapped Hardy. "But heah, remember that yoah heah to learn, not to teach US what to do, and especially not me!"

"Now, last of all, for you," he said, facing Nova. "You are?"

"Sir, my name's Nova Forrester. I've been in combat recently, although not in a plane. The last thing that I flew was a Type 100, and all my flight time's been in survey and recon missions. My last assignment, where I didn't fly much, was aboard the space battleship Argo. I...I think everyone here knows what we did recently. My most terrifying moment recently was seeing Prince Zordar himself laughing at us over our video screen. I'd like to go back on the Argo at some point soon and explore some more interesting places, but my ultimate goal in life is to become a medical officer and help people. I've...already seen too much fighting. It's not pretty, and it's not glorious. I recently heard someone tell me "War does not allow us to be our better selves", and he was absolutely right."

Everyone was silent, until Lubyanska whispered, "Ma'am, whoever told you that must have been a real WIMPSKI!"

"Lubyanska!" barked Hardy, who made Tatiana jump.

"Yes...Yessir," she said.

"You get back up. When Kirishima and Wainwright give me their thirty after class, yoah givin' me, FORTY, Miss! On yoah feet! NOW!"

Tatiana stood up.

"If I've told you once, I've told all of you twice," barked Hardy. "This is not a GAME! We are in a deadly, nasty business! War's a serious thing! Anyone who's been there and thinks it's fun is a sick puppy! You all got that?"

"Yes, SIR!" barked the class.

"I can't HEAH you!" yelled Hardy.

"Yes, SIR!" they yelled, not feeling so bad when they heard the class in the next room going through a similar exchange. Over the silence, Nova clearly heard Derek barking, "and if YOU think it's funny, Mister Hartcliffe, you can do pushups ALL day out on that parade field, Mister!"

"Are we ready to teach, yet?" asked Hardy.

"Yessir!" barked the class, but Nova put up her hand.

"Yes. Recognized, if you have somethin' to contribute!" barked Hardy. "Stand up and spit it out!"

Nova came to her feet and said, "For the information of those who don't know where I recently heard the expression "War does not allow us to be our better selves..." I heard it personally from Desslok of Gamilon before he told us how to defeat the Comet Empire, sir. More than ever, I maintain that our former enemy was correct. I think today we've seen more than enough evidence of that, sir. If I can speak freely, I think it's a shame, especially since we're seeing that sort of behavior on our side. But we shouldn't prejudge anyone. If Desslok can change, so can anyone else."

"Thank you, Miss Forrester. That was a worthy contribution," said Hardy. "But if yew forget to gain the floor, yew'll be in mah office doin' pushups with the other jokers that day, and that goes for any one of yew! GOT it?" he said, rolling up his eyes at the class.

"YESSIR!," they barked.

"Now, " said Hardy as he turned to the board, rolling up his eyes again and shaking his head while the miscreants sat down after he motioned for them to do so, "...let's take a look at the design of the Cosmo Tiger II, Model 2A," he said, as he pulled down a chart. "The plane is built in the following manner...."

On that note, Hardy's class progressed, going on without further incident until lunchtime, when the miscreants spent their time with Hardy doing their punishments. Little was Hardy to know that so much of the training cycle was thus prophesied the very first day....


Garalenda System

The Edge of the Milky Way

Vicinity of the Former Fifth Defense

Line of the Gamilon Empire

November 25, 2201

0942 Hours-Spacetime

Just twelve or so Earth days after their final confrontation with the Star Force, the Gamilon Fleet arrived at the edge of the Garalenda System.

Desslok had just come back up to the command bridge of the Eliasite. Talan could tell, based upon his walk and the deliberation on his face, that Desslok had come to a decision.

"Talan?," he said.


"Open up a link to the entire Fleet. The time has come. I must speak to all of our men and women throughout the Fleet. Have them gathered and on station before their viewscreens as soon as possible."

"Yessir!" said Talan with a smile, and more than a hint of determination in his voice. At last, he thought.

Soon, every Gamilon throughout the Fleet was at attention. A moment later, Desslok's image appeared throughout the Fleet.

"Officers and soldiers of Gamilon," said Desslok. "Again, I salute you! The honor of Gamilon, our homeland, has just been tested, and we have prevailed, although not in the manner that I anticipated..." said Desslok with a long, and significant pause. "Gentlemen, with the passing of our alliance with the Prince Zordar of the Comet Empire, and the defeat of the Gatlantis mothership near Earth, one era of Gamilon history has just ended, and a new one is now about to dawn!"

"For a long time, we have been homeless, living as strangers in far places. I thank you again for all that we have borne together, and all that we will yet bear."

"When we first reunited, even as my heart burned with the flame of vengeance, I felt I was fighting hard to save Gamilon. Even though our war with Earth has not make the mistake of thinking that its intended end, the desire to save the Gamilon race, has ended with it!"

"The universe extends to infinity. Somewhere, at the end of our journey, a new home, a new Gamilon, awaits our arrival. Today, we shall begin our quest for the new homeworld that awaits us. Here, today, we shall take our first step, as we make way for Garalenda. Here, we will begin to rebuild the Fleet, so that we will be ready for the day when we again have our home, the day when our new, better way of life shall begin at last!"

"On that day, gentlemen, we shall again begin to forge a new Empire from the ashes of our long war; and it shall be an Empire based upon our most urgent need; the defense of our new homeland! For that reason, and for that reason above all, we will need to be strong. Here, we shall remain in order to begin rebuilding. Then, we shall head further into our old domain, to Miralden, near our old Third Defense Line. Then, our quest will truly commence!"

"Gentlemen, I would now like to extend my appreciation for all you have done and all you have borne, and I would like to tell you that, from this day forth, I shall expect even more! Together, we will at long last return home to a new homeland!"

At that, all of the troops saluted and began to cheer loudly.

Desslok returned the salute, as Talan turned to him and said, "Again...Magnificent!"

When the cheering died down, Desslok was about to open his mouth to speak again, but he stopped when he saw a grey-clad staff officer approaching Talan with a message padd.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Leader Desslok," said the officer. "We have just made contact with one of our picket destroyers operating from out of Garalenda..."

"...And?" asked Desslok.

"The destroyer's crew reported that they were attacked not long ago, just before our arrival."

"Attacked?" asked Desslok as his face hardened. " whom?"

"They reported that their communications equipment was damaged, so they regret not being able to send a clearer picture," said the staff officer as a hazy image appeared on the screen. "This was the image that they picked up before they intercepted the enemy and sent it to its end, with the loss of half the destroyer's crew in the battle..."

A moment later, the blurry image of a missile boat appeared on the screen. Talan's eyebrows went up for a moment; since the coloration was totally unfamiliar to him. The enemy boat was painted in a strange two-tone grey scheme; light grey on most of its superstructure, with a dark, almost charcoal-grey underbelly and tail.

The configuration, however, was not unfamiliar to Talan, and it was even more familiar to Desslok, whose mouth came grimly set as he thought about the import of the missile boat's configuration.

"Cometines," he hissed. "One of their Space Scorpion boats, Talan."

"What are they doing out here?" mused Talan.

"General Dyre once boasted to me that Zordar's House controlled all of our old domains. It appears his boast was not an idle one, Talan," said Desslok with gritted teeth.

"But, those aren't the colors of Zordar's House, are they?" asked Talan.

"No, they're not," said Desslok. "As to which House they are...I have an inkling, but we shall have to capture and ...interview...a pilot of theirs to be certain. I am certain of one fact, though, Talan."

"And that is?"

"Their intentions are not friendly," said Desslok. "And, as long as they stand in our way, or, make any sort of move to threaten any of my allies, old, or new, my intentions toward them will be far from felicitous, either. Am I clear, Talan?"

"Yessir," he snapped.

"Good. In order for our enemies...whomever they are, to be aware of the same, we will remain at a high level of alert until we reach Garalenda. Order our fighter patrols to take off at once to maintain our inner perimeter. Our destroyers will maintain our outer perimeter, as usual."

"Of course, sir," said Talan.

Again, it begins, thought Desslok grimly as Gamilon fighters and bombers began to roar off the carrier's flight decks. And, again, we have a cause to fight for...and intruders to oppose.

"Cometine...devils..." hissed Desslok to himself as he stared out into space.



Federal Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Building 400

November 26, 2201

1806 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

A few days later, on Thursday, Hardy and Wildstar got together again over a rushed dinner in the commissary at about 1800. Hardy asked Wildstar how it was going for him, and Derek told him, "Good group...just have two with shaky grades on the first test."


"This guy named Tannenberg, and this female named Carroway," said Wildstar as he took several bites of food. "What about you?" he said after a minute.

"I have four," said Hardy. "Don't know what's with these trainees."

"Hardy, is it true you don't like this bunch because they're half females?"

"Yoah right! Who told yuh?" he asked.

"Scuttlebutt. That's all," said Wildstar. "No trainees from your squadron have been talking to me about this at all, in case you were wondering. For one thing, most of them don't know me. For another thing...those who do...make a pointed practice of keeping quiet about your training other than the usual pleasantries about your doing a great job and being fair."

"Glad to heah I'm bein' fair," said Hardy. "I'm tryin' to be...but still...I don't like it."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't feel very gallant about trainin' a young lady to go out and shoot down an enemy pilot, because ah don't think it's womanly, and I can't see the idea of some young lady bein' shot down or crashin' her plane. It even happens in trainin', ya know. Someone from the White Vipers turned into a grease spot on Tuesday, ya know..."

"Yeah," said Wildstar. "I know."

"How do you feel about it?"

"I don't feel very gallant doing this sort of thing, either," said Wildstar. "For example: my trainee Laurel Hartmann is really good. Much better than I expected. She's picking up things about the Super Starfighter that I have to think about to remember; and I've been flying the plane regularly for over two years."

"Such as?"

"Tech data. Maximum airspeed; rate of weapons fire, details about the fire control tactics and maneuvers the plane can name it...she seems to know it word-perfect."

Hardy took a deep breath. "Hell...Got someone laike that in my squadron, too. Knows stuff about the Taiguh I'm surprised about; stuff like the chemical composition of the primer warhead for the missile. Person's seeming to remember it by comparin' it to the organic benzene ring!"

"What's this person's gender?"


"Let me guess; life-science background?"

"The only one theh with a full nursin' certification."

"And...was she Star Force?," asked Wildstar with a grim sort of grin.

Hardy just nodded. "And ah think you know who I'm talkin' about. Shoot...she's HARD to trip up in class discussions."

"Class rank?"

"Somewhere between first and second outta twelve."

"Like Hartmann," grins Wildstar. "Funny...isn't it? We both have misgivings about these females in fighter planes...but they're blowing the doors off the rest of the class."

"This is ground school. Wait until we put them in a cockpit," said Hardy.

"That's what I'm worried about," said Wildstar. "And...not only for the most obvious reason. I'm worried about it, too."

"Can ah heah why?"

"Well," began Wildstar with a swallow. "You know that flying a fighter is inherently dangerous. You know I've always hated writing those condolence letters to widows, mothers, girlfriends...children of those left behind when someone messed up on the Argo on any one of her missions. I don't like seeing those portraits go up over graves at Heroes' Hill...for anyone. But, for a fighting come to expect it," said Wildstar with a sigh. "I hate sending people to die...but it's part of our profession. A part I don't like, but a part I live with."

"Ah know what cha mean."

"But...when you have a female in that makes it worse," sighed Wildstar. "You remember Kristin Barrows...from our first mission to Iscandar? The sergeant in Living Group with two kids?"

Hardy nodded, but added, "Two kids...?"

"And a husband ill with radiation sickness. When we got home from Iscandar...I felt obligated to visit those children in the orphanage...tell them how brave they were...and how brave their mother was...and tell them a little of how she died at Rainbow Galaxy. They cried. I didn't. Not then. I cried later on, though...luckily..."

"Nova helped ya through that one. Ah remember it. She talked to me about it a night later, after one of the parties you didn't make..."

"Yeah. And that's the hardest point of all. This Laurel...I know she doesn't have children...but what if she crashed and then...burned…was injured...or even died? How would I face her parents, Hardy? How would I face her boyfriend...if she has one? How could I tell another man that the person he cherishes the most in the whole world is dead...and it might be my fault for not teaching her enough?"

Hardy took a very deep breath, and couldn't look Wildstar in the eye. " yew know exactly what ah'm goin' through teachin' all six of those females in mah squadron...especially..."

"I know," said Wildstar as he grasped Hardy's hand across the table. "I you know...why I don't feel too great about...well...females in planes. The danger's much too great...and the risks they take...they..."

Wildstar suddenly stopped talking as soon as someone handed him a fresh plastic cup of tomato juice from behind without even asking. Hardy's mouth fell open as the newcomer softly said, "Gentlemen...EVERYONE here will be taking a risk next week when we start to fly...instructors... as WELL as trainees."

"Nova...I...," stammered Wildstar as he turned his head to look his fiancée in the eye.

"You can't sit heah," grinned Hardy. "Students can't fraternize with instructors. You know the rules, Nova."

"Then, you'll have to leave, sir, won't you?" grinned Nova. "You see, I'm just sitting down beside my fiancée, thank you," said Nova as she sat down.

"See ya later, Hardy," said Wildstar.

"No, wait," said Hardy. " Belay that. I'm stayin'. I'll just pretend you ain't heah, Nova."

"Good. I'll pretend I didn't hear that, sir," smiled Nova sweetly. "As I was saying, I worry about the instructor of one of these squadrons just as much as he worries about one of our trainees. The last time I checked...I heard that it was nearly as risky for experienced instructors to fly Super Starfighters as it is for trainees to fly Tigers. And....instructors also leave behind widows...orphans...and bereaved fiancées...when they crash...just like female pilots who have the misfortune of being in accidents. If men take can women...GENTLEMEN," said Nova sternly.

"You're right," said Derek after a long, awkward moment. "But I still want you to be careful...don't try to show everyone up...remember...this is just training..."

"I'll remember that if a certain Super Starfighter pilot I know remembers that he's supposed to be an instructor and not a hotshot up there," retorted Nova with a little smile. "Got that?"

"Yeah," said Wildstar. "Uh, where are you going?

"I forgot a tomato juice, Derek. I'll be right back," said Nova quickly and quietly.

"Your top student, I take it?" asked Wildstar with a slow grin.

"Shoot, don't rub it in, suh," whispered Hardy.

"She's earned it," said Wildstar. "I came by the other night to drop something off, and she had her nose in every reference manual on the Cosmo Tiger II that you could think of. When Nova studies, believe me, she studies."

"And, she's already got a special job, even though she doesn't know it. Her classroom grades'll justify it," said Hardy seriously.

"What in blazes are you assigning her to, Hardy?"

"Easy. She's gonna be the leader of the flight that ah'm putting both Angie and Tatiana in. Ah figure if Nova kept Knox and his hardened, rough Space Marines in line without throwing a punch, she'll find it a piece of cake to baby-sit two other females. Solves mah problem easy as pie, Wildstah. Didja pull this one off for me?"

"No...I didn't," said Wildstar angrily. "And, if you don't train Nova with one hundred and twenty percent of your attention, keep her from crashing her plane, and keep her out of trouble, Hardy, you're dead meat," said Wildstar with fire in his eyes. "Got that?"

"Whooo," said Hardy. "And ah thought you were gonna be mad at me, Wildstah!"

At that, both men looked at each other angrily and began to laugh uproariously to break the tension. Their laughter grew louder, and louder, and Wildstar almost fell off his chair.

A moment later, Nova showed back up, looking bemused at the two men as she stood there holding an extra cup of tomato juice. She got their attention by clearing her throat a few times.

When Derek and Hardy finally looked over, Nova smiled again. "Good," she said. "Thank you. You two can get back to your little joke in a few minutes, after I give Hardy this tomato juice, even though, of course, it's a gift you don't deserve, any more than I deserved that shaving cream," added, looking at Hardy.

"What do you mean?" asked Hardy.

"You know what I mean," said Nova with a frosty smile as she sat down.

"Well, WHAT do you mean?" asked Wildstar insistently, as he turned to glare at Hardy.

"Quantico," said Nova softly. "Mister Kayan, Mister Rutherford, and Mister Hardy's interrogation of two of their captives during that wargame. Need I say more?"

"What do you mean?" said Derek in a deadly low voice. "And what was that about shaving cream?"

"Well...." said Hardy. " was her friend Natalie that got the most of it...and...Nova...ah'm really sorry. Ah didn't mean it!"

"Hardy. Are you saying you smeared shaving cream in my fiancée's hair the other day down in Quantico?," asked Wildstar.

"Just a we wouldn't discriminate....and it was Buzz's idea...and..."

Wildstar glowered at Hardy, until an idea occurred to him. "Hardy, if this had been any other time, and in any other situation with Nova, I'd be livid. Totally livid. But, I've learned to control myself. Really. And, as a concession to your stupidity, you can just stand there in training for the next few days, trying to earn back the respect of one of your own while you lecture her, without a word of advice from me, and a repeat of what I said before. If you mess up, Hardy, and get her in any sort of trouble, you will be in so much trouble, you won't know what to do. Got it?"

"Yeah...ah got it, Wildstah. Ah got it," said Hardy in a cold sweat as both Derek and Nova looked at him.

Derek smiled to himself, watching his comrade sweat. Revenge, thought Wildstar, is a dish best served cold. And I understand it gets VERY cold in those classrooms....

Hardy then looked at Nova, unsure of what she'd do, until she handed him a glass of tomato juice. "This is a peace offering of sorts. Your apology is accepted," she sighed. "I went up there and got another one when I remembered that you liked that on the Argo almost as much as Derek did, Jeff," said Nova to Hardy.

"Yeah...I did. Thanks, Nova. But don't tell any of the other trainees you're into buyin' me tomato juice! They'll think you're bribing me for good grades."

"I won't…sir..." said Nova impishly. "I also won't tell them about how a certain... female... helped patch you up on the Argo back in 2199 after you crashed a Black Tiger, okay?"

"Wildstar, once again, ah think one of my students is engagin' in fraternization with the instructor," said Hardy.

"Hardy...she didn't say who the female was," said Wildstar.

"Did she?"

"No...but we all know it was..."

"And in the interests of discipline, let's save the rest of this for the Officer's Club...on Sunday night, over some beer, okay?" said Nova.

"Right," said Hardy. "Don't you have to study?"

"Yes...after I eat something, sir," said Nova with a smile as she set down her tray and began to nibble at a salad. "Derek...if it's all right, do you think we can meet at the house site after our classes next Wednesday night?"

"The house?"

"Yes. I'd like to see how it's coming, and I'd like you there with me if you can find the time, Derek."

" Wednesday's a short training day for me...what about you?"

"Will be if they don't screw up and have ta put in extra houhs," chuckled Hardy.

"Sounds like we have everything set, then," said Wildstar.

"Derek, I have someone from my squadron I'd like you to meet over lunch one day next week. I think I'd like to ask her to help us out on the day after Christmas."


"A young lady named Angelique Burkhardt. She's from my squadron, and I've sort of been helping her out during training."

"No problem."

"You're helpin' Angie?" asked Hardy.

"Well...who else would I be helping...Tatiana?" retorted Nova. "I tried, after our first test was posted, but you know Tatiana...she knows everything."

"She thinks she does," added Hardy by way of clarification, "But, in actuality, she knows nothing!"

"You told me about her," said Wildstar. "Didn't she do well in combat?"

"She did, but if she don't straighten out and fly raight, she's gonna crash and burn in mah class. You got anyone laike that, Wildstar?"

"Hartcliffe," said Wildstar as he rolled up his eyes.

"Even ah've heard about him," said Hardy. "Isn't he datin'...or, rather...tryin' to...conquah...another student?"

Nova cleared her throat rather loudly at that one.

"He's datin', then, let's say" said Hardy, suitably corrected.


"Scuttlebutt has it Hartcliffe's been seen with someone we was just talkin' about, Wildstah."

"Angie?" said Wildstar. "That explains it. I just had to yell at Hartcliffe the other day for something really weird."

"What did you give it to him for?," asked Hardy.

"Caught him doodling a picture of Angie in his notebook during a class and showing it off to another trainee."

"So?" said Nova. "I once noticed YOU doodling a picture of me on our way home from Iscandar, Derek..."

"It was during a break in the messhall on scrap paper, Nova...and NOT in a class, during a lecture." snapped Wildstar, embarrassed. He was blushing at the memory. "Also, I believe I drew a dress and boots on you."

"It was a minidress," said Nova with a smile.

"It was more than this trainee drew on HIS girlfriend. His artwork was a nude of her."

"Oh?" said Nova with a raised eyebrow.

"A very raunchy nude..."

"How raunchy was it?" asked Hardy with a grin on his face while Nova rolled up her eyes.

"HARDY!" snapped Nova. "Sir...aren't you supposed to be setting an example?"

"Yes...Right," said Hardy. "Now..."

"Derek...look over there," whispered Nova as she pulled at her fiancée's sleeve. "Two tables over to the left..."

Everyone at the table went silent as Derek looked over, just in time to see...Bryan Hartcliffe...and Angelique Burkhardt...holding hands and staring at each other as if they were in a singles' club.

"Those two! We...we were reading their files the other day!" barked Wildstar.

"Wait a minute, weren't they...the the broom closet on Titan Base?" asked Hardy.

"Derek, what IS going on?" squeaked Nova.

"They were once caught fraternizing, Nova. I don't mind the concept of my trainees dating..." said Wildstar slowly.

"...But...not here in the open during training," said Hardy grimly. "Wildstah...if the Old Man catches them doin' that on duty durin' dinner..."

"I know," said Derek grimly.

"We need to talk to them," said Hardy.

"I can help with Burkhardt...I think," whispered Nova.

"How?" said Wildstar.

"Easy. Just tell them about the clubs you and I go to off-base...and advise her to make eyes at him THERE. And, stay away from broom closets," she said with a blush. "How'd this happen?"

"Easy," said Hardy. "Nova, the English boy got your surfer babe friend good and drunk and he had his way with huh. Ah'll leave out all the gory details, Nova, outta respect for your ladyship."

"Thanks," grunted Nova.

" you think you should...?" asked Derek.

"No. It'd only cause a scene. But...hmmm...if the Scuttlebutt gets around..."

"The Scuttlebutt Express probably already has them logged and noted, Nova," said Hardy with a shake of his head that caused his forelock to fly crazily around for a minute. "And we can't do a thing about THAT."

"Did you have your office talk with her yet?" asked Nova.

"You know darn well our class finished that today," said Hardy.

"If I can give you advice, Hardy...I'd talk with her tomorrow," suggested Nova.

"I will. You'll have the responsibility for huh, too," said Hardy pointedly.


"Flight leaders are bein' posted tomorrow on the basis of grades," said Hardy. "And if you don't know by now that you'h helpin' me run this show, Nova, then maybe you ain't as bright as you look."

"But isn't it against regs for...?" began Nova.

"I didn't come right out and TELL yew the whole list, did ah?" grinned Hardy. "And, besides, it was my educated guess from day one you'd be a flight leaduh, Nova. You'h smart. Everyone knows that."

"But you still violated regs," said Wildstar.

"Regs," said Hardy with a laugh. "Nova, no offense, ah hope...but you know what they say about couples."

"What?" asked Nova.

"They say that if they hang around each other enough...they begin to take on each other's characteristics," grinned Hardy evilly. "Nova. I think you're startin' to become like Wildstah in some ways..."

"Now what in blazes do you mean by that, Hardy?" shot Wildstar.

"...And, I think in some ways...youah becoming like HER...although not in a bad way, mind yew."

"So…sir?" said Nova in a flat tone of voice.

"Well...yew two are gonna be married in about a yew two can go home to the BOQ and figure that one out for yoahselves. Ah don't mess around with yoah personal lives. See you in class tomorrow mornin', Miss Forrester. PREFERABLY without circles under yoah eyes!"

At that, Hardy left, leaving Derek and Nova to stare at each other, mutter, and shake their heads.



Federal Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Officers' Club

November 29, 2201

1939 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

"Lord Almighty, mah ahm..." groaned Jefferson Hardy while rubbing his elbow.

"Hey, Hardy, what happened to it?" demanded his drinking buddy, Ensign Paul Rosstowski. Rosstowski had, until recently, been an enlisted man on the Argo. He had served ever since the first mission to Iscandar as a member of the Combat Group. Later, he had received a battlefield promotion to Ensign during the Comet Empire crisis after Dash's second-in-command of the Artillery Section had been killed by an explosion fighting fires on the Argo after she had been rammed by a cruiser during Saturn-Titan. As Rosstowski had been the ship's Chief Master-at-Arms, he had been the ideal candidate to fill that hold in the Combat Group's command structure. So, the young, hard-working, long-time enlisted man was now sitting in the Officers' Club for the first time, having been dragged here by his old comrade Dash.

"Nothing...just bumped mah funny bone in the booth."

"Looking at that blonde at ten o'clock? " grinned Rosstowski.

"Not at all, son."

"You must still be injured, sir," said Rosstowski, while tipping back a beer. His dark eyes glowered over the bottle for a moment at his old shipmate.

"Hey, what'cha mean, INJURED?" said Hardy.

Dash added, "The blonde at eight o' clock's got a shorter skirt on, THAT'S all!" he said with a laugh.

"That's better," said Paul in his Mid-Atlantic accent, which contrasted sharply with Hardy's Georgia accent. "I was getting worried about you for a minute, sir."

"Should you tell him, or me?" said Dash.

"Me. Son, you're breakin' protocol," said Hardy.

"What'cha mean?"

"It's against regs for you, boy, to call me SIR when we're drinking beer in the O Club. Got it?"


"Relax," said Dash. "We're all here to have some drinks and enjoy ourselves...that's all..."

"Okay," said Rosstowski, turning to greet someone else as they appeared in the booth. "Hey, whoa!" he said in his flat, prosaic manner. "It's Eager!"

Lieutenant Eager rolled up his eyes as he sat down.

"How come ya ain't in uniform, laike us?" asked Hardy inquisitively as he pointed out his Standard Duty Blues and Rosstowski's, although Hardy was wearing a black flight jacket over his blues.

"Wasn't on duty like you guys," said Eager.

"We weren't really on regular duty today, either," said Rosstowski. " He was out in a Tiger racking up some more hours, and I met him at the base after I put in a few hours flying a Medevac Boat around; that's all."

"Ah knew you could fly a boat, Rosstowski," said Eager. "But when'ja learn?"

"Well, remember how they needed utility boat pilots on the way to Iscandar after we suffered all those losses?" asked Rosstowski. "It was at that time that Hardy taught me how to fly a shuttlecraft, and later, I learned how to fly maintenance boats and Medevac Boats," said Rosstowski.

"What's this thing you fighter jocks got about "rackin' up hours?"," asked Eager.

"You idiot," grinned Rosstowski. "I'm not a fighter pilot. I'm a boat pilot, and that's icing on the cake to my job as a gunner," said the dark-haired young man earnestly. "You'd never get me in a fighter plane in a million smeggin' years."

"Why not, boy, yuh maight laike it," said Hardy.

"No...armor," said Rosstowski with emphasis. "I don't like flying around and engaging the enemy in a ship without armor. Haven't I told you that before?"

"Ah think you'h a party-pooper, son," said Hardy. "Too bad yuh never took me up on flying a Black Taiger foah keeps. You would've liked it!"

"Sir, as I told you years ago, I'll tell you now...NO WAY!" said Rosstowski earnestly.

"Well, fighter pilot or not," said Eager, "What's this here thing you guys got with rackin' up hours?"

"Let him explain it," said Dash as Eager looked at him. "Hardy's the fighter jock here."

"Eager, you must've deep-fried your brain after all those hours YUH spent behind that tactical radar on the Argo," said Hardy in amazement. "The reason pilots need to "rack up hours" is to keep up their edge and proficiency. Don't you know that, boy?"

"Ah guys make such a THING outta this. It's a religion to yew!" said Eager.

"Aren't you an Assistant Ship's Pilot, son?" asked Hardy. "You must've had to rack up hours flying the Argo."

"Mostly when you guys were sleepin'," joked Eager.

"Oh...THAT'S why I felt my bunk shaking on the way to Iscandar," said Rosstowski. "Not because YOU, Hardy, were hiding something in your compartment."

"If I was, you wouldn't have known 'bout it," said Hardy. "What'cha doin in civvies, seriously?" asked Hardy while glancing at Eager. "When did they let you out of the hospital?"

"The twenty-fifth," he said. "They were afraid that I had some internal damage they couldn't spot on a scan from one of the falls I they wanted to be sure before they let me out again. Right now, I'm on TDY at Halesite Missile Battery," he said, referring to an outlying ground-to-air missile station on Long Island. "Just didn't have duty tonight, that's all."

"So you're out looking for some action," said Hardy with a leer and a wink.

"Not that kind. Got a girlfriend back home in the Lone Star State."

"What?" said Hardy. "Yew've got a girlfriend?"

"Darn straight," said Eager, ignoring Rosstowski's suddenly glum expression for the moment.

"Really?" said Hardy. "What's her name?"

"Lisa," said Eager. "Got a picture of her in my wallet. Have a look," he said, pulling out and tossing a small photo towards Hardy and Rosstowski.

"Well, least she's blonde," said Hardy. "Ah see she's got blue eyes. What's she look like...y'know…below the neck?"

"Tacky, tacky, tacky," chuckled Dash.

"No, I'm a Southern gentleman," said Hardy. "You're tacky."

"C'mon, guys, let Eager have the floor," said Rosstowski.

"Thanks, Paul. Well, she's short, cute, likes gingham dresses. Met her when I was a kid in Briggs, Texas, before the bombin's" said Eager.

"Still seeing the girl back home.." said Rosstowski. "WOW," he snorted sarcastically.

"What's goin' on?" said Eager, surprised that Hardy was silent. "I mean, what's your problem, Paul? You MARRIED the girl back home! I still have to get Lisa her ring. What's..."

Rosstowski said slowly, and with emphasis, as a contemporary version of an old song called Seasons in the Sun came up on the jukebox. "The PROBLEM, Eager, is that for me, Clarissa Rosstowski is no LONGER the girl back home! Don't you know that? Didn't I tell you that on the mission, you chowderhead? We were having problems, she was talking divorce at the beginning of the year, and she went and FILED it in late January. She threw me out right before I was to leave to join the patrol cruiser Kikori in February. Threw me right out in the middle of the smeggin' night, too."

"Really?" asked Eager.

"Really," snapped Paul. "It was at 0110 in the morning on January 19, 2201, if you're wondering. I tried to go by your place, but you weren't there," he said, looking at Hardy, "and Dash wasn't around either, and Kato's wife told me he was off on the other side of the world training then. I asked her what I was gonna do, and, God bless her, she got on the phone to Nova Forrester. Then, I ended up spending the night in Nova's living room being counseled over hot cocoa until she pulled a few strings in the morning to get me assigned to new quarters the next day."

"Shoot, I never knew that!" said Eager. "Sorry to hear that, Rosstowski."

"That's all right. I haven't wanted to confide in a lot of people about this. You can see why," said Rosstowski as he put his head down, staring at the table. The fall of the shadows in the dim Officer's Club against his features and the new white junior officers' collar of his uniform made him look just as moody and melancholy as he actually was.

"You said the divorce went through fast," said Eager. "When did ya get the papers?"

"They handed them to 'im the morning after he moved into his new quarters," said Hardy. "It seems that his wife Clarissa found out where he was in one hell of a hurry. The scum lawyers gave him a WEEK to get a JAG officer and prepare his defense. The trial, if ya wanna call it that, was six days after that. His lawyer said his piece, she said hers. She refused to let him talk to her or her daughter. He just hadda talk to the lawyers. The case was cut and dried. They told him he'd receive their decision within five days."

"What kinda grounds did she sue on to get that kind of a hearing?" asked Eager.

"Actual abandonment and estrangement of affections," snapped Rosstowski. "Her lawyer made a case that my deciding to accept assignment to a space cruiser equaled an act of abandonment. We tried to argue otherwise, but they bought the "estrangement of affections angle"-not knowing that she was the one who was refusing to act as my wife any longer. That's what happened, and that's why my money's short, since that's where my credits are going."

"Well, you've got a daughter, and you've got a responsibility to her, son," said Hardy.

"That's not what's killing me. What IS killing me is the maintenance that Clarissa's getting. It's a tidy sum," said Rosstowski, tracing a pattern glumly in a puddle of beer. "I'm not sure she deserves it either, particularly because she's already remarried to someone else who's doing well in the money department."

"Who?" asked Eager.

"Some architect guy she dumped me for, as it turned out. His name's Dwayne. She's already bragging that he makes more than I do, and that she'll be really rich...particularly because she'll see to it she gets her kilo of flesh from me in the bargain irregardless of what I make."

"Shoot," said Hardy softly.

"Need me to loan ya more money to buy beer?" asked Eager.

"What I need is for you to get outta my face for a minute, Eager. GOT it?" snarled Rosstowski as he stood up.

"Hey...ah didn't mean..."

"Eager, just forget it," said Rosstowski harshly. "I'll be back by my beer in a few minutes. You don't need to buy me any."

"I didn't mean nothin'" said Eager.

"Hey, cool it," said Dash.

At that, Paul stalked off.

"Ah think ah got him mad," said Eager.

"Course ya did, space genius," said Hardy irritably. "Ain't ya ever gonna learn to keep your jaw zipped, son?"

"I didn't mean any harm...I was just..."

"You were just being yourself; dizzy," said Dash.

Hardy took a deep breath. "But it hurt anyway. Boy's got a tender hide right now; he goes out to help us, and keeps on getting kicked in the teeth when he comes back. Any wonder that he ain't bright-eyed and bushy-tailed?"

Rosstowski glumly wandered around the O-Club, A few minutes later, he encountered Wildstar and Nova. Wildstar was in his uniform and peacoat and Nova was in a pink pantsuit and pink boots for a night out. They were playing a game of Ping-Pong and having a lot of fun. Watching them in their happy mood only made him feel worse, and he decided to go home, without even saying goodbye to Eager, Dash. and Hardy. He was almost out of the Officers' Club, but, he changed his mind when he overheard yelling inside.

When he came back, Rosstowski noticed that Wildstar was having a heated argument with a somewhat sneery-looking young man in civvies; namely blue jeans, a Western-type shirt, and a black suede Stetson. Rosstowski thought the stranger looked and sounded like the typical heavy from an old Western-type holo-show.

"What was that you said?" Rosstowski heard Wildstar demanding.

"What ah said," said the young man in civvies, wasn't even directed at you, you idiot!"

"No, it was directed at my fiancé!" barked Wildstar.

"Oh, she's yours?" sneered the young man.

"That's right, I am," said Nova in a level voice as Rosstowski ran over to join a circle of people who were watching the mood turn ugly.

"Girl, you sure got one hell of a mouth on you!" sneered the stranger.

"Because I just asked you to get out of my way when you kept bumping into me?" asked Nova. "You're drunk!" she said, noticing his slurred belligerence. "And don't I know you from somewhere?" she asked.

"Yeah. I know both you and your boyfriend. Why doesn't he have ya on a smeggin' leash? Woof, WOOF! you're a bow-wow!," he sneered. "A real dog, get it? Like all pushy womenfolk!"

"Do you know who you're talking to?" demanded Wildstar.

"Oh, yeah, I sure know you, you jerk," slurred the young man. "Even though ya evidently don't recognize me. Even though ya SHOULD!" laughed the somewhat stocky young fool, who, as Wildstar noticed, looked like he hadn't had a shave this morning.

"Who IS that?" whispered Rosstowski as Hardy elbowed his way up to him with a concerned look on his face.

"Him?" asked Hardy. "That boy's name is Randy Parmon. He's a brilliant engineer, but he's supposed to be trouble."


"He's never been charged with anything, but scuttlebutt says he has a bad rep with other officers; especially females. Good record, though, and he's supposed to be some kinda hero. Word is that he helped an officer named Captain Josiah drag a damaged patrol cruiser that had been spit out the White Comet back to Earth. Got a medal for it, too, just yesterday. He's supposed to be goin' places in the Fleet...the SOB."

Hardy heard Wildstar talking louder, and he heard Parmon shouting more insolent comments back at the hero of the Cometine conflict. Rosstowski began to think they might have to step in and help the shore patrol, especially when he saw Parmon actually beginning to take a lunge towards Wildstar, who was obviously expecting something (the young skipper, as usual, had his teeth gritted and was ready to rumble). Before any swings were exchanged, Nova stepped in and snapped, "That's ENOUGH! Derek, you're brave, but I don't want you and him going at it on MY account! And, Mister Parmon, be advised I can take care of myself!"

"Oh? You finally recognized me?"

"Yes, I did! Who else would've had the nerve to insult Derek and I the night we came home from Iscandar?"

"Ah didn’t insult you, Forrester!"

"Most people would think that your calling me a ‘brainless blonde bimbo’ was an insult. Did you ever realize what kind of nerve it took to say that at that party? And do you have any idea what sort of nerve you have NOW?"

"Whatcha mean, babe?" he sneered. "I was just out shelabratin!"

Nova replied in a low voice, with emphasis, "If you EVER put one of those greasy paws of yours on me again, I might just perform a medical procedure on you without any anesthetic."

"Whatcha mean?" he half-sneered, half-asked, surprised that Nova had the chutzpah to stand up for herself.

"I won't tell you," replied Nova quietly. "But let's just say it would probably interfere with your ability to procreate, okay? Derek, let's get out of here and leave the kennel to Muttley? He's dead drunk, so let the shore patrol take care of him, okay? C'mon..." she said as she dragged him off by the hand...before anything else could happen.


In their aircar, while pulling out, Derek said, "Nova, even though you stopped me from giving that jerk a piece of my mind, I'm proud of you. Thanks for having a clear head back there. I'm pleasantly surprised about how you can tell them off yourself, Nova," he said with a smile as they drove on.

"Why?," she asked. "I've done that sort of thing before. Sergeant Knox gave me a lot of practice, and I also had to deal with others like him and Parmon while you were with the Third Squadron earlier this year."



"Would YOU ever interfere with my ability to procreate?"

"Heck, no. I WANT you in working order. You know I want children someday," she replied with a wink.

"That's sweet of you," he replied as he put a hand on Nova's shoulder. He stopped at a light, and he noticed that there were no cars around, so playfully began to stroke her collarbone, and he slowly let his hand go down a little lower.

Nova rolled up her eyes a little and responded by playfully giving him a love tap.

"Hey!" he cried as the light turned green. "I thought you said..."

"Not HERE!" Nova giggled. "The light's green, and it's not the right place, or the right time. Drive on, please!"

Derek did so, looking noticeably downcast. Nova noticed, and gave him a little pat on the cheek at the next red light. as she snapped on the car radio as Derek tries to soothe his bruised ego...and a Christmas tune came on; a contemporary version of Silver Bells.

At the line, "...soon it will be Christmas day," Nova turned visibly dreamy and romantic, murmuring the line again in Derek's ear while leaning against him, to his surprise.

"Nova...I thought you said..."

" know I love you...but you know I don't like the idea of...messing around in a know...of acting married before we ARE married. But..."

"I know, Nova," sighed Derek. "I'm sorry. But you know the wait is killing me..."

"Don't you think it's not killing me, either?" whispered Nova. "There's been times that I've wanted you so badly I can taste it...especially in the last few weeks...and sometimes in the worst places. But, at least..."

"Christmas will come soon," said Wildstar. "And...on the day after...I get YOU."

"And I can't wait," said Nova softly. At that, she kissed him. He returned the smooch and then they drove off, heading towards the BOQ complex.


Garalenda System

The Edge of the Milky Way

November 29, 2201

2000 Hours-Eastern Standard Time

The base planet of Garalenda loomed up in the bridge windows of Desslok's carrier as it began its final approach towards the planet. After the Gamilon Fleet had launched its planes three days beforehand, there had been all of two engagements. After the first engagement, in which several of the Cometines had been surprised by Gamilon planes plunging down on top of them from an unexpected direction, thanks to the SMITE equipment recently installed in one of the Fleet's battlecarriers, the enemy planes had, rather unexpectedly, broken off the engagement. The second engagement, as Desslok had remembered, had been with not only a few planes but also with a single Cometine destroyer, also in the same two-tone grey colors as the planes. The escort destroyer had been wiped out, but Desslok was aware of the fact that his forces had retrieved some debris that would be analyzed at the base.

Now, as the rest of the Fleet began to head down towards the base, Desslok stood in silence, wondering what would happen next.

"Talan?" asked Desslok.


"Our enemies. Are they affiliated or allied with Zordar's House? Are they attacking us out of sheer revenge and malice, or do they have another plan in mind? What do you think?"

"Well, their attacks seem to be almost random, Leader Desslok," said Talan. "They come almost from out of nowhere, and then they strike, cause some damage, and break off the attack, or allow themselves to be destroyed."

"They...allow themselves to be destroyed?" asked Desslok.

"Yes. General Krannen observed that yesterday, during the second attack. He said that two of the planes that we hit weren't fatally damaged. One of them deliberately rammed a destroyer."

"Deliberately?" asked Desslok.

"Yes. It flew right at the ship's bridge."

"Behavior of that type is consistent with only one thing. Fanaticism...or desperation," said Desslok. "You'll recall that, occasionally, members of our forces have allowed themselves to be killed deliberately as a means of expiating the debt of loyalty they owe me. They'll literally fight to their last breaths for my sake. We've seen loyalty of that type in our forces, and among the Terrans, but it is most unusual in Cometines. Except, that is, for one House of the Empire that Zordar spoke of, although it is not quite a legitimate House recognized by the High Emperor in the Andromeda Center of the Comet Empire. That may have changed, because it was said to be one of the newer Houses of the Empire."

"Who is this House?" asked Talan. "Could it be...?"

"Again, we must not jump to conclusions," said Desslok. "We must ascertain their identity first. If they are whom I suspect them to be, we must ascertain their intentions, and act. If this is the House that I believe it is, if it is now a House, we must rebuild and act as quickly as possible. Otherwise, much that we hold dear could be endangered, especially if these are, indeed, the followers of the madman  known as Gernitz. Gernitz, Talan. The man whom Zordar cast out when we arrived because it was said he would stop at nothing to gain the secrets of  Earth...including capturing me while I was recovering."

"It was because they learned you knew its location," mused Talan. "Hence, he felt you could lead them to its secrets... But, what were the secrets he desired?"

"The same secret that interested Zordar in a tangential sense," said Desslok. "Gernitz wished to gain the knowledge of how Earth rebuilt its ecosystem over one year...that is, the Cosmo-DNA, even though they never knew it as such," said Desslok. "Gernitz desired to gain this secret...and learn of the planet of its origin, for his own warped ends."

"Perverting Iscandar's Terraforming science into a weapon?" asked Talan.

"Yes...the same. It was said that his intent was to find the homeworld of the race that designed this technology and force them to give up all of the engineering secrets...and then to destroy that world so that no one save Gernitz would have the secrets of the device's design."

"How many forces did Gernitz have?"

"It is said that he had gained control of a Space Fortress Group that Zordar had in reserve," said Desslok. "As you know, within the Gatlantis Empire-city ship, there was a huge space battleship. Zordar had a similar battleship in reserve, which Gernitz gained by stealth at the time Zordar cast him out. It was then thought that Gernitz formed his own rebel House which would have eventually acted against Zordar, although Zordar didn't think much of the potential threat. At any rate, Gernitz will never learn either the locations of Earth...or Iscandar...from us," said Desslok grimly. "If Gernitz the Mad IS our current enemy, it would explain much...."


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