by Rich Hanes
A preview of my prequel novel of Sebastian and Adrian's days at the titan academy.
| "Your approach is off."|
"My bearing is right on the sniffer, Adrian. You do the shooting."
"Need a better angle of attack for this--"
The titan's cockpit heaved to the right, jostling the pair of fox-like humanoids nearly out of their pilot seats. The eighty-megagram bipedal war machine shuddered, but heroically kept its balance. Right on the edge.
At this close distance, they didn't have a hound's chance against their aggressors. A pair of Viper titans brought their fearsome arsenal to bear on him, one centered in Sebastian's line of sight, the other at the edge of his peripheral vision. Sebastian's Lancaster was superior in long range combat, so picking off the first two Vipers they had encountered was mere kits-play. He had chosen the engagement range then. But his methodical maneuvering had come at the expense of time, precious time Sebastian could not recover. Time was life, and both dwindled between his fingers. While he'd been engaging the first pair of titans, the second pair had closed to less than a kilometer. Killing distance for the Viper. He would be snared directly in the crossfire of their anti-titan ballistic autocannons. Sebastian practically put his head in the trap.
"We are on the bad side of pest-control, Sebastian."
"All shields to forward."
"That won't help us this close, Seb!"
"Positive thoughts, please."
One of the attacking Vipers speared a sixty-five millimeter anti-titan shell directly into his Lancaster's torso. It penetrated Sebastian's thin steel armor like it was paper. The Lancaster wasn't designed for close quarters knife-fighting like this.
He attempted to slice between them. If he could separate them, maybe he could at least broadside one of the Vipers, buy him some time to deal with the other, even if he exposed his vulnerable tail-side to the other Viper. He wanted to bring at least one more down with him. Just one more.
But the incision was too narrow even for Sebastian's laser scalpel. The song was ending, and Sebastian wasn't leading the dance.
"Prepare to face extermination!" Adrian said, as the Vipers closed in for the kill.
"Critical hit: shield generator destroyed," the Lancaster's computer said. The synthetic female tone was not consoling.
Sebastian, in the front pilot seat, stamped hard forward on the steering pedal. Adrian was along for the ride, in the backseat of the titan's cockpit, doing his best to keep the Lancaster's arsenal trained on his commander's designated target. The ground furrowed under thundering mechanical feet as the titan gouged heavy tracks from the grassy landscape. The ponderous Lancaster, smoke billowing from ruptured armor, whipped into a blistering left-hand turn that almost toppled it. On the razor's edge.
"You're pushing the redline, Sebastian!"
"I know what the Lanc can do, just give me a vexing second."
"We haven't got a second!"
Another shell tore through the Lancaster's left hull, obliterating the delicate machinery within. Sebastian's visor lit up with a fireworks display of damage warnings.
"Critical hit: drive motor. Critical hit: missile ammunition linkage disrupted," the computer said.
"That can't be good," Adrian said.
The twisting maneuver was too much for the top-heavy Lancaster's balance to endure, and the multiple sixty-five caliber rounds embedded into its hull surely didn't help. Sebastian gave it everything he had, trying to keep the fire-support titan upright despite its damage. Both Vipers vultured in for the kill.
Another shell penetrated the Lancaster's hull, burrowing through the armor and into the weakly-protected delicate components within. The machine shuddered, but could take no more. Adrian felt the gut-wrenching sensation of losing equilibrium.
Sebastian wrenched back on the throttle in a last-ditch attempt to torque the titan's center of mass further upward, but another blast from a Viper's autocannon tossed that in the sink. The Lancaster had endured far more than it was designed for.
"Shut up, Adrian!"
The cockpit heaved. Warning lights and buzzers assaulted Sebastian's senses. The ground surged toward them with frightening speed. The soft, pillowy green landscape suddenly looked hard as duracrete. No time to eject.
"This is gonna hurt," Adrian said.
The titan excavated a bus-sized crater into the soil. Its energy cells and unspent missile ammunition erupted in a brilliant grand finale as the fuselage telescoped through the hull. Its legs jerked skyward, and the machine toppled awkwardly, inverted, into its grave. Sebastian's visor readout flickered.
The simulator cockpit gave a final death lurch.
"Mission failed," the computer said. Cold and calm as always. Bitch.
"And now we are dead," Adrian said.
Sebastian shoved himself back into the command seat of the titan simulator pod, his chest heaving. The console's multi-function displays bathed his muzzle and Star Alliance combat jumpsuit with an eerie crimson glow. Red, black, and zeros flashed before him.
"I think we drew a full house there, Seb. Looks like a pair of red weapons destroyed, and three dead black systems. Engine, shields, radar over high."
"Muzzle it, Adrian."
"To the parents of Adrian Miller and Sebastian Valentino, on behalf of Houses Florenzo and Lafayette, respectively, the Star Alliance Titan Corps regrets to inform you that your offspring are dead because they were dumb."
Sebastian exhaled, noisily, tensing his fists in a futile gesture to calm himself. Perspiration trickled down his elegant russet-furred muzzle, pelt soaked beneath his jumpsuit. Why couldn't the Creator have removed their sweat glands?
"Waiter, I'm ready to order. I'll have the flame-grilled pedigree with a side-order of roasted stray."
"I get the idea."
Adrian vaulted out of the back seat of the simpod to stand next to Sebastian's open canopy. "An excellent choice, Mr. Miller. Would you like your serving well-done, extra crispy, or still screaming?"
"I'm not finished."
Sebastian released a primal, ear-piercing shriek. Anger, frustration! It echoed through the dark, warehouse-like simulator deck and caught the instinctive attention of everyone on the floor. Even Adrian jumped.
"Seb!" Adrian grabbed his arm. "Seb, relax, it's just a simulation!"
"Vex it!" Sebastian snarled, with an untamed ferocity that made Adrian pause. The simulator slowly returned to its default position. The reassuring static hiss of hydraulics and servos didn't seem to soothe him. "I know that."
"Sebastian, you know there's no way to win this scenario. C'mon, ears up, all right?"
For a moment, Adrian clutched Sebastian's arm, trying to calm his commander. Sebastian needed to vent some steam from the frustrating fictional mission they'd just taken on. Again and again, he kept beating his head against it. There had to be a way to defeat it. Sebastian knew there was a solution. He just had to find it.
With a weary sigh, Sebastian dropped out of the titan simulator pod, landing on his boots next to his voice of reason. He appraised Adrian briefly. The taller, pedigreed red fox showed no hint of sweat or discomfort. Sharp contrast to Sebastian's disheveled appearance.
"I thought you said we were dead," Sebastian finally said.
Adrian Miller chuckled. "That's better. Hey, relax man. I gave it all I could with the course you laid out, but sometimes, you have to learn how to lose."
"Losing isn't really my thing," Sebastian said.
"I've noticed. Well, it's a game to keep playing. If you've got a better idea how to take on four Vipers with a second-line fire support titan, I'm all nose," Adrian said.
Sebastian frowned and shook his head. "Maybe just one second more, maybe just a little better angle of attack."
Technician foxes milled about the cockpit, prepping it for another round of warfare rehearsal. Flipping switches, double-checking panels, downloading telemetry, and recalibrating all the computer wizardry that let Sebastian survive yet another disastrous simulated encounter.
Sebastian gave a frustrated boot-kick to the base of the simpod's hydraulic bumper. A tech fox shot him a sharp look.
"Don't take it out on the sim, outkit. It's not its fault you can't adapt."
Sebastian briefly hackled under his plasteen jumpsuit, the orange sheen of his Star Alliance uniform barely constraining the tempest within. The way the pedigreed tech fox let the slur fly in casual conversation really angered Sebastian.
"Hey, Seb. Take it easy, okay?"
Sebastian nodded to Adrian, and took a moment to compose his thoughts. He looked along the two rows of titan simulator pods. The left-hand side were all dual-cockpit simulators, representing Sebastian's Lancaster, or a Warlord, or any other two-seater, for that matter. Those were the heaviest, most powerful titans, usually those with command responsibilities; having a second set of paws to operate the weapons, shields, and radar, freed the commander - Commander Valentino, he liked the sound of that -- in the front seat to steer and coordinate attacks with supporting units. Sebastian didn't take his command duties lightly, even if it was just a simulator.
He imagined himself at the point of an echelon of Alliance titans. Charging boldly into battle, coordinated by his brilliant tactics, Adrian dutifully operating the weapons as Sebastian commanded his troops. They would all follow his orders. They would see him not as a stray, but as a fearless leader, a commander of foxes. Just like his father.
Still, he couldn't help but gaze longingly at the opposing row of simulators. Across the bay were the single-seaters, the mavericks, the lone hunters trusted to do it all. Lighter titans, yes, but weaker? No, differing tactics altogether. Much more akin to the fighter jets Sebastian had been raised on in the Aerocorps. He couldn't help but wonder if he'd feel more at home in a single seat. The smaller titan pods seemed more intimate, welcoming. Someplace he could feel fully in control.
"Are you daydreaming about going solo again?" Adrian smirked, and leaned over the nose of the simpod. "You wouldn't ditch me, would you?"
"I was just thinking."
"You do a lot of that now."
"Is there something wrong with that?"
Adrian shook his head. "No... I just wish you'd let me in on your thoughts, sometimes."
Sebastian braced himself against the cockpit. "Just thinking. How many others are there like me?"
Adrian couldn't help but snort. "What is this, some 'Everyone is Special', kit-school tripe?"
"No, I'm serious."
"You mean how many others are cross-trained from aerofighters to titans?" Adrian shrugged. "I don't know. There's a lot of foxes. It's not like we're short of pilots."
"Short of really good pilots, though?"
Adrian ruffled the fur under his collar for a moment. "Hey, come on man. The Great War's been over for a dozen years now. They were hit just as hard as us. Do you think the Dominion is going to start para-dropping huskies and gersheps on us out of the blue?"
"I just feel so... out of place."
Adrian whirled about and slammed his paw down, palm flat on the simpod's nose. "You are! That's what makes you so great. That's why you have to listen to me, and not let what they say get to you."
"About being a stray?"
Adrian's ears twitched. "You know I've never used that term as an insult to you, Sebastian. I respect what you've accomplished, and the traps that were foundered to make your way here. This is a great honor, Sebastian, regardless of your lineage. Here you are, trouncing the cadets above even my percentile. You just can't let these thoughts boil around inside, you've got to let things go sometimes."
Sebastian exhaled and braced his hands on the simulator pod to steady himself. He hung his head, looking at the nameplate beneath the cockpit canopy. On a real titan, he'd have his name and rank emblazoned there, and maybe some hull art. But here, this simpod was designated to him with a cheap plastic sliding placard. For Max's sake, they'd even spelled his name wrong.
"Things like this?" Sebastian said, gesturing to a bit of graffiti he hadn't noticed before. Someone had crossed out the word 'CADET' before Sebastian's name and scribbled beneath it 'PREY'.
"Oh... oh, that's charming," Adrian said. "Real good use of Alliance equipment." Adrian straightened into a dominant posture. "Defacing Alliance property is a real appropriate usage of your pedigree's tax dollars!" he said, loud enough not just to echo about the simpod bay, but to make all the nearby foxes freeze in their tracks.
Sebastian stiffened at Adrian's sudden outburst, but the other fox wasn't done. Adrian pointed at the nearest tech-fox that was downloading telemetry from Sebastian's pod. He was probably twice Sebastian's age.
"You. Have this cleaned up, on the double. Trot-trot! I will not have the simulator pod of two of the Alliance's finest titanists sullied with such vandalism. Now, kit!"
The tech-fox immediately rose to attention and saluted Adrian. "Yes sir, Mr. Miller sir, it won't happen again, sir."
"It had better not! Such blight dishonors the Founders, does it not?"
The tech-fox wilted under Adrian's withering gaze. "Yes, yes sir, it does. I'll make sure your simpod is in top shape, Mr. Miller. Ahem, Mr. Valentino. Sir."
Sebastian merely watched the commotion. Invoking the Founders was a surefire way to grab a fox's attention. The tech-fox now seemed to have the fear of Max in him. He scurried off quickly, presumably to fetch some cleaning supplies. Adrian shepherded Sebastian away and toward the deck's exit doors.
"You see, that is an appropriate release of dominance and authority. You need to demand respect, not just bark orders," Adrian said. "You've got that in you, but you need to use it where it's appropriate. That tech is subordinate to us, so we command authority. But your comrades, your fellow titanist cadets, they may be your commanding officer someday. You can't just go all feral whenever someone calls you an accident."
Accident. Even coming from Adrian, the slur was enough to make Sebastian's hackles rise. Instinct.
Every time he heard it, it reminded him how he'd been birthed outside the pedigree system. How his parents weren't optimally matched by the computers and scientists and genetic engineers and databases and genomes and on and on. That he existed beyond, outside the carefully controlled eugenics program that made those pedigreed, like Adrian, taller and stronger. But better?
The word made Sebastian tighten up again, but he nodded. It was all so much to take in. Adrian seemed almost too wise for his age. Sebastian considered himself lucky to have him as his gunner.
As a friend.
"I'm assuming this all ties in to the Viper Four scenario."
Adrian nodded as the pair stepped into the academy corridor. The automatic doors closed behind them, like clockwork, always dependable. The corridor was brightly lit, the transparent plastiglass walls allowing Ramshaft's sunlight directly in. It had an airy atmosphere without feeling confined. Adrian took a moment to shield his eyes from the sun-shock with a paw.
"It does, yes. It's all about picking your battles, Sebastian."
"I just think--"
"Straight-ears, Sebastian," Adrian said, holding his commander back from whatever fury Sebastian wanted to unleash. "The Lancaster is not a fangs-and-claws brawler, you know? Those Vipers will chew you up at short range, and we're outmassed by over four-to-one. What makes you think you can beat the unwinnable scenario?"
"Superior battlefield tactics will give us the upper paw," Sebastian said.
"Oh yes, seventeenth time's the charm, right?"
"I think that with efficient weapons and shield management under fire--"
"You will always be this strong-headed."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
Adrian exhaled, slowly. He leaned over his commander; his pilot, his best friend. It was time to remind Sebastian where he stood in the Volpa universe. "You can't just plow your way through the scrimmage line like you did in your university arena football days, okay? This isn't some sports game. This is the real deal. We're hunting alongside the top pedigreed from every Volpa House. You can't rely on your House Lafayette Restorationist buddies to buck you up for the good of fox kind. To them, to us, you're just another stray. You've got to learn that your commander role ends when we step out of the cockpit. There are some things you just cannot change."
Sebastian straightened himself and adjusted his jumpsuit, an instinctive move to help himself look more imposing. Still, Adrian's two-centimeter height advantage made Sebastian feel like he was at the bottom of a canyon.
"My innate skills should be most relevant," Sebastian said.
"And they are, to a point. Your gunnery and titaneering scores are off the charts," Adrian said. "No one has ever scored that high. But you cannot be so noseblind to think that you accomplished this all on your own. Especially with your background."
Adrian frowned. This was not the place to get into such an in-depth discussion, not in an open hallway with all the other foxes listening.
"We'll talk about it later, okay?"
Adrian ushered him down the brightly lit corridor. Sebastian felt as if he were being led like a child. "C'mon, let's get some dinner, it's getting late."
"Food is always a good distraction."
"Mhmm, and I can smell the springbok stew all the way over here."
Sebastian tried to steady his shoulders, as he was lead into the mess hall to join the other fox cadets. They'd all seen Sebastian's last attempt at the Viper Four scenario. Save the viewing lounge, the mess hall had the best digital monitors to provide a crystal clear re-enactment of Sebastian's latest adventure. It was already on display.
Sebastian was barely into the hall, when a burly, pure-white-furred obstacle obstructed his path.
"Well hey there, accident. Was that the sixteenth or seventeenth time we've graciously allowed you to simulate your utter failure?"
Sebastian stiffened. The arctic fox really knew how to get him riled up, and it didn't help matters that he was only chest-level to the larger polar vulpine.
"You should know how to count by now, Dallas," Sebastian said.
"Yeah, but do you?"
The arctic fox commanded authority. Not only was he pedigreed, but he was taller and bulkier. Stronger. Physically, at least. He loomed over Sebastian like a fjord. The bigger arctics always seemed to want to display their size advantage to the smaller species of fox. Bigger fox, bigger ego. But Dallas Secord had seemed to make it his personal mission to make Sebastian's time amongst the pedigreed as uncomfortable as possible. Sebastian couldn't help notice the grey fox tagging along. She was as loyal and dutiful to Dallas as Adrian was to Sebastian.
Dallas Secord poked Sebastian in the chest, right between the sprintvos legs of the running-fox Star Alliance emblem applied to his jumpsuit.
"Well? Can you count that high, kit? Did they teach you how in school, or do you need to take your boots off so you can count on your socks too?"
Sebastian kept calm.
"Seventeen, eh? Are you trying to go for the double-deck of lame, Sebastian? If you get to twenty, do you win a prize? Maybe they'll gift us with a real titanist from House Lafayette instead of your fighter-pilot aerobatics. Maybe the thin air up there drained your intelligence, if you ever had any."
Sebastian bristled at the heckling. He was one of only a chosen elite few to be cross-trained on the nimble aerofighters and advanced to the Titan Corps. He'd gotten so far on his fighter pilot qualifications and titaneering prowess. While it impressed most of the pedigrees, there were still those that cast doubt on him. And few were louder than Dallas.
Before he could respond, Adrian stepped forward to confront the arctic fox Secord. "He scored better than twice your marks on range-to-target, didn't he? Knock it off, Secord," Adrian said.
Dallas Secord didn't retreat from Adrian's obstruction. The arctic fox was a few centimeters taller than Adrian, and had no problem flaunting it.
"My mistake, I didn't realize all my messages had to go through the kit-sitter."
"I said cut it out!" Adrian raised his voice as well as his hackles.
Sebastian could feel the glaring amber eyes of the other cadets boring down into him. For a moment, everything seemed frozen in place. But when Adrian stood his ground, Dallas relented.
"Eh, I don't have time for that filthy strayborn flier anyway." Dallas withdrew to the cafeteria line with the other cadets. All of them pedigreed, the best each vulpine House had to offer. They clustered almost instinctively by House. Some of the tables were even decorated with appropriate tintage color marks. Sebastian had always eaten alongside his Lafayette companions. At least they weren't openly hostile to him. Adrian understood.
Sebastian couldn't help but feel a bit taller here. There were all the brightest prospects, the most skilled titaneer prodigies, and he'd bested them all.
All except one. Dallas had repeatedly refused his challenges. He said he didn't need to prove himself worthy against a stray, even if Sebastian had a proper pedigreed gunner.
Adrian tried to obstruct Sebastian's line of sight while they picked up their plastic trays for the cafeteria food. Warm springbok stew and seasoned sweet-grass was on the menu. Just the way Sebastian liked it. He couldn't cook anyway.
"We did get to see all the action of the Valentino Show," Dallas said, now inserting himself behind Adrian in the queue. He just wouldn't quit. "I especially liked the part where you closed in nose-to-nose against those Vipers with your Lancaster. Looked like you were dog-fighting, like a fighter pilot. Forget you were on the ground, space cadet? Did all the switches and dials confuse you?"
"I know my way around any cockpit. I've bested every other cadet here in the sims."
"Yes, you do put on a great performance," Dallas said. "We are thankful for watching your repeated failures, and what a light-show! I haven't seen fireworks like that since the last Max Day celebrations."
Sebastian hackled under his jumpsuit. Dallas was instigating. Adrian was doing his best to act as an impromptu barricade between him and Dallas's House Florenzo compadres, but Sebastian's patience was wearing thin.
"You know, most intelligent foxes would use a fire-support titan for, I don't know, fire-support maybe? But I've got to admire your guile, your wit. You sure showed a lot of awareness, letting those Viper titans practically stroll right up to breathing distance with you. What a clever, unusual strategy. What would you call that?"
"The Valentino Maneuver," Dallas continued, "where you save the hunter the trouble and just charge your way down the predator's throat. Very considerate of you. Saves us all time. Time that could otherwise be spent on worthwhile cadets that are capable of learning. Only a stapard outkit would take multiple attempts to come up with such a solution... how many tries do you think, Shumacker?"
"About seventeen, I'd say," the grey fox vixen behind Dallas Secord said.
"Seventeen. It just really goes to show, you strays don't ever seem to learn do you?" Dallas said.
Sebastian tightened his knuckles against the food tray. Dallas was trying to smoke him out. He roiled inside, but Sebastian couldn't let it show, mustn't let it out in front of the pedigrees. Not now.
Adrian rested a calming paw on his shoulder. "Easy there, Sebastian. It's only words."
"Now where would an accident like you get an idea like that, real up close personal business with another titan, huh? Pelt-on-pelt, almost skin on skin. So tight you could smell them. Why would you want to get so close to a random stranger? Learn that from your mother?"
Sebastian couldn't take anymore. He whirled out of the cafeteria line and flung himself at Dallas Secord. He felt nothing but rage and fury. He bit down on Dallas's shoulder as hard as he could, his fangs piercing the fabric, and blood rushed forth. The polar fox let out a curt, pained wail, and then summarily dropped Sebastian to the floor with a right cross.
Sebastian got up as fast as he could. All around him was a blur. More foxes piled in, some trying to pull them away, some trying to beat Sebastian down. Adrian grabbed Sebastian by the arm and tried to wrench him free of the ruckus, but Sebastian was already overwhelmed by the rush and flurry of gray, white, orange, red, and black fur.
A sharp bang rattled Sebastian's head. A tray thrown on him with force. A kick to his leg crumpled him to the floor. He could barely see that Dallas was bleeding, red rivulets staining his orange jumpsuit and matting the white fur. Sebastian's head spun from the tray's impact.
Before more damage could be done, a Star Alliance Lieutenant stormed into the fray.
"All right, everyone freeze!"
Sebastian couldn't disobey the command even if he wanted. Standing was hard enough, let alone moving. All he could do was brace himself wearily on his shaky hands and legs.
"What in Max's name is going on here?" the lieutenant barked.
"You all saw that," Dallas said immediately. "It attacked me. Rabid! Right out of nowhere! You can't trust these strays to compose themselves like civilized citizens! That thing should be on a leash!"
"You're just lucky you had a pedigree to bail you out of your mess," Shumacker said, the grey fox vixen helping the bleeding, quivering Dallas back to his feet.
"That's enough," the lieutenant said, helping Sebastian stand. At least most of the blood on Sebastian's uniform wasn't his own. Some consolation. "You just can't stop making trouble, can you?"
Sebastian froze. He dared not misstep here. He could bark at any of the other cadets, rile their hackles as much as he liked, but to a Star Alliance ranking officer? That would get him kicked out of the academy. At best.
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," Sebastian said.
Lieutenant Kerrian looked at the belligerents, judging them by size. Dallas had the advantage. He was taller, stronger, and would no doubt have pummeled Sebastian into submission without intervention. Sebastian had landed a clean bite straight through Dallas's jumpsuit. For his part, Sebastian was merely bruised and battered, but he did feel a trickle of blood from his nose.
"You're lucky he didn't crush your muzzle in," Kerrian said to Sebastian. "See to it that doesn't happen again. Violence between cadets is not acceptable. What would the Founders think? You can handle things from here, I trust?"
"Yes sir, of course, sir," Sebastian said.
"Very good. I trust I won't be summoned to break up more of your fighting, yes? Good."
"It won't happen again, sir."
The gray fox officer cleared his throat, and leveled his gaze at Sebastian.
"It won't happen again," Sebastian said. "Mr. Kerrien."
"That's better," Kerrien said. The uniform exuded authority, but it was Kerrien's imposing demeanor that demanded respect. Forcing Sebastian to say his pedigreed name just hammered home how out of place he felt. "I did not come so many light-years from Candaluga IV to chaperone immature brawling kits!"
Kerrien's eyes lingered on Sebastian, more than Dallas. Most of the other cadets had vacated the cafeteria when the gray fox officer came storming in.
"This is not some alleyway where you can pick fights where you like. You must be more civilized."
Sebastian felt helpless. Like he were back in kit-school.
"Yes, sir," Sebastian said. "I understand, sir."
Kerrien let the words linger in the nearly-empty mess hall. Dallas was rigid, straight to authority. Sebastian couldn't capitulate fast enough.
"Sir, yes sir, Mr. Kerrien."
"Good. Get yourselves cleaned up now," Kerrien said. "Dismissed."
Dallas Secord grasped at his shoulder where he'd been bitten. The wound was a stark contrast to his white fur. He breathed heavily, holding his gunner behind him with a hand.
"You just... watch yourself out there," Dallas said, striding past the disheveled pair of red foxes. Sebastian observed their departure, Secord and Shumacker. Kerrien was gone, off to patrol the academy grounds.
Adrian sighed and helped Sebastian steady himself. "What did I just tell you? You can't let their words get to you, all right? You have to let it go."
Sebastian trembled a moment as he gained his balance. He brushed flecks of bitter plastic off his jumpsuit and tugged it back into place.
"You're lucky you weren't smeared all over the cafeteria walls, Seb. In Max's name, what's got you so uppity lately?"
Sebastian bristled a moment, but then exhaled, long and slow. He held his paws together, tight. "Pressure."
Adrian sat down upon one of the now-deserted cafeteria benches. "I get that. Here you are, light-years from home, outside your safety zone. Without your usual House Lafayette buddies to help you."
"You think I needed their help to get this far?"
"I didn't say that. I think your technical skills and abilities made you a prodigy even the pedigreed couldn't ignore. But out here, in the real hunt, you can't rely on your scores alone to convince them you are not a waste. Even I'm astonished by your record, and it shows why you've been selected. You're on the top-list of only a few hundred foxes the Star Alliance National Military is willing to cross-train on both aerofighters and titans. Do you know what a privilege that is?"
Sebastian mulled the words over in his head. Real hunt? Adrian had no idea. But he nodded. "Yes. It is an honor just being in the Titan Corps, let alone with all the pedigreed from all the Houses."
"Well, maybe you should start acting like you appreciate it."
Sebastian crossed his arms, and took a long breath. "What are you saying, exactly?"
"Your Lafayette brethren may have been willing to overlook your cavalier attitude, for the good of their House. But on this stage, no one is going to bail you out if you chew your leg off. You are representing the entirety of foxkind, Sebastian."
"Like I don't know that? That's the whole reason I'm here. I'm trying to prove that I'm just as capable as any pedigreed to defend and protect our race."
"Getting into bite-fights with Dallas and his crew won't advance your piece any higher in our eyes. You made yourself look like--"
Sebastian cut him off. "Like what, Adrian? Rabid? Wild? Uncivilized?"
Adrian blew his breath out in a long effort. "Do you want me to say it?"
"Like a stray, Sebastian."
Sebastian tensed a moment. He didn't want Adrian to be right, but he was. Sebastian had lashed out when he couldn't maintain his composure, and made himself look like a savage, uncontrolled beast in front of Dallas and all the other House's cadets. Maybe they were just words, but they still stung him to the root of his tail.
He didn't have much time to dwell on those thoughts.
The quiet whoosh of the automatic doors contrasted sharply with the livid red fox that appeared through its opening. Sebastian's breath caught. Now it would be his ears.
"Valentino. My office. Now."
A cold shiver ran down his spine. Kobalski was rabid. Sebastian had never seen the normally-composed red fox seething like that. Adrian followed dutifully along with him, but the imposing Kobalski stopped him at his officer's quarters.
"Not you. Just him."
Sebastian felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. One on one with Kobalski? Not good. He gave a brisk, trembling salute to Adrian, and then stepped in to face his requiem.
"Have a seat, kit," Kobalski said. His voice was as bombastic as his uniform. The older red fox stood above him, Star Alliance dress crisp and clean. The various service medals, in the House Kaczmarek colors of russet and steel blue, glinted in the harsh overhead light. Even without his baritone voice, Kobalski was a formidable testament to vulpine tradition.
"So, Valentino. I think what we have here is a bit of a discipline problem."
Sebastian squirmed in his chair. The stiff-backed seat must have been designed to keep anyone uncomfortable and uneasy in the Captain's office.
"Well, speak up, kit."
"I'm not sure what you want me to say, sir."
Kobalski exhaled dramatically. "That's always the way with you strays, isn't it? Never sure which way you're headed. Where do you think you're going, Valentino?"
Sebastian cautiously entered the verbal minefield. "I think my titaneering skills, and aerofighter certifications, would allow me to serve the Star Alliance and all fox-kind in a multitude of ways."
A small smirk crossed Kobalski's muzzle. "First intelligent thing I've heard from you this triad. Good start. Keep going."
Sebastian cleared his throat. "Being one of the few elite selected to be cross-trained on both aerofighters and titans, I think that my abilities speak for themselves."
"That they do," Kobalski said. He stood next to Sebastian, angling his gaze downward at the cadet. Sebastian felt like he was about to be pounced on. "So I shouldn't be hearing anything but plus marks, over-achieving, top scores from you. And yet, the song seems out of tune. Like there was one voice that wasn't quite in line with the others."
Sebastian withered in his chair. Here it comes.
"Do you know what happens when one voice is out of key in a song?"
Kobalski slammed his fist into his desk hard enough to rattle the screws in Sebastian's chair. He'd bolt out of the chair if he didn't feel himself nailed down already.
"Disharmony! Discord! Disrespect!"
Kobalski prowled the room from side to side, hackles raised, poised to strike. Hair trigger. He stopped in front of Sebastian and jabbed a black paw-padded finger into his face.
"Do you know what comes after that?"
Kobalski stood there a moment, letting the image sink in. If he could scorch his profile into Sebastian's retina, he would.
The big fox stepped back behind his desk, as if he needed to ventilate some steam before he overloaded. Sebastian had only seen a fox so livid once in his lifetime, and that was his father...
Kobalski sighed. "I'm starting to think it was a mistake to allow you into my Titan Corps at all, with all this crazy talk of cross-training on various hardware. Let alone slotted into a commander role. But then I remember, pedigrees don't make mistakes, do we?"
"Now, I look at your record, and I think to myself, 'This fox, he must be brilliant, sharp, clever, cunning, thinks on his feet, all the best traits we want'. Vex it, we could mold a leader out of you someday! But do you know what I keep seeing instead?"
Kobalski pounded his fist on the desk, and Sebastian jumped. "I see a stapard little stray, far away from his House Lafayette cohorts, trying to change the whole Max-derived universe, showing off his stupid little pouncing games like it will impress us! Now why is that?"
Sebastian caught his breath.
"I'm not sure what you mean, sir."
Kobalski snarled, spittle over his teeth, and leaned over his desk. "Like vex you don't know what I mean. Look at you. What makes you think you're so special? I don't know how you managed to get up the ranks in House Lafayette with that attitude, but you are not going to cruise through here and upset our traditions and way of life by waving your score card around like it's the flag of Max!"
Sebastian couldn't find words to respond with.
"Do you think your pure scores were going to let you glide all the way in here and make yourself some kind of pioneering hero? You're trouble, and that brash, irresponsibility of yours would lead good pedigreed tods and vixens to their deaths! Do you want that hanging over your head?"
Sebastian withered in his chair. He'd kept his calm when dozens of simulated missiles rained down upon his pelt, but he couldn't withstand this barrage.
"You've gone through that Viper Four scenario seventeen times. Seventeen! Vex it, all my regular pedigreed cadets gave up after one or two tries, because they understood that it's a not winnable scenario. But you're hardly regular, are you?"
"I would like to consider myself an exception, sir."
Kobalski briefly stiffened. The red fur along his neck rose, defying his taut uniform. For a moment, he thought Kobalski were about to burst into flames.
"An exception. You're vexing right you're an exception."
Kobalski remained livid as he prowled his office. The room didn't seem to be that small to Sebastian, but he still felt the walls closing in. Kobalski darted behind Sebastian's chair, then stalked his way back around to face him. It was as if he were converting rage directly to kinetic movement.
"Did you know, the techs are making jokes about you, Valentino?"
"My techs, my loyal computer-bound sim-operators. They work so very hard on these scenarios, researching, programming, making sure that every last little pixel of that display screen, every last line of code is a perfect replica of the real thing. They laugh about you. They say the only thing that crashes more reliably and predictably than HyperComm Explorer is Sebastian Valentino."
"That's hardly fair--"
"Did I say you could speak, kit?"
Sebastian swallowed hard, and shook his head.
"You have made a mockery of my academy, Valentino. These training grounds were forged to birth foxes into warriors, to hone spirits into defenders of our homelands and way of life."
Kobalski exhaled slowly, letting the mist form on the plasteen surface between himself and the cold of Ramshaft V's frigid nights.
"Do you know what the latest trend in my academy is?"
"Gambling. There is a pool going on, betting how many times you'll run the Viper Four course before giving up. Do you want to know what your odds are?"
"Not really, no."
"No, you do not! Because gambling is not allowed on my academy grounds!"
Kobalski seethed, paws clenched on the desk, his hackles raised. Sebastian could feel that Kobalski was holding back the instinct to rip him apart.
"And they do it anyway! In broad sight. Because this is all just a game to you!"
Sebastian's stomach felt like a rock. If his blood ran any colder, he'd be a refrigerator.
Kobalski glared at him for what seemed to be hours. The locked gaze was a show of intimidation, and Sebastian couldn't feel any less of a fox if he were skinned to be someone's rug.
"Well. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Sebastian breathed heavily. He would need to choose his words carefully if he didn't want to be shredded through the nearest meat-grinder.
"Sir, I believe that it is possible to defeat the Viper Four scenario."
The air lingered heavily in the room for a moment. Sebastian could almost feel the precipitation, as if the room were suddenly chilled to condensation levels. His breath felt heavy, labored.
Finally, Kobalski spoke.
"All right. I'll give it to you."
Kobalski loomed dangerously over Sebastian for a moment. "If you really think you can defeat it, I will let you. One. Last. Attempt. Understood?"
Sebastian ears flickered, and his equilibrium rolled for a moment. Maybe that tray to the skull had disoriented him more than he thought.
"Thank you, sir."
Kobalski waited a moment to let the fallout settle. His tail lashed behind him. Something beyond his usual immaculate composure.
"You should feel grateful I'm giving you this last attempt, kit. Cherish it, because at the trail you're sniffing, you'll never see real combat."
"I believe I am still certified and qualified for aerofighter operations."
Kobalski snorted. "You think the Star Alliance Aero Force would welcome you back if you keep up this maverick, crash-and-burn stuff? Not a chance. That coop's closed to you, Valentino. You would be lucky to brush the tails of the Aero Forces' pedigreed if you flame-out here."
Sebastian's heart sank. He hadn't thought this would jeopardize all he'd accomplished in his first two years of aerofighter training. He'd already scored outstanding marks in the Corvair light fighter, flying circles around the best pedigreed fighter pilots the National Military had to offer. The Star Alliance had invested untold dollars into his tactical brilliance to prepare him for the sacred duty of defending the vulpine race in all its needs. He couldn't believe they would just waste it all because of the things he said.
"I will not hesitate to throw you out on your tail if I think you would be a danger to the brave pedigreed vixens and tods of my glorious Titan Corps. Do you hear me?"
"Good. It would surely be a sorry waste to see someone of your talent scraping by in the Sanctuary. Maybe they will take pity on you, one of the many war-orphaned, abandoned strays. They would appreciate your father's sacrifice for the war."
"Don't talk about my father."
"What was that? Was that back-talk I heard, kit? Did I just hear a stray step out of line?"
Sebastian iced up. He raised his shoulders, but he felt only ten centimeters tall.
"No, sir. You did not hear that."
Kobalski loomed threateningly overhead for a moment's breath. Sebastian could feel the heat of his gaze, could smell the anger on him. Sebastian had nearly punched his own ticket to the domestic-world right there.
"I did not think so."
Kobalski stood there for a moment longer, rigid, monolithic over Sebastian. He took a step back behind his desk, and settled himself down into his chair to resume regular business.
"Now, I believe we have a proper understanding of place, don't we?"
Sebastian merely nodded.
"Good. You are dismissed, cadet."
Kobalski's tone was as cold as the ice that flurried in Sebastian's stomach. He could barely stand, but he shot out of the Captain's office like his tail was on fire.
Adrian was waiting in the hallway for him.
"You didn't have to wait for me, you know."
Sebastian paused at Adrian's words. Would Adrian turn against him too? No, it would take much more than that. He hoped.
"What did he say?"
Sebastian tried to bluff his way through. "Well, uh, you know. Party line. Straighten up and fly right," he said.
Adrian just stood there a moment, waiting for his commander to continue.
"All right, fine, it was a lot more... whoosh, bang, Adrian."
"I definitely heard a few bangs, yes."
"You heard-- how long were you eavesdropping?"
Adrian smirked momentarily. He ushered Sebastian away from Kobalski's office and toward the modestly-lit, interchangeable corridors that sprawled across the academy grounds.
"Long enough to know that he said exactly what I'm trying to get you to understand," Adrian said.
"Oh, here we go again."
"He does have a point, you know. You can't keep marking the cache without ruffling hackles. Why can't you just settle into your place and do as you're told?"
Sebastian stopped outside their dormitory door. "Why is it always that way? Why can't they just let me do my Max-gifted duty and best support foxkind?"
Adrian tapped the unlock button for the door. The security console display screen flashed, and after a quick wireless scan of the chip embedded in his right ear, confirmed that he was indeed Adrian Miller and should be granted access.
"Adrian Miller, recognized. Welcome home," the computer voice said. It was the same voice as in the simulator. Soothing yet artificial.
Sebastian stepped up to check in as well. It was always a good idea to check in and out of their quarters, no matter how trivial it seemed. It helped keep order, and would be invaluable if he ever needed to provide an alibi for where he was at a certain time.
Not that he would need to. Would he?
"Stray. Authorized. Access granted." the computer said, in response to scanning Sebastian's earchip.