To Dream With the Stars
By Sarah Bloy

Chapter Two: Flight School

    "Would I ever go back to those good old days? No, not even to see my friends that aren't around any more. You may think that sounds heartless, (laughs) but trust me, they'd understand. They went through it too, after all! They'd just commit me!"

                - Admiral Rick Hunter, as quoted in Lapstien's Interviews.

    Last time on Robotech: To Dream With the Stars: A young Max Sterling found himself in the middle of a carnival atmosphere with his family as the SDF-1 prepared for its much awaited launch. But as a group on unknown alien giants attacked, the SDF-1 executed an emergency fold which decimated most of Macross Island. Having lost his family and his home to the disaster, Max struggled to find a direction in his life. A direction he seems to have found in the Robotech Defense Force.

    The simulated Zentraedi battlepod jinked and dodged his fire. Max's eyes fluttered back and forth between it and the tactical display on the cockpit dash and in a moment had it within his sights. He fired and blew it to a simulated Hell.
    Max was amazed at the simulation. It was surprisingly... easy.
    Two more came at him at once, firing. He dodged their blasts and caught one in cross fire with the other. Boom went the first, followed shortly by the other.
    "Would'ja lookit that!" someone exclaimed as the simulation ended. "That's some score!" Max climbed out of the simulated cockpit and regarded the person giving him the compliment. "Just wait till the real thing, though," he said, "that was just a simulation, after all." The person watching him was a rather big fellow with somewhat unruly hair that looked a little like flames caught in a freeze frame. He had a somewhat arrogant air about him and a slightly dumb look in his eyes. "What's yer name?"
    "Max," he answered, "Max Sterling."
    "Nice ta know ya', Max. Ben Dixon's my name. Hey don't take this the wrong way, but you don't really look the type who'd pilot a Valk, ya' know?"
    "I've heard that," Max responded, "but I guess you never know."
    "Dixon, Benjamin!" a voice called from one of the other simulators, the ones set up for recruit on recruit battles.
    "That's me," said Ben, "gotta go. I'll catch ya' later, Max." Max watched as Ben bounced away and reported in to the Lieutenant in charge of the simulators, Kochanski.
    "Allan, Ariana!" the Lieutenant called.
Ariana Allan    The person who emerged from the crowd caught Max's attention. It was the same girl he'd run into, quite literally, just before he'd heard about Jeff. She was more official looking now, in a green-trimmed uniform and not holding back tears for an unknown reason.
    A number of catcalls arose from the crowd as she stepped forward and Max realized he wasn't the only person whose eye she'd caught. Allan pointedly ignored the rood noises, went up to Ben, and shook his hand before they both sat down in the simulators for their run.
    "Good form, Cadet Allan," stated Kochanski, "and as for the rest of you, that's enough!" The catcalls and rood noises ceased as the Lieutenant glared at the rest of the cadets. "Disrespect for fellow squad members has no place in the RDF. Anyone with enough guts to go out there and get shot at is no one to mess with. You got me?"
    "Sir, yes, sir!" the cadets all responded, straightening to attention.
    "Good. Now listen up. So far you've all flown the regular simulators against a computer simulation. But what you have to understand is that computers don't think like a living, breathing life form. Therefor the next step in your training is to simulate combat against one another. As the battle progresses, you learn your opponent's strategy, make and use your own, and try not to get scragged. Dixon and Allan are up first. The next in line will take on the victor." He nodded to Ben and Ariana. "Take your places, Cadets."
    Dixon and Allan both climbed into the simulated cockpits and settled in. As they both donned the thinking cap helmets, two holographic mecha appeared in the space between the simulators that the rest of the crowd could watch.
    "Simulation begins now," stated Kochanski.
    The two VT holograms took off into flight and began to jink and dodge each others' fire. The green one, which had started on Allan's side, soon found its way to the six o'clock position of Dixon's yellow one and fired off a perfect shot which caught the hologram dead on. The little yellow Veritech burst apart as the green one flew through the debris, came around, and stopped.
    "Dixon! What's the matter with you!" the Lieutenant bellowed. "That was the oldest trick in the book! You should have been able to dodge that no problem!"
    "I-I'm sorry, sir," Ben stammered, aghast, "I didn't see it coming."
    "That's obvious! Get out!" Kochanski glanced at his list as Ben climbed out of the cockpit and rejoined the group of cadets. "Sterling, Maximilian. You're next."
    Max took a breath and stepped out of the crowd.
    "Go get 'er, four eyes!" someone called.
    "Mr. Drake, what did I just tell you about disrespect!" Kochanski bellowed. Max went up to the simulators and found that Allan had exited the cockpit and was extending her hand to him. He took it and gave it a firm shake. "Let's see what your opinion of him's gonna be when you're in the middle of a battle and your life depends on teamwork with him!" Ariana made eye contact with Max, glanced Drake's way with her eyes, and then crossed them. Max allowed himself a small, lop-sided smile and she winked in response. "You understand, Drake!" the Lieutenant finished.
    "Sir, yes sir!" Drake responded.
    Kochanski left Drake to ponder his words and returned to Max and Ariana. "Take your places, Cadets," he ordered. They both climbed inside and situated again. This time, in place of Ben's yellow VT hologram, a blue one appeared opposite Ariana's green.
    "Simulation begins now."
    Again, the two Veritech holograms took flight. Ariana took the first shot which Max dodged effortlessly, going into a parabolic climb as the green VT kept going straight. He dropped back in behind her and took a shot while he had her haloed in the target reticle. She jinked and the simulated missile missed. She took the VT into a downward loop, curling in a course beneath Max's VT. He banked to the left and imaged a conversion to Battleoid mode through the thinking cap. He took the VT's rifle/cannon in the 'bot's metal hand and fired off a shot at Ariana's transforming mecha. She almost dodged it, but it tore into the body of her Battleoid nonetheless, blowing it to smithereens.
    "Good work, Sterling," said Kochanski as the simulation stopped and Max and Ariana both climbed out, "and you weren't too shabby either Allan, but you brought up a good point." He turned and addressed the whole group. "When you're transforming from one mode to another, get out of the line of fire. There is a certain amount of time where a VT is vulnerable during transformations. You should not attempt to maintain target lock, just get out of the way."
    As Ariana took her place back among the group, the Lieutenant consulted his list and called the next name.

    The simulation session ended after three more matches. Max, undefeated, was a participant in all of them. The rest of the group of cadets had had him figured for a soon-to-be wash-out and had payed little interest in him until that moment. In the simulator, Max had taken on cadets twice his size, half again as tall, and at least four times as boisterous and sailed through their simulated fire like they were nothing at all.
    A fluke, he told himself, either I got lucky, or they all sucked. Or both.
    Carrying his tray of lunch, Max searched the crowded cafeteria for a place to sit and eat. The first few tables were taken up by the more outgoing cadets who had already established themselves as what amounted to upperclassmen in the RDF's accelerated flight school program. The truth was that they were all in the exact same classes and at the same stage in training all around. But some, unwilling to do away with the traditional ranks in a school setting, set themselves up as the ones who issued orders to the rest of the cadets.
    Max passed those tables consciously and continued to the back of the cafeteria. He never really had cared for large groups of people, especially the loud ones. Names were something he was never very good at. He found that most of the tables were filled with ravenously eating hordes of cadets and officer instructors.
    But there seemed to be one small area back in the corner that had space. He moved toward it and found at its center Ariana Allan, silently eating lunch alone.
    Perhaps she was someone he could relate to. Quiet, rather small, and also singled out, Allan seemed like a kindred spirit. Max decided to give it a go.
    "Is anyone sitting here?" he asked, approaching.
    "Are you daft?" she said in a Liverpool accent around a mouthful. "Have you suddenly gone blind since this morning, Sterling? Do you think any of them would want to be seen around a lass in a uniform?"
    "Uh... Is that a yes or a no?"
    Ariana swallowed, intrigued. "You are daft. Either sit or not, I don't care."
    Max set his tray on the table and took a seat across from Ariana. "Your name's Allan, right?" he asked.
    She swallowed again. "What, is there a chance it changed in the past half-hour?"
    "I... guess not. So, where're you from?"
    "All right, spill it. Why the sudden interest?"
    "I have to have a motive? That's just paranoid."
    "We all have motives," she said evenly, "even if we don't realize it. So, what's yours, Sterling?"
    "Geeze! I'm only trying to be friendly! And you can call me Max, okay."
    Ariana looked him over, meeting his gaze for the first time. "Chums, huh? What a pair! A tom-boy lass and a gimboyd with glasses both trying to be fighter pilots. What's in it for me?"
    Max was puzzled for a moment, trying to find a response. "Um, mutual support?" he finally stammered, smiling weakly.
    She arched an eyebrow at him.
    "You lost someone recently, didn't you," said Max. Ariana sent a glare his way and abruptly rose from the table. "Hey wait!" Max called after her, grabbing his own tray off the table. Ariana dumped what was left on her tray in the garbage can and continued out the door. Deciding that lunch wasn't all that important after all, Max did likewise.
    "Why are you following me?" Allan asked gruffly, turning on her heel.
    "I just... I was... Well, what did I say?"
    "If you don't know, you're more daft that I first suspected." She spun around and continued on.
    "Look whatever it was, I'm sorry," said Max, following a few steps behind.
    "Go away," she snapped with finality.
    Max stopped in his tracks, genuinely distressed. "Fine then!" he shot back. "Be that way! We'll both go it alone!" He stalked over to a small alley, turned the corner into it, and leaned against the wall, frustrated and feeling even more alone than before. He closed his eyes tight, trying to keep his forming tears from growing.
    "Ya' damn smeghead," Ariana's voice came from the alley's end. Her tone had changed, though; it was softer, almost apologetic. "Why'd ya' have ta say that?" Max heard footsteps coming toward him.
    "Forget it," said Max, "forget I said anything."
    "Oh, come on," said Ariana, "suddenly the roles are switched. What was that all about?"
    "You," said Max, turning around and facing her.
    "Yeah, you. Lighten up, will ya'! Let someone into your life! I got news for you, lady, there are other people aboard this ship in just as much pain as you are. So get over it and live-"
    Max stopped short and started. Was that really him talking? Or had Jeffery Machlis suddenly inhabited his mouth for a moment?
    Maybe he had.
    "Live what?" Ariana inquired.
    A silent and tense moment seemed to pass between them.
    "Well, you're certainly not like the others," Ariana finally said, "it seems you have a soul; definitely one up on the rest of them." Another moment of silence. "Allo! Sterling! Jesus, you look like you've seen a ghost!"
    "I think I did."
    "Oh don't tell me you're one of the type that believes in spirits and hauntings, now! Because, that's just points against you, right there."
    "No, not in hauntings. But don't you believe in souls? I mean, what about after... you know?"
    "I believe what I can see, touch, hear, and feel. Everything else is open to debate. For instance, did you know that you can put any Emily Dickenson poem to the tune of the El-roads of Texas?"
    Max was confused. What did that have to do with anything? "Huh?"
    "No, really," she said, and struck a pose. "Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. The carriage held for just ourselves and immortality," she belted.
    "My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night," Max crooned, tentatively. He paused, thinking it over. "Geeze, you're right!" he exclaimed.
    "That's not Emily Dickenson," stated Ariana.
    "It's not? Who is it?"
    Allan acquired a perturbed look. "I can't remember, but it's not her, I can sure tell ya' that. Strange, that that would fit also."
    Max began to laugh. It was small at first, and it seemed almost like an unfamiliar feeling. But soon, he was laughing like he'd never laughed before.
    "What's with you now?" Ariana asked.
    "I'm... laughing. I haven't had a good laugh in a long time."
    Ariana joined him. A casual passerby glanced down the alley and made a face that said he thought they were both crazy.
    Finally, they both settled.
    "You're all right, Sterling. It's a deal; chums."
    "Then, call me Max, huh?"
    "Only if you call me Ari. But call me Ar and you get hit."

    "You wanna what?"
    Ben handed Max a roll of toilet paper he had pilfered from the bathroom. "Teepee the Lieutenant's quarters," he responded, "the guy seriously needs to lighten up."
    "He's only doing that so we don't get killed, ya' know," stated Max.
    "Oh, c'mon, where's your sense of fun?"
    "On a date with my actual interests. My sense of self-preservation is filling in."
    "Fine," said Ben, snatching the roll of toilet paper out of Max's hand, "you sit around on your tail while I go pull off the greatest prank in SDF-1 history. But don't come crying ta me when everyone's talking about it tomorrow."
    "Hey, FYI. Ari and I have a copilot solo tomorrow," said Max, "gotta rest up."
    "Yeah," said Ben, somewhat condescendingly, "and gotta shower, put on a little after-shave..."
    "What's that supposed to mean?"
    "Don't act all innocent. The whole class is talkin' about it; you and that Allan girl, always hangin' around each other and no one else. You can't tell me there isn't anything between you two."
    "There's not! We're just friends."
    "Sure, and I'm Billy Mitchell."
    "You are not!" Max exclaimed, snatching one of Ben's rolls of TP. "And just to show you and everyone else I have other things on my mind, I'll come with you."
    Ben licked his finger and stabbed the air with it, making a hissing noise. Max rolled his eyes and led the way, Ben snickering behind him.

    "Go ahead, open it," said Ben when they reached the target of their prank, the door to Kochanski's quarters.
    "I'm not gonna do it, you open it," Max responded.
    Ben went over to a nearby tree and leaned against it. "What're you, scared or somethin'? Go for it. No one's awake for a block and the Lieutenant is out with his girl."
    "And just why do I suddenly get the honor?" Max asked, approaching Ben.
    Suddenly, there was a rustle of leaves from the tree overhead and a streak of red descended into view, a throaty noise accompanying it. Max and Ben both jumped half way to the Deadalus and gave short cries of fright.
    "My, my," said Ari, still hanging upside down by her knees from a branch, her pony tail dangling in her face, "it seems I've made a mistake. I was looking for two fearless RDF cadets, but all I found are two kittens with toilet paper." She poked Ben in the stomach. "All be it a big one."
    "Hey! What's your problem, lady!" Ben exclaimed as Ari curled upward and freed her legs from the tree, jumping down.
    "Do you really have to ask?" she asked, sarcastically. "Max, is he for real?"
    "Oh, yeah," said Max, dourly.
    "Just whadaya think you're doin' here?" Ben demanded. "We're pullin' off a prank. We don't need you around in the way."
    Ariana reached around behind her back and produced a roll of toilet paper. She showed it to Ben, winking.
    "Max? What I said before?" Ben said. "I take it back, she's not your type."
    "Just why not?" Ari asked, gloming onto Max's arm, jokingly. Max turned slightly pale and seemed to panic a bit. "Oh, lighten up, Old Blue, I'm only joking. I was going to join you two on your little quest but I thought better of it when I spotted Kochanski and his lass a few blocks away. I decided to warn you instead."
    "Huh?!" Ben and Max exclaimed in unison.
    "Time ta book it," stated Ben.
    "I'm outie!" Max agreed.
    "You're welcome," Ariana shouted to their retreating backs as she began to follow.

    "Look out, John Carter!" Ari exclaimed throwing the Veritech into a barrel roll as it sailed through the thin atmosphere of Mars.
    "Would you knock it off," Max implored from the back seat.
    "I'm just having a little fun," said Ari, "you're so serious."
    "This isn't supposed to be fun," stated Max, "it's a training flight. Now would you let me have it?"
    "Oh all right," conceded Ariana, flipping a few switches in the cockpit, "Mother Hen Six, this is Wet Ears One, Green Lantern. I'm turning control over to Blue Devil."
    "Roger that, Green Lantern," Kochanski's voice came over the tac net, "Mother Hen Six to Blue Devil. I want to you take a strafing run, Sterling. Your target is the rock formation at bearing five-seven-oh-niner."
    "Copy, Mother Hen Six," said Max, bringing the fighter around to come straight at the formation. He haloed the rocks in his sights and blew it off the face of Mars effortlessly. The Lieutenant proceeded to order Max to take the Veritech through its paces; Guardian mode, Battleoid, moving targets, and more. Finally, he was ordered to land on the planet's surface in Battleoid and Mother Hen Six, the Lieutenant's Veritech, did likewise.
    "Mother Hen Six to Wet Ears One. Good job, both of you. I think you both have... stand by, Wet Ears One."
    Max and Ari exchanged puzzled looks as the training freq went silent for a moment.
    "Wet Ears One, this is Mother Hen Six. Return to base, repeat, return to base. SDF-1 is reading incoming, so make it snappy."
    "Roger that, Mother Hen Six," said Ari, snapping the fighter over to her controls, taking off and imaging over to Fighter mode. The Veritech sped off over the Martian landscape with Mother Hen Six just after it.
    Without warning, a Zentraedi battlepod rose out of nowhere and hovered in their path, taking aim. Ari let out a small yelp and banked for all the fighter was worth. The pod adjusted its aim and fired at the Veritech's turning underbelly. Mother Hen Six fired a shot at the pod just a moment too late and the pod's shot landed squarely in Wet Ears One's dorsal side. The pod blew apart as the Veritech began to dive for the ground.
    "Ari, pull up!" Max shouted.
    "I'm trying!" Ariana responded in kind, yanking the stick for their lives.
    The fighter smashed into the ground, leveling off at the last second and skidding to a halt along the ground. Inertia threw Max this way and that until he came to a stop and was pulled back into the seat by his harness. He let out a breath, thankful to be in one piece.
    "We made it," he said, but got no response from his copilot. "Ari?" He unstrapped from his seat and reached into the front seat to check on Ariana. Her head lolled forward and Max pulled her back to where he could see her, infinitely grateful to hear a small moan. But, inside her helmet, Ariana had a small trickle of blood streaking down the side of her face. "Computer," said Max, "status of pilot Green Lantern."
    "Pilot Green Lantern is unconscious," the computer responded, "minor concussion to right side of the head. Recommend immediate treatment. Pulse normal. Blood pressure normal. Breathing normal. Warning; pilot Blue Devil has sustained damage to oxygen supply system. Estimate ten minutes of breathable air remaining."
    "Mother Hen Six to Wet Ears One. Come in. What is your status?"
    "Blue Devil to Mother Hen Six," Max responded, mindful of every breath, "Ariana's unconscious, sir. All guidance systems are dead and I've only got ten minutes of air left."
    "Do you have control?"
    "No, Ari had control when we went down," Max responded reaching for Ari's controls, desperately, "and I can't reach to change it over."
    "Keep trying," said Kochanski landing his Battleoid next to the downed VT, "if you can't get control, you're both toast. There's a few more aliens heading straight for us."
    Max reached for the controls again, but was three inches short. He tried reaching around Ariana several different ways, but to no avail.
    Max leaned back in his own seat, beginning to feel a little light headed from his growing lack of oxygen. A thought suddenly occurred to him and he reached for Ariana's arm. He carefully curled the fingers of her right hand and gripped her wrist. He reached forward with her arm and hooked her hand on the control that switched pilots and pulled. His own controls came to life and he carefully replaced Ari's arm at her side.
    "Blue Devil to Mother Hen Six," said Max, strapping back into his own seat, "I have control, Lieutenant."
    "Good. Can you switch to Guardian?"
    "I think so."
    "Do it. We need to get you two back to the ship."
    Max pulled down on the G-lever and imaged over to Guardian. The Veritech obediently switched over and got to its feet.
    "Mother Hen Six to Blue Devil. How long did you say your air would last?"
    "Ten minutes, sir. That was three minutes ago."
    "Damn. It'll take us that long to get back to the ship, you're three minutes short. Can you hold out using emergency breathing techniques?"
    "I'll try, sir."
    "Don't try, Sterling. Do. You are not to pass out and that's a direct order."
    "Yes, sir."
    The two Veritechs sped across the landscape once more, heading for the grounded SDF-1. Both Max and Kochanski patched into the regular tac net and it soon became clear that the ship was stuck and under heavy attack. Kochanski informed control of their situation and Claudia Grant promised to have Roy Fokker and Skull Squad provide as much cover as possible, but couldn't guarantee anything. Max meanwhile was running out of breath and becoming more and more light-headed by the moment.
    Needless to say, it was going to be one interesting landing.
    "Warning," the computer of Wet Ears One chimed, "vital signs of pilot Blue Devil dropping. Breathing labored. Pulse above normal. Level of oxygen supply suggests unconsciousness is imminent."
    "Never mind that," Max snapped at the computer, "status of pilot Green Lantern."
    "Pilot Green Lantern remains unconscious due to minor concussion to right side of the head. Pulse normal. Blood pressure normal. Breathing normal."
    Max felt the edges of darkness beginning to seep in on his vision and blinked it back, all the while hearing the rush of his own breath in his ears.
    He vaguely heard something over the tac net about Commander Hayes inside Mars Base Sara. He chose to disregard it for the moment and regained control of his breath.
    His lungs were burning with lack of oxygen and he had to breathe in a lot of air to get any. It did not help that his heart was pounding furiously with the fear that Ariana would never wake up or even make it back to the ship should he pass out. Bottom line, she was counting on him.
    He suddenly noticed that Kochanski's Veritech was firing its gun/cannon at several Zentraedi battlepods.
    "Sterling! Stay with me!" he shouted. "I need some help here. We're almost back to the Promie. I just need a little more cover fire."
    Without responding over the tac net, Max searched the visible part of the sky through his blurred vision and spotted a target. He haloed it in his mind and fired off a shot which landed dead on.
    "Hey, I thought your guidance was out," said the Lieutenant.
    "Yeah," Max responded, fuzzily.
    "SDF-1 control to Mother Hen Six and Wet Ears One," Lieutenant Commander Grant's voice come over the tac net, "you are within range to begin landing procedures. The deck is clear, you may proceed."
    "Thanks SDF-1 control," said Kochanski, "okay Sterling, go for it. And you better make it fast."
    "Copy," Max breathed, shaking his head to clear it slightly. He imaged over to fighter mode and landed somewhat roughly. He taxied on to the elevator that took the Veritech down to the pressurized hanger bay and promptly spotted a group of technicians heading his way.
    He reached for the control that popped the canopy and pulled it.
    He was reaching for the control at the side of his flight helmet that opened the faceplate when the world went black.
    Max came to again a few moments later, aware that he was laying on his back and that something was covering his mouth and nose.
    "Just take it easy," someone said next to him as he tried to lever himself into a sitting position, "breathe normally and try not to move too much."
    He became more and more lucid with every breath and assumed that the mask covering the lower part of his face was delivering oxygen to his respiratory system. Gathering his bearings, he turned to regard Wet Ears One. The EMT's were presently lifting the still unconscious Ariana out of the VT's cockpit. Despite the protests of the EMT next to him, he got up on shaky legs and tottered over to the others. They were removing Ari's flight helmet now, revealing the extent of the blow to her head. The right side of her head was red with blood which trickled down the side of her face.
    "What do you think you're doing, Sterling?" Kochanski snapped, coming up behind him. "Get back on that oxygen! I mean now!"
    Max's worries were suddenly subject to the override of the unquestionable orders of the Lieutenant. He scurried back over to the EMT he had woken up beside who pushed the mask back to his face. Kochanski followed him.
    "Allan'll be fine," said the Lieutenant, "and nothing you can do right now will affect the outcome of her care unless you get in the way of the EMT's and let her get worse. So, just stay out of the way for now." Max nodded meekly. "Don't worry. I'll let you know where she's at and you can check on her later. Rest up, Cadet."
    "Yessir," Max responded through the oxygen mask.

    Max watched as Ariana's eyes fluttered open slowly and she began to look about the recovery room. "Hey," he said, directing a weak smile her way.
    "What're ya' smiling for ya' smeghead?" she responded. "I have one fekkin' headache. What happened?"
    "You got a concussion in our artful landing out there," Max stated, "you've been out for about twelve hours."
    "Where are we?"
    "Back on the SDF-1 in the hospital. You should be all right."
    Kochanski entered suddenly and inquired as to Ari's well being.
    "Better, it seems, sir," she responded.
    "Good," the Lieutenant said, straightening up. "Then I wanna know what the Hell happened in that Veritech! What kinda evasive maneuver was that Allan!
    "Sir, I don't know what happened," Ari sputtered, "I guess I just-"
    "Panicked? Is that it?"
    "Lieutenant," Max began.
    "Stay out of this one, Sterling. If it weren't for you, you'd both be permanent residents of the Martian landscape, you got it Allan?"
    "But I don't-"
    "I don't want to hear it, Cadet. If you're gonna be a fighter pilot-"
    "Sir, it was my fault!" Max shouted, breaking in on Kochanski's tirade. The Lieutenant turned to him, eyes narrowed, awaiting an explanation. "When we first received word that the aliens were attacking, I panicked and shifted the controls over to Ari- I mean, to Cadet Allan. She wasn't prepared for it and was still recovering when the ostrich ambushed us."
    Kochanski looked from one cadet to the other. "'S'at so? What the Hell were you thinking?"
    "I... wasn't, sir," Max responded, meekly.
    "That's painfully obvious, Cadet." The Lieutenant turned away from both of them. "Despite this little fiasco, you both performed well in simulations and real flight exercises. It crossed my mind to flunk you both, but you're both good, despite first combat problems. So you'll both be graduating with the rest of the class in two weeks. But both of you are going to have to perform better than that in the middle of battle to last more than ten seconds out there. Do I make myself clear?"
    "Yessir," Max and Ari responded in unison.
    "Good," said Kochanski, making his way to the door. "By the way," he added with a slightly exasperated tone, "don't ever fly in the same VT again. You both worry about each other too much." With that, he departed.
    "Max," Ari began once the Lieutenant was out of earshot.
    "Imagine," said Max, "chewing someone out just after they regained consciousness. What a prick."
    "I mean, he could have waited a couple of hours at least."
    "Max!" Ariana clapped a hand over Max's mouth. "Why?"
    "Why could he have waited? I think that's pretty obvious, don't you?"
    "Max, why did you take the blame? You didn't switch the controls over, I did. And I should have left them; you're a better pilot than I am. I was the one who should have taken the blame for that. Why did you?"
    Max was puzzled for a moment; why had he?
    "Because," Max finally responded, turning away from her in hopes of hiding his puzzled look, "he shouldn't have started chewing you out just after waking up from a concussion. I just did what anyone would have done. So, just forget about it, okay?"
    Max began to exit. "Ya' fekkin' smeghead!" Ari yelled after him. "Now I owe ya' one!"

    Max's puzzlement followed him to Macross City park. He kept replaying the previous scene in his mind over and over.
    Why had he taken the blame? Sure, he had hated to see Ariana being chewed out just after waking up, that much was true. But it was her in particular he hated to see in that situation. He doubted if he would have done that for Ben or anyone else. Why was that?
    What was it about Ariana Allan?
    More importantly, when had she become so important in his life? Why couldn't he imagine his world without her, now?
    Max found himself next to the park's Peace Fountain. He sat down on the ledge, dangling a hand into the water and studying the distortions of his reflection.
    Was he really the person who was staring back at him? He looked so confused, at a loss for what to do next. Indeed, as to what he was actually feeling.
    Was that it?
    Nah! That couldn't have been it. They both denied it so vociferously. How could it be true? It was simply impossible.

    The White Dragon had been commandeered.
    More specifically, it had been rented for the night by the RDF for a morale booster for all the graduating cadets who seemed to have a case of graduation blues. The restaurant was decked out in crepe paper decorations and custom lighting. A half-decent disk jockey was commanding a stereo system that had been set up near a space cleared of tables which was intended as a dance floor. Crowds of newly graduated RDFer's crowded into the ambiance and were dancing, laughing, and goofing off with sweethearts they had dragged along or who had insisted on being taken. The RDF men were dressed in tuxedos, leading their elaborately dressed dates by the arm.
    Max and Ben, both looking distinguished in tuxes, entered and surveyed their surroundings.
    "Nope," said Max, turning around and beginning to head back out. He was caught by Ben's large hand.
    "Aw, c'mon, Max," Ben pleaded, "what's the problem?"
    "It's too much like senior prom."
    "I was dateless for senior prom, too. It wasn't fun."
    "Oh get over it," Ben ordered, pulling Max back inside, "you and I can surely pick up a date around here, right?" Max resigned himself to Ben's lead and the two of them were soon standing next to the punch bowl. "Watch and learn, my friend," said Ben as a young woman in a red dress came over toward them. "Good evening, beautiful," said Ben to her, "what's an angel of the heavens doing in this dump? Care to take a dance on cloud nine?"
    "Creep," the young woman directed at him just before turning around and leaving.
    "I'm watching, but I'm not learning," said Max.
    "Here, have some punch and shut up," said Ben, pushing a glass into Max's hand and rushing after the young woman.
    Max regarded the glass, perturbed, and sighed. He set it on the table and moved back toward the wall. He leaned against it wondering how Ben had talked him into coming to the formal in the first place.
    Just then, there were a number of catcalls out of most of the newly commissioned corporals. Max looked around the room and followed their gaze back to the door where he spotted Ariana entering and glaring at the lot of them.
    Max found her positively enchanting; she was wearing a dark green, sleeveless evening gown of crushed velvet that offset the color of her hair just right. Her red trusses hung lose behind her shoulders, kept out of her face by a black headband.
    Her glare dissolved and she looked slightly hurt. She seemed about to leave again, but Max rushed over and extended his hand, bowing at the waist debonairly.
    "Good evening madam," he said.
    Ari did something Max had never heard her do; she giggled. "My aren't you the charmer," she responded, placing a hand in Max's outstretched one.
    Max kissed it in a formal way. "Care for an escort?"
    "Delighted, prince charming," she responded.
    A few more cat calls erupted as they moved through the crowd, arm-in-arm. They approached an empty table and Max pulled a chair out for her.
    "I knew I shouldn't have worn this," said Ari, motioning to her dress.
    "What're you talking about?" Max asked. "You look terrific."
    "I don't know if it's what they all expected," she said, "they're all used to seeing me play the tom-boy."
    "So what," stated Max, "I think you look incredible."
    She smiled wanly at him, resting her chin on her clasped hands. "Thanks, Old Blue. I needed that. What you think matters to me a lot, you know."
    Max smiled back and they both gazed at each other for a few moments.
    "Hey, um," Max fumbled, blushing slightly, "you, ah, wanna dance?" He was surprised to hear himself asking her that. He had never danced with a woman before in his life and wasn't even sure he knew how. Next thing he knew she was responding in the affirmative and they were on the dance floor, swaying effortlessly to the slow music.
    They were both aware they were drawing looks from a number of people around the room, but could not have cared less. A small space began to clear around them as couples gaped at the two people who had previously denied any involvement. And here they were, looking like the most natural couple on the floor.
    Ariana spun sprightly on her feet, holding Max's hand over her head and allowing the skirt of her dress and her hair to splay out around her. They finished the movement in the traditional slow dance pose as the music ended.
    "Let's hear it for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, kids!" the DJ announced, breaking the two of them out of the haze of the moment.
    "Huh?" they both exclaimed, looking to one another. Their eyes met for a moment and they both found puzzlement in the other. Confused, they pushed away from one another.
    The DJ continued the night and began another song, a fast one. But no one on or around the dance floor moved for several seconds.
    "No couple, eh?" The ever tactful Corporal Drake shouted to them from his place near the wall.
    Ariana finally took her confused eyes off of Max and looked about, quite obviously feeling like a spectacle. She let out a small moan, putting her hands to her face and bolted for the door.
    "What'd ya' do, Max?" Ben asked, coming up to him. "Step on her foot?"
    Max, seeming not to notice Ben at all, looked to the floor and let out an exasperated moan of his own. "Oh! Prom my butt!" he exclaimed, rushing out the door after Ari.
    He finally caught up with her in the RDF cafeteria. The place was dark and quiet and just right for a brooding soul who wanted to be left alone.
    "Ari," said Max, sitting beside her at one of the tables, "I think we need ta talk."
    "What's there to talk about, Max?" she responded, not looking at him. "We're friends. That's all; just two people who enjoy each others' company."
    "Yeah," Max agreed, uncomfortably, "just friends." A few moments of silence passed between them. "So, where're you off to in the morning?"
    "I pulled duty in Cerulean Team, under a Lieutenant Fischer. You?"
    "Vermillion, under some guy named Hunter."
    "What about him?"
    "Haven't you heard? He's the one who stumbled into a VT back on Macross Island and fumbled around in it doing more damage than the aliens. Fokker had ta save his arse!"
    Max sighed. "Lucky me."


Coming soon: Chapter Three of To Dream With the Stars!
    Max finds himself under the command of the blasé Rick Hunter along with Ben and finds combat not as hard as he thought it would be. Things get interesting as a new friendship is formed and our hero finds himself observing two sides of the military fence clashing. And the Zentraedi enter the scene in all earnest.
    Be here for Robotech: To Dream With the Stars Chapter Three: Vermillion Team!