Earth-Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Tuesday, December 1, 2201

0610 Hours-Spacetime

"Well, it's the start of another training day...for me at least," chuckled Derek Wildstar as he walked towards a hangar carrying a flight bag, with Nova following nearby. They had changed their routine a little this morning and had met for breakfast after PT and the requisite change from the sweats they wore while working out with their squadrons to their uniforms.

"I'm looking forward to today, Derek. You know why, don't you?"

"Let me guess," he said. "First time behind the controls of a Tiger?"

Nova nodded once, with only her smile betraying her enthusiasm about the flight. "And, because my test scores allowed me to qualify as Flight Leader of Alpha Flight, I'll be the first one up with Hardy today."

"Congratulations," he said as he gave her an appreciative glance.

"Who are you taking up first, today, Derek? Miss Hartmann?" she asked, referring to the beautiful light-blond haired hotshot that she had met on the weekend and begun to strike up a friendship with.

"No," said Wildstar. "It's Hartcliffe."

"Him?" she asked, surprised.

"Yeah. He was number one in the class, as it turned out. I had to give him the post."

"What's he really like, Derek?"

"Nova...I'm not sure you want to know. I'm..."

Then, as they were approaching a Super Starfighter that was being prepped by a ground crew, Wildstar and Nova turned their heads when they heard some loud and somewhat raucous laughter.

"HEY!" they both heard a person with a very nasal and prominent Angilan accent call out. "Don't you groundbirds mess me plane up, now...or you're gonna have royal 'ell to pay!"

"Oh, stop it!" they heard an equally loud California-accented female voice respond.

Wildstar and Nova turned around to see Bryan Hartcliffe and Angelique Burkhardt coming up with their flight bags. "Mornin', sir," said Hartcliffe as he stopped to salute Wildstar and Nova. Angie followed suit.

"Hartcliffe, before we begin our pre-flight, I'd like to ask you something," said Wildstar.

"And that is, sir?"

"Have you been carrying on with Miss Burkhardt during duty hours?" he demanded.

"Oh, c'mon, sir," he said. "Duty begins when I report, and aren't you a little like the pot callin' the kettle black, now?" he

Artwork: "Welcome" (c) 1999 by Ken Mayes with touch-up by Derek Wakefield & Freddo Kopetz

asked, turning around with Angie to look at the sunrise.

"And what do you mean by that?" asked Wildstar behind everyone as the cold breeze blew through his hair for a moment.

"Well, here we are, we're due to like, pre-flight at 0630 and take off at 0700, and you've shown up, with all respect, sir, with your significant other, with whom, I believe, you don't mess aroun' with on duty. If I'm 'ere with mine, and you're 'ere with yers, that must mean we're off duty, right?"

"It does," said Wildstar. "But, I'd advise some caution, Mister Hartcliffe."

"Why?" he asked.

"The base has begun to talk!" chimed in Nova. "Really! It has! You should hear some of the stories! You have a terrible reputation, Bryan Hartcliffe! I ought to give a piece of my..."

"Nova, easy," said Derek in a low voice while putting his hand on her shoulder. "Let me do the talking. This isn't the Argo."

Nova nodded, backing off.

"Okay," said Angie. "What is it you two want to say?"

Wildstar cleared his throat. "What I'd like to ask is a little more discretion. I'm not going to interfere with your private life...especially because I'm aware I wouldn't like MY private life interfered with. What I'd like to remind you is that, once we're ready to fly, you will have say your farewells for the morning to Miss Burkhardt. Then, you will concentrate on the task at hand, so you can learn how to fly that fighter safely, just as I will have said my farewells for the morning to Miss Forrester so that I can concentrate on teaching you, and so that she can concentrate on her lessons today in her squadron, just as I'll expect you to leave Miss Burkhardt to her lessons. Do I make myself clear, Mister Hartcliffe?"

"Aye, aye, sir," he said respectfully.

"All right. You'll meet me on that tarmac in..." Wildstar paused to check his watch "...eighteen minutes, ready for your pre-flight checkout, and concentrating fully on the task at hand. I don't care what you do with those eighteen minutes as long as you're ready to check that fighter out and fly, Mister."


Hartcliffe saluted and walked away, followed by Angie.

"My hangar's that way, Derek," said Nova. "Want some juice or something before we get going?"

"No...uhhmm...make that yes, if you can do me a favor?"

"Which is?"

"Keep an eye peeled for what those two are up to? With his record..."

"He could get into a lot of trouble in eighteen minutes," said Nova. "I know. Hardy told me. I'll see you in a minute with that juice and a report."


Five minutes later, while Wildstar was looking over his flight plan, Nova came back with a cup of juice. "Nothing to report," she said, "except a muttered comment or two."

"Did they see you?"

"No," said Nova. "I moved quickly."

"Okay," he said. "Wish me luck."

"Good luck," said Nova softly.

"And good luck to you, too," he said tenderly, looking into her eyes. "Get yourself back on the ground in one piece."

"The same goes for you, too, sir," said Nova softly. She looked around, saw no one, and gave her fiancée a quick hug. He rapidly returned it and said, "Have a good flight."

"Professionalism and spirit, sir," smiled back Nova, repeating an old EDF motivational slogan. "I'll try to see you at lunch if I can."

"Right," he said... nodding and smiling shyly as Nova picked up her bag and walked off.

Hope the flight crew didn't see that, thought Wildstar as he walked up towards the Super Starfighter that Hartcliffe would be flying that day. He hoped he wasn't blushing as he looked professional and took the plane's maintenance log from a Corporal, checking over all the items quickly as he gave the plane a walk-around. A walk-around was a visual inspection of the plane and its parts. Hartcliffe, as pilot, was supposed to do that, but Wildstar found it to be a good idea to second-guess his students, just in case.

Also, to keep his head up, thought Wildstar, he picked up a small piece of cotton waste lying on the ground and left it dangling inconspicuously from the Super Starfighter's port side forward intake. I'll leave this "gift". Just SOP, he grinned slightly. Commodore Hoshiyama used to leave me "gifts" like this all the time. I'm sure Nova'll find a few dangling from her Tiger, too, if I know Hardy, he thought.

Finally, after completed his walkaround, Wildstar stood waiting for Hartcliffe, who came back around a moment later, jiggling his helmet and muttering, "Shaggin', luv!" under his breath.

"Hartcliffe, what's the big idea?," asked Wildstar.


"You're supposed to have the flight CO pad OUT and ready, and you're supposed to put your helmet up in that front seat first thing! Go back and do that again!"

"Yessir," said Hartcliffe. A moment later, he came back and followed the procedure properly, saluting and coming to attention with his flight pad open.

"Good," said Wildstar, as, off in the distance, he thought he heard Hardy screaming at someone. The identity was confirmed when he dimly heard Nova crying out, "Aye, aye, SIR! I won't do THAT again!"

"Well!," barked Wildstar. "Start at the nose and start the checkout."

The checkout went well. Hartcliffe spotted the junk, and duly logged it. The checkout of their flight plan was also quite normal, and everything was going according to plan. Finally, Wildstar and Hartcliffe boarded the plane while the ground crew members completed their procedures.

Hartcliffe got the Super Starfighter started flawlessly, and he soon had his faceplate down as the cockpit sealed.

Hartcliffe responded "Affirmative." to the ground controller's grant of permission to taxi as the Astrofighter's wheels were unchocked and the plane began to roll forward, its burnt orange and gold skin gleaming in the bright morning sun.

"Not bad, so far, Hartcliffe," said Wildstar over the radio from the back seat of the plane. "Remember, she's a thrust-heavy plane, so keep that power throttled down until we need it."

"Right," said Hartcliffe urgently as the plane turned a corner onto the taxiway. The suppressed but powerful roar of the single fusion engine resounded through the astrofighter as it approached the runway, pausing at a traffic control light as a lone Cosmo Tiger roared off into the sky. Wildstar could tell from the plane's colors and configuration that it wasn't Nova's ship; the plane that had taken off was a Cosmo Tiger II, Type 1 single-seater, in the light blue and gold paint scheme that was the standard make-up job for all planes assigned to other ships. Wildstar had heard that the new space battleship Andromeda was close to completion, and that she would be carrying a full complement of fighters when she went on station due to the relative lack of carriers in the Fleet (even the two that had survived would need a substantial amount of dockyard work before being spaceworthy again) he guessed that the plane that had just taken off was probably bound for the Andromeda and was just being flight-tested now.

Finally, a voice came in their headsets. "Super Star One-Zero-One, you are cleared for takeoff on Runway One-Three."

"Roger that," said Hartcliffe as he swung onto the runway. Soon, under his guidance, the plane began to accelerate, and he and Wildstar were pushed back into their seats as the fighter roared down the runway.

A moment later, the concrete disappeared under them as the plane became airborne. Hartcliffe kept his climb angle strictly by the book as the plane ascended rapidly towards its cruising altitude.

"Good job," said Wildstar, who was expecting games from this pilot. "Now, let's see you execute some turns."

Hartcliffe began to go through the book; bank to port, bank to starboard. He repeated the procedure again, and then returned quietly to level flight. "Tanks are nominal; we're doin' great, sir. Airspeed and ground speed are within our limits, altitude is normal cruise. Do you want the nominal atmospheric ceiling, or are we taking 'er up to play around in orbit, sir?"

"We're staying in the atmosphere today, Hartcliffe. We'll go into space when you show me you have all the rudiments of atmospheric flight in this bird down first. Because of her small wing surfaces, the Super Starfighter is much harder to control in an atmosphere than in space. However, there's no guarantee you'll ever fight all your battles in space. I fought one of my first battles in this type of astrofighter in the high-pressure environment of Jupiter's upper atmosphere at the Gamilons' Floating Continent. You might have to fly this sort of plane in a gas giant someday, too, Mister. Now, drop to eight thousand meters and show me what you've learned in the simulator yesterday about aerobatics."


Hartcliffe promptly performed a number of barrel rolls and other such maneuvers, all competently, all with a remarkable amount of control. There was nothing sloppy about the way this Brit flew.

Wildstar knew that he was dealing with someone who had a fair idea of how to control something as difficult to fly as a Super Starfighter, and he had to grant Hartcliffe this much; he was a quick learner, regardless of his demonstrated sordid morals and warped mind.

"How're we doin?," he asked.

"Fair," said Wildstar. "But don't get cocky and think you know everything yet, Mister. You've done all right with a lot of space between us and the ground. Now, take us down to the deck."

With a smile, Hartcliffe peered through his John Lennon-style spectacles and began to drop the Super Star down towards the ground in a fairly controlled dive. Wildstar made notes on his pad, thinking that maybe this would be an unexpectedly smooth flight after all.

They descended down towards the ocean and the base. Hartcliffe flew well with little clearance, making turns and keeping under control in spite of the cold morning sea breeze from the east and the fact that they weren't all that far from the wave tops.

Finally, Wildstar made a few more notes and said, "For your first flight, on your first day, that wasn't bad, Mister Hartcliffe. Okay...take us back to base."

"Yessir," said Hartcliffe as he requested an approach vector. he received it and was told, "You're authorized to come in on this vector in three minutes. Until then, orbit the base under your instructor's guidance at a low altitude."

"Acknowledged," said Hartcliffe as they swept around the base, looking down at the hangars, taxiways, and maintenance areas they had all seen this morning.

As they swung towards a parking lot, Hartcliffe noticed something and had a sudden idea. "Sir!" he asked.

"Yes," said Wildstar.

"May I deviate a little from our course. I'd like to...just get a look at something in that parking lot."

"What is it?" asked Wildstar in a humorless tone.

"You'll see, sir," said Hartcliffe as the plane's nose dipped a little under his guidance. Then, the plane began to speed up.

"Hartcliffe, NO. Return back to our orbiting vector," said Wildstar.

"This'll take us all of thirty seconds, sir..."

"We don't have that much time, and it's a matter of discipline. Hartcliffe, get us back on course...."

"In a second, sir..." said Hartcliffe as the plane sped up a little more.

" Get your nose UP!," barked Wildstar as, too late, he saw what Hartcliffe was planning to do, and, guessing he had no other choice, he began to manipulate his controls to regain control of the ship.

But, even as Wildstar flicked the switches to take the throttle, the plane roared down towards the lot.

"Here's your daily personnel reports from Headquarters, sir," said a pleasant young female Ensign in her typical short-skirted Admin uniform.

"Thank you," said Captain Priceman in a pleasant tone as he took the reports from the young lady who waited near the Staff car that had brought her in from Headquarters.

"Would you sign here, please, sir? Hey, what's that plane doing?," she asked curiously.

"...What...?" asked Priceman as he looked up. "That isn't the proper ceiling for parking lots... is it?"

A second later, the Super Starfighter buzzed the lot, with a loud roar, and an intimidating whistle of wind that blew Priceman's report all over the place. It also made the young Admin Ensign fall back towards the Captain screaming with terror.

"Who is that...that MANIAC?" yelled Priceman as he helped the trembling young lady back to her feet.

"Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha HOOO!," whooped Hartcliffe. "Man!! Nicest bleedin' legs ah've laid eyes on in weeks! Can we do that again...I...hey...where's me stick?" he asked, moving the control stick without a response.

"I'm flying this plane now, MISTER," barked Wildstar as he forced the ship back up onto its proper vector. "And YOU'RE gonna have a lot of explaining to do when we land, Hartcliffe. Thanks to you, we're BOTH in hot water, now!"

"Why? They'll just yell at me, right, sir?"

"And ME for letting you DO it! If I had gotten those controls back a second earlier, you stupid IDIOT, we wouldn't have gotten into this mess you've put us in!"

"Super Star One-Zero-One, are you reading us?" said a voice over the radio.

"Super Star One-Zero-One, over and reading you," snapped Wildstar. "Instructor performed regained control of ship after unauthorized maneuver, over."

"I'm to understand that maneuver was unauthorized?"

"Over, you read me right," said Wildstar. "I never granted student clearance for maneuver, over."

"Damn good, because otherwise, you would've been down there with him cleaning up my reports, Mister Wildstar!" snapped a cold voice over the radio.

"Sir," said Wildstar, who recognized Priceman's voice at once. "It was my error. I didn't regain control quickly enough, sir."

"I'm going to have a good listen to your voice recorder when we land and see if it tells me the same thing as these tapes we have here," said Priceman irritably. "Get your tail on the ground now, Wildstar; I'm vectoring you in myself... and bring your sorry excuse for a student in with you. Got that?"

"Yessir," said Wildstar grimly as he pulled up onto Priceman's approach vector a moment later as he gave it in clipped fashion, over the headset.

Wildstar felt even more chagrined, as, in the distance, he saw a burnt-orange Type 2A Cosmo Tiger orbiting around the base, and probably coming in right after him. Hardy and Nova, he thought grimly. Please God, I hope Hardy had the decency NOT to switch frequencies and let her hear THIS one. If not, I'll NEVER hear the end of this story!

"Raight, Jake," chuckled Hardy over the ship-to-ship interlink to another instructor in another plane. "The instructor of that squadron was the one that allowed that boner! Raight over Iceman, too! Ha, haaa...what a riot! And ah caught it on my recon camera, too. Up nine meters! WHOA! Ah ain't lettin' mah student see that one, either!"

"Hardy?" asked Nova respectfully over her headset. "Why did you take control of my recon camera? I didn't do anything wrong, did I?"

"Nope, Miss Nova, yoah just fine!" said Hardy as he tried to regain his composure. "Just keep on that vector, keep flyin' nice and straight, and maybe ah'll forget you didn't spot that junk in the intake on the walkaround today, all raight? Just keep her flying, nice and level, Nova...and let me keep control on the downlink! I've got a...special download to take care of, that's all. Just ignore me, ah'm just the instructor."

"Are you all right? You were laughing pretty hard a minute ago, sir. I heard you even WITH the intercom off."

"No, ah'm fine, just faine," grinned Hardy as he ran the close-up of Wildstar and Hartcliffe's mishap again. "Just don't worry. Over and out, Nova. Just listen to the tower. "

"Huh?" she said innocently.

"Consider it an advance solo since you was such a good student today, Miss Forrester," chuckled Hardy, who emphatically turned off the intercom, as he switched back to Jake. "Lookit this, boy!" he chuckled. "That's great, Hardy," chuckled Jacob Strawfield, a smart young Afro-American pilot, and instructor in charge of the Red Rippers, who had been a friend of Hardy's ever since their cadet days. "Look, Johnson. Look at some of the stuff you can do with a recon camera!" he chortled. "Who was the pilot nutty enough to do this?"

"Bryan Hartcliffe," chuckled Hardy. "He's one CRAZY dude, if what ah heah about him is true!" said Hardy.

"Who was the instructor? And is he gonna escape with his career intact?"

"Wildstar," chuckled Hardy.

"WILDSTAR?" he said. "Are you SERIOUS, 'bro?"

"I am. All Iceman's gonna do is yell at him, though. The BEST part's gonna be for Hartcliffe, wooooEEEE! If he survives trainin' ah think ah want to fly with the boy someday!"

"You would, Hardy," said Strawman jovially. "What's your pilot think of this?"

"Nuthin," whispered Hardy. "And she can't think nothin', either. We gotta keep her in the DARK."


"She's Wildstar's fiancé, that's why!" whooped Hardy.

"Oh, shoot, we gotta do the mushroom treatment on that broad."

"Mushroom treatment?" asked Hardy.

"Yeah. We gotta keep her in the dark and feed her crap!"

Hardy whooped it up even louder; so loudly that Nova turned her head and asked, "Sir, ARE you all right?"

"Just fine, Miss Nova," laughed Hardy.

"Tiger One-Zero-One, over...are you awake up there?" asked the controller.

"Yes...I am," said Nova.

"Well, trainee, we've been telling your instructor to order you in for the last minute! Is he awake?"

"Yessir, he is...We...were just discussing my flight, that's all," said Nova.

"Well, since I see you have some mission recon experience, maybe you can try vectoring her in on this course. Head to Mark...."


In Priceman's office, Hartcliffe and Wildstar stood before the desk as Priceman coldly said, "Lieutenant Hartcliffe, do you realize how important air safety IS?"

"Yessir, ah do," he said in a chagrined voice, having heard a non-stop gripe-out from Wildstar ever since their wheels touched the ground.

"And, Wildstar, I see your report," said Priceman. "This is fine; insofar as you attempted to keep your student from performing the maneuver. But, hell is filled with attempts and good intentions, Commander. Even the best of us can slip up. Once. I'll grant you once, in the serious proscriptions of SOP rules. Even the best instructor can have an idiot in the front seat, as you evidently did, Commander. But I don't want to see you do this again, Wildstar, and especially not to me. I'd rather see you punch out the sorry fool right in the cockpit like he went crazy and bring him in unconscious than to do that. And if he tries something like that after he solos, in formation, you have my permission to take any step, including shooting him down like a rabid weasel, got that?"

"Yessir," said Wildstar.

"Oh. Your punishment's inadequate," said Priceman as he balled up Wildstar's incident chit and threw it in the circular file. "Don't ground him for one training day. Ground him for two, understood?"


"Now, YOU," he said to Hartcliffe. "You get out there and do grounds maintenance with a bag around that lot until you find me EVERY single piece of my report! And if some of them are torn up, tough! Use adhesive tape to get them back together and in a readable form, son! DO I make myself clear?"

"Aye, aye, sir," said Hartcliffe, who was almost in tears.

"And when you begin flying again, on Friday, YOU will be Wildstar's sole student. You will then repeat the flight for ATD-1, and then take the flights for ATD's 2, 3, and 4 all in succession after Wildstar puts everyone else through an early flight for ATD-4. You will then debrief and you and Wildstar will have grades and a report on my desk by 2000 hours that evening! If you have a social life planned for that night, son, tough cookies. Same goes for your instructor."

And, if I see you here before me for ANY reason, I won't be as nice to you as I was today. All right?" said Priceman in a nice, level tone of voice.

"Yessir," said Hartcliffe in an almost inaudible tone.

"I'll take that as a "yessir", even though you sounded like you were two years old," said Priceman. "Wildstar, get him out of here. And better luck on your other eleven flights, all right?"

"Yessir," said Wildstar in a quiet voice.

Both of them saluted and left.

Wildstar stopped Hartcliffe in the corridor as he began to walk off with his head down and shoulders sagging.

"Hartcliffe," snapped Wildstar.

"Yessir?" he asked.

"You realized you could have avoided all of this if you had just found another way to play a joke on someone?"


"There are the sorts of practical jokes that one can get away with, and the sort that one can't get away with under any circumstances. Today, you just learned, as if you didn't learn in combat, that flying isn't a funny business. I've been doing this for longer than you, Mister, and I've seen others learn the same lesson, but with an even harsher grade and result. Do you know how some pilots have left this base after their jokes messed up? Do you?," asked Wildstar.

Hartcliffe remained silent as Derek continued with his tirade. "For your information, some pilots have left this airbase, and others throughout this planet and throughout history, being carried out by six guys in a box because either God, or the laws of physics, take your pick, didn't think their jokes were very funny and made them pay for it. Your number didn't come up today, Hartcliffe, so as a result, you're not a piece of burned meat lying up in a tree near that parking lot, and, fortunately, neither am I. Luckily, the woman who is going to be my wife in twenty-five days isn't sitting around somewhere crying her eyes out because I'll never come back, and, luckily for you, your girlfriend isn't doing the same thing, Mister. And would you like to know why I didn't punch you out cold when we landed?"


"It's because despite the fact that ATD-1 was wiped out, you would've scored a first day rating in the high nineties, Mister!" said Wildstar. "...IF you hadn't messed up. Now, I want you to get out there and clean up that mess you made. And remember this."


"If you pull something like that again, Mister, I WILL punch your lights out before I turn you over to Priceman. Consider the punch you didn't earn today a suspended sentence, Bryan Hartcliffe! And, be careful...I'll be watching your every move!"



Federal Megalopolis

Sands Point Cove

72 Cove Neck Road

Wednesday, December 2, 2201

1700 Hours-Spacetime

The red Cosmo-Mustang staff aircar wound up the road through the hills near the shoreline on the outskirts of the Federal Megalopolis until it stopped at a set of gateposts that would hold a pair of gates, which seemed to still be under construction. The wall that the gate pierced was a modernistic concrete wall whose bareness was hidden by a breed of crawling ivy that was already growing on the wall and thriving.

"Are you sure this is the place, Derek?" asked Nova as she looked quizzically at her fiancée.

"This is 72 Cove Neck Road. That's what it says on the deed and papers," said Wildstar. "Maybe we should just drive in."

"But where's the house?" asked Nova softly.

Derek shrugged, and drove in, following the driveway up to a green hill, and then following it around.

His eyes began to go wide as he turned towards the south, and Nova began to smile. There, at a location that showed a beautiful shoreline of the local sound, stood what was obviously a house under construction; as the driveway curved one last time towards the garage, it turned abruptly to dirt.

The house was covered in something made to look like old-style wood siding (even though both of them guessed that it wasn't actual wood), and was a pleasing light tan color, with a dark red roof and white-painted window frames and doors.

"Well, what do you think?" asked Wildstar as he got out, carrying the packet in his hand.

"It's...beautiful!" said Nova in awe. "Do you think we can look inside?"

"I don't know if the inside's finished yet, Nova," said Derek as he and Nova began to approach the outdoor staircase that led towards the door, which was on the side of the house. It would give a wonderful view of the rolling hill that led down towards the shoreline to the west.

"HEY!" yelled a cross-looking man in work clothes with a hardhat and clipboard as he abruptly burst out of the house. "What in blazes ya doin' here? This here's private property, youse guys!"

Boy, he sounds like Sergeant Knox, thought Wildstar as he looked irritably at the workman. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Derek Wildstar, and the young lady here is my fiancé, Lieutenant Nova Forrester. For your information, sir, we own this property as a grant from the Federal Government of Earth, and you're standing in the front door of our house."

"Well, why didn't cha say so?" he chuckled. "Nah, you don't needs to show me your deed. I recognize that packet."

"What do you mean?" asked Nova.

"I was working' on your buddy's house, guy named Sandor. You know, the other project, off over there by Heroes' Hill?"

"Sandor's all right?" asked Nova.

"Uh-huh. He was just by his house, lookin' at it same as youse guys. Sorry I didn't recognize ya."

"Is it safe to go inside?," asked Nova.

"Yeah, sure, if ya like bare walls and exposed plumbin', that is. We just finished all the interior work today and hooked ya up to the worldwide power transmission grid." The man abruptly shut the door behind him. "It's locked. If ya got yer cardkey, let's just see if it works, first," he said cheerfully.

Wildstar hunted around in the portfolio for the cardkey to his house. Finally, he found it, and handed it to Nova. "You do the honors, Mrs. Wildstar."

"But I'm not that, yet."

"You soon will be," he said patting her on the arm as the workman puffed irritably on his cigar and thought, Lovebirds...yeeccch, mush!

Nova shut her eyes and put the cardkey in the lock for the first time. The unit read the code, and quietly buzzed, unlocking the door.

Then, Derek pushed the door open, and both of them stepped in after Derek took back the key and put it away.

They walked through a empty, high foyer with unfinished walls and walked into a living room that looked very, very bare, with metal studs still showing in the walls and exposed wires dangling from the ceiling two floors above them, because the living room was vaulted, like the foyer. A messy pile of stone and brick lay in one corner of the room, complete with bags of cement.

"That's going to be the fireplace, isn't it?" asked Nova.

"Yep, dat's what it looks like," said the workman.

"That'll be nice," said Wildstar.

"Now it's a mess," laughed the foreman. "Lemme show ya the kitchen, or what's gonna be the kitchen..."

They walked around until they entered a space with a bay window at their backs, and the framework of a counter in the middle of the room in front of them. "That's your table space, and along dese walls, where we have dese lovely pipes now, will be your food processor, sink, cabinets, et cetera. Up there's a stairway that leads to bedrooms number 3 and 2 in the upstairs a' the house; and, ya've got that deck right here," he said, walking them through to the living room and its conversation pit.

He shook his head and continued. "Back this way, by the bay windows, is the door out to the deck," he said, walking them outside again. "You've got a stairway, going down to what'll be bushes, and dat dere hole in da ground by those bushes the gardener left is gonna be your swimmin' pool, off in the trees," he said. "That little shack there is gonna be your cabana, and we're even putting in a bar for pool parties."

"Back inside," he said as Nova stood there with wide eyes, having to be walked along by Derek, "and I'll show ya the second floor a' this joint," he chuckled.

After peeking in the second bedroom at what would be a bathroom (while Nova whispered to Derek that maybe someday that would be their daughter's room), the contractor took them back to the foyer and let them go back downstairs, down a staircase that curved a bit as it went up.

Nova wanted to go upstairs to look at something, so they went up again. Upstairs, in a huge lounge that seemed to take up most of the second floor, they had a view down into the living room. A high wall and railing, covered incongruously with ornamental plants someone had already put there in the otherwise unfinished room, allowed one to peek back down into the living room, but didn't allow those downstairs to look up.

Derek asked, "And, what's this space below us?"

"Master bedroom," said the contractor with a chuckle. He took them downstairs and showed them what would be their bedroom. "That pile of rocks is gonna be your second fireplace, and I already stuck a twelve-point buck head above it for ya, see?" he said. Turning to Nova, he whispered, "Youse can tell all your girlfriends HE got it. No one'll ever know."

"That's...nice," said Nova. "But, maybe it'd be better downstairs?" she suggested. "Neither of us are really big on hunting. Can you get me some hanging plants to put up there when we move in, Derek?" she asked.

"Sure. Uhh...if you don't mind...I've got to talk to you for a minute...alone..."

"I'll leave yas alone...sure," chuckled the contractor. "Meet me outside, okay?"

At that, he left.

"Yes, Derek?" asked Nova as he looked around and led her to the only place they could sit down; namely, an unfinished, but cushioned window seat by the row of bedroom windows.

"Nova, I've got some bad news about what happened yesterday at the base."

"What, Derek?" asked Nova with concern.

"That scrape Hartcliffe got us heard about it?"

"Yes, I did," said Nova softly. "I didn't hear all the details, though."

"They're putting a little of the blame on me for not having stopped him in time," said Wildstar. "As a result, I have to punish him on Friday by making him repeat his first training day and putting him through all his training days in one day after he finishes up a grounding he began serving yesterday. I probably won't be done debriefing until nineteen or twenty hundred that night, at the earliest."

"That means we'll have to wait on that concert, won't we?" sighed Nova.

"I'm afraid so, Nova. I'm really sorry. I don't like breaking dates with you, or breaking promises," said Derek in a sad, gentle way.

"It's not your fault," said Nova. "You're a commander, and you're responsible for your subordinates, just like I'm responsible for mine in my squadron. And, Lord, are THEY a handful! I'm disappointed, but I'm not mad. I forgive you, Derek."

"Thanks," he said as they drew close and cuddled on the window seat for what would be the first of many times.

"Derek?" she asked timidly after they cuddled for a long moment.


"If I got into trouble, would you forgive me?" she asked.

"Why would you ask something like that?" asked Wildstar. "You're one of the best officers I know, and not just because I'm engaged to you, either."

"It could happen to any of us. You know what subordinates can do," said Nova softly. "Anyone can mess up and take the best of us down with them," she said. "If it happened, would you be mad?"

"No," said Derek. "But it'll never happen to you. You're...too good."

"I hope so...because being a student and being a leader all at once is a tough job, and we both know that. But now, it seems tougher than ever," said Nova. "I hope everything's going to be all right."

Little did Nova know how right she was, or how soon this would prove to be true...



Federal Megalopolis

Yokosuka EDF Dockyard Complex

Undersea Dock #2

Thursday, December 10, 2201

1123 Hours-Spacetime

A few days later, after training Hartcliffe and many others to hell and back again, and after everyone had completed their solos, Derek Wildstar cut out of his training routine for a while to take care of some other business at the Yokosuka Space Naval Base.

There, he had arranged to meet Sandor and Orion to, at last, discuss some of the details of the battered Argo's refit, which, Sandor had informed him, was now in progress.

After descending into an office level underground, he met Sandor and warmly shook his hand.

"You look well," he said as he looked over the tall, imposing officer, who wore his green coveralls over his blues with a white ascot. Sandor again looked just the way he had in September before all of them had left.

"Thanks," he said.

"How's the new leg?"

"Working better than the old one," chuckled Sandor, who stopped to flex his bionic leg. "Finally, at long last, they're beginning to get things moving down here," he said.

"And it's about time, too!" said Orion as he came out of an inner office.

"How are you doing?" he asked.

"Pretty well, considering' how old I am," said Orion. "But, I can still keep up with all of you, so don't think of tryin'; anything funny," he said with a smile. "If you'll come with me, I'll show you how the old girl looks now. She's still convalescing, so, be warned, it's not gonna be a pretty sight yet."

Wildstar, Sandor and Orion went down another lift, and emerged in a vast room that looked very familiar. Even though it was in a different location, it was an undersea dry-dock that looked very similar to the one from which they had left in September when they had stolen the Argo.

Wildstar followed the two engineers, purposely keeping his eyes on the floor as they said, "You see, the biggest problem is the adaptation of the new technology to the old deckplan without compromising either the original deckplan of the compartment or compromising the efficiency of the new equipment," said Sandor.

"And didn't we find that we can't fit in quite all that fancy pushbutton maintenance, either?" said Orion.

"No...the existing conduits just aren't big enough down there, and that's all there is to it, I'm afraid," said Sandor.

"What are the two of you talking about?," asked Wildstar.

"The rebuilding of the engine room," said Sandor. "Take a look, Wildstar. "We're here."

Derek Wildstar walked a little ahead, and then he looked up, and his mouth fell open, since, sitting there before him, sat the Argo, looking, from his vantage point, shiny, new, and magnificently rebuilt. All of the structural damage around the wave gun and the bow had been repaired, and the same went for what he could see of the forward turrets, the red-painted bulbous bow, the forward pulse lasers, and the bridge tower. He wasn't sure why, but the radar aerials seemed to look just a little bigger; but since it had been almost a month since he had seen the mighty ship last, he couldn't be sure.

He turned back to Sandor and Orion and yelled, "This is great! When can we go out?"

"Not for a while yet," said Sandor softly. "The minor work is done. The major work is still in progress in the after part of the ship. As a matter of fact, there, it's just beginning. Would you come with me, please?"

Wildstar nodded, following Sandor and Orion around to the stern of the ship.

There, he saw a different story. The stern of the Argo was more or less torn apart, and there were many, many lifts present raising pieces of equipment up into the bowels of the space battleship.

"Where's the engines?" asked Wildstar.

"They're being completely reconstructed and uprated," said Sandor. "After the repair work, which was, in itself, extensive, this is the major part of the refit, and the reason why we don't think the ship will be ready until some time early next year," said Sandor.

"It's quite a job, and we just got permission to do it, and to do it right, the way that Captain Avatar and our dead comrades would want it," said Orion.

"Meaning?" asked Wildstar.

"We figured out how to give the Argo the speed and power of the Andromeda without taking away her heart and lifeblood; the Star Force," said Sandor as Wildstar looked on mystified. "This way; to the engine room...."

Wildstar and the others entered, to find a compartment that looked about in the same sort of state of construction as his house! Namely, structurally present (except for the stern itself, which was just down to its plating and framework), but empty of everything except a few supports, conduits, and pipe connections. To his surprise, Wildstar saw the conduction pipe itself, which led forward to the wave motion gun, connected to no power plant at all!

"Where's the engine?" asked Wildstar in shock. "The energy generator...the warp equipment?"

"Gone," said Sandor, " favor of new equipment they're shipping in now."

"Well?" he demanded. "Where IS it?"

"In all those crates, lad," said Orion. "Matter of fact, we're priority. They just stopped work on Hull #039 in order to adapt its engine parts and ship the whole kit an' caboodle of them here straight from the factories."

"You mean?" asked Wildstar in shock.

"The Argo's being rebuilt with an Andromeda-class power plant," said Sandor. "But, don't lose your temper, Wildstar. We thought about what you said that last time and I got the Defense Council to accept your arguments. The Argo's being rebuilt with a smaller, lighter, and more powerful main energy plant from an Andromeda-class space battleship, the engines destined for the space battleship Aquarius, as a matter of fact. But, the engine's being readapted for the Argo so that it can be controlled by our old semi-automated systems, and not by the fully automated systems constructed in the Andromeda class."

"But, what about all that automated maintenance equipment you showed me?" asked Wildstar.

"Only a little of it's bein' installed," said Orion. "And, this engine's bein' altered so we can have repair crews fix all of it in case the automatic diagnostic unit fails. Also, unlike an Andromeda, she's bein' designed so that the space warp mechanism can be fine-tuned by us rather than havin' to depend on the computer software. Since the Argo's hull weighs less than those on those flyin' robots, anyhow, I think we'll break every speed record and power rating set by the original in her provin' runs."

"The Defense Council is going to be taking a good, hard look at how she performs when we go out on the rebuilt ship's trials in a few weeks, Wildstar," said Sandor. "And, if these ideas work, maybe the Council will eventually accept a few of my other ideas for improving the ship in a future refit down the road."

"Those are?" asked Wildstar.

"I can't get into the specifics yet," said Sandor. "Some of those devices have yet to be perfected on the drawing board, let alone even built. And, when we get permission to put them in the Argo, someday, she'll be in refit for months, possibly as long as a year, before we can get everything done. "

"So it looks good," said Wildstar.

"That's right," said Orion. "And soon, she'll look even better."

"I'm glad," said Wildstar. "Even with my wedding to Nova coming up soon, part of me can't wait to get out into space again in the new ship. Did you hear anything about...?"

"Your new rank?" asked Sandor. "They haven't told me anything about that, yet. The Defense Council's still deliberating that one."

"Well, who do they have listed as the Argo's skipper at the moment?," asked Wildstar.

"No one," said Sandor. "Officially, the Captaincy of the Argo and the Command of Star Force is now Vacant: Pending Command Review and Defense Council Recommendation."

"Vacant?" said Wildstar. "It hasn't been listed as that since..."

"Since Captain Avatar was listed dead when we returned from Iscandar," said Sandor. "As you know, you were then assigned as Acting Captain until Commodore Managua assumed command of the Third Squadron for your tour. That means they're mulling over who's going to be formally assigned as Skipper of the ship now. We're all sure it'll be you, Wildstar. Take it easy."

"I heard Vice-Admiral Wellington's being reassigned to something," said Wildstar glumly. "Did you hear what, yet?"

"No," said Sandor. "But word has it that he's not being assigned to the Argo."

"Officially," said Wildstar quietly.

"C'mon, Wildstar, it'll work out. And I told ye he'd like it this time," chuckled Orion. Everyone laughed, but still, Wildstar couldn't help having a little bit of unease lurking in his mind.

I'll have to wait and see, that's all, he thought. When she's finished, we'll see how well all of this new equipment works together. So much is changing in my life, now, and so soon.

I wonder, he thought. Will I still be in command of this new ship, or will they put someone else over my head until I learn more about her? I hope not...I'm the one the Star Force has come to respect...


"I can't believe you! YOU IDIOT!," barked Tatiana Lubyanska as she threw her helmet down on a bench in the locker room at the Idlewild Fighter Base a little later that afternoon.

"What do you mean me?" cried Angelique Burkhardt. "Weren't YOU the one who didn't hear my report about the hypothetical bogie we were tracking?"

"It was nothing but a radar ghost!" hissed Tatiana as she threw her flight bag in her locker, very hard.

"But it was the one they wanted our flight to find!" she cried. "And because we missed it, we lost a lot of points. You know...Nova tried to take the blame for all of us..."

"What makes her so good? A uniform? A reputation?" hissed Tatiana. "She's a halfway good recon pilot, I'll admit that...but she does NOT by any means have the fire in her eyes to be a fighter pilot!"

"Maybe she's a flight leader because she studied and worked hard, harder than us..."

"Bah, these tests are child's play," hissed Tatiana. "You're nothing but an..."

"What do you mean I'm an...?"

"Ladies," said Nova as she came in out of the showers wrapped in a towel, with wet hair. "Please! None of us are doing particularly well today. Why do you two have to stand there and take it out on each other? You know it's not good for our morale!"

"Ma'am, with all respect, I say, morale, shmorale," clucked Tatiana. "You're okay, although maybe a little too nice, but this one," she said, pointing to Angie, " a fool who makes mistakes in flying, and is interested only in parties, the boyfriend, and painting her stupid toenails," she said. "You see?" she said, looking at Angie after she removed a boot. "She even does them in different candy colors, the fool mooshnika!"

"I beg your pardon?" sneered Angie. "Are you some kind of weirdo or something?"

"I'm not some idiot who paints her nails weird colors," sneered Tatiana.

"Okay, as long as we're discussing nails, you both know that polishing your nails on duty is non-regulation," said Nova, putting a foot up on the bench. "But that's beside the point for the moment, because it has nothing to do with our ability as pilots. I've heard you people at each other since the beginning of training, but this hits a new low for silliness! I haven't heard anything this kooky since junior high, and I've been around for twenty-three years now. Can you two cool it?"

"Da," said Tatiana angrily.

"I still don't know what her problem is," muttered Angie.

"Okay, okay," said Nova. "Whatever. Anything, so we can do this exercise again as a group tomorrow, okay?," said Nova. "Now, if you two can get into those showers and let me put on a nice, fresh uniform, we can meet in an empty classroom or hangar and go over all this again, without assigning blame on anyone, to see what you, Tatiana, you, Angie, and myself, Nova Forrester, did wrong in our exercise as a flight today so we can get back into Hardy's good graces tomorrow and beat Delta Flight, who isn't even trying. Okay?"

Both of them gave her disgusted looks and went back to getting undressed. Nova took a breath and walked away. When she was out of sight of the others, she shook her head, thinking, It's only gotten worse and worse between those two as the weeks have gone by. What's it going to be next?

Then, as Nova pulled off her towel and began to pull on her underthings, she added to herself  I'm not sure I want to know what's going to be next! She dried her hair a bit more, and then pulled on the lower half of a fresh set of blues, followed by the skin-tight tunic that matched.

Nova had just secured the fastener at the crotch of her tunic when she heard something slamming down where Angie and Tatiana were arguing. She started, picking up one of her boots.

A loud yell came a minute later, and then Nova heard Angie screeching, "That battle you were in wasn't my fault!" followed by more loud banging noises. At that, Nova just dropped her boot and ran over barefoot to see what was going on.

When she got there, she was horrified to see Angie and Tatiana, with their tunics open, grabbing and kicking at each other like maniacs. Tatiana threw a punch, which Angie blocked while kicking at her. Then, Tatiana picked up a boot and tried to bash Angie in the face with it, yelling, "You can go to the devil, Burkhardt! You almost got me killed back there."

"Like hell I did!" yelled Angie as she threw the boot out of Tatiana's hands and then slapped her hard across the face.

"STOP it!" barked Nova. "Stop it now!"

They refused to stop. Nova ran past them, stuck her head out the door into the gym, and yelled towards two young male Ensigns (namely, Wainwright and Mendelmann) "Gentlemen! I need your help in here!"

"What's goin' on?" asked Wainwright "Need help drying off?"

"Stop being a joker and get in here!" snapped Nova.

"Hey, we can't go in there! That's the ladies' locker room!" protested Mendelmann

"I'm giving you a direct order to get in here!" snapped Nova. "There's a disturbance in progress!"

"What?" called Wainwright.

"A fight!" yelled Nova. "I recognize you two; you're from Charlie Flight! Get IN here!"

Nova kept one ear cocked towards the fight as Wainwright ran in, while Mendelmann hesitated.

"Get IN here!" snapped Nova with a tone that brooked no disobedience.

"Aye aye, Ma'am!" he cried, running in as Nova snapped, "Get over to the office and call up the OG! You," she snapped at Wainwright (who wasn't exactly small), "Help me break this up!"

Nova then ran over and snapped "STOP it, you two!" in a commanding voice, backed up by Wainwright, who stood off at a short distance.

Angie tried to stop and back off, but Tatiana didn't let her. "Lubyanska!" snapped Nova. "I said...STOP it!"

Tatiana glared at Nova in mid-punch, gritted her teeth, and then bashed Angie in the mouth full force. Blood spattered onto the floor.

Seeing that her orders didn't seem to be affecting the maddened young woman, Nova ran over and tried to stand between Tatiana and a stunned-looking Angie. "Lubyanska, she doesn't want to fight anymore! I said..."

Then, before Nova could react, a fist slammed into her shoulder, making her reel back against the locker with a loud bang. Nova yelped as she hit the locker, but she just managed to keep her balance since she was barefoot and had better footing than her assailant, who still had one boot off and one boot on.

Nova parried Tatiana's next punch with the palm of her hand and then used her knee to try to push her assailant back and take advantage of her imbalance. However, Tatiana threw in another punch that connected with Nova's solar plexus.

Nova fell down gasping with a loud "Oomph!" as, behind her, Angie yelped, jumping on her assailant's back like a wildcat. Angered again, Angie scratched at Tatiana's face as they went down, and Tatiana turned her head and spat at Angie, trying to bite her.

At that, Wainwright ran up, followed, a moment later, by two enlisted men who burst in from outside with drawn sidearms.

"You've got to break this up!" yelled Mendelmann as the enlisted men holstered their weapons and grabbed Angie and the wildly flailing Tatiana around their waists, pulling them apart without any hesitation. Wainwright ran over to Nova's side, carefully helping her to her feet as she gasped and coughed.

"Thanks," she gasped.

"Who's the ranking officer here?" barked one of the enlisted men.

"I am," coughed Nova.

"You tried to stop it, ma'am?" asked the bigger enlisted man, who had Tatiana's hands pinned.

"I did, Corporal," said Nova, recognizing the enlisted man from another post on the base.

"Good," he said as he snapped, "STOP it, you idiot!" at Lubyanska as she struggled one more time, just for show.

"Okay," he snapped. "Now, what's your name?"

"Junior Lieutenant Tatiana Lubyanska," she said.

"Lieutenant, you and your friend will have to go see the Base Commander, along with these two witnesses," he said, looking at Mendelmann and Wainwright, "and, last but not least, the ranking officer. Get yourselves dressed, and then, we'll have to go and take a little trip..."


"Now, out with it," said Priceman in his deep voice as he carried out, in his office, an Article Fourteen proceeding, or "Captain's Mast", against Lubyanska and Burkhardt, accused of fighting, and of Mendelmann and Wainwright, accused of dereliction of duty for having not done enough to stop the fight. Nova and the two enlisted men were present as witnesses. Priceman took a breath and said, "In case you didn't catch on, ladies, which one of you started this fight?"

"I did, sir, after she grabbed at me," snapped Lubyanska.

"No, she tripped me first," protested Burkhardt.

Priceman examined the two younger women, who were at attention before his desk, with the air of a biologist examining a particularly interesting species of bacteria. "Well, Forrester?" he snapped. "What really happened? Who threw the first punch? None of these two know anything," he said, motioning towards Wainwright and Mendelmann, who were at attention to the left of the two females.

"Sir, all I know is that I heard Miss Burkhardt scream while I was taking off my sweaty uniform," said Nova. "When I turned around, they were at each other like that," she said, snapping her fingers for emphasis. "I ordered them to stop it, they refused, and I called for these two to lend their aid in breaking it up."

"And, as we know, they hesitated," said Priceman. "That hesitation is the reason they're here. So, what did YOU do, then, Miss Forrester?"

"When Mister Wainwright came in, I ordered both of them to stop it again. Miss Burkhardt stopped, but Miss Lubyanska kept on attacking her."

"What happened then?" asked Priceman.

"I tried to peacefully step in between them, and Miss Lubyanska attacked. I parried her punch, and tried to trip her with my knee..."

"STOP. Why did you attempt to trip her?"

"To throw her off-balance, sir. To neutralize the threat."

"I believe you've been instructed in Aikido?" asked Priceman.

"Yessir; I have a high rating in the art, as a matter of fact," said Nova.

"Which made that action inexcusable. You could've used a hold to neutralize Miss Lubyanska...or you could have ordered the two young Ensigns here to help you. I'm sure you have an effective command voice, don't you?"

"Yessir, I..."

"STOP," barked Priceman. "You were the ranking officer, Miss Forrester. You should've used that command authority and presence to stop this, rather than having had to resort to acting like one of the Three Musketeers. Who was your most recent commanding officer before being posted to this assignment?"

"Deputy Captain Wildstar, sir. I..."

"Wildstar...has a record, self-admitted, of getting himself involved in minor fracases aboard his own ship. I take it the fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, so to speak, Miss Forrester?" grinned Priceman with an evil glare. "I regret being forced to take this action, but I'm also charging you with dereliction of duty, for the reason of not having done enough to stop the fight between Miss Burkhardt and Miss Lubyanska by more...pacific means...before restoring to the use of your knees as offensive weapons. It's only because you were trying to stop it that I'm not charging you with fighting. Do you have a defense to proffer?"

"Only that I was trying to do my duty, sir. In my judgment, Miss Lubyanska seemed to be somewhat dangerous...and in dealing with disturbed persons as a counselor, I've discovered that the first thing you should do with someone who's violent is stop their violence firmly but gently. In my judgment...I thought I was doing the best thing for both of them. If you don't respect that judgment, sir, I'll accept whatever consequences you have in store for me," said Nova quietly, bowing her head a little.

"In that event, I find you guilty of dereliction of duty, by your own admission. Since the others have not admitted to their offenses, I find the all of rest of you guilty by the weight of the evidence presented before me," said Priceman as he looked down the row of silent faces. "I sentence all of you to two hours' worth of punitive extra duty in the form of physical training. Said training, by virtue of the cooler weather, is to be conducted in the gym, commencing at sixteen-hundred on the mark. Miss Forrester will act as ranking officer and drillmaster while running through all maneuvers herself."

"She will bring a report of the day's duty to me in this office at precisely eightteen hundred and fifteen hours by presenting a written report in person along with her comrades. Is that understood?"

"Yessir," said everyone.

"Good. Forrester, get to it. Your squad has...eight minutes to get to that gym, change into gym clothes, and commence your punishment. Get going!"

"Yessir!" said Nova as she saluted in unison with the others. Then, they about-faced, and left the office as quickly as possible.

A few minutes later, right on time, a few officers having a basketball game in the gym noticed three females and two guys in just their skivvies (boxer shorts for the males, bras and panties for the females) bursting out of the ladies' and men's locker rooms. Without further ado, they began to jog around the track marked around the outer part of the gym, stopping after four laps to begin some stretching exercises in the middle of one of the basketball courts.

After doing those preliminary exercises, Nova, oblivious to the stares of a few of the others, began to lead her class in the usual Daily Dozen of push-ups, sit-ups, squat-thrusts, and other such exercises.

The others followed along, mostly refusing to look at each other as they performed their exercises.

After close to an hour's worth of such calisthenics, Nova had her charges stretch, stand back up, and then (even though she was a little out of breath), she said, "Okay, now, we've got to run a few kilos around the gym to carry on with this punishment. I'll lead, and everyone else will follow. Ready?" huffed Nova as she led the others onto the track. "Let's go!"

As Nova ran around the track, she began to sing a song she had learned while she had been a squad leader leading plebes in Beast Barracks in her RTC classes at The University of Colorado. "I don't know but I've been told..." she began to sing, as the others responded with the same line.

"...the streets o' heaven are paved with gold..."

"...the streets o' heaven are paved with gold!" sang back the others as they ran around, oblivious to the surprised stares of Wildstar, Laurel Hartmann, Bryan Hartcliffe, and Darryl Pulvan as they came into the gym carrying their flight bags.

"What the HELL is going on?" asked Wildstar as he noticed the weird procession at the far end of the gym.

"They're being punished, far as I heard, sir," said one of the guys playing basketball as he caught his breath. "They are in their underwear, you notice."

Another one said, "I heard something about a fracas before in one of the other buildings."

"...Aye...three a' them are females..." said Hartcliffe.

"Stop staring," snapped Laurel angrily.

"Why? They're cute," he rejoined.

"Mister, I'm going to have to be in gym shorts in about two minutes for punitive PT of my own, and if you're going to ogle me like that, I don't want to be in the same room with you!," shot back Laurel.

"Wow..." said Pulvan.

"Stop staring, all of you!" snapped Wildstar. "Would you like it if people stared at you the same way while I led YOU through PT for screwing up your maneuvers?"

"I wouldn't mind if they were female, sir," said Hartcliffe. "And, furthermore...I....wooooooooo!," he yelled.

"Look at that! They're not just females. They're BABES! And one of them's me Angie! AY! ANGELIQUE! Y' GOT a pair! Nice legs, too! Wildstar! Sir! GREAT TASTE, man! Your fiancée looks great in her lingerie!"

" can't be," muttered Derek to himself as he noticed Nova leading the group. "It can't be you!"

"She looks good, sir," said Hartcliffe.

"You...just SHUT up," whispered Wildstar fiercely through gritted teeth as he noticed Nova glancing his way, and then, just as quickly, glancing away.

Oh, Derek...why'd you have to show up now to see us screwing up? she thought as she ran. "Why the heck is Miss Forrester making them do that?" asked Pulvan, oblivious to Wildstar's angry stare.

"I hear they were ordered to do it," said another one of the guys.

“I hear they really screwed up,” yelled another one.

“Screwups!” yelled another pilot.

"Everyone...into the locker rooms...NOW!" barked Wildstar to his charges. "And you people, QUIT staring!" added Wildstar. "When I work you'll have no opportunity to stare!"


A while later, Nova, as per her orders, double-timed her charges down a street to Priceman's office. They were all thanking God that the wind wasn't blowing too hard against their sweaty bodies as they ran, finally working as a team. Ignoring the stares of the new Admin officer as she explained the reason for their appointment, Nova led the other officers right back onto the carpet before Priceman. Then, she snapped to an attention that was just as proud and rigid as it would've been if she had been fully dressed in uniform, neat and clean, as opposed to being in sweaty PT clothes and dirty sneakers.

"At ease, everyone," said Priceman. "Your report?"

"Sir, this report will detail everything we've done in the past two hours," said Nova as she caught her breath. “We did a lot of calisthenics and then some..running.” 

Priceman read the sweat-stained flimsy and nodded. "Not bad," he said. "All right. All of you have completed your punishment. Get back to the gym, get dressed, for God's sakes, and post back to your quarters. I think you've had enough excitement for today, ladies and gentlemen. Now you see the value of working together?"

"Yessir," all of them snapped.

"Great," said Priceman. "That'll be all. Dismissed."


"Well?" asked Nova as they walked back towards the gym in the dark at a normal pace.

"Bozhe moi, I'm tired," said Tatiana. "How'd you ever learn to run at that kind of pace, ma'am?"

"You pick up all sorts of things in the Star Force," sighed Nova. "Although I must admit I never had all that many guys staring at me like that at once…like that. God, it's freezing out here!" She stopped for a moment to cross her arms over herself. She was trying to walk in the grass, brown as it was and cold as it was, since it was a little easier on her un-sneakered feet. She had taken off her shoes because her feet hurt so much.

"Leave me alone," said Angie softly.

"What's wrong?" said Tatiana. "Surely you're not still angry?"

"No...I'm not," said Angie listlessly. "It's's nothing. Nothing about you, anyway. I'm just...alone...and cold."

"We're not that far from the gym," said Nova. "But, I know what you mean...all my muscles are cramping up in this cold. When we get in, everyone can get a nice, warm shower before we get dressed and go home. C'mon, Angie. It was pretty humiliating, but he could've done much worse to all of us."

"Nova...mind if I catch up in a minute?" asked Angie. "I...see a fountain over there. I just want a drink."

"Okay," said Nova. "Meet us in the gym."

Nova led everyone to the gym while Angie walked along slowly, kicking at pebbles. She walked up to the outdoor pedestal fountain and took a drink, sobbing as she stood there all alone in the cold. Then, hoping that the others were in the gym, she took off, running her heart out as she just ran towards an empty hangar that was illuminated by only a few dim lights.


Inside the hangar, which had a modicum of warmth, Angie just sat down on the cold floor, curled up in a fetal position, and began to weep. She wept for quite a while, sitting there like that in just her underwear. She had irrationally stripped in the hangar because her PT clothes stank.

"WHY? WHY?" she whispered in the echoing, empty darkness. "Why the hell were you just pointing at me like a piece of meat, Bryan Hartcliffe, you dirtball? WHY?" she sobbed.

Angie said nothing else as she continued to cry on and on. Finally, she heard a soft, but firm voice echoing across the hangar a few minutes later. "Angie?" called the female voice. "Burkhardt? Are you IN here?"

Nova, you lucky stiff, thought Angie with angry, clenched fists. You're so lucky. You're back in your own warm clothes again…and…At least HE had the good grace to make them stop LOOKING at YOU and defended you! Your fiancée loves you! I don't know if Bryan gives a damn about me or not!

"Angie?" called out Nova in the near-darkness as the wind blew around her, making her feel cold even in her fresh, clean uniform, flight jacket, and boots. Poor Angie! She must be freezing in those wet and sweaty PT shorts and t-shirt, thought Nova. "Burkhardt? Come OUT!"

"No...I don't want to face you now...not now..." said Angie, as she got up and tiptoed barefoot across the cement floor to another doorway. "So, I'll just slip off to..."

Angie got out and ran across the grass to another hangar. A loud din was coming from either that hangar or another one not far away, but she was just oblivious as she ran on, looking for a place to run, a place to hide.

Angie ran to the side door of the next hangar, ignoring the sting of the gravelly walk against the soles of her feet as she opened the door and ran in.... something that looked like pandemonium.



Federal Megalopolis

Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Thursday, December 10, 2201

1906 Hours-Spacetime

This hangar, like the one that Angelique Burkhardt had just left, was almost empty, save for the hulks of two Type 100's and two Cosmo Tigers in the process of being refitted for some purpose or another. As such, they had been "hangar queens" for quite some time, although Angie was mystified as to why one of the Tigers seemed to be painted glossy black under an elaborate mask of some type that was evidently being taped to the Astrofighter's fuselage during the day by flight crews.

What really surprised Angie was the source of the noise in the hangar. Off at the other end, down near another set of doors, someone had pulled in a portable PT stage and a pair of flashing strobe lights cannibalized off another hangar queen somewhere.

On the stage, performing under the strobe lights, was a rock band that obviously didn't belong there.

The band consisted of a three guitarists and a drummer, who sat behind a battered blue-flecked drum set with a painted bass-drum skin that proclaimed that the name of the band was

_____________ THE SCARABS ____________

with the name being written in strange-looking "psychedelic" lettering similar to that used in the 1960's.

The drummer was a fat bearded fellow that Angie didn't recognize. Neither did she recognize the electric bass player, who was a very tall, thin man with a mustache whose hair looked blonde in the dim, flashing light. And, furthermore, Angie didn't recognize the bearded man with black shades who compulsively plucked the strings of a very-expensive looking electric guitar as he wailed harmony into a microphone.

She did, however, recognize the tall man with sandy blonde hair, thick mustache, and distinctive little round John Lennon-style glasses who was either singing, belching or screaming (she wasn't sure which) a rather twisted set of lyrics. Angie guessed he was trying to sing the old twentieth-century blues piece "House of the Rising Sun" as he strummed convulsively at a black and white Rickenbacker 320 electric guitar.

Given her mood, her introduction was not gentle. Angie simply ran up to a startled Bryan Hartcliffe and slapped him across the face.

"Hey, why the heck did y' ave to come 'ere and do THAT, Angie?," he snapped in protest as the band clanged to a halt.

"Why did you have to point me out to everyone as a nice piece of MEAT while I was running around almost half-naked in my skivvies as a punishment today, Bryan?" she shot back.

"Well...why the 'ell haven't ye put your clothes back on, ya dumb bird?" shot back Bryan. “Where are your smeggin’ PT shorts, anyway? That Nova didn’t make yer run in yer underwear!”

"I took those sweaty things off because I was too upset, and because maybe I thought your friends would like a better look since you were all ogling me in that gym!" she sobbed. "Here, Bryan! Show me off! Now, c'mon everyone! I'm sure Bryan here always wanted a stripper! Here, Bryan! Show them everything!" she said, turning around on the balls of her feet and thrusting her rear end at the startled band as she reached for Bryan's hand. "Here! Show me off, Bryan! ," snapped Angie as she thrust her bra-clad bosom up. "Go ahead! After what I went through today, and all the comfort you gave me, I might as well be naked! Here! Pull down my damn panties! Show them, Bryan! Show them that's what you've got if that's all you value me for!"

Hartcliffe took off his guitar and yelled, "Angie, STOP that! Mick! Gimme me jacket!"

"Uhh...sure..," said the drummer, who tossed Hartcliffe his flight jacket as the others stood goggle-eyed. Hartcliffe set down his guitar with a loud wail of feedback and forcefully, but gently, wrapped Angie up in his jacket, leaving him in his blues.

"What are you doing that for?" she asked.

"You'll freeze your tail off running' round like that! Case y' haven't noticed, you can like, see your breath in 'ere! And put your bloody shoes back on! Your feet'll freeze off!"

"'ve covered me up," sobbed Angie. "I don't have any shoes to put on, Bryan."

"Where are they?"

"I threw them outside, Bryan! The locker room, I mean. Now, what about what you did before?"

"Okay. Who made you run around like that like an idiot? That stupid bird Nova?"

"No, it was Priceman, the base commander."

"WHO?" said Hartcliffe dangerously.

"Commander Priceman. He punished Tatiana and I for fighting, and he punished Mendelmann, Wainwright, and Forrester for all letting us fight. None of us liked being punished, but it’s par for the course, I guess. But Nova’s fiancée couldn’t ogle her while we were running, and, as I saw, he made you people go into the showers and then not look at us because he couldn't bear seeing her humiliated like that, either! The man, you note, is very chivalrous! I was wishing you would've done the same thing!"

"I made a joke, but you know, deep down, I was burnin' inside."

"Why?" shot back Angie.

"Because, I DO care about you, ya bleedin' bird! Haven't you noticed...I've been tryin' to hang around with you a lot lately?"

"So, what does that mean?"

"It means I care for you, Angie. I do. Honest, luv," said Hartcliffe as a little of his brogue faded away for a moment. "You guys, get outta 'ere!," he barked at the rest of the Scarabs. "We're reschedulin' rehearsal for Sunday night, y' idiots!"

"Yeah, okay," said Mick.

"What about our gig?," asked the bassist, who also sounded Anglian.

"Rehearsin' for that hotel gig in Boulder can wait, guys. That bloody restaurant manager and that rich dame with the black hair and the pearls won't worry too much if we get a few notes wrong at 'er snooty daughter's wedding' anyway."

"Wedding? You mean you rejects actually got a real gig?" giggled Angie.

"Yeah. For this society dame's weddin' in Boulder, Colorado on the day after Christmas. I only met the mom. I asked to meet the daughter and she told me, "She's too sweet and important to meet the likes of you yet." Of course, she laughed.

"Snooty," said Angie. "Mind if I sing along at the wedding if I can get leave?"

"Yeah, we could use a bird doin' backup vocals," laughed Bryan. "'Ere, luv," he said, handing her a bottle of clear fluid. "Yer lookin' cold."

"What's this?"

"Your fave rave drink, luv. Vodka. Chug it oop."

Angie took a long sip, feeling the unnatural warmth going down to her toes as she heard a soft voice calling out, "ANGIE???"

"Oh, shoot, man, they spotted the rehearsal spot."

"Not if we can help it, Pat," said Hartcliffe. "You, and you, go out that way, out back. Pat, you go that way, and tell the crazy bird there's no one in 'ere. Me and you...Angie...we're makin' a break for the office. Up that flight o' stairs, and oop we go..."

Angie and Bryan fled up a flight of stairs in the dark, up to an office that was in an overhang of the ceiling.

Inside the small office, Hartcliffe rolled down some blinds and turned on a dim desk light. He took a deep breath and sat down on a dropcloth stretched out on the floor.

" one'll find us ' least not for several hours."

"Then, shouldn't you take me home?" asked Angie.

"Yes, and no," said Hartcliffe as he took another swig of vodka and then passed the bottle to Angie, who was feeling lighter and more giggly as the moments went by. "I'd say, yeah, except for one thing. I think we're both gettin' close to the legal limit."

"Limit of what?" asked Angie dreamily as she took some more vodka, this time on her own, while cuddling against Hartcliffe, telling herself it was just to keep warm.

"The limit, luv, of legal intoxication," he purred while he found himself stroking Angie's leg.

Angie noticed the attention, and was unsure how to react. After a moment of looking at Bryan with mock annoyance, she took some more vodka, stretched out a long leg with a sigh, and flipped her foot up into the air to pose for a moment. Then she whispered, "Close your eyes, Bryan. I'd like to do something now."


"Give a nice, soft interview in a whisper," she said.

"About what, luv?"

"The personal life of Bryan Hartcliffe," whispered Angie. "I think it's improving far too quickly for him, and he's very, very surprised," said Angie as she licked her lips....



Federal Megalopolis

Vicinity of Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Friday, December 11, 2201

0406 Hours-Spacetime

"So, we're up an hour early," said Wildstar as he drove towards the base in PT sweats with Nova beside him in the aircar, also wearing her sweats. It had obviously been too cold that morning to run PT in shorts and a t-shirt. "I have the feeling this isn't so we both can work out a bit more, Nova."

"No, it's not," said Nova. "Remember when I was telling you...about when we had to endure that punishment yesterday?"

"Yeah. That Priceman went a little too far, I think, making all of you run on and on for several hours. Like, almost two hours?"

"I sort of agree with you, but, remember, it was still my duty," said Nova. "You remember I told you that I got in so late because Burkhardt was missing?"

"Yes, I remember that now. She still can't be missing, Nova. Someone's got to have found her by now."

"I hope so," said Nova in a worried tone that radiated her honest concern for her friend and squadron mate.

It was rather fortunate that Nova was unaware of Angie's current predicament.


"Hmmm..." sighed Angie pleasantly as she woke up on her beau's chest on the desk.

"Mornin', luv," muttered Hartcliffe.

"Good morning, Bryan," whispered Angie cheerfully as she pushed herself up a little off Bryan's chest. She looked around, remembering where they were. "Daylight!" she cried.

"Ah...don't worry, luv. You told me this hangar's not used all that mooch."

"You said that," said Angie.

"No, you did. Right when you were, you know..."

"What?" asked Angie, who was trying, unsuccessfully, to unmuss her hair.

"When you were givin' me a very nice gift of yourself, luv," said Hartcliffe impishly. "Hey, what'cha doing NOW?" he asked.

"Guess," said Angie as she curled herself around Hartcliffe.

Angie sighed as she began to kiss Bryan all over. Hartcliffe responded with a few kisses of his own. Soon, it was evident that it was more than a few....

"Hello?" cried Nova as she ran into a hangar at the far end of the base. "Anyone in there?"

Silence was her only answer. She looked in the hangar, and saw nothing but a few quiet hangar queens.

Where could they be? she thought. Suddenly, an inspiration hit her. Maybe the hangar near the gym?

Knowing that she'd have to tell Derek where she was going, and knowing that it would take a while, Nova ran off towards the gym.

About half an hour later, Nova came to the hangar she was interested in checking out. She walked up, tapped at the door, and cried, "Hello? Angie? Are you in there?"

"Oh, no," muttered Angie from the other side of the door. "...Nova..."

"Oh, shoot, not another one!" mumbled Hartcliffe.

"Silence, idiot!" snapped a deep voice that Nova didn't recognize. "Miss Burkhardt is in here. Are you alone?"

"Yes; Lieutenant Commander Wildstar's searching the adjacent building!"

"Then enter! Let's say we have an emergency, and that we could use you for a bit."

Nova opened the door and snapped a salute as soon as she saw an older man in a Captain's peacoat standing there near Angie Burkhardt...(who seemed to have on nothing but Hartcliffe's flight jacket) and Bryan Hartcliffe.

The older man briskly returned it and said, " It's refreshing to know that some people in here have respect for senior officers. Good morning, Miss Forrester. My name's Captain Joseph Burkhardt, and the father of the young lady in this little tragedy. I'm the skipper of the patrol cruiser Colorado, and we just came in last night from Ganymede Station, along with the Danube."

"The Danube?" cried Nova.

"She's fine...not too many casualties. Let's say that your uncle Hiram and I spent some time talking as we aided in the repair of each other's ships. We were about to head in sans wave-motion guns to tell the Earth Government and Zordar what we thought of their surrender when you and your shipmates beat us to the punch and did it first. When we heard everything, we stood down a bit and decided to head for Ganymede under radio silence, while, of course, looking for stragglers. Your reputation precedes you. Avatar did a darn good job teaching you kids what to do when the chips were down and you've got everyone's gratitude. Now, if you wouldn't mind doing me a favor and getting my daughter some clothes, since she can't run around in just her dirty skivvies," said Burkhardt as he held up Angie's undershorts and bra.

What the heck is she doing undressed? thought Nova in a befuddled fashion for a moment as it suddenly came to her what had happened. He caught them up to something! Boy, I'll bet you two are in trouble now!

"I don't have the combination for her locker, but I think I have a spare uniform or a dress or something in mine," said Nova. "I'll be back in a moment. What's going on?" gasped Nova as she caught a look at Hartcliffe's bruised-up and bleeding face.

"Just a family discussion," said Burkhardt blandly. "He was just caught in a dumb brawl with some friends," lied Burkhardt as he shocked Hartcliffe by winking in his direction. "If you wouldn't mind getting someone to bring up a few supplies for his face, and getting someone you trust to guard this door for a few minutes..."

"Are you sure he's all right, Angie?" asked Nova.

"He's fine...I think," said Angie uneasily.

I ain't fine! thought Hartcliffe. Ah think a tooth's loose. Most irate Daddy I ever met in me life...

Hartcliffe himself lied, nodding as Nova stepped away.

"Again, Miss Forrester, do get my daughter some clothes, " growled Burkhardt. "I don't want her catching cold for what could soon be the most important day of her life..."

"Right. Sure," said Nova as she walked out, unsure of what to make of all this, although, granted, she was doing a good job of adding up two and two even as she left the room, having been a counselor for quite some time as a Living Officer.

If it's what I think it is, thought Nova, I'd better cover for them and get them a good "guard" right away...and I think I've got just the person around to keep this quiet until Captain Burkhardt decides what to do...

At that, Burkhardt said, "Now, back to where we left off, Hartcliffe, before I began to use you as a punching bag..." He shocked the pilot by addressing by name for the first time in this unpleasant conference. "What this boils down to is this. There's a very good chance that you've gotten my daughter pregnant. That may not be the case, but if it is, we must act accordingly."

"I don't want a formal inquiry, because this is never going to happen again, either way," said Burkhardt bluntly. "Never. I don't want my daughter's career ruined, nor that of the father, or, rather, the potential father of her child. So. You two have two choices, and only two, as I see it. You two will either do the right thing and get married, or you will stay away from each other...forever."

"What if she's preggers?" asked Hartcliffe.

"If she is, than you have all the more incentive to marry her, because if you don't, and I ever catch you sneaking around her again, I'll make sure you NEVER sneak around another henhouse in your life, Mister! Do I make myself clear?"

"Yessir," said Hartcliffe.

"So, what is it?" snapped Burkhardt.

"It's this...but I've got to ask 'er, first," retorted Hartcliffe.

Hartcliffe turned away from her father and took Angie's hands. "Angie, luv. Will you bleedin' marry me?"

The room fell silent as Angie huddled in Bryan's jacket and considered the question. After a moment, a long, long moment, she looked up and said, "Yes. I will."

"Thanks," said Hartcliffe as a heavy hand fell on his shoulder.

Hartcliffe warily turned his head and noticed Captain Burkhardt smiling at him. "Congratulations, you cretinous idiot," he chuckled. "Welcome to the family, son. Now, if you can forget what happened before, I'll forget what evidently happened last night, too."

"Agreed, sir," said Hartcliffe.

"Great," said Burkhardt. "Now, if you two can get relieved from duty for part of the day, we can take care of some things, such as preparing to get this over with by tomorrow afternoon."

"TOMORROW afternoon?" cried Hartcliffe.

"Yes, tomorrow afternoon," chuckled Burkhardt. "Consider this a twenty-third century shotgun wedding, you son-of-a-gun! I'm not gonna rest until you two are legal. Then, I'm gonna take some of that Vodka from you, take a big drink and let you two get back down to business."

"Daddy, I don't...have any money for a dress," said Angie softly.

"Fine. What about you?" he snapped in Hartcliffe's direction.

"I'm broke 'til payday, sir."

"Fine. Get anything done right, you gotta do it yourself," snorted Burkhardt as he pulled a wad of credit notes out of his pocket. He distractedly began to count them as he turned towards a wall, looking at a blueprint of a plane.

A tap came at the door. "Enter!" barked Burkhardt as Nova came in, carrying a dress and her pink dress sandals along with a medkit.

"Good, we've got medical help. Miss Forrester, would you tend to that benighted soul after you hand my daughter some clothes?"

" Sure. They're mine, but I think they should more or less fit," said Nova as she handed Angie the clothes. "I hope my shoes will fit," she said as she opened the medkit to treat Hartcliffe.

"They're fine," said Angie as she took the clothes from Nova. "Thanks. I think they'll fit fine."

"They will, luv," leered Hartcliffe. "Nice, Nova. And yer perfume don't smell too bad, either, luv."

"Thanks. But I didn't wear it for you, you understand." smiled Nova sweetly.

"Of course. Oh, yer hands are so soft." he whispered as Nova began to treat his wounds.

"Sit still," whispered Nova as she slapped him lightly. "And if you don't stop the comments, I'll report you."

"To who?"

"To Angie," she whispered sweetly.

"Oh," chuckled Hartcliffe.

"Did you post a guard?" asked Burkhardt as Angie stepped into a closet to get dressed.

"Uh-huh," said Nova as she rapidly finished treating Hartcliffe. I wish I could wash my hands, and not just on account of the disinfectant spray! Mister Randy Tomcat here should be fumigated! she thought. "Derek's out there. He has NO idea what's going on, but as far as he's concerned, Hartcliffe's on sick call for the day."

"Good. What about my daughter?"

"I ran into Hardy a minute ago, and it's the same for her. He excused me to look after her for the day."

"Great," said Burkhardt. "What are you up to today?"

"Not much, although since this training day was to let out early, my mother was going to take me out looking at wedding dresses," blushed Nova. "Sorry...but Derek and I are getting married in just fifteen days...I've got to get something decent to make me look the part of a bride."

"Great. Take her with you and buy her a wedding dress with this," said Burkhardt as he shoved the wad of bills at a surprised Nova. "Is anyone from her squadron free tomorrow?"

"Why?" asked Nova.

"Well, they're getting married tomorrow, so, they'll need witnesses," snapped Burkhardt.

"I can be there," offered Nova.

"Really?" cried Angie as she ran up, hugging Nova. "Thank you!"

"You're welcome," said Nova softly. "You look very nice in that, by the way," said Nova. "First time I've ever seen you in a dress! You should wear one more often!"

"Thanks," blushed Angie.

"Good. Take her out shopping," said Burkhardt.

"What are you doing with Hartcliffe?" asked Nova.

"I'm taking him with me on a few errands to get some papers and certificates. I'll meet you two back at the Base CO's office at 1400, and I'll bring Mister Hartcliffe, all right?"

"Fine," said Nova.

"Great. Carry on, girls," said Burkhardt.

Nova and Angie saluted and left. Outside, Burkhardt heard Wildstar's voice as he and Hardy greeted Nova and Angie, and he smiled to himself as they left, especially as he heard Nova airily saying, "...and I'm sorry, but we can't take you with us later, Derek. It'd be bad luck for you to see my dress before the ceremony!"

"Well, they're gone," said Burkhardt. "Now, there's everything you and I have to do."

"Papers and certificates?" asked Hartcliffe.

"Darn right, son," said Burkhardt. "You aren't getting out of my sight today until you and my daughter get that license. By the way, don't I have to take you back to your quarters for a proper dress coat? Those flight jackets are all right, but I'd rather see you looking reputable when I introduce you to your mother-in-law later today."

Crud, thought Hartcliffe. I'm dead! He's bloody serious!



Federal Megalopolis

Conklin's Bridal Gazebo

Friday, December 11, 2201

1102 Hours-Spacetime

Angelique Burkhardt, although she had come from middle-class surroundings, felt rather uneasy in the rarefied atmosphere of Conklin's bridal department as she sat in her borrowed dress in a thick white plush chair looking at a huge white bridal catalog. Across the table from her, against a wall backdrop that looked like the white wood-style latticework of a fancy garden gazebo, a young woman with expensive wire-rimmed glasses sat with a filebox of cards ready to tend to her needs.

"Just tell me what you like," she said softly.

It's not what I like: it's more like: what can I afford here, even with Daddy's money? thought Angie. "Well, my fiancé's not too traditional."

"Then I take it this will be informal?," asked the clerk, who wore a small badge identifying her as a "Conklin's Bridal Coordinator"

"Yes, I'm afraid so."

"No need to be afraid of anything," said the coordinator reassuringly. "I just assumed that, perhaps, this was a double wedding since you came in with Lieutenant Forrester."

"You knew of her, then?"

"This was her appointment day," she said softly. "Her mother's a regular customer at our Denver store, and her coordinator sent a list of selections that Mrs. Forrester assumed would be suitable for her daughter. Isn't your mother around?"

"My mother's in town, but she's not exactly well," said Angie. It's more like she's in the hospital, and we're not sure if she'll make it, she thought.

"I'm so sorry. Well, it's just us, then. What do you like?"

Angie flipped a page, and said, "cute", over one dress. She nodded at another, and then, finally, her eyes lit up over another dress that the coordinator was skipping over.

"That one," she said eagerly.

"Are you certain?" she asked. "That's a ...summer design."

"But my fiancé' will love it! Do you have one in stock in my size?"

"I believe" the coordinator said. "But, I'd reconsider. It is somewhat cool out, and..."

"Please. That's what I want."

"Of course. A bride can never be wrong," said the coordinator softly, while the look in her eyes thought otherwise. "You said this was your size on the registration form, Miss Burkhardt?," she asked.


"We have one. Monique over there will assist you. Do you just want the dress, or would you like to consider the whole ensemble?"

"I want that veil, that garter, and the shoes that go with the one on the next page, please," said Angie, pointing out a few details.

"Of course. Monique?" called the coordinator.


"These are Miss Burkhardt's selections. She's interested in a Rivera Lace, with the Halston veil and garter and the Allison's Breeze shoes with the lace-up ribbons, please. The numbers are on the sheet."

"Of course. This way, please, and we'll try everything on," said Monique.


The coordinator shook her head quietly and then walked over around a corner to another table, where she heard Nova talking with her mother.

"Mother, it's sort of settled. I'd either like the Besame' or the Diana gowns you picked out."

"But I picked those two before I remembered you and Derek were going to Boulder to get married. Won't you freeze?"

"You've heard of heating and coats, I'm sure?" chuckled Nova, who had stopped at home to change into a blue dress and boots for this shopping trip. "And, besides, you know how funny Boulder can get when it's December. It can be warm there."

"How warm?" asked the coordinator.

"Well, one day, I ran around in shorts two days after Christmas."

"And I almost killed you," said Teri. "Listen, Genine...I can't let her get married in either of those. She'll get sick of cold and..."

"Mrs. Forrester, you can advise, but it's never wise to tell a bride no. She obviously has her heart set on one of these two gowns and they both look regal. Which one would you like first?"

"The Besame'," said Nova. "Even if I don't like it for myself, I think something like that in pastel shades would be lovely for my bridesmaids."

"Pastel?" asked the coordinator.

"Pastels. I'd like all my bridesmaids to look like a...sort of rainbow in that church."

"I think that's beautiful," said the coordinator. "What about the ensemble?"

"I've got that set," said Nova. "Your old veil, Mom, but this Cloudsweep will look sort of like it. Along with it, I'd like the Halston gloves and those Cindi's shoes on the next page."

"The Starlight Breeze sandals?" asked the coordinator.

Nova nodded and smiled, while Teri said, "But your feet will freeze, too!"

"I don't mind," said Nova.

"Now for hose, we're a little limited, and..."

"That's okay. I think those would look cuter without on me without hose."

"NOVA! You're crazy! This is NOT June!"

"Mother, I'll be fine. I'm going to probably dance in bare feet anyway at the reception..."

"No you won't!"

"We'll see, Mother," smiled Nova. "Here we go. Let's try it all on, okay?" said Nova while the coordinator wrote in down.

"Of course, Miss," said the coordinator. "Patricia!"


"Assist Miss Forrester with these, please."

"Of course."

Nova left while Genine poured a nervous Teri some tea. "You look terrible."

"She's my baby, and I'm losing her," whispered Teri. "And she's SO independent!"

"She's wonderful," said Genine. "Who's the girl she brought in with her?"

"A friend of hers from flight training named Angelique. From what I understand, she and her fiancée' decided to get married on the spur of the moment. Nova said something about the fact that the father encouraged it."

"Who's she marrying?"

"Another pilot."

"I see," said Genine as she thought. It's a cosmo-gun wedding. It has to be. And she's probably pregnant! That's why she chose that short thing! "I'm afraid that I met your sister the other day," said

Genine sadly.

"Which one?" asked Teri.

"Yvona," she sniffed.

"Her?" she cried.

"Her. She tried to hand me a poorly printed tract. I took it anyway. Then, I read it. How did she ever get that way? The church...she espouses, doesn't seem Catholic, Protestant, Pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto or anything I've heard of. There was something on there about the "Christian Union", but there seemed to be nothing remotely Christian about her church," said Genine in a whisper. "I'm a decent Baptist, and I don't even mind baptisms in a stream, even though I think they're a little...rustic...but "Baptisms in Blood, Ashes and Brimstone?" And "Avenging Black Angels and Torturers?" And "Sacrificing Holocausts of our Children?" And the "New Death?" Sure, I've heard of the "New Birth", but...this...and she said she was the Prophetess of Judgment?"

"My sister Yvona is very ill," said Teri in a sad tone of voice. "And she's gotten worse, ever since all those miscarriages...years ago..."

"Shouldn't she be put away?"

"She was, briefly. But, she was let go in a few weeks. She never actually seemed to be dangerous to herself or others."

"But...she was standing there in a...a...sackcloth dress! And she had on sandals made of rope and old tires, and her hair looked like a witch's head of hair! And she was screaming with her followers about "Your children are next! Your children are NEXT!""

"When will our children be next?"

"You haven't seen her?"

"I haven't heard her preach lately," said Teri. "I haven't...cared to."

"She says..."Your children will be next...when the "Dark Lord" comes."

"Oh, God. She's worshipping the devil now," whispered Teri.

"She said..."when He came from above." I know the Bible says there'll be a Last Judgment, but a Dark Lord? Who could that be?"

"She's seriously ill. I have to talk to her husband," said Teri. "And that's all I'll say about my sister Yvona for now, Genine, if it's..."

"Excuse me?" said Nova in a soft voice.

Teri and Genine turned to see Nova floating up in a veil, gloves, and a classic, clean, trim long dress with a sort of low neckline that left her shoulders bare. With each step, her bare toes peeked out in intricate white and silver high-heeled sandals that were definitely made of neither rope nor old tires.

"That's beautiful on you!" said Teri. "Do you like it?" she asked as her daughter gingerly stepped up onto a little platform before some mirrors.

"I do...but, give me some time to think," said Nova softly as she smiled at herself in the mirror, assisted by the other clerk.

A moment later, Nova turned her head, just in time to see Angelique coming up behind her.

Angelique was in white, with a veil and she wore dress sandals, too, but the resemblance ended there. Where Nova's dress was ankle-length, heavy, and sleek, Angie's was lacy, light, and mid-thigh length, showing off her beautiful bare legs to perfect advantage. Her veil was longer than the dress, while Nova's was just shoulder-length. Where Nova wore long gloves, Angie wore none. Nova's sandals were trim things that covered nothing above the ankle, but Angie's had satin straps that wound halfway up her calf, almost to her knee, making it look a little like she was wearing airy open-toe boots rather than sandals.

Angie grinned at herself in the mirror while Nova looked uneasily at her own dress in the mirror and then at Angie, thinking, Cute shoes and veil, Angie...but where's the GOWN? No...I'm being too's cute...but, God, is it short. neckline covers enough...but is it too high? How would the Diana look on me?

"Well?" said Monique, Angie's salesperson.

"I'll take it. Could you just wrap it up, please? He'll love it!"

"Of course," she said as she and the coordinator disappeared with Angie to begin consummating the purchase.

"Mom? What do YOU think?" asked Nova.

"It's darling, Nova...but..."

"Can you bring me the book, please?" asked Nova.


The salesgirl left, and Nova turned to her mother. "Angie doesn't have enough for her dress. I can help a little...but..."

"Nova...are you asking me to help your friend?"

"Yes. She's in love with that little dress."

"What's her fiancée like?"

"Crazy," giggled Nova. "And he'll just love it."

"Well...I can help..." said Teri, " know we have to buy you your things, and get your bridesmaids their gowns...and they'll have to chip in something for them. If she can't chip in, I don't think she can be in the bridal party, Nova."

"That's okay," sighed Nova. "I'll put in a bit more for her. She has to leave that store in that dress."

"And what about you? We have to have it selected by today so we can get it to Boulder in time."

"Just a moment," said Nova as the other salesgirl came up. "I like this...but I think this'll be a nice design for my bridesmaids. I want something different, please. Something to set me apart. Something my fiancée will love."

"The Diana?" said the salesgirl as Teri's face dropped.

Nova nodded. "Let's just see how I look in that, first, of course," said Nova diplomatically with a glance towards her mother.

But, one look at the dress in the book had made up Nova's mind. She would literally look like a princess at her wedding, and she knew it.




Idlewild Space Naval Air Station Chapel

Saturday, December 12, 2201

1136 Hours-Spacetime

"Hardy?" murmured Derek Wildstar in the basement of the Base Chapel as the appointed hour approached.


"How do we ever get ourselves into these situations?"

"What situations?" asked Hardy as he and Wildstar stood near a punch table in which Nova, even in her pink knee-length dress, violet pumps, and corsage, was sprucing up on a last-minute basis by adding a few banana slices to the punch.

"Getting you, me, and Pulvan from our squadron to help out with Hartcliffe's wedding," said Derek as he stood there adjusting the high red collar on his short blue peacoat.

"Easy," said Hardy. "Nova asked you to accompany her as the Maid of Honor, which meant you had to be Hartcliffe's Best Man."

"Yeah," said Wildstar, who didn't sound all that enthusiastic or quite buy this. Derek thought, Why couldn't Hartcliffe get his own best man?

"What's wrong?" asked Nova as she pirouetted to face her fiancée in her heels.

"Nothing," smiled Derek sheepishly.

"I hope not," smiled Nova. "Especially since you'd better be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the next wedding you attend, in just two weeks, sir. "

"If you think I'm not gonna be ready for that wedding, you, Miss Forrester, are dead wrong," grinned back Derek.

"Okay. But what's the problem here?" asked Nova.

"'s just so...sudden. And I don't believe it."

"I believe it," said Nova. "And, well, they were in love, and they weren't going to let anything stand in their way. And I don't want anything disappointing an inattentive honor guard," said Nova as she walked over to Pulvan.

"How come we didn't get swords?" he asked.

"It's not a full-dress ceremony, that's why," said Nova. "There's something in the regs that stipulates you have to have at least four groomsmen to have an arch of swords."

"You're just making that up, ma'am," said Pulvan.

"No, I'm not," said Nova. "I'm..."

"Da...what is WITH you, ma'am?," asked Tatiana Lubyanska as she walked in wearing a green dress and open-toe pumps.

"What're YOU doing here?" asked Pulvan. "Hartcliffe tells me you HATE Angie!"

"Not since the other night. Working together reconciled us," said Tatiana. "Bozhe moi, it's chilly down here!"

"You're in pink. You're in green," said Hardy, who was relieved that Pulvan would be standing next to Tatiana during the ceremony. "Someone's in blue. Who's that?"

"Just me, sir," said Kristin Pawlings, a young blonde girl in a blue suit who was one of the pilot trainees in Wildstar's squadron.

"Oh. You're cute!" said Hardy with a smile.

"Thanks, but I'm taken," said Kristin as she twirled over, pointing out an engagement ring. "Walt and I are doing ours in June after he finishes his new tour of duty at Titan with the Green Hornets. Do you mind if I give you a note from someone, though?"


"An old friend of mine from school. I met her at the new Ministry of Science Survey School not long ago, and, well, she's heard all about you."

"She has? Who is she?"

"Can't give away the secret, can I?" smiled Kris. "She wants to have a blind date with you, next Wednesday night, at 1900. Meet her at these sealed coordinates. And if you don't meet her, she will hunt you down and kill you," grinned Kris.

"Okay," said Hardy. "I'll be theh." Even though I have no idea who she is or what she looks like, he added to himself.

Before long, everyone was in their places in the sanctuary before a small altar. The Base Commander, Wildstar and Hardy's squadron, and one of Angie's uncles, along with her father, were the only ones in attendance, although Hartcliffe's parents and sister had sent their good wishes and some bouquets from Britain.

Nova and Derek stood right behind Bryan and Angie as they said their vows before the Base chaplain. As the ceremony went on, they found themselves holding hands surreptitiously.

"Nova?" whispered Derek.


"You's going to be our turn next."

"I know," whispered Nova, who went quiet as she heard Bryan repeat, "I do," in answer to the chaplain's classic questions.

"Do you, Angelique Burkhardt, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, until death do you part?"

"I do," said Angie softly.

"Therefore, by the powers vested in me, I pronounce you both husband and wife. Let no man put asunder you, whom God hath put together. Mister Hartcliffe, you may now kiss your bride."

Everyone applauded as Hartcliffe winked lasciviously and planted his lips full on Angie's mouth, dipping her down in his arms as they kissed. Even Angie's father had a smile for the new couple then. That fool pilot may be trashy, but he's certainly got some style about him, he thought as Bryan then gallantly helped Angie back upright and yelled, "This is me missus now! Don't any o' you ever forget it, GOT that?"

"We won't," said Pulvan with a laugh as the sun came through a stained-glass window and shone in his red hair.

During the small reception in the basement, there was some partying and merriment with punch and the like.

After having a dance with Angie, as tradition required, Wildstar went back to Nova and said, "There's one thing I've been wondering about, Nova."

"And that is?"

"I see Angie's father here...but, where's her mother?"

"Her mum was unable to come, sir," said Hartcliffe as he appeared behind them.

"Well, where is she?"

"She's in Central Hospital, Wildstar."

"I see."

"We were gonna go and see 'er after the reception, y'know...right before we go off to our motel for the night. We 'ave to, to tell 'er we've been married. You two wanna come?"

"Sure," said Nova after she glanced at Derek, who nodded. "We'd be honored. Did you tell your parents?"

"I did so this mornin'. Unfortunately, they don't 'ave the money to show up. Someday, I'm gonna take Angie back to Anglia to visit them so's we can have a proper introduction."

"That sounds very nice," said Nova.

"Hey...we have to do some things right," said Hartcliffe. "I'll see you in a few minutes, when we toss the garter and bouquet and stuff, all right?"

"Right," said Wildstar, who nodded a farewell to the groom as he left.

"I don't believe it," said Wildstar in a low voice as he shook his head. "He has a decent side."

"Everyone does, Derek," replied Nova softly in a gently chiding voice. "His was just buried pretty deep, I guess. That's all. I think marriage will change him...for the better."

"Could be," said Wildstar. "But, remember, he's still a fighter pilot. You know, pilots still have that edge, that drive..."

"And don't I know that?," smiled Nova. "But, I've also noticed that responsibility makes some pilots...especially some I know very well, grow up quite a bit more."

"I know," smiled Derek, as he and Nova held hands for a moment.

"What's marriage going to do to this pilot?" whispered Nova in a soft voice.

"Well, I think we'll find out in about two weeks..." smiled Wildstar; right before they began to sneak a kiss.

"Scuse me... Wildstah..." called out another voice behind them as someone tapped them on the shoulder.

"Hardy! What's going on?" snapped Wildstar.

" two have two weeks to wait," he chuckled.

"Very funny, Hardy. What's up?" asked Derek after he broke free from his clinch with Nova.

"It's about time to toss Angie's garter, and then to toss her bouquet. You comin?"

"I'll be on my way," said Wildstar.

A moment later, a giggling Angie was seated in a chair with her shoes off. Hartcliffe smooched her leg repeatedly as he pulled down the garter over her leg and foot, finally getting it off a moment later.

Wildstar, Hardy, Pulvan, and the rest of the males from the two squadrons were gathered together to attempt to catch it. Wildstar was embarrassed as he could possibly be about this, since he knew that he'd have to put the garter up the leg of the female who caught the bouquet if he got it. Nova had whispered to him that she was not terribly anxious for him to catch it, and would not be terribly thrilled if he caught it.

The garter was tossed, and after a scuffle, Hardy emerged with the garter. He and Hartcliffe embraced and laughed.

"You're gonna have some fun with that in a few minutes, sir!" called out Hartcliffe.

"Hope the one ah'll put this one is pretty!" cried Hardy.

"I hope it's not me!," cried an unidentified female voice from Wildstar's squadron.

A minute or so later, Angie, now garter-less, stood before a group of about nine other females, ready to toss her bouquet. Hartcliffe spun her around a few times, and then, leaving her thoroughly disoriented, turned his giggling, still-barefoot bride around so that she wasn't even facing the laughing females in the other group, all of whom had removed their shoes so they wouldn't slip in the scuffle.

Angie whipped the bouquet over her right shoulder, and another scuffle took place. When it ended, a laughing and very embarrassed Nova emerged holding the bouquet.

"Congratulations!," called out Tatiana Lubyanska. "You'll be getting married next."

"Yes, I know," said Nova, who thought, if everyone didn't know I'll be marrying Derek soon. They set me up for this!

"C'mon, Nova," smiled Hardy. "Time for me to do my duty."

"Uh....couldn't you just give that to me...or let Derek do it?" stammered Nova.

"Yeah...that might be a good idea," said Wildstar.

" way, sir," said Hartcliffe, who came up smiling with Angie. "We've got to do this. Otherwise...her dad might kill me..."

"He wouldn't!" cried Angie.

" do I know that?"

"All right," said Nova primly. "I'll do it...but I'm keeping my eyes closed the whole time!"

"Good. That means ah can tickle you a little, Miss Forrester," chuckled Hardy.

"If you do, I'll kick you," said Nova. "Even in stocking feet, it won't feel nice."

"Let's just do it, all raight?" said Hardy.

"All right," scowled Wildstar. "That's provided you let me hold her hand throughout," he said as he pulled up a chair for Nova.

"'re not...going along with this...?"

"Nova, the sooner we get it done, the sooner it'll be over with."

With her right foot up on the chair, Hardy got the garter up Nova's leg a moment later as Nova began to smile a little, thinking, Well, at least, in two weeks, Derek will get to do me...if I can't talk Mom out of it, that is....

As soon as the garter went on, Nova got her foot back on the ground and into her shoe (with Derek's help). Afterwards, Hartcliffe called out, "Well...we've done it! Thank you, all, for your cooperation and attention! Now, if you'll let us alone..."

At that, he picked up Angie and kissed her like a maniac to a lot of cheers and applause as they ran out.

A while later, Angie and Bryan (still in their wedding clothes) were walking down a corridor in Central Hospital along with Captain Burkhardt, Derek, and Nova.

This isn't far from Venture's room, thought Wildstar as they entered a small private room.

There, amongst a few bouquets and many machines, lay a very thin, dark-haired woman who was roughly middle-aged.

"Hello, Victoria," said Joe Burkhardt in a gentle, calm voice.

"Oh...hello, Joseph," whispered the ill Victoria softly as she sat up weakly to kiss her husband. Unable to do so, Joseph bent down to kiss her and then tenderly worked a button on the bed so that it would come up to his level.

A tear ran down Angie's cheek as she looked on. "Mom?" she said softly. "I'm in my wedding dress. How do you like it?"

"It's very pretty," whispered Victoria softly. "Did you bring that nice, kind Bryan with you?"

"I'm 'ere, Mrs. Burkhardt," said Hartcliffe respectfully. "This man over 'ere my flight instructor, Lieutenant Commander Derek Wildstar. The young lady next to him is his fiancée and Angie's friend , Lieutenant Nova Forrester."

"Weren't you two with the Star Force?," whispered Victoria.

"We were," said Wildstar softly.

"I see. Now, everyone," she said, looking around the room with her dark eyes, "..Let's be honest. I've had the space radiation sickness for a while, the same thing that your Captain Avatar had. I've been in remission, but the way things are going, I think I'm going to be leaving you and saying hello to your old Captain soon. I want you to swear to me that you'll take good care of my Angelique, Bryan. Will you?"

"I will," said Hartcliffe as a tear ran out of his eye.

"And will you do a good job as the next Captain of the Argo, Wildstar?"

"I haven't been formally appointed yet..."

"You will be. Something inside is telling me you will be," said Victoria Burkhardt. "You are to do everything that you can for us. And, know I'll be leaving you soon. Don't sit around too long crying for me...any of you. Just do your jobs. That's all I ask. Thanks for coming, Angie, Bryan, Derek...Nova. Would you leave me alone with Joseph, please?"

"Of course," said Derek softly as he nodded to Hartcliffe. Even though Nova's cheeks were wet with tears, she gently put her arms around a stricken Angie's waist, and gently turned her away from the bed.

"I didn't...I didn't...know it was that bad," sobbed Angie as they came out into the corridor. "I didn't know she was going to die, soon! I didn't!" sobbed Angie.

"It's all right," whispered Bryan tenderly.

"But it's my fault!" said Angie. "She wasn't that bad before we..."

"Are you Miss Burkhardt?" asked a young woman in a long lab coat who came up.

"I am," nodded Angie.

"I'm Doctor Connelly," she said. "If I may speak to you and...your significant other privately, I'd like to let you know the specifics of your mother's condition. As I was about to tell your father, there's still a chance, if we operate aggressively and quickly...if you'd come with me, we can discuss this further..."

After they left Derek and Nova alone, Wildstar said, "Venture's still on this floor, isn't he?"

"He is," said Nova. "Or, at least, he was..." she said.

"Well...let's go and see him."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea, Derek. When I was last here, three days ago, he was still in a coma. Doctor Sane said he might never come out of it!"

" least we can say hello to him," said Wildstar.


The young couple timidly stepped into Mark's semi-darkened room a few minutes later, where they had one of the biggest shocks of their lives.

Most of the machines that had been connected to Venture were gone now; there was only a single IV. To their surprise, the bed rails were down, and Venture was sitting up, quietly reading a book.

"MARK!" cried Nova.

"Venture!" called out Wildstar.

"I was wondering when you guys would get here," said Venture in his clear, unmistakable upper New York State accent.

"So you're all right, then?" asked Nova.

"Except for a few aches and pains...yes, my body's fine...but, deep within me, there's a wound that I'm not sure will ever heal. Trelaina had so much power. Why couldn't she have stayed?"

"She said she couldn't stay," said Wildstar as Nova shut the door. "But, she said a part of her would always be with all of us..."

"I know. And that's what hurts so much," said Venture. "You see, part of me can sense Trelaina. When I was in my trance...she told me, over and over again that she would have to go. She said, and I can remember this, "Mark, I must go. I wish I could remain, but I can't. Your friends will tell you why I had to leave you, and why I had to go..."

"Derek," said Nova softly. "...The last thing Trelaina said...before she left..."

"Tell Mark how much I love him," whispered Wildstar as he remembered.

"Why did she leave?" asked Venture. "I know she left me with you...but, what happened after that?"

"She sacrificed herself again, like at Telezart," said Derek as Nova began to sob softly. "She did it to destroy a huge space battleship that emerged from the ruins of the Comet Empire City after we blasted it apart, with the aid of advice from Captain Gideon and Desslok."

"Desslok?" muttered Venture. "The last I remember, Desslok and his forces were trying to blow the Argo into scrap metal! What did that guy do?"

"The battle ended when Desslok decided to make peace with us after I confronted him and collapsed with only Nova to defend me. From what I've been told, Desslok just stopped fighting when Nova confronted him."

"He did," said Nova. "He said that his love for Gamilon wasn't all that much unlike our love for Earth, and our love for each other. He said he was fighting on after Gamilon had been lost because he felt he had to do everything he could to defend Gamilon. He said that since he saw that we were of the same sort, fighting for Earth after all seemed lost in the same way he fought on for Gamilon after all seemed lost...and since Derek and I had and have a love for each other that remained intact even while we fought for Earth, we were better than he was, and he could've done things differently. I think he...had some regret in his heart for continuing to go after us for revenge at that point."

"Desslok felt regret? That's a new one, Nova," said Venture.

"It's hard to believe, but it happened," said Wildstar. " At any rate, he said the war between Earth and Gamilon was over, and he made peace with us, gave us some advice on how to defeat the Comet Empire city, and he left us in peace and left with his entire space fleet."

"Later," continued Nova, " we that found his advice on how to attack the Comet Empire, at its weak spot at the bottom, in the same way that we attacked his weak spot on Gamilon, at the bottom of the volcanoes, was correct. We did so, after we attacked the Comet Empire after it landed on Earth, and Derek and the others boarded the Comet Empire at that weak spot, a hatch it its bottom. Sergeant Knox then planted charges in the Comet Empire City's energy center to shut down its defenses. He remained behind to set them off while Derek, Sandor, and some of the others got out. Knox got out just ahead of the explosions that destroyed the Comet Empire City, but when he landed on the Argo, it turned out he was mortally wounded from some of the shrapnel. He died a few minutes after he got back to the ship."


"Then, we attacked the Comet Empire City with the Argo's main guns and all her missiles," said Wildstar. " We reduced it to an immobile, flaming wreck, but a huge black space battleship emerged from the ruins of the citadel," said Wildstar. "It turned out Zordar was still on that ship; he called us up to mock us after he had almost reduced the Argo to scrap. After he attacked us, he began to bombard Earth with its main siege cannon. I ordered all hands to abandon ship. My plan was to ram Zordar's ship with the Argo, with the hopes of getting off the Argo in an escape pod before the crash. Everyone left except Nova, who remained behind. When I found her on the ship, she said she was remaining behind to help me because of her great love for me. I proposed to her then and there, and she accepted. It was right before we were to leave the bridge that Trelaina appeared with you in her arms. She said...she was bringing you back because you still had work to perform with the Star Force once you got well. Then, she disappeared; to fight Zordar for the last time."

"That's how she died; in a flash of light that took Zordar and his evil with her," sobbed Nova, who began to cry. Derek comforted her as Mark shut his eyes, trying to hide the tears.

"Maybe she didn't die..." suggested Venture.

"Maybe yes, maybe no," said Wildstar. "She said, "It is time for me to go...and she left."

"I thought maybe...she couldn't die," said Venture, "...but, maybe she didn't. Maybe...she left. I'm remembering, now," said Venture. "She said...I cannot go with you, my darling, but our love will always be..." said Venture in a choked-up voice.

"When did...she tell you that...?" asked Nova.

"I'm not sure...I think I dreamed it...or did I? I heard her say that to a state, and in a time, where I was between this life...and the next. After that, we were together in body; I think, and then in spirit. Then, she told me, one last time, she would have to go, and then, I found myself in this bed. I was with her; we shared our love; but, she sent me back. Back to Earth. Back to this. Back to...being alone."

"Tell me," asked Venture. "How long has it been?"

"The end of Zordar was near noon on the fifteenth of November; it's now the twelfth of December in the same year," said Derek.

"It's been...twenty-seven days since then," said Nova. "Almost a month."

"No, I long has it been since I was...last with you?"

"We made our first warp to attack the Comet Empire City around 0700 standard spacetime on the fourteenth. After we arrived, Desslok showed up. At about 0920, that day, give or take a few minutes, the first parties were boarding his flagship," said Wildstar.

"It was around then that I was shot," said Venture. "So I've been away from you guys, and more or less with Trelaina for almost a month. Or my mind's been with Trelaina. It was very hard to tell. Most of the time, I was conscious of being with her, but sometimes I'd wake up and find myself here, with a lot of machines around me. Then, I thought I was having nightmares. Trelaina eventually told me otherwise. Almost a month, " said Venture sleepily. "What's happened to the Star Force?"

"We've been split up, but only temporarily," said Wildstar. "The Argo's still in the repair dock, being rebuilt. Sergeant Knox and Corporal Cain died in the boarding of the Comet Empire City, along with most of the other Space Marines who didn't die boarding Desslok's ship. Conroy, Hardy, and a very flew of the other Black Tigers lived; most of them died too. All in all, maybe thirty members of the Star Force survived," said Wildstar. "Many of them were wounded, but most of them are out of the hospital now. You'll be one of the last to leave."

"What does Earth think of what we did?" asked Venture.

"Look on your bedtable," said Nova. "They gave you another Sunburst, and many other decorations. Also, you'll have a house waiting for you when you come out, courtesy of the Earth Government. Your father has the deed and the keys."

"Who else got homes?" asked Venture.

"Us, Sandor, Conroy, and Hardy," said Wildstar.

"Are you in your homes yet?" asked Venture.

"Sandor just moved into his place; they just finished it," said Nova. "Yours should be ready in the week, and as for my place and Derek's it'll be done late in the week, but we won't be moving in until after the wedding, of course."

"When are you getting married?"

"The day after Christmas," said Wildstar. "It's a Saturday. I was wondering, Mark. Would you be my best man?"

"Of course, Wildstar," said Venture softly. "Nova, Derek, you know I always wanted the best for you two. Congratulations. It's about time!"

"Thanks," said Wildstar and Nova softly blushed.

Nova turned her head at the sound of the door opening. In walked Doctor Sane. "Wildstar, Nova," he barked. "What are you doing disturbing my patient? He needs rest!"

"We're sorry, Doctor," said Derek.

"Doc, when are you letting me out of here?" asked Venture.

"In two more days. I want to be sure you're not going to have a relapse and that you're not going back to...wherever you just were."

"I won't be going back there, at least not for a very long time," said Venture. "Trelaina...told me that."

"She did, hmmm?" asked Doctor Sane.

"She did," said Venture.

"That's good. IQ-9, bring me that thermometer now!" barked Doctor Sane through the open door.

"Coming," said the robot's familiar high metallic voice from down the corridor. "I've got it, I've got it...I've...Nova, I've got to ask you something, before the wedding..."

"What?" snapped Nova.

IQ whispered something into Nova's ear as she bent down. Her face went white and she slapped him hard before getting up.

"NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT!" snapped Nova. "And, if either of you two laugh again, you're both going to pay for it!" snapped Nova as she glared at both Derek and Mark.

At that, they looked at each other again, and then looked at Nova, and they just smirked.

Well, I think things are almost back to normal again, thought Wildstar. Mark, it's great to have you back....


Planet Garalenda

The Edge of the Milky Way

December 12, 2201

1310 Hours-Spacetime

"Sire," said Talan, who stood near Desslok at the entryway to a huge dock on the Gamilon Base on Garalenda along with General Rikus Krannen, who was a rather majestic-looking grey-bearded Gamilon officer with a monocle, mustache, and small beard, and General Hairm Kelzart, a dark-haired, mustachioed officer from one of the outer Territorial Fleets of the Empire who had recently arrived here at Garalenda, "may we again present to you Captain Vorkil and the Gamilstadt?"

Desslok accepted the salute of the brown-armored Captain of his former flagship who had served under both him and Talan. Then, he strode up to Desslok, and said, "Sire, it is my pleasure to report to you that the Gamilstadt is repaired. All of the engine damage has been repaired. She is again ready for space trials, sir."

"I commend you," said Desslok. "How were you able to repair her so quickly?"

"Sire, we found supplies here for four other vessels in various stages of construction. We commandeered all of these supplies and we diverted them towards the refit of your flagship. Incidentally, the static power-test readings indicate that we have improved her speed by a factor of two space knots' increase, and that we have increased the firing range of her Desslok Surge Cannon by a factor of a five percent increase. The technicians and scientists here at Garalenda are very dedicated, sir. They have not only repaired the work of our former allies, the Cometines, they have in fact improved upon it, my Lord."

"Excellent," said Talan. "Leader Desslok, shall I conduct the trials?"

"No. I shall. You will accompany me, Talan. Kelzart, you will assume command of the Eliasite, my former flagship, and Krannen, you will assume command of the battleship Paravenia. You will escort me along with twelve destroyers while we conduct this exercise. General Felkner," said Desslok to another officer who stood nearby, "you will assume command of the Base in my absence. Keep all of the pickets in communication with my ship."

"Yessir," said Felkner. Desslok then nodded to Talan and began to stride back aboard his flagship for the first time since his last battle with the Star Force.

When entering the ship, Desslok and his staff passed rank after rank of crewmen standing along the passages chanting his name while they held salutes in the Gamilon fashion. Desslok returned each salute with a nod, basking in the devotion of his new crew as he walked back up to his bridge, which, like the rest of the command cruiser, was now fully repaired.

Here, he thought, I plotted the end of my revenge on the Star Force. And, here is where I saw that the need for revenge had ended. Now, I embark upon a new journey, a new quest, possibly even a new war against new foes. Who knows what the future will bring us? One thing is certain, as long as I live, Gamilon lives on...

Behind Desslok came Talan, Vorkil, and the other faithful members of his Imperial flagship's staff who had survived their last battle with the Star Force. Desslok was aware that some officers had died, but, as he had chosen their replacements, he knew that the crew of his command ship would be just as efficient and well-drilled as it had always been.

"We are ready for launch, sir," said Vorkil in his heavily accented but familiar voice.

Desslok nodded once. That was all the go-ahead they needed. Still, as per form, Talan glanced at Vorkil and said, "Leader Desslok has ordered an immediate takeoff. You know what to do, Captain."

"Yessir. All hands, prepare for liftoff on my mark," barked Vorkil into his communicator at his station.

Life returned to the Gamilstadt's engines a moment later as the ship thrust its way up off the pad and accelerated off towards space, followed by the rest of the Fleet that Desslok had dispatched.

In space, around the vicinity of Garalenda, the fleet roared on in formation, with the flagship in the lead, escorted by two destroyers on her aft flanks. Desslok stood near the rebuilt controls of his Desslok cannon, smiling smugly as routine reports came in from station after station on the rebuilt Imperial Flagship.

"It's going well, Leader Desslok," said Talan with an equally pleased smile.

"Yes. Perhaps this will be easier than I thought," said Desslok. "It will take a while, but don't you think we can reassert ourselves over our old foes in the Great Magellenic Cloud, if needed, with such a well-trained crew? It's about time that we began to think of rebuilding our old domain, Talan. Our task of finding a suitable permanent home will be much easier with a crew as well-disciplined as this, won't it?"

"It will, sir."

"If only...I knew the precise nature of those Cometines who were bedeviling us," said Desslok as he relaxed a little, sitting back down at his command seat.

"Sir, we have spotted eight objects approaching the fleet, at a distance of fifteen hundred gerads."

"What is it, Vorkil?" asked Desslok as he tensed at his seat.

"We will have a visual momentarily, sir, but they're..."

Suddenly, a number of orange beams of energy whizzed past the Gamilstadt. Desslok gritted his teeth as he caught a flash off the port side aft from a minor hit against one of his destroyers, which was returning fire, along with its mate to the starboard side.

Within moments, the mid-range guns and missiles were firing on the Gamilstadt itself as an image came up on the ship's screen; the eight vessels consisted of two squadrons of Cometine battleships, each escorted by one destroyer. The battleships, unlike those Desslok had seen before, were a light grey color, and the destroyers were white on top and grey on the bottom, as opposed to the white and green coloration standard to the Cometine ships of Zordar's house.

However, these were Cometine vessels... that much was for certain.

"All ships, meet their attack!" snapped Desslok. "Talan! Order Kelzart to launch a squadron of precision bombers! I want one of those ships disabled and captured! As for the rest...I don't want to see any more of them!"

"Yessir," said Talan.

Soon, escorted by its destroyers and the Paravenia, the Gamilstadt and the Paravenia fired one after the other, blasting apart the destroyers and one of the advancing Cometine space battleships. In the meantime, the Eliasite launched its planes.

On the Gamilstadt, Desslok watched on the large round deck-mounted tactical screen with grim satisfaction as one of the attacking Cometine battleships fell back, apparently lining up for a massive barrage.

"We'll hit him with an attack from an unexpected corridor before he can fire, sir," said Talan as the Gamilstadt pulled back a little as the Gamilon destroyers and the Paravenia made short work of the remaining Cometine destroyer. "We're in position now, sir, and so are Kelzart's planes."

"Good," said Desslok. "Now. Activate SMITE!"

A mere moment later, the SMITE projectors on both sides of the Gamilstadt's bow were activated, and the Gamilons' ingenious Space Instantaneous Matter Transport Equipment fields were dematerializing the squadron of precision bombers into hyperspace, to reappear a moment later behind the sterns of two of the Cometine space battleships.

An instant later, the Gamilon planes were streaking down upon their surprised enemies, who fired at them with everything they had. However, despite their best efforts, several of the bombs and missiles got through, and one of the space battleships was forced to reduce its speed as its destroyer escort was blown apart relentlessly by the Gamilon pilots. The other, defended by its escort destroyer, managed to evade the enemy fire unscathed, but it was soon surprised by another wave of Gamilon planes that appeared right on top of it.

"Perdition take them!" hissed the Cometine Fleet Commander as he stood watching the carnage with his teeth gritted and his eyes screwed up into mere slits. "How are those devils doing that?"

"The Gamilon SMITE projectors, sir," said a blue-uniformed Cometine officer near his grey-clad commanding officer. "We had researched them, General Varlan, but we never expected that they would have their flagship..."

"Perdition take your excuses, Janklin! It is our sacred duty to damage those traitors before we retreat, or face Gernitz's wrath. Order the Jelicron to step up the attack while we retreat to a more tenable position."

"We aren't attacking to the death, sir?" asked Janklin.

"No, Captain. Gernitz's orders to me were merely to probe the Gamilons' defenses here as a preliminary to our main attack, just as Naska will soon be doing near Earth. We will put up a good fight and withdraw. Gernitz will need to send more against this lot than we thought. Desslok is, as you can see, a most ruthless and devious man. Had he not impugned his honor by turning against the hero Zordar, he would serve as an excellent ally in our fight to gain the secrets of  how the Earth was healed. Order the Marikon to cover our right flank, and..."

A great flash of light came through the bridge windows of Varlan's flagship, the Jedigas, as the Paravenia's guns drilled a merciless barrage into the Cometine battleship at the flagship's flank.

"Sir, the Marikon has just been destroyed!"

"Curse this! Half my fleet gone, and we only got two of their destroyers! Another moment, and you will order the Jelicron to guard our stern while we..."

A massive explosion on Varlan's ship made his teeth rattle.

"Sir!" cried another officer. "They've hit our escort destroyer!

"Those planes will be after us! What should we do?"

"Break off the attack! General withdrawal! This is enough! Warp back to location X-3 at once!"

"Yessir," said another officer. "SIR!" barked the comm officer. "The Jelicron says it can't follow! Its engine has been damaged and they're repelling boarders!"

"Order them to fight on and destroy any and all information covering our advance, and then to advance to death's embrace by engaging its self-destruct mechanisms," said Varlan.

"Order transmitted...and acknowledged," said the comm officer as more Gamilon planes appeared to rake the main deck of the Cometine battleship.


The Jedigas warped away, leaving the Jelicron alone as the Gamilstadt roared up towards it.

On the Cometine warship Jelicron, pandemonium reigned as a third, and then a fourth boarding pod rammed in from the nearby Paravenia. Gamilon troops swarmed aboard the battleship heralded by an evil haze of greenish-purple radioactive gas recently formulated by Desslok so as to have an especially debilitating and eventually lethal effect upon Cometines in particular. It was a more devilish version of the same gas used by Desslok against the Star Force in 2200 when he had first boarded the Argo.

Cometine troops, when they weren't choking, were snarling with hate against their enemies as pitched gun battles took place in passage after passage on the embattled Jelicron. The Gamilons soon noticed that the most relentless of the defenders were also armored, clad in black battle armor trimmed with maroon of a type they had never seen before. Those troopers were the ones who offered the most resistance against the Gamilons as the grim, brown -armored invaders fought against their former Cometine allies with a ferocity born out of the betrayal of their race and the Leader under the scheming of Princess Invidia. The fact that her schemes had not been stopped sooner by Zordar had tended to damn all Cometines in Gamilon eyes, and now this renewed aggression only made it even worse.

On top of this, many Gamilons looked beyond the bare fact that Desslok had ordered an end against the war with Earth to realize that they now had a sneaking admiration for their one-time Terran enemies for the mere fact that they had taught the arrogant Cometines a thing or two on their own.

All of these thoughts made the pitched battles between the Gamilons and Cometines especially fierce, especially as it was now more evident than ever that Gamilon's alliance with the Comet Empire was now just as dead as Prince Zordar.

A while later, the surviving Cometines retreated towards the bridge, even as the bridge crew was busy shooting out every console they could reach as they sought to carry out Varlan's final orders.

"That's it now," said Captain Velitz, the Jelicron's skipper. "Now, with this charge, I'll kill myself a moment after I activate the sequence to destroy the ship."

A number of laser bolts blasted against the sealed hatchway, heating the hatch from the other side for a bit before it blew in from a well-placed demolition charge.

A howl of anger roared across the bridge as shot after shot came through the door. Gamilon troops were running in through the smoke and gas, and, where they were missing, the gas was taking its effect upon the bridge crew of the battleship before they could seal their helmet faceplates.

"Stop! STOP!" snapped Velitz as he stood with his hands on the controls as five Gamilons advanced upon him, with a sixth, extremely tall Gamilon standing behind them. He wore an especially elaborate black cloak, and his helmet had a high, shiny black crest on it.

"Why should we stop, I ask?" said a mellifluous, respectful voice from behind the mask of the tall Gamilon's helmet.

"Because my hands are on the self-destruct device. When I activate this, I could blow us all to the next world in moments! I'm not afraid to go, but I don't know about you!"

"You're confident, even though you sound like a fool since you evidently don't know that my men have already delinked the self-destruct circuits from your reactor. It's amusing, really, that we know more about your ships than you do. Where's the Captain of this vessel?"

"Why do you want the Captain? Is it important?"

"Yes it is," said the tall Gamilon patiently through his mask. "I'd like to receive his surrender," he sneered.

"Very well...I'm...I'm Captain Velitz, commander of the glorious Cometine Free House space battleship Jelicron. I am just a small cog in the great machine under which our House will unite and purge the whole Empire! Who are you, Gamilon?"

"Who are you, Gamilon?" repeated the tall Gamilon mockingly. "Ah. I am Gamilon!" At that, the leader of the boarding party lifted his visor and undid his mask. "I am Desslok, supreme Leader of the Gamilons, and I think this conversation has gone on quite long enough, Captain Velitz. You have much to atone for!"

"Stay back! I'll blow you up, Desslok! I'll...."

Desslok rapidly drew his pistol and pumped three shots into Velitz's shoulder.

As Velitz fell screaming to the deck, his men scattered, but were subdued by the Gamilons and frog-marched off the bridge. Desslok stood smiling as the smoke curled up from his weapon. "As you have just observed, I always have the last laugh, Velitz. Your surrender is graciously accepted. Talan, see to it that he's taken back to the flagship for inventory, treatment, and interrogation."

"Yessir," said Talan as he clapped his hands once and two Gamilon troopers dragged Velitz away under his arms. "I presume you'll soon follow?"

"I'll be along shortly," said Desslok as he took off his helmet and set it on a console as if he was sitting down in a lounge in his palace. "Post a guard, if you please. I'd like to look into their communications records personally and figure out whom they were calling last. As Zordar gave me many of the Empire's most confidential codes, I'll find it simple to break into the system so I can find out why these barbarians are attacking us. When we talk with Velitz, I can ascertain the rest."

"Yessir," said Talan. "Troopers, guard Leader Desslok. Leave your posts only when ordered."

"As you command, sir," said one trooper as he ordered the others to stand near their Leader with their weapons at the ready in the unlikely event there was any more resistance.

Now, thought Desslok. Since I know that these fanatics are claiming to be a House, let's see if their records carry any sort of Imperial Warrant that may have created them as a House after Zordar's death. Perhaps they are a House, but, perhaps they are simply renegades. For the sake of our security, I'd better ascertain the truth....

Later, Desslok sat with Talan aboard the Gamilstadt. On one table, he had some of his favorite wine, while on another table, he had a number of datapacs copied from the communications computer of the Cometine battleship, which had been taken back to Garalenda Base under tow. The ship was now being examined by Gamilon technicians in the hope that useful data or salvageable materials might be found.

"Sir, as you requested, the ship is being analyzed."

"I thank you, Talan. However, I believe that I have the most essential information right here," said Desslok as he patted the datapacs.

"Leader Desslok," called out an aide from outside.


The grey-uniformed aide came in at Desslok's request, carrying a binder of information. "A hard-copy printout of those datapacs, as requested, sir."

"Thank you. This is satisfactory," said Desslok as he looked over the packet. "You may leave."

"As you wish, sir," said the aide as he saluted and left.

"What did the information tell us, Leader Desslok?" asked Talan.

"I read over much of this on the ship. This is for my personal records," said Desslok. "According to this information, as we know, a General Gernitz was banished from Zordar's main advance fleet command two Cometine years ago and reassigned to the Betralnka quadrant of the Black Fox Nebula, ostensibly to guard strategic resources, or so the official records say. Zordar told me face to face that the reason he did it was to get rid of an influence that was ruining the efficiency of his Fleet. Gernitz was an effective commander, but he was also a bloodthirsty madman who sought to torture and exterminate planetary populations that Zordar found useful. For this breach, he was reassigned, but given occasional access to the Gatlantis City for state visits."

"At about the time I was found by Zordar's forces, and while I was reviving, I understand you were summoned to my side."

"That's right, Leader Desslok. Zordar summoned us with the news that you were alive. We were overjoyed."

"You had good reason to be, but this joy would have turned to sorrow if Gernitz's plot had succeeded. It appears that Gernitz, or some of his followers, even Zordar's secret police could never ascertain who, sought to have me dealt with while I was recovering because they felt that I would serve as a useful source of information for the secret of how Earth was healed in one year after we had bombed it. The attempt was foiled in time. The fanatics themselves were quietly executed by Dyre on Zordar's orders, while Zordar himself refused to touch Gernitz, because he wanted to see if Gernitz's influence extended anywhere else within his House. As he couldn't find anything, Gernitz was called to his court and permanently banished from Gatlantis, forbidden ever to set foot in the City again under pain of death for the crime, which Zordar learned, of exterminating a planetary population of a low level because he wanted to wipe out a race that had offended him, even at the expense of ruining the planet. However, Zordar still found Gernitz useful. He assigned him again to the Alarandis Corridor of the Black Fox Nebula like a chained hound and forgot about him."

"But now...?"

"Gernitz has made sure he is not forgotten. He has petitioned the Emperor for the right to have his sect recognized as a House. That warrant has been partly granted, on the condition that he must swear fealty to any surviving appropriate titled members of Zordar's House, if they still exist and can still be found."

"Are there any?"

"No. Zordar had many children. The only one with a legitimate title, however, was Invidia. I think you know what happened to her. There was talk of an adoption in my favor by Zordar, but he was never able to go through with it, and not even I can fake a claim to his House, nor do I care to, since I am the absolute ruler of our domains by natural right. "

"So, in effect..."

"Gernitz is now his own House, with the right to conquest of any one of Zordar's domains. And, he must be stopped, as you know, before he goes on his quest to discover how and why Earth was Terraformed so quickly. And, you know where he will go to take that information."

"Earth, sire," said Talan with a heavy heart. "Again, Earth," he sighed. Must we involve themselves with Earth again?"

"Not immediately. It is our task to rebuild. But, we must be vigilant, and not only for sentimental reasons," said Desslok. "Have a look at this graphic," said Desslok as he flicked on a screen. "This is our position. If Earth were to be taken by Gernitz's House, it would be most likely enslaved and then possibly sterilized, with all likelihood, because of its current weakened state. Then, the location of Iscandar and the secrets of the Cosmo-DNA machine fall into the hands of an utter maniac, and, even worse, we would have a new Cometine stronghold at our backside like a dagger, just as we are attempting to rebuild. I cannot permit this, Talan."

"Then we're to head to Earth?"

"Not yet. At this point the data became garbled, but I did ascertain that Gernitz is now working out of one of the conquered Milky Way "X" series base worlds taken by Zordar's advance forces. That means that substantial elements of the enemy's forces are holed up either at Sirius or Procyon. Before sending any type of warning to Earth, we must conduct reconnaissance sweeps to place our probes at both Sirius and Procyon to monitor the enemy's activities, and we'll also need more ships if we are to launch an expeditionary mission into the Sol System to personally warn Earth of the threat. I'd send a transmission, but I'm not sure they'd believe me, and I'm not entirely sure that our friends wouldn't jam it, either."

Desslok sipped at his wine for a moment before continuing. "For maximum effect, I'd prefer to direct such a message to Wildstar. Talan, how quickly can you send another general call to the Far Territories without giving away our intentions?"

"As soon as we're linked back into the surviving portions of the Far Territorial relay satellite network, provided, of course, that the Cometines didn't rip it down," said Talan.

"You will do so quickly," said Desslok. "And, when we have enough forces, a garrison fleet will be sent towards the Sanzar keep tabs on Iscandar."

"You said that you didn't think they'd be attacked, yet, sir," said Talan.

"Yes, but I want to be prepared in the unlikely event that happens. As for Earth, I want to be certain and ready before we head there. Is that understood, Talan?"

"Yessir," said Talan.

"Excellent. Please see to it that my orders are carried out."

Talan stood, saluted, and then walked away with a bow.

I have been idle too long, thought Desslok. So this is what my quest for vengeance against Wildstar earned me...a dagger in my back that I should have been watching for all along. I can never let such mad quests for vengeance cloud my judgment again! And to think I brought part of this danger on myself by weakening the Star Force. Destiny has a rather interesting means of teaching me lessons of this type! Now, to be safe, I must safeguard the world and the people I once hated. But are we too late? Are we too late? I pray not...yet I cannot be clouded by my emotions again, not when the destiny and freedom of my people are at stake. Act too soon, and I move before all the pieces are set. But, act too late, and I am blocked before I can make my move. What a bitter irony this is....




Idlewild Space Naval Air Station

Rampway 502

Monday, December 21, 2201

0830 Hours-Spacetime

"At ease!" snapped Wildstar as he stood before the assembled members of the his training squadron as well as the one which Hardy had been training. Hardy stood beside him to his right. "If you wonder why all of you have been gathered here this morning, along with your gunners and RSO's in the case of Hardy's squadron, we are here to inform you that it is to complete the final exercise of your flight training. This is an exercise in which the two of you will be acting in opposition to each other while flying for one last time, under conditions as realistic as we can make them, as squadron mates in an attack and defense situation."

"Here is the tactical situation. Our squadron will fly from here to Lowry Defense Force Base, near the Denver Megalopolis. You will have been ordered to fly there at short notice to serve on a short-term assignment as interceptor pilots protecting that base in a wartime situation. Recently, enemy fleets from space from a rebel splinter element of the Defense Forces have been reconnoitering the planet to gain information for an attack, and to also, incidentally, perhaps pick off a few of you Super Starfighter pilots because they know that we are flying the hottest bird around!"

At that, Laurel Hartmann, Hartcliffe, Pulvan, and all of the other members of Wildstar's squadron cheered, accompanied in counterpoint by boos and hisses from Hardy's squadron. Wildstar gave Hardy a dirty look when he realized that Jeff was encouraging some of the by-play by his silent grin.

"And, as you know, that's the enemy!" snapped Wildstar. "It'll be your job to keep as many as possible of those rebels away from Lowry Base so that they don't get in there to snoop, cause collateral damage, or even, God forbid, bomb Denver or Boulder. Do you understand our mission, ladies and gentlemen?"

"YESSIR!" they yelled.

"All right, now, we'll stand back and let you hear the enemy."

As Wildstar's squadron hissed, Hardy addressed his squadron. "Y' know, those all lies. Nuthin' BUT lies! The so-called loyalists over theah are nuthin' but a bunch of fanatics led by a curtain general who took over the Earth guv'mint who shall remain nameless. This general wants to wipe out our spirit, and wipe out our liberty! He's a scheming dictator who got ninety-nine point nine percent of our forces on his side. But yew, mah comrades, yew are the true defenduhs of freedom. You'd be flyin' forth from the Argo as brave members of the Star Force, if the Argo, that is, hadn't been taken over by the loyalists. Instead, we've commandeered the new Andromeda and we're flyin' forth from that ship to defend our cause. We know they've taken over Lowry, and we're the vanguard of a force that's gonna take IT and Denver AND Boulder back!"

At that, a loud cheer went up. Wildstar groaned to himself, aware that Nova was doing a very good job of playing cheerleader along with Hardy. Well, she's doing what she's supposed to be doing,. he thought. Hardy's made her a flight leader and XO of the Squadron! Funny, isn't it, when your own fiancée is on the wrong side again. Where did Priceman get THIS idea from...including this joint pep talk?

"So, you know what we've gotta do!" said Hardy. "We've gotta flush them rats out! They've got people in Denver, we understand, that are goin' through houses in the same way that the Yankees went through Georgia under Sherman! Now's the time for us to make OUR STAND!"

Then, Wildstar shook his head with disbelief as Hardy led everyone in a Rebel Yell! To his delight, at least his own squadron had the good grace to boo.

"So, we know what we've gotta do..." said Hardy.

"And you know what we've gotta do!" barked Wildstar.

"WIN!" both of them yelled.

A loud and long burst of applause went up.

"Well, what do you think?" asked Hardy as he and Wildstar broke the formations up so that everyone could man their planes.

"I think that the idea of talking to both of them at once was nutty," said Wildstar.

"Yeah, but we got to brief 'em in private before we met for the big pow-wow," said Hardy. "And, see how worked up they are? They're gonna win today. They've all got that killer spirit we want to build up."

"Yeah, I can see that," said Wildstar.

"But what?" asked Hardy.

"I hope we didn't work them up too much," said Wildstar. "If they're too worked up, they could make mistakes..."

"Wildstar, I don't believe this," said Hardy. "How many times have you stood there and worked us up on the Argo, especially when it counted?"

"Well...lots of times, but..."

"We need that espirit, Wildstah! And we've got it. This is the one time everyone here will be flying together as a squadron against an enemy before we break them up into their permanent assignments."

"Yeah," sighed Wildstar. "That's nice...when they know their permanent assignments."

"None of 'em do, Wildstah! You know that! C'mon...what's up? I'm gettin' worried about you..."

"They didn't tell me anything about my new assignment yet, Hardy. They didn't tell any of us...."

"They probably won't until this exercise is over. Or do ah have to give YEW the enemy pep talk, Wildstar? You did a good job; you're a better leader than ah am! All right? Two o' my pilots, namely one of my girls and that real dumb kid, washed out. Yew only lost one o' yours, Wildstah, and that means you outnumber us by one already. C'mon now, Wildstah. You're good at this. Go out there and kick some tail today!" said Hardy as he patted his soon-to-be "enemy" on the back.

"I'll burn you, Hardy," grinned Wildstar. "Even at low practice intensity, I'll burn you!"

"That's the spirit," laughed Hardy. "Good luck."

"Same to you," said Wildstar. "And, to Nova."

"She'll do fine, you know that!" laughed Hardy.

Yeah, I hope so, thought Wildstar. Especially since she's supposed to be my wife at the end of the week...provided nothing happens....

A few hours later, Wildstar's squadron, having simulated a ferry flight across the continent, came in for routine landings at Lowry EDF Base near Denver.

On the tarmac, Laurel Hartmann found Wildstar sipping on a bottle of water and staring out into space as the other pilots made their landings.

"Sir, if I can ask you what's up..."

"Nothing. I'm just...watching the landings before we brief. Trying to grade everyone, that's all."

"Sir, that's not it. What is it?"

"Nothing. I'm just thinking that our opponents are flying aboard that battleship, even now. Those landings and takeoffs on those Andromedas are pretty tricky."

"So, what is it?" asked Laurel.

"Do you smell it?" asked Wildstar.

"Smell what?" said Laurel. "It always smells like this; we're right near the Rockies."

"No. There's something in the air. It's funny. The last time I felt like this was...right before the Comet Empire began to attack us. Something's not right," said Wildstar, who strained to look at the sky. "We don't have enough out there, and, even though we're training, and even though we have to train, if any of those enemy forces are left..."

"You think we could be attacked again?"

"Maybe," said Wildstar. "Or maybe I'm just jumping at shadows. But...that something...I think we'd better be careful out there, and not just of our supposed "enemy", either..."


Landing a Tiger on an Andromeda class isn't just hard; it's just near impossible! thought Angie Hartcliffe in frustration as she came in wrong and was "waved off" for the second time by the position of the landing lights near the new Andromeda's lower bay hatch.

Snarling a little, she turned around, and made the approach again. She finally smiled when the lights turned green, and the strangely reassuring computerized voice of the new ship's automatic landing systems said, "Nominal landing angle achieved. You are cleared for landing, Mrs. Hartcliffe."

"Thank you very much," said Angie cheerfully as she slowed down and caught the open rampway, cutting the engines down just as she was caught by the magnetic arresting field and slowed down enough to taxi in.

"Whew!" she said. "Now, the takeoff!"

"Darn straight," said Ensign Jack Redding, her RSO for this flight. Jack was a Canadian, while her gunner, Marine Sergeant Felipe Lopez, was a Filipino who was as tough as nails. He usually didn't talk much, but when he did, it was usually something you'd be wise to hear; especially since he was the oldest member of this Cosmo Tiger II's crew.

"All right, let's get her around and get her into her hold. Your friend's coming in next."

Angie taxied the plane over to her slot, feeling it go up the elevator as usual as she noticed Nova climbing out of her plane one cubbyhole below her.

"Well, what do you think?" asked Angie as she climbed down out of the plane's landing area and met Nova near a hatchway.

"I see what Derek said," said Nova as she looked around at the new, spacious hangar bay. "These ships are much bigger than the Argo. Pardon me for looking around; this is the first time I've been aboard an Andromeda class."

"This is the first time I've been aboard a battleship, period," laughed Angie. Both of them were interrupted by a loud roar, screech, and bang on the rampway, similar to that on the Argo.

They looked over in time to notice Tatiana's plane taxiing in, just as smooth as silk. She gave a cocky smile as she slowed down.

"How long do we have to our scheduled launch time?" asked Ensign Chen Hso, Nova's RSO. Her tail gunner, a young Space Marine named Lance Corporal Dave Levinson hadn't said much either, partly because he was the youngest in this crew and partly because he was too much in awe of his bird's pilot to say any more than necessary.

"About ninety minutes," said Nova, "...give or take a few. "Remember, Hardy wants us back around here to brief in an hour, and if the time of the attack changes, we might have to be in our cockpits in fifteen minutes."

"Got it," said Hso.

After Nova got a little food and water (some salad and spring water) in the Andromeda's messhall, she decided to request permission to visit the bridge. Because of her status, another officer was easily able to arrange such a visit. So, it so happened that, fifteen minutes later, Nova was on the bridge of the new flagship of the EDF along with her escort, a Junior Lieutenant Palmer, who was, as it turned out, relieving the ship's comm officer.

"Sir," said Palmer, who turned to face Admiral Jeremy Falworth at his post, "As I stated in my call to the XO, this is our visitor, Miss Forrester, from the Recon squadron which is our guest today."

"I'm pleased to meet you again," said Falworth in his rather deep, impressive voice. "How'd you find your first "operational" landing on a ship of this class?"

"Easier than I expected, sir, although your lower hatchway seems to be a little tighter than the Argo's main launch bay hatch."

"So I see," said Falworth. "It's good practice for our crews. There's been talk that they'll be putting regular pilots aboard this ship shortly. as it is, I think it's a little premature; since we're still working all of the bugs out of the ship."

"Bugs or none, sir, she looks magnificent," said Nova. But, not the same as our ship, she added, being sure to keep that thought to herself.

Walking over towards the main radar station, she glanced unobtrusively over the young female officer's shoulder. The new twin-screen Cosmo-Radar console looked similar to the one she regularly manned on the Argo, but Nova noticed at once that a few of the usual controls weren't there.

"Miss, may I ask where the calibration slide switch is?" asked Nova softly. "I'm an officer visiting this ship."

"Oh, of course, Ma'am," said the young radar officer respectfully. "I'm afraid we don't have one of those on this ship."

"Why not?" asked Nova.

"The computer performs the calibration automatically according to an automatic pre-set schedule. The regular old-fashioned acquisition adjustments to focus the image are made as soon as an image is picked up to ensure maximum sharpness on a normal bell-curve ratio, ma'am."

"I'm sorry, but not everything is on a bell-curve ratio in real life, Miss. Sometimes, enemy pilots and helmsmen are able to figure out when they're being scanned, and they'll ginch to screw up your image."

"Ginch?" said the young dark-haired woman with a puzzled look on her face. "What's that?"

"That's when they do a little maneuver to try to outsmart you. If you know what you're doing, you can outsmart..."

Nova went quiet before the radar officer did, because she suddenly heard a little Doppler shift in the intensity of the cosmo-radar waves of the Andromeda's radar that let her, as an experienced operator, know that the scanner had picked up an object before it came up on the next scan. The radar officer stared at the screen, puzzled, until she spotted an image on the radar.

"Captain!" she sang out. "I've picked up an image!"

"Where, Morrison?" asked Falworth.

"AT-304; range, 25,000 megameters. At the far range of our scanners, sir. Speed, twenty-five space knots."

"Confirmed," said the Andromeda's radar system computer in a flat voice. "Object acquired, range 24,939.20. Speed, twenty-four point niner-niner-two space knots. Information being downloaded to target computer as contingency. No threat pattern detected."

"I think you should watch that," said Nova. "I would."

"Why? There's no threat pattern. The computer said that," said Morrison.

"Vicki. Forget the computer for once," said Falworth. "Trust the instincts of our guest and of an old space sailor, okay? I'd keep an eye peeled on that object." added Falworth.

"It could junk, sir. There's a lot of garbage floating around from the Comet Empire," said Vicki.

"Yes, and some of that garbage is giving me a very funny feeling," said Nova.

"Feeling?" asked Morrison as she focused on the scope. "Do you always go on feelings, ma'am?"

"When you've been around space as long as I've been, sometimes you learn to trust them," said Nova lightly. But, something out there is telling me that's a rat! Oh, if only I was on the Argo and could get a look at it on a calibration scan!

"Well?" snapped the Admiral.

"Sir, it's not doing anything...just drifting off," said Morrison nervously.

"All right, then...guess it's not a threat. Still...keep your eyes open. Look for any kind of changes you can detect. You were trained that way?"

"Yes, but not so as to detect..."

"Well, you picked up a tip from a Star Force member today for free," said Falworth. "A tip that could just well save your life someday; namely, listen and look. Got that?"

"Yessir," said Morrison, who gave Nova a mildly dirty look.

"Thank you, Miss Forrester," said Falworth as he got up to shake her hand. "You taught all of us a valuable lesson today. I hope to see you again, someday, maybe even as a TDY instructor on a ship of this class..."

"Thank you, sir. I'd be honored."

At that, Nova left, knowing she had been, however politely, dismissed. However, she still felt uneasy.

What.., she thought as she went down the lift, ...what WAS that blip? For a minute, I could've sworn it left the same sort of signature as a Cometine Scorpion...if only the computer would've let that officer override it to take a look manually by playing around with the scan bandwidth! But no...the computer doesn't LET them do that! I hope that sort of thing doesn't cost them lives someday...

A while later, Wildstar had taken off with his squadron. They were maintaining a Combat Air Patrol around Lowry Base, keeping an eye out for intruders.

Wildstar's two wingmen were Pulvan and Sanjeeva Kayan. Both pilots were maintaining their positions off his wings very well, and reporting in periodically as they were supposed to.

Off behind him, to his left, flew Laurel Hartmann, leading an element consisting of a male known as Ensign Shin Takayama and a female known as Ensign Kristina Barrington. To Wildstar's right flew an element led by a Senior Lieutenant from the Afro States named Garrett Yonas. His pilots were known as Ensign Domingo Sifontes and Junior Lieutenant Samantha Halleck. Finally, bringing up the rear, was Junior Lieutenant Bryan Hartcliffe, who had, to everyone's surprise (including his own) become an Element leader, and second-best student, after Laurel. Hartcliffe's two wingmen were an Ensign named Jason "Jock" Jablonski, and another Ensign known as Aristobulus (usually shortened to "Ari") Nereus. (It also so happened that Jock and Ari were two members of the Scarabs.)

"All planes," snapped Wildstar. "Any contacts?"

Everyone reported "Negative," until Nereus began to say "Neg..", and then he said, "Sir, belay that! I've just picked up a contact, at RP-245, at the edge of my scope at 50,000 and descending!"

"All planes," ordered Wildstar, "Follow my lead, and ascend to 50,000. We're checking that out. Dragons, be ready to strike!"

The squadron roared up higher to intercept.


"Contacts spotted," said Angie Hartcliffe over her radio. "They're coming up from 45,000, coming fast. I think they've found us...."

"We're gonna have a fight!" snapped Tatiana. "Great!"

"Hold off on the chatter back there," snapped Nova. "Await the squadron leader's signal..."

"We allow them enough time to call for reinforcements!" ordered Hardy. "Red Centaurs, attack!"

A moment later, at low power, the two squadrons began to engage. Normally, the Super Starfighters would've had the edge because of their speed, but the Tigers had a slight edge because of a mild element of surprise.

The first "kill" of the day, (with lasers at low power) came when Ari Nereus earned took out Ensign Patricia Daniels from Hardy's squadron by coming up behind her and raking her plane with streams of fire.

A moment later, Yasuo Kirishima avenged the Red Centaurs by taking out Nereus. Daniels and Nereus heard tones in their headsets that indicated they were "dead" and out of the battle, so they broke formation and began to head back after the "deaths" were acknowledged by their squadron leaders.

"We've lost one; they've lost one," said Wildstar. "Everyone, keep the pressure on!"

"Right, sir," said Hartcliffe, who was now busy coming up the tail of Colleen Schaefer from the enemy squadron as the combatants soon forced the battle up into atmosphere that was so thin it was beginning to turn into the deep indigo of near-space. However, Hartcliffe regretted the move a half-minute later, because Schaefer's tail gunner was awake and alert; raking Hartcliffe's Super Starfighter with a bolt or two before Hartcliffe flipped over onto his backside and roared under the Tiger to evade that aft turret.

Hartcliffe was coming back up again when he spotted a bogie coming in hard and fast from a higher altitude on his scope. Who's that? No one's up THAT high, are they? he thought as he swung around again to meet Schaefer, who had Senior Lieutenant Eric Wojenski lending assistance a moment later.

As Wojenski fired, Schaefer roared up higher. Hartcliffe evaded Wojenski's lasers and swung around to pursue Schaefer; Wojenski was soon in pursuit.

Hartcliffe noticed that they were up so high that stars were beginning to become visible. He looked at his scope again, and noticed two more ships coming up on his tail "Identify yourselves!" he barked.

"Hey, sir, it's just us," said Nereus. "I've got Jock with me. We've got two more of them on the run!"

"Great," said Hartcliffe as his fighter roared over onto its back. "Now, as for these guys..."

"No, SHOOT, NO!," they suddenly heard Wojenski yelling on their frequency. "Guys! I've got that bogie on my back! He's not one of ours, repeat, he's not...."

Then, they heard a loud roar of static and looked up just in time to see full-intensity laser beams drilling their way into Wojenski's Cosmo Tiger! It went up in a ball of flame just an instant later.

Then, a moment later, just as ugly as their worst nightmare, two Cometine Paranoia fighters emerged through the ball of gas and flame that had been Wojenski's Cosmo Tiger.

"Curse it!" roared Jablonski.

"This time, Ensign, DON'T cut the chatter!," said Hartcliffe." You...uhhh...Centaurs out there, we're like on the same side!"

"What?" asked Wildstar as he flew on some distance away in his Super Starfighter. Before he got an answer, an enemy Scorpion answered for him by rushing up on him from port with all of its guns going.

Wildstar evaded the enemy fire and began flicking switches with his other hand. I've got to put a stop to this! thought Derek as he turned his weapons up to "combat" intensity and snapped, over a command override frequency that all of the friendly planes in the area would switch to when this signal went out, " BOTH squadrons! This is Wildstar! Boost weapons to combat intensity, and activate missiles! Repeat, combat intensity weapons and missiles! We are under enemy attack from Comet Empire fighter planes and space boats! The exercise is cancelled! All planes in the area, engage and destroy enemy planes!"

A moment later, when the Scorpion came around for another pass, Wildstar fired, and all of his plasma bolts hit, earning the first actual kill of the day for the Earth forces.

"Wildstah!," said Hardy over his headset.


"I've ordered all mah element leaduhs to regroup! Nova's told me that ten of those Scorpions just split off from the main group and are descending down towards Denver!"

"SHOOT!" snapped Wildstar. "Bombing raid! Whoever's behind this set this attack up to divert the rest of us! Hardy, order Nova and your other best element leader to break off and intercept those Scorpions! Hartcliffe, when you can get away from them, take your element and back them up!"

"Roger, sir!" replied Hartcliffe. "Bravos, give me a hand!"

"Soon as I get HIM," snapped Jock as he fired at a Paranoia fighter, which promptly blew apart. "GOT 'im!"


"Comin, sir," whooped Jock as he and his crew held on while his Tiger met the others.

"Wildstar!" barked Priceman over his headset. "What the HELL is going on up there?

"This isn't an exercise anymore, sir!" replied Wildstar as he strafed two more Paranoia fighters. Off to his right, he winced as a Super Starfighter blew apart, having been caught by two Paranoias.

"It's real now! It's a Cometine raid. When can you get us backup?"

"A few minutes...the ready squadron down here was on alert-fifteen. That's changing right NOW," snapped Priceman as Wildstar suddenly heard sirens going off in the background. "But you guys are gonna have to hold them for a few minutes on your own. OVER."

"Acknowledged," said Wildstar. "I've just split them up. Some of the bogies are headed your way; we've almost finished off their first wave of fighters now," commented Wildstar as he fired again while getting a look at the situation on his scope and visually. "Everyone, head towards RP-532; that's where they came from! I'm going to try raising the Andromeda now, sir."

"Good luck, Wildstar," said Priceman.

Wildstar nodded once as he turned back towards his grim task.


Nova looked on as the surface of Earth grew a little larger again in the deep night of space. She was having to evade fire from the upper gun emplacement of the Scorpion she was chasing while trying to get a missile lock on it.

"We've got it!" barked her RSO.

"Here we go!" cried Nova as she let loose two missiles while a flash lit up near-space behind her. They flew true, and soon, the Scorpion was history.

"Nova!" cried Angie.


"There's one behind me! It got Colleen! My gunner's trying to get a bead on it!"

"Levinson!" ordered Nova as the tail gunner tensed at his controls. "Give us some fire!"

"Right!," snapped Levinson as he and Angie's tail gunner returned fire towards the fast Scorpion, which was using its sheer power to try to evade, because for all their speed, the relatively large boats weren't quite as maneuverable as an EDF Astrofighter in the atmosphere. In space, it was a different story.

A moment later, both of them got hits. The Scorpion broke off the attack and tried to escape, but a missile whizzed in from above and blew it apart. Hartcliffe and his pilots joined Nova and Gabe Jackson, who was leading his element of the Red Centaurs.

"How bad is it?" asked Hartcliffe.

"Got three of them; they took out Schaefer," said Jackson.

"The others are still heading towards Denver!" said Nova as the atmosphere began to buffet them again while their noses and leading surfaces began to glow with re-entry heat.

"We'll go a little ahead all o' you," volunteered Hartcliffe.

"Great. We'll be right behind," said Nova.

"Good luck," said Bryan. "And don't get yerself killed, Angie. It'd like, really stink."

In her cockpit, Nova frowned a little while Angie smiled for a second before switching her full attention back towards her instruments and heads-up display. By then, Bryan's plane was out of visual range.

In the Denver Megalopolis, pandemonium reigned as the first of the Scorpions won the race and, with evilly smiling pilots, began a bombing run of the Western American city and her suburbs. What had been a nice day turned into a lurid, hellish scene. Buildings began to explode as the city was starkly illuminated by the fire and flame caused by missiles from the enemy planes.

The horror of the scene was only punctuated with screams until a few defense emplacements in the city began to fire at the enemy planes. A moment later, the defending fighters came right on their heels like hounds, with Tatiana getting the first one.

Angie and Hartcliffe blew apart two of the enemy ships with missile barrages. Jablonski took care of another one.

"Angie, follow me!" cried Nova as two of the enemy bombers let loose two more missiles and then streaked north, towards Boulder itself.

In the streets of Boulder a few minutes later, children ran out to see what the noise was right before the sirens went off and they ran towards shelter, screaming with fear until a sonic boom shook the town. As one of the enemy boats tried to evade over the Flatirons, which were the local foothills of the Rockies, Nova pumped fire into it from her plane's forward guns. Part of her was shocked at how easily this was coming, while another part of her thought, For all I know, my parents are down there in that town! I CAN'T let those enemy planes get them! I just can't!

Nova gave Angie a thumbs-up as she evaded the Scorpion's fire and managed to take care of it.

"Two down! It's safe now!"

Nova nodded as her plane roared back in towards the city of Boulder. Smiling a little, she dipped one wing in salute as she flew over her childhood home, not quite believing what she was doing.

Down below, Teri Forrester just looked out her front door in shock as sirens continued to go off, and smoke trailed up from the Flatirons towards the west.

"What's going ON?" she cried as, unknown to her, Nova roared overhead in her Tiger.

"Teri, you'd better get back inside!" called Karl. "It's the Comet Empire."

"The Comet Empire? They're still left? What about Nova and her wedding?" cried Teri in panic. "How can they have one if the town's bombed out?"

"Whew...everything's fine," said Nova as she glanced down at the receding town of Boulder on her recon cameras. "The house...the church..."

"Ma'am, what was that?," asked her RSO.

"Long story," began Nova as her headset crackled. "Hello?" she said. "Hardy?"

"Forrester, Jackson, get back up here with Hartcliffe," said Hardy. "We've just found the carrier where these guys are comin' from. Wildstah and I are about to hit it, but we could use some backup..."

"Jackson, where's the enemy?" asked Nova.

"Hartcliffe and I got them," he replied.

"Great! Hardy, we'll meet you in a moment. What's your current vector?"


"Roger," said Nova as she began to ascend again, followed by Angie, Hartcliffe, and the others.

A minute later, Wildstar and Laurel Hartmann caught a glimpse of the enemy carrier. They were surprised to observe that it was only a single-deck carrier, but it was more than dangerous enough, given that it was in the midst of launching more Scorpions.

"Where's her escorts?" asked Laurel. "How come there's only one destroyer escorting it?"

"I'm not sure; maybe it's a raider," said one of Laurel's pilots.

"Well, whatever it is, it's not going to be around long enough to get to report back about us to its command ship," said Wildstar in a grim and angry voice. "We can't let it launch those boats, whatever we do! Everyone, follow me! We're gonna hit the front of her flight deck!"

Wildstar's nearest wingman, accompanied by Laurel and her element, all followed the young Lieutenant Commander straight down toward the bow of the enemy carrier in a fast, vicious dive that was as breathtaking as it was deadly. A moment later, they had the carrier in their sights right as another Scorpion roared out of the ship's flight deck access hatch.

"Strange...weren't Comet Empire ships green and white?" asked Laurel.

"They were," said Wildstar.

"Why's this one grey and white?" she asked as she locked missiles on it.

Wildstar and Laurel fired together, followed by their comrades.

The enemy ship had spotted them...but too late to save itself. Even though it began to fire at them, their missiles were already on the way in and they were on their way out by the time any of the energy bolts got near the position. A moment later, hot gas and flame began to boil up out of the hull of the enemy carrier, and it exploded.

"Yeah!" whispered Wildstar, who allowed himself a moment's worth of jubilation before turning back to scanning space.

"Scratch a destroyah!" whooped Hardy below him as he and his wingmen pumped missiles into the Cometine carrier's escort, causing a flash of light below them. "And heah come all the others from Denver."

"Hartcliffe?" asked Wildstar.

"We got all of them, sir, with help from Jackson and Forrester."

"Forrester?" said Derek, who was a little filled with disbelief. "Nova?"

"I'm fine," she said over the radio. "I'm reading more blips, though."

Derek looked at his own radar. "You're right...but what is it?"

A minute later, his question was answered as five blips poured out of one of the others.

"Damn! They've got more carriers out there! And they just launched a second wave!"

Ten more Scorpions roared in, but Derek and his squadron evaded a wave of fire, and then shot missiles at the enemy boats right before they began to break formation. Three enemy planes went down.

"Two to go," said Wildstar. "Hartmann, you take the left flank. "We'll get the one on the right."

"Roger," she said. They engaged the enemy planes with their forward cannons, and, a moment later, the Cometine planes were history.

"Where's the fleet now?" asked Hartmann.

"Right ahead," said Wildstar, spotting a few blips. "Everyone, prepare to..."

"All planes, this is the Andromeda," said an unfamiliar voice from the new flagship. "We have the enemy in range. Clear the area; we're going to fire."

Wildstar nodded once and snapped, "All planes, clear the firing area! I think they're just about finished now," he said with a tight smile.

All the survivors of the battle grouped around Hardy and Wildstar and accelerated out of the battle area. They were heading back towards Earth when the new Andromeda majestically opened fire, testing her new guns in battle for the very first time.

With barrage after barrage, two more Cometine carriers blew apart, along with four destroyers. A single battleship opened fire on the Andromeda for a moment, but its attack barely nicked the new ship. About two minutes later, it was history.

One carrier was left, along with its escorts. "General Gernitz!" said the squadron's commander, a General Paltris. "We've taken heavy damage! The Earthmen repelled us! They must've built a new space battleship in the Argo's absence!"

"Where is it?" asked Gernitz's deep voice on the speakers.

"Approaching, sir," gulped Paltris.

"Did your planes attack Earth?'

"Yes, they did..."

"Your mission was a success. You caused a measure of chaos for the Earthmen and probed their defenses. Return now and report."

"Thank you, sir," said Paltris formally. He gulped as the Andromeda turned towards his fleet. "All ships...WARP!"

The Cometine ships warped out just as the Andromeda fired again. However, its main guns hit nothing this time as the enemy ships faded away.

"Sir?" asked Admiral Falworth's exec.

"Cease the attack," ordered Falworth. "We did our job. We've scared them off, for now, at any rate. Let's head for home."


Earth : The Federal Megalopolis

Earth Defense Headquarters

Commanding General Singleton's Office

Wednesday December 23, 2201

1006 Hours-Spacetime

"At ease," said the Commander as he stared at Wildstar.

"Thank you, sir," said Derek as he stood there in the office, all alone.

"Do know why you're here?" asked Singleton.

"No, sir," said Wildstar.

"I've received the report of the Denver Incident," said the Commander. "Luckily, the damage to the city and the surrounding towns was rather minimal, thanks to your leadership and the excellent flying of your students, as well as yourself. You'll be receiving a Blue Max for this, as well as four pilots from your squadron and six from Hardy's squadron. I'm privileged to tell you that one of them is Laurel Hartmann, and another is named Bryan Hartcliffe. You may also be pleased to hear that some of the others include Mister Hartcliffe's new wife, her friend, Miss Lubyanska, and your own fiancée. Finally, of course, one has been posthumously awarded to Colleen Schaefer. In my opinion, she would have made an excellent Black Tiger, Wildstar."

"I think the same could be said for everyone who died, sir."

Singleton just nodded. "You're going to begin two weeks' worth of leave tomorrow before your next assignment. Bear in mind, your performance as an instructor, in helping to train such an excellent squadron and integrate them into our rebuilding Defense Forces, has been instrumental in the Council's decision as to your new assignment."

Wildstar stiffened. The Defense Council? What would they have to do with a new assignment, unless....?

"Sir?," asked Wildstar. "As to my new assignment, am I being assigned back to the Fleet?"

"No," said Singleton. "However, I can take the liberty of informing you that you've been standing here in an improper uniform for about...six minutes."

"Sir? Uh...what's wrong with this?" stammered Wildstar, who looked at his immaculate blue peacoat and blues. He couldn't see anything wrong with them. What was the problem?

"It's simply the improper uniform for your new assignment, should you wish to accept it, that is," said the Commander with a slow smile as he stood up, opened a drawer behind his desk, and pulled out a cedar box and an envelope. "We'll deal with this in a moment," said the Commander. "First, for the coat. She's currently not here, but I was able to ask Miss Forrester something about your tastes a few weeks ago. She was taken aback by the question, and had no idea why I was asking it, but she volunteered some information that proved useful. As a result, this new uniform coat has been ordered for you. It's yours, should you accept the assignment the Defense Council is offering you."

Wildstar's heart sped up as Singleton pushed the box towards him and opened it.

Inside was a black peacoat with a red collar. The trim was gold, along with the epaulets, which were the proper ones for a full Captain of the Earth Defense Forces. The features that made it unique were a gold anchor on the right breast and three stripes on each sleeve in scarlet. The stripes stood for "Freedom, Peace, and Strength" and were currently unique to the uniform of the Star Force, and no Captain had worn a peacoat with an anchor on the breast since Avatar's death.

"Sir, you mean...?"

"Now, your orders, should you accept them," said Singleton, who closed the box and took the envelope. He opened it and read over the orders in silence before saying, "The substance of these orders details your permanent reassignment to the new First Interstellar Special Missions Force, which just formally came into permanent existence by decree of the Defense Council six minutes ago at 1000 hours as of this date. This decree ratifies and makes permanent the emergency directive I passed in September that formally reunited the Star Force under my ultimate command. Your role in the new Interstellar Special Missions Force is as its commanding officer. Consummate with your appointment, you are also hereby promoted to the rank of Captain in order that you may assume command as Captain of the refitted Argo and commander of the Star Force. After you complete the two weeks' worth of personal leave which you have been granted, you will assume command of the Argo on January 8, 2202 for the purpose of beginning a shakedown cruise of the rebuilt ship on the morning of January 9, 2202. It is now my duty to ask you if you accept this assignment."

Wildstar took a deep breath and then said, "Sir, I accept this assignment, and my promotion, with gratitude and honor. Thank you, sir."

"Congratulations, Captain," said Singleton after Wildstar put on his new coat and its matching white ascot for the first time. "I'm sure that my suspicions will turn out to be correct."

"Sir...your suspicions?"

"Yes. I always felt that you'd be a worthy heir to Captain Avatar. I am pleased to see that, at last, my guess has turned out to be correct. Wear that coat with honor, Captain."

"Sir, I will. I most certainly will. And, thank you."

"My best to you, and to Nova. I'll see both of you at your wedding on Saturday. And, last of all, happy holidays."

Wildstar snapped a formal salute, and left.

When he stood outside, he looked down at himself, and thought I don't know what'll happen next. I never expected that we'd be attacked again...and so soon. What does it mean? Is this the end of the war with the Comet Empire, or the beginning of a new conflict?

I can't believe it...thought Wildstar after he paused again. Just three months ago, I was the leader of a band of mutineers, who had to leave his girlfriend behind. Now, at last, I've formally become the new Captain of the Argo, and I'll soon be marrying Nova. What a change. But, as it was said, tomorrow never knows...what the next day will bring. Whatever happens...I'd better be ready.


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