Forging the Thunderbolt #2

Episode 11: Dramatis Personae

If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe -

0838 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"I don't like it." Lieutenant Adelene Chan declared as she sat herself down, folding her arms across her chest, her features knotting into an elaborate scowl. "I don't like this one bit."

"What?" Breanna frowned at her sister as she leaned against the wall next to the door that led into the squadron commander's office.

"You heard what Alvin said? That . . . lieutenant . . .!" Adelene sounded as if she was sick and tired of explaining something cosmically simple to a small child. "That's what!"

"Well, no one's asking you to like it." Breanna rolled her eyes at her sister's apparent intransigence.

"I mean, you heard what Alvin said! He's a Bundesarmee officer!" Adelene carried on, seemingly oblivious to the remark that her younger sister had just made.

"He's a Hauptmann to be exact." Corporal Joshua Loke offered. "Roughly equivalent to a captain."

"Well, gee, thanks for enlightening us, Corporal." Adelene responded scornfully to the corporal who had stood in her way moments ago. "I'm enlightened, Bre. Are you?"

"Leave me out of this." Breanna said, looking elsewhere.

"Fine. Suit yourself." Adelene shrugged as she returned her gaze to Joshua. "Last I checked, the Feds were our enemies. They were firing at our units during the Kurtzenheim fiasco. I should know. I was there."

"Well, so was I," replied the corporal testily. "I was a Deliverer pilot so I know everything about the Feds shooting at us around Kurtzenheim before Gilgamesh hit. And it was Haup . . Lieutenant Peter Tan who saved my life when another Federation pilot was about to finish me off in my crippled exo."

"Well, good for you then! Hallelujah, so now all the Feds are saints." Adelene said caustically. "Maybe we should just give him a medal while we're at it, huh? How does a Golden Nova sound? Grand enough?"

The look on Joshua Loke's face made it clear that the derision had struck something deep inside him – which probably explained why he said what he said next. "Whatever it is, you certainly don't and won't deserve it, ma'am."

Adelene almost rose out of her seat and lunged at the corporal. Even Breanna was stunned by the comment and there was a sharp intake of breath around the ready room by those who were within earshot. But somehow, she managed to maintain some level of coolness and she sat fast. Instead, she managed to speak, channeling all her anger into her words which were already dripping with malice. "Well, of course I won't deserve it. I certainly wouldn't be so unworthy as to deserve anything that he would be getting."

"Hey, Ade . . ." Breanna's surprise had given way to mild frustration. "Can't you just lay off him already?

"I thought you wanted out of this, Bre." Adelene's tone was low and threateningly. "So butt out."

"Oh, fine . . ." Breanna turned up her nose and looked away once more.

"Look . . . ma'am. Can't we just accept the fact that he wants to live a better life in the Confederation and leave it at that?" The exasperation and frustration was evident in Joshua's tone. "I mean, he's already taken quite a huge step crossing over to our side and he's been worked over pretty bad by the JIS. Can't we just cut him a little slack and accept him as he is?

"No, Corporal. I will not. He's a turncoat and a traitor." Adelene replied in a manner that could freeze suns. "It takes a rat to desert his comrades. And it takes a special rat to take up arms against his own kind. He's betrayed his 'comrades' once. He can do it again."

Joshua Loke opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as he realized that he didn't really have a good counterargument to challenge the point made by the XO. Breanna looked sympathetically to the man. "Save it, Corporal. She ain't gonna listen at any rate."

"That man will be nothing but trouble, I tell you." The XO was speaking again, this time to everyone in the ready room. "Mark my words! This man . . . this renegade, who makes a mockery of our uniform . . . will be the death of us all if we aren't careful."

"Aw, come on, I'm sure he's already been cleared by the JIS." Breanna said soothingly, rolling her eyes at her sister's paranoia.

"You'd think so?" Adelene fixed her sister with a wide-eyed stare. "Do the math, people. It's April now. If he defected at Kurtzenheim, he would have reached us in December. That's three months to interrogate and clear him! I've seen Colonels who take longer to get clearance to breathe a single codeword than it took that traitor took to be accepted into our ranks!"

"Ma'am, I can assure you that the JIS . . ." Joshua began but never got to finish his sentence.

"Your assurances mean nothing to me." Adelene cut the corporal off with a curt gesture. "If anyone of you here thinks it's safe to serve with that German-speaking, fascist . . ."

"Now, now, XO." A familiar voice cut in and a hush fell upon the ready room. "I don't think that sort of language is appropriate in the presence of a fellow officer of equivalent rank."

Adelene stopped and joined the rest of the squadron in gawking at Lieutenant Alvin Ng who stood at the open doorway to his office with Lieutenant Peter Tan by his side. "Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Lieutenant Peter Tan. He is an old acquaintance of mine and we met many years ago, back when he still wore to uniform of the Martian Bundesarmee. Well, that has changed now and he's one of us. So I expect you to treat him accordingly."

"You must be joking!" Adelene exclaimed. "Just how are we expected to trust him?"

"He's got all the necessary clearances from the JIS." Alvin answered. "And his appointment to the squadron does have the express approval of General Koudriopoulos."

"Well, I beg your pardon but I believed the General is wrong to trust this man." Adelene said with complete conviction and without a trace of hesitation.

The stunned silence that followed that comment was unprecedented in the squadron's short history. No one even dared to breathe upon hearing such an insult to the judgment and reputation of Gamma Division's commander. Winnie's eyes were so large that they looked ready to roll out of their sockets while James, who had been standing next to her, had warm tea dribbling out the sides of his hanging mouth. Even Breanna was stunned and would have almost fallen from her leaning spot against the wall had Grace not caught her in time.

"Well, we are all entitled to our own opinions." Alvin said smoothly, as if he was the only one not bothered by her comment. Some of the squadron stared at him as if he was spouting something treasonous or heretical. "The General in spite of his reputation is still very much human after all. Capable of making mistakes." He fixed his XO with a steely look. "Just like you and me."

If Adelene had caught the veiled meaning, she didn't let it show. "So is your new best friend going to take over as squadron commander or executive officer? Oh, well, either way, I take it that I'm going to be bumped out of my position." There was an edge of bitterness in her resigned tone. "Well, go on then. Let's get this over and done with quick."

"You're not going anywhere, Lieutenant." Alvin told her sharply. "So don't even think you can get yourself out of that XO post of yours so easily."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Neither you or I are being replaced." The squadron leader said in a deathly serious tone.

"But I thought . . ."

"No, XO. You weren't thinking." The cold, cutting manner in which Alvin spoke made even Breanna wince at her sister's plight. "Because if you were, we wouldn't be having this conversation now."

Adelene looked as if she had just been slapped and she opened her mouth to spew out an angry barrage of protest but Alvin was apparently having none of them, cutting her off by holding up his palm.

"Save it, Adelene. Lieutenant Peter Tan's staying, like it or not." Alvin's tone made it clear to the squadron that the former would have been the preferred attitude to adopt towards its newest member. He looked to Winnie and watched her squirm uncomfortably under his gaze. "You are lucky, Winnie. Damn lucky."

"S-Sir?"

"I've spoken with Peter and he is willing to take over the post as flight leader."

"R-Really?" Winnie's eyes were wide in surprise, quite unable to believe that her salvation had arrived so soon. "I mean, of course, sir. Thank you, sir."

"What?" Adelene exploded, her face twisted in shock and disbelief. "You're going to let him command a flight?"

"Well, he certainly has the seniority for it." Alvin replied without any hesitation. "As you've pointed out, he could easily have come here to take over you or me."

"But what about Winnie?" Adelene's opposition was loud and clear and Winnie seemed somewhat surprised that the former squadron commander was suddenly rooting for her.

"What about her?"

"Why can't she do it? I mean, she's . . ."

"Jovian. Yes, I know. But she doesn't want the job." Alvin noticed Winnie hanging her head in shame as he made that fact known to everyone. "However, she'll be serving in my flight until such a time she's ready to assume command of her own."

"But who . . .?" Adelene didn't get to finish, Alvin already anticipating her question and preempting her before she could finish speaking.

"Corporal Loke, Private Cheah. Lieutenant Tan will be your flight leader. Any problems with that?"

"None at all, sir." Joshua replied eagerly, slipping the XO a savage look of glee as he accepted the assignment.

"And yourself?" Alvin asked as he turned to John.

"Sir, no, sir!" John said loudly but stiffly. "No problems with that."

"Good!" Alvin said, nodding viciously. "Outstanding! I'm glad some people can put aside their prejudices."

"Sir, that'd put me with you and Winnie, wouldn't it?" Breanna asked tentatively.

"You have a problem with that, Private?"

Breanna flashed a feline smile that told him all he needed to know. "None at all." She too took the opportunity to glance back at her sister with a slight look of triumph. "Yay, I get to fly in the Command Flight!"

And that last comment seemed to have really stirred up something inside Adelene. Alvin was vaguely aware that Winnie and Adelene hadn't got along too well prior to his arrival and nothing further needed to be said of the XO's relations with her younger sister. So to have both women in his flight, the command flight, was probably an insult that Adelene took very, very personally. A quick glance at his XO told him that she was absolutely livid, her entire body shaking as she smoldered with hatred that could not be concealed.

But Alvin knew that as squadron commander, his job was not to be liked by his people, merely respected and obeyed. So he met his XO's penetrating stare with a blazing hot stare of his own, his eyes holding hers even as he spoke. "Lieutenant Tan is a fine exo pilot and he's here to stay. So get used to it."

Adelene's fury continued to burn and her eyes were as black as coals, as they stared down at each other. Realizing that could be no true winner, he broke contact first, turning to point at Peter's collar. "And as long as he wears that insignia, all of you will accord him the proper respect that his rank demands, regardless of his former nationality. Is that clear?"

Most of the pilots winced as his hot rage washed over them like a wave. Many of them nodded wordlessly though a few managed to verbalize their responses in the affirmative. Satisfied that his people were all sufficiently warned about his stand on the matter, Alvin decided it was best to get on with business. "Corporal Loke?"

"Yes, sir?"

"In my office. Now."

0844 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"Whoa, that was close." James Wong said in the silence some seconds after Joshua had vanished into the office after their incensed commander and the hatch slid blessedly shut behind them.

"Yeah, that was pretty scary." Grace Fong exhaled slowly.

"Well, at least it's over." John grinned sheepishly at her. "For now, at least."

"This is obviously all your fault." Adelene pointed an accusing finger at the Martian officer. "Well, just so you remember, we are all of equivalent rank. So don't think you can use your friendship with Alvin to get what you want."

"On the contrary, you are the XO and he is the CO of this unit." Peter replied calmly in his clipped accent. "You are both senior to me despite our similarity in rank."

Adelene seemed slightly taken aback by that unexpected response but she quickly hardened her features before he could say anything further. "Well, just so you don't forget it then." And without giving him a chance to respond or waiting to watch his reaction, she spun on her heel and stalked out of the ready room.

"Did I say something wrong?" Peter asked, looking around at the rest of the squadron who were very obviously relieved that they were free of their fiery CO and their belligerent XO for now. The lithe, agile-looking woman who had been in the office with Alvin before he had entered, spoke.

"Congratulations, sir." Her dark, aquiline features gave way to a very slight grin and her voice radiated with more amusement than sarcasm. "You've just met . . . and pissed off Lieutenant Adelene Chan. The squadron's XO and . . . my sister . . . unfortunately."

"You make it sound like it's no great loss to me." The newly-arrived lieutenant said, looking at the Jovian private in mild surprise.

"It isn't. And well, it shouldn't be, sir." She smiled tentatively and extended her hand. "Private Breanna Chan."

"Haupt . . . I mean, Lieutenant Peter Tan," he replied, grasping her hand in his.

"Relax, sir. You're not in the Martian Federation anymore." Another voice chimed in and the former Bundesarmee officer turned to see two equally short privates, wearing the insignia of Jovian interceptor pilots, grinning at him. "Hi, I'm Candice. And my buddy's Adora. And we've never met a Martian before . . ."

0853 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"Well, sir, that's pretty much how I met up with the lieutenant, sir." Joshua said with a note of finality in his tone.

The squadron leader looked at the corporal from behind his desk for a long, silent moment before the younger man flinched under that penetrating gaze. "It's a small solar system after all, isn't it?"

"I guess so, sir."

"Though something tells me that our assignments here are more than just fortuitous." It was Alvin's turn to look away. "Nevertheless, regardless of your connection to the man, I still expect you to conduct yourself as a soldier of the Jovian Armed Forces."

"Sir?" Corporal Loke stared innocently at his commander.

"What you did just now." Alvin explained, granting the enlisted man the benefit of a doubt. "I don't expect to see you doing it again. Regardless of what you may feel, Lieutenant Chan is still your superior and XO of this squadron. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir. I understand, sir." Joshua replied stiffly. "It won't happen again, sir."

"Lieutenant Tan is a grown man and damn good exo pilot." Alvin went on, seemingly unconvinced by Joshua's response. "He doesn't need you to defend him."

"Yes, sir." Joshua's replied through gritted teeth. "I'm sorry, sir."

"I know you are." Alvin turned back to fix the pilot with a steely cold gaze. "Because if I had any reason to even suspect otherwise, you'd already be out of this squadron."

Joshua looked somewhat stunned by the vehemence of his superior's tone but wisely chose to remain silent. He chalked it up to the man still being angry at the argument with Adelene not too long ago.

"You've got the guts to stand up for your buddies. That's a damn good thing, Corporal. I like that." Alvin nodded approvingly. "But this is still a military unit and we've got to observe protocols and chains of command."

"I understand, sir." Joshua shifted nervously, looking down at the deck in shame.

"You're a veteran now, Corporal." Alvin allowed his lips to come together in a razor thin smile. "So start acting like one cos all those fresh privates and maybe even the green officers will be looking up to you. Don't screw it up."

"Yes, sir." Joshua nodded, glad that the reprimand seemed to be coming to an end. "I won't let you down, sir."

"Very well. Dismissed, Corporal." Alvin nodded.

"Yes, sir." Joshua snapped to attention and wheeled smartly on his heel before taking measured steps towards the door.

"Oh, and one more thing, Corporal . . ." The commander's voice reached out just before Joshua got to the hatch.

"Sir?" The younger man turned around, raising his brows inquiringly.

"Appended to your dossier is a report . . . by the JIS."

"What about it, sir?" Joshua's eyes suddenly narrowed, his features stony and expressionless.

"It's a security addendum with regards to what happened on Mars." Alvin said slowly, revealing none of his own emotions while trying to gauge Corporal Loke's response. "It states that while there was no further evidence to detain you any longer, you should be monitored carefully as you may present a security risk."

The enlisted exo pilot blinked exactly twice in astonishment. It wasn't the fact that such a report existed that surprised him, but the fact that Alvin had bothered to mention it to him. It wasn't normal to tell someone that he or she was deemed as a security risk and thus under observation.

"I see . . ." Joshua said, barely recovering from his shock. "Sir . . . why are you telling me this?"

Alvin studied the other man for a moment, letting him sweat for a bit before he answered. "You are deemed to be a security risk because of your association with Peter Tan."

"I guess that was to be expected." Joshua shrugged and sighed in a resigned tone.

"Well, I happen to disagree with this report." Alvin made a big show of frowning. "As far as I'm concerned, Peter Tan can be trusted. And the man who helped bring him over shouldn't come under suspicion for what he did."

It took a few seconds for those words to sink into Joshua Loke's mind. When he had absorbed their meaning and made sense out of what he had heard, his face brightened up despite his best efforts not to grin idiotically.

"Thank you, sir!" He said gratefully. "I really appreciate it."

"Well, you'd better." The squadron leader said with mock fierceness and a touch of dry humor. "Cos if it turns out you really are a traitor, the JIS would probably shoot me for my negligence. Not before I come shoot you before they can hang you or whatever. Now get out . . . and tell Officer Wong that it's his turn, if you'd please."

"Yes, sir!"

0906 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"You wanted to see me, sir?" Officer James Wong asked as the door slid shut behind him and he took the next tentative step deeper into the squadron leader's office.

Lieutenant Alvin Ng didn't look up from his desk. In fact, he didn't even respond to James' arrival in any perceptible way. The freshly-minted officer paused in mid-step and stared at the figure who was bent over his desk, seemingly studying something intently.

He cleared his throat, but on seeing that he still had not managed to illicit a response, James stepped right up to a spot directly in front of the desk. He came to attention and tried again, "Um, sir . . . I asked if you wanted to see me . . . sir?"

"Are you asking me to report my intentions to you?" The Lieutenant asked in a voice that was so quiet, it was barely audible. But for James who heard it, the words were every bit as scary as the squadron commander had intended for them to be.

James blanched and stiffened, managing a strangled, "I'm sorry, sir. Officer James Wong, reporting as ordered, sir."

"Very well. At ease." Alvin waved him towards the chair in front of his desk. "Sit."

James sat. "Sir, my apologies if I have offended you in any . . ."

"Your commander is just having a bad day." Alvin sighed as he worked on the keyboard in front of him, still avoiding eye contact with his latest interviewee.

"I'm sorry to hear that. I understand what you mean, sir." James offered.

"Do you now?" Alvin didn't quite whirl on the younger officer but the effect was the same. James had practically jumped backwards in his seat as he tried to get as faraway as possible without leaping out of his seat. "Do you really understand what kind of day this is turning out to be?"

"Well . . ." James swallowed, still unable to peel his spine off the backrest of his seat. "I-I guess not . . . sir."

"Then keep your mouth shut and don't offer anything unless you have something useful to say next time, Wong." The squadron leader said brusquely, still holding the junior officer's gaze. "You haven't done much for your standing with me by being late for my briefing so don't mess it up now by talking unnecessarily, is that understood?"

"Sir, yes, sir!"

"It says here that you've attended FSTRIKE." Alvin said as he consulted the man's personal records. "Quite an exceptional career move, considering that this is only your second squadron deployment."

"Well, sir, I guess I had the potential." James noted the sharp look that Alvin shot him and quickly added, "I mean, that's what my former squadron commander thought. He did put up a hell of a fight to get me to Fallon following my stint with the Schwarzwald Defense Squadron."

"I know. Lieutenant Simms served under me back aboard the Godsfire." Alvin nodded, smiling slightly at the memory. "It seems that he thought very highly of you."

"Oh, really? I mean, oh . . . wow." James' eyes widened in surprise. Alvin wasn't too sure which had surprised the young man more. The fact that he had known Simms, or the fact that Simms thought highly of him despite having called the younger officer a 'character' and some other less-pleasant things on occasion. "He's a good leader, sir."

"Far too good to be stuck commanding a colony defense squadron now that we're at war." Alvin remarked somewhat bitterly.

"Well, sir, last I heard, he was due to post out not too long after I did." James shared. "CO of the Flying Tempests aboard the JSS Flame, with an accelerated promotion to Captain."

That seemed to give Alvin pause for almost a moment, as he absorbed that tidbit of information. Then he allowed James to see him smile for a brief moment. "Well, he deserves it alright."

"He does, sir."

"Well, back to business." Alvin said as his smile faded.

"Definitely, sir."

"You're qualified on both the IM-05 Intruder and IM-09 Lancer, particularly the Bomber version." The squadron leader said, perusing the man's service record as if for the first time.

"That's right, sir. My training placed equal emphasis on flying fighter strike missions as well as target designation missions." James explained. "I guess you can say I'm pretty handy with the target designator aboard the Intruder."

"That remains to be seen, Officer."

"Of course, sir."

"There is another issue that I'd like to discuss."

"Go ahead, sir."

"Lieutenant Simms made mention, and I have seen it for myself now, your lack of punctuality. Would you care to comment?"

James' eyes went wide with shock as he stammered. "Uh, well, sir . . . um . . ."

0912 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"I don't mean any offence, Candice. But what's a person like you doing in the JAF?" Alvin shot the pilot in front of him a very quizzical look.

"Sir, I'm not all too sure that I understand your question, sir." Private Candice Ye looked up at him with those bright, twinkling eyes.

"I mean, your temperament is . . . how shall I say . . . not quite what one would expect of an interceptor pilot." The lieutenant said carefully. "I guess to be honest, I'd say you're rather . . ."

"Hyper?" Candice asked, fixing him with a huge grin as she leaned over the desk to fix him with a wide-eyed stare. "Crazy?"

Alvin shrugged eloquently. "Your words, not mine. But I guess you could say it's something like that. Not that it's in a bad way . . ."

"It's ok, sir." She assured him cheerily. "All of my friends tell me that!"

"I see . . ." Alvin nodded slowly in understanding as he leaned back in his chair, his hands forming a steeple in front of him. "And that doesn't bother you?"

"Should it?" Candice replied chirpily, her smile still firmly in place.

"I guess not." Again the lieutenant shrugged, before changing subjects. "But I guess that still doesn't answer my question. Why sign up with the JAF?"

"Guess it seemed like the right thing to do at the time." Candice answered, then noted the look on Alvin's face and knew it wouldn't suffice in quenching her superior's curiosity. "After the Battle of Elysée, I figured the Confederation wouldn't be remaining neutral forever."

"Turns out you were right in the end." Alvin observed soberly.

The smile on Candice's face faded slightly. "I knew I wanted to something more than just watch from the sidelines. Right after Elysée, I just knew I had to do something."

"I know what you mean" Alvin nodded in agreement. "Lots of people did the same thing."

Most of the neophyte pilots and ship's crew who had reached the fleet before the Mars peacekeeping mission had been those who had enlisted in the aftermath of the Battle of Elysée where the CEGA had made it blatantly clear that the fragile peace that the Solar System had enjoyed for so long would not last forever. Many more of these 'Elysée Enlistees' would arrive to replenish the JAF's recent losses in the months to come but Alvin was sure that it was only the foreshadowing of the deluge of young men and women who were enlisting now that the Confederation was officially at war with Earth forces.

It would be a at least a year before these new recruits would begin arriving in the frontlines, to flesh out new units for the expansion of the JAF. But in his heart, Alvin knew that many more would be arriving to replace the inevitable losses that would be sustained in the coming months. And if he had thought Kurtzenheim was bad for the Confederation . . .

"May I ask you a question, sir?" Candice's voice broke into his reverie and he looked up to see her watching him inquisitively.

"Well . . ." Alvin frowned momentarily. "That would be most irregular."

"Then it's ok, sir. For . . ."

"However," Alvin held up a finger to interrupt her in mid-sentence. "I've already given up all hope of you being a regular person. So fire away, Candice."

They exchanged slight grins before Candice spoke. "You don't have to answer it if you think it's too personal or if you simply don't want to, alright, sir?"

"Never crossed my mind to do otherwise."

"Sir, there's been some talk about what happened during the Kurtzenheim."

"What kind of talk?" Alvin's face grew very still and his attempt at polite, keen interest came out sounding forced.

"Sir, some people say you led your squadron into a trap. Some said you stayed on even though the situation was hopeless. Well . . . I guess you have a sort of reputation for being . . . well, I don't know, sir." Candice faltered under the very intent gaze of her commander. "Crap, I don't think I should be asking this."

"You've already come so far, Candice. It's ok." Alvin spoke flatly. "I take it that I have a reputation for being a bloodthirsty incompetent?"

"Well, sir . . . not exactly in those words . . ."

"It's ok, Candice. I understand. The truth of the matter was that I did lead the Deathwings into a trap. We were subsequently ambushed by returning exo armors so we didn't stand much of a chance of escape." Alvin explained slowly, never breaking eye contact with Candice. "There was no real opportunity to escape, hence the common idea that I kept the squadron fighting in a hopeless situation. Even when reinforcements arrived, I was still shot down."

"I see, sir."

"I understand that the various media reports on my case were somewhat confusing and conflicting. But I think the official version of the truth, along with transcripts of the court martial proceedings, should be out in a couple of years time." He flashed an ironic, razor-thin smile. "Of course, I've yet to address the matter that should concern you most."

"Sir?"

"That of my reputation." Alvin fixed her with a long gaze that made her flinch slightly. Again, he let slip a small grin. "No, Candice. I don't think the brass would ever let a bloodthirsty incompetent command a squadron."

For a moment, Candice simply stared back at him with large, round eyes. She blinked exactly twice before she managed to recover, an genuine laugh escaping from within her. "Oh, sir. That is such a relief!"

0918 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"There's no real need to be nervous, Grace." John was telling the petite interceptor pilot soothingly. "Really, it's no big deal."

"Well, you weren't exactly all that calm before you went in." Private Grace Fong pointed out in that angelic voice of hers. Beneath the worried look on her face, John could see a specter of a smile.

"Woohoo, way to go, John!" Breanna called out from a nearby seat where she was chatting with the Martian lieutenant. "Talk about crash and burn."

"Haha, very funny, Bre." John shot back sardonically, though his features were flushing red. "Well, Grace . . . it's really not that scary . . ."

"Really?" Grace looked at him with those large inquisitive eyes. Again he caught traces of that playful look on her face and he frowned slightly in puzzlement. "So why did it look like we had to peel you off the ceiling after Lieutenant Ng came roaring out of his office?" Too late, John felt like kicking himself.

"That's a really good point, Grace." Breanna was grinning. "Really, John, we'd like to know the answer to that."

"Hey, you people were scared when the Boss came out shouting too, alright?" John growled. "So I wasn't the only one was got shaken up by the 'Clash of the Titans', yeah?"

"Well, we didn't say we weren't scared, John." Breanna explained in a tone that was normally reserved for explaining things to a child who wasn't particularly bright. "We're simply wondering why you're telling Grace that there's no real need to be nervous."

John opened his mouth to reply, but no words came forth. He turned to Grace who was watching him with equal amusement. Even though she said nothing, there was simply something in her eyes that convey her intense delight at his plight.

His jaw mouth wordlessly for a few more seconds and his gaze alternated between Breanna who was smirking triumphantly and Grace who was trying to look away politely to conceal her own smile.

"I think your friend has got you there." Grace said mildly, seemingly embarrassed at the fact that she was being amused at John's expense.

"That's if I can still call her a friend." John grumbled, glaring at Breanna with a look of fierceness of which he only felt a fraction of.

"Aw, come on, John . . ." Breanna shook her head in feigned disbelief. "Be a gentleman and just admit you've lost, won't you?"

"Oh, fine . . ." John threw his arms up in exasperation. "You win, you win. I think I'm going to go get something to eat!"

"Yay!" Breanna beamed victoriously at John's admission of defeat and watched him leave. "Don't eat too much. Won't want you to ruin your physique. Someone may not like it!"

She saw John bristle slightly at that comment before he stepped out of the ready room. Then Breanna turned and slipped a wink to an uncomprehending Grace Fong.

0926 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"Anything else you'd like to tell me before you go?" The lieutenant asked, dropping the edge of formality in his tone.

"Well, sir . . ." Private Adora Cheong shifted nervously in her seat and flashed one of her radiant smiles that Alvin was becoming accustomed to. It was her way of telling people she had come across a rather touchy subject which she wasn't sure on how it should be approached. "About yesterday . . ."

"What about it?"

"I'm sorry I called you a psychotic glory-seeker back aboard the shuttle." She still had that pleasant, disarming smile on her face though he could sense her discomfort at having to mention that incident. "I really hadn't meant it."

"Well, to split hairs, you didn't actually call me a 'psychotic glory-seeker' or any of its variants." The squadron leader said by way of correction. "After all, you had not known who I was at the time. And I was technically eavesdropping."

"Ah," Adora relaxed slightly and her smile gave way to a short burst of laughter. "I was talking rather loudly so I'm sure I can forgive you for that, sir."

"I didn't ask for your forgiveness, Private." He said in a flat, emotionless tone and with a straight, unsmiling face.

"Oh, I'm sorry, sir . . . I didn't mean . . ."

It was Alvin's turn to laugh. "It's ok, Private. All is forgiven. I was just kidding."

"Oh?" Adora shot him one of her clueless looks and it took almost all of his self-control not to groan at her naivety. "Really?"

"Yes, Adora. I was just kidding." He shook his head. "Dismissed then. And do call Private Fong in after you."

"Yes, sir." The petite private with the complexion of dark honey showed him another radiant white smile, and practically skipped out of his office.

"Heavens," Alvin muttered to himself. "We're sending out children now."

0928 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

"Private Grace Fong, reporting as ordered, sir!" Despite her diminutive build and apparent frailty, there was still a very distinct snap to the way the interceptor pilot game to attention in front of his desk.

"Ah, yes. Please, do take a seat." He had already reviewed the woman's record and he had liked what he had seen.

"Yes, sir!"

"Oh, and do relax, Grace." He told her reassuringly. "Please."

"Yes, sir." The tone was the same, she simply hadn't snapped in the manner that a fresh recruit would to a menacing instructor.

"Really, Grace. Relax. You're not in Basic anymore. And I'm not going to eat you alive or anything." He nodded when she smiled back weakly at him.

"First off, I must say I'm pretty impressed at what I've seen in your service record. " He told her with genuine admiration. "You were offered a shot at OTS twice. Once right after Basic and the second time upon completion of your conversion to Lancers."

"That's correct, sir." Even though the earlier crispness was absent, there was still a touch of grave formality in the sweet voice with which she replied. Alvin decided that it was as relaxed as she was ever going to be . . . at least for this interview.

"And it also says you turned down the offers twice." Alvin continued with his admiration replaced by puzzlement. "Why?"

"This first time round, I wasn't sure that I was ready, sir. You see, I wanted to pick my line of service before I started officer training, sir."

"I know what you mean, Grace. I was an exo armor sergeant before I went to OTS." The JAF had always been an all-volunteer organization and recruits did have some freedom in deciding the arm of service that they wanted to be in since most of them were there to make their careers. Of course, it was always easier for a Private fresh out of Basic Training to choose his or her line of service than for an expensively trained (and consequently more precious) officer to do so.

"And the second time?"

"I was about to say 'yes' when war broke out." Grace explained.

"And you requested a combat posting so you could get into action sooner?"

"I know it sounds clichéd, sir. But yes, that's essentially it." Grace's reply was sheepish this time.

"You're not concerned about how this might affect your career prospects?" Alvin regretted those words almost as soon as they had left his mouth. Grace looked hurt that he had even implied that her focus was on her career.

"Well, sir I won't have much of a career if this war goes on and I'm dead. Besides, combat experience was never a bad thing to have on one's record." When Grace spoke, there was no hint of anger or hurt. In fact, she was speaking in a disturbingly ethereal and detached tone that worried Alvin somewhat. "And I've studied your career too, sir. If you can hit Captain so quickly even though you had a supposedly late start, I'm sure I can too."

Alvin squinted at the woman who sat across him, scanning that neutral face for any sign of sycophancy or flattery. Her large red lips were pursed and her eyes were open but unrevealing. He knew at once there was more to this petite interceptor pilot than had initially met his eye. Satisfied that she had been totally honest in her opinion, he nodded slowly to signify his understanding.

"I know exactly what you mean, Grace." Alvin said after a short pause. "And no, I don't believe you're here to get your ticket punched before moving up the ranks."

"Thank you, sir."

"Still, tell me more about your plans for the future if you will . . ."

0937 HOURS – 05 APRIL, 2214

The talk with Grace had been a pleasant one, and he had scheduled her on the assumption that talking to her would be a soothing experience before he tackled the last two people on his list.

He was right.

The relative silence following Grace's dismissal was broken as the door slid open. He forced himself to wait until the visitor had come to a stop in front of his desk before he looked up to face the man. He hadn't changed. Even after the passage of the years, he was exactly the same.

"Ryan Tan."

"Alvin Ng."

"You will address me as 'sir', Sergeant." Alvin snapped without a trace of humor in his tone. "I don't know how you got that stripe back, but believe me when I tell you I'll make you lose it if you ever give me a good reason to."

"You just can't get over it can you . . . sir." Ryan shook his head in disgust. "It still bothers you that you 'only' managed to reduce me to Corporal."

"For striking a superior officer? You ought to have been discharged outright for that. Or faced detention at the very least!"

"Hey, that Simms fella had it coming to him . . ."

"That will be Lieutenant Simms to you, Sergeant!"

"What's the obsession with rank . . . sir?" Ryan asked maliciously. "Still steamed over the fact that you lost a bar yourself? Guess that ought to give you an idea about how I felt."

"Well, I didn't assault a senior officer." Alvin pointed out viciously to the Sergeant.

"No, you just got your entire squadron killed." Ryan shot back and smiled with satisfaction as he saw that his comment had hurt.

Alvin remained silent for a long moment, allowing his anger to simmer. He waited till Ryan was about to follow up on his 'victory' before cutting him off.

"You're right, Sergeant." Alvin allowed a sadistic sneer to crease his features. "And rest assured, I won't be hesitating in getting you killed in this war if I can't demote you or get rid of you."