Kozue Kaoru crouched behind a boulder, peering through a battered pair of electrobinoculars toward a low, broad metal building in the distance. The sun was past its zenith but still high, beating down mercilessly on her back and neck, but she put the discomfort out of her mind and adjusted the binoculars' magnification.
The building wasn't fortified, which was a plus. It was, however, on the far side of a wide open space, backed up against an impassable sandstone cliff. The only approach to it was across a frying pan of scrub desert and flash-bonded permacrete. Kozue tabbed the rangefinder function of the binoculars and read the distance to the front of the building: 1,292 feet.
"430 yards," she murmured. "About 350 to the edge of the permacrete... and then..."
She swept the building, counting up the visible enemies, then switched off the binoculars and ducked back behind the boulder. This concealed her fully from the eyes of any enemy who might happen to glance that way—but exposed her fully to the expectant gazes of her allies. At the moment, she'd almost have preferred the enemy.
"If we had some rappelling gear, this would be easy," grumbled a dark-haired, lanky young man in a uniform matching Kozue's own.
"Yeah," a woman with short-cropped blonde hair agreed, "but we don't. What's the plan, Kozue?"
Kozue thought for a second more, then nodded. "Spread out in line abreast," she said. "Try to keep at least ten yards apart. Stay low and use what cover there is. If we're patient, we're careful, and we're lucky, we'll reach the edge of the permacrete without being noticed."
"Then we wait until they reach a point in their pattern that suits us and rush the hangar."
"That's your whole plan?!" the dark-haired man demanded. "Sneak up to the edge of the field and then rush them? That's suicide!"
"You've got a better idea, now's the time."
"We might at least wait until nightfall."
"You think the dark makes any difference to them?" Kozue asked flatly. "Waiting for dark will only put one side at a disadvantage—us. No, we go now, so that we still have some light to work with when we get to the crunch."
"And what happens once we get inside?"
"What do you think?"
He shook his head, but he was smiling as he said resignedly, "You're going to get us all killed."
"Well," Kozue replied, turning and peeking around the boulder at the objective again, "if we die in two hours, that's still about twenty more than these guys intended us to have. You guys ready?"
Nods all around.
"OK, then. Let's go."
Crawling across the baking desert floor on her belly, feeling a bit like a strip of bacon, and headed toward the fairly good prospect of a painful death, Kozue wondered rhetorically—as people so often do in such situations—how she'd gotten herself into this mess.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Rogue Squadron Vol. 1 No. 1
"The Way of the Warrior, Part I:
It's Not Just an Adventure, It's a Job"
scripted by Benjamin D. Hutchins
pencils & inks by your visual cortex
letters by Benjamin D. Hutchins
editor: Benjamin D. Hutchins
Bacon Comics chief: Derek Bacon
© 2005 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
HTML remaster © 2019 EPU
Kozue looked around herself and reflected that, just perhaps, the Avalon Centre Chet's Chow was an outstandingly stupid place in which to try and drown one's sorrows after one's life has just unceremoniously collapsed. She might at least have tried it in a suitable setting, such as a waterfront dive or seedy spacer cantina. Unfortunately, the only seedy spacer cantina she knew of was on Tatooine, and she didn't feel like shlepping way the hell out there just to get drunk.
Anyway, if a person were really bent on drowning her sorrows, Kozue supposed she wouldn't pick root beer as the beverage with which to do it.
She sighed and picked at her appetizer. She considered going home, but decided she couldn't face the yawning emptiness of the World Wide Building alone. (Though, really, it would have been worse with Corwin home, all things considered.) She considered going to Tomodachi, but she didn't think she was ready to face her brother after all her plans had fallen through so spectacularly. Miki would understand, of course. He wouldn't judge her or be harsh with her—he would just give her a hug, or more if she wanted it, and try to help any way he could.
Which would make her feel even worse.
While she was pondering this quandary—remaining alone and having company being two equally undesirable states—the decision was made for her. A man suddenly slid into the booth opposite her.
"'Scuse me," he said, drawing her attention away from her jalapeno detonators. He was a tallish, slim man who looked to be in his forties, with short sandy hair and an amused expression that, to judge by the lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth, was pretty much permanent. His manner was easy, friendly, and casual.
"Mind if I talk to you for a minute?" he asked.
Kozue gave him a puzzled look, as if trying to figure out whether to run him off or humor him, then shrugged.
"It's a free pseudocontinent," she said. "I'm not interested in buying anything right now, though."
The man grinned. "That's OK, I'm not selling anything—except maybe a way to change your life," he said.
Kozue lowered her eyebrows. "Are you some kind of religious type?" she asked. "'Cause if you are, you might as well leave. I'm not real big on gods right now."
The man laughed. "No, no. Nothing like that. Listen, I—"
He was interrupted by the appearance of the section's waitress, who, just to cap Kozue's afternoon, was dressed as a TIE pilot.
"<chk> Hello, sir, welcome to Chet's. I'm TL-662, I'm serving in this zone today," she said, her voice made slightly tinny and flat by the speaker in her helmet. "Will you be eating?"
"Sure," said the sandy-haired man with an easy grin. "Lemme have a double blasterburger with cheese and a chocolate snowtrooper."
"<chk> Separate checks?"
"No," said the man, his grin broadening. "I'm buying."
"<chk> OK, then. Double blaster with cheese and a chocolate snowtrooper." The waitress turned to Kozue. "<chk> And your Twin Ion Enchilada plate will be right out."
As the TIE pilot breezed off, Kozue turned to the mystery man and said, "Nothing personal, but I don't let strange men buy me dinner."
"That's OK," he replied affably. "I'm not a strange man, I'm a Colonial Warrior."
Kozue looked him over. He was dressed in crumpled khakis and a battered brown leather bomber jacket, without rank or unit insignia she could see anywhere.
"I'm off duty," he said.
"Sure," Kozue replied.
"You don't recognize me, do you?" he asked, still smiling.
"No," Kozue replied. "Should I?"
"Oh, probably not," he said, making a dismissive gesture. "We've only met once, and my glory days were before your time. I'm Kent Thrace. Back in my throttle-jock days they called me Starbuck. I was course marshal for the '07 Avalon Classic."
"Oh! OK. You'll, uh, have to excuse me, Colonel Thrace. I'm a little... distracted... today."
"Picturing new and creative ways of hanging Guld Bowman out to dry? Believe me, I know the feeling."
"Something like that," Kozue replied, her tone subdued. "Look, I don't want to be rude, but I'm really not feeling all that social right now."
"That's OK. I won't take long. In fact, I'll get right to the point: How'd you like to be one of us?"
"Uh... I dunno if you know this, Colonel, but I just got thrown out of the Wedge Defense Force."
Starbuck grinned. "You don't have to tell me about your qualifications," he said. "I came looking for you, remember?"
Kozue gave him a dubious look, but she had to stifle a bit of a giggle at the same time. The man's good cheer was infectious.
"OK, here's the deal," said Starbuck. "The battlestar Aurora was just commissioned. She's the lead ship of a brand new class, and we're using her as a testbed for some new systems and some new ways of doing things. She's the first battlestar we've configured to handle Veritech fighters, and Incom's built the first Veritech Viper to go along with it—the Mark Ten. We call her the VX, and she's the hottest thing that ever came out of a battlestar's launch tubes."
That got Kozue's attention. She looked up, something like her old spark flickering in her blue eyes. Starbuck's own eyes twinkled—he knew he had her attention now, at least partly. She looked interested but not convinced, but said nothing else, because just about then the waitress returned with their entrées.
"Listen," said Starbuck as Kozue dug into her enchiladas. "You don't have to tell me yes or no. Anyway, I'm not the guy you need to talk to if you're interested. I'm retired from active duty—I work as a civilian advisor to Incom on the VX project. Just... come back to New Kobol with me and talk to the guy in charge of the new fighter wing we're putting together for the Aurora. You don't have to sign anything. Think of it as a job interview."
Kozue lingered over the first enchilada, clearly deep in thought.
Then she looked up, met Starbuck's eyes, and nodded.
"OK, what the hell," she said. "I've got nothing better to do. I'll come talk to your guy."
The Colonial grinned. "Great. You won't regret it, I promise." When she made to object, he held up and open hand. "Not saying you're committed," he said. "But once you've heard our offer, I don't think you're gonna want to leave."
The two finished their food, declined dessert, and were presented with the check. As they rose from the table, Starbuck fished in the pocket of his jacket and dropped a clinking handful of odd coins—little golden rectangles that reminded Kozue of miniature candy bars—on the table next to the bill.
To her quizzical look, he flashed his ever-ready grin again and said, "They get weirder payments than that in here all the time. C'mon, let's jet. We don't want to keep the Colonel waiting."
Starbuck may have been retired, and thus no longer an active Warrior, but it was obvious he still had connections. His ship, parked on the ramp at Ryan Mathews Memorial Spaceport, was a perfectly maintained, gleaming white Viper Mark VIII, the current service variant, known to its pilots as the "Easy Eight" for its forgiving flight dynamics. Kozue had never seen one in person before, but she'd done a lot of reading. The Mark VIII was supposed to be faster than an amped Dantrovian, but word on the Net was that it cornered like a shopping cart with a stuck wheel.
She hoped that shortcoming was either exaggerated by the rumor mill or had been addressed in the Mark X, or this might be a short association. Becoming a Colonial Warrior had a certain appeal—one which grew larger the more Kozue contemplated it—but flying a straight-line ship like the Viper was reputed to be would be hard on her nerves. She liked her ships nimble, having been spoiled by learning on red-hot asteroid racers like the infamous Swordfish II and her own much-modified, well-loved Z-95 Headhunter, Marvelous Miki.
It was to that racing-striped blue Headhunter, parked on the stand next to Starbuck's Viper, that she now strode, zipping up her flightsuit as she went. Starbuck climbed into the cockpit of his Viper in his street clothes—hotshot!—and was already spooling up his turbines as Kozue stuffed her duffel bag into the Headhunter's storage bin. She finished that up, then climbed aboard, slipped into the Easy Chair, and started strapping down.
She pulled on her racing helmet, snapped it to the collar ring of her flightsuit, and powered up the Headhunter's electronics. Glancing across the tarmac at the Viper, she saw Starbuck pull on a battered helmet that reminded her a bit of Tiny Robo's head. He held up three fingers. She dialed her cockpit commset to civil band 3.
"All set?" his voice asked in her earphones.
"All set," she replied.
"OK. I'm dumping my route to New Kobol to your navicomputer. It'll shave about half an hour off the travel time over the commercial route." Kozue glanced down, saw the navicomputer panel light up as it received the signal from the Viper, and nodded. "What class motivator do you have in there?" Starbuck asked.
"Zero point three three," Kozue replied.
"... Damn!" said Starbuck, impressed. "Who's your tailor?"
"A... friend of my brother's," Kozue said, her throat tightening a little. "What's yours?" she asked quickly, to change the subject. "I can dial back so I don't get there before you. After all," she added with a wry chuckle, "you're the one who knows where we're going."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Starbuck replied. "That's one thing about battlestars: They're hard to miss. I'll com ahead and get a landing clearance for you. I shouldn't be more than half an hour behind you."
"OK," said Kozue. "See you there, then. Switching to ATC for launch clearance. X-Ray One, out."
She tabbed the commset to the traffic control frequency, made the necessary noises, then powered up the Headhunter, lowered the canopy, and raised ship.
It came as no surprise to her that Starbuck decided to turn it into a race as soon as they were out of the Mathews control zone. He lit his Viper's afterburners and stood the silvery-white dart on its tail, streaking after her, the ship's massive brute thrust eating up her head start in seconds.
Kozue let him go by; Marvelous Miki was fast, but he didn't have anything to match the Viper's white-hot overdrive. If they were in a confined space like a fleet battle or an asteroid race, though, he wouldn't have been able to use those things so much. At 100% thrust, the modified Headhunter could fly circles around that Viper, and both pilots knew it.
Starbuck reined in at the gate Spherecon had assigned them as an exit from the Dyson sphere.
"Ladies first," he said on the com.
"Age before beauty," Kozue replied, and Starbuck laughed.
"You're going to fit in just fine with us," he said, and blasted through the gate. "See you on the other side," he called back, and then the Viper's exhausts flared blue and the fighter vanished into hyperspace.
Chuckling, Kozue left the sphere, headed for the jump point at top speed, and jumped out after him, knowing she would overtake him somewhere in there.
Two rather dull hours later, the Headhunter popped out of hyperspace and into another star system. Originally known by its Galactic Standard Catalog designation "47 Orioni", the system, one of Zeta Cygni's near neighbors, had been settled by the Colonial refugees in 2385. Today the Colonial Resettlement Territory, as it was formally known, was a protectorate of the Republic of Zeta Cygni, like the Sol VI Territory containing Titan in the Solar system.
The refugees had named the star Colonia. They settled on the third planet, a temperate Class M world which they chose to name New Kobol in honor of the world legend said was their original homeworld.
Marvelous Miki emerged from hyperspace not far from that world, just outside its orbital track. She sat for a couple of seconds getting her bearings as the sublight navigational system recalibrated. There was New Kobol, blue-green and inviting, a few hundred thousand miles off the starboard bow; there was Colonia, its yellow-white brightness kept from flooding the cockpit by the gold anti-glare glaze on the canopy. And there...
Kozue had seen some big starships before—ships like the International Police Space Force flagship Challenger, which was over 2,000 feet long. What she saw before her now... well, it was hard to tell without much of anything around for scale, but she guessed it was probably twice Challenger's length and much more massive.
The IPSF flagship was a gracefully curved, multisectioned craft with a good bit of her length accounted for by her warp nacelles. Except for a couple of outrigger-like pods flanking the enormous fuselage, this ship was all of a piece, a huge slab of duralloy gleaming in the light of Colonia, its whale-like armored bulk sloping from giant sublight thrusters to a blunt nose that reminded Kozue of the snout of the Valiant on an enormous scale.
Kozue's comm panel chirped for her attention. She reached down, dialed the set to the frequency indicated, and opened the channel.
"Romeo X-Ray One, nine eight zero three, this is Aurora," said a pleasant male voice. "We show you on approach. Colonel Thrace told us to expect you. Ever landed on a battlestar before?"
"Never seen one before, Aurora," Kozue replied. "I take it that's you ahead of me?"
"It is indeed. OK, I have you cleared for landing approach on Pod 1, that's the portside pod. Normally we operate on a strict hands-on approach policy here, but since you've never had any training in battlestar landings, Commander Adama's authorized us to use the ALS this once."
Kozue thought for a second, then smiled. "If it's all right with you, Aurora, I'd prefer to bring him in manually."
There was a pause; then the controller's voice came back sounding ever so slightly nervous. "Copy that, X-Ray One... are you sure? We're ready to take control anytime."
"Negative, Aurora," Kozue replied coolly. "No special treatment for me. Just give me an approach vector, if you please, and break out the FSF in case I get it wrong."
"Ah... wait one, X-Ray One," the controller's voice replied. There was a click, and then a new, deeper voice came on the channel.
"X-Ray One, this is Commander Adama," it said. "Make your approach on one-two-four mark seventeen absolute..." A pause; a slight smile audible in the voice as it came back: "... and try not to dent my new battlestar."
"Roger that, Commander," Kozue replied calmly. "On approach on 124 mark 17. I will be with you shortly."
She swung the Headhunter onto the provided vector, heading for the landing bay entrance at the front of the battlestar's portside pod. As she dropped onto the appropriate glidepath, Kozue saw that the bay opening went all the way through the pod.
This isn't going to be too tough, she observed, nudging in a bit more positive pitch. Like landing in a hangar. Except the hangar's moving, but then, in space that's all relative.
"OK, X-Ray One, your approach looks good. Call the ball," said Adama's voice in her earphones, with that same slight touch of humor.
"X-Ray One on final," Kozue replied, eyeing the holographic stripes and approach lights projected by the bay's marker systems into the space before the opening. "Speed 35. I have the ball."
There was one tense moment when she had to twitch in a little rudder so one of Marvelous Miki's wingtips would clear an inconveniently placed pylon, but she handled it without incident, then followed the blinking deck lights to a parking space, dropped the skids, and touched down.
Green lights on a status panel outside and her instrument panel inside agreed that the blue atmosphere containment field she'd flown through at the bay mouth was doing its job, so she raised the canopy and pulled off her helmet before setting about unstrapping from the Easy Chair.
By the time she'd stood up and thrown a leg over the cockpit coaming, an orange-jumpsuited deckhand had pushed a boarding ladder up against the side of the Headhunter. It was a bit low, clearly intended for use with the slightly-lower-slung Vipers, but it saved her from having to toe down the ship's built-in skeleton ladder, so she jumped down to the top platform and climbed down to meet the deckhand.
He was a tall fellow with dark hair buzzed close to a round skull, and he carried himself with confidence. Since she wasn't in uniform, he didn't salute, but the look he gave her was respectful.
"That was a nice landing for a rookie," he said. He looked past her at the Headhunter, nodding appreciatively. "Z-95E? Hell of a ship. Better than the early Vipers, but those big wings would make it a pain to operate a whole flight of them off a battlestar," he added, pointing with a grin at the pylon she'd had to avoid on approach.
Then he stuck out a hand and said, "Chief Tyrol. I'm in charge of the portside deck crew. Welcome to the Aurora."
Kozue shook his hand. "Kozue Kaoru," she said.
"Oh, believe me, we all know who you are," said Tyrol, still grinning. He waited for her to retrieve her duffel bag from the Headhunter's luggage compartment, then led the way across the landing bay toward a man-size door past a row of parked Vipers. "First time on a battlestar?"
"Uh-huh," Kozue confirmed. "How do you know who I am? I mean, yeah, Starbuck called ahead, and you probably read my name on the side of my Headhunter, but you sound like there's more to it than that."
Tyrol's grin widened as he led her through the door and down a corridor. "We've been expecting you for a while. Colonel Thrace certainly took his time."
Kozue gave him a puzzled look, but he just smiled and kept walking briskly along, making her trot a bit to keep up. They went down a corridor, turned left, climbed a narrow staircase, turned right, and went through a big door (the doors on this ship, Kozue noticed, were manually operated) into what looked like a small lounge.
"You can change here, Miss Kaoru," Tyrol said politely. "Colonel Thrace should be along shortly."
Kozue thanked him and watched him leave, then set about making herself presentable. That didn't take very long—all she had with her were the street clothes she was wearing under her flightsuit. She stripped off the flightsuit, rolled it up, and stuffed it in the bag, then gave her short blue hair a quick once-over with a brush, checking her reflection in the shiny wastebasket in the corner of the room. The curved surface did amusing things to that reflection, so she was in the middle of a game of Funhouse Mirror when the door opened again.
She straightened to see Kent Thrace entering, his expression just barely short of smug. "There you are," he said. "Ready to see the man in charge?"
"As I'll ever be," Kozue replied, tucking her hairbrush back in her duffel bag.
"You can leave the bag here," said Starbuck. "Nobody will bother it."
Kozue nodded and followed him to the far door, where he thumbed a button on a little speaker panel next to the door.
"Yes?" replied a voice.
"It's Starbuck," he said.
"Is she with you?" the voice replied.
Starbuck grinned, spun the wheel on the door, and swung it open, then bowed Kozue through it.
The room beyond was a small, rather cluttered office with an outside window and a compact desk. Behind that desk stood a man of average height and unassuming build, with short dark hair and keen eyes. He wore the uniform of a Colonial Warrior—grey pullover shirt with silver braid, black trousers, buckled boots, blue suede jacket with heavy silver buckles—and had a blaster pistol strapped to his hip in a thigh-tiedown holster. Kozue was surprised to realize that she knew him.
"Wedge!" she exclaimed before she could stop herself. "You're the guy I'm supposed to meet?"
Major Denis Antilles, universally known as Wedge, grinned. "Welcome to the Aurora, Kozue," he said. "Have a seat."
Kozue sat in one of the two decommissioned ejection seats propped up facing Wedge's desk. Starbuck took the other with the easy grace of a man long accustomed to such accommodations. Wedge resumed his own more conventional seat behind the desk, still grinning.
"It's been a while, Miss Kaoru," he said. "I haven't seen you since last year's Fall Classic. How have things been?"
"Uh, well... they've been great until recently," Kozue replied. "So you're heading up this new fighter wing Starbuck was telling me about."
"That's right," Wedge said. "We're going to try out a new way of looking at a starfighter squadron. Well, new to the Colonial Forces, anyway. The Salusians have had similar things for centuries, it's where I got the idea. I'll get into that in a minute. First, would you mind telling me what happened last week? I've read the report, of course, but I'd like to hear your side of it."
Kozue's shoulders slumped a little. She'd been hoping she wouldn't have to go into all that again.
"Well," she said, "there are three lead instructors in the WDF's Accelerated Veritech Training Program. I drew Guld Bowman."
Wedge nodded. He was familiar with the Zentraedi pilot from his own days in the regular WDF. Guld was a great pilot, but not the most personable of men. He had a short temper and was rigidly intolerant of failure or foible.
"He took an instant dislike to me," Kozue went on. "He wasn't shy about telling me why, either. My service with the IPSF Irregular Projects Group... my asteroid racing experience... even my membership in the Order of the Rose—all bothered him. The first day I got there he made me take off my Duelist's seal. 'There's only one allegiance in this training wing,'" she said in a surprisingly good imitation of Bowman's gruff tones, "'and that's to me.'"
She went on to describe the way Bowman had apparently decided on Day 1 that she wasn't going to make it through the program. For weeks he'd ridden her harder than any other cadet in the wing, double-ticking her infrequent faults in flight and coming up with any other sort of infractions he could think of to tag her with on the ground.
All of that had only made her more determined to succeed. Without a word to anyone above her instructor, she'd buckled down and worked twice as hard as anyone else there just to keep even with Bowman's continual criticism. The streak of perversity that ran through her character became her strongest asset as she bucked the instructor's negativity, grimly bent on making it through the program in spite of all his help.
As she spoke, Kozue was painfully aware that her words sounded like just the sort of excuses that a failed cadet would come up with. She could only hope that Wedge would understand, based on their admittedly casual acquaintance in the field of asteroid racing, that she wasn't the sort to make excuses like that.
"Sounds like you were handling it," Wedge said, a note of admiration in his voice. What Kozue didn't know was that this was a standard pattern of Guld's, widely known among his peers in the fighter-jock community. The Zentraedi had very strong opinions as to who did and did not belong in the WDF, and if he couldn't find a real reason to get rid of those who he believed did not, he'd make one.
His superiors in WDF Fighter Command, at least his immediate superiors, were as aware of his reputation as anyone else. They knew that he was famed (and held in more than a little contempt) throughout the stick-and-throttle fraternity for his rigid and arbitrary system of making personnel decisions that were none of his affair—but he was kept in the job anyway, for the simple reason that his training wings had a habit of producing superior pilots.
He wasn't soft on those he decided would make it through, to balance his harshness to those he wanted weeded out. Guld worked his "chosen" cadets hard and gave them the full benefit of his experience, and those who survived generally excelled in their chosen profession.
How many other great pilots may have gone to waste because of this little habit of Guld's was something that his bosses didn't seem inclined to consider. Occasionally that worked out nicely for other forces, groups who were rivals of the regular WDF as far as recruiting went.
Groups like the Colonial Forces.
Kozue nodded to the Colonial officer's statement, a spark of fierce pride in her heart. "I was handling it," she said. "I thought... I thought I was going to make it."
Wedge nodded. "So what happened?" he asked.
"We were at chow call last Friday," she said. "I was... I was kind of a pariah in the training wing, because everybody knew by then that anyone who was friendly to me would be a target for Guld too. So I was eating by myself, thinking I'd use my weekend pass to go to Tomodachi and visit my brother.
"I must have been smiling to myself about it, because the next thing I knew, Guld was sitting down opposite me and saying..."
"What are you grinning about, Cadet?" the burly Zentraedi demanded. "You like shit-on-a-shingle that much?"
Kozue looked down at her mess tray—she hadn't really been paying any attention to what she was eating, and to be honest she didn't think the commissary's corned beef on toast was too bad—and shook her head.
"No, sir," she said.
"Well, then, I asked you a question, Cadet," Guld replied.
Kozue suppressed a routine surge of annoyance. Guld's job didn't entitle him to pry into the personal lives of his students, but he did anyway, and filing a complaint about it would only make her look like a whiner.
"Going to visit my brother this weekend, sir," she said, thinking, OK, here's where he cancels my weekend pass and puts me on maintenance duty for the third week running.
Guld raised one pale-green eyebrow. "Your brother, eh? I'd have expected that kind of smile on the face of somebody looking forward to a different kind of weekend." Then he gave her a tightly restrained, malicious little smile and added, "Or is that the way things are in your family, Cadet?"
Kozue felt a thick wave of anger well up somewhere inside her. It wasn't that she was outraged by the insinuation (that would have been an amusing height of hypocrisy) or embarrassed that he'd brought it up. It was just that what she and Miki had, what they'd worked through the burden of long, painful years to achieve, was bright and precious to her, and she couldn't bear the thought of this leering asshole mocking it, even unknowingly.
"Leave my brother out of this, sir," she said, containing her fury with the greatest of efforts.
"Was that an order?" Guld inquired sarcastically.
"I'm warning you, Major Bowman," Kozue said. "You can say whatever you want about me, I won't kick, but you don't talk about Miki. Ever."
"You're warning me?" Guld asked, incredulous. "I think you may have misinterpreted the chain of command here, Cadet. I give the warnings." He rose and barked, "On your feet!"
Kozue got up, her bearing rigid more with contained fury than actual attention, and focused her blue eyes on a point in hyperspace somewhere coreward of the Zentraedi officer's head.
"Your smart mouth just lost you your weekend pass, Cadet Kaoru," Guld informed her.
Kozue remained rigid and said nothing. She was aware that everyone in the messhall was staring at her, a few with concealed sympathy, some with contempt, many with amusement. She wasn't going to give Guld the satisfaction of reacting—
—until he said, "So I guess your brother will just have to find something else to do this weekend."
This was all part of Guld's plan. He didn't know any details, but he'd learned that Kozue had a twin brother of whom she was very fond. He figured by needling her about him and implying outrageous things about their relationship, he could finally get her to cross the line and take a swing at him. Then, being three times her size even micronized, he'd rough her up a bit, throw her in the stockade, and bounce her from the program.
Unfortunately, his research had a few holes in it. For instance, he'd completely overlooked the fact that she was friends with the Expert of Justice Jackie Chan.
The end result was that Kozue did go to the stockade, but Guld didn't get much gloating in, because he spent the weekend in the infirmary with a mild concussion.
"The hearing was this morning," Kozue said, "and it went about how you'd expect. I was dismissed from the program for possessing a temperament unsuitable for military service and striking a superior officer." She smiled slightly. "Guld didn't mention in his complaint that I'd struck him 47 times."
"You're thorough," Wedge observed. "I like that."
"Once I hung the first one on him, it was obvious I was either going to have to bring him down or get hurt," Kozue replied. "I don't like getting hurt."
The Colonial officer nodded again. "Smart," he said. "So... what do you plan to do now?"
Kozue shrugged. "I was just trying to work that out when Starbuck showed up. I don't really know."
"Well, if you're still interested in becoming a fighter pilot, I have an offer to make you," Wedge said. "I'd have made it sooner, but I didn't think you were interested in a military career."
"I didn't either, until I got the invitation to AVTT," Kozue admitted. "I'm still not really sure why, but it intrigued me. The idea of... I don't know, exactly. Being part of something. I'm a Duelist, of course, and that's a proud heritage in itself, but..." She trailed off. "I'm not making much sense," she said apologetically.
"No, I understand," Wedge replied. "You want to be unique, and with the kind of friends you have, that can be a challenge," he said with a small grin. "Putting on a uniform is an interesting path to uniqueness, but with us you might have a chance. We're a pretty unique group here. Has Gryphon ever told you about the old days of the WDF?"
"Some," Kozue said. "It's a lot different nowadays," she added with a touch of rue.
Wedge smiled. "Well, here in the Colonial Forces we're a lot more like the regular force used to be in his day. Things are a lot less impersonal here."
"My problems in the WDF were pretty personal," Kozue pointed out wryly.
Wedge laughed. "That's true, but not quite what I meant. The bottom line is this: I'm putting together a new squadron here on the Aurora. We're going to be trying some new methods, testing new equipment—I assume Colonel Thrace has told you about the Viper Mark X?—and some new ways of doing things. For that we need Warriors who aren't..." The pilot chuckled. "... aren't quite normal," he said. "People with a wider range of skills and experiences than the usual candidates. I call it 'Rogue Squadron', and I think you'd be a great asset to it."
Kozue raised an eyebrow. "That's an interesting thing to be told less than twelve hours after being discharged for temperamental unsuitability."
"I'm not saying it'll be easy," Wedge said. "We have very high standards in the Colonial Fleet. It'll be harder than the program you were just in would've been if you'd had a fair instructor... but it also has the potential to be even more rewarding."
Kozue opened her mouth, then shut it, looking downcast again.
"I don't know," she said. "I think maybe the Board of Review was right... I'm not cut out for the military life."
Starbuck, who had remained silent throughout the interview so far, cut in with an interjection that surprised her: "Of course you're not! Which is what will make you fit right in as a Warrior. We're elite because we're the best there is, not because we keep our boots polished and scrub toilets."
Kozue looked from one man to the other.
"Starbuck has a point," Wedge said. "We are a military force, and we do have a certain standard of behavior, but I think you'll find our culture suits you better. Besides," he added with a twinkling-eyed grin, "you have another strong incentive to join us."
"What's that?" Kozue asked, though she thought she already knew the answer.
Wedge's grin widened a little. "You have to get even with Bowman," he said. "It's a moral imperative."
"How do you suggest I do that?" Kozue asked, intrigued.
"The WDF has a contract out for a new frontline Veritech fighter to replace the Thunderbolt. Shinsei Industries and General Galaxy are both developing prototypes. Fighter Command is holding a series of proving trials next July to determine the winner. We've been invited to bring the Mark Ten as well—as an exhibition, since nobody but a Colonial Warrior is permitted to fly any non-retired Viper type." Wedge smiled nastily. "We confidently expect the VX to blow the wings off both official entries."
Kozue arched an eyebrow. "Where does getting even with Guld come into that?"
"Simple," Wedge replied. "You pass the Warrior quals and get into Rogue Squadron, and I'll see to it that you fly the VX in the exhibition trials. Would you care to guess who General Galaxy's tapped to fly their entry?"
Kozue met Wedge's eyes. A slow, dark smile spread across her face.
"I'm in," she said.
Wedge was right.
It wasn't easy.
The winter went by in a blur—not that it was really winter to Kozue, since she spent the whole season in space. There was no leave for PWs—Prospective Warriors—during the training and selection process for the Colonial Forces. Kozue wouldn't see the light of day again until she either won her Warrior's stars or washed out of the program. She had email access, so she wasn't completely out of touch with her friends, but she barely had time to dash off the occasional "hi, not dead yet, pray for me" message in between training sessions, simulator time, tests, exercises, and much-needed rest.
Wedge was right about other things, too. The program was harder than the WDF's accelerated Veritech program would have been. It was cramming almost double the material into less than half the time, a real full-immersion experience.
Flying was something Kozue knew. She had the most flight experience of anyone in her PW group, especially in high-performance aerospacecraft.
The military aspects of the job, on the other hand, were things she had very little experience with beyond her brief time as a WDF pilot cadet. Colonial Warriors were expected to be versed in a broad base of military skills—to function effectively out of the cockpit as well as in it—to a greater extent than any other force of fighter pilots Kozue had ever heard of. Her background as a Duelist helped—she was certainly in appropriate physical condition for it—but there was still a lot to learn.
Along the way, she also had to pick up as much as she could about Colonial culture, the better to fit into her new station in life. Luckily, this wasn't as imperative here as it was in more conventional Colonial cadet groups, since the experimental group had an unusual number of recruits from outside the Colonia system. Further, one of the other PWs in Kozue's bunkroom was a native, and willing to provide all the background information her roommates could possibly want.
Every morning Kozue rose early—earlier than the already inhumane wakeup required of PWs—to get a little quiet time for herself. Sometimes she spent that time getting some extra, solitary exercise in the battlestar's fitness center. Sometimes she went to the observation deck and looked at space. Sometimes she sat in her bunk and got in a little personal reading.
Most mornings, though, anyone looking for Kozue between 0500 and 0545 could find her on the portside hangar deck, sitting in the cockpit of her Headhunter. The deckhands of Chief Tyrol's graveyard shift were accustomed to seeing her there. Some of them thought she was asleep; the rest contended that she was meditating, organizing her thoughts for the coming day. In truth, both of them were right.
Then came another day of classroom sessions, training flights, simulator time, physical training, marksmanship, tactics and leadership seminars, and everything else that went into making a person a Colonial Warrior. On a typical day, with no overnight exercise planned, the PWs were released to their own devices at 1800. The smart ones hit the sack by no later than 2100.
Kozue was one of the smart ones, or perhaps she just didn't have the non-stop endurance of some of the others. She fell into her bunk by 2045 most nights, and her long experience of sleeping with a roommate served in her in good stead here. She quickly gained a reputation for being able to sleep through pretty much anything—including her roommate's all-night pyramid sessions with the guys from the deck crew.
As the months passed and the group moved into actual flight training, the washouts began. The initially-overcrowded bunkrooms thinned out through attrition. Some of the failures were surprising, some were not, and some were downright welcomed by the rest of the PWs. All the remaining candidates doubled their efforts after each winnowing-out, determined not to fall by the wayside. All had their eyes on one goal.
Before they could graduate from the poky Logan trainers and fly the Viper Mark X, they had to become full Warriors.
Commander William Adama sat at the end of the conference table, fidgeting idly with a couple of data solids and reading a report printout while he waited for his air group commander to arrive and brief him.
Adama was an unprepossessing man for his people's most legendary hero. He had greying dark hair swept back from a high forehead, and a craggy face with cheeks pockmarked by a childhood illness. He wore little wireframed glasses that softened the lines of his face slightly, but only slightly. He looked tough, even commmanding, but not exceptional.
An outsider to the Colonial Forces would have taken him for an officer finishing up his career with an easy assignment, putting a new battlestar through her paces before handing her over to some younger captain who would take her into battle against the Colony's enemies.
Anyone who knew anything about New Kobol's history, though, would know differently. Bill Adama wasn't retiring anytime soon, and he wasn't going to hand the Aurora over to anyone before she saw combat. To the man who had almost singlehandedly dragged the last survivors of his native civilization from the ashes of a holocaust and led them through a decade-long intergalactic gauntlet to the safety of Zeta Cygni, commanding a single battlestar from a stable homeworld was a graceful retirement.
Adama looked over his glasses at the door as it hissed open to admit two men and a woman. All three wore the blue and grey uniforms of active Colonial Warriors—fighter pilots. Adama's dark blue duty uniform bore the stars and wings of a Viper pilot, but it had been many years since he'd worn the suede jacket and buckled boots of an active throttle jockey.
Wedge Antilles greeted his commander with a cordial nod and took his place on Adama's right at the table. The female Warrior, a handsome lady with a lot of fine brown hair and a confident manner, gave Adama a smile and sat down on his left. He returned the smile and patted the back of her hand on the tabletop. The gesture of familiarity wasn't strictly regulation, but given that Serina Adama was his daughter-in-law, the commander felt justified in making it.
The third Warrior, a heavy-set, mustachioed man, sat down next to Wedge and riffled thoughtfully through some papers in a folder he'd brought with him.
"Well, Wedge," said Adama. "Come to introduce me to your surviving cadets, have you?"
Wedge smiled. "Yes, sir. Jolly, let's get started with Group A, all right?"
The mustached Warrior grinned and got to his feet. "Yes, sir!" he said, then went to the front of the room and tabbed the display screen to life.
A big, bluff, hearty man with a ready laugh and an almost ever-present grin, Tono Porkins very much fitted his Warrior callsign. Over the arduous months of Warrior training, he'd been Cadet Group A's ever-present teacher, mentor, and counselor. There hadn't been a day when they hadn't seen him. In all that time, only at the most extreme of moments—when some soon-to-be-washed-out cadet's foolhardiness had nearly gotten someone hurt, for example—had he been anything other than, well, jolly.
"Commander, there are six cadets remaining in my group," Jolly said. "That's about what we expected to have at this stage. At this point they've passed through basic, intermediate, and advanced flight training. They each have about 200 hours in the Viper Mark VII trainers, 150 in the Logan Veritech trainers, and a hundred or so on the Viper Mark X simulator. They've completed survival school, small-unit tactics training, and the battlestar operations course. They've all qualified expert or better with the Mark 48 sidearm."
Jolly toggled the screen from a general overview of Warrior training to the top page of a personnel file. The holo in the corner showed a thin-faced young man with short-buzzed blond hair and slightly lazy-looking blue eyes.
"Now that I've told you what they have in common," the instructor went on, "let me tell you a little bit about what sets them apart. First up: Nils Jencro."
Adama raised an eyebrow. "Councilor Jencro's son?"
Jolly nodded with a rueful grin. "Yes sir, and don't think he ever lets anyone forget it. Jencro is arrogant, intolerant, and generally a creep—but he's a hell of a pilot, and despite his arrogance he does respect military discipline and follow orders. And he's not entirely without a sense of humor—his squadmates took to calling him 'Senator' because of his political connections, and he took it as his callsign."
"With all due respect to Jolly," Serina said, "I have reservations about Jencro. He shows strong signs of developing into the kind of officer who gets shot in the back in combat—not a tradition we need in the Colonial Forces."
Jolly nodded. "I know it," he said. "I'm hoping that he'll grow out of it. He has great potential, if he can just learn to respect his squadmates."
Adama looked thoughtful, then said, "Wedge, Jolly—keep a very close eye on him. If he crosses the line, I want him out of the squadron. I don't care who his father is."
"Yes sir," Wedge said, nodding. "You don't have to worry about that."
Jolly touched a control, switching the viewer to the next personnel file. The holo attached to this one showed the face of a young woman with Earth-Asian features and dark hair.
"Sharon Valerii," Jolly said. "She's one of our foreign recruits. Comes from New Qingdao, an Earth colony in the Rigel sector. She's had some trouble in the program—nothing serious, just... well, she's a little nervous. Jencro thinks she's too nervous, and has tried to get me to wash her out, but I'm sticking by her for now. She's never yet frozen in simulated combat. When things come right up to it, she always knows what to do and does it. She's got a real flair with systems, too, and scored the highest of anyone in the group in survival school."
Wedge chipped in, "Jencro came to me about Valerii too, but I agree with Jolly. She's solid in action. In one of our field exercises in the Logans, she ended up mediating telecom for the whole squadron after a quarton surge fried everybody else's switching computers. It's not every pilot who can airboss a squadron and fly her own ship at the same time."
"What's her callsign?" Adama asked.
Jolly grinned. "Boomer. Nobody knows why, but she picked it, and in a strange way it suits her."
The commander nodded. "Go on."
The next file Jolly displayed bore the grinning face of a young woman with short blonde hair. Adama's mouth twitched into a little smile at the sight of her.
"Not much I can say about this one you don't already know, Commander," Jolly said, grinning. "Kara Thrace, AKA Starbuck II."
"She actually took it as her callsign, did she?" Adama asked, then laughed when Jolly nodded.
"Kara's, uh, heritage shows in every respect," the instructor said. "She's hot-tempered, hard to discipline, insubordinate, impatient with routine. She's a gambler, a brawler, and a hellraiser. But, she's also a great pilot and the best damn gunner in the squadron. She can hit a Cylon in the eye at half a klick, in or out of the cockpit. If she has a flaw in action, it's that she's a little too focused on fighter combat; the Veritech part of the equation isn't coming as easily to her as it has to some of the others."
Adama grunted. "What I said about Jencro applies to her too," he said. "I won't have favorites played in my air wing."
"Trust me, sir," Wedge said with an easy smile. "She earns what she gets and takes what she earns, whether it's reward or punishment. That's another way she's like her old man."
The commander nodded. "Good. Next, Jolly?"
The holo attached to the next file came as a mild shock; it didn't show a human face. Instead, the next cadet had the antennae, snout, and big black eyes of a Rodian.
"This is Reebo Kadi-Das," Jolly said. "Probably our most surprising recruit. I'm not sure why a Rodian would decide to join our outfit, but he's shown as much dedication as anybody else. He's a decent pilot and gunner, but his real strength is as a sensor operator. He's got amazingly acute senses even for a Rodian, and an uncanny sense of situational awareness. Half the time I'm not sure he even needs his ship's sensors to tell him what's going on around him. The others call him Scanner."
"Sounds appropriate," Adama said. "How's he fitting in culturally?"
"He's hard to read," Jolly admitted, "but I think he likes it here. Some of the native types had a hard time getting used to him, but—ironically enough—most of them have already washed out. The ones who've made it this far are used to him. Some of them like him, but I wouldn't make that a blanket statement—at least not yet."
Jolly pulled up the next file, then grinned and said, "Wedge, maybe you better take this one."
Wedge chuckled and got to his feet. "This handsome devil is none other than Jek Porkins, the son of our own Jolly," he said. "He ended up in Group A by the luck of the draw, and I decided to leave him as a test of Jolly's resolve," he added with a wry grin. "I didn't do the kid any favors by doing that, I'll tell you. I think Jolly's ridden him harder than anybody else in the squadron, but it's paid off. Jek has the makings of a first-class Warrior, though I'm concerned about his mental stability."
When that remark drew a raised eyebrow from Adama, Wedge explained, "He's the only cadet I've ever seen who looks forward to survival rations. Anyway, he's a real workhorse, and consistently scores ten points higher than anyone else on ground-assault missions. He likes to get right down there on the deck and mix it up—that's why we call him Strafe. We're just worried that he's going to forget to pull up one of these times."
Jolly took over, punching a key to pull up the sixth file.
"And last but not least, we have your favorite, Commander: Kozue Kaoru, AKA—"
"(Inevitably,)" Wedge put in, sotto voce.
"—Duelist. She's the most experienced pilot in the group, and the only one who had any stick time on variable-geometry craft before we put them in the Logans. She's also the only rated starship pilot and the only rated technician among the students. Since training began, she's been a machine. When she's not in the simulator, she's at the firing range. When she's not at the firing range, she's helping Chief Tyrol and his crew."
"She's a very talented pilot," Serina said, "but—and I hate to seem like a wet blanket, but—I have reservations about her as well. She's very much a lone wolf, perhaps too much to function as part of a fighter squadron. Her callsign is a perfect indicator."
Jolly nodded. "No, you're right, Serina—she does have a tendency to go it alone more than she should. But it's not that she doesn't respect and trust the others—she's just not used to having them there in the first place. Like you say, look at her callsign. Her background is in dueling and asteroid racing—two fields where the only one you can count on is yourself. She'll learn. She's already learning."
Serina considered this. "I hope so. Because she has got talent, and drive, too. It'd be a shame to see them go to waste because she can't learn to work as part of a team."
"Well, we'll get the final word on that soon enough," Wedge said.
"When are you going?" Adama asked.
"Monday," Wedge replied. The commander nodded. "Serina, it's your turn," Wedge went on. "Let's have a look at Group B."
The trainees rode the jolting transport through the upper atmosphere of Tartarus, en route to—well, actually, they didn't know what they were en route to. The instructors hadn't told them—just rousted them out of their bunks an hour earlier than usual, told them to grab their gear, and bundled them aboard a transport.
Now, kitted out in their field uniforms—outfits patterned after the uniforms of full Warriors, but done in shades of tan and brown so there could be no question that the wearers were cadets—they sat in two rows, facing each other across the aisle in the middle of the transport, wondering what was going on. At the forward end of the row, their senior instructor sat with his back to the cockpit bulkhead, looking uncharacteristically grim.
Jolly wasn't so jolly right now. He sat with his arms folded in the jumpseat at the front of the transport, his normally grinning face set in a pensive frown. He didn't look at the cadets.
Kozue sat in the third seat on the port side. Like all the rest, she wanted to know what was going on, but knew better than to ask. Not when Jolly's face looked like that.
Instead, she glanced around the interior of the transport, taking a look at what her fellow cadets were doing.
Nils Jencro was checking his blaster for what had to be the thousandth time. It wasn't a nervous gesture, though. Like most things Jencro did, it had a flavor of ostentation about it. He wanted the others to know that he was, A, not terribly concerned about what was going on, and B, ready for anything that might arise.
Across the aisle from him, Sharon Valerii fidgeted. She clearly wanted to do the blaster-checking thing, but in her case it would have been a nervous mannerism, and she didn't want to be doing the same thing Jencro was doing, so instead she toyed abstractly with the toggles on her flight jacket. Kozue almost chuckled at that, even under the circumstances. Boomer was one of her roommates, one of the people she knew best in the group, and Kozue knew she'd be just fine... once something actually happened.
Next to Kozue was the only person in the whole transport who looked comfortable—her other roommate, Kara Thrace. Unlike everybody else in the transport, Starbuck looked relaxed—hell, she was practically asleep. Conserving her energy for a time when she'd need it, she would say.
Kozue couldn't really tell how the cadet opposite Starbuck was feeling. She'd never known a Rodian before, and though the training process had inevitably bonded many of the cadets, she still wasn't very good at reading Scanner's expressions.
She thought the twitching in his antennae meant he was a bit edgy, but without any way to read his big, featureless black eyes, she couldn't really be sure—at least until he noticed her watching him, gave her the Rodian equivalent of a thin smile (that, at least, she could recognize), and shrugged a very human shrug.
Kozue gave back the smile—however obviously inhuman Reebo was, she liked him, and was glad he'd be around for whatever was going on.
Next to Scanner, another figure almost as bulky as Jolly shifted uncomfortably in the hard metal seat. Jek Porkins had his father's build and, most of the time, his father's sense of humor, but right now the two men were showing very different aspects. While Jolly was deeply preoccupied with whatever was going on, Strafe just wanted to get the hell out of the transport and get on with doing whatever needed doing.
To Kozue's right and Strafe's left were lockers for the gear that was always stowed aboard transports like this one—first-aid kits, survival equipment, and so on. Beyond those was another set of six seats, these occupied by Cadet Group B. Kozue knew them too, but not nearly as well as the others in her own Group A. The two groups shared some classroom work, but carried out all their other activities separately.
They had their own instructor pilot, too—Serina Adama—but she appeared to be absent. Kozue wondered what that might mean. Serina was the squadron's deputy commander, and served as a sort of unofficial liaison officer to the command structure of the Aurora, which was only natural. If she wasn't here, that might mean she was needed back at the battlestar because this was the real thing.
On the other hand, it might just mean that the planners of the exercise wanted her to think so.
Well, she'd know soon enough.
As Kozue had that thought, the ride suddenly got rougher—a lot rougher. The lights inside the transport shifted from white to red. Through the hull, over the steadily growing atmospheric roar, some of the sharper-eared cadets could hear the staccato whine of heavy blasterfire.
Jolly got out of his seat, slid open the cockpit door, and put his head through, in the process releasing an unintelligible torrent of radio chatter and alarm sirens. Kozue tried to hear the conversation he was having with the pilots, but with all the other competing noises it was impossible.
She was just starting to consider asking what was going on when all hell broke loose.
With a tremendous crumpling bang, the aftmost quarter or so of the cabin just disappeared, vanishing in a flash of orange-white light and a pulse of heat. A millisecond later, the atmosphere in the remaining three-quarters of the transport took advantage of the suddenly opened escape route and catapulted with it anything not securely tied down, apart from Jolly. The instructor pilot had sufficient mass and determination to remain aboard.
Not so most of the members of Cadet Group B. Those who weren't vaporized along with the aft bulkhead or killed by the shockwave were either torn from their seats by the decompression or carried off along with their seats when the structure of the transport started to unravel.
While all that was going on, the pilots up front found themselves struggling with a craft that had suddenly become all but uncontrollable, its atmospheric control surfaces smashed, its primary energy systems, thrusters, and reaction-control systems destroyed in the initial conflagration. They battled grimly with their controls, trying to re-establish something like a stable flight attitude and get the wreck to the ground in as few pieces as possible, but it was like trying to steer a charging bull.
In the back, all the cadets could do was hang on. Kozue looked to her right and saw, past the equipment lockers, that only one member of Group B was still aboard. A wiry young man with short, dark hair, he was understandably wide-eyed with terror. To his right, where his wingmates had been a few moments before, was a yawning, howling abyss bounded by jagged, blackened metal. The bulkhead behind his own seat was feeling none too stable, either, as the smashed transport rolled and twisted.
Kozue threw off her shoulder straps, leaned as far toward him as her waist belt would allow, and thrust out her hand. It took her a moment to remember his name.
"Rovel!" she shouted over the cacophony. "Grab my hand!"
NEXT ISSUE: "Graduation Day"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
"The Way of the Warrior, Part I:
It's Not Just an Adventure, It's a Job"
written by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with notion wranglin' and concept control by the Usual Suspects
Bacon Comics chief Derek Bacon (Lightnin)
with much owed to lots of people
Vol. 1 No. 1
Bacon Comics Group 2410
E P U (colour) 2005