ONLY THE BEST

A Robotech/Macross Saga Short Story

By Benjamin B. Donnelly

AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following is a retelling of the episode "Goodbye, Big Brother" from the Macross segment of Robotech. It also draws on Chapters Twenty-One through Twenty-Three of Jack McKinney's adaptation of the series, in Book Three ("Homecoming"). The four members of Panther Section are my own creation. The others are the property of Harmony Gold, and no infringement of copyright is intended. Also, some of the dialogue may be similar to or identical to that used in McKinney's book; if so, it is not intended as plagarism nor as an infringment on Del Rey Books' copyright. This is just for fun.

My thanks goes to Tim-san, who got me watching Robotech again, and to my father, radarman second class onboard the old USS Yorktown, CVS-10, who advised me on correct carrier launch and recovery procedure, and to the late Brian Daley, who formed half of the "Jack McKinney" team, and whose books were and remain an inspiration.

Also note that I'm not a huge fan of Battloid mode, so there's going to be a lot less transforming in this story. And if you think some of this was inspired by too many viewings of "Top Gun," you're probably correct. Strap in and hold on.

"There quite simply had never been anything like it, and veteran fighter pilots who witnessed it shook their heads and did quite a bit less boasting for awhile."

--Zachary Fox, Jr., VT: The Men and the Mecha

"We VT pilots always thought of ourselves as being the toughest bastards in the galaxy. We'd lost a lot to the Zentraedi, sure, but everyone's luck runs out sometime. That's war. Then we realized that we hadn't been fighting the varsity.

"Luckily for us, our red-shirts were playing that day, too."

--Kellivar Bighorn, Through the Fire: How I Joined the RDF, Saw the Galaxy, and Nearly Got Killed

Superdimensional Fortress One

South Pacific Ocean, Terra

14 Feburary 2012

"Throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot's ass…" Roy Fokker sang, badly off-key. It was an old tune, almost a century old, but Fokker knew it by heart, as did most fighter pilots on the ship. Verses had been added since World War II—in remote places like Vietnam, where Fokker's father had flown, and Afghanistan, where Fokker himself had first flown combat. He was sure the Robotech War would add new verses.

Fokker was just thinking of what rhymed with Zentraedi when the radio chimed for his attention. Dividing his time between driving and grabbing the CB, he clicked it on. "Fokker here. Your nickel."

It was Lisa Hayes' voice. "Commander Fokker, one enemy ship has broken out of the main fleet and is heading this way, closing fast," she said. Hayes tended not to mince words. "We've got Vermillion scrambling, and Captain Gloval directs you to take command of the flight and intercept."

"Who's on alert five and the CAP?" Though the SDF-1 had returned to Earth, the Zentraedi had not given up. The war was still on, though the United Earth Government seemed to be studiously ignoring that fact. The alert five aircraft would be spotted on the flight deck, fully armed, with the pilots in the cockpit, ready to go in five minutes, hence the term. The CAP—Combat Air Patrol—would be flying around the ship.

"Sterling and Dixon are on alert five, and Bighorn and Gali are on CAP," Lisa answered. "Captain Kramer will have Skull standing by for backup as needed."

"Good," Fokker replied. "If things begin to boil, I always like having the Jolly Rogers around." Hayes signed off, and Fokker stomped the acclerator, heading for the Prometheus' hangar deck. He smiled, thinking of Max Sterling and Ben Dixon. Dixon was only a fair pilot, but he had a lot of enthusiasm; the mere fact that he had lived this long said something for him. Sterling, on the other hand, was quiet and unassuming on the ground, and a tiger in the air, possessing reflexes and a situational awareness that left other pilots either in awe or in anger. Sterling, Fokker reflected, was probably the best pilot on the SDF-1—next to himself, of course. Fokker wished Rick Hunter was on this mission as well; though Hunter still had some rough edges, he was a natural leader and flew a good stick—high praise from someone like Roy Fokker. Rick, however, was in the hospital, recovering after being shot down in the last Zentraedi attack.

Kellivar Bighorn and Christina Gali were another story entirely. Fokker did not know them very well; they had come aboard the SDF-1 only a few weeks before, just before the first Zentraedi attack after the SDF-1's return. Kellivar was a typical fighter pilot: boisterous and more than a little egotistic. His flying led the other pilots, Fokker included, to believe that Kellivar was certifiably insane, but Fokker liked him. It was hard not to. Gali, on the other hand, was older than Fokker, and one of the few female pilots in the RDF, which left her open to a lot of ribbing. She took it in stride, and returned the quips with relish. Fokker liked her as well, because Gali was a consummate professional and a murderous shot. She was also a living reminder of a pilot's mortality: both her legs were artificial and her plain face was marred by a broken nose, the relics of a high-speed ejection over Iraq during the Second Gulf War.

The general quarters alarm began its clanging, jerking Fokker back to the present. His mouth became set, wondering what was going to happen this time. He was not afraid, but neither did he have any illusions. Fighter combat was the ultimate game, in which the losers died.

Lieutenant Commander Lisa Hayes watched from the aerie of the SDF-1's bridge as the Veritechs were moved into position on the bow and waist catapults of the Prometheus, the aircraft carrier grafted onto the SDF-1's left arm. It was a long distance; the carrier was trained out to recover aircraft in the conventional fashion. She pressed a key on her console, bringing up a magnification of the carrier deck. Though the flight deck crew had the final authority on what went on there, it was ultimately Lisa Hayes' job to see that things ran smoothly. It was a huge job for a young woman, but Hayes had been doing it now for nearly a year. It was second nature.

"All stations manned and ready." Lieutenant Commander Claudia Grant stood next to Hayes, her coffee-brown skin and green uniform a direct contrast to Lisa's pale skin and white outfit. She looked back at the SDF-1's captain.

Captain Henry Gloval chewed on his pipe, though it was unlit, per regulations, and adjusted his battered cap. He looked as worn as it did, and for a moment, he felt his age. Gloval had been commanding ships for ten years, starting first with the Russian Navy, and his cool professionalism and easy demeanor had kept the thousands of people onboard the massive fortress alive. He suppressed the fatigue that pulled at him and nodded at Grant. "Thank you, Claudia. Lisa, recover and rearm the CAP as soon as you can."

"Aye, sir."

Gloval looked over at the three young women—children, he thought, only children—that were stationed at the ship's long range sensors and communications, the SDF-1's brain. Gloval was disappointed that he did not know these women by first name, as he did the three that normally worked there, Kim Young, Sammie Porter, and Vanessa Leeds. "Ensign, there is only one ship, correct?"

"Aye, Captain," she replied. "Just one. Frigate-class. ETA, ten minutes."

"Very well." Gloval turned his attention back to Lisa and Claudia. "Lisa, launch Vermillion and Panther. Ready Skull on the catapults."

"Aye, sir." Lisa leaned forward and spoke into her headset. "Launch the alert five."

On the deck of Prometheus, Lieutenant Moira Flynn mentally checked off the things needed for a safe catapult launch. She had recently been made the ship's catapult officer, having been promoted to the position after a Zentraedi laser bolt had immolated the last one. She made sure the bridlemen—the crew that hooked up the aircraft to the catapult, were clear of the Veritechs, which squatted like birds of prey, their wings fully swept forward for lift. The incredible thrust of the VTs' engines thundered against the jet blast deflectors, huge steel plates that had been raised up behind the aircraft to protect everything behind them.

She looked over at the Veritech on the far catapult and pointed at him, raising a hand. The pilot nodded, understanding that he was to go second. She then turned slightly, bracing herself against the wind that cut across the deck, and pointed at Max Sterling, whose blue Veritech was hooked to the nearest catapult. She raised two fingers in the air and began to twirl them. Sterling obediently began running his aircraft up to full power, to the point that the Veritech was straining against the bridle, eager to be sent aloft. Flynn made one last check of the deck, and looked over at the 'shooter,' the crewman who would actually fire the catapult; he was hunkered down in the catwalk that lined the side of the carrier. He gave her a thumbs-up. She gave the shooter a brief nod, then dropped to one knee. She slowly dropped her fingers to the deck. Sterling saluted her and braced himself. She then raised her fingers from the deck and abruptly pointed them down the deck.

A half-second later, the catapult fired with an explosion of sound and screech of metal on metal. Flynn ducked her head down, feeling rather than seeing the wing of Sterling's Veritech passing scant feet above her head. After feeling the heat of the engines on her face, she raised her head and got to her feet to launch the next Veritech. She watched as Ben Dixon's yellow-trimmed Veritech roared off the waist catapult.

Lisa Hayes winced, pulling the headset off of her ear slightly as Ben Dixon cut loose a deafening rebel yell. She looked over at Claudia Grant and smiled thinly. "You'd think I'd learn, as many times as he's launched," she said, then went back to getting the other aircraft scrambled. She watched as Christina Gali's Veritech recovered on the after part of the Prometheus, catching the number two arresting wire. Normally, the Veritechs would simply convert to Guardian—the half-mecha, half-aircraft mode that made the VT look as if it had been in a horrible accident—and easily land directly on the Prometheus' hangar deck. However, the sudden attack had caught the SDF-1 in the middle of loading provisions, so the old method had to be used. She peered at the magnification. "Flight deck, Bridge. Is Commander Fokker's aircraft moving up to launch?" As the flight deck officer answered in the affirmative, Lisa saw the white and black Veritech of Roy Fokker taxi towards the bow catapult, its tails resplendent with the skull and crossbones that gave Skull Squadron its name.

Claudia left her station entirely and walked over to peer over Lisa's shoulder. "Is Roy leading that intercept flight?"

Lisa turned to her and realized that there was no way that Claudia would have known; normally, Vermillion Squadron was led by Rick Hunter, while Fokker had Skull. Claudia Grant and Roy Fokker were lovers, something they had never attempted to keep a secret of. "Yes, Claudia," Lisa answered simply.

As if bidden, Fokker's face appeared on the viewscreen. He was dressed in his tailored flight suit of dark gray bordered with black, his helmet having the same color and shining as if it was new. He settled into his ejection seat as if into his favorite armchair at home, not looking like he had a care in the world. "Good hunting, Commander," Lisa said.

Fokker winked back at her. "I'm more interested in hunting for a pineapple salad."

Lisa blinked, confused. "Pineapple salad? What—" Then she noticed that Grant was doing her best at stifling giggles, and not succeeding very well. "Oh," was the only thing Lisa could think of to reply. She glanced back at Captain Gloval for some sort of support, only to see the captain grinning and shaking his head.

"Panther, you're at three-quarters of a mile, call the ball."

Kellivar Bighorn carefully watched the lights set into the port side of the Prometheus. They remained a steady green, indicating he was on the correct course, lined up to land, or "trap," as the term went. A quick sweep of the instrument panel told him he was at the correct speed, and that both landing gear and hook were down and locked. "Roger, Panther has the ball."

"Up a bit," the Landing Signal Officer told him. The LSO controlled the approach, and pilots ignored any advice from a LSO at their peril. Too high and Kellivar would miss the Prometheus entirely, a "waveoff," and would have to circle around. Too low, and he would smash into the aft end of the carrier in a fiery explosion, called a "ramp strike," which in most pilots' opinion was a gross understatement. Kellivar complied. "Looks good," the LSO said. "Hold what you got."

Thirty seconds later, Kellivar's Veritech—painted jet black with red highlights, its tail decorated with a stylized snarling cat—slammed down on the deck. The hook sent up a shower of sparks as it screeched down the deck, finally snagging on the third wire. To a layman, it looked very much like a crash, but catching the third wire was considered a perfect landing to naval aviators.

"Panther, this is Macross," came the dulcet voice of Lisa Hayes. "Stay in the cockpit. The flight deck crew will load you up with more missiles."

"Roger that," Kellivar replied. "What about the rest of my squadron?"

"Gali is on the forward cat. The others are already in the air."

"Roger that," Kellivar repeated, and settled back. He still was not entirely sure he liked Lieutenant Commander Lisa Hayes. She was collectively known as "Old Sourpuss," albeit behind her back, along with a host of other, not so affectionate names. The pilots did not hate her, but few actually liked her. Lisa simply was too aloof and mercurial, though the shipboard gossips said that she was nursing a crush on Rick Hunter, Vermillion's commander, now in the hospital. Kellivar mentally shrugged; Lisa Hayes was not a bad looking woman, but he was not about to try and melt that ice. He wished Rick the best of luck; heaven knew that Rick's on-off relationship with the starlet Lynn Minmei, whom many of the pilots, including Kellivar, despised, was confused enough.

He sat up in the seat, noticing a plane captain telling him via sign language to get his head out of his ass. Kellivar sheepishly smiled, waved, and began taxiing his aircraft forward to just behind the jet blast deflectors. The flight deck crew quickly shackled four more Stiletto self-guiding missiles to the hardpoints underneath the wing, which was already festooned with twelve of the deadly missiles. Kellivar ran through a quick check of his weapons while he waited. His Veritech was a VF-1J model, with two cannon beneath the cockpit and a gatling gun slung underneath the fuselage. He hoped that would be enough for he and his squadron.

Squadron. The word burned in Kellivar's mind as he taxiied forward to the catapult. Panther Squadron had been assigned to the SDF-1 soon after the fortress had returned to Earth, as the leading unit in what the Robotech Defense Force had hoped was a flood of replacements. After the Panthers had arrived, the UEG had reversed itself and permitted no more replacement units. After a single pitched battle with the Zentraedi, the twelve Veritechs of Panther had been reduced to six, and two of them were still in the hangar deck, being repaired. It would be just him, Christina Gali, and the two remaining Panthers—John Rhialla, barely out of flight school, and Fairchild Stutz, an enormous bear of a pilot who could barely fit in a Veritech cockpit.

He watched Christina go off the catapult next to him, then turned his attention to Moira Flynn. She splayed her hands, and he inched the throttle up to full power. Even in the cockpit, the sound was deafening. She dropped to one knee, and Kellivar braced himself for the catapult shot, or "catstroke" as the pilots called it. He returned her salute and threw in a thumbs up, then waited. The catapult fired with a jolt, and Kellivar felt as if a huge hand was slamming him back in his seat. The Prometheus' deck shot past and then there was open ocean beneath him. He checked his airspeed, which looked fine, and began climbing as he cycled the landing gear back up, using the kinetic energy of the catapult to grab altitude. He spotted Christina's Veritech turning ahead of him, giving him the chance to catch up. As he took the lead, the other two Panther VTs caught up with him. They made one circuit around the SDF-1 and caught up with the twelve aircraft of Vermillion, led by Roy Fokker.

"Skull Lead, this is Panther," Kellivar radioed. "Coming up on your right side."

Roy looked over his shoulder. If the SDF-1 had to return to space, then Kellivar's black VTs might have an advantage, but here they stuck out like a sore thumb. "Roger, Panther. I got you. Stay loose. Break, break." The last two words were to let the rest of his flight know that his next message was not meant for them. "Macross, this is Skull Lead. Vector for bandit."

"Skull, Macross," replied Lisa's voice. "The enemy frigate has slowed and dropped off enemy mecha. Raid count is twenty-five, and profiles indicate that these are most likely powered armor, Quadrono type." The latter information came from the Catseye radar aircraft that orbited well to the south of the SDF-1, but had people onboard who listened in on the Zentraedi frequencies. Since no human spoke the alien language, they could not tell what orders were being given, but they could ascertain what units were being committed by the number of times a single word was used. 'Quadrono' was one of those words, and it had been used quite a bit that morning. "Vector is zero-one-zero, angels fifty-five and descending. ETA, five minutes."

"Not good," Roy said, though he did not push the radio button when he did. Quadronos had been encountered only twice before, and both times they had made the Veritechs look silly. It was obvious they were flown by elite pilots. But elite or not, Roy had to stop them. "Roger, Macross. Moving to intercept. Break, break. Okay, boys, you heard the lady. Let's go kill something. Push it up!" He punctuated this by slamming the throttles to the stops and pulling back on the stick. The Protoculture drive of the Veritech put out more thrust than the fighter weighed, allowing it to accelerate even in a near-vertical climb.

"Dogfight?" Ben Dixon said over the open channel. "You Zentraedi ain't hardly been bit yet! Now it's lockjaw time!"

"Can the chatter," Roy said, though he agreed with Dixon on this one.

The Veritechs shot through the first layer of clouds. The Veritechs kept their radars off; turning them on would be like turning a flashlight on in a dark room. He wanted to keep the Zentraedi in the dark as long as he could. In the meantime, the Catseye fed the Veritechs a constant flow of data electronically. Roy checked his own radar warning reciever. His opposite number was keeping his radar off as well.

"Skull Lead, Panther Lead," Kellivar called out. "I'm going to take my bunch high and right and nail 'em from the flank."

"Roger, Panther. Kick ass." Roy spared a second to watch the four black Veritechs peel off and begin a long climbing turn. He disliked losing a quarter of his force even for a moment, but Kellivar, if he timed it right, might catch the Zentraedi by surprise, or at least force some of them to break off themselves.

Then they were through a second layer of clouds, and Roy saw the Zentraedi. "Tally-ho! Bandits, twelve o' clock high! Let 'em have it!" He was surprised when, almost simutaneously, a blast of alien words flooded every frequency, a high-pitched, strangely female sounding voice. It was undeniably a war cry. Both sides' electronic gear lit up as radars came on, illuminating each other. Riding the invisible radar beams were missiles.

The Veritechs' Stiletto missiles had a longer reach, and most of the pilots fired two at a time. The Zentraedi scattered in a flurry of evasive manuevers, simutaneously throwing on electronic jamming. The combination caused most of the Stilettos to miss, though two of the Quadronos disappeared in orange fireballs. The Zentraedi rapidly reformed and came at the Veritechs again, and the fight—what pilots referred to as a "furball"—was on. Both sides paired off in leader-wingman formations and began doing their level best to kill each other.

Roy spotted a pair of Quadronos that were coming straight at him. "Hawk, taking two down the left!" he shouted at his wingman, Tim "Hawk" Kacem, who had dutifully taken position off Roy's right wing, covering the leader's rear. Roy did not know him, since he did not usually fly with Vermillion As the range decreased, Roy could make out the Quadrono mecha clearly. They were hideous, like most of the Zentraedi ships: roughly humanoid shaped, with beam cannon slung alongside the torso and heavy autocannons mounted in the arms. Though aerodynamically they were not much match for a Veritech, the two bulbous engines on the back of the mecha gave them an edge in speed via sheer thrust, and they had a lot more firepower. The lead Quadrono opened fire, crimson laser bolts reaching towards Roy's canopy. He sideslipped out of the way and the Zentraedi shot past too fast for the eye to follow. Roy twisted in his seat, seeing, between the forked tails of his Veritech, the two beginning to turn around. He twisted the stick, wrenching the Veritech into a bone-crushing high-G turn. He threw in a roll at the end of the turn, catching some very surprised Zentraedi as spreadeagled targets in his gunsight reticle. He bared his teeth as he pulled the trigger. The thirty millimeter gatling gun underneath the Veritech's fuselage roared, the depleted uranium rounds tracking into the Quadrono's head, tearing it and its pilot apart. The Quadrono shuddered with the impact, went limp, and fell out of the sky in a long, terminal dive, leaving a trail of fiery smoke. "Splash one!" Roy shouted, for no other edification but his own, then turned his attention to the next Quadrono in line.

Max Sterling and Ben Dixon had known each other since childhood, and it had been only natural for them to become wingmen. Usually, they ended up fighting and flying alongside Rick Hunter in a trio of aircraft, though official RDF tactics called for an element of four aircraft split into two sections of two Veritechs. Dixon had already shot one Quadrono down with his Stilettos, and was closing on another. Max dropped back to cover him.

Max wore glasses and, in another time, might have been disbarred from flying altogether. But his peripheral vision had not suffered, and he spotted two Quadronos pop up from under the clouds. The lead mecha opened fire with cannon. "Ben, two bandits six o' clock low, break left!" he yelled. Dixon immediately obeyed, going left and diving. Max broke right and climbed, giving the Zentraedi a choice between targets with a very real chance of being caught between the two Veritechs. They split up themselves, the lead mecha going after Dixon, the second after Max. It seemed to double up, then spewed forth a cloud of small missiles.

RDF pilots dreaded attacks like this; the missiles were so numerous that at close range they were invariably lethal; just one hit would cripple a Veritech and they were nearly impossible to dodge. The only tactic a Veritech pilot could use was to dive away from them at full speed, which would usually throw off their targeting. Max, instead, dove at the missiles. He twisted and turned, dodging those that were not thrown off by the sudden manuever, the Veritech's own jamming, or the explosions of missiles running into each other. The blue-trimmed Veritech broke through without a scratch, and the Zentraedi hesitated, amazed at the nearly-impossible feat of flying. Her hesitation cost the pilot her life as Max cut the mecha in half with the gatling gun. As it exploded, Max rolled upwards in a barrel roll, spotting another Quadrono that had attempted to bounce him as he climbed. Against a conventional fighter, the manuever would have worked. Max, at the speed of thought and the yank of a lever, shifted his Veritech into its Battloid form, engines dropping to form legs, wings folding back along the body, and arms popping free of the fuselage. The sudden shift—what was known as mechamorphosis—killed Max's forward velocity, halting the Veritech in midflight. The gatling cannon, now cradled pistol-like in the Veritech's right hand, chopped into the Quadrono and detonated its missiles. The remains spiraled down, trailing a long sheet of flame. He looked around, hovering, and spotted a six-ship formation diving down on Roy Fokker's element, which now included Ben Dixon. "Skull Lead from Vermillion Three! Bandits, four o' clock high!"

Roy saw them out of the corner of his eye. He was still trailing the Quadrono, who had so far managed to dodge three of his Stiletto missiles. He was momentarily torn between finishing off his prey or turning to meet the new threat. In that half-second, his mind was made up for him, and he smiled as he saw another force come into play.

Kellivar shouted no war cry as the four Panthers dropped on the six Quadronos from out of the sun. "Panthers, break and take 'em! Stay with your wingmates!" He peeled off slightly to the left, Christina covering him, while Stutz and Rhialla went right.

Kellivar lined up on the last Quadrono of the section. The luminous green square centered over the back of the alien mecha, and a green diamond pulsed into life, indicating a solid lock. Kellivar squeezed the trigger twice, and two Stilettos shot off their rails The Zentraedi began to break, but the Stilettos covered the distance too quickly, and the mecha vanished in an explosion. He sighted on the next one, but as he had expected, the Zentraedi were turning around to fight. What he had not expected was that, out of the five remaining, only four would turn and fight. The fifth, the lead ship, raced towards Max Sterling. "Max, heads up, one at your two!" was all Kellivar could say in time, then he turned his attention back to the fight at hand. The four Quadronos went after Rhialla and Stutz. The two sides exchanged cannon fire; one of the Quadronos skidded in behind Rhialla.

"Panther Four, check six!" shouted Kellivar, who began a long loop to come in behind the Quadrono.

Rhialla turned in his seat and kicked the tail of his VT around, looking behind—the six o' clock position. "Where? I don't see him!"

"Six o' clock low! Break right!"

Kellivar's warning came a millisecond too late. The Quadrono used its lasers this time, hitting Rhialla's Veritech. The sudden break caused the Zentraedi to overshoot, but the Veritech was already trailing black smoke. "I'm hit!" Rhialla cried.

Christina saw flame leap from the engines. "You're on fire, Panther Four! Get out of it! Get out of it!" Protoculture was not explosive, but the ordnance carried by the Veritech most certainly was.

Rhialla did not question her. With fire lights already coming on his instrument panel, he reached up and pulled the ejection handles. Explosive bolts blew the canopy off first, then the ejection seat was blasted from the Veritech in a high arc. The seat separated from Rhialla a few seconds later, then a parachute blossomed out. Kellivar ordered Stutz to cover Rhialla; the Zentraedi were known to shoot at parachutes.

Then the Quadronos were on them as well.

Max had heard Kellivar's warning and turned to meet the new threat, bringing up his gatling cannon. The Quadrono was not making any attempt at evasive action or anything else, just a straight-in attack. This Zentraedi intended to put some blood on the walls.

Max waited until the Zentraedi opened fire, then dodged to one side, letting fly with the gatling gun. He saw strikes, but the powered armor was simply too fast for him to track for long. The Quadrono rose upwards, then hammerheaded back down towards him. Max converted back to fighter mode and rose to meet his opponent head on. He saw the Zentraedi mecha tighten up, and readied himself; sure enough, the all-too-familiar cloud of missiles flew at him. It worked before, Max thought, and aimed for the center of the cloud, engaging the afterburner as he did so. The missiles seemed to envelop him, but the sudden burst of speed gained him enough time, and twisted past the ones which came too close. This time, however, the Zentraedi did not hesitate, but rolled and swept underneath him. Max went into a split-S, diving and rolling himself, coming out of afterburner. The Zentraedi saw him and immediately broke right. Max turned to drop in behind his opponent, but the Quadrono was already breaking again, and the two went into a scissors, breaking into one another, waiting for one of them to make a mistake. Both pilots bled off airspeed as much as they dared, fighting the G-forces and movements that shook them back and forth in their cockpits.

Max heard a shrill growl in his helmet, the Veritech's computer telling him that he was nearly in a stall. The Quadrono could stop cold in midair; so could he, but only in Battloid, and in the second that he took to shift forms he would be dead. Max decided to dive out of the fight for a moment, but the Zentraedi broke the stalemate first by going into a zoom climb, using the Quadrono armor's incredible thrust. With skill that some pilots compared to telepathy, Max shoved his throttles forward and pulled the stick back into his lap, following the Zentraedi. For a split second, he had a perfect shot, and the gatling cannon roared into life again. The Quadrono snapped to one side almost immediately, but Max saw that he got in more than just superficial damage this time, as sparks and a bit of flame burst from the bulbous engine pods. The Quadrono shook and abruptly fell out of the sky, falling limply towards the sea below. Max followed; one of the first lessons he had learned in combat, one emphasized by Roy Fokker, was to ride one's kill. Though it looks like this guy's finished, Max thought to himself. He lined up for a missile shot, with a pang of guilt; it felt wrong, somehow, to finish off such a skilled opponent whose mecha was crippled. If the Zentraedi had ejection seats, they never used them.

Max's chivalry rapidly took a back seat as the Quadrono suddenly straightened out its terminal dive, twisted in midair, and began firing back at him. Max yelped and broke away from the red beams, but he felt the Veritech shudder from hits. A quick scan of the instrument panel showed no fire lights or damage. He looked over his shoulder and saw a black streak in the starboard wing's leading edge; the Zentraedi beams had only scorched paint. However, the Zentraedi looked intent on doing more than blackening his wings as it dropped in behind him, firing. Max dodged into a cloud, but as he emerged on the other side, the Quadrono was still there.

Christina Gali had been engaged by one of the Quadronos, but that pilot had made the mistake of getting too fixated on her when Christina flew in a straight line. Christina had thrown down her flaps, forcing the Quadrono to overshoot. Two Stilletos had blotted it from the sky a second later.

Christina looked around for Kellivar, but could not find him. She saw Max emerge from the cloud below her, his Quadrono hot on his tail. She smiled slightly, rolled, and dropped in behind the Quadrono, who did not seem to see her. She carefully lined up for a shot into the back of the Zentraedi's head module.

"Bangles, break left NOW!" Ben Dixon's voice shrilled in her headphones, using Christina's nickname. Her hands were moving before her brain registered the fact. It saved her life. Autocannon shells streaked past her cockpit as she twisted into the hard turn and she felt her Veritech get hit. A glance backward saw that a shell had shattered the back of her canopy and missed her head by mere inches. She tried to reverse her turn and get back behind Max's attacker, but the Quadronos were not having any. One positioned itself in the way, daring Christina to turn and let herself be sandwiched between the two Zentraedi, as the other pounded away with its autocannon. Deciding discretion was the better part of valor, Christina dived for the ocean.

The bridge of the SDF-1 was remarkably quiet. Normally, the five women would be giving instructions to both Veritech pilots and the fortress' own point defense systems, but none of the Zentraedi had even attempted to make a run at the SDF-1. Lisa stared at the radar display. She could not give much in the way of help to the fighter pilots, though she had just vectored Captain Kramer and the rest of Skull Squadron into the fight. It was now in the hands of the pilots themselves.

"That's very odd," she murmured. Claudia turned to her, and Lisa continued, "The alien mecha aren't attacking us. In fact, they seem to be holding off, just covering the one that attacked Max Sterling." Christina Gali had not been the only one to try and intervene; a Vermillion pilot had set up for a long distance missile shot and been gunned down by another Quadrono for his trouble.

Claudia nodded. "It seems like the leader—or whoever it is—has it in for Max Sterling. Personal vendetta?"

"Why?" Lisa asked. Then a thought struck her: if we track Zentraedi units by how many times we hear their names, they might be tracking our pilots by the color of their VTs. She mentally ran through the various aircraft she knew about; Max Sterling's was the only one that had a royal blue trim. It stood to reason that, given Max's impressive kill record, someone in the alien fleet would take notice.

"Who can understand the mind of a combat pilot? Especially an alien one?" Captain Gloval said, with a wry chuckle. He had been around fighter pilots a long time; had been one himself, long ago. Fighter pilots were their own, strange breed who did things their own way, and usually did not give a categorical damn about what others thought about it. Gloval wondered if his own opposite number, commanding the Zentraedi fleet, was at that moment wondering what the hell was going on as well.

"There must be some reason Max has been singled out," Lisa persisted.

Gloval stroked his mustache in thought. "Order the lieutenant to retreat. If they continue to pursue him, it will mean the target isn't SDF-1."

Max Sterling had managed to draw his opponent into another low-G scissors, this time in the vertical plane. He threw down his flaps, an old trick, but the Zentraedi had apparently known about that one, because the Quadrono splayed its limbs out like a skydiver. The two aircraft had hung comically in the sky before the Zentraedi threw in braking thrusters as well, forcing Max out front once more. He had engaged the afterburners once more to gain some room, twisted away from autocannon shots, then waited as the Quadrono closed the distance. He waited patiently for the right moment, then snapped the stick back in his lap and chopped the throttle back to idle. The Veritech pitched upwards, the Quadrono shot past, and Max forced the stick down before his craft stalled. He shook his head free of the reddish spots that had appeared and set up for a Stiletto shot. The Quadrono was already turning hard, its backpack thruster glowing white hot as it accelerated, then began coming back around. Max knew his shot was ruined and took his opponent up on the challenge of a head-on fight.

"Vermillion Three, Skull Lead," radioed Roy, remarkably calm. He was hanging upside down ten thousand feet above Max, trying to get a sense of the bigger picture. "Macross wants you to retreat."

"Retreat?" Max said, confused, trying to line up for a shot at the same time. "Wait, I don't get it!" No one else was pulling out.

"That bandit you're playing with is trying too hard," Roy replied. "They want to find out what his game is."

He's trying to kill me, Max thought, same as every other Zentraedi we've run into. This one was different, though. For one thing, it was certainly the hottest pilot Max had ever run into, except himself. Max never boasted about being the best; he did not have to. He knew it, and that was enough. Max wanted to win.

Orders were orders, though, and Max's first responsibility was to protect the SDF-1. The whole combat could be a diversion. "You got it," Max replied affably, and dived for the ocean, heading for the SDF-1. He strained against gravity and looked in the mirrors set into the canopy frame. Had he been the alien pilot, he would not have followed: Max's dive would put him well into the range of the fortress' surface-to-air missile batteries, another old sucker play that had claimed many a careless pilot. Moreover, the Zentraedi avoided fighting at low altitudes when they could, because the thicker air worked against their non-aerodynamic mecha.

The mirrors showed the Quadrono diving at him. Max shook his head and smiled. "If that's the way you want it…"

"The enemy mecha is pursuing Max," Lisa reported.

Gloval was on his feet, looking at the radar screen himself. "So now we know."

"Should we try a shot with the missile batteries?" This from Sammie Porter, now back at her normal station. "We might could pick this guy off."

"No," Lisa said, a little louder than she had meant to. Every head on the bridge swieveled around at her. "Our Decas aren't that accurate. They might hit one of our own planes." Lisa felt a cold shiver; in the last Zentraedi attack, she had launched missiles to obliterate an attacking Zentraedi destroyer. She had fired a little too quickly, before all the Veritechs had been able to clear the area, and two of the missiles had blown Rick Hunter out of the air, nearly killing him.

"Oh…right." Sammie looked at Lisa, knowing. "My bad."

Gloval knew as well. "We'll leave this one to the pilots. If they get within half a mile, then we open fire." He chewed his pipe.

The other Quadronos had formed themselves into a loose cordon, in an attempt to keep the Veritechs from interfering in Max's fight. That, however, was not their sole purpose; the Zentraedi wanted kills as much as the human pilots did, and the furball was now a tower of twisting, spinning aircraft that reached from the ocean to fifty thousand feet. A few parachutes dotted the sky where Veritech pilots had bailed out, and smoke trails formed their own shapes and patterns, with oily black smoke smudging the air, the grave markers of pilots and mecha.

Roy Fokker trailed a Quadrono that was already burning from a missile strike, and he finished it off with his cannon. "Let's get on with it!" he shouted. Roy estimated that a good third, if not more, of the Zentraedi had gone down, but they simply would not break it off. He climbed, rolled out at the top to look for targets, and found one, a Quadrono flying alone, doing the same thing he was. Roy performed a split-S and came out behind the Quadrono, killing it with two Stillettos before its pilot even knew he was there.

Out of his peripheral vision, he saw his friend John Kramer, the oldest Veritech pilot on the ship. Kramer had his retirement papers in hand when the SDF-1 had made its space fold from Macross Island, and though he had the experience and more to command any squadron on the ship, he deferred to the younger pilots, saying he was too old for that now. His was a career in carriers stretching back to the First Gulf War, and now he was fighting aliens instead of Iraqis.

This time, though, Kramer was in trouble. He was diving in full afterburner, trying to shake a Quadrono from his tail. Roy immediately manuevered hard to get in behind the Quadrono and fired a few shots from his cannon, but the Zentraedi was not to be distracted. The Quadrono fired, autocannon shells chopping into the wing and fuselage. Flames erupted from the Veritech, which snapped up into a climb. The Quadrono tried to follow, but Roy fired his last two missiles, which blew the Zentraedi apart. He flew past the expanding remains of his opponent. "Kramer!" he yelled, disregarding callsigns. The flames were greedily eating away at the Veritech; it was only a matter of time before something exploded. "Punch out, dammit! You're clear, man! Punch out!"

Kramer ejected just as the Veritech exploded. Instead of a clean ballistic arc, the seat spun crazily through the air. Roy's eyes widened in fear that his old friend was dead, but then he saw the seat separate and the parachute open. That was an automatic function, but if the seat had been damaged, the parachute might not have deployed. He heard Fairchild Stutz, his deep bass unmistakable, calling for air-sea rescue. Roy throttled back, looking for any signs of life from his friend, making a lazy circle around the parachute.

Too late, Roy realized that he had just violated one of the rules for fighter pilot survival: never fly in a straight line for more than a second in a combat zone. A Quadrono had slipped behind him from below and opened fire. Roy's reflexes were moving the Veritech before he even realized it, a move that saved him from instant death; most of the autocannon shells went wide.

One, however, did not. It struck the Veritech between the intakes, smashed through a corner of the head module, and exploded just behind the cockpit in an avionics bay. The armored head module took the worst of it, but shrapnel spiraled into the fuselage, and tore through the ejection seat, hitting Roy in the back. Roy could not stop a scream of pain. Instinctively, he dived out of the fight, trailing smoke. The Quadrono tried to follow, but now it had Ben Dixon to contend with, and a new fight erupted.

Christina Gali had leveled out just over the ocean wavetops, and she had lost one Zentraedi. The other, however, seemed bent on finishing her off. She had reached into her long experience as a fighter pilot, but she was running out of tricks. The Quadrono stayed on her tail as if tied there.

"Panther Lead, where are you?" she said, her voice a few octaves higher than usual.

Kellivar, meanwhile, was having his own problems. A Zentraedi had fastened itself onto his tail as well, and also would not let go. Out of the corner of one eye, he spotted Christina's Veritech. "I'm at your eleven, Two." An idea formed in his mind. "Come around hard left!" Christina had no idea what Kellivar had in mind, but she did as she was told. Kellivar, meanwhile, had made a hard right turn. "Set up for a Stilleto shot on the guy behind me; I'll get the one behind you!"

She gasped when she saw what he had in mind. "Oh my God. I don't believe we're doing this." She dodged another flurry of shots as she switched over to a missile shot. The seeker heads in the tip of her remaining Stilettos came on, their computer brains rapidly cycling between the two targets directly in front of them and settling on the one that conformed to its list of acceptable targets. Christina knew all this; she also knew the Stilleto did not always track on the right target. Kellivar and the Quadrono were too close; she might be tracking the Veritech.

"Get ready…" Kellivar mentally measured the distance between the two Veritechs, a closing speed exceeding twice the speed of sound. "NOW! Shoot, Bangles!" He stabbed the trigger once and immediately twisted his Veritech into a gut-wrenching left turn.

Christina fired twice, praying, and slammed her stick right, anticipating Kellivar's move by a fraction of a second, raising her nose slightly. The Veritechs missed each other by mere meters. The Quadrono pilots were good enough to dodge the missiles, and their armor was tough enough to take a glancing blow. Unfortunately, the distance between the two was so close they had no time to dodge. Christina's target disintegrated under the impact of two missiles. Kellivar's target took the shot in its right thruster pack, which imparted a spin to the craft. Before the Zentraedi could recover, the armor went into the ocean and exploded, sending fragments spinning for kilometers.

"Boo-yah!" Kellivar exulted. "Nice shot, Bangles!"

"I'm getting too old for this shit," she replied, her voice shaky. "Let's join up and get back in the war."

Max Sterling had managed to turn the tables on his foe again, who was having some trouble in the thicker air. His Veritech had the edge in atmospheric combat, and Max knew it.

He fired off his last Stilleto at the Quadrono, then fired a burst of cannonfire ahead of the Zentraedi; if it evaded the missile, it would run into the shells. To Max's amazement, it twisted away from the missile, which went ballistic, and neatly avoided his gunfire as well. Damn, he though, whoever you are, you've gotta be the best they've got. The Quadrono dived again, this time through a wisp of cirrus cloud, and Max pursued, a little slower, wary of another trap.

When the clouds parted around him, he saw the Zentraedi far ahead. At first he thought his opponent was breaking off the fight, then saw where the Quadrono was going. It was headed straight at the SDF-1. Max swore, rammed his throttle forward, the Veritech's wings automatically raking back for more speed. "Macross, Vermillion Three! There's a Quadrono heading right at you, and I won't be able to catch him in time!" He was catching up, but the Zentraedi had too much of a lead.

"Captain, they're heading this way—straight for us!" Lisa Hayes warned.

"Tell the antiaircraft batteries to hold their fire!" Gloval swiftly barked. "Sterling's too close to the enemy! Make sure all hatches are sealed, and double-check that all civilians are in their shelters!"

Claudia Grant's hands flew over her console. Alarm klaxons resounded all over the SDF-1; the ship was already at General Quarters, but this new alarm warned citizens that the fight was not over yet. Luckily, the large population of civilians onboard the SDF-1 had already evacuated the city in the ship's cavernous hold as a precaution. Claudia noted that all the outside hatches were sealed, then her eyes widened. "Captain, one hatch is open—the air-sea rescue hatch!"

"What?" Gloval said, leaping to his feet. Again, it was the loading and unloading that had caused this; normally the air-sea rescue helicopters would launch from the deck of the Prometheus or its right arm equivalent, the Daedalus. With their cargo holds full of supplies, only two helicopters had been spotted on the deck of the carriers; the others had been deployed to holding bays inside Macross City itself. "Seal it immediately!"

Claudia accessed the computer and sent the command, but she could see the Zentraedi had already spotted the open hatch, and was diving towards it. There was no way the hatch would shut in time. Claudia quickly hit another button. This one activated the hull breach alarm, which in turn warned the civil defense squads in Macross City: the enemy was inside the ship.

"Sterling is still in pursuit!" Lisa exclaimed.

Max climbed, rolled out, and dived toward the hatch, seeing his opponent disappearing inside the hatchway. The huge steel doors were already more than halfway shut. "This is it!" he yelled. Somehow he threaded the needle; the tails and the underside of the Veritech cleared the hatch doors by mere centimeters.

The tube was not particularly wide, and Max envied the Quadrono's thick armor, which allowed it simply to bash its way past protrusions. He had to maneuver around them, and one slight mistake would leave the Veritech and him a flaming wreck on the shaft walls. It reminded him of a sci-fi movie he had once watched.

The tube opened out into the gigantic hold that held Macross City. Max saw the Quadrono alight in front of a tall building he recognized as Macross' main hospital, where his friend Rick Hunter was. The Quadrono ignited its back thrusters and went tearing down one of the city's broad avenues. Max quickly shifted his Veritech to Battloid mode, making a neat landing in the front of the hospital. He hoped Rick was all right; it looked like some of the windows might have been blown in from the Quadrono's backwash.

Seeing the Zentraedi begin turning around, Max quickly ducked his Battloid behind a tall building. Let's see…the Zentraedi's on Luan Boulevard. Probably saw me land…okay, he'll come this way. Max headed down the side street for another block, then turned and went up a slightly wider street. Max knew Macross City rather well; it had been his home for the last two years. Keeping his mecha low, he jogged up the street, turned, and cut down another boulevard to come out, he hoped, behind the Zentraedi.

Max had been right. The Zentraedi had seen his move and also moved down a similar side street, but its pilot was having trouble figuring out how to manuever in close quarters. As Max skidded to a stop, he saw the Quadrono crash into a few apartment buildings. Max winced as one side of a complex shifted and fell to the street. The Zentraedi had spotted him, but the pilot lost footing on the concrete and stumbled. Max raised the gatling cannon and fired from the hip. The Quadrono armor shuddered under the impact of the heavy shells, sending sparks and smoke into the air, and fell backwards, crashing into the street, its flailing arms stripping the facades from more buildings.

Gloval winced much as Max had at the property damage. He could not let the fight continue; too many lives were at stake. "Lisa," he ordered. "Open the main loading hatch. We have to force the alien out of the ship."

"Aye, sir." She put in the command.

Max noticed the rumbling as the huge hatch, normally used to load supplies directly into the hold—before Macross City had existed—slowly opened, letting a shaft of bright sunlight into the city. He knew what Gloval was trying to do, but there was a far more pressing concern. The ammunition counter on his Heads-Up Display showed he only had enough rounds left in the gatling cannon to fire one more burst. His head cannon was long since exhausted, as were his missiles.

He saw the Quadrono get to its feet, slam aside a building, and open fire with its particle beams. Max dodged both shots. He knew he should charge the Quadrono, bring his cannon level with the armor's head, and open fire, a sure kill. However, Max also knew it was likely the Zentraedi would dodge, or worse, simply absorb the smaller Veritech's charge and use its autocannon on him in the same fashion. He had an idea, a wild one a bit out of character for Max Sterling, but he smiled. Okay, buddy, he thought towards his opponent, let's see which one of us has more guts.

Max walked towards the Quadrono at a normal pace, covering the distance half a block at a time. The Zentraedi seemed to hesitate, raising its arms and then lowering them. The only sound Max could hear was the thumping of his mecha's feet on concrete and the wind blowing through the open hatch. Holy cow, he thought, smiling involuntarily, this is like a fricking Western! If only John Wayne…or better yet, Jimmy Stewart, could see this. God, it's like High Noon….

The distance closed. Sweat ran down Max's neck, but he ignored it, watching his opponent, almost wishing he could see whoever it was. This one is going to be close…

Without warning, the Quadrono's thruster pack flared to life, and the armor leaped upwards, through the open hatch. Max nearly fired, but held back; he might not get a solid hit, and even if he did, the Quadrono would simply crash back down into Macross City. He quickly shifted back to Fighter mode and lofted up in pursuit. The Zentraedi fired a volley of missiles at him, but they went wide, and he easily shifted to one side. He knew his opponent had been badly rattled, just by the sudden flight and the wild missile shot. Max knew he had the advantage now. All he had to do was catch up to the Quadrono before it could get enough thrust built up to outrun him.

"Vermillion Three, Macross," Lisa's voice said into his ears. "Break it off. They're running." Lisa, having controlled dozens of fights like this one, knew Max had to be running low on munitions, and she was not going to risk the SDF-1's best pilot. It might be a trap; the Quadrono could lure him back into its mothership's missile batteries.

Max nearly disobeyed the order, because he knew the battle was not yet over. Then he noticed his hands were shaking, and not totally from adrenalin. He had very nearly died himself today. Max was not superstitious, but neither did he want to push his luck. "Understood, Macross."

"Come on home."

The Zentraedi had broken off the fight only seconds before Max's opponent had. They had taken too many casualties, and they had a finite number of good pilots. Roy Fokker, despite being in terrible pain, noticed it. "All right, Veritechs, let's call it a day. They've had enough." He too only had so many pilots, and unlike the Zentraedi, he could not easily replace even mediocre ones. He sighed, then groaned with the pain. He had been hit and was bleeding, that much he knew.

"Skull Lead, Panther Lead," came Kellivar's voice. Roy saw the black Veritech come up on his right side. "You look like you've been hit. Got a couple of holes underneath the nose there. No smoke or fire, though. You okay?"

Roy grinned over at Kellivar. He was not okay, but Roy's ego was not going to let him admit it. "Nah, I'm just great. Just some avionics shot to hell. I can land."

Kellivar nodded, and Roy returned it; they both knew Roy was lying, but Kellivar was not going to say it out loud. "Roger that, Skull. Macross, Panther. Hey, most of my boys still have some stuff left. We'll cap the helos." By that, Kellivar meant he would cover the rescue forces, whose helicopters would be terribly vulnerable should any Zentraedi decide to make a quick run at them. At least ten Veritechs were down, but it looked like most of the pilots had been able to eject. The waters here were warm, but while that meant no pilot was going to freeze, it also meant that sharks would be a problem. "Go ahead and send Vermillion and Skull back to the barn, over."

"Very well, Panther," Lisa replied. She had noticed Skull Lead losing altitude on the radar, but it had not looked catastrophic. She glanced over at Claudia, who did not look overly concerned. Either Roy was not hit badly, or else Claudia was just very good at covering up her emotions. "Vermillion, Skull aircraft, this is Macross. Return to base. Panther, we'll shoot the ready Ghost aircraft to help you."

"Roger, Macross. Skull Lead, see you on deck." Kellivar waved at Roy, gave him a thumbs-up, then rolled away.

Roy made a mental note to put in Kellivar for some sort of promotion later on, especially if Kramer would be out for awhile. "Macross, Skull. How's Vermillion Three?"

"He's fine, Commander. Already trapped. The Zentraedi after him ran off." Lisa's face, on one of the Veritech's multifunction displays, smiled up at him.

"Hah!" Roy laughed, despite the pain. He was especially proud of Max, who had taken on the best the enemy could throw at him and won, even if he had not got the kill. "Good boy. How's old Kramer doin'?"

"Search and rescue picked him up. He was hurt, and he's in intensive care." Her smile remained, and Roy could not read her expression. Lisa was rather good at that. "Come on in, Skull Lead."

"Roger that."

"Godspeed, Commander. Well done."

Kellivar broke up and away from the main gaggle of Veritechs lining up for home. He wanted to look around, and make sure that there were not any parachutes some one might have missed, or any Zentraedi that might be hanging around for an easy kill.

He spotted a gleam of something. It was high, and moving away, but it could not be a Veritech. It was moving too fast. He engaged his afterburners and went after it, guessing that, if nothing else, he would try a long-range missile shot. Kellivar made a shallow dive and then went into a climb, settling in quietly behind the Quadrono. He was about to activate his radar when he noticed that, according to his munitions display, he was out of missiles. The belly gatling cannon was out of ammunition as well.

"Have to do this the old-fashioned way, then," Kellivar smiled. He saw that the Zentraedi had throttled back, probably to conserve fuel, Kellivar guessed; no one knew exactly what the Zentraedi ships ran on, though most assumed it was Protoculture of some kind. Kellivar watched, but the Quadrono was not taking any evasive action, and he was at the pilot's blind spot. Shrugging, Kellivar closed the distance, bringing his twin head cannon to bear.

Kellivar saw that the Quadrono had taken some heavy damage, and guessed this one had been the one that had fought Max. "Sorry 'bout that, Maxie boy," Kellivar said, "but I'm not giving up an easy kill. This guy's good, but he's still dead meat." Kellivar brought the crosshairs down on the right thruster pack, and pressed the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Kellivar pressed the trigger again, then checked his display. According to it, there was plenty of ammunition left for the head cannons. He quickly switched the display to show any damage, and it reported dutifully that the Veritech was undamaged, but a circuit had blown in the Veritech's head, leaving the cannon inoperative. It simply would not respond to the command to fire; it had lost the connection in the sudden high-gravity turns he had been making. Kellivar swore horribly for a few moments, even as the Quadrono, who had belatedly noticed the Veritech, began a sharp series of evasive manuevers. Kellivar tried to follow, still cursing the cannon, and then cursing himself for getting himself wrapped up with an opponent.

The Quadrono might have been rattled by its confrontation with Max Sterling, but there was no doubt the pilot was still game for a fight. The Zentraedi outmaneuvered Kellivar, rolled around, and came right at him. Kellivar pressed the trigger with all his might, shouting, "Die, you bastard! Die!" He figured that maybe the curse would take effect, even if the guns still refused to work.

Quadrono and Veritech shot past each other without a shot being fired. Kellivar, incredulous, watched as the Zentraedi simply leveled out and flew in a straight line. There's no way he wouldn't have shot at me! Kellivar thought. He had a shot—sure, I would've dodged, but it was still a good shot picture! Unless…well, son of a bitch. He's out of ammo, too.

Kellivar turned and caught up to the Zentraedi. He thought for a moment, then rolled up and over his enemy, so that the two flew canopy to canopy, though Kellivar stayed well clear of the powered armor's arms. He looked down, wanting to see what the pilot looked like. The Quadrono had a tinted viewport; it could not really be called a canopy as Kellivar thought it. The pilot looked up at him, as well.

Kellivar's surprised eyes took in the pilot's purple uniform, green-tinted facebowl helmet, and white seat straps that crossed between a pair of full breasts and across what Kellivar decided was a pretty fair body. He could not quite make out the pilot's face, but decided that with a body that nice, she had to be beautiful. "I'll be damned," he said, grinning stupidly. "A female."

The two flew on for a few seconds, neither doing more than staring at each other, two races interested in what, exactly, the other looked like. Then Kellivar solemnly lifted his hand to his helmet's brow, and saluted his opponent. The Zentraedi hesitated, then returned the salute in her race's style, fist to left breast. Then Kellivar snapped the stick over and dived away from the Quadrono and disappeared from sight.

He orbited around the helicopters for nearly two hours in the fading sunlight, after telling Christina Gali that he was "winchester," or out of ammunition. She was heading in to land; her Veritech had taken damage, and one never flew in a damaged aircraft for long if one could help it. He did not tell her about the female pilot, figuring he'd save that one for the ready room. Kellivar laughed to himself; he couldn't wait to see the look on everyone's face, especially Max. Hey, Max, you were fighting a chick, he was going to say. How 'bout that? Maybe you should write the bad guys and get her number—she was pretty hot, too! Gali would undoubtedly throw something hard and metallic at him, possibly one of her legs, but it would be worth it.

Finally, the rescue operation was done. All eight pilots had been found and taken back; except for Kramer, all had been relatively unharmed, aside from assorted bumps and contusions associated with high-speed ejections and loss of pride for being shot down. Kellivar told the Ghost Squadron leader about the situation, then got into the Prometheus' landing pattern. He made a nice trap, considering the fading light and the fact that he was getting tired—Kellivar was the last to land.

He raised the hook back to its stowage position, followed the light wands of the flight deck crewman to his assigned spot, and shut the engine down. He stripped off his gloves and his helmet, opened the canopy, and waited for his crew chief to secure the ejection seat before climbing out.

Christina Gali was waiting for him on the deck, helmet under one arm, her blond hair blowing in the wind. Her face was expressionless. Kellivar grinned at her. "Hey, babe. Shit hot job today, considering you were flying a convertible. Must've been windy as hell—" He noticed something in her eyes. "What's happened?" he asked, sobering.

"Roy Fokker's dead," she said without preamble. "So's Kramer."

"No way," Kellivar replied.

"Kramer died on the operating table. Roy was hit, but apparently he didn't think it was too bad and left the hospital. He collapsed at Comm—at his girlfriend's place. By the time the medics got to him, he had bled to death."

Kellivar wanted to ask if she was sure, then stopped himself. Of course Christina was sure. "Shit," he said, not sure of what else to say. "Who's taking over?"

"I don't know yet. Maybe Rick Hunter, maybe Max Sterling, hell, maybe even you."

"Yeah. Maybe." Kellivar squared his shoulders. He had not known Roy Fokker well, but he knew what he would want if it had been Kellivar who had died. "Let's get a drink. Roy and Kramer deserve a fighter pilot sendoff." She nodded and they fell into a walk, heading for the ship's island structure. "I guess only the best can lead, huh?" Kellivar said lightly, half as a joke and half as a comment on the Veritechs' leadership—Kramer's, Fokker's, and whoever their successor would be.

Christina stopped, then looked down at her legs. The flight suit had been torn by a fragment of glass when her canopy had shattered, leaving a deep, white scar across her leg. There was no blood, of course; the leg was artificial, and Christina had not even felt the impact. "No, Kellivar," she said softly, walking away, "only the best survive."

Author's Postscript: Hope you liked it. I threw in the last about Kellivar seeing the Zentraedi pilot, which is, of course, Miriya Parino, soon to be Miriya Parino-Sterling. Max did not seem overly surprised when Miriya revealed who she really was at the park, before the knife fight. I figured there had to be a reason, so I decided that perhaps someone had seen a Quadrono pilot and told him they were female. I also changed a few things to make my story less like McKinney's, such as Max nearly being out of ammunition when he confronts Miriya in the SDF-1 (made sense, since there was no other logical reason for him to get close). I also tried to make things a bit more "military" in the usage of naval aviation terminology, and slightly changed everyone's background to tie in the Robotech saga with recent events. It made sense for Kramer and Gali to have flown in the first Gulf War, and Fokker to have flown his first combat missions over Afghanistan. One could say that we have indeed lived in a state of "global civil war" since the late 1980s. Eventually, of course, Rick Hunter will end up leading the Veritech squadrons, Max will marry Miriya, and the world gets hammered in the Rain of Death. Kellivar will survive; Christina Gali will not.

Again, I hoped you enjoyed this story. Any comments, flames, etc. can be directed to slanderscree5@hotmail.com. I'd like to hear what you think. Cheers and check six.