For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
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By Sandra Barret
"This isn't going to be fun, is it?"
"Hazings seldom are, Dray."
Dray stood in the darkened air lock with her bunkmate and tried to control her fidgeting hands. The engines of the carrier class frigate rumbled beneath her boots as they waited for the rest of squadron 28. Being alone, in the dark, with the woman of her dreams, it all should have been better than this. But a hazing waited and not only did she have to pass muster, she had to keep her cool in front of Jordan. Twice the pressure meant less than half the fun. Would they show up already?
As if on cue, the amber lights came on. Dray scanned the tight confines of the air lock. A sprinkle of stars disappeared from the airlock view port, replaced with a reflection of Dray and Jordan in their cadet uniforms. To their left, hung two space suits, complete with air tanks and tether ropes. This didn't look good.
"Welcome to the 28th." Red Barron's deep baritone reflected suppressed laughter, notable over the intercom.
Jenny's lighter voice replaced his. "And congratulations on your first excursion through Beta-7's asteroid belt."
Dray remembered the unbelievable view of asteroids and matter clouds as their frigate steered through the belt that morning. She and Jordan had nothing to do with but watch while their mentors acted as copilots for the frigate, under Ngollo's command. The trip would be worth any hazing, she thought as she eyed up the space suits again.
"As you probably surmised," said Red. "You'll need those handy suits for this evening's festivities. Please suit up, newbies."
Dray watched Jordan's face pale and hoped her own expression didn't reflect her inner fears quite so apparently. She unhooked the first suit and passed it to Jordan. "We'll be fine," she said, stifling her own fears to bolster her friend.
"Have you spacewalked before?" asked Jordan as she struggled into the bulky suit.
"Nope," said Dray, pushing her head through the suit top. "How hard can it be?"
Jordan snapped on her gloves. "So, nothing scares you, eh?"
"I wouldn't say that." Dray took the helmet from Jordan's struggling gloved hands. She put the helmet over Jordan's head, trying not to let her hands tremble as she pushed Jordan's soft hair off her face and slid the helmet into the locked position.
"You scare me," Dray mumbled once her own helmet was sealed.
A gloved hand slid under her arm, turning her. Jordan's resonant voice clicked in over the helmet-com. "I scare you?"
The comlink was open? Dray felt her cheeks flush as she tried to think of a good excuse for her ill-timed confession. She saw confusion in Jordan's brown eyes. How was she going to talk her way out of this?
Red's voice over the air lock com saved her. "Are you ready, ladies? Please tether yourself to each other. Once the doors open, you will follow standard space-walk protocol - one leader, one anchor."
"Anchor or lead?" Dray asked, glad for the diversion.
Jordan's nervous voice cracked as she responded, "Anchor."
Dray hooked their suits together with the rope. "Tethered and ready," she said as Jordan's gloved hand slid into hers. The grip wouldn't help in the vacuum of space, but Dray felt a wave of calm washed over her.
"We can do this," said Jordan, sounding more confident as the airlock door slid silently open.
The stars of the Betal Galaxy spread out before them, glittering diamonds on a black velvet landscape. Jordan locked her end of the tether rope to the safety hook just outside the airlock.
"Lead, follow the guide rail to the port side," Jenny announced. "Keep one end of the tether locked at all times."
Dray stepped out of the airlock. The expected weightlessness was countered by the magna-locks on her space boots, pulling her to the outer hull. Four paces along, she locked her end of the tether and waved Jordan out. Dray saw the wide grin on Jordan's face as she joined Dray and locked her tether. Repeating that pattern, Dray led them along the rear of the frigate until they came around fully to port.
The green surface of Beta-7 dominated the starscape, but the vision that made both women gasp came from the swirling mass of asteroids that stretched across their view. Gray rocks gave way to giant multicolored asteroids pushing their way through illuminated matter clouds. It was a view no artist could replicate.
"It's beautiful," said Jordan.
An airlock door slid open further along the port side. The rest of the 28th streamed out, followed by a table-sized propelled drone. The squadron drifted beyond the frigate, pulled along by their tethers connected to the drone.
"Welcome to your first space party," said Red as he waved at them from the drone.
Jenny maneuvered the drone from within the frigate, sending it toward Dray and Jordan so they could re-tether to the drone along with the rest of their squadron. "You've got an hour and a half on your air tanks. Welcome to the 28th and enjoy the view."
Dray pulled the pillow over her head, muffling the sound of the shower. She desperately wanted to sleep in on their first free cycle since joining the 28th. Why Jordan was up and showering already would remain one of life's mysteries. Dray's mind drifted back toward dreamland when the annoying buzz of her comlink went off, destroying all hope of renewed sleep. She reached out her hand and fumbled for the comlink on the bedside stand.
"Someone better be dead or dying," she grumbled into the activated comlink.
"Not yet," Jenny replied, laughing. "But I have high hopes for the future."
Dray sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. "I thought we had the cycle off?"
"Mostly. But we have attack drills tomorrow on the FX-27s. Red and I thought we'd take you two out for a test run."
"Excellent!" Dray hopped off the bed and scrambled to find a clean flight suit.
"We'll come get you in ten."
Dray clicked off her comlink. Finally, she thought, they'd have their chance on a star fighter. Not entirely a solo flight since the FX-27 had pilot and gunner/co-pilot seats, but at least it was a fighter. She pulled on her least wrinkled flight suit. The bathroom door opened behind her as she zipped up the suit.
"You'll never guess what we get to do," she said, turning toward Jordan.
A wave of warm, humid air drifted to Dray as she stared at her roommate. Jordan wore loose, white boxer shorts and a thin tank top that clung to her firm breasts. She worked a towel through her wet, black hair. Dray felt herself transfixed by the sight as heat rose in her cheeks. The ability to talk or move left her. Even the star fighter couldn't compete with the sensual vision of Jordan's scantily clad body.
"Well? Are you going to tell me the big secret?" asked Jordan, a smile pulling at the corners of her lips.
Dray blinked, struggling to control her desire.
"Dray? Base station to Dray, do you read me?"
"Um, yeah." Dray started at the floor between them, but not before she saw Jordan's flirtatious smile. "Jenny called. We get to test out an FX-27."
Jordan tossed her towel back into the bathroom. "Really? When?"
A knock on the door announced their mentors.
"Right about now," said Dray.
"Don't let them in yet." Jordan grabbed a suit out of her closet and ran back into the bathroom.
Dray suppressed a laugh as she opened the door and let in Jenny and Red. Both wore flight suits like her own though with markedly less creases. She really aught to sharpen her appearance. Some day.
Red graced her with a brilliant smile. "Are you both ready?"
"Jordan's just getting into her flight suit and then we're ready to go," said Dray. She watched the faintest ripple of deep orange on Red's face as he glanced to the bathroom and back. She had to give him credit for balancing his attraction to her roommate with his responsibilities as mentor. Dray didn't want to dwell on what would happen in a few cycles when that responsibility ended.
The object of both their desires emerged from the bathroom in a well pressed flight suit. Jordan's dark, wet bangs clung to her forehead, onver well-shaped eye brows. Jordan's brown eyes glanced across each of them and settled on the neutrality of Jenny. With cheeks turning red, Dray felt her own attraction to Jordan as exposed as the Tarquin's rippling skin tone. Jenny led them down to the launch area.
The group stood beside two FX-27 star fighters while Jenny explained the test maneuvers they would cover once clear of the base station. Dray's attention split between her mentor's instructions and the sleek fighter beside her. Once Jenny finished, Dray indulged in her first full pilot's pre-flight check on the star fighter. She inspected propulsion, hull integrity, and landing gear as she walked around the fighter. Beneath each extended wing, she noted the quad-pack of drone munitions, the small-weapons training ammo that would verify a hit on any target but would do only superficial damage to another star fighter in the event of an accident.
Dray turned to her mentor. "Flight pre-check clear, Ma'am."
"Then let's get out there, cadet Draybek." Jenny's warm smile relieved some of Dray's tension as they strapped in, pulled on helmets, and prepared to launch.
Jordan and Red sat in the fighter next to Dray. Jordan gave her the thumbs-up signal and ignited her launch engines. Dray watched her friend's precise control as the other fighter cleared the landing dock and shot out into the stars. She clutched her own controls and waited a heartbeat before starting her launch engines. The fighter glided off the launch bay floor and hovered, waiting for Dray's next command.
"It's just like the simulator," said Jenny through the helmet com.
Dray glided the fighter out into open space. Once clear of the base station, she turned on main propulsion and the fighter flew into open space. Her heart raced with the fighter as they screamed passed the outer perimeter satellites that marked the edge of base station Zenon.
"That's good Dray, but next time not quite so much acceleration within Zenon's control zone, eh?"
"Sorry. Just excited to be out here." Dray turned on the navigation computer and entered their target coordinates.
They flew phantom attack and evasion drills for two hours. Jenny entered phantom fighters from her command station and ordered Dray to either seek and destroy, or evade. Dray flew through the prescribed classic patterns at near top speed, her instincts controlling the real star fighter in much the same way she had adroitly maneuvered the simulators. Her drone munitions fired at empty space, targeting the phantoms created by Jenny.
"That's it, Draybeck. You've shot down all I had programmed for today. I can't wait to kick some butt in tomorrows exercise. We're up against the 14th squad."
Jenny's praise flowed over Dray like a cool mist, bringing her back from the intense concentration of a fighter pilot to the excited cadet again. They coasted along at the end of the drill, waiting for Jordan and Red to join them before returning to base.
Dray's security console flashed yellow. "Must be Jordan," she said, watching the approaching star fighter on her screen.
An instant later, the perimeter breach alert clanged in her ear. Her hands locked onto her controls and she kicked into full propulsion, rotating the star fighter into a 260 degree lateral just as the view screen in front of her lit up with the traces of small weapons fire.
"Who's targeting us? Report pilot Draybeck!" Jenny screamed in her ear.
Dray scanned her console to verify what she already knew. "One FX-27, Ma'am. Using drone munitions." Dray grinned broadly. "Permission to return fire?"
Jenny laughed. "Are you two always like this? I can't believe Red let her fire on us."
A dozen more streaks of munitions fire passed within meters of their hull as Dray launched the fighter into another series of reverse loops and came up behind Jordan's fighter.
"Permission granted. Fire at will, Pilot." Jenny's voice held a note of laughter as Dray fired her drone ammo at Jordan's star fighter.
Jordan dropped speed and banked to port, but not before Dray saw the black streaks on her tail section. "Yes!" she said.
"Good hit, Dray!" said Jenny.
Their triumph was short-lived as they felt the rattle of drone ammo ping off their own hull. Then their shared remote com-link clicked into life.
"Senior Cadet Tomiko! Stand down and return to base!" J.P. Malory Grace's harsh voice washed away all humor from their exploits.
"Yes, Ma'am," Jenny responded.
Dray eased up on the thrust and headed back to Zenon with Jordan's fighter flying in formation beside her. She glanced over at her friends. Red raised his hands and shrugged, obviously not as upset by Grace's orders as Jenny seemed to be. In silent communication, the two fighters glided in perfect unison into the launch area and landed. Dray hopped out of her fighter and examined the hits she'd received. To her dismay, she had more black strafes on her wing and tail than Jordan had. She'd been out-gunned.
Jordan came up beside her and ruffled a hand through Dray's short blond hair. "Got you."
"You got lucky," said Dray, smiling.
The thrill of their first flight ended when J.P. Grace marched up and glowered over Jenny. The smaller woman kept here eyes averted, but Dray saw the color draining out of her mentor's face.
"Tomiko, your actions were out of line," said Grace.
Red interrupted her. "Come on, Malory. They were just having some fun. It's not like the ammo can't be cleaned off with a good blast cleaning."
Grace's face tightened in anger. "You'll address me as fits my rank, Senior Cadet, or I'll have you on report."
Red's broad smile never wavered as he looped an arm over Grace's shoulder. They were both of matching height. "My apologies J.P. Grace. I meant no disrespect." He began leading her away from Jenny as he soothed over the incident. "Remember the time you and I went out after hours? You covered my fighter in black streaks that took me half a cycle to clean off."
Grace laughed. "I always had you beat, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did."
She turned back to Dray and the others. "I want those fighters cleaned until they glow, you understand?"
"Yes, Ma'am," said Dray, glad for once of Red's unerring charm.
She relaxed once Red led Grace out of the launch area, but Jenny's pale expression revealed her mentor had yet to shake off the experience.
"Sorry about that," said Dray. "Why dont you go on ahead. Jordan and I can finish up here."
Jenny looked between the two of them. "I should stay and help. I did let this happen."
Dray gave her a friendly nudge. "Yeah, so did the big Red Menace, but you don't see him standing around with a jet blaster in his hands, do you? Go on, we'll meet up with you later."
"Thanks." Jenny gave her a quick hug and then left the launch area, heading in the opposite direction than Red and Malory had taken.
Dray turned back to Jordan, who was frowning as she watched Jenny leave.
"What's up?" asked Dray.
"Hmm?" Jordan glanced at her and then back to Jenny. "Nothing. Clean up time, I guess."
Jordan opened a storage bin and pulled out two hand-held jet blasters. She gave one to Dray and then walked around to her star fighter. Dray turned on the blaster and felt the powerful tool hum in her hands. The cleaning tool made quick work of the black streaks on Dray's fighter. She ran her hands along the cleaned hull one last time before putting away the blaster.
"Should we go find the other two?" asked Dray as Jordan handed her the other blaster.
Jordan stuffed her hands in her flight suit pocket. "I think I'll just go back to the dorm."
Something was bothering Jordan, but Dray hadnt a clue what it might be. Was she upset that Red had left with Grace? She hoped not.
"Okay, I guess I'll see you later then." Dray hesitated leaving her friend, but Jordan turned away from her and walked out of the launch area without another word.
Dray really hoped this didn't have anything to do with Red.
To be continued in part 3
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