For synopsis and disclaimer, see part 1.
Feedback: Constructive comments and criticism welcomed at email@example.com, and many thanks for reading.
By Sandra Barret
The 28th squadron lined one side of the fighter launch bay and the 14th lined the other. Ngollo stood on a crate in the middle, addressing both teams. Jordan had been up hours before roll call, chattering nervously about the day's event. Not that Dray had been sleeping either. She felt the thrill of her first battle exercise as she listened to the instructor's explanation of the game. Jordan and Dray stood in the back row since they were lined up by rank and seniority.
"Each FX-27 has been equipped with infrared detectors that will register a hit on your ship and rate the damage based on simulated small weapons fire or missile attack. Your fighters likewise have been altered to carry four simulator class-two Singer missiles and two quad-packs of simulated ammo. If your fighter registers as destroyed, you'll slink back to base with your tail between your legs and hope the rest of your team does better."
A ripple of laughter spread across both teams. The 14th squadron had no newbies on their team, and they would likely use that to their advantage. Dray's excitement wasn't dampened by the notion that she and Jordan would be the first prime targets out there, assumed as the weakest links. She knew what they were capable of and their mentors agreed. Red and Jenny would be flying with them as gunners.
"The last team to have surviving fighters wins. The 28th are in the blue coated FX-27s and the 14th are in the red. Oh, and for the newbies - the losing team gets to jetblast both sets of FX-27s to remove the red and blue drill markings. Pilots to your ships and good luck."
Ngollo hopped off her crate and trotted off the launch area as the two squadrons scrambled to their ships in an effort to be the first team fully launched. Jordan and Dray were in the sixth launch team, splitting off from their red adversaries as they cleared the base station. Red, as lead pilot for the 28th, set their initial attack pattern, putting Dray and Jordan side by side as an opening taunt to the 14th. Bello guarded their back, while two of the 28th's top pilot/gunner teams waited on the opposite side of the formation to strafe the 14th's exposed flank.
A beep on the remote comlink signaled the start of battle. Star fighters streaked across the empty gap between the two teams. As expected, a cluster of fighters came after Dray and Jordan. They anticipated two easy kills. What they got was a flood of expertly aimed small weapons fire. As the red fighters scrambled to evade the attack, Bello let off one of his Singer missiles taking out two fighters and all but crippling a third.
"Yes!" shouted Red over the team's private com-link. "That's an early lead but let's not get cocky."
As the pilot for the 28th's lead cadet, Jordan had to follow Red's navigation guidance so he could control the attack. Dray had more freedom to strike at their opponents and took full use of it. In the first ten minutes of battle, she'd strafed three fighters and sent another sulking back to base.
"You've got two on your tail, Dray," warned Bello.
"I see them. I'm going vertical. If you take the first fighter, I'll come back down on the second." Dray banked to the left as a diversion and then shot up out of the plain of attack. Her security console registered Bello's hit on the first fighter, but the second remained on Dray's tail, shadowing her moves.
"180 and swap with me," said Jordan, appearing to Dray's left.
"You got it." Dray followed Jordan's flight pattern and then pulled out, making her attacker follow her and ignore Jordan coming in on his flank. The mistake cost him his fighter.
"I owe you one," said Dray, sending her fighter back into the fray.
"We've barely got the lead," said Jenny, reading out the numbers of remaining ships on either team.
"Not any more. Only four fighters left for each of us?" Dray's eyes switched between her security console and the view port, watching for red fighters. She watched in mock horror as two blue fighters fell into an obvious trap set by the lead red fighter.
"Move out Bello! She's got two above you!" Dray's warning came too late as the red team set of two simulated Singer missiles. Bello and his winger dropped out of the battle zone, defeated.
"Not to shabby," said Red over the com link. "Two newbies against red lead and three wingers."
As he spoke, one red fighter redirected to Dray while the other three streamed after Jordan and Red.
"I don't think so," said Dray, her hands flying over her console. "How many Singers do we have left?"
"Two," said Jenny.
"We'll come at them from within Jordan's shadow. They'll never see us coming."
"You sure you can match her flight that tightly? It could get us both shot down."
Dray grinned. "I know every move she makes."
Jenny laughed. "I see."
Dray ditched the red fighter coming at them and pushed it to top speed as she spun right and came up behind Jordan's fighter.
"Shadow to Leader, We've got two Stingers and are ready to play," said Dray.
"You got it, Shadow. On my mark." Jordan's voice echoed in Dray's ears as she matched her friend's maneuvers in a deft display of synchronized flying. The red squad hadn't detected her yet.
"Now, Dray!" Jordan dropped speed and altitude, bringing one red fighter with her.
Dray's fighter came within view of the other two red fighters, including red lead. "Smile boys and girls, I've got candy enough for everyone. Fire missiles, gunner!"
Jenny locked target and let fly their two remaining Stingers. Lights illuminated both red flyers in wide patches and their defeated ships dropped out of the attack zone.
"One a piece now," said Red. "Take your pick."
Dray eyed the two red fighters in formation below them. She banked to port and came at one fighter head on, as Jenny strafed the red fighter in small weapons fire. To her left, Dray saw the other red fighter glowing, a hit from one of Jordan's missiles. Within seconds, Jordan joined her in destroying the last red fighter. As it dropped out of the attack zone, Jordan and Dray took one triumphant lap of the now empty zone before flying in formation to base station Zenon.
They emerged from their fighters to the hearty cheers of the rest of the 28th. Dray tossed her helmet into her seat and jumped down to the launch bay floor. Cadets swarmed around her and Jenny, but she pushed her way through to Jordan who was also swamped with congratulations.
"We did it," she said, grabbing Jordan's arm.
Jordan turned to her. With the widest smile on her face, she through her arms around Dray, picked her up and swung her in a wide arc. When Dray's feet again touched the ground, she felt Jordan's soft lips on her cheek.
"Of course we did, we're the Academy's finest," Jordan whispered in Dray's ear before the crowd around them pulled them apart.
Dray felt herself lifted onto the shoulders of her fellow cadets. She saw Jordan similarly hoisted and the triumphant crowd marched out of the launch area, leaving the defeated team to clean up after them.
Dray munched on the remnants of her dinner while the news vid droned on multiple screens around the cafeteria. She ached in every muscle she owned. After nearly a full rotation as junior cadet on Zenon at 95% standard gravity, she went with the rest of the 28th to spend the day on the surface of Beta-7, which had 1.5 times standard gravity. Multi-atmosphere training they called it. More like torture, she thought as she tried to shift her aching thigh muscles.
"What's on the vid tonight?" asked Red as he and Jenny joined her at the table. Dray felt gratified to see each of them ease uncomfortably into chairs. At least she wasn't the only one ill-prepared for alternate gravity situations.
"I don't know," she said. "Some anti-war protest. Vtaryn sympathizers."
Jordan pulled up a spare seat and joined them. "Is it the Terran Universalists? They're a wiggy bunch."
"No idea," said Dray. "Does anyone else feel like they've just been pushed through the trash compactor?"
"Oh yeah," said Red. "We were heading for the hot tub. Care to join us?"
Dray turned to Jordan, who nodded her agreement. "Sure thing. We'll meet you there in about ten minutes."
They all eased slowly out of their chairs.
"Make that twenty," said Jordan with a weak laugh.
Two rows of steaming communal hot tubs lined the rehab room four stories below their cadet quarters. Some other members of the 28th soaked in the first tub, but Red and Jenny waited for Dray and Jordan in the last hot tub in the room. They passed a mixed collection of cadets, junior pilots and other officers soaking in the tubs, one of the few places on Zenon where rank and formality disappeared in favor of swim trunks and relaxation. Dray wore pylex shorts and tank top, preferring the fast-drying material to a simple nylon suit. She didn't know what Jordan wore, since her roommate had wrapped a terrycloth robe around herself.
"Come on it," said Jenny. "The jets are doing wonders for my aching back."
Dray dropped her towel beside the sunken tub and lowered herself into the steaming water, turning as Jordan took of her robe. A sleeveless nylon body suit clung to her roommate's torso from mid-thigh to neck. On someone else, the suit would have been modest to an extreme. On Jordan, it was a sensual vision that covered her and yet revealed every detail of Jordan's fit body. Dray was glad of the steaming water as an excuse for the flush rising in her cheeks.
Jordan lowered herself into the water with a sigh. Swirling, bubbling water covered her to the neck, giving Dray the ability to pull her eyes away from her roommate's body for a time. She turned to the other two and saw an appreciative look from Jenny and Red struggling to hide most of his tell-tale rippling skin under the water. Dray almost felt sorry for him, but then she remembered that as of tomorrow, they would no longer be mentor and cadet. The mentoring period over, she dreaded the freedom it gave Red to fully express his feelings for Jordan.
"So, you two are on your own tomorrow," said Jenny, breaking the silence.
Red sat up in the water, regaining control of his skin tone for a time. "Yep, there are four newbies in the 4th squadron starting soon. You'll have someone to pick on."
Dray laughed. "We learned a lot from you guys, but I'll be glad to have someone else bear the brunt of the newbie jokes."
"What's that on your chest?" asked Jordan, pointing to Red.
Dray looked to where Jordan pointed. A blue tattoo outlined the shape of a small flame on Red's hairless orange chest.
"It is the mark of the Flame. It symbolizes the fire within, connecting all to the Eternal."
"Tarquin religion?" asked Dray.
Red puzzled over her question for a moment. "You mean like your Terran religions? I suppose there is similarity, though I like to think the Flame burns in all true religions."
"What sort of rituals go along with belief in the Flame?" asked Jordan as she squeezed water out of her wet hair.
Red smiled, "None. At least nothing formalized. You accept the Flame or not. If you accept it, then the Fire within guides you."
A loud, annoying voice interrupted their conversation. One look at Jenny confirmed Dray's fears. She turned to the source and saw Malory Grace hanging on the arm of an unimpressive looking older woman. They two of them cavorted in the next hot tub in a manner unbecoming for a public place. All color drained from Jenny's face. Dray couldn't tell if she was offended by her ex-lover's public behavior, or hurt by the obvious lack of tact the woman showed in an awkward situation.
A plan formed in Dray's mind that would give a certain obnoxious junior pilot something to think about. "How are the aches?"
Jenny stretched and rolled her head. "I have a nice knot between my shoulder blades. The jets don't really help."
Dray walked around the tub and repositioned herself behind Jenny with one leg dangling in the water to either side of her mentor. Dray and Grace were eye to eye across the span of two hot tubs, and her movement had garnered Grace's attention.
"Lean back and let me see what I can do about that shoulder knot."
Jenny leaned back, sliding between Dray's legs. To Dray's amusement, Grace sat up on the edge of her own hot tub to get a better look at what Dray was up to, all but ignoring her own companion. Dray massaged Jenny's shoulders, working through sore muscles. She felt the tightness dissolve and Jenny's head lowered, relaxing into the massage. When Dray pushed through the knot between her shoulders, Jenny let out a low moan.
"That's better than sex," said Jenny, rolling her shoulders with ease.
To Dray's amusement, J.P. Grace hopped out of the hot tub and marched out of the steaming room, leaving her confused companion behind. Dray withheld a long laugh until after the door closed shut behind Grace. Even Jenny seemed amused by the other woman's ungraceful exit.
Dray's short-lived glory ended when she made brief eye contact with Jordan. Her roommate's brown eyes bore into her for a heartbeat, then turned away. Jordan stepped out of the water and into her terrycloth robe, water dripping off the ends of her hair.
"I'm heading back," she announced.
"I'll join you," offered Dray.
Jordan grazed her with an icy glare. "Don't bother. I'm sure Red will see me back."
Red glanced from Dray to Jordan. "Yes, of course," he agreed, his voice subdued.
Dray sat by the edge of the hot tub in stunned silence, watching Jordan leave with the orange Tarquin at her side. Had Red made his move for Jordan so quickly, while she was busy annoying Malory Grace? The door closed behind the pair and Dray heard the echo of it like the voice of doom for her own unexpressed desires. Why hadn't she ever told Jordan how she felt? And now, as the two left with no impediment between them, it was likely too late.
She lowered herself into the water and under, letting the hot jets pummel her head and neck. When she resurfaced, she saw Jenny sitting outside the tub, dangling her legs in the hot water.
"Problems?" asked Jenny.
"Probably not anymore," said Dray in despair.
Jenny jerked her head toward the exit. "You think something's going on between those two?"
Jenny laughed. "Red can't exactly mask his emotions, can he?"
"No, not much." Dray smiled despite her inner gloom.
"Do you think Jordan likes him?"
Dray sighed. "I can't tell. I'm a little biased when it comes to her."
"Yeah, I can see that. But I can also see the way she looks at you sometimes, too. I'd say you're still in the running."
"Really?" Dray didn't try to hide the hope in her voice.
Jenny just laughed again. "Not that I'm any expert in this area. And thanks, by the way, with the Malory thing."
It was Dray's turn to laugh. "She didn't much like that, did she?"
Jenny looked down into the bubbling water. "No, I guess she didn't."
"Can I ask you something?" Dray stood up in the water, letting the jets beat at sore leg muscles.
"Why did you leave her?"
Jenny kicked at the bubbles. "I didn't, she left me when she made Junior Pilot. I guess it didn't help her career mobility to be tied down to a cadet."
Dray pulled herself out of the water. "If she left you then why is she always dogging you?"
Jenny shrugged. "I wish I knew."
"Come on," said Dray, drying off. "Let's drown our girl troubles in some stout Terran ale."
By the time Dray dragged her exhausted body back to the dorm, most cadets were long since asleep. The door to her quarters creaked as she opened it and stepped into the dark interior. Relief washed over her at the sight of just one body lying under the covers in Jordan's bed. She padded silently into the bathroom to change into sleep clothes. When she came out, Jordan was sitting up in her bed, her bare arms wrapped around her knees. A small bedside lamp lent the room a soft, yellow glow.
"Hey," said Dray. "Sorry I woke you."
"It's okay. I've only been back a few minutes myself."
"Oh." Dray's heart sank.
"How did your night with Jenny go?"
"We went for some beers." Dray sat on the edge of Jordan's bed, unsure of herself yet still craving to be close to her friend. "How about you and Red?"
"No beers, but we talked a lot."
Dray nodded, unable to ask what they had to talk about and not wanting to know.
"So, did you kiss her?"
"What? Who?" Dray frowned, taken off guard by her roommate's odd question.
Jordan pulled her arms tight around her legs. "Jenny."
Dray's eyes widened. "No. Why would I?"
"Well, she's not really your mentor anymore, is she?"
Dray folded her arms around her chest. "Well Red's not your mentor anymore, either."
"So did you kiss him?"
"Red?" Jordan frowned. "No. But I wasn't giving him back massages in the hot tub, either."
"Shoulder massage," Dray corrected with a smile. "And that was for the aggravation of one Junior Pilot Malory Grace."
"You mean the woman who had a fit over our FX-27 training?" Jordan's expression softened.
"The very same. Seems she dumped Jenny when she made J.P. but hasn't quite managed to let go yet."
Jordan's eyes held Dray's. "So you haven't been flirting with Jenny?"
"Only for Malory Grace's benefit and Jenny knows that."
Jordan smiled, "You're evil sometimes, you know?"
"So I've been told." Dray ignored her fears and asked the question she'd been thinking about all night. "Are you and Red, you know "
Jordan unwrapped herself and let her legs stretch out behind Dray. "No, I don't know or I don't want to know what you've been thinking. And no there's nothing between us."
Dray relaxed for the first time since entering the room. "Glad to hear it."
"Really," Jordan teased. "And why's that?"
"He's not right for you," said Dray as she played with the edges of her sleep shorts.
Jordan uncrossed her legs, brushing her bare skin against Dray's back. The scent of Jordan's freshly washed body filled Dray's senses as her eyes moved up Jordan's long legs, to the barest hint of stomach peeking out from Jordan's top. Her hands trembled and she clenched them into tight fists to control herself.
"So who is right for me?" asked Jordan in a whisper.
Dray blinked and refocused her attention from Jordan's legs to her clear, brown eyes. She fumbled for something to say but words wouldn't come. Color flushed Jordan's cheeks. Her eyes held Dray's for a moment, then she looked down. Dray's mind went blank as she struggled with how to answer Jordan's question without sounding like a lovesick teenager.
Her struggles faded when she felt the barest touch along the back of her clenched fist. Her eyes dropped to see Jordan's finger tracing the outline of Dray's hand. She relaxed her fist, opening her hand to Jordan's tenous touch. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as she felt Jordan's fingers caress her palm. Dray let her own fingers feel the softness of Jordan's hand. Desire heated her cheeks, and a different heat focused below her stomach. She traced her fingers along Jordan's wrist and caressed the inside of Jordan's arm. She braved looking back into Jordan's face. Brown eyes, dilated by desire, stared back at her. Jordan bit her lower lip, a red, moist lip that Dray wanted to feel on her own lips. She leaned closer, watching Jordan closely for any sign that her friend might pull away from her.
Jordan leaned in, closing the gap between them. Dray closed her eyes just as soft, warm lips brushed against hers in the lightest kiss. Dray lifted her free hand to slip through Jordan's long black hair, its silky strands brushing along the back of her hand. Dray pulled Jordan closer, deepening their first kiss. She tugged Jordan's lower lip, feeling a soft moan escape from her friend.
Jordan pulled slowly out of their kiss, and Dray froze, fearing she had pushed the other woman too far. She opened her eyes to see Jordan's shy smile and relaxed.
"You didn't really answer my question," said Jordan, leaning away from Dray but keeping their fingers entwined.
Dray smiled, "Funny, I thought I just did."
"Hmm, that's a bit like cheating, I think. But I won't argue with you tonight, sweetheart. We've got Ngollo's lecture first thing tomorrow and I'd like not to be too sleepy to follow her lesson."
"Okay," said Dray, resigning to the fact that Jordan was setting the limits on their new relationship. "Don't suppose you'd want some company tonight, you know, just to keep warm?"
Jordan's cheeks burned red as she gave Dray's hand one last caress before letting go.
"Can't blame a girl for trying," said Dray, returning to her own bed.
A pillow grazed off the top of her head.
"Pushy," said Jordan, smiling.
To be continued in part 4.
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