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  • Writer's picturematthewsveum

Fighter Pilots: Noble Intent (Full Sample Chapter)

Updated: Jun 3

Those interested in representing this project may contact Matt Sveum. This is book 1 in a planned trilogy. The first two novels are already completed, and manuscripts are available upon request.

Fighter Pilots Act 1 Chapter 7 Operation: Torque

A blade of natural starlight gleamed off Shock's blue visor. “I see ‘em; Tau Six high, behind the beams. They’re sticking together, might be going for a flank.”

“And I was beginning to think you weren’t paying attention,” Destiny replied. “Stay on my wing; we’ll head straight for them.”

“As you wish, milady.”

“Would you stop calling me that?”

“Would you prefer ‘ma’am?’”

“Last time I checked, my callsign was neither of those words.”

“Alright, alright. Relax, Destiny. Though you might want to consider changing it, because ‘ma’am’ has less syllables; it’s easier to say. Aren’t you a stickler for efficiency?”

“Shock, I will eject out of this cockpit, jet over to yours, and use my bare hands to bust through your—Agh dead ahead! They’re coming down.”

“Break off and let them pass through the middle.”

Four stock fighters entangled in a beautiful showcase of skilled maneuvering that could’ve passed for a patriotic display on a government holiday. Their black bodies were identical, except each pair had either a blue Sovereign Imperial Insignia or a red Wartime Annex Emblem, for distinguishing teams.

While their krono of training was three quarters over, Shock and Destiny were still pushed to their limit daily, by both instructors and fellow students. Learning was synonymous with performance now: through habitual execution, observation, self-awareness, and mistakes.

They had almost been late for flight-op, but Sideburn wasn’t a ‘late for being early is late’ kind of guy, which had its moments. The physical forces involved in high speed stellar aviation placed a heavy amount of stress on Shock’s frail arms and ribs, but he was too excited to get hung up on pain. Plus, it was either focus on pain, or on not getting liquefied.

He chose the latter, banking low just as several rounds of the enemies’ main guns exploded past him at blistering speed, followed by the perpetrators in the same trajectory. Shock’s thermal scans alerted that he had cut it close, but there was no damage. Destiny had taken his advice faster than he had.

A long-standing tradition in the SAF was choosing someone as a co-dependent, inseparable partner. Because of biomedical implants, which synced their heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, and brain waves, this decision was not made lightly, and if terminated incorrectly, could have damaging psychological effects. Despite this, Shock had been seriously considering it, even before Destiny had brought it up on their walk over. His cheeks heated up beneath the helmet now, just as hers had then. Wingmates. He weighed those heavy words.

Red designs on the Annex tail fixtures interacted with copious solar light, reflected off the nearby planets. Excluding Yboar, these planets and moons were not heavily populated to avoid training mishaps, and for harvesting large volumes of iron and stone for obstacles and cover.

Bold blue emblems sparkled with each twist and roll of the Sovereign ships, over, around, and under multifaceted forms of metallic garbage and rock. Becoming more comfortable with the controls had made Shock more daring in his flying. He hugged closely to the curve of an unforgiving asteroid, through a gap between a pair of larger ones, which smashed closed as he exited. Radar told him he was off his pursuer's leash, but he knew that wouldn't discourage them.

“I've lost Blue Two. How’re you holding up, Destiny?” Shock asked, matter-of-factly. Code made it difficult for the average listener to differentiate interrogatives. But as the two had discovered quickly, was the only way to communicate effectively in these fast-paced engagements.

“Oh, I'm just having a tea party over here.”

“That bad, huh? I’ll circle back and give you a hand.”

“Take your time. No rush.” Sarcasm was also a large part of their in-flight language, a secret code in itself.

The nose of Shock’s fighter climbed harshly until the cockpit was inverted. Righting himself with a half roll, he was quickly on his way back the opposite direction. Ducking under junk to keep Sovereign Two off his tail, finally Shock spotted Destiny and Sovereign One. Not only did she have a nice pattern of instant thrusts going, but her velocity changes and snaking banks were timed erratically enough to keep her persistent caller unproductive.

“Do me a favor and head him off Tau Three,” Shock requested. “I’ll set up ahead, then intercept on his flat side.”

“Done. Don’t screw this up.” Destiny could’ve afforded a more abrupt turn than she took, but she wanted to lead the predator on. Cover had run scarce, so Shock gunned it over the black, empty tundra toward them. They were on a collision course, his flight path forming a giant right angle with theirs. It was a gamble, the odds dependent on how badly Sovereign One wanted to take Destiny out of the game. There was a chance they wouldn’t see Shock, nor be able to frag Destiny and duck out in time, and that's where his bet lay.

Shock had attained maximum forward velocity, and his angle kept him out of Blue One’s tunnel vision as he approached gun range, but there was still ground to cover. Locking on would be much easier, but catching Destiny in the splash of one of his missiles would put her in a pretty bad mood until bedtime—or forever.

“That’s it; bring him in. Just a little more,” Shock coaxed, not realizing he was tensing his eyebrow muscles, until the mountain range of welts on his head screamed at him. It was a good thing his helmet covered his whole head, because he imagined what was underneath it might scare small children. It might bring some satisfaction to Valkyrie, though.

“Almost. He’s...done.” Tremors from the guns’ recoil channeled up through the pilot seat. But before Shock could confirm a clean kill, rounds were coming back at him. It was Blue Two. The enemy fighter veered up from behind the skeleton of a wrecked cruiser on Destiny’s right—all four pilots formed a perpendicular cruciform of cold-blooded adrenaline. Shock’s impulse responded. Two awkward thrusts followed by a full pushover put a lot of strain on the engine, but it turned a game-breaking takeout into a manageable shield hit.

“Shields are at critical levels.” The copilot intelligence was always calm. Not that it would be smart if it freaked out in difficult situations like a person would.

“Don’t you ever call just to say ‘hi?’” Shock complained. “What’s the status of the shots fired on Sovereign One?”

“Hi,” The AI mimicked. “Hostile One was hit by three of nineteen rounds. Hostile One’s shields are completely debilitated. Hostile One’s fighter shows no major signs of other damage or functionality loss.”

“So there’s still a chance, but it won't be easy. Just the way I like it.” Shock flicked switches across the console. “Divert 5% power to shield regeneration and the rest to full thrust.”

“I’m algorithmically obligated to advise you to divert more power to the shields, as our velocity is yet substantial for standard maneuvering conditions.”

“Override. We’re gonna wreck this kid. Destiny, you read?”

A single sweat droplet trickled from Destiny’s temple down to the outer corner of her eye, and then down her cheek like a tear. “Working on it, fly boy. He’s more persistent than I gave him credit for.” She tried to shake right, then low left, but her assailant was now firmly lodged in gun range—and still firing. The temperature of the cabin was heating up from the quantity of close calls. Muscle cramps ran from her tightly balled fists up her forearms, shoulders, and upper back. Drawing out the fight for so long, and relying solely on reaction for survival, it was too late to stop the nervous suspense from building up in the threads of her nerves, and she would snap any second.

“Hang on; I’m getting him off you if it kills me,” Shock assured.

“Don’t say it like that.” Lexical sarcasm was stripped away from Destiny's command, exposing a glimpse of a raw tissue underneath.

“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.” Shock pushed the engine to its limits, before Blue Two could do a hard reverse and take the Annex pair's offense away completely. He dove dead straight at the thorn in Destiny’s back, then reversed with a heavy cross, merging with the flow of the other two fighters. Too far behind to be a threat just yet, the opportunity would present itself soon, as a massive, looming rock was pushing up the timeline. “Destiny, you’re gonna have to trust me. On three, I need you to brake straight back, okay?”

“But I can’t see right behind me; How do I know I won't make a metal sandwich with this Sovvy? Or any other hunk of—Eeeagh!” In a matter of moments, three direct hits made Destiny jump from anxious control, to uncharacteristic doubt, to full on panic.

“It’s going to be alright, Dest. We have to do this together, though!”

“I—I can’t! Agh!” Another violent impact shook her in her restraints. Warnings and sirens blew up her scans and comms. At this point, her fighter was on its last legs, only functional in the minimal, technical sense of the word.

“You can. You’re strong; you’re fierce. All you have to do is fall back. Okay? Okay!?”

“Okay!” There was just enough desperation left in her to keep her on the side of sanity, but she was on the threshold of a breakdown.

“Here goes. One!” The turbines burned painfully, and space was torn up around Shock. His fighter clawed its way forward until it eclipsed the light over Blue One's cockpit. A quick glance back informed Destiny that Blue Two had almost regained full pursuit. “Two!” The side thrusters pushed the wings over, and Shock’s cockpit was falling, inverted, toward her adversary. The throbbing returned in her temples.

It was clear Blue One saw him. A quick boost accelerated the game of chicken, but with Shock doing so, he'd forced their hand. In the moment, Blue One had no good reason to stay in the way of a losing collision, no matter how suicidal it was for Shock. The pilot evaded, disengaging to an intermediate zone off Destiny’s tail, but Shock’s inverted fall followed through, like he was never aiming for Blue One. “Three!”

Destiny blinked away a well of tears sneaking up on her, pulled her brake, and let go of everything. It was a soothing feeling. Her red-emblazoned fighter slid backward at unnatural speed—right through the vacant space Shock had created directly behind her.

“Wake up, Destiny! Fire!”

She woke up—with a vengeance. Strangling the trigger, she let loose an array of ammunition on the defenseless fighter that had terrorized her so mercilessly. A spectacular light show of sparks and arcs of blue electricity erupted from the ship as a celebration of the opponent’s system failure.

“Hostile One eliminated.” Even Shock's AI sounded a bit more excited than usual.

“Great job, Dest! But you’re a dead woman and Blue Two knows it,” Shock said. “Tau Three, take cover in the dirt planet. I’ll give him something else to think about; invest all power in your shields. Go!”

“Okay, okay! I trust you.”

“Of all the times to casually let me know that, you pick now?”

“Well if you screw it up, it won’t really matter either way!” Destiny's wrathful tone blared from the comm output, and bounced around inside Shock's helmet. Now he almost preferred the typical, full-frontal blast to the face. Regardless, Shock was growing steadily more confident in discerning between the real her, and her defense mechanism.

Destiny’s fighter dipped starboard to build momentum, then arced wide to port. It struggled to make the movements look effortless in its poor condition. Desperate to even the playing field, Blue Two rudely cut ahead of Shock and pick off his vulnerable teammate.

“Oh, no you don't. You've still got business with me, remember?” Still coming out of his dramatic dive, Shock shifted as fast as he could back to a climb. The cylinders were complaining, but they rose to the occasion. Complemented by technical handling, Shock’s fighter respond with rudeness of its own—the full thermal output of his exhaust butted in front of Sovereign Two's cockpit. Anyone who’d ever gazed directly into the back end of a magnetic turbine fusion engine could attest it was not unlike staring at the midday sun from the surface of Solaciea.

Shock’s AI alerted to the proximity of a collision, but he could only imagine the volume of his buddy’s temperature monitor. Blind or not, Blue Two could’ve easily blasted Shock since giving up his tail at zero range. So, after a few satisfying seconds, he burned out at a low angle and shifted down the throttle. With the control system failing, and optical-exposure-syndrome taking its toll, the cooked Belgoose couldn’t do much except wander ahead of Shock’s fighter as he pushed back center for the kill.

“How are you feeling, Destiny?”

“I feel about 600 kilos lighter,” she responded, her anger burned off like a volatile exothermic reaction, leaving only relief.

“Sounds like that new workout plan is doing wonders for you!”

“Remind me to punch you later.” As hard as it was to tell with the lousy transmission reception, there was a smile in Destiny's voice, even if it might have been a mildly sadistic one.

“Nothing would make me happier.” Shock meant it. “He’s gonna hate me for this, but switching to seeker missile.”

A quick flip of the fire-select switch on the right stick, and Shock was ready to claim his checkmate. No sooner did the lock-on reticle appear, than the color changed from a pleasant blue to a dangerous red.

“Target locked,” The AI said coldly.

“Just give me the tone from now on.” Even if it were just a training exercise, Shock knew the AI could never grasp the gravity of aiding in the killing of another person.

“Acknowledged.” A continuous low-bit sound replaced the composed female voice to indicate Shock was locked on to the heat signature of the enemy. The head of training missiles only detonated with an EMP, which wouldn’t wreck the ship on the receiving end, but would disable it just as effectively as a force-wave-fission type, if only for a short time. Training guns were designed with the same concept in mind. But while Pulse rockets and missiles had some real application in the field, Pulse rounds were not nearly as common.

“Well played, Blue Team.” Shock let the missile fly from his auxiliary weapon port. Its burning trail began to close the distance with a lovely organic curve of hydrogen exhaust. Shock had thought he was at a safe distance, but the projectile was homing in way too quickly. Blue was braking—they were bringing it in closer! Uncertainty led to hesitation; Shock froze. But the other fighter came closer still—at an alarming rate. Was this a suicide move?

Even though it would still result in a victory, Shock wasn’t entertaining the thought of being shut down; he took a steep dive, but he couldn’t punch the left stick forward fast enough before brilliant flashes hit him square in the retinae. “Autopilot, evasive mode!”

Several seconds of blinking and squinting later, the white wall faded completely to a black speckled sky—save for some floating blue-green spots dancing around in his eyes. Shock almost had a heart attack when the first object he saw was a gritty, brown boulder headed right at him, but he calmed after the AI gently swayed around it, then some smaller ones. “Give me back control. Status on Blue One. Did we get 'em?”

“Negative. Sensors indicate that flares were deployed.”

Flares. I should’ve known, but I completely forgot about those. Not only did he use them to deceive the thermal tracking, but he also blinded me. “Now he could be anywhere. Destiny, how good is the shield refresh rate on these things?”

“I’m at 16%, not getting anywhere fast. And that’s with minimum sustainable power in thrusters and life support only. Why, do you need something?”

“Well, no. I was just checking…”

“Just checking? Aren’t you supposed to be focusing on taking out the other Sovvy?”

“Not necessarily taking out. Just distracting while you regain your shield so we can retain our advantage.”

“Shock, this is taking way longer than expected; if we do it this way we’ll get a huge markdown for time. Even at 40%, I’d be able to take three hits maximum because my frame is in such bad shape. Be aggressive. Put pressure on him, and I’ll be your surprise reinforcements in about one fifty, and we’ll finish him off.”

“I guess that would work... If I knew where he was.”

“You lost him!? Why didn’t you tell me in the first place?”

“Because I knew you’d get mad like this! I couldn’t help it; I had a perfect engagement, but he tossed flares in my face.”

“Shock, you are a clumsy dork. But that's not why I'm mad. If you’re alone with no shields, he could easily jump you and then we’d be back to one on one—only his fighter’s body is in perfect shape, and mine’s ready to give up. We have better odds sticking together and looking for him.”

“When did you get so logical?”

“Make that two punches I owe you. Standby; I’m diverting power.” The way Destiny handled the craft gave the impression she had been doing it all her life. She executed a tight full-turn, and navigated seamlessly through a graveyard of metallic remains and listing rubble to rejoin her lonely partner. “How’re ya feeling, stranger?” She asked, delicately drifting in on his wing.

“I’m okay. I just want this to be over with.”

“Lucky you; I’m picking something up.”

“Oh goody.”

“I’ll lead.” Before Shock could remind her that her fighter was in no condition to be taking point, Destiny sped off, like a girl on the playground taunting a crush to chase her.

“Are you sure it’s a solid mark?” Shock questioned. “It could be some other piece of hot metal.” Rushing to keep up was the best he could do for now.

“Giving off this signature? Are you that naive, or are you just being lazy?”

“You caught me.” There was a despairing sigh in his voice.

“Just like always.” There was a wink in hers.

“Alright,” Shock relented. “I think I’m picking up the same thing. Should be just past this garbage heap.”

“Same plan as always?”

“You got it. Breaking now.”

This would be the most nerve-wracking stretch of time. Weak as they were—in every sense, Shock also got the feeling the enemy had more than one surprise in their flightplan. The proximity of the opposing signature cranked up the tension. Around the last stony mass, half expecting to have the nose of a fighter in his face, Shock came upon a straight path with minor, meandering adjustments. Rocky atolls floated eerily above him. And the sensor chirped ever louder. This guy must be right on top of me. Why would he mess with me like this when he could easily just—

“Oh shi— ” Static devoured the latter half of Destiny’s phrase.

“What is it!? Talk to me!”

“He’s locked onto me, but I still can't see him!”

“I’ll be right there.” After a rash plan to burn ahead, Shock remembered a missile’s tracking wasn’t optimal in this clustered environment, so he had some time to play with. Instead, he decided to pull up above the creepy islands, to try and find the source of her distress.

“As lovely as this lock tone is, Shock, I would appreciate it turning off now!”

“Just a moment, sweetheart!” Why Shock put so much inflection on a name Destiny already hated was an excellent question in hindsight, but it would keep her busy for now.

The seconds became disfigured and elongated, but Shock at last broke through the top level of the silent archipelago. It was a sight to behold. Celestial bodies on all sides, nothing manmade as far as the human eye could perceive. It was actually peaceful, but a missile lock warning broke his reverie. As tempting as it was to stay, Shock pierced the deck until he was back below the eclipsing cliffs. Above and behind Destiny, he matched her motions and tempo.

“What are you doing, Shock?” Destiny demanded. “He gave up on me. Now's our chance to find him.”

“I already know where he is,” Shock snapped, as the screeching missile lock was scraping the skin off his eardrum.

“Then why haven’t you taken him out yet?”

“I don’t know exactly where he is. I was trying to see if he would go for you first, but he's locked onto me now. I'm covering you so you can nab him if he makes a move.”

“If you knew that it was a trap to come save me the whole time, why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know the whole time.”

“You took a chance on my life? You could have just said you were just using me as bait. As if that's all I'm good for to you. You know, you are a horrible wingmate!” Her last few words brutally attacked the transmission waves. They came out with even more clawing amplitude than he'd expected. Shock noticed it was because the flat, obnoxious tone had stopped.

“Are you finished?” Shock asked dispassionately. “If it's all the same to you, he gave up.”

“Just remind me to beat you senseless,” Destiny huffed. “I’ve lost count of how many punches I owe you.”

“Fabulous.” Shock's wing now hovered over her cockpit in a protective gesture. “Now, no more separating. It’s not worth the risk. We’re perfectly capable of staying safe just like this. Now pull up so we can get around this island.”



“Do you remember when I said we weren't—” She swore. “Incoming!”

“No, it doesn’t really ring a bel—Oh my!”

There was nowhere to go. The force of the explosion echoed off of the rocks, surrounding them, and the shards of shattered earth buffeted them to a point beyond stabilization. Destiny was thrown off severely, and wrecked into a dense collection of dirt alloy at an awkward angle. Black metal yielded to rigid rock, as designed to reduce the stopping force, but the groaning clash it emitted caused as much alarm as any impact Shock had ever seen.

“Destiny!” Shock screamed. “Anvil, this is Annex One! Annex Two has had a hard shutdown at location Zero, One, Niner—Would you cut it out!?” The remaining Blue fighter followed its red flood of gunfire, crossing hard with Shock, who was in the middle of an inversion to avoid it. To avoid eavesdropping on strategy, the transmission frequencies weren’t shared. Thus, his plea fell on deaf ears.

Blue Two had fired a missile without a lock, which meant they knew a lock-on wouldn't work in the first place. They had simply used the threat of it to press Shock and Destiny together. Stripped of all his options, Shock was now being herded into a corner. In their shattered state, the islands likely wouldn't cover his escape, but he made for them anyway. “Destiny, talk to me!” He kept trying to wake her up between quick thrusts and banks, weaving between depressed stones in suspended animation, still feeling the fire at the back of his neck.

Blue Two kept their pressure up, certain not to ignore the edges. Whoever they were, they were aggressive, yet methodical. Shock was already 99% choked off. If the matchup was selected based on skill, he could concede admirably, flattered by the computer's decision to have him go against such a valiant pilot. But they hurt Destiny.

The unconscious took over: lessons that had been drilled into his head innumerable times.“If your opponent pulls, you push! Complete the circle!” Bearstone’s words would always be correct in Shock’s mind. Regardless of how childish it may have seemed to anyone else, he would defend those truths with his life.

The torrent of ammunition had not ceased, but if Shock was going to act—

You have to commit! All or nothing!”

Yes, sir! Engines churned. Shock's cockpit rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise, while the thrust translated it up and to starboard. A hard move to follow, but difficult enough that Blue would bite on it.

The takedown starts during the setup! It happens all at once! Don’t wait! Complete the circle!”

Yes, sir!

The velocity dropped, but Shock kept rolling as he fell rearward. Anxiety built as he anticipated the fire to hit him. Throttle slammed back, he pulled the brake and completed the barrel roll.

Don’t anticipate. React. Trust your instincts!”

But there was nothing to react to. Where did he go?

The AI alerts came after Shock’s natural ones: right flank, guns. Harsh electrical waves penetrated his fighter, and the temperature spiked. The enemy craft came around for another pass, intent on destroying him completely. But Shock was back in Freshman PC class, taking punches to his stomach, feeling them pass through his external body, letting his breath-driven focus bear the pain. I’m sorry, sir.

You haven’t disrespected me, kid. No apologies.”

“That’s it, keep ‘er comin’. Clear. Aaaand detach.” The rest of the pilots on deck jogged to their stations. Most didn’t pay any mind to Shock bounding, weaving, and jostling upstream. Without stepping on any toes or mistakenly tackling anyone, he managed to make it over to where Destiny’s fighter had landed with tow assistance.

From the visible damage alone, it would sit in the maintenance bay with the other standbys for a while. Sphere-shaped towing mechs were floating around playfully, waiting for inputs to retrieve something with their suspension beams. Destiny's cockpit drew up. Blonde locks shimmered as she shook out her helmet hair. Her athletic leap to the ground indicated that she was far from dead, contrary to what the swarm of emergency personnel had led him to believe.

“Destiny, I—” A startling offensive made Shock's breath catch just above his lungs, and his words with it. Her arms were around him, and his feet were no longer on the ground. Prepared to be a victim of one of her Suplexes, he tucked his chin. A few seconds later, he realized she hadn't slammed him yet. This was a hug.

“That was incredible!” Destiny squealed.

“Yeahp, keep the sarcasm coming,” Shock forced through constricted airways, still suspended. “I deserve it. I’m an awful teammate. Come on, I’m mature enough to laugh at myself.”

Finally, Destiny set him down. “I saw your double-reverse roll-brake while they were towing me out. I didn't know you could fly like that. It made up for all the other dumb things you did during the op.”

Shock's face got warm, and he toyed at his lip. “That...really means a lot, Dest. Thanks. Now I don't feel as bad for losing.”

“Wait.” Destiny's eyes turned to slits, and she inhaled sharply. “You're telling me that we lost with a 2 to 1 advantage?”

Shock winced, bracing himself.

An officer stepped in, looking more scared of Destiny than he should have, considering his rank, but still proceeded with military frankness: “Excuse me, would you two happen to be Shock and Destiny?” He double checked the names on his holocomp, which contained the list of all the squads and pairings.

“Yes, sir.” Shock used it as an excuse to edge closer to him.

“You two are requested in Records Processing. Any time there’s a hard shutdown, they have to conduct an investigation to keep the Ministers happy. It’s just a formality; Sideburn put his name on your guys’ side, plus this kind of stuff happens all the time.”

“We’ll get right on that, sir, thank you.” Shock wanted to chase after him, so he wouldn’t have to turn back to Destiny’s plasma-beam eyes. But she was looking intently in the direction of a pair of Sovereign Team fighters that had just landed. There were two students in flight gear heading for them. It was uncertain what their reason was for walking over, until they both removed their helmets.

“Oh my gosh! Smith!? Is that really you?” The shorter, leaner of the two females sprinted into him.

“Rainbow!” Shock gushed. “Wow, It’s been forever! Like…One…two…three…”

“Since Gears Academy!” She embraced him with an astonishing amount of upper body flexion. Next to him, Destiny went rigid. “But I don’t remember all this.” Rainbow's hand gestured inches from his face, as if she were analyzing an area of a painting.

“Oh, this?” Backing up to assure she didn’t touch one of his bruises, Shock replied, “It’s nothing. Just training, you know how it is. Ah, Jerald R. Gears Academy,” he announced in a deep, pompous tone. “In that case, it literally has been forever! I didn’t know you were Spec Ops now; congratulations. How’s flight training treating you?”

“Well, I’ve been doing okay,” Rainbow sighed, combing the bangs of her short-cropped, red hair to the side. “We just finished with our last one. I got shut out. But as a team, we usually make out wonderfully, because I have the best wingmate in the galaxy, right, Sweetie?”

Shock’s smile got thinner as the other girl caught up, and stood twelve centimeters over his head—it was the Guntorgh woman from marksman practice. She had rich brown eyes to go with her cocoa skin, and her jet-black braid was still below her waist, seeming even longer up close. The hair left on her scalp was all accounted for, stretched as tightly as possible to match the muscle fibers of her neck.

“We were actually just on our way over to check on some people,” Rainbow continued. “There was a terrible crash! I really hope they’re okay.” The breath coming off her voice was like sweet-smelling laughing gas. It had never mattered what she talked about, it always came off as contagiously adorable.

“Yeah pretty sure that was us.” It was everything Shock could do to not glance at Destiny, whose taut unease was thick on the air like body heat. “We’re fine; just a little banged up. We feel a lot better than we look, actually.”

“Wait, you guys were our Reds? Are you okay!? Well, I guess you just answered that question, but you guys are awesome! Don’t be too down about losing, I’m not even sure how Dragonfly came out on top. She’s just good at that kind of thing,” Rainbow giggled.

Shock nearly fell over. He was a fan of irony, but this was too much.

“Sweetie,” Green eyes flicked sideways to her teammate, and Rainbow shifted her weight to the other hip. “I want you to meet Smith; we were class buddies in Academy.”

“Shock.” He offered his hand, preparing to flex his forearm muscles with everything they had. A full-strength handshake was an old fashioned gesture, but this woman would break every bone in his hand if he did otherwise. Surprisingly, she didn’t kill him from one touch. Not surprisingly, her hand wrapped completely around his and then some. “And this is Destiny.”

The two women settled for a nod that would pass as ‘polite’ for now, but Destiny’s heat rays were 100% charged, and they were aimed right at Dragonfly. (At least for now they weren’t aimed at Shock).

“It’s nice to meet you, Destiny,” chimed Rainbow. “We really must be going, though. Oh! I forgot to tell you, Smith—er it’s Shock now, right? Sideburn mentioned in debrief that final exams are coming, and I was like, ‘already?’ But that always happens to me, so I figured I’d like, remind you—remember how I used to do that every time back at Gears?” She bubbled. “You never really studied though, so I guess it didn’t matter, but either way, I figured I'd do it for old time's sake. Good luck, you guys! Nice meeting you, Destiny! Byyyee!”

They made quite a pair turning around and walking off. Rainbow was literally skipping, while Dragonfly knocked a kid over with her shoulder who'd tragically tried to pass in front of her.

“Did you see that girl? She can't be full organic,” Destiny fumed. “And that other girl earned her callsign during Academy training? Something's not right with those two.” To the far-off peaks of Processing, they took the personnel lift which overlooked the main atrium. Slumped against the guard rails, they had nowhere else to be but sleeping. Thankfully, the introduction of their two opponents had deterred Destiny from destroying Shock.

“Oh no, her legal name is Nikirstin,” Shock clarified. “We just called her Rainbow cuz her tongue was always a different color from all the candy she ate. I guess it carried over to her callsign later on. Oh man, I remember this one time, she ate so much that during an exam she was literally bouncing out of her seat, and she got in trouble for it, so she had to—” Something told him this information was not the answer Destiny was hoping for. That something was her default death stare. “Eh, never mind; you wouldn’t get it. I can’t argue with you on the whole Dragonfly thing, though. She is pretty terrifying.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m not scared of her.”

“That’s because you didn’t see her wreck three biomechs in a row with a single kick. And besides that she’s an amazing pilot. She had an answer for everything I did.”

“Well, finals are almost here. Now’s the time to start thinking of a way to beat her, instead of fraternizing with...sugar-crazed females,” Destiny said, after gesticulating for lack of words.

“Rainbow?” Shock scoffed. “Come on, she's harmelss.”

“Maybe,” Destiny granted. “But the Op Final is a team exercise. If we want to stand any kind of a chance at passing, we both have to start winning to increase our standings. Which isn’t something you’ve done a lot lately.”

The truth hurt. “I’m sure it’s simple for you, but it’s not that easy for me,” Shock shot back. “I have to actually work to get better at something.”

“Oh, so you don't think I put work into anything?”

It was back and forth like this until they were standing in front of the sheer glass doors of the Central Processing Office. It was amazing to Shock just how much information was stored here, and how most of it was utterly useless: dates, times, protocols, code clearance, records, mostly for inconsequential incidents.

Signature-chips embedded in their uniforms responded to the hyperoptic scanner in front of the door. Immediately this brought their particulars up onto holoscreens in front of the main desk as they walked in. Organized to the point of obsession, the Farlock male behind the desk looked to be on the verge of cracking, many tubes pulsing at the back of his bulbous, blue brain as he cleared smatterings of screens one by one.

Shock assumed the stress of working in such a position would be enormous, but at least the view was nice. On one side, it held all the of the verdant, center of the station on display, the other a panoramic view of space. After glancing at their personal data, the receptionist gave them a strange look. If Shock had to guess, it was probably the many contusions each of them was sporting. After directing them to the right place, however, he disregarded them completely. They were ushered into one of the back offices, where two important-looking administrators were sitting.

“Hello, please sit.” The longer-featured, more outgoing Opaline took the lead. “We’ll make this quick. You’ll both have to give your testimony of what happened, and we’ll compare it to the surveillance. You already have your instructor’s endorsement, so no need to be nervous. You two look like you’ve had enough drama today.” He chuckled, but Shock didn’t—it was all too true.

The end of the Deck Officer’s thumb had a metal tip with a glowing red light, which could be seen if he were to give someone a thumbs-up. He proceeded to do so, right up to Shock’s eye. It made a noise like a robotic insect, and it was uncomfortable, like viewing an eclipse, but Shock blinked and it was over. Next was Destiny. Sitting with perfect posture, she too had one bright blue eye punched out by the photon-neuron converter.

“Great. We’ll let that calculate and then—hm? It says here you don't have a bunk number, Petty Officer Matthews.”

“That's odd.” Shock's brows flattened. “I was assigned to the same bunk as Chief Petty Officer Madison.”

The officer's thin lips twisted into a wry smirk. “Nice try. Listen, if you two want to fool around on your own time, be my guest. But you can't be registered to the same room. And if you don't have your own room, that means you aren't supposed to be onboard the Anvil.”

“N-no, it's nothing like that,” Destiny contested, eager to dispel any misconceptions. “We were both assigned the same room, I assure you.”


“R225,” she confirmed again, though shaky in her delivery as her temperature was rising.

“Th-that cayan’t be possible,” the other, a balding human officer interjected. He leaned across the table, practically in the partners’ faces. “The Grand Minister makes it pure, Aquaria, crickwater-clear that elite students should not be subjected to ‘cramped living conditions of any kand.’ He sayd when they payassed the protocol that ‘any conflict cawsed by social friction amongst these hahly competitive individuals could be fatal to they're trainin'.’

While Baldy was blathering away in his typical, Toranus Conservative dialect, Long Chin was attacking his computer with a flurry of keystrokes, only to throw his hands up in baffled defeat. “I’m aware of all that, Johnson, but I can’t even get close to the source command. It’s way above my clearance.” Looking back across the desk, he no longer saw merely another pair of punk, hotshot kids. “You two are either need to be express transferred to the Digital Assaults team, or you have friends in high places. Who is your reporting officer?”

“Admiral Noble, sir,” Shock answered, giving Destiny a break.

There it was again—from both officers. Why did everyone in this station always give them that same strange look?

“I find that very hard to believe,” Chin answered tentatively. “You don't know his full name? you don't have his specs?”

“So, just move us then!” Destiny choked out.

“Yeah, it's not worth getting expelled over,” Shock added, glad she had spoken up first.

“I've already tried, but even if I could override the assignment, we don't have any spare rooms available.” Keystroke blips hammered like a Menbaulia Banger Concert, and the Toranian bit his nails nervously as he watched.

“Look,” the Opaline sighed finally, “I'll have to flag it so Main Branch can take a look at it, but by the time someone with high enough clearance gets around to it, it could be Septarc of next krono. It's not my job to hand out disciplinary action, and, based on the evidence, I can’t find either of you at fault for the hard shutdown that took place an hour ago. So, how about you two do me a favor and stay out of trouble from now on, and I let you go about your business. Whatever that may be.” The officer's tone conceded he was indeed accusing them of something.

“Yes, sir,” Destiny swallowed. Judging by her face, she would rather the accusation be high treason than the more likely assumption.

“Good. You’re both dismissed.”

With trained curtness, the pair got up and left.

“I don’t understayand. How could they get clearance so high for somethin’ directly against the Grand Ministers orders?” Johnson pondered aloud.

Commander Nek Tek Zeepa, looking abnormally stretched and thin, rubbed his eyes with both palms. “If this is all legitimate, then that Noble must be up to something. It’s the only explanation. Ever since he was kicked off the Board and demoted from commanding a fleet…I mean, he was a proponent of the True Equality Clause way back during the Feminist Parties’ campaign, but what does he have to prove here? What greater good does permitting two students to room together do?” As a nervous habit developed from working in Processing for so long, he started surfing deeper into their profiles. At first he didn’t realize what he was scrolling through. “But wait. They were nominated by a Colonel Lionel Alexander Jackson. That's their reporting officer. So why would they say Noble?”

“Come now, Commander, we've seen this before. Young love, runnin' away together? They just didn't want him to fand out about their honeymoonin'.”

“But that still doesn't explain how he was able to get them in last minute if all the rooms were filled. And, even if he's a much-to-do member of the SAF, I should be able to get above his clearance, but this? This is some real cryptic stuff.”

“Like finding a Roughtail in yer ‘tater soup eh, Nekkie?”

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