Flight 102: Family Ties



Red-orange eyes dominated her vision when she woke up.  Warm, soft fingers caressed the small of her back.  That melodious voice tickled her ears like a teasing zephyr.

"Finally awake?"

Sheryl stifled a yawn with her hand.  She snuggled against her.  "Just a few more minutes..."

"Geez... you said that half an hour ago.  You've been napping a lot."

She looked tenderly into those fiery irises.  "I can't help it... there's such a cuddly girl next to me."  It was true.  She loved waking up to the sight of Ranka's bedroom eyes.

"You tease..."  Ranka's hand rose to caress her cheek.  Her thumb slowly traced the outline of her lips.  Her Galaxy Fairy looked so angelic while she slept.  Even now, touching her like this, she felt that she was dreaming.  But her palm told her otherwise.  It convinced her of the silky smoothness of her skin, the warmth of her cheek and the fullness of those shapely lips.  "Ai-chan said that Ozma-nii went out and that he'll come by Nanase's around 8 or 9, so we can stay a little longer.  But no more than thirty minutes.  We have to treat Nana-chan to dinner for looking after Ai-chan and Hope."

The Fairy's lips caught Ranka's thumb and sucked on it gently.  She sent her thoughts.  "Is that long enough for a quickie?"

Through her skin, she could feel Ranka's temperature rising. 

"Since when have you been so insatiable?" whispered Ranka.

Sheryl winked.  "Since you."  She released her thumb and captured her lips.

Once again, they gave in to their desire.  After resting from their amorous exertions, they reluctantly parted and commanded the carrier to land.  While it descended, they dressed up and packed the sheets and pillows. 

When they were ready, the door to the chamber opened with a gush of fresh air.  Their combined scent wafted from the chamber to the corridor.

Sheryl did not bother to hide her blush.  "Ranka..."

"Yes, I know... we have to clean up."  Ranka was blushing just as intensely.

From time to time, the Protoculture scientists would study the carrier.  Given their keen observation and intuition, they could easily guess that the chamber was used for something other than navigation.  Sheryl took out the sheets from the luggage while Ranka asked nearby Vajra to fetch water.  A group of Vajra came with water inside the discarded shell of a molted Vajra.  Ranka instructed them to wipe the chamber clean with the sheets and water.  Then she and Sheryl mounted a Vajra that would take them to a nearby spring.

Fearing that Nanase would tease them mercilessly if she ever noticed the musky scent about them, they took a quick rinse in the warm spring waters.  While they were bathing, a group of larvae gathered around their luggage.  When one of them extended little legs to touch the pocket, which contained her underwear, Sheryl knew exactly what they wanted.

"Shoo!"  Sheryl splashed water at the larvae and caused them to scatter.  "Stay away from there or Ai-chan won't sing for you anymore!"

The threat worked for a minute or two, but later on, a new batch of larvae would wander over and repeat the same behavior.  Behind her, Ranka started to giggle.

"You're laughing now, but just wait till they get yours," said Sheryl irritably.

"Oh, I doubt that," replied Ranka slyly.  "Larvae like your fragrance more."

"Eh?!  How do you know that?"  Sheryl quickly waded over and trapped Ranka in her arms.

Between giggles, Ranka told her what happened on the day that Hope stole underwear from her laundry bin.  When she finished the story, Sheryl pulled away in embarrassment.

Ranka smirked.  She had seen Sheryl's reaction and felt her skin temperature rise.  She decided to embellish a bit.  "And it smelt really strong... and felt kinda damp..."

"It didn't!  I... I was just excited to be with you the whole day... even if we had lessons..."

Ranka wove her arms around her neck.  She leaned forward until their noses were touching.  "How excited were you?"

"Very..."

"Now do you understand?"

Sheryl blinked several times before she caught the innuendo.  "Why you..."  Kissing was the only option left to prevent saying things that would embarrass herself even more, so she caught Ranka's lips and kissed her until they were both breathless.

After the Vajra cleaned the chamber, they dressed up and gathered their things.  Then they left the crater and returned to Mihoshi woods.  From there, they took public transportation and picked up some dinner before going to Nanase's house.

"Welcome back!"  greeted Nanase as she held the door for them.  "Did you have fun?"

"Yes," replied Ranka.  "We had lots of fun!"

"Glad to hear that!"  Then she turned her attention to the brown bag in Sheryl's hands.  "That smells good..."

"Cathy recommended this restaurant.  It's called The Steel Chef."  Sheryl unpacked the food on the table.

"Wow!  This looks tasty!  Is this Japanese food?"  Nanase licked her lips hungrily.

"A mix... it's sort of... a fusion...  Well, stop staring and try it!"

"You betcha!  Anyway, what would you like to watch while we eat?"  Nanase held out two videodiscs.  "This one is about two young female circus performers who start out as rivals and then become partners as they advance in their careers.  It's got comedy and drama.  This other one is about a girl who becomes a prince.  She meets a girl who is secretly a princess and they slowly fall in love.  The girl prince fights many battles to rescue her from her evil brother.  It's a cross between action and fantasy."

Sheryl and Ranka read the descriptions and looked at the covers of the videodiscs. 

"This one sounds like us," remarked Sheryl.

Ranka giggled.  "Yeah, it sorta does...  How about this one, Nana-chan?"

"Phoenix Legends it is!"  Nanase positioned the TV cart and popped the disc in the reader.

They ate and watched as the characters' relationship changed from strangers to rivals and then from rivals to partners.  They laughed at the clumsy attempts of courtship and wept when the older girl met an accident that injured her shoulder and had to quit the circus.  They cheered each girl as she overcame obstacles in her career.  They wept once more when at last, the heroines, now young women, performed together again, weaving a vow of love during their new feat, the Phoenix Act.  When the credits rolled, they clapped.

"That was really good," said Sheryl as she wiped her tears with her index finger.

"Here."  Ranka leaned over and dried her tears.

The doorbell rang.  As Nanase went to the door, Ranka glanced at the wall clock.  9:17 PM.  It was probably Ozma.  She gave Sheryl a quick kiss.  Sheryl understood and looked for a place to hide.

"Hey, Nanase!  How's it goin'?" greeted Ozma.

"I'm doing fine, Mr. Lee.  How about you?"

He grinned widely.  "Feelin' great!  Ready to go, Ranka?"

Ranka walked up with Ai in tow.  It was rare to see her brother in such a good mood.  "Yeah.  Thanks for having me over, Nana-chan!  See you at school!"

"Anytime!  Good night!"

"Good night!" replied Ranka, Ai and Ozma in unison.  They turned and left the house.

Nanase closed the door and went to the window.  She watched Ozma's car until it was out of sight.  Then she went to the dining room.  "They're gone now."

Sheryl stepped out of the closet while Hope waddled from under the kitchen table.  "I guess we'd better get going too."  She took out her phone and asked Erenmeyer to pick her up.

"So he still thinks that she's dating Alto?" asked Nanase who crossed her arms over her chest.

Sheryl nodded.  "We have to fool him, otherwise he'll keep lecturing or grounding her."

Nanase shoved the Frontier Enquirer before her.  "Well, he better not be reading this.  The media thinks that you and Alto are an item."

The flashy headline of 'Ace Pilot Gives Private Lessons' was enough to get her blood boiling.  "Damn it!  Security was supposed to keep them away from school!"

Nanase pointed at the pictures.  "It won't be easy.  See the way this line curves near the corners?  It indicates that a high magnification lens was involved and this photo was probably taken from a long distance.  These aren't your average hide-in-a-bush paparazzi."

Sheryl had seen Nanase's photography exhibition in the Visual Arts department, so her intuition was probably right.  She sighed and rubbed her forehead.  "If we can't fool him anymore, we'll just have to deal with it then."

When Erenmeyer arrived, Sheryl bid Nanase goodnight.  As they drove home, she stared at the starry sky. 

"This can't go on forever, Ranka," thought Sheryl.  "One way or another, I'll convince him to accept us."

But that was the least of her worries.  If the media knew of their relationship, it may cause a scandal that might have a negative effect on Ranka's career.  Although the zentraedi would be likely to accept it, not all humans would be open to a same-sex couple, particularly when their favorite idol was involved.  Sheryl leaned back into the seat.  "One day, we'll convince everyone to accept us... but first... Ozma..."

She closed her eyes and prayed for luck.


-----


The next day, Sheryl began studying for next week's exams.  While she was studying, Soffie announced a visitor.

"Mr. Yasaburo Saotome is here to see you, Miss."

Sheryl sighed.  It was time to tell him.  "I'll be right down."

She met Yasaburo at the sitting room.

"Hello, Sheryl.  How are you?"  Yasaburo offered a bouquet of flowers.

Sheryl accepted.  "I'm fine.  And you?"

"I'm doing well.  I stopped by the hotel and they told me you left."

"Yes.  I'm living here now.  Cathy was kind enough to be my guardian."

"That's nice of her."  He coughed into his hand.  "Anyway, your maid told me that you're busy studying, so I won't take too long.  I have tickets to the premier showing of Samurai Seventeen.  Alto has one of the lead roles."

Sheryl smiled sadly.  He knew that she had never seen Alto act, so he was tempting her to get a date.  "I'm sorry, Yasaburo.  I'm the one who wasted your time."

For several moments, Yasaburo was speechless.  Then he said slowly, "What do you mean?"

She sighed.  "Alto is kind.  When he learned that I was dying, he asked me what he could do.  I told him... that I wanted to experience life as a normal person.  To live in a normal home, to eat normal food, and to have a lover... to experience at least that before I go.  He was kind enough to do it.  It was our lover's game.  But you know Alto.  You knew he was just acting.  What you didn't know was... I was acting too."

"But why him?  I was the one who found you on that rainy day!  I could've played that role!"

"It's because..."  She hesitated for a moment to study him.  Could she trust him with her secret?  As she looked at his honest face, she felt she could.  "It's because I'm infected with a virus that's lethal to human beings.  My previous manager, Grace, had implanted it in me and lied that I had a genetic disease to cover up the symptoms.  I only discovered it when I stopped taking my medicine that kept it in check.  But unfortunately, I had kissed Alto before I knew about it.  Since he was already infected, he was the only choice.  Please understand... I didn't want you to get sick because of me."

Worry etched on his face.  "My brother is sick?  Does he know?"

"He's fine.  He's been treated already and there's no trace of the virus in his body."

"Thank god!"  He leaned back and exhaled with relief.  "You could've just told me all that in the beginning.  But why did you keep pretending?  Do you really hate me that much?"

"No!  It's not that!  I don't hate you at all... it's just that... I love someone else."

He stared at her with a stunned look on his face before breaking into a sad, bitter laugh.  "I see... I understand now.  You're telling me this because there's no need for you to pretend anymore.  But what about your lover?  Isn't he worried about getting infected?"

"My lover is immune to the virus."

"Does that mean that humans can become immune to it?" asked Yasaburo hopefully.

She remembered the report on the Fairy Project.  Out of the ten girls who received the virus, only she, Fairy-9, survived.  Sadness filled her heart at the thought of those wasted lives.  "My lover and I are special cases.  In all other cases, the patients died after prolonged exposure."

His face drooped with disappointment.  "I see.  There really was no chance for me at all."

He sighed and sat still for a few moments.  Then he placed an envelope on the coffee table in front of her.  "I wish you both happiness.  Here are the tickets.  Please go.  Alto would be happy if you went."

"Oh, I couldn't..."

He held up his hand.  "Don't worry.  It's on me."

After he left, she went back upstairs to tackle more Astrophysics.


-----


Despite mental fatigue from the weeklong exams, Sheryl walked excitedly to the wind tunnel hangar.  Luca was tuning her new X-Gear suit.  She found him at the control room.

"How's it going?"

"All power-on tests pass and I made the dummy do some basic maneuvers," replied Luca.  "Here's the airflow data."

Numbers swam in her vision.  She should be able to understand the measurements, but her mind was still exhausted.  There was only one option left.  "Can you help me tune it manually?"

"Sure.  Let me help you into the suit."

Once ready, Sheryl was lowered to the center of the tunnel.  She checked the readouts on the Helmet Mounted Display and confirmed that all systems were engaged.

"I'm ready, Luca," said Sheryl.

Luca turned on the tunnel's engines that simulated a strong wind.  Sheryl started the suit's engines and let go of the tether.  With the controls sticks in the forearm compartments, she adjusted the flaps and ailerons.  As she flew the standard tests, she marveled at the response.  Finally, she had her own suit and did not have to borrow Luca's or the school's. 

"Does this model have variable swept wings?"

"Yes.  It's on the lower right corner on the HMD.  Just focus your eyes on it and the Optical Control System will activate it."

Sheryl tried it.  "I don't like it there.  Can I add it to one of the fingered buttons?"

"Sure.  I can set it up now.  Where do you want it?"

"Left and right pinky."

"Give me a few seconds..."  Luca connected to the suit maintenance circuit and routed the control.  "All done."

Sheryl pressed the buttons and felt the wings snap back.  Then she released the buttons and wings extended in full.  "Too much... I need finer granularity.  Can you also give me 30% more kinesthetic feedback on the control columns?"

"Okay."  Luca did not understand why Sheryl wanted it, so he decided to ask her later.  Their time in the tunnel was limited since all the pilots wanted to test their suits before boot camp.

By the time Sheryl made all her adjustments, the suit's G-Force and airflow data had drastically changed.  The measurements indicated that it was less stable in level flight.  Luca did not trust himself to fly it for precision maneuvers.  However, Sheryl did not seem to have a problem with it.  She tried the standard maneuvers and the test results were within normal parameters.  As they walked out of the hangar, he asked her about the wing retraction.  She simply shrugged.

"It feels better with shorter wings sometimes."

"But that's what the HMD data is for.  It tells you which flap to adjust if you're not stable.  You can adjust everything without sweeping the wings."

"It's fine, Luca.  Sometimes, using the HMD is boring," replied Sheryl with an enigmatic smile.  "Ah, Erenmeyer's here.  I have a studio session, so I have to go.  See you at camp!"

"Bye," waved Luca.  Based on what she said, Luca hoped that he would never have to do acrobatic flying with her.


-----


A week after the exams, Ranka paid a surprise visit to the Glass estate. 

"Hello, Ranka," greeted Cathy.  "What brings you here?"

"These are for you," said Ranka as she offered a bouquet of flowers and a gift basket.  "To thank you for giving Sheryl a home."

Cathy accepted the flowers and smelled some blossoms.  "Mmm... a fine selection... thank you."  She handed it to Murine.  "Please, have a seat.  Sheryl should be back from the recording session."  She waited for Ranka to sit before sitting down herself.  Then she continued.  "I only did what had to be done.  We need to take care of each other during times like this."

"That's why I'm even more grateful.  You were able to do what I couldn't."

Cathy sighed.  "It's Ozma, isn't it?"

She nodded slowly.  "I love my brother.  He's taken care of me and so I don't want him to think that it's his mistake that I love Sheryl."

"It's not your fault and it's not a mistake to love her.  In a few years, both of you will be of legal age, and the law doesn't forbid you from loving each other.  He'll have to deal with it by then."

"I can wait until he accepts us.  But while I wait, I can't be with her all the time.  She... she doesn't like to be alone.  So that's why I'm grateful that you can keep her company."

"But don't you have that?"

"Have what?"

Cathy tapped her forehead.  "The fold link."

Comprehension dawned on her face.  "Oh... yes... but... I don't want to intrude."

"I did too in the beginning.  It's so easy to assume that because she's the Galaxy Fairy, she wouldn't feel that way.  But you and I know differently.  It's just a mask she wears.  Worse yet, she won't ask.  No, she's afraid to ask.  As her guardian, I found out more about her past.  After she was orphaned, she lived in several foster homes.  The last one turned her out onto the street.  And that's when Grace found her.  So I think, she's trying to strong, to not depend on anyone.  If my hunch is right, then it's up to you to be there even though she says nothing."

"Why me?"

"Because you're the one she wants."  She waited for Ranka to reply, but when she did not answer, she asked, "What is a home?"

"It's a place where your family lives.  Ah!"  Ranka's hand covered her mouth and understanding shone in her eyes.  "I see... it's the people you go home to."

"So the place doesn't matter at all."  Cathy leaned forward.  "Both of you are very special.  With the fold link, you can talk to each other instantly, no matter where you are.  Boot camp starts tomorrow.  You'll be apart for three weeks.  Why don't you knock?  Maybe she'll answer."

"I will.  Once again, thank you.  I wish I could do something to show my gratitude, but all I could do is say thank you."

She smiled gently.  "There is something.  Take her off my hands when you turn 20."

Ranka's hair bobbed up.  "I'll be more than happy to!"

Cathy laughed.  Until Sheryl returned, they talked about ways on how to deal with Ozma.  When they heard Sheryl's voice from the main hall, Cathy stood up. 

"I'll have some snacks brought up to Sheryl's room.  Enjoy your visit."

Ranka bowed deeply.  "Thank you again."

Sheryl entered the sitting room as Cathy left.

"Welcome home," greeted Cathy.

"I'm home," responded Sheryl.  Her eyes lit up when she saw her visitor.  "Ranka!"  With several strides, she was at her side.  They hugged each other tightly.

"Don't you have a photo shoot today?" asked Sheryl.

"I asked them to end it early," replied Ranka.  She kissed her lightly.  "I just had to see you."

Sheryl returned a lingering kiss.  "I'm glad.  Wanna come up to my room?"

"Sure!"

Upon entering her room, Ranka's eyes went wide in admiration.  "Wow!  It's pretty big!  And a canopied bed!  I've always wanted to sleep in one of these!"

Sheryl went to the drapes and pulled them open.  "The balcony's over here."  She opened the door to let Hope in.  Hope entered and looked inquiringly at Ranka.

"No, she's at home.  I couldn't take her to work today.  Do you want her to come over?"

Hope's antennae twiddled in affirmation.

Ranka closed her eyes and asked for Ai-chan to meet them at Sheryl's house.  Then she patted Hope's carapace.  "She'll be right over, ok?"

Hope chirped and waddled to the pet bed where she sat quietly.

Ranka's eyes wandered the room and rested on the picture frames on the bedside table.  She went over and picked up one that had a picture of herself.  "When did you get this?"

"Compliments of Elmo when I was doing charity concerts," replied Sheryl.  Actually, after Ranka left for the Vajra home world, her popularity dropped and Elmo was stuck with lots of Ranka related merchandise.  When they started doing charity concerts, she helped herself when he was not around.

"Something's missing..."  Ranka flipped it over and took the picture out.  Then with a silver pen, she signed it.

   To my dearest Sheryl,
   With all my Love,
   ~ Ranka <3

"Umm... is that ok?  The maids will see it," asked Sheryl in alarm.

"Cathy trusts them right?  I think it's fine."  When she returned the picture frame to its original position, she noted that if Sheryl faced the windows, the picture would be in her line of sight when she woke up.  The idea warmed her heart. 

The other bedside table had a faded and dirty photo of a woman and a baby.  It was signed, 'Your granddaughter, Sheryl'.  Ranka picked it up.


"Is this your mom?"

"Yes."

Ranka gazed at the tender scene of mother and child.  A soft smile graced her face when she noticed that baby Sheryl was grabbing her mother's hair. 

"I see... you like to play with hair back then too..." thought Ranka.  Whenever Sheryl caught her sleeping, she would move the locks of hair over her eyes.  She slept better when it was dark, so removing the hair over her eyelids disturbed her sleep.  Her brother, Ozma, also did that when she was young, but stopped after she threatened to stop cooking for him.

"Say, Sheryl, I've been wondering... why is your last name Nome?  Shouldn't it change when your grandmother married?"

"For most people, that'll be the case.  But for my family, the guardian bloodline is inherited through females.  To make it easier to trace our lineage, Nome women ask their husbands to take the our last name."

"I see... so that means... if you ever get married..."  She left the sentence unfinished and blushed.

Sheryl lifted her chin and kissed her.  She finished the sentence.  "My bride would take the Nome name and our children as well.  Is that alright?"

"It depends how well you propose.  Your fiancee may want a proper proposal," teased Ranka.  She giggled at Sheryl's pouting face and then tried to erase it with a kiss.

As she returned the photo to the table, her eyes landed on the photo album next to it.  Wondering if Sheryl had more pictures of her in it, she picked it up.

"May I see?"

"Sure."  Sheryl patted the bed.  "Have a seat."

Ranka sat down next to her and opened to the first page.  It was full of pictures of her during the Miss Macross competition.  Five pages later, there was a single picture of her singing at Folmo mall.  As she remembered that day, she blushed unconsciously.  Aside from the competition, that was the first time she ever sang in a public place.

The next set of pictures was from the movie set of Bird Human.  Then on one page, there were no pictures.  Instead, it had pressed flowers.  She glanced up at Sheryl inquiringly.

"You gave me those when you visited me in the hospital," explained Sheryl.  "What made you pick these particular ones?"


"I just thought it looked nice."

Sheryl pointed at the daisy.  "This one means Loyal Love."  Then she pointed at the pink rose.  "And this one indicates a message:  Please Believe in Me."

Ranka blushed.  "I really didn't know that it meant something.  I just wanted to see you that day and make sure you were ok."

Sheryl put an arm around her and kissed her.  "Thanks for coming over anyway.  It really made me happy even though you didn't mean it then."

Ranka kissed her back.  "I mean it now."

Sheryl grinned mischievously and pushed her down on the bed.  She leaned over her and bent down.  Just then, there was a gasp at the door.  She looked up to see a blushing Soffie at the doorway.

"Ummm... I'll just leave the snacks here, Miss.  Excuse me..."  Soffie hastily put the snack tray on the nearest table, bowed and left.

She berated herself for not closing the door and even more for forgetting that it was open.  Below her, Ranka started to giggle.

"What's so funny?"

"The look on your face... I've never seen you so pale..."

Before anything else happened, Sheryl walked to the door and locked it.  Then she crawled over Ranka.  "If you think that's funny, then how about this?"  Nimble fingers attacked Ranka's sides.

Ranka twitched in laughter as she tried to stop the tickle onslaught.  However, those hands seemed to everywhere.  She decided to attack the source.  Her hand reached for the nearest pillow and pulled it from under the covers.  To her surprise, her own face stared at her.  She yanked it and used it to block Sheryl.  When the tickling stopped, she took several deep breaths and asked.

"What's this?"

"Erm... that's... uhh..."  She grabbed the pillow and moved away.  "It's mine!"  When the pillowcase came out, she knew that she could never get it without Grace finding out.  It was pure luck that she actually found one in Elmo's stash. 

Ranka knew about the pillowcase with a picture of her in an orange swimsuit on front and in a pink dress on the back.  To promote her new single, Elmo decided to raffle off 100 pillowcases to fans that bought her single.  She had seen photos of elated fans holding it.  However, when Sheryl hugged it, one hand ended up on her chest and the other landed near her abdomen.  Her imagination helpfully supplied other possibilities and she blushed in embarrassment and indignation.

"Are you sleeping with that every night?" asked Ranka in a low voice.

Sheryl gulped.  Was she jealous of the pillow?  If she was, she had to answer carefully.  "Ummm... sometimes... but not all the time.  I just keep it to look at..."

"How... how could you?!"

"I'm sorry!  If... if it bothers you, I won't..."

"I want one too!!!"

"...sleep with... huh?"  Sheryl stared at her.

"I want the one with the red swimsuit and the leather outfit!"

Her forehead creased as she tried to remember.  "But... that's been sold out a year ago..."

Ranka crossed her arms.  "Then get them to make more and reserve one for me!  You're the Galaxy Fairy, right?"

"Aren't you being unreasonable?"

"If I am, hand it over."  She extended a demanding hand.

Sheryl just stood there and stared at the hand and then at the pillow.  "No way!"

"See?  Why should I suffer while you have one?" complained Ranka.

"You already have lots of posters..."

"It's not enough!"

Sheryl sighed but kept her distance while hugging the pillow tighter.  "Alright, I'll see what I can do.  So, can I keep it?" 

"You have 2 months," replied Ranka.  "If you don't come up with it, you can't keep it."

A drop of sweat rolled down her temple.  She hoped that it was enough time.  Just then, there was a knock on the balcony door.  It was Ai.  Hope waddled out of the pet bed when Sheryl let her in.  Ai hugged Hope and lifted her as if she were just a larva.

"I keep forgetting..." remarked Ranka.  "She's technically a stage 3 Vajra, and just as strong even though she's my size."

Sheryl pinched Ranka's upper arm.  "You're strong too, Miss Quarter Zentraedi.  Hey, how about it?  I've been working out!"  She tossed the pillow on the bed, went to the table and assumed the arm wrestling position.

"Geez, don't you give up?"  Ranka sat down and gripped her hand.  "3 out of 5?"

"Yeah.  This time, you're going down!"  Without waiting for the start signal, Sheryl pushed hard.

Ranka's arm swayed halfway to table's surface before muscles tensed up.  Through gritted teeth, her Cinderella challenged, "You sure about that?"

Her eyes narrowed.  From her tone, Ranka had anticipated her gambit.  To her dismay, their tight fists slowly rose up to their original position.  She leaned forward in an attempt to gain more leverage.  Unfortunately, despite her best efforts, she only managed to beat Ranka once.

Ranka flexed her hand.  "Don't feel bad.  Winning isn't everything!  Even though I won, I can't let down my guard.  I can feel that you're much stronger now compared to a month ago, so I'll have to work out too."

"Oh, you don't have to do that," said Sheryl in fear that the goal was slipping further away.

She shook her head.  "Uh-uh.  We promised each other that we'd do our best in everything, no matter what."

Sheryl sighed and offered the cake from the snack tray.  "Want some?"

"Sure!"

They ate the cake and exchanged showbiz gossip.  When they were about halfway done, a series of belches came from Ranka's purse.  Ranka pulled out her phone and squeezed it several times to read the message.  She looked at Sheryl sadly.

"Onii-chan is coming over to pick me up.  We're going shopping for dinner, so I have to go." 

They finished the rest of the snacks and then spent the remaining time kissing and cuddling in bed.  When Soffie's hesitant voice announced Brera's arrival, they stopped. 

Hand in hand, Sheryl escorted Ranka and Ai to the front door.  "I might be able to check messages, so email me, ok?"

"I will," replied Ranka.  She kissed her on the cheek.  "Good luck with camp."

"And you too."

Sheryl watched as they drove away.  Then she went back to her room to prepare her gear.


-----


The pilots assembled in the school's main parking lot.  After roll call, Mr. Bernard, director of the Pilot Course, announced the camp format.

"First week is survival training.  You'll be assigned to a team of five.  The team captain will pick your training area.  For the second week, it'll be aerial and combat maneuvers.  If you're good enough, you'll fly the VF-19 on the third week."  Excited whispers rose in the crowd.  "Only if you're good enough.  Otherwise, you'll focus on your weak points during the third week.  There are exceptions, of course."  His eyes went to Luca who had already flown a VF-25 and who only wanted to attend boot camp for the experience.  Alto was excused from boot camp and was rumored to be enjoying his free time flying as he pleased.

One of the instructors stepped forward and began announcing the teams.  As she listened intently for her name, Sheryl shifted nervously from foot to foot.  She looked at the teams forming in progress.  As each name was called, the pilot went to the newly formed group.  One female group already had two meltran pilots and one human pilot.  The other female group had two human pilots.  She hoped that chance would let her join the two.

"Sheryl Nome, Group E."

"By Miriya, why her?" moaned Tadyana Agreu, who was a third-year, meltran pilot in her homeroom and simulator class.  She was a tall redhead with pale gray eyes and wore her hair in a braided ponytail.

"At least, we have Eriko," said the other meltran.  She was half a head shorter than Tadyana and had short silver hair and green eyes.

As she walked over, Sheryl cursed her luck at first, but when she saw that the other female group got three meltran pilots, she wondered if she actually got the better group.  Compared to Ranka, a full meltran was much stronger and their muscles sometimes rotted their brains.  Although she respected their flying abilities, Sheryl preferred to avoid dealing with them.  For now, she had to introduce herself.

"Hi.  I'm Sheryl Nome."  She extended her hand.

The silver haired girl shook it.  "Aris Wesla, second-year."

Before she could introduce herself to the other member, their last member joined them.  To her relief, it was another pilot in her homeroom, a half-meltran named Kanagi Shizedow.  When all the members were assembled, the team captains were chosen based on ranking. 

"Group E, Eriko Ichijyo."

"Yakk!" cursed Tadyana under her breath as the dark haired girl went to receive her badge.

Tadyana was ranked in the top fifty.  Sheryl did not know Eriko so she could not tell how good she was from a first impression.  Eriko was about her height and had shoulder length black hair with bangs that obscured at least one of her blue eyes. 

She looked around.  There were 11 male groups and 9 female groups.  From her conversations with Luca, the ratio was about the same compared to NUNS squadrons.

"All team captains step forward and pick your site," announced the instructor who held out a box with folded pieces of paper. 

Sheryl could feel the tension in the air as Eriko picked one.  She handed it to him.

"Diablo Valley," read the instructor flatly, but to Sheryl, it sounded like the stuff of nightmares.

After the selections, each group boarded a bus that would take them to the training site.  Two male teams boarded the bus with them.  Sheryl eyed them warily and sat in the aisle seat next to Kanagi.  Despite her half-meltran heritage, Kanagi was just a couple of inches taller than Ranka and a bit shy and timid.  But when placed under pressure, she somehow gathered enough determination to make it through.  Overall, she was an intelligent girl with good reflexes.  Across from them sat Aris and Tadyana.  Although Aris was in a different homeroom, Sheryl often saw her with Tadyana during lunch. 

Eriko stood before them and extended a hand.  The yellow and black badge on her arm indicated her captain rank.

"Hello.  I'm Eriko Ichijyo, third-year."

"Sheryl Nome," replied Sheryl shaking her hand firmly.  She was a bit relieved that Eriko introduced herself as if she were just another classmate.

"K-kanagi Shiz-zedow... s-second-year" stuttered Kanagi as she shook Eriko's hand.

Eriko turned and introduced herself to Tadyana who shook her hand so briefly that it seemed like a pat.  Just then, the bus lurched forward and Eriko quickly took a seat behind Tadyana.

"Everyone, sit down," said Mr. Neumann, their Astrophysics teacher.  "Listen up.  I'm your proctor for this week.  Team captains, raise your hands."

To each captain, he handed a sheet of paper.  "Here's information about the site.  The scenario is that you've crash-landed and only have two days worth of rations with you and a basic survival kit.  You have a map that shows the location of the nearest outpost.  Get there within 5 days and you pass."

He handed a backpack to the nearest pilot.  "Take a pack and pass the rest.  In addition to your kits, you may take one pound of personal items that can fit in the sandwich bag inside the pack.  Items that aren't allowed are listed on the sheet.  Put the stuff you can't bring in the box provided.  When you reach the outpost, it will be returned to you.  Any questions?"

While Mr. Neumann fielded questions, Sheryl began filling the sandwich bag with items that Cathy suggested.  While she was doing so, Eriko looked over her stuff. 

"Good choices," she said. 

"Thanks," replied Sheryl. 

Then Eriko looked over the contents of Kanagi's bag and told her to include specific items.  She did this for each member.

The bus arrived at Group E's drop off about thirty minutes later.  Mr. Neumann inspected the kits and personal items.  When he saw hers, his eyebrow twitched and Sheryl felt that he was staring at her.  She breathed a sigh of relief when he approved it.  She placed bag in the provided backpack with the kit.

"Everyone ready?" asked Eriko.  "Good.  Which you has taken this test before or had any camping experience?"  Tadyana raised her hand.  "Alright, you're vice-captain.  We'll pair up.  Agreu, go with Shizedow.  I'll go with Nome and Wesla.  Try to stay together.  Don't go alone.  Now, I suggest that each of us find a walking stick."

"I can walk fine without one," said Tadyana.

"It's for self-defense as well.  They did minimal terraforming in this site, so we have to be prepared for local animals."

"Know-it-all," muttered Tadyana softly when she turned away from Eriko.  "C'mon, Kanagi."

After they found branches good enough for walking sticks, they climbed a hill.  Eriko unfolded the map on the ground.  She pointed at the map.

"This is where they dropped us off.  Here's the hill.  And here's the outpost.  Notice anything?"

"Of course.  The map doesn't have any elevation info.  Same as last year," replied Tadyana.

"That's right.  If we look from here towards where the outpost is, you can see that we'd have to go over some hills and the mountain."

Tadyana surveyed the area.  "So you want to mark where the hills are and see if we can go around?"

"If possible."

"I'm not good at that.  Kanagi's got a better eye."

"In that case, can you find water while we work on it?"

"Yeah."  She turned to Aris and Sheryl.  "Get their spare water bottles."

When they were ready, they headed down the hill and walked around.  As Tadyana explained how to find water indicators, Sheryl felt more at ease.  During her first month in class, Tadyana would often make derisive remarks about pilots who graduated from the course using their family's influence, wealth or popularity.  She never said it directly to the intended recipient, but Sheryl knew what Tadyana had to say about her.  She was definitely going to prove her wrong.

About fifteen minutes later, Aris pointed to a shallow trough.  "How about here?"   

Tadyana scrapped the bottom of the trough with her fingertips.  She felt the dirt.  "Too dry."

Sheryl's eyes followed the path of the trough.  "The ground seems to go downhill from here.  How about trying further down?"

"All right, but we can't go too far," said Tadyana.

They followed the trough and tried to leave a trail behind for getting back.  They walked for about ten minutes and noticed that the ground seemed damp.  Using rocks and branches, they dug about a foot into the ground and found water.

"Hey, Nome!  You know Morse code?" asked Tadyana.

"Yes."

"Signal Ichijyo and tell her we found water.  We'll be back in thirty minutes."

"But there's a lot of trees here."

Those icy gray eyes stared at her.  "Then climb one," replied Tadyana in a condescending tone.

Sheryl stood up and dusted her hands.  She left her bottle with them and selected a tree to climb.  Based on her past field experience with the scientists, she avoided ones that had flowers. 

She took out her mirror and tried to look for the hill.  She easily found it since a column of smoke was coming from the top.  Angling the mirror, she flashed the message and waited.  When she did not get a response, she tried again.  Finally, she saw a series of flashes. 

"Roger.  Map done."

With that, she returned to Aris and Tadyana.

"What took you so long?" asked Tadyana who did not look up from filtering water.

"They didn't notice.  I had to do it several times."

"Kanagi's sharp.  You probably garbled it."

Sheryl held back her retort through gritted teeth.  She knelt by the hole and began to put together her own filter.  "The map's done.  They're smoking the hill, so it's easy to see."

"Good.  Now help filter water."

After they were finished filling the bottles and some plastic bags, they returned to the hill.  To their surprise, Eriko and Kanagi were roasting some sort of lizard.  It was about a foot long and had six legs.

"It was sitting on a rock and the captain just sneaked up behind it and hit it with a stick!"

Aris cupped her hand to her mouth and turned a shade of green while Tadyana stared at it incredulously.  "You're gonna eat that?"

"It was in the final lecture.  It's edible.  We only have two days of rations and there's a mountain between the outpost and us.  The rations won't spoil, so we can use it if we don't find anything to eat."

Kanagi turned to Tadyana.  "Oh, yeah... sorry about the message.  I saw it, but I didn't want to move while the captain was hunting."

"No problem.  So, what's next, captain?" said Tadyana.

Sheryl noticed the derision in her voice when she said the last word.  However, if Eriko noticed it, she did not show it and spoke calmly.  Based on the elevation, she explained the planned route.

"Everyone make yourself a copy so that if we get separated, rendezvous at the marked locations.  For now, I estimate that we'll get there around 3 or 4 days, depending on how bad the terrain is.  It's hard to see under the treetops."

"How sure are you?  We've got a newbie tagging along," said Tadyana.

"As long as we provide the proper guidance, I'm confident that Wesla, Shizedow and Nome can keep up with us," said the captain.

"Nice one," thought Sheryl.  "Shifting responsibility to her shoulders."  Eriko was handling Tadyana's barbs very well.

A scowl briefly formed on the vice-captains's face.  She kicked a rock towards the lizard.  "When's this done?  We gotta get going."

"Soon.  In the meantime, did you check your trackers?"  When everyone replied positively, she continued.  "Good.  Wear it at all times.  If you're hurt or in trouble, use it to call for help.  Don't worry about the rest of us."

"Hey, this is still a test, you know.  If one of us quits, all of us stop the test and we won't get full marks," said Tadyana.  "I prefer to keep my ranking, thank you very much."

Eriko's voice was low and controlled.  "I don't think a bunch of numbers is more important than the team's safety.  My order stands.  Ring it for help."

Unconsciously, Sheryl took a step back.  If they were going to argue, she preferred to be outside the line of fire.

"Getting there before five days may be good enough for you, but we get bonus points the earlier we get there.  That's bonus points we can use to qualify for the VF-19!"

"I understand.  That's why we have to work together.  The instructors always mix senior and junior cadets in each team.  We have to know each other's strengths and weaknesses so we can help each other out."

"There's a case of too much weaknesses."

From beneath those dark bangs, deep blue eyes looked her at squarely.  "Say it."

"Well..."  Tadyana was silent for a few moments.  Then she blurted out, "Nome's a first-year..."

"As long as she meets the requirements, she can take the test.  I did it when I was a first-year."

"But usually, they don't recommend first-years to do it.  You know what it's like!"

"Yes, I do."  Eriko faced Sheryl.  "From experience, I have to warn you that it's not going to be easy, Nome.  You must keep up."

Sheryl answered with steel in her voice.  "Don't worry.  I will."

The captain nodded and checked the lizard.  "This is good enough.  Let's wrap it up."

After putting out the fire, they started their long hike.  As they walked along, Eriko quizzed them on different maneuvers.  When she disagreed with their answer, she would demonstrate why by simulating the flight with her hand, middle fingers together while the thumb and pinky pointed out like wings.

"For the Low Yo-yo, you have to dive below the bogey so you'll get enough speed to make a fast turn," explained Eriko as she traced the planes' paths with her hands.

"I get it now," said Aris.  "The two cases always confuse me."

"You just need to check whether you're above or below the bogey.  If you're above, dive.  If you're below, climb."

For lunch, Eriko cut up half the lizard and handed them a portion.  Sheryl took one bite and fought the urge to throw up.  She decided to wait for her water to boil before eating the rest and asked Eriko for permission to look for edible berries or fruit. 

"No.  We'll forage together later.  Just keep boiling water.  Only three of us have cups.  It'll get hotter in the afternoon, so we'll need more water."

At her reply, Sheryl was glad for Cathy's advice.  She would not have thought to bring a light, titanium cup to boil water in.  Although the kit included purification tablets, it would not be enough to kill all parasites. 

For a few moments, she watched Eriko eat the lizard meat.  Her face did not show any revulsion at all.  Sheryl stared at her portion and braced herself once more.  She bit a piece and chewed it as fast as possible so that she would not taste it.

After lunch, they resumed the hike and the quizzes.  About midday, they started to sweat more.  Sheryl unzipped the sleeves from her shirt and the lower part of her pants. 

"That's handy," remarked Kanagi who rolled up the sleeves of her t-shirt.  Last week, they were told to wear comfortable clothing for the survival test.  Most people came in t-shirts and jeans or shorts.

Tadyana, on the other hand, simply took off her shirt.  Her breasts bulged out against her soaked sports bra.  When she saw their shocked faces, she shrugged, "What?  It's just us girls."

"You have a point.  We have to prevent dehydration," agreed Eriko.  She took off her shirt too.  Aris did the same.

When the captain was a good distance away, Tadyana smirked under her breath.  "At least, I have the advantage here."

Compared to the rest of them, Eriko had the smallest breasts, which was typical for young Japanese women.  Sheryl stood up proudly.  In that respect, hers was just as large as Tadyana's and Aris'.  Kanagi's was in between.  With a smile of amusement on her lips, Sheryl continued hiking with her half-naked team.

------

Meanwhile, at City Hall, Cathy received an unexpected visitor.

"Uncle Flex!?" exclaimed Cathy as she stood up.

"Yes, it's me, kitty Cat!"  Senator Felix E. Glass caught his niece in a bear hug.  He drew back at arms length.  "Let me look at you... all grown up to be president... and I thought you wanted to be in the military!"

She led her uncle to the couches.  "Things happened, uncle.  But I'm not really an official president.  I'm just an emergency one until things settle down.  After the new constitution is ratified, another election will be held at the beginning of next year to elect the first president for the united colonies of Frontier and Galaxy."

He sat down.  "Oh yes, I'm well aware of that.  I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Cathy sat across from him.  Her Uncle Flex was her father's older brother.  Even though he did not wear a mustache, he bore such a resemblance to him that the sight of his face almost brought her to tears.  But her father was gone.  At least, she still had her Uncle Flex. 

"I see... you're one of the delegates."  She gestured to her aide and asked him to bring refreshments.  "Have you reviewed the draft?"

"I'm almost done.  It's quite thorough.  How much of it is yours?"

"About half.  Lehr and Verneuil, the previous Galaxy president, did the rest."

"You sure you don't want to be president?"

She held out her hands.  "Look at me, Uncle Flex!  I'm just 24!  Before becoming president, I just did minor jobs for Daddy and the Office of Internal Affairs!  Who would want a young, inexperienced woman for president?"

"You do have a point there, kitty Cat.  Maybe some other time in the future."

"By space, uncle... You better drop your standards."

He smiled widely.  "Can't do that.  You've got Howard's genes in you."

She blushed slightly.  "At least, someone has more confidence in me than I do," thought Cathy.  She decided to change the topic.  "You're cut from the same cloth.  Don't you want to be president?  With the Glass name and your reputation, you have a big chance to make a difference here than on Earth."

Her uncle seemed surprised at her question.  "Me...?  Hmm... I don't know... I'll think about it."

"He didn't say no," thought Cathy excitedly.  "Maybe there's a chance.  But first, I need more information."  She cleared her throat. 

"So... what's the latest news from Earth?"

Felix leaned back and intertwined his fingers over his stomach.  "Well, now... Frontier caused quite a stir back home.  In fact..."

Cathy leaned forward and eagerly listened to his news.  From his stories, she had a feeling that it was going to be an uphill battle with the Earth Senators.

------

When the sun was halfway down the horizon, the captain suggested that they make camp. 

"We can still go on.  There's still light left," argued Tadyana.

"We have to setup a shelter and gather firewood, unless you want to sleep without a roof over your head in a forest with strange creatures in the trees above you."

Her mouth melted in to a grimace of disgust.  "I'll do the shelter.  I'm good at that," said the redhead.

"I'll help," offered Aris.

"Shizedow, help them out.  Nome, you're with me," said Eriko.  "We need to get firewood.  If you see anything edible, get it or kill it."

Sheryl cringed at the idea of killing anything.  She hoped that there would be berries or fruit nearby.  The lizard meat was really nasty.

Unfortunately, they did not see any.  They returned to camp to see two lean-tos in progress.  The captain put the bundle of firewood down.

"Start the fire and boil water.  I'll help them," said Eriko.

Sheryl did as she was told and prepared the campfire a good distance from the lean-to's.  While waiting for the water to boil, she gathered leaves that would be used to insulate them from the ground. 

When the lean-tos were done, they sat by the campfire for dinner.  Sheryl pulled her shoes off.  Her feet were sore, but not blistered which was a good sign.  After wearing the shoes all week long, her feet got used to them.

Kanagi was not as fortunate.  The skin by her big toe and little toe was blistered.  By the condition of her shoes, it was obvious that it was new.

"When did it start hurting?"  asked Eriko.

"I-it's okay.  I'll be fine," said Kanagi.

Eriko rummaged through her pack.  "If it bursts, it'll count as an injury.  You'll slow us down.  Next time, tell me if it starts to hurt.  Don't wait."  She offered some gauze.  "Here.  Before you put your shoes on, use this to pad the blisters.  Make sure it doesn't chafe."

"Th-thanks..." replied Kanagi as she accepted the gauze.

"Anyone else?"  She glanced at Sheryl's feet for a few moments before looking at Aris'.

"We're fine," said Tadyana airily.  "Meltrandi are tougher than normal humans."

Eriko did not say anything and distributed the rest of the lizard.  After she was done, she asked for their opinion.

"We need a squadron name.  Any suggestions?"

The camp was silent except for the crackle of the fire.  Finally, Aris spoke.

"Eagles?"

"That's too common," argued Tadyana. 

"How about firefly?" said Kanagi.

The redhead snorted.  "We're not insects.  How about viper?  They're swift and dangerous."

This time Eriko spoke.  "I'm against slithering creatures.  I don't want to be associated with anything that crawls on the ground.  Not my style."

"Stingray?" offered Aris.

"Stingrays are wide and flat," said Sheryl.  "I don't think it projects a good image."

"I agree," said Eriko.  "Plus it's wet and slimy.  We're pilots, so our name should be related to flying."

Back and forth, names were suggested and rejected.  As she tried to think of a name, Sheryl stared at the fire.  What name could project the image that they wanted and not seem lame or overused?  Just then, a breeze fanned a dying ember and a burst of flame rose from it.  The sight of the flame rising from the ashes inspired an idea.

"How about phoenix?"

All eyes turned to her and considered. 

"What's that?" asked Aris.

"It's a mythical bird that's made of fire.  It turns into ashes when it dies, but it gets reborn again," explained Kanagi.

"So it can't be killed and breathes fire, right?  Hmmm... kinda dangerous.  I guess it's okay," said Tadyana.

"It's a bird, so it matches up with our image," said Aris.

"Alright, any objections to phoenix?" asked Eriko.  When nobody voiced any, she held out her hand towards everyone and declared, "Then it's decided.  We're Phoenix Squadron."

Aris reached out and placed her hand on top of Eriko's.  "We need callsigns, right?  Tadyana can be Phoenix Red and Kanagi can be Phoenix Green."  The callsigns matched their hair color.

Kanagi hesitantly placed her hand on top of Aris.  "Th-then you're Phoenix S-silver."

Red put her hand on top and smirked.  "As appropriate, the captain's Phoenix Black."  She glanced at Sheryl who was about to place her hand and noted her hair color.  "And Nome is... pink."

Sheryl placed her hand down and stared incredulously at Tadyana.  She expected to be yellow or gold.  "What?" 

Aris nodded.  "Yeah, definitely pink.  Right, Shizedow?"

"Umm... uh..."  Kanagi's purple eyes shifted away from them.

"It's obviously pink, Kanagi," said Tadyana.

"Ah... yes..." squeaked Kanagi.

"Just wait a..." protested Sheryl.

"Then it's settled," said Eriko.  "From now on, let's use callsigns.  We need to get used to them for aerial training."

After dinner, Tadyana lit a branch.  "Kanagi and I are going to fetch some water.  Give me your cups."

"You found some?" asked Eriko who handed her a cup.

"Not exactly.  I found a bunch of plantain type trees, so I cut some down to build the lean-tos.  Then I hollowed out the stumps.  They should be filled with some water now."

"Good job.  How long before it fills again?"

She shrugged.  "Around thirty minutes."

Eriko stood up.  "Let's all go see where it is.  If you're on watch, wake the next person at the end of your watch and both of you get water.  Then the person on watch should filter and boil it."

After they agreed on the order of the night watch, they decided on sleeping arrangements.  Since there were only two lean-tos, two people would sleep in one.  To her relief, she would share the lean-to with Eriko and Kanagi. 

Since they had a water source, they took turns taking a sponge bath.  As she wiped herself behind the solar blanket that served as a makeshift curtain, Sheryl felt strangely vulnerable.  She stared into the dark forest and hoped that no wild animals would bother them.

As usual, the starfire ring glowed on her chest.  Her fingertips ran across the cold metal. 

"How are you doing, Ranka?" she wondered.  Her hand closed over the ring.  "I miss you..."

When she was done, she started the first watch.  Time passed without incident and she woke Kanagi for the next watch.  After fetching water, she crawled in with Eriko.  She signed heavily and shifted her sore muscles.  It was good to finally lie down even on hard ground. 

For several minutes, she lay there listening to the sound of Kanagi moving around and the various chirping noises around them.  Unfortunately, she could not seem to sleep.  By the time she shifted for the third time, a familiar voice whispered in her mind.

"Sheryl..."

"I must be really tired..." thought Sheryl.  "I'm hearing her voice in my head."

"Sheryl..."

For several seconds, her mind tried to sort itself out of confusion.  She lifted her wrist to check the time.  Her watch illuminated to show 11:42 PM.  What if it really was Ranka? 

"Sheryl..."

This time, she answered, "Ranka?"

In her mind, Ranka stepped into view.  "May I come in?"

"Yes, of course!"  She hugged her image and Ranka hugged back.  She could almost feel that petite body against her.

"How's camp?"

"Horrible.  Dirt's stuck under my fingernails from digging and I had to eat this nasty lizard.  Right now, I'm sleeping on a pile of leaves with only this flimsy solar blanket for warmth."  Given Ranka's jealous streak, she did not say that she was sharing the lean-to with Eriko.

Ranka kissed her.  "Oh my poor Galaxy Fairy!  You really should've transferred to PA.  We're in this beautiful Victorian mansion on a hill.  There are fountains in courtyard and musical instruments and paintings in each room."

"You're kidding..."

Her Cinderella shook her head.  "I'm not.  Open your mind to me, and I'll show you."

Sheryl relaxed and let Ranka's thoughts flow in.  Images formed around her and she found herself standing in front of a large mansion.  Her jaw dropped.  With its graceful architecture and sculpted landscaping, it was an amazing sight. 

"You're staying here?!"

"Yes.  The PA director wants to inspire us for boot camp so he booked this mansion.  He believes we'll be more creative this way."  She grabbed her hand.  "C'mon.  I'll give you the virtual tour!"

Sadly, she shook her head.  "I'd love to, Ranka, but I'm really tired right now and the captain wants us up at dawn."

"Oh..."  Her drooping eyes indicated her disappointment.  However, it was brief and her hair bobbed up.  She sat down and patted her lap.  "In that case, let me sing you a lullaby."

Sheryl smiled gleefully and placed her head on her lap.  The scene around her shifted once more and reformed into a golden meadow with a small garden.  The sky was painted with a soft orange from the sunset.  Dandelion wishies floated about.  It looked strangely familiar.

"Where's this?"

"The meadow behind the lab in the 117th fleet.  My mother would often sing me to sleep here," replied Ranka as she stroked her Fairy's golden-coral locks.


"Oh!  I think I remember now... we visited Grandma here once.  Grandma kept a garden and I used to pick flowers from there."

Ranka leaned down and kissed her forehead.  Then she began to sing.  Sheryl closed her eyes and let that calming voice carry her towards slumber.

It was not long before Ranka felt the flow link weaken.  The meadow was dissolving slowly.  She bent down and planted a kiss on Sheryl's cheek before she lost the link.

"Good night, my sweet Fairy."

-----

While waiting for Cathy, Ozma wandered listlessly in the Glass mansion.  He came upon a hallway full of pictures on its walls.  Some were dated back to the 1800s.  He read the labels on some of them.
 
   Abraham Glass, Sheriff, 1832
   Norman Glass, Judge, 1846
   Timothy Glass, Constable, 1869
   Earl Glass, Chief of Police, 1885
   Galvin Glass, Mayor, 1906
  
He skipped to the current Glass family.  There were pictures of the former president Howard Glass at various events.  He smiled at a picture of a young Cathy at a charity dinner.  She looked so awkward in her pink dress and ponytails.  Sitting next to her was her uncle, Earth Senator Felix E. Glass.

Then his eyes found the latest addition to the wall.  It was a picture of Cathy and her running mate, Wilhelm Lehr, at the end of their inauguration ceremony.  His eyes shifted between the picture of the young Cathy and her presidential photo.

"You've come a long way..." muttered Ozma.  "Who would've thought that a Miss Macross would be president someday?  In another time and place, maybe... you could've been my..."

"So this where you're hiding," said Cathy as she walked towards him.  She patted her wet hair with the towel around her shoulders.  "Dinner is ready downstairs.  I'll be down in a moment."

"Ok."

A few minutes later, they were having dinner in the screened back porch.  Candles and moonlight illuminated their meal.  Ozma felt a little out of place.  He was too used to having meals in a noisy mess hall or in his home's dinning room with Ranka and Brera.  But with both of them at boot camp, the house felt empty.  On impulse, he decided to call Cathy for a date.  Somehow, he ended up here.

"So how's Lehr doing?"  Vice President Lehr was over seventy and had a tendency to get sick.  However, his reputation was still strong in the senate, which was why Cathy convinced him to get out of retirement and be her running mate during the emergency elections.  Given the Glass name and Lehr's experience, they won by a big margin.

"He's fighting a cold, but he was able to help me out with the constitutional changes."

"Are the Galaxy senators giving you grief?"

"A bit, especially about the implant law.  The debate was long, but Lehr stayed for all of it.  If it weren't for him, I'd have made some mistakes."

As they talked about the new laws, Ozma could not help but notice it.  "I swear... sometimes I can hear your Dad talking."

Cathy leaned back and sighed.  "Dad's legacy.  You always did say that I keep ending up with his dirty work.  Right now, if I can use the Glass name to win the public's trust in the government and unite everyone towards colonization, then I'll shoulder the burden."

They continued talking about politics until about halfway through dinner.  Ozma cleared his throat and decided to breach the topic.

"So... what made you decide to be her guardian?"

"Why not?  Dad asked me to take care of her in the first place."

"You didn't have to keep doing it."

"Let me put it to you this way.  We have two very unique girls who can have a great impact on Frontier's future, and quite possibly, the rest of the galaxy.  Given what they're able to do, they can't live normal lives even if we try to shield them.  Fate won't leave them alone."

"Ranka is very lucky that she has you.  Sheryl, on the other hand, had been isolated from any family for a very long time.  I want to be there for her just like Dad did for me.  One day, there'll come a time when she'll have to make a big decision and I want to make sure that it won't be one that she'll regret.  That's why I want to guide her until she becomes a responsible adult.  Only then can my conscience rest."

The thought of a mix of Cathy's personality in Sheryl's popped into Ozma's head.  The resulting image was a more bossy, brattier Sheryl.  He lost his composure and chuckled at the image.

"What's so funny?  You think I can't do it?" asked Cathy.

He rubbed the back of his head.  "On the contrary, I think she's in good hands.  It's just that... you really hated her in the beginning."

Cathy stabbed her steak.  "Anyone would with that attitude of hers!  By space!  She was so annoying..."

"How's she now?"

"She's nicer and more considerate.  Before, she was like a wild child underneath that wholesome idol mask.  Her company just let her do whatever she wanted as long as she made them money.  It's a miracle that someone was able to tame her."

"It can't be helped.  No one can resist my Ranka's sweet nature," boasted Ozma proudly.

Cathy's eyes twinkled with mirth when he took the bait.  "So it's good that she and Ranka met."

He choked on his food and gulped down some wine.  "I didn't say that!  Look, it doesn't go both ways!  Sure, I'll admit that she encouraged Ranka, but I don't want her bratty side corrupting her.  Ranka is perfectly fine without her!"

She was too tired to argue.  "If you say so.  Oh yes, I just received word that Admiral Hayase has arrived.  I'll be meeting with him tomorrow."

"That's good."  He pushed another set of glazed pearl onions to the side of his plate.

"What are you doing?  Don't waste it!"  She reached over and impaled several with her fork.  The onions met their fate in her mouth.

Ozma laughed and popped the rest in his mouth.  He fought the urge to spit them out and swallowed forcefully.  Across the table, Cathy broke out into laughter.  He laughed with her.  Perhaps, he could get used to this sort of meal for the rest of the week.



Board Flight 103:  It Came From Diablo Valley