By Eric "Erico" Lawson


"Another Arwing?!" Milo bellowed, gripping the edge of his console hard enough to crack the plastic. "Where the Hell did it come from?!"

Ulie had been searching for the newcomer's approach vector since the moment it appeared. He finished typing in the variables and blinked. "Entry point is high orbit. Trajectory puts it at a 78 percent chance from deep space."

Dana's voice was frantic. "I'm coming back in, moving to engage!"

A new signal popped on the main frequency, and the incoming bogey suddenly gained an IFF marker on the holographic radar. Milo stared at the flashing red flag with an R above the new ship. "…Rourke?"

Up on the monitors, the godsight pods recorded another burst of hyper laser fire rattling Terrany's ship. Milo's shock became rage. "Damnit, Rourke, what do you think you're doing?!"

"Stay out of this, Granger." A growling voice warned. "Same goes for you, Dana."

"Rourke, you crazy son of a…" Dana swore. She was cut off when the new Arwing killed the power to his radio. "…He hung up on me!! That no good, backstabbing…"

Milo muted the feed from Dana's ship and rubbed at his temples. "Not good." He groaned. "Not good."

Ulie drummed his fingers. "I thought Rourke was on assignment."

"I guess he finished and decided to drop in. He's unpredictable sometimes."

"Is there anything we can do?" Ulie asked.

"Not with Rourke up there." Milo said after a pause. He sunk back into his chair and kept his eyes glued to the radar. "He's got some kind of a bee in his bonnet, and the only person who could ever snap him out of a funk was Skip."

The raccoon's tail whipped behind him nervously. "I have a hunch he came here to test her. I hope so, anyway."

"And if he didn't?"

Milo chewed on his lip, then shrugged. "Well, then, I guess I'll need a new plane."

Terrany kept enough sense in her head, despite the panic that filled it, to roll away from his next barrage.

Shield strength read at 57 percent, not good by anybody's book, but especially terrible given her situation. An unknown assailant, piloting an aircraft the same as hers.

"Target identified: Model X-1 Arwing. Registry…" ODAI froze for a moment, and Terrany glimpsed down at the diagnostic readout panel. ODAI was in communication with someone. "Registry unknown." ODAI finished, after that crucial hesitation.

"Blast it, Odai, who is it?!" Terrany demanded.

"Does it matter?" The same murderous voice inquired, just as the Arwing pulled up behind her and locked on. Terrany swore and threw her craft into another loop, spinning all the way as hyper laser shots flew around her. The pilot, whoever he was, was good…His shots tagged her between rolls, and ceased while she performed the laser deflective maneuver. "You're pathetic." The voice added contemptuously, weaving away when Terrany hit the brakes to try and make him shoot past her into her gunsights. "Twenty seconds in, and you've already lost? I'll be doing the galaxy a favor by killing you.."

Terrany shivered and tried to follow after him. Her aim was shaky and terrible, and the Arwing avoided every last one of her shots. "The best of the Academy? Go ahead and hit the eject button. Let your plane die with some dignity. Expiring while you're in the cockpit would taint it."

The enemy fighter swung about in a sharp bank and exposed the whole of its fuselage to Terrany's sights. She fired off a barrage, but her foe braked and rolled to deflect the opening shots. When her leading edge of fire cleared his nose, the pilot swung his bank to the opposite direction and boosted from her range of fire.

Terrany roared in frustration and turned to follow him, but he had boosted far ahead of her.

Terrany grit her teeth and held in the trigger of the yoke. "What the Hell is he trying to do? Kill me with blasters or beration?" One of her fangs grazed along her lip, and she snapped her head to the radar monitor. "Odai, how are we holding up?"

"Shield strength has regenerated to 59 percent. Minor damage to redundant systems. Please engage."

"Blast it, what do you think I've been doing?!" Terrany shouted at the AI, maneuvering her Arwing until the enemy ship was lined in her gunsights. The radar chimed as it locked on, and she fired off the charged green bolt.

She hit the thrusters and closed the distance, turning the nose up as the enemy plane began its lock-defeating loop. Another barrage of laserfire arced in front of his path, and while she saw many of her shots bounce harmlessly off of his gravity well during a hasty barrel roll, a few made it past and crackled against his shields.

Her radio crackled to life. "Terrany, it's Milo!" The voice of the ring-tailed raccoon brought a measure of sanity back to her, and Terrany relaxed a bit.

"Milo, who is this clown?!"

"He's Rourke, our…"

The transmission cut off with a squealing bombardment of high frequency noise, and Terrany cringed for the half second it took before the radio went dead.

"Signal interrupted. Jamming source confirmed: Enemy Arwing." ODAI announced.

Terrany felt the Arwing shudder under another barrage of shots, and swiveled her head about. "He was just…How did he…?"

"So, you know my name." The voice growled, and a second burst of blasterfire knocked her shields down to 52 percent. "I suppose it's right you should know who's going to end your life."

Terrany cried out and hurled her Arwing into another loop. ODAI was keen to remind her of their problems.

"Warning: Further damage will lead to loss of atmospheric maneuverability. Exercise caution."

Her heart beat faster and faster, and Terrany saw Rourke's aircraft shoot underneath hers. He hadn't fired that time.

He was playing with her, like a cat to a wounded mouse.

"Why are you doing this?!" Terrany screamed, thinking on impulse that if he could goad her, he could certainly hear her talking as well.

There was a pause, and then a cruel chuckle echoed over the line. "Call me a strict evolutionary. You want to keep your life, McCloud?"

Somehow, he'd turned around in the space of two seconds and was flying down her throat. The collision warning blared around her, and the cockpit was aglow with red lights.

In between beeps, Terrany heard his voice, and felt time curl and stop around his words.

"Then fight for it!"

Terrany's breath hitched. A primal thought surged forward, long buried but never forgotten.

The training had never been enough. The Academy had never been enough. She'd never…never been in a situation like this.

With no time for words, only thoughts, something in Terrany snapped, and the knife that had cut it flashed aglow.


Aboard the grounded transport carrier, Ulie let out a terrified yelp as his monitors began to scream at him. Milo jerked his head from the radar and glanced over, and found Ulie positively frozen stiff in shock.

He was watching Terrany's synaptic patterns.

They had erupted.

"What the…What's going on?" Ulie asked shakily. Milo walked over and examined the readouts that the ODAI aboard his Arwing was faithfully transmitting back to them, and put on a triumphant smile.

"She woke up."

Inside his cockpit, the grim specter known as Rourke felt a grim smile cross his lips. Just by the movement of her Arwing, he could tell that something had changed in her.

His hand tensed around the yoke, and he breathed in deeply through his snout. "Fight, damn you."

Terrany's eyes were hard, and she held the Arwing's path steady, streaking a course straight towards the ruthless pilot known as Rourke.

The proximity alarms blared in time with the others. "Warning: Collision imminent. Evasive maneuvers recommend…"

"Not a chance in HELL." Terrany growled, squeezing her blaster trigger several times in rapid succession.

"This course of action is not safe, Pilot McCloud."

"This isn't a course." Terrany snapped to her computer, sending her Arwing into a straight barrel roll, holding course. "It's chicken!"

Rourke rolled his ship to deflect the opening barrage, but the followup smashed against his shields mercilessly.

"You're gonna feel that one in the morning."

"Who asked you?" Rourke mumbled, cringing and finally swearing an oath as he sent his craft into an upwards arc. "Slag it!"

The tinny computerized voice inside his Arwing's memory banks laughed. "Boy, that's gotta be the first time you've tucked and run like that in a long time!"

Rourke glanced at his shield gauge, then aimed his Arwing's nose straight up and throttled the boosters. "Prepare for spaceflight." In spite of his frustration at the canny voice of his own machine, he cracked another grin. "Let's see how bad she wants it."

Terrany's blood felt like it was on fire. One glance over her shoulder told her what ODAI and her radar would have otherwise.

Rourke was going up. Far up. "Oh no, you don't." She growled. Her ears bristled, and she jerked her Arwing into an inverted climb.

"Query: Target is leaving atmosphere. Are we following?"

"I don't care who he thinks he is, but he's gonna learn something today." Terrany snapped to her artificial counterpart. "You do not FUCK with a McCloud and get away with it!!"

She hit the boosters and her Arwing shot up after the first. An altimeter flashed on the diagnostic readout panel, letting her know that they were passing a thousand meters every one and a half seconds.

Terrany didn't notice.

She just kept on flying.

The transport carrier shook again as the weight of Dana's Arwing settled back down on the launch gantry. Ulie barely noticed at all, engrossed in the readouts from Terrany and her Arwing. Milo casually glanced over to the rear door as Dana Tiger literally flew from the back hatch.

"Where are they?" Dana demanded angrily.

"Oh, somewhere in the upper stratosphere by…" Milo paused, and chuckled. "Crickets, they're booking. They just hit the mesosphere."

Dana let out a frustrated growl and slammed a fist against the hull of the ship. "Blast it, what the Hell are they doing going up into space?"

Milo yawned, seeming calm after his initial shock. "Well, for one, only Rourke is going. Terrany's just following him. Besides, I couldn't contact Terrany if I wanted to warn her. He's got the communicators jammed."

Dana frowned. "Warn her? What for? She knows he's shooting live ammunition. She's doing it too now."

"Oh, not that." Milo mumbled distantly. The raccoon turned towards Ulie Darkpaw and cleared his throat. "Well? How's the readouts? Is she compatible?"

Ulie hadn't said much since her EKG had gone bananas, and at last he managed a feeble guffaw, then a longer gleeful cackle. "More than compatible! By Lylus, she's…It's just like we suspected! She's better than you, Milo!"

The raccoon chuckled a bit. "Well, that isn't hard. All right. Run the simulation. What does the computer model say about estimated Merge performance?"

The ursine was quick on the keys, and a few seconds later, drew up a comparative chart.

"…Better than you. Better than Dana by a smidge."

"Better than Rourke?" Milo ventured.

Ulie hesitated, then shook his head. "This is just from opening data. As you know, real results are usually different, especially with more experience."

"That much is true." Dana groused. "The simulation shortchanged my capabilities. But what did you mean, Milo, when you said you wanted to warn her?"

The raccoon blinked and reoriented himself. "Oh, that?" He motioned to the radar display, which had blossomed out to show a cross-section of Katina's surface and atmosphere, and the two blinking arrowhead shaped objects that represented the two flying Arwings.

"I don't know if you knew this, Dana…but Rourke flies better in open space than he does on a planet." The raccoon's dark eyes narrowed. "He's led her straight to his playground."

Dana's claws extended out from her paw for a moment as Milo's statement sank in. "Creator help her." She muttered.

Even within the bubble of shielding and gravitic energy from the G-Diffusers, Terrany could feel the whistle and pressure of the wind slacken off as they shot higher and higher. The radiant blue sky thinned out, growing brighter before finally succumbing to the black starry void.

Spaceflight. No resistance along the fuselage at all. Maximum thrust out here meant a dramatic increase in speed. The boosters, if not for the G-Diffusers aboard the Seraph, would be strong enough to jar her teeth to the back of her skull.

She swallowed hard at the next thought. Combat up here…was a totally different experience.

In the atmosphere, if the shields were breached, if the canopy was riddled with holes, she could still fly. In space…

"One lucky shot and I get sucked through a hole the size of a cred chip." Terrany summarized.

Rourke seemed perfectly at ease in the airless maw, and leveled off from his climb. He spun his wings out to their full span, and turned about to meet her.

"No turning back." Terrany whispered to herself, whirling to engage. She'd pushed herself into this mess by following him. Now, it was just him and her, and the emptiness.

"This might be preferable." She mumbled, charging up her laser. "Nobody to watch me screw up again."

"I was unaware that you intended to fail." ODAI chimed in. "I would not recommend it."

"Who are you more worried about, bit-boy?" Terrany growled, lobbing the nexus of green light at Rourke. "Me, or your own circuits?"

"There is no answer to that question which would satisfy you."

Terrany watched as Rourke easily maneuvered about the charged laser bolt and harrumphed, firing a stream of shots ahead of him. "Smartass." She muttered under her breath. Her pinkie and ring finger stretched over from the throttle and jammed the wing settings from interceptor mode to all-range.

It was the last thing she was able to do before space exploded around her in bristling green energy.

The shuddering from the shields had her on her toes long before ODAI began to state the obvious. "Concussive laser bl…"

"I know, shut up!" Terrany growled, rolling out of the miasma and into another hail of hyper laser blasts. Even with the canopy dimming out the brimming light of Solar, the lesser of the binary stars of Lylat, they were little help against the burning light of Rourke's assault.

Seeing stars in her eyes, Terrany jerked her vision away from the canopy and focused solely on the radar.

It gave her just enough focus to hurl her Arwing into a loop.

"No good running, McCloud." Rourke goaded her, stitching a line of fire after her thrusters. "This is my world."

Terrany grit her teeth. "Odai, mute the comm!"

A chirp and silence answered her, and she accelerated…but didn't move to complete the loop. "Odai, remember that trick I showed you? We're doing it again!"

"Implementing engine shutdown on your mark."

Terrany waited until she'd passed well beyond the arc of his fire, and jerked the yoke back hard. "NOW!"

Where Rourke anticipated her to carry through with the loop, he fired. And just as it had worked on Dana Tiger before, the maneuver of relying on momentum and rotation alone bought Terrany the edge to recover.

Her trick was easier in space, with no air currents to buffet the fuselage and already taxed deflector shields. By the time that the Seraph had finished its backwards rotation, Rourke's nose was pointed up, and the underbelly of the Arwing was fully exposed.

Terrany started firing, and without even being prompted, ODAI reignited the thrusters. She hesitated for two pulls of the trigger before she realized that she'd braced her body on instinct.

You mean to tell me that this…this goofy computer program predicted my move?

ODAI, of course, said nothing, and Terrany resumed her firing. Rourke took the surprise assault for only a second or two before he rolled about, flipped over, and sent them both into a curving spiral straight up and away from Katina's gravity well.

For all the dangers, and the residual fear she felt, Terrany still flew. And the more she dodged and weaved, fired off her shots and danced in the space above Katina, the more those fears subsided.

ODAI must have found nothing objectionable in her actions. By the fourth charged blast, Terrany had forgotten he existed. She had no idea that her entire mental state had shifted, and was still shifting. The hum of the Seraph's twin thrusters offered the white noise that stabilized her breathing, and soon Terrany found no need for words.

She and Rourke fought each other, screamed at each other in a language no terrestrial animal could ever fathom. Every blast of hyper laser fire was a staccatoed exclamation point, and every wiggle of the wings was a coquettish turnabout.

In the depths of the void, trying to kill each other, they blocked out everything else but each other. To Rourke, it was just another day.

But as Milo, Ulie, and Dana, miles below in Katina's Pheran Desert could testify as they watched her EKG…

It was the day when Terrany Anne McCloud went from promising pilot to something more.

Their shields decreased in similar increments. 45 percent. 42. 39. Each took a shot, darted out of the way, and found some bizarre, brilliant and insane flight trick which bought them enough of an angle to land another glancing blow upon their other. Terrany's wrath and Rourke's icy murderous intent seemed at a standstill to one another.

Their dogfight, both realized, was little more than a war of attrition. But Rourke had riled something in Terrany that he hadn't bargained for.

To Rourke's absolute shock, she didn't back off, and she didn't radio for a stalemate or cease-fire.

She hit the engines and lit into him, and suddenly a very powerful sentence echoed in his mind.

If I go down, I'm taking you with me.

To Terrany, everything was about as right as it could go.

Then the circumstances changed.

His engines went cold. The blue hued G-Diffusers of his Seraph Arwing opened up vertically, then split again horizontally so that each polyhedral diamond became divided into four segments. Most frightening of all, the silver-hued wings began to separate…And two smaller pairs of wings extended out from the main span at 45 degree angled. The six-winged transfiguration made the Arwing resemble something between a butterfly and a hummingbird in its fragile beauty. The small wings flexed exactly twice to level their bearings, and then the Arwing went berserk.

It was the only thing which came to her focused mind: Berserk. One moment it was in front of her, and the next, it was beside her…no, above her…no, behind her, and…

Laserfire the color of an aquamarine sea and a blue giant star rattled her Arwing's shields, and this time, ODAI let the klaxons blare. "Warning!" The AI reported. "Significant power increase of laserfire! Evasive…"

Terrany wanted to answer that she was taking evasive action: She had pulled every roll, half-loop and braking dive that she could think of since the five seconds between the transformation of the Seraph Arwing and the moment when ODAI deigned to speak to her again, and still it wasn't enough.

Her log panel exploded in a shower of sparks, and ODAI went eerily silent. Terrany winced as she glanced at the residual shield gauge readout before it faded away.

2 percent power remaining.

"…Odai?" Terrany chanced to whisper. She pulled the trigger, and gained another blast of ozone and crackled wiring in the cockpit for her trouble. She coughed as what was left of life support tried to vent out the toxic atmosphere, and waited for a voice that never came.

Instead, she got Rourke.

"Good, McCloud…but not good enough. Some other time."

The enemy Arwing seemed to drop down beside her, with no visible flight path. It spun in a roll exactly twice, and when it leveled off, the secondary wings retracted and the blue G-Diffusers closed back up to their standard positions.

His engines relit, and in a blinding flash of his boosters, the enigmatic figure known only as Rourke flew off into the span of Lylat, for places unknown.

Terrany sunk back into her chair and tore the helmet off. She was mad, to be sure. Mad at herself, and definitely mad as Hell at this Rourke…whoever he was. The others definitely knew him, though.

Her communicator crackled back on. "…errany, can you read me? This is Granger, respond!"

Terrany pulled her hands back from the flight controls and keyed the microphone switch on her helmet. She figured it was probably the only undamaged system on board the now nearly scrapped fighter. "I hear you, Milo. I'm here."

"We lost the uplink to your ship. Could you have Odai reinitialize?"

"Odai isn't working anymore." Terrany answered, pounding the fried display panel for added measure. "I'm down to 2 percent shield power, the weapons aren't responding, and I'm pretty sure that Odai's dead in the water."

"…He'd better not be." Milo growled, offering the first sign of anger around Terrany for the day. "Not after all the time I spent getting him to where I wanted him!"

Terrany shut her eyes and rubbed at her temples. She could feel a headache coming on, from the combination of sudden stress, prolonged adrenaline, and the sickening smell of ozone that the filters had yet to completely remove. "Rourke worked me over proper. I had him until he…"

"Until he what?"

"He did something with his Arwing." Terrany mumbled. "It…changed. Grew extra wings, and then it started bouncing all over the place."

There was silence on the line for several seconds, and the pause was unsettling enough that Terrany opened her eyes back up and frowned. "Milo, what was that?"

"…That's something we'll tell you about later. When we're back at base, and not above prying ears." The ring-tailed raccoon warned ominously. "Can you make it back to your launch point?"

"At 2 percent shielding left, I wouldn't trust this thing to a car wash. Besides, my life support's pretty beat up too." She looked out from the canopy to the body and winced at all the scorch marks burnished into the polymer metals. "And this bird's going to need a new coat of paint. Probably a few."

"Understood. We'll launch the transport carrier and collect you in orbit. Congratulations, Terrany. You passed. Hell, more than passed. You held out against Rourke, and that's something Dana and I could never do."

Terrany crossed her arms and looked down at the dead display panel, hoping that they'd reach her before what was left of Milo's aircraft died around her. Even a self-sustaining power core couldn't compensate for the intense damage it had taken.

"Milo, I need a straight answer. And cut the sidestepping. Who in the blazing Hells is this Rourke? Why is he flying one of your Arwings? And WHY did he attack me?"

She could hear him sigh on the other end, even as the radio frequency carried over the hum of the transport carrier miles below on Katina soil powering up for flight.

"He's flying an Arwing because he's the other member of our test squadron. If my guess is right, he attacked you to test you out. And as for who he is? For better or worse…Right now, he's flight leader."

Terrany's blood went cold, because it was too tired to boil anymore. "What class at the Academy taught him that trying to kill your wingmates was a good training exercise?"

"Rourke never attended the Academy." Milo said cryptically. "You might say…he was home schooled."

Ursa Station

Sector X

Two Hours Later

Whether he thought of it as home or not, the pilot of the formerly unknown Seraph Arwing settled his aircraft down on the landing mounts in the bustling secondary hangar bay and powered down his systems. He took a moment to tilt his head back and breathe as the Arwing canopy opened up.

Cool, crisp, recycled and filtered air.

Ursa Station.

Rourke climbed down from his Arwing, and found the floppy-eared General Grey and an armed security detail waiting for him.

The wolf removed his flight helmet and raised an eyebrow. "An honor guard reception? You shouldn't have."

The rugged general crossed his arms and put on his best scowl. "Before I throw you in the brig for attempted murder, would you care to explain why in the Creator's good grace you decided to try and gun our newest pilot down?"

Rourke flashed a predatory grin. "Why, General, I'm surprised at your assumption. If I had wanted to kill her, she wouldn't be on the transport here."

He patted the general on the cheek, not hard, but definitely out of protocol.

General Grey positively fumed. "I ought to ground your disrespectful ass here and now, O'Donnell!"

"I'm already your prisoner. I'm not seeing a difference." Rourke retorted. He relaxed for the benefit of the guards and shrugged. "Besides, I was just fulfilling my responsibilities."

The general sighed and fished inside his pocket for a corncob pipe. "Please, do tell."

Rourke made a meaningful glance to the security guards behind his superior officer, and the canine dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Once they were clear of the secondary hangar bay, Grey affixed his pilot with a grim stare. "Happy?"

Rourke nodded, and the general jammed his corncob pipe in his mouth, chewing the end furiously.

"Tough day, sir?"

"I never realized how much I hated being assigned to this floating bubble until they told me I couldn't smoke." The general snapped. "Now out with it. Why did you try to turn Miss McCloud's ship into a blaster-riddled pile of scrap?"

"The shots that took down her brother weren't any less real." Rourke answered coolly. "She's an Academy brat. She's never seen a day of real action in her life. I needed to know how she'd react under fire."

"Still that's hardly the best approach to take, son. Wasn't there a more gentle way to go around it?"

Rourke O'Donnell pushed himself to his full height of six feet and two inches, beating the general by a good head. "I was put in charge of this flight by Captain Skip McCloud. And until such a time as I'm removed from that position, I will command it the way I see fit. And right now, I need to know that my pilots can do more than fly. They need to fight."

The general blinked. "Do you mean that…"

"I got jumped as soon as I dropped to sublight. They're coming, sir." Rourke's voice was solid, but cold and sharp as an iron blade. "I don't know who they are, but they're coming." Rourke winced as he pulled his jacket off, and the general paled when he saw the burn and singed fur on his wrist.

"My god…You should get to the doctor's, right away!"

"Forget it." Rourke waved him off and kept trudging. "I've got a debriefing report to write."

"But that burn…"

"A panel blew out when I was ambushed. That's all. I've suffered worse. Tell Wyatt's crew to check on the attitude control. It's feeling sluggish."

Rourke's nonchalance about his injury may have been justified by his prior experiences, but he seemed especially aloof today. The general kept pace with him, and posed a guess.

"So…How was she?"

Rourke put on a weak smile and shook his head. "I almost had to concentrate."