To Dream With the Stars
By Sarah Bloy

Chapter Four: Shattered Dreams

    "The first lesson- one of many- I learned from Max Sterling was to beware the quiet ones. In those first few mission briefings before the I took the stick of that Cat's Eye, Max was quiet, complying; I had heard he was still pretty new to the Skulls, but he was so insecure! Rick [Hunter] and I didn't help much with our constantly conflicting orders. Sometimes, it seemed like Max didn't know whether to zig or zag.
    "Little did I know that behind those plum tinted glasses lied both a terrifying dragon waiting to spit fire and a gentle lamb wanting to run and hide."

                - Lisa Hayes, Recollections

    Last time on Robotech: To Dream With the Stars: Max Sterling found himself assigned to Vermillion Team under the command of Rick Hunter and saw his first firefight. Although they seemed to be a dysfunctional pair at first, the two pilots grew to respect one another. As Max encountered a Zentraedi for the first time, he proved to himself and to the Skull Squadron that he was a force to be reckoned with.

    Max, Rick, and Ben stepped into the hallway which was considerably less crowded than the backstage media circus that was following Minmei around.
    "I never knew backstage could get so hot!" Ben exclaimed, fanning himself.
    "I never knew a uniform could wilt," stated Rick, giving Ben a small poke.
    "It is, look at this," said Ben, fingering his collar.
    Max leaned against the wall, allowing his two wingmates to go around as they so often did. It was all in fun, of course. You didn't face certain death with a couple of guys and not become best friends.
    "Max!" a voice exclaimed from the hall entrance. All three pilots turned and found Ariana streaking toward them. She continued past both Rick and Ben and immediately wrapped her arms around Max. "Thank God!" she breathed, somewhat more intensely than she ever had before. "I thought... when we didn't hear anything... for two weeks..." She trailed off and began crying into his shoulder. Max, concerned, let himself go and returned her embrace.
    Ben seemed about to say something, but Rick clapped a hand over his mouth and dragged him off.
    "We'll be at the White Dragon," said Rick as they both exited.
    "Hey, what's the matter?" Max asked of Ari after Rick and Ben were gone.
    "I'd heard that you and the others had come back," she sobbed, "but I couldn't believe it. Not until I saw you myself. It just seemed too good to be true."
    "C'mon, Ari," said Max, trying to take on a lighter tone, but not succeeding very well, "did you really think I'd let myself get scragged by some XT giant?"
    "I didn't know what to think," she said, holding him tighter and burying her face further into his shoulder, "I gave up hope."
    "Would you stop that," said Max, lifting her chin up to face him, "I'm back now. You don't have to worry about all of that any more."
    She gave him a weak smile through the remains of her tears. "You're such a sweety, aren't ya'," she said, reaching up and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. Max felt some of the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. "All right, you're forgiven. Just don't do this to me again."
    "Not if I can help it," said Max as he took her arm on his, "let's go for a walk. This hallway's stuffy."

    "Look at that!" Ari exclaimed, pointing to one of the many windows in Macross City park. "I never thought I'd be so happy to see the moon. Just think; Earth's just beyond. We'll be home in three days!"
    "Yeah," Max sighed, "Ari, what will you do after we get there?"
    "What do you mean?"
    "I mean, will you stay in the RDF, or resign and go somewhere else?"
    "RDF," she responded simply, "you?"
    "RDF," Max agreed.
    "You?" Ariana asked. "Max, don't take this the wrong way, because I know you're the best fighter pilot aboard ship, but I wonder if this line of work is really for you. You're so... gentle and sensitive. Every time I see you inboard the ship, I wonder where your twin is. You're kind, Max; you're not a killer."
    Max slipped his arm out of hers and looked to the window. "I become what I have to become out there. That doesn't mean I like destroying things. I have to defend what's left of what I care about. The RDF is my family now, Ari. If I left, what would I have? And besides." He turned back to her and found her absently looking out the window. He put his hands on her shoulders and she looked up at him. "I could say the same thing about you."
    She turned away from him and folded her arms over her chest, as if hugging herself.
    "My father," she said, "he was an RDFer before I was. He was part of Commander Fokker's original squadron. He died in the battle around Saturn." She turned back to Max. "He wasn't a killer either, Max, and every time he went into battle, a part of him died inside. But he kept going out there, because of me, my mother, and my sister. He couldn't just stand by while there was something he could do to make a difference. I never understood it! I thought if I joined the Robotech Defense Force, I could. Like it or not, it's a part of me now, and I never walk away from myself."
    Ariana turned back and looked out the window again and Max, speechless, did likewise.
    "I know it hurts," said Max after a few moments, "I know what it's like to lose family. I understand."
    "Do you still... get scared out there?"
    "Mm hmm. You?"
    "Yeah. I've been thinking a lot, since I thought you were... were dead. This can't be all there is, can it? We spend our lives fighting what's around us and then we die and that's all? There must be some part of us that goes on."
    "No one's ever come back to tell me. No matter how much I wished it to happen. That, more than anything's started to make me wonder. I wonder what we have to do to get where we want to be... after."
    Ariana cracked a lop-sided smile. "Listen to us," she said, "one would think we were going to die tomorrow. You're back and that's what matters. It's time to party; let's get over to the White Dragon."
    "Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?"
    "You bet'cha!"

    Ben took a large gulp of soda from his glass, swallowed, threw his head back, and let fly one of the largest burps ever heard on a spaceship. The silence that had surrounded the event was broken by cheers and laughter. Roy, nearby, jokingly feigned lightheadedness.
    "Holy cow, Ben!" Rick exclaimed.
    "Yeah, could you pick up your chunks?" Ariana agreed.
    Ben took on a smug look. "I dare someone to beat that!"
    "I'll take that challenge," stated Roy, picking up his own glass of soda and downing a gulp. He too let loose a burp, but it fizzled and turned to breath quickly. Roy, perturbed, looked at his glass of soda. "This stuff is flat," he said by way of excuse.
    "C'mon, admit it," said Ben, "I can burp better than anyone in this room."
    "Oh boy," Max said, as though he knew what was coming next.
    "You think so, eh?" Ari inquired, then turned to Max. "Maestro?"
Got gas?    Max sighed once, then began to hum part of "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah." At the end of each stanza, Ariana let lose exactly three controlled burps, in tone to the music. She finished off the number with a huge burp that lasted almost three seconds and included all the swallowed air she hadn't yet used.
    The room once again went into laughter and cheers and Ari took a deep bow. One person even threw a few coins on the table.
    "I bow to the Queen of Crass Behavior!" Roy exclaimed, pulling an Arabian Knights style kowtow on the table.
    "All hail the Mistress of Nauseating!" Rick agreed, stabbing the air with a fist.
    "I can't believe I'm a party to this," said Max, rolling his eyes.
    "I can't believe I just heard that out of a lady," said Ben, slightly nonplused.
    "Who said that about me?" Ariana asked, accusingly. "Who's been saying that?"
    Another burst of laughter followed, then the room settled and everyone sat again.
    "So, Ari, I see you were busy while we were gone," said Rick, indicating the Lieutenant's bars on her uniform.
    "Yes," said Ari, absently fingering the rank insignia, "we lost Lieutenant Fischer a week ago. They chose to give me command of Cerulean team."
    "Fischer?" Rick asked. "Damn. That's awful. He was a good guy."
    "But I couldn't think of a better person to take his place than Ariana," said Roy, "she's the best in Cerulean. Maybe better than you or I, Little Brother."
    "I didn't take his place, Commander," Ariana corrected, "just his role. No one pilot can take the place of another on this ship."
    "Well, in any case," said Max, rising and taking up his glass, "I think a toast is in order. To Fischer and his incredible successor, The Green Lantern, Ariana Allan." He clinked his glass against hers as others around the table did likewise with others.
    "Let's not forget the other promotions that have happened," said Ari, raising her own glass, "to the pilots of Vermillion team, the looniest trio of smegheads and luckiest sons of bitches ever to grace the skies."
    "Here, here," Roy agreed.
    "Luck?" Rick, Max, and Ben asked in unison with a touch of incredulity.
    "Luck had nothin' to do with it," Ben protested.
    "Please," Ari countered, "Old Blue clothed his Battloid in a Zent uniform and they didn't recognize him. That's not luck?"

    Max, Rick, and Ben all but pressed their faces against the window, watching the battle outside the ship. It was strange that the larger number of Zentraedi mecha were still hanging back and not engaging. Impatiently, Ben pounded a fist on the plexi.
    "Man, we should be out there!"
    "Calm down, Ben, Roy and our boys are doin' just fine," said Rick, "I give this battle a half an hour."
    "Look out!" Max shouted as he spotted an out of control battlepod headed straight for their window. They all ducked and covered, convinced that their now-famous luck had just run out.
    But the expected crash never came. After the expected time had elapsed, all three off-duty pilots looked up cautiously.
    Ariana's bright green Veritech, the Green Lantern, was presently swinging the battlepod around by the leg in Battloid.
    "Yeah!" Max cheered. "Go get 'em, Ari!" Rick and Ben joined in with cheers of their own.
    After disposing of the pod, Green Lantern turned to regard their window and saluted with its metal-shod hand. It then promptly mechamorphosed to fighter mode and sped away.
    "I gotta admit," said Ben, "the girl's got style."
    "Atmospheric contact!" Claudia's voice bellowed over the ship wide intercom. The ship started to shake and the three Vermillion soon found themselves on their bottoms and still reeling.
    "Do you think the heat shields are still good after all of this?" Max inquired over the ship's groans and creeks.
    "We landed an Mars, didn't we?" Rick responded.
    "A lot's happened since Mars," Ben reminded him.
    The next thing Max knew, he was being poked and prodded awake by Ben. Slowly, behind the eyes, a headache began to form. Max was beginning to recognize that feeling all too well. He let out a groan and rubbed his face with his hand.
    "He all right?" he heard Rick the next moment.
    "He's coming around now," said Ben.
    "Goddam, clock-stopping, ostrich-flying freakoids," Max mumbled as he levered himself into a sitting position, "how many times can I get conked because of them?"
    "You all right," Rick asked.
    "Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," said Max, waving it off. He suddenly noticed the silence that seemed to permeate his surroundings. He glanced out the window and found himself looking at blue sky meeting a black sea. He immediately got to his feet and pressed his hands to the window. "Earth!"
    "And you slept all the way home!" Ben joked.
    "C'mon," said Rick, "they're supposed to open the main cargo hatch. Let's get down there!"

    Ben was the first one out as the hatch dropped open. Shouting for joy, he executed a series of somersaults and cartwheels that neither Rick nor Max had thought he could do.
    "He'd make a pretty good acrobat, wouldn't he," Max mused laughing a bit.
    "Probably," said Rick, "but look at that blue sky. That's no EVE projection! I can't say I blame Ben a bit!"
    "Look!" Ben exclaimed, pointing upward, "they're giving us a fighter fly-by to welcome us!"
    The crowd that had gathered on the hatch all cheered as they Veritechs flew over head.
    "Look over there," said Rick, pointing to the Prometheus flight deck, "the fighting must have stopped, the squadrons are landing."
    Max followed Rick's indication. "Have you seen Cerulean yet?"
    "Not yet," Rick responded.
    "There they are!" Ben exclaimed, smiling. But his smile soon faded as a realization struck him. "But there's only two of 'em."
    Max looked over and followed the two VT's as they landed, but couldn't quite make out the markings on either of them. "Ari!" he breathed and took off back into the ship. He sprinted the entire way to the Prometheus and stopped just short of the door to catch his breath. He entered the hanger bay and looked around urgently. He spotted the two Cerulean team Veritechs surrounded by techs and crew chiefs.
    Miller's, Reese's...
    "No," he whispered to himself. He then spotted Miller walking toward one of the other doors and rushed over to him. "Jim! Jim! Wait up!" The pilot turned around with a sullen look on his face. "Jim, where's Ariana?" Max asked once he had caught up.
    Miller looked away from Max and started through the door. "Ariana who?" he asked, meaningfully.
    Max was barely aware of the sharp intake of breath he performed right then. Instead, he was more focused on the sudden feeling in his stomach; as though someone had just kicked him with a Battloid.
    He wasn't sure how long he walked in the perfect haze that enveloped him just then. He found himself in one of the unfinished and unpopulated parts of the ship, surrounded by silence and his thoughts.
    No one ever heard the high decibel scream that issued forth from him.

    Rick and Ben paced near the door to Max's quarters alternately.
    "Where do you suppose he is?" Ben asked.
    "They probably both forgot about us," said Rick, "they're probably living it up in town somewhere like everyone else."
    "Then why are we here?" Ben inquired.
    Max came around the corner just then, eyes on the floor and a completely blank look on his face. He didn't say a word to either of them as he went up to the door and opened it.
    "Max?" Rick ventured, noticing his friend rather pale.
    Max continued inside. Rick and Ben, concerned, followed. Max dropped into the seat near the little desk he kept, removed his glasses, and leaned his face in his hands.
    "Max, where's Ari?" Ben asked.
    Max began to shudder with each exhale and slowly crossed his arms on the desk top. Just before he rested his head in them, Rick and Ben spotted a great deal of moisture appearing around his tightly closed eyes. He shuddered more and more and curled his legs up underneath his chair.
    Ben was about to reach over and grab Max's shoulder, but Rick stopped him and motioned for the door. Ben nodded and they both exited, closing the door after them.
    Max, alone, wept, wondering when it would all end.

    Somehow, Max managed to pull himself together enough to leave his quarters and engage in what was fast becoming one of his favorite pastimes; walking. He found his way to Macross City Park, next to the window at which he and Ariana had been contemplating everything from battle fear to the here after only a few days prior. Max now contemplated the dark sky outside the ship. Stars were again showing, but now they shimmered and twinkled through the planet's atmosphere.
    "Are you Max Sterling?" asked a voice behind him.
    Max turned, broken from his reverie, and found a brown-haired woman about the age his mother would have been standing in front of him. "Are you?" she reiterated.
    "Yes," Max said, finally finding his voice, "Yes, I am. Can I help you, miss..."
    "Allan," the woman responded, "Caroline Christine Costigan Allan. I understand you were a friend of my daughter, Ariana?"
    Max nodded in the affirmative. "Mrs. Allan, you can't possibly know how sorry I am-"
    "Don't," she commanded, "don't make this hard, I beg you. I'd like you to know that my daughter spoke very highly of you. I had the impression that you two were very close."
    Max took a few steps away from Caroline and stared back out the window. "She was... Special. I could talk to her and she could talk to me."
    "I gathered that. This was found with her things." Caroline pressed a lumpy envelope into Max's hand. "It's addressed to you."
    Caroline began to wordlessly walk away as Max stared at the envelope. "Mrs. Allan," he called after her and she turned back to him, "I... I'm sorry I wasn't able to... to help her."
    Caroline looked to the ground, obviously trying to hide tears. After a moment, she simply continued walking away. Watching her, Max fingered the envelope, then looked at it.
    He shoved it in his pocket and continued his own walk.
    He passed many a landmark that had before seemed so unimportant; the complex that housed the Veritech simulators, that alley nearby, a certain tree a red-haired cadet had hung upside down from. Max was accosted by memories every way he turned. At one point, he even had to turn around and look at what was behind him. He felt vaguely as though he were being followed.
    He didn't know why, but Max steered in the direction of the Macross City church. As he entered, he found a service going on in the main chapel, the congregation singing a hymn. He sighed and moved off toward one of the smaller side chapels. He found an empty one and entered, leaning against the wall and looking at the various stained glass windows and the light that came through them playing on the floor, the alter, the pews.
    He caught a few phrases of the hymn the congregation was singing as it drifted his way and made note of the words. They seemed somehow appropriate. Recalling the church from Macross Island, he remembered that small pieces of paper were usually kept in the back of the pews. Sure enough, they were there. Listening to the hymn, he scrawled the words across the paper as he heard them:
    Lead kindly, light
    Amid the encircling gloom
    Lead thou, me on
    The night is dark
    And I am far from home
    Lead thou me on
    Keep thou my feet
    I do not ask to see the distant scene
    One step enough for me.
    His hand was shaking. Why was that? What was wrong with him? As he was looking at the paper, something wet splashed down on to it, partially smearing the first line. Realizing it was from his eyes, Max shoved the paper into his pocket with the envelope, wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and took one last look at the small chapel.
    This place was too formal.

    The parties were still going on atop the open cargo hatch. Most of Macross City and a fair number of RDFers were living it up and celebrating the return to Earth.
    Max could see and hear all of it from the place where he stood on the flight deck of the Daedalus. Briefly, he wondered if any of them knew about the other side of the ship's return to Earth; all the brave men and women who had been killed on the way home.
    Max looked up at the stars for a few moments before taking the mysterious envelope from his pocket. He hesitated briefly before opening it, but finally steeled himself and ripped open the seal. There were two separate pieces of paper inside which he tugged out.
    There was suddenly a clack at his feet and he looked down. The light wasn't quiet good enough to see what it was while he was standing, so he squatted down and picked the thing up. He found it to be a small locket of silver with a piece of light blue stone embedded in the front. Max puzzled over it, then decided that there may be a reference to it on one of the pieces of paper.
    The thing he hadn't considered when deciding where to open the letter was light. The starlight in the middle of the Pacific simply wasn't enough to read by. Max held it close to his face, stood with his back to the light coming from the parties on the cargo hatch, everything he could think of, but to no avail. There simply wasn't enough light to read what was on the pieces of paper.
    He was looking down at the papers in defeat, about to burst into tears once more, when it happened. The whole world seemed to turn green around him and he looked up.
    The sky was lit by an event Max could only reason to be Northern Lights. He couldn't recall a time when he had seen them, having lived on Macross Island for a good chunk of his life, which was, so he thought, too far south to see them. He looked around in wonder at the event; the sky was lit in swaths of mostly green light, intertwined every here and there with blues and reds.
He suddenly remembered the papers. He quickly held them up to where he could look at them.
    The one on top read as follows:

        Dear, dear Max,
        This may sound cliche, but if you're reading this it means that either I'm dead, missing, or never expected to
    recover from some injury.
        The locket enclosed is for you, Old Blue. Don't open it yet; wait until a day that is special to you. You'll know the
    day when it comes.
        I wanted to pass on the only piece of wisdom I've picked up during my stay aboard the ship (you know the ship, the
    SDF-1). No matter how something appears, don't take it for granted or jump to conclusions. It will only drive you
        And lastly, look at the second page that's in the envelope. It has a certain set of instructions especially for you.
        Oh yeah, and I know neither of us believes in hauntings, but if you forget me or fail to carry out the instructions
    on that last page, I will do just that to you.
        Now smile before I tell a joke.
    Max didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The letter sure was Ariana, through and through. No one else could have...
    He was! He actually was smiling at the letter!
    Max lifted the letter off the top of the second piece of paper and looked at Ari's special instructions.
    Centered in the page, in large, bold letters, were the words "Don't blame yourself, you smeghead!"
    That was it. He was laughing.
    God! Did she know him!
    Suddenly, he stopped as a realization struck him; that was the last one, the last joke he would ever hear from Ariana Allan. Or was it? He glanced at the locket he still held in his hand and wondered. He considered opening it for a moment, but held back; it wasn't time.
    "Beautiful, isn't it?"
    Max started and turned, surprised to find Lisa Hayes coming up behind him, also looking at the lights in the sky in wonderment. "The Aurora Borealis," she mused, "the ship's trip through the atmosphere must have brought the right particles with it. Or whatever it is."
    "Yeah," Max sighed, folding up the letter and shoving it back in his pocket, "I've never seen one before." He looked up at it once again. "Just the right day for it."
    "Claudia and I saw you from the bridge. I don't know how she does it, but she convinced me that you were pensive."
    Max looked up at the bridge. "From all the way up there? That's amazing."
    "She's got that kind of talent, I guess. So what's up?"
    Max wondered over to the edge of the Daedalus and sat, dangling his legs and feet over the side. "Just reading a letter from a friend, ma'am."
    Lisa allowed herself a laugh. "You can dispense with the formalities, Max, we're both off duty." It was then she noticed the severity of his pensiveness. "One of those kind of letters, hm? I never understood why so many people wrote those things. They tie up all kinds of loose ends, leaves nothing to come back for."
    "It's all not quite so neatly tied up, I'm afraid," said Max putting a hand to his forehead, "she'll be back to haunt me. That was her promise, not my speculation."
    "She? It was... Oh, it's from Lieutenant Allan, isn't it. I know that look. I had it myself once. Take my advice Max; let it go. It's much healthier that way and you never know what else can happen because she's not here. Hopefully, we'll both see that someday. Good night, Max."
    Lisa began to walk back toward the entrance to the Daedalus.
    "Lisa?" Max called, causing her to pause and turn back. "I heard they found her flight recorder. I was wondering, could I be there when they look at it? She was too good to just have been shot down. I need to know what happened."
    Lisa nodded. "They have a few of them, but Allan's is scheduled for oh-nine-hundred tomorrow."
    "Thanks. I guess that's two I owe you, huh?"
    "Let's call it even. It's among friends, after all."
    "Well, yeah. A guy like you needs friends besides fighter pilot jocks, after all."
    "Even friends that can demote you?"
    Lisa laughed again. "You better believe it." She seemed to glance unconsciously toward the bridge. There was a light just around toward the back that had a bright light on. "Oh, he's still at it!"
    "The Captain. He's putting together his report for the brass. The man doesn't sleep, I swear."

    Max straightened his uniform jacket and took a deep breath just outside the door. He hoped he didn't look too awful after the sleepless night. That morning had been the first time he had needed coffee to wake up in his entire life. Somehow, he had a feeling it wasn't going to be the last.
    He'd have to go out and get a pot, a grinder, some filters...
    Gathering himself, he knocked on the door crisply and waited. Ensign Vanessa Leeds answered the door.
    "Lieutenant Sterling!" She exclaimed. "Can I help you?"
    "Is this where they're evaluating the recovered flight recorders?" Max asked.
    "Well, yes, but-"
    "Can I talk to Captain Gloval? Please, it's important."
    "Well, all right. Just a moment." Vanessa reentered the room and shortly after, Gloval returned and regarded Max. The pilot straightened to attention and saluted.
    "Captain Gloval," said Max as the captain returned the salute, "Lieutenant Sterling requesting permission to join the group evaluating Lieutenant Allan's flight recorder, sir."
    Gloval wordlessly regarded Max for several moments. Behind him, Max could see a group that consisted of Lisa, Vanessa, Caroline, Roy, and Ariana's wingmates.
    Gloval nodded with a grunt. "Permission granted, Lieutenant."
    "Thank you, Captain," Max said as Gloval led the way back into the room.
    "Don't thank me, Lieutenant," Gloval responded, "this may bring up demons you never considered. Do you understand?"
    "Yes, sir."
    The two of them joined the group which surrounded a small table of sorts that had a translucent surface. From the pillar like stand on which it stood trailed two wires. Those were hooked to a small, charred piece of electronic equipment via some alligator clips. Max found himself looking across the table at Lisa who winked his way, semi-conspiratorially. He gave a slight nod back in thanks.
    "Please continue, Mr. Fokker," Gloval commanded.
    "Yes, sir," agreed Roy, "As I was saying, Mrs. Allan. The projecbeam table will project Ariana's fighter as it was in space, according to the information the flight recorder gathered. The voices we'll be hearing will be hers, control's, and the voices of the rest of Skull Squadron. Are you ready?"
    Caroline nodded, solemnly.
    "All right then," said Gloval, "we can stop it any time you want us to. Vanessa, please begin."
    Vanessa stepped up to the table a punched in a few controls. Almost immediately, the table top began to glow and a hologram of Ariana's Green Lantern materialized into existence.
    "What time index, sir?" Vanessa asked.
    "Two minutes before it went off line."
    Two minutes, Max thought to himself, a lot happens two minutes out there. Do we really need that much? But he saw that Gloval and Fokker were all for it, so he remained silent on the issue and cast his glance to Caroline as the hologram began its recount. She was staring transfixed on the mini-mecha, watching it go through its paces like a pro.
    Miller's voice was presently issuing forth from the speakers. "Ari! There's a pod tumbling for the ship at four!"
    "Don't worry. I got it," Ari's voice was answering a moment later as her mecha was transforming to Battloid and thrusting in toward a vertical plane that represented the SDF-1. "Max!" everyone heard the almost inaudible breath that escaped from her and all eyes turned to him for just a moment. Max simply became transfixed on the holo.
    A pod was hurtling toward what represented the SDF-1 and the green Veritech swooped in and grabbed its leg. It swung it around in a few circles before letting it go into space. They heard Ari laugh over the speakers. "Relax, Vermillion boys. Seems the lucky SOB's are scared kittens after all, you guys." Ari's VT paused to toss off a salute to the SDF-1 before thrustering away while her wingmates laughed.
    Max blanched.
    "Cerulean Team," Lisa's voice came through, "heavy fighting in sector three. Can you assist?"
    "Roger that, SDF-1 control," Ari responded, "you heard the lass, boys. Change course, Cerulean Team." She promptly switched to fighter mode and sped off.
    "Atmospheric contact," Claudia's voice informed them.
    "I don't like those others," Ari said, "why aren't they fighting?"
    "Do you think they're waiting for a good moment, Lieutenant?" Reese asked.
    "Maybe. Just keep an eye out. Bogies at three high! Fox three!" Ari's fighter let off a missile that holed an incoming pod straight through.
    "Fox three!" Miller agreed.
    "Fox three!" Reese echoed.
    "Bloody Hell! Watch that group at eleven low!" Ariana ordered. "I'm going in!" Her Veritech switched to Guardian and swooped down toward a hazy sphere that was to represent Earth's atmosphere.
    "Lieutenant! It's too close to the envelope!" Reese warned. "You're too steep!"
    "I know! The boys below will have to pick it up. Cerulean One to Maize One. Bogies heading your way."
    "Roger that, Cerulean One. We got 'em."
    Ari's Veritech began to pull up and back out of the atmosphere. At just that moment, a pod came straight at her, firing. "Smeg!" She exclaimed. "Fox two!" A missile launched from her racks and impacted the pod dead on, blowing it to shrapnel which streaked past her and began to burn up in the atmosphere. A piece of it was flailing wildly and violently scraped against Ari's cockpit fuselage, tearing a rent in the metal on her port side. "Bloody Hell!"
    "You all right, Lieutenant?" Reese inquired.
    "Positive, Cerulean Three, I-" A glow began to build near the tear. "Shit! It got my oxygen tank!"
    "Eject!" Miller barked. "We'll pick you up!"
    The holo image abruptly became a flurry of light and sound; the Veritech blew, a loud scream of terror could be heard through the speakers.
    Then, it all stopped. The image de-rezed and the radio faded to static.
    Max flinched at the explosion, unaware how absorbed in the simulation he had been. He found himself simply staring at the blank space that had been showing the hologram.
    "That's all, sir," Vanessa reported a moment later.
    "Lisa?" Gloval inquired.
    "Instruments indicated a fire broke out in the oxygen supply tank," stated Lisa, "it caused the explosion."
    Caroline had her head in her hands, shedding silent tears. "A fire," she sobbed at last, "it wasn't even the enemy. It was a fire. At least with John it was..." She broke down and started crying in earnest.
    Max found himself moving to her side and putting an arm around her shoulders.
    "We were almost home," Caroline continued, "why now? Why now?"
    "She is home," Max mused quietly.
    "Lieutenant?" Gloval inquired.
    "Oh, uh, nothing, sir," Max responded, distancing himself from Caroline again as Lisa moved in to escort her out of the room. "Uh, wait." Max reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper he had scribbled on last night; the one with the lyrics to that hymn.
    "Here," he said, pressing it into Caroline's hand. The two women exited a moment later. Max watched them go for a few seconds.
    "Lieutenant," Gloval asserted, "you're dismissed."
    "Yes, sir," Max responded, saluting, then leaving the room with Vanessa close behind.
    "What did that gain you?" she asked of him once they were in the hall.
    "Not much," Max admitted, solemnly, "I just felt like I should be there."

    Max envied Rick. The Lieutenant Commander had managed to swing a trip off the ship in the form of escorting Minmei home to Yokohama, Japan to see her parents.
    Max wanted more than anything to leave the ship behind, if only for a few hours. Rick and Ben especially were giving Max a rather wide berth and it was getting so that he couldn't stand the sympathetic looks in both their eyes.
    Maybe that was the reason he was spending so much time alone.
    But Rick and Minmei deserved a sendoff, so he and Ben were up in their VT's and chasing Rick's tail through the sky. The two jocks had made the excuse that neither had been up for almost a week and had never flown in an atmosphere, too boot, and needed a bit of practice. Such an excuse was hogwash, considering that the Zentraedi ship had an atmosphere, but it got them up. The two of them went on the tac net and teased Rick a bit about how this was a date for him and Minmei, just before accelerating to mach one and racing out of sight before Rick could get off a counter-snipe.
    Max and Ben put their new Veritechs through their paces, glad to be in the air again. Max liked the freedom in the cockpit the flightsuits for atmosphere gave him; no restricting faceplate or oxygen feed. He could do without the high collar, though.
    Well, no accounting for taste.
    Oddly enough, he felt as though a new beginning had occurred.
    The SDF-1 was home.


Coming soon: Chapter Five of To Dream With the Stars!
    Max sorts out his feelings toward Ariana and, after a bit of work, begins to move on. He devotes himself to the battles that lie ahead, determined to protect what he has. In a skirmish over the Pacific, he comes face to face with a formidable opponent who may just turn out to affect him more than he knows.
    Be here for Robotech: To Dream With the Stars Chapter Five: Duelists!