In a brief operational meeting, led by Major Milano and supervised by Colonel Steiner, the pilots learned their roles in the on-coming skirmish. The objectives were clear: to prevent Plantarians vessels breaking through the area defense system, which comprised light fighters, two cruisers, and orbital autonomic space probes with blasters.

The fighters should act as a vanguard with the main target: to identify and eliminate possible Q-Field generators, no matter the costs. In layman's term, the advance of the enemy had to be stopped by intentional collisions if other options were exhausted. Q-Field generator getting nearer cruisers would render all defense useless, causing probably death or subjugation of millions of civilians, who would die in the following meteor shower.

Had people in city survived the meteors and biological warfare afterwards, safety protocol required to incinerate the infected area by nuclear shelling, no exceptions allowed. The less Space Forces knew about Plantarians, the more draconic countermeasures they adopted.

Incapable to decipher how the mechanism of human subjugation worked, scientists presented a plethora of theories, focusing mainly on biological aspects, but failing to explain the main question: Why would anyone become the Plantarian? People do not switch their nationalistic, religious or sport beliefs just because a virus infected their bodies, don't they?

"Captain Gromov?"

Jamal Yoruba, his temporary gunner, interrupted the train of thoughts. Clueless what to do next, the cadet stood there, waiting for instructions.

"Just go with Andrey- I mean Sergeant Jerzinski, to the dressing room and don the combat suit on. He will help you and show you how to proceed. Whatever he will do, just follow his lead."

"Sure," Andrey grabbed Jared. "No need to panic now. I'll show you everything."

With the particularly mischievous smile, the sergeant disappeared into the white corridor. In dim light, their silhouettes evoked the picture of sturdy, bald father accompanying slender, shy son. Gromov noticed that Andrey has developed a parenting instinct towards cadets, which was quite understandable, since he had no family, save for the old mother who made him leave home when he was a teenager.

"Andrey's onto something, bloody prankster," Gromov pondered when with the others went to the pilots' area, where the personal has been pitching fitting suits on the desk.

"XXL I believe," the middle-aged corporal said to him, not even checking the tablet for measurements. "I've got only a few of them, all brand new. You are a lucky guy, captain."

"Thank you, corporal."

She was right in terms of luck as spacesuits of that size were hard to find; not because pilots were so small in general, but because he was taller than the rest.

After he donned the spacesuit and performed all mandatory checks, one item by another on the list that appeared in his visor, Gromov put down the helmet and inserted it under his left arm and took a quick glance to near mirror wall.

All pilots now resembled white, clumsy snowmen with life-monitoring LEDs flickering on their collar, with muted voices of Artificial intelligence reporting status. The Gromov's large figure towered in the middle of the room, terribly standing out amongst the others. Not for the first time, he realized he was not fitting well in uniform heights of average colleagues.

Despite all odds, the committee had recommend his younger self for fighter job, condemning so the captain for endless crouching in the tight cockpit. His younger self assured the committee he could survive a little discomfort, while the older self experienced unbearable cramps in each prolonged time spent within the canopy and cursing everyone and everything.

"I should have tasted the bloody seafood, nicely vomiting in a bowl with no worries," he pondered. "If I survive, this is my last mission, no more of military idiocy. I'll retire I swear."

Nobody around was in a good mood, anyway. The uncomfortable battle suits and the foul air in the small changing room made them leave as soon as possible; the human row leading into larger central ring area where the gunners were gathering as well.

"Behold our Mastodondus Maximus!"

Delighted Andrey, accompanied by young Jamal Yoruba, begun making his way towards Gromov.

As usual, the noisy sergeant drew attention of bored people waiting around. Gromov felt like a character from never-ending sitcom, with annoying loopback of laughing audience. Andrey was obviously enjoying their reunion, radiating contentment and good humor. Wait, radiating...?

"Keep it away, Shiny head," Gromov said and shielded his eyes with both hands. "Your baldness is blinding."

"Hahaha. His Majesty made a funny remark, the bad one. Everyone, roll out laughing! It's mandatory. Jamal, you look pale. It is because you end up with the worst humorist of our times? Just imagine the horror, you and him, together in endless space, now he cracks a joke and you have nowhere to hide. No wonder you feel sick."

Andrey probably did his best to cheer the poor cadet up as Jamal's brown face had turned into unhealthy shade of gray, covered profusely by drops of sweat.

"Cadet Yoruba," continued Andrey solemnly. "I promised to show you everything you need to know to become an excellent gunner. It took me about half an hour; not because you were such a great student, but because I was such a profound and incredible teacher."

Jamal snickered and encouraged Andrey continued: "Before we fly away, prevailing over the nasty Plantarians, the only thing remains to do, the ultimate ceremony between the gunner and his pilot. Come here, my boy! I'll show you."

Then, Andrey stood before Akane and ask her gravely: "Oh my beautiful master, may I have your kiss for luck? I hanker to taste blessings coming from sensually carved lips... By the way, the last line," Andrey turned to pilots and gunners standing around, "I've learned from a very very bad romance book. Now, will our exalted heroine reward her humble servant? A gentle kiss should do..."

Akane, somehow confused and somehow amused, and obviously not well read in high literature, just said, "Sure, here you are!" while kissing both Andrey's cheeks and monumental bald forehead.

"Oy, lieutenant, this is how you treat your dying uncle," Andrey complained and won therefore another attempt, now properly placed on his lips, this time far less innocent.

"Thank you very much... This is how pilots should raise spirits of the gunners," proclaimed Andrey afterwards and poked Jamal who watched him jealously: "Now, it is your turn, brave hero. Go and collect your blessing."

But as soon as the youngster started shyly approaching Akane, sergeant grabbed his shoulders and scolded him, "Where are you heading to, dude, your pilot waits over there!" and pushed reluctant Jamal towards Gromov.

After that, there was no one in the room who did not burst in roaring laughter, especially after seeing disappointed Jamal's face which undergone several changes, from lips pursed in great expectation to sheer dread as he walked slowly in captain's direction.

"I knew Andrey was after something," thought Gromov, wondering what he should do next. "OK, I'll play along I guess."

He decided so in the split of a second, perhaps because he did not want his peers to perceive him as a dull person, or perhaps because Jamal needed a distraction to stop worrying, or because...

After scrutinizing his friend's expression, he found out that Andrey's smile never reached the eyes which stayed focused and grave, almost like the sergeant was playing a role of a jester, the clown who is cheerful outside, while detached and indifferent inside.

"He is a robot acting in given role," pondered Gromov. "Just wait, mister, you'll see my part soon."

"I am glad," he announced loudly and opened his arms, "that the sergeant remembered the old ritual - of which one I've never heard before - of kissing between pilot and gunner. Come, cadet, and have it. I'll teach you my best French kiss."

"Wait, captain, that's not..."

Flabbergasted Jamal shrieked like a sparrow caught by a bird of prey, writhing in the utter nightmare - and then just closed the eyes, reminding an androgynous virgin, being mutilated and abused in hands of a mountain gorilla. The barbarous audience of the theater chanted stormy: "KISS! KISS! KISS!"

Gromov hugged him but after getting closer to the soft boy's face, he only whispered. "Good luck, Jamal. You did well." And after releasing him, he shouted to satisfy everyone waiting for culmination: "If I knew this was going to happen, I would've picked Helga instead... Andrey, you cunning bastard, a nice trap you had set there for me."

"I did my best to entertain Your bored Majesty."

Andrey, bowing deeply and evidently pleased, showed him a thumb up while other gunners, whose pilots were women, started demanding their rights. The unfortunate rest watched them jealously, resorting to handshakes and patting their backs.

Then, one encouraged gunner, quite tall and handsome, being not happy with this, came to Akane: "My apologies, lieutenant, even if you are not my pilot, would you mind wishing me best luck? I feel I am going to need it. I am so scared..."

"Oh," Akane kissed him. "Don't be gloomy. You'll be fine."

The gunner went on: "...too scared to ask you for date afterwards. What do you think? Am I going to be fine, then?"

Before he could receive the answer, Captain Chi pushed him aside. "Not so fast, my friend. That date is already taken, isn't it?"

He winked at Akane who, to Gromov and Andrey's shared amusement, did not take the hint at all: "If you wanted to go out with me, why didn't you say so earlier, Chi?"

"What a dense princess," whispered Andrey to Gromov. "Is she for real?"

"I am afraid so."

Captain Chi with a thick skin of mud dwelling hippo flashed charming boyish smile: "Oh, did I forget to ask you out? Anyway, kiss for good luck should be OK, right? We can discuss our date later."

"Too bad you came after me, sir," the handsome guy did not intend to let the fish go out of his hook. "I was here first, so go kissing your own gunner."

Before they could start a brawl, Akane leaned forward and hugged Chi. "Actually, I don't mind, captain. You are a pretty fly, aren't you? I like bold men."

"Sava," Andrey poked Gromov and nodded right. There, in the corner, stood lieutenant Schubert, gulping nervously and mustering courage to take his turn.

"Not the right bold man, isn't he?" Andrey chuckled with tiny pity in his voice. "Poor Heinrich. Until now I thought he preferred to swing the other way if you get me. Seems he was longing for a tomcat girl, though. Despite you, he might be into the flat-chested game. Too bad the antelope he is craving for don't give a damn."

"Do you think so?"

For some reason, Gromov was under an impression Akane had been eyeing lieutenant Schubert from the moment they had exchanged their shirts - perhaps because of sheer irritation since Schubert's interest, while apparent, yet shy, might felt like being stalked. Even Akane, not exactly over-sensitive person, could find that annoying, as Gromov understood from some of her remarks.

"I think he is an idiot," uttered Gromov. Meanwhile, the other male pilots and gunners took their chances, queuing in front of Akane, and she did not hold back, enjoying the sweet moments of popularity. Even under such favorite circumstances, Heinrich Schubert hesitated to storm the fortress.

"Idiot?" Andrey asked. "Do you realize, he and you are the same? The only ones left? Should not you step in as well?"

"Should I?"

Gromov thoroughly inspected his emotions, disturbed by seeing his subordinate going wild, and he realized this was the first time he was able to see Akane, with her slender boyish figure, short-cut hair, innocent big eyes, gentle features and obnoxious questions, as an object of sexual desire; her arms around necks of other pilots and her merry laughter woke the monster of envy and jealousy within his stomach. For a second, he imagined himself roaring: "Get away, she is mine!"

Deeply amused and ashamed by own stupidity, he replied coldly: "I think I'll pass, Andrey. It is a good opportunity for her to develop interest in younger men. We are both too old."

"Speak for yourself, Your frigid majesty," sneered Andrey. "I am not old enough. Have a look!"

And he left Gromov to get more kisses from the other female pilots.

Then, Major Milano, accompanied by Colonel Steiner, appeared and stopped the spontaneous celebration by dry announcement. It was the time for the first wave to take off.


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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