The tension caused by Schubert’s words did not affect Gromov. He was not afraid of death; after Samara’s wedding even less than before. However, the other pilots, younger and still enjoying the life offerings, were troubled by overwhelming numbers of the Plantarian vessels, having never encountered more than few space fighters.

Gromov and Akane, coming from Dolzana base, which was recently facing the considerable attacks and became as such the largest Space Forces’ facility, have been involved in high scale skirmishes for years. Two months ago, when Akane due to her recklessness had died, the battlefield comprised almost two hundred of space planes, with Q-Field carriers presenting the biggest threat.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” he said finally. “Listen carefully, all of you. We are in dire straits. But not as much as you probably think. Sergeant Jerzinski informed me there were two space cruisers on the orbit. Is that so, Andrey?”

“Yes, sir. I was near Colonel Steiner when they confirmed the arrival. I guess they would cooperate with Major Milano. But as you said to my cadets, the Q-Field…”

Gromov stopped him.

“That’s enough, Andrey. We have twelve hours to get on the orbit station. By my calculations, we will be there in eight hours, nine at the worst case. Do you agree?”

Schubert and Andrey nodded in agreement.

“What the hell,” shrieked Captain Chi in admiration. “If you ask me, you are unfathomable. I saw you getting from the taxi few minutes after us. Yet you have this incredible situational awareness. I had troubles to find the store to get me the smokes. And you even know what time we need to fly over to the orbit.”

“That’s our Sava for you!”

While Akane was puffing her chest, Gromov wondered what made Chi impressed so much. Even Colonel Steiner, despite being a foolish egomaniac, could not celebrate his “party” too far away from the space lift, thus, to calculate the time estimation was a child play.

“Sir, may I?”

The MP jumped into conversation.

“What is it, sergeant?”

“Miriam B and her staff. The photograph over there’s been shooting on camera since Colonel had collapsed. Should I stop her? I doubt the higher-ups will be happy if this mess is aired.”

Gromov looked at the singer. In slippers, showing gold-painted nails under white satin dressing gown, she stood beside reception desk, one head smaller than anyone around, but still in the middle of attention. Even her hair looked tidy, probably brushed before she had come downstairs. Whispering to her companions, obviously not disturbed by previous Akane’s action, she smiled and waved at him, when she realized he was watching her.

“A ridiculous woman,” he uttered, feeling quite flattered.

“Let it be. Just remind them all their footage is classified, until decided otherwise. We may need the record for the future references. I believe Mrs. Corbin over there may help you.”

It was a mistake to point the finger at that woman. As soon as she saw MP coming, Mrs. Corbin voluntarily offered her hands to get handcuffed, moving thin lips in something what had to be last prayers. After sergeant dispelled her worries, she nodded frantically and with renewed self-esteem, went to talk with Miriam B.

“Incredible,” muttered Captain Chi. “How do you know whom to address?”

“No,” said Andrey. “The incredible part was her horror. What have you done to that wretched lady, Sava? I knew you were a humiliating bastard, but bringing the creature on the verge of shedding the tears of dread – have you acquired new skills, Your sadistic Majesty?”

Gromov smirked at him, but continued rather sternly: “Sergeant Jerzinski, you in charge of gunners and the other low-ranking soldiers. Gather them and make a list… Lieutenant Schubert, when can we expect the transport vehicles?”

“Approximately thirty minutes from now, sir. Major Milano asks if we know how many battle-ready pilots we can provide. He would need their ID codes to prepare access for fighter planes. The sooner the better.”

“Captain Chi have the list. Use the computer behind the reception desk for sending the data. What else?”

“A problem, Captain,” reported Andrey. “Not enough gunners. They kindly invited noble pilots, so Major Milano will occupy vacant cockpits by these fine ladies and gentlemen, but they forgot the peasants. Fortunately, most of them stayed above since they lacked manners to admire busty Miriam swallowing the … huh, microphone, but the happy few who hadn’t missed this fair opportunity… Well, I saw them inspecting their dinners, so to speak. Unavailable. Totally.”

“How many?”

“About five. However, you can count only four because I volunteer.”

“Denied,” said Gromov. “Why would anybody allow sergeant from Academy to participate?”

“Why indeed,” said Andrey, clearly upset. “In the same vein, why would anybody allow a pilot from Dolzana base to participate, either?”

Gromov asked him through gritted teeth: “Are you eager for another revival, Andrey?”

“None of your business. Look, Sava, thanks for your concern. But what would think the young wolfs if old jackal retreats? A glorious death in good company sounds like a plan to me. Let my blazers howl my funeral march… Hahaha, not that I value my pitiful existence so highly. As for my possible revival, you are to decide, if you want to meet the old friend again.”

Gromov eyed him for a while. The speech felt lightly, but something was clearly off. Why would he should have a word in Andrey’s revival? Glorious death? Funeral march? Had he got a deathwish? The sad undertones cued as much.

“Fine with me,” said Akane, oblivious to surrounding gloominess. “Sergeant, I’ll take you for the gunner position. This young tigress always bites more than she can chew.”

Gromov almost facepalmed.

“That’s not exactly reassuring,” he mumbled. “Next time, please, think before you speak.”

The others laughed, including young cadets. Gromov watched the youngsters with growing uneasiness. They were trained as gunner at Academy, meaning he could resort to them. Only eighteen years old, teenage boys and girls, yet still soldiers, in the worst case suitable as cannon fodder if necessary.

He decided to address them, “Have you been through backups yet?”

Pilots, realizing what he had on mind, gasped, and Heinrich Schubert said: “No, sir. That’s too cruel! They are children.”

“Children with blasters,” grunted Gromov dismissively. “So what about your backups?”

“Not yet,” answered Andrey instead. “Forget about them.”

Cadets seemed disappointed since they thought they were out of action now. Not daring to protest, they only hold their chest puffed, resembling children playing some sort of game.

“Any better ideas, then?”

“Perhaps Major Milano may appoint some mechanics to take the job.”

“Perhaps,” agreed Gromov. They had only one space lift trip at disposal. Fighters without gunners, operating the blaster cannons, were useless. If cadets stay on the ground and no one finds a replacement, four vessels will miss the battle. With overwhelming Plantarian power, even bringing the children to the slaughter seemed like the lesser evil. On the other hand, leaving them behind may spare their lives.

“If we fail, they’ll die anyway,” he pondered.

One of cadets bravely gazed to his eyes with trembling lips.

“We can do it, sir.”

“Sure. You know, I can let you volunteer,” Gromov said gravely. “But I won’t strip the responsibility from myself. Understood?”

“Yes, sir. Actually, no… Not really.”

“Never mind. Sergeant Jerzinski, this is an order. Pick up six of them. The calm ones. I don’t care for their results in simulators. Omit the chicken who would panic under fire. Hopefully, Major Milano will come with a better solution. But until then, welcome aboard, cadets.”




A note from Pavel Morava



About the author

Pavel Morava

Bio: Born in the Czech Republic, Pavel Morava is not a native English speaker. Having been twenty-two years old, he published his first book, which did not become an international bestseller. After a few other attempts, Pavel Morava abandoned the literary career for over twenty years, during which period he has been focusing on processing of plastics, programming, and raising of children.
Recently, with more time at his disposal, he returned to the forgotten ambition, fighting a futile battle with English language, procrastination, and the tendency to give up too early.
Being vivid reader of not Anglo-Saxon origin, Pavel Morava was fortunate enough to experience books from different countries, including Czech, Russian, Polish, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, French, German, and English. Such a vast literary variety heavily influenced his own work, which typically relies on an one-point-of-view narrative, consecutive storytelling, and elimination of unnecessary details.
Web novels and online publishing made him reevaluate his approach to style and building blocks of the text; the result should be, hopefully, lighter, shorter, and more intelligible for reading on electronic devices.

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