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"Pull up, Dray! You're going to bounce us right off the atmosphere."
An evil grin creased Draybek's face as she angled their F-27-X star fighter into the upper atmosphere of the Vtaryn homeworld. Her co-pilot shouted obscenities through her headset, but she ignored him. Ford was an unimaginative putz and he knew it. She drummed her fingers on the console, beating out a tune that rambled through her thoughts as she waited. The holographic readouts flashed half-dozen warnings beneath her fingers.
Ford's frantic voice screamed through the headset again. "Pull up or I'll take control of this ship!"
Dray's fist shot out and grabbed Ford's flight suit just below his sweaty collar. "Touch my flight pattern and I'll stuff you down the waste recycler."
Ford slid down in his seat harness, sulking. "Dammit Dray. Why does every flight have to be a freakin' death match between you and Jordan?"
Dray's grin widened. "Because she's the only competition I have in this wimp-fest, now shut up."
Dray watched her readouts, calculating the precise trajectory she needed to pull off this stunt. The ship's hull rattled around her. Three seconds, two seconds. One.
"Fire booster three!" she shouted.
Ford did as ordered, while Dray redirected the F-27-X, timing a perfect atmospheric bounce that threw them up and over Jordan Bower's star fighter that had been strafing them from behind with small weapons fire. Dray flicked on their rear viewers and watched with glee as Jordan's fighter turned into a yellow ball of fire burning through the Vtaryn atmosphere.
"Yes," she whispered.
Dray let Ford handle their landing on Base Station Zenon, while she basked in her triumph. She waved goodbye to the silvery glow of Beta-five's moon as Ford coasted into the landing dock on Zenon. A minute later, the lights in their cabin changed from amber to green. Ford pushed open the cabin door and stepped out. Dray walked out and was accosted by the cheers and congratulations of her fellow students in the simulator classroom. She closed the door to her flight simulator, pulled off her helmet and ran fingers through her short blonde hair, unplastering it from her head.
Dray watched as Jordan and her co-pilot emerged from the adjacent flight simulator. Jordan pulled off her helmet and let loose her shoulder-length black hair. She gave Dray a mock bow as her own well-wishers came over to console her. Dray let her eyes linger over Jordan a moment longer before returning to her own cluster of followers.
Their celebration was cut short when Instructor Fenton slammed open her office door.
"Cadets Draybeck and Bowers, in here now!" Fenton shouted, barely showing her gray-haired head before recoiling inside her office.
Jordan gave Dray a wry smile as the two entered Fenton's dungeon. The all-steel interior to the Instructor's office carried no warmth, much like its primary occupant. Fenton sat in her black-mesh chair, thick arms folded over an ample chest.
"What is the purpose of this academy, Cadet Draybeck?" she asked, her raspy voice sending a wave of discomfort over Dray.
"The academy trains pilots to fight against the Vtaryns, Ma'am." Draybeck knew the drill, but refused to make this lesson easy on any of them. She hadn't done anything wrong, strictly speaking.
"That's it?" asked Fenton. "What about you, Cadet Bowers. Are you here to become another weapon of destruction for the Terran Alliance?"
Dray watched as Jordan stared at the wall above Fenton's head. "We're here to learn how to lead the Alliance, Ma'am."
Dray suppressed a sigh. Jordan played by the rules, as usual.
"Precisely, Cadet. You train to be leaders. And what kind of leadership mentality did you both showed in that last simulation? Either of you?"
Dray sensed Jordan's discomfort under Fenton's glare. Thick-necked administrative pain in the
"Cadet Draybeck, you have something you want to say?" Fenton's cloudy gray eyes turned to her.
"Ma'am, the simulation was over. We crushed the Vtaryn outer defenses," said Dray, staring back at Fenton.
"And you thought you'd have a bit of fun trying to kill each other, eh?" Fenton's voice oozed disapproval.
"With respect, Ma'am. The simulations can't match the challenge of one fighter against another," said Dray.
"With respect, Draybeck? Spare me. The only person here who garners any of your respect is Cadet Bowers."
Dray felt a warm blush creep up her cheeks. She forced herself not to look at her fellow student. "She's a top pilot, Ma'am."
"Hmph. What about you, Cadet Jordan. Do you also think you are too good for the simulators?"
Dray held her breath, waiting for Jordan to toe the line and cave under Fenton's icy glare.
Jordan's quiet answer shocked Dray. Was she agreeing with her, against Fenton? Dray turned to her co-conspirator in time to catch Jordan's shy smile. A warmth flooded Dray that had nothing to do with Fenton's critical attention.
"I see," said Fenton, unfolding her arms and standing. At six-foot three, the older woman towered over the two cadets. "Follow me."
Fenton led the way out of her office and through the hushed gaggle of cadets waiting in the simulator classroom. They marched through the class and down three flights to the Administrator's office.
"Jim," said Fenton, calling the commander by his first name. "You wanted two more for the 28th squadron, right? Well here's your two."
Fenton gave them a slim grin and marched back toward her office. Dray and Jordon stood in stunned silence as the commander eyed them over his silver reading glasses.
"So, you come with Fenton's recommendation, eh?" He stood up and stretched out his hand. "Welcome to the 28th. You'll train on a real ship starting tomorrow."
Dray shook his hand. "Thank you, sir." Her earsplitting grin was matched by Jordan's.
"You'll move quarters tonight to the pilot's wing. Since you came in together, you can bunk together. Chief Petty Officer Marin can give you the details."
The commander returned to his chair and his work. Dray and Jordan wandered back into the hallway.
"Can you believe it?" asked Jordan in a whisper. "I thought we'd get detention for sure."
"Not for us," said Dray. "We're the Academy's finest."
Jordan laughed. "Modest, aren't you?" she teased. Jordan slipped her hand in Dray's. "Come on, let's find our new quarters." She turned back to Dray. "You don't mind bunking with me, do you?"
Warm brown eyes studied Dray. She felt a flush crawl up her freckled cheeks again. "No, don't mind at all," she said.
Jordan pulled her along the hallway. "You're cute when you blush," she said, grinning.
No, Dray thought, she wouldn't mind these new arrangements at all.
Dray managed to tuck her one metal box of personal belongings under her drab steel bed frame in the new quarters she shared with Jordan, before a heavy thud on the door announced a visitor. Jordan pulled open the door to reveal another training pilot, his brilliant red hair and burnt orange skin radiating from his grey-blue Academy uniform. A Tarquin male, just what every girl wanted for a dorm neighbor.
"Good evening, Ladies," he said as his deep green eyes rolled up and down Jordan's lithe figure. A hint of deeper orange rippled across his exposed skin.
Great, thought Dray. A Tarquin male in heat. She was about to push him back out the door when Jordan invited him inside. She stared at her recently-acquired, new roommate. Did Jordan actually like this overbearing bundle of male hormones?
"Hi, I'm Jordan Bowers and this is "
"Dray," she interrupted, grabbing the hand that the Tarquin intended for Jordan. He turned his large green eyes on Dray and smiled, revealing white teeth and a pronounced set of canines.
"A pleasure," he purred, placing his lips to the palm of Dray's hand before she could jerk it away from his smooth grip. He ignored her discomfort and pressed an orange hand on his chest. "I am Red Barron."
Dray couldn't stop the laughter that spilled out from her. Even the ever-polite Jordan covered her mouth to contain a chuckle.
"Red Barron? You've got to be kidding," said Dray.
"Alas, no. My proper name is not pronounceable to the human tongue. Your Terran immigration officers seemed to enjoy their pun on my natural skin color." He grinned, diffusing any notion that he was offended by his name.
"So are you in the 28th?" asked Jordan as she sat down on her own Spartan bed.
"Yes," said Red. "And the two of you are our newest recruits, yes?"
Jordan nodded. "How long have you been here?"
Red stood a polite distance away from Jordan, though his skin continued to ripple his attraction to her. "Just over one cycle. I would be advancing this cycle, but I had to take time off to return to Tarquin."
Dray's eyes widened. "The Academy let you leave and come back? I thought if you left, that was it. Your spot was given to someone else."
"Tarquins are given special dispensation for our Min'Tak ceremony."
Dray ignored the blush she saw creeping up Jordan's cheeks. "You mean you just became a full grown male this cyle?" She stared at the hard, muscular contours that his tight uniform revealed. She found it hard to believe he'd been a Tarquin female less than a cycle ago.
Red gave them a flamboyant bow. "Full male for a half-cycle now."
Amazing, thought Dray. Curiosity kept her from being annoyed by his male bravado. "So, when did you know that you'd be male?"
"I knew before my fourth birthday." He clasped his hands behind his back, warming up to the conversation. "It is a hard concept for Terrans to understand, since most of you are born to your permanent gender. Even though all Tarquin are born as what you would consider immature females, we learn our real gender long before sexual maturity."
"Is it painful, the ceremony?" asked Jordan.
"It is a natural process for us," he said. "Our bodies mature much the same as yours. We just do it in a matter of weeks instead of years. Human maturity takes such a long time. Very inefficient," he said with a wide grin.
Dray laughed. "And not very enjoyable, believe me." She remembered her own awkward puberty and shuddered.
"I must return to my quarters," he said. "I am glad you are both here to join us. I look forward to many lessons, taught and learned between us." His eyes lingered over Jordan once more, causing her to blush again before he let himself out of their room.
Dray sat on her bed, unsure of herself now that she and Jordan were alone again. She wanted to say or do something, but how could she compete with a newly matured Tarquin male? And nearly a cycle more advanced in training that she was.
"We're small fish in a bigger sea now," said Jordan, echoing Dray's private thoughts.
"Yeah. Are you nervous?"
Jordan's hands fidgeted in her lap. "Maybe a little." She looked up at Dray. "How about you?"
Dray smirked. "Nah. I think we'll hold our own."
"Always the voice of confidence," said Jordan, smiling.
"Yep. Stick with me and we'll blow this place apart."
Jordan flung her Academy-standard pillow at Dray. Not the response Dray had hoped for but at least she no longer felt like the ghost of the Red Barron stood between them, for now.
Chief instructor Ngollo, a tall dark-skinned woman, stood on a crate in the landing zone, tapping instructions into her com-board. "Listen up," she said. "We'll be training on the Cygna class cruiser today."
A disgruntled sigh arose from the group surrounding the instructor.
"A Cygna?" Dray groaned.
Ngollo silenced the cadets of the 28th with a wave of her dark hand. "Yeah, you're all wiz-kids at the star fighters, I know. But seventy percent of the Alliance fleet is composed of frigates, cruisers and troop transport. You'll be wiz-kids at all make and class of Alliance star ship by the time you get your full pilot credentials."
Jordan slipped through the group and stood next to Dray. Her face was pale but her eyes studied the Cygna cruiser behind the instructor.
Ngollo scanned her com-board as she spoke. "We'll go out in five groups, six pilots to a cruiser. We'll rotate three on, three off once we're clear of the station." She looked up from her com-board. "Where's Draybeck and Bowers?"
Dray and Jordan raised their hands.
"As the newbies, you'll each be assigned to a senior cadet who'll act as your mentor and be responsible for anything you do for the first twenty rotations, got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," they said in unison.
Ngollo nodded then looked back down on her com-board. "Okay. Dray, you'll be with Tomiko on Cygna 324 and Bowers, you're with Barron on Cygna 187. The rest of you know your groups. Get on your ships and prepare to launch in five."
Jordan gave Dray's hand a light squeeze, then trotted toward her ship. Dray's heart sank as she watched Red's tall orange figure gathering his group and Jordan onto his cruiser. Just what she needed was to have the Tarquin dominating Jordan's first rotations of real pilot training. She watched in frustration as Jordan ascended the ramp into her cruiser, with Red chatting at her side.
"Draybeck? Helena Draybeck?"
Dray winced and turned to face her accuser. A small Asian woman looked up at her expectantly.
"I'm Jenny Tomiko. I'll be mentoring you." Jenny offered her hand and Dray grasped the small hand in her own.
"Call me Dray," she said, letting go of the hand and her frustrations over Red.
"Great, our ship is the first in line, over here."
Jenny led the way past the other cruisers to Cygna 324. Dray felt her own excitement rise as she ran a hand along the cool metal hull of the cruiser. A real ship, finally. No more simulations. So who cares if it was a twenty cycle old model used for tactical command and control? It was real and she'd be flying it in space today.
They entered the cruiser and Dray strapped in to one of the passenger seats that lined the walls. Two other cadets sat to her left, while Jenny and another senior cadet sat in the co-pilot seats at the front of the cruiser. The main pilot seat remained empty. Dray nudged the cadet next to her. "Who takes over as commander on these runs?"
The cadet jutted his chin toward the door, "She does."
A lithe, blonde woman marched up the ramp wearing the solid blue uniform of a junior pilot. She ignored the cadets and slid into the pilot's seat. Strapping on her com helmet she began rapid-fired commands to Jenny and the other co-pilot.
"J.P. Malory Grace," the cadet continued.
"Junior pilot. Friendly?" asked Dray.
He huffed. "What do you think?"
Dray watched the cool, distant junior pilot as she supervised the launch of their cruiser. The woman kept her gaze fixed on her holograph control panel, ignoring the visual experience of watching the ship pull clear of Base Station Zenon. Dray didn't ignore her first real launch. The black outer hull of the base station drifted by her view port. Grinning, she felt the engines beneath her shift from dock speed to level two thrust. Simulators couldn't match that.
A hand came into her view. I'm Bello," said the cadet beside her.
It wasn't until Dray shook the offered hand and felt the webbing between his fingers that she realized he was an Aquaran.
"Dray," she said, studying his humanoid face and seeing no sign of the Aquaran gills.
"Terran mother, Aquaran father," he said, anticipating her next question. "To my father's eternal shame, I can't swim more than twenty minutes under water without an oxygen tank."
"But he's proud of you for being a pilot I bet."
Bello shrugged. "Who cares. It's what I want."
Dray's attention returned to the front of the cruiser as the pilots maneuvered away from the other cruisers, heading to port, quadrant three.
"How far out do they take us?" she asked.
"Just shy of the asteroid belt around Beta-seven. Then we each have a go at responding to Junior Pilot Grace's flight patterns."
As the newest cadet, Dray had to wait until the final maneuvers before her turn came up. J.P. Grace's smooth voice filled her com-link. "Draybek and Tomiko, strap in."
Dray nodded to Jenny and took her seat to the left copilot seat. She'd barely buckled when her heads-up display flashed into life and a stream of commands filled her ears from Grace. Her hands flew over the controls, instantly matching Grace's navigation decisions. She felt a grin spread across her face as her eyes flicked between her display and the front view port. She could see the distinct trails of three other cruisers within her view, each maneuvering closer to the base station as the lessons progressed.
"Tomiko, your bleeding the right tail fuselage. Check your throttle."
Grace's voice locked Dray's focus back on her own readouts. She noted the decreased efficiency on Jenny's maneuvers, but the results were within the accepted limits. Smoothly, her mentor pulled back on controls and the readouts responded nicely.
"Watch your port side, Tomiko."
Dray frowned. She saw nothing on the readouts to match the pilot's warning. She looked through the view port and all she could tell was that they were within fifty clicks of another cruiser. At their current speed, it would take twenty minutes to be within collision distance. She saw the tension in her copilot's expression as the other woman responded to Grace's critical commands.
By the time they docked back on Zenon, Dray had listened to a barrage of criticisms leveled at her new mentor from the junior pilot. When they were safely docked, J.P. Grace opened the door locks and marched out without another word to the rest of them. Dray looked to her mentor, but Jenny avoided eye contact. Dray turned instead to Bello and grabbed him by the elbow as they made their way down the ramp.
"What gives? Is Grace that harsh on everyone?" asked Dray.
Bello waited until the rest of their group drifted away before answering. "She's got it in for Tomiko. They were lovers until Grace got her J.P credentials. Now it's like fire and ice with them."
Great, thought Dray. Her mentor and their training pilot hated each other.
continued in part 2
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