Chapter Six: Star Trekking

While it was certainly not the first large mecha to be fielded in a combat scenario, the Veritech Fighter quickly proved itself superior to anything in production at the time, making it the weapon of choice for UN Spacy and the Robotech Defense Force. It deftly combined speed, maneuverability and firepower into one effective package. It did not take the pilots long to realize that, in addition to being the first line of defense, they would be at the top of the figurative food chain for the foreseeable future. This led to varying types of competition in order to decide who would get to be called the best of the best.

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

A sense of calm had descended upon the SDF-1. It had been almost a week since the creature Dr. Lang had designated as the 13th Angel tried to reduce the battle fortress to nothing more than debris and nothing particularly eventful had occurred since then. Despite a few odd pilots who claimed to be ready for a nice bit of action, everyone onboard had enjoyed the reprieve granted to them. Macross City was not almost completely rebuilt, with the exception of a few odds and ends. Utilities were provided, businesses had reopened and the television and radio stations had started rebroadcasting, albeit with limited selections for the time being. Of greater relief to the men and women of the Defense Force was the completion of the recovery efforts for both the Daedalus and the Prometheus, meaning that the SDF-1's full complement of Veritechs could be launched at a moment's notice. It appeared to everyone that, finally, things had calmed down and life could get back to the approximation of normal that living inside a battle fortress provided. Before they could complete the process, however, there was still one last thing to be done.

"Ten-Hut!" Colonel Maistroff shouted.

As one, several rows of officers, all in dress uniform, came to attention. They were inside one of the hangar bays that connected the Prometheus to the SDF-1. Shinji had a place in one of the rows, his left arm still in a sling. Along with the rest, his eyes rested on the platform stationed in front of the assemblage. Captain Gloval walked up to the podium and began to speak.

"These have been trying times for all of us. We find ourselves far from home, with a long journey looming ahead. The simple matter of survival has been foremost in our thoughts since the attack on the island, regrettably forcing other matters to be pushed aside. Now, in these moments of peace that we are gifted with, we take the time to remember those who have fallen in the line of duty. They have been our friends, our comrades-in-arms, our brothers. Now they are our honored dead. Their time with us is at an end. Never again will we be able to pass by them while on our way, or laugh with them while off-duty. Yet, though we commit their remains to the vast depths of space, we do not leave them behind. Their memories remain here, within each of us who knew them, whether it was as a close confidant, or simply as an acquaintance. Their lives will not be forgotten and thus their sacrifice will not be forgotten. We shall carry them with us as we continue onward, honoring them as best we can. It is only good and just that we should act in this fashion."

The Captain continued to speak, but Shinji was only partly listening. His thoughts were concerned with the seeming pervasiveness of death. There was no escaping it, no matter where you went. Foolishly, he had thought he had gotten away from it when he left Tokyo-3 and settled in on Macross Island. But death merely decided to shift forms and come for him once again. Only that time, it took with it far more than it usually did. Then it shifted back to something a little more familiar and came for him once more, destroying more innocent lives in the process. His left arm started to feel a bit numb and Shinji again contemplated the recent Angel attack. Had he been stronger, had he been faster, had he been better, maybe those other pilots on duty with him would not have lost their lives. Maybe he could have stopped poor Jonathan from pointing that gun to his head and firing.

"…the responsibility we all have to carry on, to ensure that the sacrifice of others was not in vain..," Gloval continued.

Responsibility. There was a word Shinji knew and sometimes had cause to despise. Not too long ago he had a responsibility to act as the Third Child, Pilot of Evangelion Unit-01. Only he had run away from that responsibility to become Corporal and now Sergeant Ikari, Veritech Fighter pilot. Yet, his old responsibility caught up with him, even though he never really thought he would be completely free of it. Now he had to reconcile the two, because if one Angel could make it out here, so could another. It was strange, but he had never really given much thought to the JSSDF soldiers that had been thrown against the Angels only to be mercilessly crushed. Now though, he began to wonder what had crossed their minds as they went up against an opponent they could do nothing to.

It was then Shinji noticed that the Captain had finished his speech and the boy felt a bit guilty for not paying closer attention. Commander Hayes was now at the podium, a list of names in front of her. One by one, she called them out, giving voice to them a final time before the end. While she recited the names, coffins would be sent out, a procession of the fallen. To Shinji, there seemed a combination of the absurd and the morbid to this. Many of those coffins were empty save for perhaps some keepsake – there simply had not been anything left of them to place inside. They had simply been vaporized when their aircraft exploded after being hit by enemy fire. Of course, there was one coffin Shinji knew would have an occupant, much to his eternal shame. After what felt to be far too long, there were no longer any names for the Lieutenant-Commander to call and the Captain dismissed all assembled. As he filed out with the rest, Shinji still pre-occupied himself with thoughts of responsibility and death, the connection between one and the other. It occurred to him that he had never been to the funeral of someone who had died because of an Angel attack. Should he be ashamed of that, letting the casualties remain faceless to him? Or perhaps it was something to be thankful for, that he had never been forced to bury someone he knew because he failed to protect them?

"Funerals," Roy said as he stepped over to Shinji, "never really get easier to attend."

"I expected that," Shinji responded, his head down.

"This your first?" Roy asked.

"Yeah, I think. I can't really remember my mother's funeral, if I went to it."

"It's not easy to go to one. Then again, it would kind of defeat the point if it were. It's just one of those things, an oddity of life. Unfortunately, we'll probably be attending a few more before everything is said and done."

"Are we expecting an attack soon?"

"There's nothing we know to be coming our way. I'm talking from my gut on this one. We've been relaxed for far too long. Those aliens are bound to catch up with us soon."

"More fighting…" Shinji whispered.

"Such is a soldier's life," Roy mused. "How's your arm doing?"

Shinji glanced at it before answering.

"Okay. The doctors said it was a simple fracture and should heal cleanly. I'm supposed to have the cast off in a couple weeks."

"Nothing else wrong?" Roy asked.

"I'm…okay. Really." Shinji responded. His friend seemed satisfied, despite the brief hesitation.

"That's good to hear. I don't want one of my best pilots laid up any longer than necessary. After all, I've got to have someone to use as an example for the new recruits. The fact that you'll be younger than all of them just makes it better."

"New recruits?"

"We've started putting up recruitment ads across the city. Plenty of the basic 'I want you' style posters. Maybe we'll do a TV spot, I dunno. Advertising isn't really my thing."

"You mean getting the people here to sign up for the Defense Force."

"There's no other source. We're a long way from the nearest reinforcements, not to mention that almost everyone certified to fly a Veritech was already on the island. We're going to have to get pilots somewhere, so we use what's available to us."

Something about this did not sit right with Shinji, though he was at a loss as to exactly what. Perhaps it was the ideas of casually plucking someone from their ordinary life in order to fill some need for a person to put in harm's way. Or perhaps it was that he understood the logic behind such an act in a way he would not have several months ago, The phrase 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' began to make more sense to the boy as he further considered just how messy this war could get.

"Just how bad off are we?" Shinji asked.

"I wouldn't say 'bad', but we definitely got hurt. Every squadron took casualties and Wolf was completely wiped out. We need to fill the ranks back in as quickly as possible. You should never fight an enemy while hindered in any way."

"So the Academy is back up and running?"

"Yep, though it's mostly boot camp. We've got a glut of higher officers as it is. According to Dr. Lang, we'll be able to train new pilots year-round. Good thing, too – we're going to need them all the way back to Earth."

"A whole year," Shinji whispered. "I wonder if we'll be able to hold out that long."

"Of course we will. We've got the tools, we've got the talent, and we've got the mighty Shinji Ikari on our side. All foes cower before him, right kid?" Roy joked and ruffled the boy's hair.

"I wish I felt that confident," Shinji responded.

"Just do the job like I know you can. After that, things will fall into place."

"I hope you're right."

"I know I'm right. You're a good pilot Shinji, flat out. I'm not kidding when I say I want to use you as a model for the other rookies. If more of them show talent like yours, we'll be able to breeze through the enemy. Heck, they've already caught us with our pants down and we still managed to kick them around. With guys like you piloting, we'll do more than hold our own." Roy assured.

Shinji could only wonder what supplied the man's never-ending fount of confidence. There wasn't anything Roy seemed to really worry about. You could tell him that the world was going to come to an end and he would just laugh it off, sure that the situation could be fixed with just a little bit of luck and a working plane. Not for the first or last time, Shinji desperately wished for that kind of courage. With it, perhaps he would not be the failure he knew himself to be. If he had Roy's skills and courage, the Angel would not have killed those Veritech pilots and Jonathan would not have shot himself in the head.

"Listen," Roy said. "I've got a few to duties to perform, but after that, why don't you meet me for a bite? I know a nice little Chinese restaurant."

"There are actually restaurants open?" Shinji asked, surprised. This was news to him.

"This one's one of the first. It's got a pretty good menu, or so I hear. It'll be my treat. Besides, I've got someone I want you to meet."

"…Okay…"

"Great. It's that place near the hole you pulled those two civilians out of. I'm sure you remember. I'll see you there at 1400."

Soon, Shinji was once again alone, with time to contemplate his friend's advice. Why couldn't he just 'not worry' like Roy was able to do. What was it that caused him to continually hesitate, doubt himself? Was he just a coward at heart and nothing more? Could the answer be so simple? And if so, what was to be done about it? He could not run away, not like he tried to run away from the Evas. This time, there was no place to run to. There was no way to board a train and put his responsibilities behind him, like he had tried to do before when the fight against the Angels had still been so new to him. Outside the metal casing was nothing but vacuum, capable of snuffing his life out in an instant.

Lack of an escape route was not the only thing that held him, either. When he joined the Defense Force, he had sworn an oath to defend humanity no matter what the personal risk. Could he really turn his back on that, becoming a liar in the process? Could he let Roy down, when the man had already placed so much trust in him? Shinji fingered the new lapels on his uniform – he was a Sergeant now, the first person to reach that rank while at such an early age. Didn't that mean anything to him? As a symbol of trust, it was certainly tangible; a genuine way to remind himself that he was part of something, an entity that considered him – Shinji Ikari – to be of importance. Shouldn't that be enough for him to feel satisfied? And even if he was not content, did he not still have a duty to perform and thus a promise to keep?

"Duty," Shinji whispered to himself. "That's what Roy said it was about."

The boy still remembered quite clearly the impromptu speech his friend had given while trying to convince him to join the Defense Force. Yet, despite the high ideals spoken of, Shinji did not agree to sign on until that conversation with Dr. Lang reminded him of what he desperately wanted to escape. It was not nobility or heroism that had spurred him into becoming a member of the RDF. Instead it was selfishness, acquiescence to the personal desire he had to hide himself from the pain that his father's organization seemed intent on bringing him. There were times, in the dead of night; he would wake up gasping, thinking himself still inside Unit-01's cockpit while submerged in the Sea of Dirac, waiting for the power to give out and his life to come to finally come to an end. Perhaps it should have.

While in the hospital, he had wondered if his death would have had any meaning. Up until that point, his life did not seem to have any, so would his death have been any different? It had seemed slightly ironic to him that a life could have no meaning but a death would. Presumably that meant the opposite was true as well, that a life could have meaning, but a death none. Alone in his hospital bed, Shinji had mulled over this dichotomy, how much effect a life could have on a death and vice versa. If one had meaning, did that automatically mean that the other had it as well? Could a death redeem a life? If so, why did it matter? There had certainly been times when he felt as though his own life was utterly devoid of meaning, thus making it worthless. Yet, he had not wanted to die, when death finally looked upon him. Would that make him a hypocrite, seeing no purpose to his life yet still rejecting death?

But hypocrite or not, he was still left with the problem of meaning. It eluded him now just as it had done for his entire life. All he had was existence, although even that seemed insubstantial at times. Once again his left arm began to ache and a memory flashed across his mind of Jonathan lying face down on the hangar deck, blood pouring out of his head, staining Shinji's hands. Where was the meaning in such an act? Did its meaninglessness negate the life that had come before it? If so, then Shinji felt himself responsible for such degradation, since it was his fault the man had died, no matter what others tried to persuade him to believe.

"Zor's blasphemy spreads," Jonathan had said before pulling the trigger. Those words had haunted him, not least because of their cryptic nature. No one knew what he was talking about, if it had actually been Jonathan talking. Whether or not it was a message from the now-deceased pilot or some final bit of influence from the Angel remained unclear. Again, Shinji was left with an absence of meaning. Death, however, was a prominent force as it had always been for the past year of his life. Purpose could not be found despite his best attempts, but entropy…entropy seemed to always be there, encroaching upon him, closing in and waiting for its chance. How was it fair, or even remotely sane, that the universe would divest itself of meaning, but allow death to be all-pervasive? Trying to comprehend such a concept made Shinji feel very cold and very alone, sensations he knew quite well. A crying child left alone by his father knows such things very well. After that day, he had never truly been warm again. He looked out a window, into the diamond-spotted black. The cold was all around them, ready to consume all of them. And yet…

"To defend and protect humanity, no matter the risk," Shinji said, paraphrasing the oath he had sworn not very long ago. His fingers again traced the new rank insignia on his uniform. The symbol of the promise he had made, the burden he had volunteered – not coerced into accepting, but volunteered – to take on. The universe may be a cold, hard, unforgiving place, filled with entropy and insanity, but none of that changed the fact that he had given his word that he would act in a manner befitting an officer of the Robotech Defense Force. Nothing said or done after this could change that simple, undeniable truth. If he were to simply surrender to despair, allow the cold to envelop him and likely those he has been charged with protecting, he would dishonor his word, betray the trust that others had placed in him – that Roy had placed in him. He could not do that, no matter how tempting it may be. With surrender not an option, the only remaining course open to him was to fight, to struggle to survive. Things such as meaning and purpose may be beyond him, but duty remained. The duty Roy had spoken of. Maybe that could sustain him.

000

There was not a great deal of light in the room. No lamp turned on or overhead fixture to provide illumination. There was only the glow of the computer screen, however faint. This was not because the inhabitant of the room felt any particular inclination to keep his work shrouded in the dark. In fact, it had more to do with his single-mindedness, which caused him to completely ignore the rest of existence in favor of whatever it was that had fixed his attention this time. Many things had been said about Emil Lang over the years, but being prone to distraction was never among them. He was so engrossed in his work that it was not until the arrival loudly cleared his throat that he realized he was no longer alone.

"Good evening, Lazlo. What can I do for you?"

"I believe you mean 'good morning', doctor."

"Morning? That can't be. It's only…" Lang started to refute his protégé's correction before glancing at a clock for the first time in many hours. His expression was a mixture of irritation and slight disbelief.

"As I said, 'good morning, doctor'," Zand said. "I have brought you the latest results from our scans of the wreckage left behind by the 13th Angel."

Zand handed the other man a clipboard with several sheets of paper on it. As Dr. Lang perused the information displayed upon them, he spoke once more.

"Anything of note?"

"As I told you, there was nothing left behind with any piece of the Angel's biological material. Anything that was not engulfed by the creature's destruction would be too small for our equipment to detect its existence."

Lang lifted his gaze from the papers in his hand to directly address that statement.

"I can't accept that. There must be some piece of it remaining behind that we can study. We can't let this opportunity to finally acquire actual Angel DNA slip through our fingers. Have every area where it was either known or presumed to have been swept again."

"We've searched every day since the incident with no success," Zand protested. "Do you really think that our chances somehow increase with the passage of time? If there was anything, it would have been found within the first two-three days at most."

"Are you saying we should just let this go?" Lang balked.

"There's nothing left to hold onto! Anything we might – might – have been able to use is drifting in space miles behind us. I doubt that Captain Gloval will turn the ship around simply because you want to find the needle in the haystack."

Lang wanted to argue the point, prove that there was a tangible reason to continue searching. Instead, he merely slumped in his chair, aware that Lazlo was right. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he had to admit defeat on this matter. There was simply no point in continuing onward. He turned his chair around to face the computer again.

"I understand your curiosity on this matter, but your insistence seems rather extreme, even for you. It's not as though you would be able to derive any great insight regarding their bodily functions, unless you have a biology degree to surprise me with." Zand commented.

"Lazlo, the creature managed to infect and transform a Veritech into a body suited for its needs. An organic life form managed to take a mechanical shell and alter it to act as a biological surrogate. That should not be possible. To be anything other than ravenous for knowledge about this is an exercise in willful ignorance." That last remark probably came out a little more caustic than intended, but Lang was too prickly from lack of sleep to care.

"Obviously any creature capable of performing such acts should be studied thoroughly by whatever methods available, but relentlessly pursuing information where none no longer exists moves past ignorance and ventures towards fanaticism." Zand's response was a challenge and Emil knew it.

"Are you trying to imply something, Lazlo?"

"Perhaps your pursuit of the Angel's genetic material has less to do with an altruistic desire to expand scientific boundaries and more to do with your feud with NERV."

Lang was grateful that he was not actually facing Zand at the moment, since he could not be sure that he could keep his face expressionless. His colleague's assessment of motive was uncomfortably close to the truth, but Emil could never admit by how much.

"My dislike of that organization has nothing to do with this."

"Oh, come now, doctor. I know how much you viewed them as a threat to everything you've done on Macross Island. I share many of the same resentments. How could I not, considering the way they hoard information and belligerently obstruct any project that might weaken their hold on planetary security? But you must not take things too far. After all, it is not like they have done anything to you personally."

How little you know, Lang thought, but did not speak. Instead, he tried a different tack.

"Lazlo, come look at this," the scientist said. Lazlo looked over his shoulder to view images on the computer screen.

"Footage of the Angel's attack," he observed.

"You've seen it, then?"

"Not this particular recording, but enough to know what happened during the battle."

"Then you know about this particular incident," Lang said, playing the footage of Skull fifteen launching its missiles only for them to veer off course.

"Yes, the curious ability of the AT field to disrupt the guidance systems. An unforeseen complication."

"It is more than that. Consider what we know – unless disrupted, an AT field will defend its projector from everything up to and including an N2 mine, currently the most destructive weapon at humanity's disposal. Yet the weaponry we have created for the Veritechs can negate this ability easily, as our tests involving Unit-01 showed."

"I remember going over the reports well. What are you getting at?"

"Everything constructed for use by the Defense Force – Reflex weaponry, the engines powering the Veritechs and Destroids, everything – is derived from what we found on board the SDF-1 and more specifically, the power source used for it to function.

"Whatever it may have actually been," Zand interjected. "We still don't have a complete idea of how it worked, just that we can use applications of it to tear through an AT field."

"Ah, but that is just it – the weapons do not tear through, they pass through."

No further words were said for a few moments as Lazlo Zand processed that statement. Then he felt it safe to speak.

"I may owe you an apology, doctor. We do need to examine every last bit of an Angel's biological make-up if we can. To simply negate an AT field…" He let the implication hang in the air, since neither of them needed to hear it out loud. Privately, Zand cursed himself for not picking up on it sooner. This meant that there had to be some kind of connection between the aliens who created the SDF-1 and the Angels that have harassed humanity. But what could it be? What was the common link? Both men knew that a very important piece of a galactic puzzle had just been presented to them. Now they just had to figure out where it fit into the larger mosaic. Musing to himself about the possibilities, Zand decided to order one last sweep of all the areas. It was likely that it would turn out to be yet another exercise in futility, but something this important required it. Lang, meanwhile, contemplated how his student might have reacted to the rest of the information.

000

Business was booming. Uncle Max and Aunt Lena had been surprised by the sheer number of people looking to stop by for something to eat, but she wasn't. After all, they were serving good food and giving people a chance to relax a bit. With everything that had happened recently, it was no great discovery that customers were looking for an excuse to forget their troubles, especially since most of them were soldiers. They had barely been open ten minutes before the first car-full unloaded outside the door. She'll never forget the pure disbelief on their faces when she confirmed that they were, in fact, open and ready to serve.

"Minmei, I've got another order ready!" Max called out from the kitchen.

"Coming!" she replied and hurried over.

After grabbing the tray, Minmei navigated her way back through the maze of tables, her red dress (which customers had always enjoyed) swaying lightly. She could not precisely remember when she first started serving tables while dressed as the popular idea of 'Chinese', with the hair and the dress, but she quickly learned that it added a certain charm to the restaurant and made people that much more likely to come back. There had certainly been a number of looks directed her way, but she never minded. If anything, she was flattered, always happy to be noticed and maybe one step closer to actual fame. At least, that was what she hoped.

Setting down the latest order, Minmei quickly scanned the room. It was a helpful habit for a waitress to pick up. She almost missed the boy sitting down at the last unoccupied table. He was another soldier, though certainly the youngest she had seen in uniform. The expression on his face was a dour one, which prompted her to give him an extra-strength smile.

"Hi! How can I help you?"

"Hm? Oh, uh, I guess I'd like to see a menu, please."

"Just a second," Minmei said before hurrying off. She was back in an instant.

"Here you go."

The boy thanked her and started perusing the menu. Minmei, however, was not quite finished with him. There almost seemed to be a cloud hanging over him, which was just something she could not countenance. It was almost a base instinct for her.

"You seem pretty young. Did you just sign up for the Defense Force?"

"Um, kind of. I actually joined a few months ago, though a few strings had to be pulled."

"I'll bet you were really excited to get a chance to come here and fly. You must have really wanted to join."

"Well, no. I mean, yes, I wanted to join the RDF, but it was something that just kind of happened to me rather than anything I sought out. That seems to be a recurring theme in my life." The boy's voice started to drift on that last statement, but Minmei paid no attention.

"But you're here now and that's what counts. I almost wasn't here a couple times, but here I am now. I'll bet you're happier for it, too." He gave her a curious look before answering.

"Yeah, I suppose I am."

"See? Things are looking up for you, just like they were when you came to Macross from wherever you were before."

"Japan, actually. Tokyo-3."

"Really? My parents are back in Japan. They own a shop in Tokyo-3. Maybe you know it?"

"I…doubt it. I don't really get out too much."

"You had to get outside sometime. It's not like you were doing…what were you doing in Tokyo-3?"

The boy hesitated, and then answered.

"I was an Evangelion pilot."

"Wow, you're a celebrity! I bet everyone around knew who you were and just never left you alone!"

"Um, actually…" he started, but she did not give him a chance to complete the thought.

"How did you manage things, being famous? Was it easy? Were people always asking for an autograph? They probably were. How many did you give out? Was it just a quick squiggle each time? You probably had so many admirers that you didn't have time to write anything else. Maybe the other pilots had to drag you along and out of the crowds. I wouldn't know how to do that – I'd feel like saying hello and shaking hands with every one of them. They came to see you personally, so you'd probably want to show them something for caring so much. Oh, I just remembered!"

She leaned down and gave him a big hug. The boy's face turned a deep shade of red.

"My parents were almost killed when one of those monsters attacked, but they weren't because one of the big robots stopped it. I told them that if I ever had the chance, I would hug the pilots and say thanks for saving my mom and dad. Thanks!"

His face still a deep red, the boy stammered out a weak 'you're welcome' and then simply sat there with an odd expression on his face. Minmei was about to ask him if he felt alright when she realized two people had approached the table.

"If only all restaurants had service this nice."

"Rick! Commander Fokker!" Minmei squealed. "Sit down and let me get you something."

She hurried to the kitchen to grab a tray, glasses, and some drinks. Roy was seated between the two younger men, with Rick looking as though he had eaten something that strongly disagreed with him.

"Are you alright, Rick? I've got some stomach medicine in back if you need any."

"No thanks, Minmei. I'm fine." Rick replied and his gaze shifted to the Evangelion pilot. "Nothing I ate is turning my stomach."

"Why don't you bring us the day's special, Minmei." Roy suggested.

"Right! It's on its way!" Minmei again bolted back into the kitchen to give her uncle Max the order. She was back barely a minute later.

"It'll be just a few minutes."

"Thanks, Minmei. I don't suppose you could join us. I was just introducing these two to each other. Roy then gestured to the youngest. "Sergeant Shinji Ikari, Rick Hunter. Rick Hunter, Shinji Ikari."

The two somewhat awkwardly shook hands across the table. Minmei decided to drop in a topic.

"Rick, did you know that Shinji piloted the Evangelions? He's a big hero!"

"I'll bet he thinks he is," Rick said. "And tells others that, too."

"I just did what I was ordered to." Shinji explained.

"And he's modest. You might learn a thing or two from him, little brother." Roy joked. "If nothing else, he has better sense than to fly a piece of junk. Even if it is a nice piece of junk."

Rick flashed Roy an annoyed look, as though he had heard variations on that particular remark before. Shinji shifted in his seat, as though he suddenly felt uncomfortable.

"So, what brought you to Macross Island?" Rick asked.

"Roy asked me. He thought that the Defense Force could use someone like me. That's it, really." Shinji answered.

"The kid's got talent. He learns quick and handles a Battloid almost as good as I do. I had him flying during the big ceremony – he earned it." Roy said. Shinji straightened up at his words, feeling a bit of pride.

"The ceremony…you were the one who ruined my booster climb!" Rick accused. Shinji went on the defense.

"You nearly ran right into me! And who's crazy enough to fly right into a formation exercise, anyway?"

"I figured the crowd deserved to see some real flying, rather than whatever by-the-book pedantics you were planning."

"Pedantics? That's easy for some amateur who never…"

"Hm, your food's probably ready!" Minmei said to herself more than anyone and got up. By the time she had returned, Rick and Shinji were glaring at each other, with the latter saying something about ruined shoes. That was all she caught. Setting the food down, she sensed an odd tension in the air, though she could not understand from what.

"Is everything alright?" she asked. Both Rick and Shinji mumbled their responses while Roy gave a bemused smile.

"Now that the food's here, I'd say all is well with the universe. Right, boys?" Roy looked for confirmation. The two again only mumbled in the affirmative. Minmei smiled.

"Great! I have to get back to the rest of the customers, but I'll only be a shout away if you need anything. Enjoy your meal!"

After Minmei gave her bubbly goodbye, Roy leaned back in his chair and addressed his friends without actually looking at either of them.

"Definitely some of the best service I've seen in a restaurant. Now let's see if the food comes anywhere close. Hopefully you two still have some room after chewing on your foot."

Wordlessly, the other two started to dig in.

000

Space was once defined as 'the large area in which we inhabit". There is, in fact, a lot of it. More than enough to place some serious hurdles in the way of anyone attempting to navigate it without the assistance of very high-end technology. It thus follows that if getting around is in and of itself a bit of a challenge, finding something should be next to impossible. Yet, despite the extreme adversity, objects will still need to be found, for whatever urgent reason. For those given the unenviable task of location, determination is a key factor in regards to success or failure. Fortunately for him, determination was a trait Breetai had in abundance.

"Report."

"We have finally assessed the location of the Micronians and the battle fortress, Lord Breetai." Exedore answered, standing next to his Commander in the observation dome. "They appear to be continuing from the point of emergence from fold space under sub-light engines."

"Curious," Breetai said, stroking his chin. "We have detected no outposts or installations anywhere in this area that they may be fleeing to. Why then would they proceed using sub-light travel? Is it possible that our scans have missed something?"
"Doubtful, sire. The only way the Micronians could achieve such a feat would be through a command of Protoculture beyond that of even the Masters themselves. Our experiences with them so far indicate that this is not the case."

Breetai delved deep into thought. He knew that underestimating an enemy's resourcefulness could have dire consequences, but Exedore was never someone to commit such a folly. Therefore, the sensible explanation would be that the ship's engines were not functioning properly, preventing them from making a fold. Could his forces have damaged them in the attack? If so, could he have inadvertently damaged the Protoculture Matrix onboard as well? That was a frightening possibility, not to mention a deadly one. Again he cursed the lack of intelligence gathered on the enemy – a shortsighted error on his part, one that will likely complicate things needlessly.

"It seems we need to arrange a test of the Micronian's capabilities," Breetai said.

"What do you have in mind, sir?"

"Send a small reconnaissance force to the battle fortress's coordinates and give them orders to open fire. The Micronians' reaction should provide us with insight regarding their current status and capabilities."

"I shall see to it at once, Commander." Exedore said and exited the dome to carry out his orders. Alone, Breetai mused to himself.

"Now, Micronians, let us see how you will react when separated from your homeworld. Will you fight or flee? Are you capable of either? I look forward to finding out the answer."

000

In a secluded corner located in the upper decks of the SDF-1, Shinji Ikari was looking at the stars. He could not go to them as he was, his left arm still in a cast. All he could do was sit and watch as they passed by, a hundred tiny markers lighting the way back to Earth. Absentmindedly, he started to chew on the pen he had with him, glancing down at the small notepad on the table. Tiny markings were strewn across it – musical notes. They had no obvious coherency, even to him. At this point they were nothing more than a hint of the possibility of music. Still, it was a start, and the boy hoped to see a finish at some far-off point. Maybe when he returned to Earth the notes would be more than scratches on a page.

"If I get back…" Shinji muttered, leaning forward to rest his chin on his right hand. A sense of melancholy had once again settled over him after his formal introduction to Rick Hunter. Somehow, Hunter had managed to provoke him in a way few had. The closest experience he had to the sheer aggravation on such a level would be his encounters with either his father or Asuka, and neither of them had managed to elicit the same kind of reaction he had to Rick, namely one of complete irritation.

"Some 'little brother', Roy. With family like that, I'd prefer to be an only child," Shinji griped to himself, more upset with the way Roy had taken everything in stride than anything else. How could he just let Rick insult the RDF like that? To just let some smart-mouthed jerk with a big ego disrespect the service…it angered Shinji more than he ever would have thought. He would not have much longer to stew in his own resentment as Commander Hayes was suddenly audible over the comm.

"Enemy attack, repeat: enemy attack. This is not a drill. Scramble order to all Veritechs. Scramble order to all Veritechs."

Instantly, Shinji was on his feet, ready to make a break towards the hangar bays. He had almost bolted for the door when reality pulled him back. He was in no condition to pilot a Veritech, not with his left arm still effectively useless. Moreover, he still had not been assigned a new plane, so even if he could fly he had nothing to do it in. Right now, he was nothing more than superfluous, irrelevant to any attempt at dealing with the danger at hand. There was nothing for him to do but find a safe place to put himself and hope that everything would turn out for the best. No one was counting on him, expecting him to put his life on the line. He could just sit and be alone, like he usually wanted. No one telling him to fight and kill…

Shinji walked over to the window, coming so close that he was almost touching it. Something was happening inside of him, a change he had not expected. Before, he had no real problem with the idea that he would not be called upon. There were mornings in Tokyo-3 when he would wake up in the morning and think 'Maybe this is the day they tell me it's over. Maybe this is the day they tell me I can leave this city and never have to look at an Eva ever again.' Being a pilot was something he desperately wanted to get away from. Now he was on the other side, angry and impatient with his own inability to get into the fight. Why? What had changed inside him? Was it his newfound sense of duty, the responsibility he felt to the uniform he wore and everything it represented? Looking out the window, observing the flickering balls of light that indicated explosions, it was hard for the boy to believe that a single word could provoke such reactions from him. A smile crept to his face as he wondered what Misato would say about him, the boy who had to be essentially blackmailed into defending Tokyo-3, now itching to get into the fight. Would she be surprised? Pleased? Proud, even? A part of him was desperate to know the answer to his question.

"Questions," he muttered, catching his reflection in the glass. He had been asking himself a lot of questions lately and never seemed to have any answers. It was as though he were simultaneously coming apart and starting to come together. He refocused his attention to the battle waged outside. It looked like a vicious dogfight, judging from the frequency of explosions. It was dangerous for him to be there, with so thin a barrier between him and death. Granted, it was the new safety glass, normally strong enough to hold in the face of everything save heavy gunfire, but the enemy ships were using ordnance far stronger than that. As though to accentuate that point, Shinji felt the ship rock, obviously due to missiles striking the hull. According to Dr. Lang, the SDF-1 had no working shields, meaning that everyone simply had to cross their fingers and hope that the armor plating could take the punishment.

He nearly tripped over his own feet as more explosions shook the insides of the battle fortress. The urge to run and hide came over him, its familiarity triggering various old memories. Yet he did not heed its urgings and instead kept his feet rooted to their spot and his eyes locked on the continuing battle. Roy was probably getting frustrated and ready to use his dirty tricks, if he had not started using them already. The boy pressed his good hand against the glass, wishing that he could be out there with his squad, proving himself worthwhile. He saw blue streaks of light emanate from alien ships and once again the SDF-1 rocked, causing him to fall towards the glass.

"All systems: attention! All systems: attention! Commence maneuvering for firing the main gun! Transformation will initiate in three minutes!" Commander Hayes announced over the comm.

"Transformation?" Shinji said. "What is she talking about?" It took him a couple minutes of wracking his brain for him to remember something Roy had mentioned about problems with firing the main gun. Apparently, they would have to move parts around to get it to work – is that what the announcement was about? Suddenly, he felt the floor begin to move under him, and this time it was not from any explosion. Falling over and landing on his broken arm, Shinji let out a yelp of pain. Trying to clear his head, Shinji saw that the walls were literally starting to close in. Deciding that it would not be a good idea to remain where he was, he clumsily reached a door, all the while trying to keep on his feet, despite the floor's best efforts to the contrary. After opening it and checking that the walls were not moving, he stumbled in and closed the door behind him while still holding onto the door handle to keep himself steady.

He was not sure how long he stood like that, his one hand desperately clutching the lever and every bit of him shaking. All the time there was the sensation that he was moving, the environment around him shifting to a new form. Then there was a low rumble he could feel in the walls, and he did not have the slightest idea what it signified. Thankfully, the shaking stopped soon afterwards, though he still kept a tight grip on the door handle just in case. After a couple minutes, Shinji felt it safe to let go and opened the door. Looking in the room, he was that the window was now covered by a large piece of metal, with several cracks in the glass. The walls were not so close together that they would have crushed him, but all the same he felt better about vacating the premises.

"Is it over?" he wondered aloud, before deciding to make his way to Macross City. This turned out to be far more difficult than he expected, since various parts of the ship had been completely rearranged. Doors simply would not open and when they did there was often either a solid wall or a gaping hole behind them. Eventually he reached his destination only to find that it resembled a warzone. A few questions to some nearby civilians confirmed his suspicion that the damage was a result whatever transformation the SDF-1 had gone undergone. As Shinji passed through the city, noting the condition of buildings and streets, a cold feeling formed in the pit of his stomach. It was more than likely that this would not be the last time that Macross City went through such turmoil, and he could only hope that the inhabitants would have the resolve to keep rebuilding time after time. The sounds of emergency vehicles echoing in the background, Shinji headed back towards the military base, hoping that he could gain some understanding of what exactly had happened today, along with just how badly they had been hurt.

000

As it turned out, the final body count was not especially high, but Roy had been unsettled all the same. The aliens had proven themselves far superior at fighting in space than in an atmosphere, which prompted the SDF-1's 'transformation' into a humanoid form in order to fire the main gun. The necessity of acquiring new pilots on a regular basis became even more apparent, heightening Shinji's desire to get back into a Veritech. It came as a relief when, two weeks later, he and Roy were standing in front of a new VF-1A marked for used by Sergeant Shinji Ikari.

"Take a good look at her kid, she's all yours." Roy said.

Shinji ran his left hand (now free from its cast) along the plane's underside, heeding his friend's advice. A genuine smile was on his face – he finally had a plane again. He could fly again. There was one thing, though…

"I've got a stripe on my Veritech now," he observed.

"Yep. All aces get a chance to customize their fighter. No more brownies for you."

"I appreciate it, but…purple?"

"I figured it was your color."

Shinji laughed slightly and shook his head. It was not really funny, but in the mood he was in at the moment, he did not care too much. Soon he would be flying again and life would be a little bit better for awhile. At least until the next crisis.

"So, is it love?" Roy asked.

Shinji shot him a mock-annoyed look, but did not respond. Instead he continued to inspect the aircraft, trying to familiarize himself with its intricacies. He was going to make it a point to keep this one together.

"You're on maneuvers at 0600 tomorrow. Get ready to rise and shine with the rest of us, now that you've healed up."

"I don't mind. I never really expected how much I would miss flying."

"Getting your wings clipped is never pleasant and I do speak from experience on that one."

Shinji finished inspecting his Veritech and the two were now on their way to a destination Roy had planned beforehand. The day had been going fairly well for the boy, so naturally something had to come along and ruin it. That something was the next sentence to leave Roy's mouth.

"Now that you're flying again, I'll be counting on you to keep an extra eye on Rick once he passes through basic."

"Rick is joining the Defense Force?"

"Of course he is. I couldn't let him sit around and mold over. He's a pilot, same as you and me. Skill like he's got needs to be put to good use."

I didn't think we had helmets big enough for his head," Shinji griped.

"Look, I know the two of you got off on the wrong foot, but trust me when I say that he's a good guy. I just need to hammer out a few of the dents, that's all. Besides, it's not like you were on your best behavior either."

"He threw up on my shoes!"

"Which is why I said you got off on the wrong foot."

Shinji lifted his head to make sure Roy saw the annoyed look on his face. The older man just laughed at both his friend's irritation and his own lame joke.

"Whatever else," Roy continued, "the Defense Force needs pilots. We can't afford to turn anyone away who can at least get a plane in the air."

Shinji could only hang his head in defeat, though he wanted to protest that Hunter was still a jerk, despite qualifications. It did not seem worth it, though, so he remained silent. A sense of déjà vu struck him, and he wondered if Rick had any German relatives. Red-headed German relatives, with similarly large opinions of themselves.

Roy briefly considered confronting both of them over the obvious fact that the only reason Rick held animosity towards Shinji was the blatantly incorrect idea he had that Shinji was making a play for Minmei. Just thinking about it made him want to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness, but he decided to keep quiet for the time being. Their rivalry would push both of them to do better and it was just too entertaining for him to end it so quickly.

"Here we are," Roy said, stopping.

"The gym?" Shinji replied.

"Trust me; this will do you some good."

"You keep saying 'trust me'. Anyone else would be worried about that.

"Good thing we're not anyone else. Follow me and get ready for some fine lessons."

Shinji did as he was asked, though he could not escape the feeling that he would soon be in over his head. This turned out to be a correct feeling.

"A boxing ring," Shinji stated. I should have know this would involve me getting hurt somehow, he thought.

"There's applied science, theoretical science and now I'm going to teach you the sweet science."

"I don't know about this…" Shinji muttered.

"What's to worry about? I'm just going to teach you a few basics about how to handle yourself in a fight. It's not like I'm going to use you as my personal punching bag. Not very much, anyway."

While the possibility of responding with some kind of sarcastic remark occurred to Shinji, he was more preoccupied by what he felt sure to be an upcoming humiliation. The cast was barely off and now he was probably going to need it again. He derived some comfort from the knowledge that he would not have witnesses to his upcoming display of incompetence.

"Here," Roy said and tossed Shinji some gear. "Put these on. Unless you think your head is already hard enough."

Shinji followed his advice, all the while feeling like an idiot. He had just barely managed to display competent defense ability during basic and while they were not as bad as his aim with a firearm (which was pretty bad); he would never garner any notoriety for his skills with hand-to-hand fighting. Perhaps it was emblematic of the dichotomies that plagued his life, the inability to reconcile disparate threads. Inside a large mecha, he was almost a harbinger of death. On the ground he was nothing more than a frail fifteen-year-old who had never thrown a punch in anger. As he got into the ring, Shinji's mind delved further into this, yet another of his failures. In addition to everything else he was inadequate as, he did not even have the competency to handle himself in a fist fight. It was only with the assistance of large machines designed to kill that had any merit as a warrior. Maybe that was another symbol, something to again show how devoid of meaning he truly was. In both purpose and function he was little more than a cog in a much larger machine, something to be used and then discarded when its time had come to an end. That description certainly seemed to fit with the other themes his life had enveloped since that day his father revealed him to be nothing other than a –

WHAM!

"Argh! What was that?!"

"It's called a 'punch'. When you're in the ring, you throw them at the other guy. You probably would have seen it coming if you hadn't let your mind wander off. You can't let things distract you from the task at hand. That's one of the first rules of fighting." Roy scolded.

"Ack, my nose," Shinji's attempts at holding it were complicated by the gloves.

"I told you to be careful with putting on your head gear. Or were you not listening?"

"Ow," Shinji responded after lightly touching his nose again.

"Don't worry; I didn't hit you hard enough to break anything. But maybe I knocked some sense into you."

"That was a cheap shot."

"No such thing. Not in a real fight, anyway. Okay, let's try this again. Put your gloves up and make sure they're giving your face some cover. Every little bit helps. Good, now throw a punch at me and try to put some force into it."

Shinji hesitated at first, then did as he was told.

"Okay, now again."

A punch.

"Again."

A punch.

"Again.

A punch.

"Kid, don't worry so much about hurting the other guy. I can't get a good idea of what you need when you hold back. Now this time I don't want you to hesitate when you come at me." Roy instructed. Shinji took a breath and swung his right fist.

"Better. Now do it again, but this time don't stop until I tell you. Right, left, right, left, okay? And remember – don't hesitate."

The boy did his best, delivering a quick volley of punches into Roy's guard. The soft thud of each blow echoed throughout the room for a few minutes before Roy said it was enough.

"That wasn't too bad. You're still hesitating, though. That's going to kill you each and every time. The mentality for a fist fight is basically the same as when you're in a dogfight – stay focused and stay alert. Be ready to move in a second and always watch your flank. You already have the mindset; you just have to be able to slide into it when you need to."

"I'll try."

"Trying is good. Doing is better. Doing keeps you alive and means I won't have a guilt trip about you not being properly trained for trouble. Alright, let's take another go at it."

They continued practicing for a couple hours, with Shinji continually being tested and encouraged. Every so often Roy would point out that he needed to pull back a little more before a blow, or that the follow-through did not quite have the power it should. The boy listened to all of these comments, rarely responding, becoming caught up in the motion of it. He found something relaxing in simply pounding away, a kind of catharsis. Eventually, Roy called an end to the exercise and the two friends wearily exited the building.

000

Time onboard the SDF-1 was a curious thing. For awhile, people found themselves a bit disoriented over the absence of a night and a day, leading to a few embarrassments over disrupted sleep, eating habits, and other routines. Just about the time when everyone onboard finished acclimating to the new daily environment, Dr. Lang finally stabilized the holographic 'sky', meaning that the civilians now had the benefit of a night and a day. There were the usual complaints about timing, but soon everyone slipped into a rhythm, one repeated day after day. Combined with the relative infrequency of attacks by the aliens (which seemed designed to harass more than anything else), time seemed to pass by quickly for everyone aboard to the point that one could wake up one 'morning' and realize it was a little over two months since the SDF-1 had made its infamous jump. Shinji mentioned to Roy how strange it was that things could move at such a quick pace. Roy's response was that "time…keeps on slipping, into the future." He then had to explain that was a song reference.

Time was also on the mind of Captain Henry Gloval. For two months, he had been on the defensive, merely responding to what the enemy initiated. Now, he felt, it was necessary to strike a blow. With the SDF-1 nearing Saturn, he hatched a plan that would, he hoped, cause the enemy to recoil in its pursuit while also giving his own men a morale boost. He could not risk letting apathy find a place amongst the pilots, his first line of defense. This plan was why Rick Hunter (newly graduated) and Sergeant Shinji Ikari were in line with the rest of the rank and file Veritech pilots in front of a podium and listening to an officer speak.

"Tomorrow the SDF-1 will enter the rings of Saturn and soon after the Defense Force will initiate a counterattack. You will all receive your orders tomorrow, but until then I want you to think of just one thing: Robotech. We're all counting on you, men. And if there's anyone you want to see, do it tonight. That is all."

Obviously one of Maistroff's, Shinji thought, his judgment of the officer's briefing rather low. The Colonel had the tendency to attract a certain kind of soldier: one fond of bureaucracy and platitudes. While the crowd dispersed, the Sergeant mulled over the man's advice about seeing someone. No one immediately came to mind when he thought about a person he would like to see before a battle. Not in the way the officer meant. Offhandedly, he wondered what Asuka would have to say about the situation…

"Hey, watch it!" Rick Hunter scolded. The two then realized who it was they had run into.

"So, does the big Eva pilot plan on saving the day, tomorrow?" Rick challenged.

"I'll probably be too busy trying to keep amateurs from getting killed." Shinji shot back.

"Amateur? "I've logged more flight hours in one month than you have your entire life!"

"And none of those were in actual combat. Hopefully you'll remember what button is the trigger."

"I'll remember to fly circles around you tomorrow!"

"I'd like to see you try!"

"You'll see me do a lot more than try!"

Shinji's response would not be heard as both pilots were suddenly distracted by loud giggling coming from nearby. They turned and found themselves looking at none other than Kim, Sammie and Vanessa – the erstwhile Terrible Trio.

"Don't stop now, boys, you were just getting good!" Vanessa said.

"Yeah, entertainment like this is ve - ry hard to come by these days." Sammie added.

"You just love getting into trouble, don't you Mr. Lingerie?" Kim asked.

Rick's face went red after that last remark, while Shinji just looked on with a confused expression. Deciding he was outnumbered and outgunned, Rick skulked away, muttering under his breath. Shinji was now alone with the (in)famous party girls.

"Um, uh, hello?" he stammered, clearly a little flustered. More giggling from Vanessa and Sammie was their response, though Kim was silent.

"Ah, well, it's, um, nice to see you," Shinji continued to stammer, unable to form a sentence properly. Sammie and Vanessa started whispering to each other, while Kim looked a little perturbed with them. Suddenly, the other two shoved the elfin-featured member of their group towards the Sergeant.

"We just remembered that we have very important things to do," Sammie said.

"Unfortunately, it's stuff only we can do. We'll catch up with you later, Kimmie!" Vanessa explained.

"Hopefully real late!" Sammie laughed as the two hurried off. Kim shot them both dirty looks before turning to Shinji.

"So…I haven't seen you around much, lately," she said, looking awkward.

"Yeah, I've been spending a lot of time alone, trying to figure some things out." Shinji answered.

"Did you have any luck?"

"Not…really. I always seem to have more questions than answers."

"Well, um, if you ever need a friendly ear, or something like that when we're off duty, we could…talk. It's nice to have someone you can just talk to."

"Yeah, it certainly is nice. I appreciate the offer. Thank you."

"It's the least I can do for a friend."

One side of Shinji's mouth curled upwards slightly in response. Then he decided to ask something while it was still on his mind.

"So, why did Rick run off when you called him 'Mr. Lingerie'?"

"That," Kim giggled, "is a great story. Commander Hayes, Vanessa and I were in the clothing store to pick up a few things and there he was crawling around on the floor!"

"Why was he on the floor?" Shinji asked, though he had a suspicion that he did not really want to know.

"I think he had dropped something, I don't know. Anyway, he's reaching around and looks right up at us while we're going through the underwear. And he's 'hiding' behind a mannequin too while peeking at us. Of course, once he notices that we've noticed him, he tries to make it look like he's not looking at us and almost trips as he tries to get away." Kim started to laugh. "If only you had seen the look on his face! Of course, that expression was nothing compared to when we called him 'Mr. Lingerie' in front of Commander Fokker."

Shinji could not help but chuckle a bit with her, but then he and Kim glanced at each other and started laughing out loud. Whether it was at the story or each other or both was unclear, but laugh they did.

"Thank you, Kim," Shinji said, wiping his eyes. "I needed that."

"Why, you're welcome Mr. Ikari. Just doing what I can for one of our flyboys." She gave a mock salute reminiscent of the recruitment posters and both of them started to laugh a little more. "We have to keep you guys in tip-top shape for tomorrow, right?"

The smile did not leave Shinji's face, but his eyes became distant. Kim noticed almost immediately.

"What is it?"

"I was just thinking about the mission. Our first big strike since the start of the war. This time we're going after them instead of waiting for them to come to us."

"Are you worried?"

"…yes. I know it's not very brave for me to admit that, but I am worried. I'm worried that something will go wrong and I won't be able to stop it. I'm worried that I won't be good enough to keep my wingmates alive when they need me to. I'm just…worried."

"Shinji, if you weren't the sweetest man I've ever met, I'd smack you. You can't hold yourself responsible for every little thing. And you can't keep holding yourself responsible for the Corporal's death, either."

"It's not about that."

"Yes it is and you know it. I won't pretend to understand what it's like to see someone kill himself in front of you, but I know a couple things about guilt. Sometimes things are just out of your control and all you can do is move on and try to do better the next time."

"I wish I could do that."

"I know you can."

"What makes you so sure?"

"I can see it in your eyes. You have the eyes of someone who cares too much, and feels it every time someone else gets hurt and wants to close himself off because of it. But you still want to keep anyone else from being hurt."
"You learned all that just from looking in my eyes?"

"I'm a good judge of character."

"I certainly hope so."

"That heart of yours is bigger than most people's. You just need to listen to it more often."

She encircled her arm with his.

"Now come on. We've still got several hours before we have to put ourselves in harm's way. I say we spend it doing something fun. How about it, Sergeant – want to show a girl a good time?"

"Um, er, uh," Shinji stuttered, his face starting to get red.

"You really are too easy," she said and led him away. They spent the rest of the day perusing the streets of Macross City, poking around the various stores and other areas. Food was eaten, jokes were told and two young people did their best to forget that there was a strong probability that one of them would be dead tomorrow.

000

Shinji awoke a full hour earlier than necessary. He calmly dressed, readied himself, and double-checked the letters he had written last night. They were part will, part apology and one was marked for Asuka, Misato and Rei each. Then, resting his chin in his hands, he waited for the call to come.

"All pilots man your Veritechs. Repeat: all pilots man your Veritechs." Commander Hayes ordered over the comm.

He was out the door and down the hall in a minute. It was pure coincidence that he stumbled onto Roy and Rick, the latter appearing as though he had not gotten much sleep. When Roy called him over, there was a quick flash of anger between the two younger pilots, but it soon faded. Both had more important things to worry about.

"All Veritech pilots report to Prometheus immediately for roll call. Orange, Blue and Red squadrons will commence flight preparations on second level of the aft deck. All remaining squadrons prepare for takeoff from pre-assigned locations." Commander Hayes instructed.

The journey to the Prometheus was held in complete silence. Neither Rick nor Roy nor Shinji said a word. All of them understood that at this point conversations served no purpose. They readied their flight suits, put on their helmets and entered their Veritechs. Shinji almost instinctively took a deep breath, once again forgetting that there was no LCL. His VF-1A was moved into position and lifted onto the launch deck of the Prometheus. Once again he would be shedding blood amongst the stars.

"Skull squadron, commence take-off," Roy ordered.

"Veritech Skull squadron, three, pilot Shinji Ikari, ready for take-off."

"Clear, Skull three." Commander Hayes acknowledged, as she did for all the squadron.

Shinji, and the other pilots, hit the engines and took off. One by one they went, placing themselves in the formations they had been trained to make. Within seconds the attack force had reached Saturn's rings, in which the SDF-1 would hide in its humanoid battle form before opening fire. It was a surreal experience, navigating the floating pieces of ice that composed the rings. Up and down, left and right he weaved, the fragments darting past him faster than the blink of an eye. He could not help but wonder what this looked like from the outside, the kind of imagery created by the Veritechs as they made their way. Perhaps when this was over, he would be able to fly a patrol around the rings and get a better look at them up close, along with the gas giant itself. A grin formed on his face – here he was, flying through the rings of Saturn. Never in a million years would he have expected it to happen. Unfortunately, the mood was spoiled when Commander Hayes started chewing out Hunter over his breaking formation. What made it all the more ridiculous was Rick's apparent ignorance that of the fact that he was speaking over an open channel. Roy's voice came in over a private frequency.

"Maybe now you see why I need you to help me keep an eye on him."

Shinji let out a small 'heh' and refocused his attention on the mission. The black spot was right ahead. It came closer, closer and then everything disappeared. Only the lights from his control panel let him know anything still existed. His hands tightened their grip on the controls and his eyes settled on the targeting screen display, currently the only thing preventing him from collision. Once again he was completely taken out of it by Hunter and Hayes bickering over flight patterns. Shinji could not help but roll his eyes when Rick called her a dumb know-it-all while the entire squadron was listening.

"Maybe now you understand why I kept telling you to read the flight manual," Roy piped in again. Then, over the open channel, he issued orders. "Fingers on the triggers, people. I want the ordnance flying as soon as sunlight hits us."

The Sergeant breathed deep, his computer registering the distance left. Then, there was a bright flash as the alien ship opened fire. It felt as though the entire universe lit up and Shinji was almost blinded by the sudden light. He nearly missed realizing that his Veritech was now outside the shadow zone. Pressing the trigger, his first volley rocketed towards the alien ship, along with that of the entire squadron. Red-orange clouds appeared on its surface as they struck home.

"Break formation!" Roy ordered. "Engage enemy fighters only and leave the main cruiser to the SDF-1."

Battlepods then rushed forward, far more than had attacked Macross Island. Without bothering to wait for a target lock, Shinji opened fire. His cannons cut through the Battlepod in front of him, resulting in a fireball he passed right through. Meanwhile, the alien ship rose from its place in the rings to open fire on the SDF-1. Large blue energy streams battered against the battle fortress and the alien ship then launched its own missiles. Too busy trying to keep himself alive, Shinji could not tell if Dr. Lang's pinpoint barrier was performing well enough to stop them.

"God, they're everywhere!" Skull eight cried out before catching fire. Shinji had to agree with the late pilot's assessment. The sheer number of Battlepods throwing themselves against the Veritechs was enough that flying ability started to take a back seat to pure luck in terms of keeping a pilot alive. Simply hitting the firing button was almost guaranteed to net you a kill. Shinji banked left hard, nearly missing a collision with a Battlepod. Just to top things off, the aliens had taken to re-using their suicide tactics.

"Watch your flanks, watch your flanks!" Skull ten warned.

"These things just keep coming at us!" Skull eight proclaimed.

"Keep loose, people." Roy ordered. "Don't let them box you in – tight formations just mean you can take out more of them at a time."

The battle was on its way to becoming a jumbled mess. The Battlepods threw themselves indiscriminately at their enemies, which resulted in casualties more often than not, but also kept the Veritechs from staying organized. On Macross Island, the rise in body count forced the aliens to fall back. Now, they were in far greater numbers.

"Get him off me!" Skull nineteen pleaded.

"I'm on him," Shinji said, coming up behind the Battlepod. A few seconds later he had a target lock. The Veritech let loose a missile, annihilating its quarry.

"Kid, pull up!" Roy shouted. He immediately jerked back on the controls, barely avoiding an energy blast. Roy's fighter tore through the attacking Battlepod the second Shinji was clear.

"I owe you one."

"Just keep on your toes. These guys love to sucker punch you."

The advice could only help so much as the battle wore on. It was supposed to be a lightning strike, with the Veritechs softening up the enemy just long enough for the SDF-1 to deliver the knock-out blow. Yet, no support came from the battle fortress, leaving the fighters desperate to survive an enemy far more tenacious than they remembered. Shinji just finished vaporizing an oncoming Battlepod when he heard Rick loudly wonder why they had no help from the SDF-1's main gun. For once, they were of the same mind. Unfortunately, Roy had no answers. He did have some orders.

"Shinji, strafing run!"

"Skull twenty and twenty-one, watch my wing," Shinji ordered as he darted towards the alien ship. As tactics went, it was more than borderline and crossed into suicidal. He skimmed above the alien ship, zig-zagging to avoid the guns as he let loose almost everything he had. Missiles and cannon fire hit the ship's surface, taking out the gun batteries. Shinji was so engrossed in his mission that he failed to notice that Skull twenty-one had exploded. He was just darting away when he noticed Rick's Veritech land on the ship in Battloid mode and then stumble inside. Sighing, the Sergeant made a sharp u-turn back towards the ship, just as Skull twenty collided with a Battlepod.

"Gotta hit this just right," Shinji said, adjusting his targeting computer to lock onto the location Rick fell in. He had to blast an entrance without killing Rick in the process. Placing his Veritech in the position for another strafing run, he loosed his final missile, which struck the armor exactly how it was supposed to. A hole was made and Shinji shifted his Veritech into Battloid mode to enter. Inside he found Rick and an alien in a standoff. Neither was moving, though Rick had his cannon leveled at it.

"Hunter, are you alright?" Shinji asked. There was no immediate response and then the entire ship started to rock violently.

"We've got to go!" Shinji shouted, his Battloid grabbing Rick's just as a fireball enveloped the giant alien. The two Veritechs flew out to see that the SDF-1 had rammed the Daedalus right into the alien ship, no doubt causing the explosions. They shifted back to Fighter mode and watched as the vessel burst from the inside out, resulting in the biggest fireball Shinji had ever seen. Watching it consumed by the vacuum of space, leaving behind scattered debris, brought the experience to a close. There were hoots and hollers over the comm as the remaining pilots basked in the literal glow of victory. Neither Rick nor Shinji said a word to each other as neither was sure exactly what to say to the other. One thing was clear to both of them, however:

The battle of Saturn's rings was over.


As usual, a thank you to LD for his editing duties. It's appreciated.

Thanks to my readers for their patience.

Up next: a blue-haired prodigy, his loudmouthed friend, and a backstabber.