“And what if you don’t make it back next time?”
“Griff.” Kyle leaned against the kitchen counter and bit back a groan. He’d been home for five damned minutes. Hadn’t even had a chance to change out of his flight suit yet. “Are we seriously going to have this argument every—”
“After every time you barely make it home in one fucking piece?” Griff threw up his hands. “Yes! We are!”
Scrubbing over his face, Kyle let go of that groan. Then he shifted his weight and rested his hip against the counter, careful not to display any of the pain in his neck and shoulders, as he looked Griff in the eyes. “Fine. So what do you want me to do? Turn in my wings?”
In an instant, Griff’s anger deflated, and Kyle’s shoulders dropped. They both knew damn well Griff would never ask Kyle to give up his career, not in the midst of an interplanetary war and not after he’d worked so goddamned hard to earn those coveted silver wings. That one simple question effectively backed Griff into a corner every single time.
Kyle pushed off from the counter and moved toward Griff. “I’m sorry. I am. But the danger—it’s part of the job. I can’t . . . I can’t change it.”
“I’m just scared, okay?” Griff’s voice wavered, threatening to crack.
“I know you are. But I . . . This is out of my hands. What can I do?”
“Nothing. I know. I . . .” Griff folded his arms tightly across his chest and avoided Kyle’s eyes. “I just don’t want to lose you.”
“You won’t.” Kyle wrapped his arms around Griff and held him close.
Griff melted against him. His arms loosened, then fell, then returned Kyle’s embrace. “Every time the sirens go off when you’re on duty, I am so damned scared. Between getting Brendan to the shelter and worrying you’ll be shot down, I . . .” He shook his head and looked up at Kyle. “And, Jesus, whenever they say a fighter’s crashed, it’s—”
Kyle silenced him with a gentle kiss. He suppressed a shudder at the thought of his longtime partner and their young son scrambling down to the bunkers when the sirens screamed. What if they didn’t make it? There’d been close calls before. For as much as Griff worried about Kyle’s safety, Kyle woke in cold sweats all the time, scaring himself shitless with nightmares about what could happen to his family and how powerless he was to prevent it. At least he had an ultrafast fighter with state-of-the-art weapons systems, and he flew with one of the best gunners in the Fleet. All Griff and Brendan could do was run.
His shudder almost came to life, but Kyle forced it away. He touched his forehead to Griff’s. “We both know it’s dangerous, but I promise, I’m doing my damnedest to come home to you and Brendan every night.”
“I know you are,” Griff whispered unsteadily. “And there are fucking aliens out there trying their damnedest to make sure you don’t.” He swallowed. “They say the Menarians are getting better. That they’re adapting to the way you guys fight, and they’re always one step ahead of you guys now. They’re fighting better, they’re shooting better, they’re—”
“We’re learning to fight them too.” Kyle smoothed Griff’s hair. “They’ve got a long way to go before they’re good enough to bring me down.”
Griff didn’t laugh. “Even the elite pilots still get shot down.” Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck. “You’d think the Fleet would leave more of the elite fighters here.”
Kyle shrugged. “They’re fighting the Menarians on their own turf.”
“And what about fighting them here?”
He grinned. “That’s why I’m here.”
Griff still didn’t crack a smile.
Kyle’s heart sank deeper, and his grin faltered. The Fleet had been after him for a while now to go to Epsilon, the station orbiting Menar, but he’d refused every time, and Griff knew it. No matter how much his commanding officer pressured him, he wasn’t going, and yet Griff was still terrified at every turn that Kyle was a heartbeat away from agreeing to go. That was an argument they’d had a few too many times, and he just wasn’t in the mood for it tonight. Just like he wouldn’t be in the mood to listen to the brass trying again tomorrow to get him to go.
“You’re the best we have, West. We put you and Blaine in with the elite, you could turn the tide of the war.”
“We’ve been through this,” Kyle said softly. “I’m not going to Epsilon.”
“Not unless they order you to.”
“It’s strictly voluntary. You know that.”
“For how long?” Griff wriggled out of Kyle’s embrace and slumped against the counter, folding his arms across his chest again. His posture didn’t come across as defensive so much as an attempt to keep himself from shivering. “You said yourself they’re getting desperate for pilots over there.”
“Griff.” Kyle stepped closer and gently grasped Griff’s upper arms. “They’re not going to force anyone to Epsilon. The Elite Squadron’s got enough problems already with morale among the volunteers.” Shaking his head, he added, “You force someone into that? They’re not going to fight worth a damn, and they’ll just get themselves and the rest of their squadron killed.”
Griff shuddered, some color leaving his already-pale face. “Fuck . . .”
“I’m not going.” He squeezed Griff’s arm. “There’s no way in hell I’m leaving you and Brendan behind. No way. I promise.”
“I know you’re not leaving us behind,” Griff said bitterly, “but if they get desperate and make you go, you can’t take us with you.”
Kyle shook his head but didn’t speak. He just pulled Griff into his arms again and stroked his hair silently. They’d been around this block a few dozen times too, and usually at a much higher volume, but he couldn’t think of any other way to drive it through Griff’s skull that he would never volunteer.
What Griff didn’t need to know was that, lately, the Fleet had been piling even more pressure on Kyle and his gunner to join the Elite Squadron. A lot of pressure. Kyle was easily one of the best fighter pilots still on Earth, and Emily had the highest confirmed-kill rate in the entire Fleet.
But time and again, Kyle and Emily agreed that they were more useful here as part of Earth’s defenses. What good was an offensive attack on an enemy planet if there was nothing left to protect? They’d even tried to compromise by volunteering for one of the short-deployment squadrons that tried to intercept Menarians when they entered the solar system, but they weren’t selected. The Fleet was clear—they wanted him and Emily on the Elite Squadron, and that was that.
Griff pulled in a deep breath, the movement drawing Kyle out of his thoughts. He loosened his embrace, and Griff looked up at him. His lips parted as if he was about to speak, but then he seemed to let the thought go and just stood up on his toes to kiss Kyle softly on the mouth. “Just be careful.”
“I’m always careful.”
Griff sighed and lowered himself back to his normal height.
“I’m scared out there too, you know,” Kyle whispered against Griff’s forehead. “But those sons of bitches aren’t taking me away from you and Brendan without one hell of a fight.”
“That’s what scares me.” Griff looked up at him again. “That they’re willing to put up one hell of a fight.”
Kyle started to speak, but the front door opened, and he and Griff both turned their heads.
“Dad!” Brendan dropped his schoolbag and sprinted across the kitchen. He jumped into Kyle’s arms and held on to him so tightly Kyle could barely breathe. “You’re okay!”
“I’m fine, kiddo.” Kyle closed his eyes as he hugged his son. Of course, Brendan had known already that Kyle was all right. Griff never would have sent him to school that morning if they’d still been waiting for word one way or the other. Still, seeing was believing. Squeezing him gently, Kyle whispered again, “I’m fine.”
The boy pulled back and turned to Kyle, eyes wide. God, he was looking more and more like Griff every day—the same blond hair, the same blue eyes. These days, he barely gave a single nod to his mother’s genes.
Brendan swallowed. “The aliens got really close this time.” Just over a year in London and a faint accent was already beginning to sharpen the edges of the boy’s otherwise American words.
“Yeah, they got close.” Kyle smoothed Brendan’s hair. “But they didn’t get us.” He kept it to himself that his fighter craft’s wing had barely stayed together long enough to get him and Emily safely on the ground. Or that the O2 system was badly damaged. Or that his neck and back still twinged every time he moved, thanks to that rough, near-catastrophic landing just before what was left of the wing had snapped off. Brendan didn’t need to know a Menarian’s missile had gotten that close to him, and neither did Griff. They definitely didn’t need to know about the missile that had turned a good friend’s bird into a fireball right in front of Kyle’s windscreen. Kyle could have done without that knowledge himself.
Brendan’s blue eyes, huge and round, locked on Kyle’s. “Do you think they’ll come back?”
Kyle chewed his lip, unable to look at his partner or his son. They wanted both comfort and honesty from him, truth and reassurance wrapped in one neat little package they could keep close by when doubt crept in. But he couldn’t lie. He couldn’t declare that the aliens wouldn’t be back. Maybe they wouldn’t come so damned close next time—five hundred miles from the city had been much too close for Kyle’s comfort—but they would most assuredly be back to Earth before long.
Gentle fingers pressed into the tender muscles of his neck, and he forced himself not to flinch, not to show any signs of physical discomfort that might allude to his partner and son that it was a closer call than either of them realized.
“Kyle?” Griff’s voice was gentle but somehow demanding too, as if to say, Tell him, damn it. Tell me.
Kyle swallowed, then met his son’s eyes. “I wish I could tell you they won’t be back. I really do.”
Brendan’s shoulders sank, and Griff released a heavy breath.
“But,” Kyle went on, “I promise you that Emily and I are doing everything in our power to kick these aliens out of here and make sure I come home to you every night.”
His son held his gaze, and Kyle’s heart beat faster. The boy was nine now, growing up so fast, and he was beginning to understand some of the grim realities of this war. Sooner or later, he’d ask the inevitable question, What if everything in your power isn’t enough?
Griff nudged Brendan’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go put your books in your room, and we can all figure out something to eat?”
The prospect of a normal dinner and their normal evening routine seemed to shake Brendan out of his near-catatonic state of worry, and he nodded. “Okay.” He threw one last uncertain glance at Kyle but then scooped up his book bag and trotted out of the kitchen.
Griff watched Brendan go. When their son was out of sight, he turned his head toward Kyle, and Kyle saw the question in his eyes before the words came out.
“What if you can’t keep that promise, Kyle?”
“I didn’t promise him I would always come home. Only that I would do everything in my power to make sure I do.”
Griff held his gaze. There was nothing either of them could say that hadn’t already been said a dozen times before. Nothing that would keep Griff and Brendan from being scared or Kyle from being in harm’s way. Not until something changed and this war—this endless goddamned war—was finally over.
“Look, this war scares you, it scares Brendan, it scares me.” Kyle sighed. “It’s dangerous. There will be close calls like the one last night.” He pulled Griff into his arms. “But I promise, I’m staying here. I’m not going to Epsilon no matter how much my CO badgers me, and the Menarians aren’t taking me down no matter how bad they’d like to.”
Finally, Griff managed a soft laugh. “You arrogant son of a bitch.”
Kyle chuckled. “Damn right.”
“Just be careful out there, will you?” Griff stroked Kyle’s cheek. “We need you here.”
“I will.” He dropped a tender kiss on Griff’s forehead. “I promise, I will.”
Andrei tugged at his pristine black sleeve and then fastened the stiff cuff around his wrist. He scrutinized his reflection, inspecting every seam and medal to make sure absolutely nothing was out of place.
The raw spot on the edge of his jaw had stopped bleeding and was just a small red mark now. Nothing that would draw attention. Nothing more than a hazard of shaving extra close to make sure his face was absolutely clean and smooth. Just to be certain, though, he ran his fingers over every inch of his cheek and jawline in search of even the tiniest stubble that would be out of regs.
“I appreciate protocol and military bearing as much as the next man,” he muttered, “but is it necessary to put these fucking things on every time we go see the admiral?”
In the bedroom, Ogrufina laughed dryly. “Could be worse.”
“He could order us into dinner dress.”
“Oh, fuck that.” Andrei brushed at his sleeve. “He starts asking for that shit, I’ll deliberately get myself demoted just so someone else can deal with him.”
“Don’t you dare,” she growled, and he laughed.
He grumbled to himself in Russian. It was bad enough that being the highest-ranking officers in their squadron meant constantly being summoned into their CO’s office. The asshole admiral also insisted that anyone who came to see him did so in dress uniform. Perfectly polished. No exceptions. Because everyone had time for that in combat.
When Andrei stepped out of the bathroom, Ogrufina was focused on her reflection in the bedroom mirror. Scowling, she pulled at her collar and swore in their native tongue as it refused to lie properly.
He put his hands on her waist, then slid his arms around her. “It looks fine, printsessa.”
“I want more than fine if we’re going in front of the admiral.”
He kissed the side of her neck. “Would you rather settle for fine or explain to the admiral why we’re late?”
“Humph. All right.” She tugged the collar one last time, then spat a curse. “It’s as good as it’s going to get.”
“It’s fine.” He put a hand on her waist again and leaned in to kiss her lightly.
Then they each gave themselves a final look in the mirror. There wasn’t a seam or hair out of place, so they left their stateroom.
On the way down the corridor, he offered his elbow and she took it, and they walked in silence. All through the station, Andrei prayed they could keep this meeting short. Admiral Bodner’s “briefings” were usually anything but brief.
Admiral Bodner had taken command of Epsilon and the Elite Squadron eight months ago, and Andrei didn’t like the asshole one bit. Ogrufina had some choice words for the man’s methods too, but neither of them spoke of it outside their quarters. Though, if things kept going the way they had been since Bodner came on board, Andrei was liable to lose his shit. Assuming, of course, that Ogrufina didn’t beat him to the punch. She’d likely be a little more . . . direct than he would.
At the admiral’s door, Andrei entered his access code into the keypad. The light stayed red, which meant the admiral hadn’t yet bothered to acknowledge the entry request. It was a little game the son of a bitch loved playing to keep his men at his beck and call. As if they all needed additional reminders that they were under his command.
After nearly thirty seconds, the light turned green, and the lock clicked.
Andrei pushed the door open and went in ahead of Ogrufina. She had no patience for chivalrous bullshit and would have done the same had she been the one to open the door. She closed it behind them, and they both snapped to attention in front of the broad, polished metal desk. Andrei thumbed his wedding ring, the only tic he could get away with that didn’t draw attention to the nerves that always accompanied him into the admiral’s office.
Behind the desk, Admiral Bodner sat ramrod straight in his oversized chair. He acknowledged each of them with a subtle nod—first Ogrufina, then Andrei. “Captain Teterev. Commander Dezhnyov.”
“Sir,” they both said sharply.
The admiral gestured for them to come toward his desk. They did, and he folded his hands in his lap but didn’t offer either of them one of the two empty chairs, so they remained standing. “Thank you for coming. I’ll be brief.”
The admiral put a hand on an electronic tablet on the desk and slid it toward them.
In a motion that was both sharp and graceful, Ogrufina picked up the tablet and took a step back from the desk. The room was silent for a moment except for the quiet sound of Ogrufina’s fingers tapping the tablet as she entered her access code. Once the screen lit up, casting a whitish glow onto her black uniform, she silently perused the orders. Then she handed the tablet to Andrei.
He read it over quickly, just skimming for now. A targeted bombing raid. Nothing entirely out of the ordinary. Not something they had the manpower or machinery to be doing quite as often as they were, but not out of the ordinary. Andrei set the tablet back on the desk and looked at the admiral, awaiting further instructions.
Bodner touched the screen and pulled up a few grainy satellite photos of the planet’s surface. Andrei and Ogrufina both leaned forward to get a better look.
“This structure”—Bodner tapped one building near the center of the photo—“is where we believe the Menarian intel headquarters is located. We take that out, and we deal a severe blow to their ability to monitor our orbiting stations and anticipate our attacks.”
A fairly basic structure, if larger than most of the ones Andrei had taken down.
“The coordinates are on your orders.” He handed Ogrufina a small chip, which they’d use to upload all the information to her tablet. “It’s a heavily protected area with some extremely dangerous fighters in the vicinity, but you’ll have two squadrons as escorts. They should be able to hold off the defense long enough for you to destroy the structure.”
Ogrufina and Andrei exchanged glances.
She slid the memory chip into her pocket and then held out her hand. “Let me see the orders again.”
Bodner tightened his jaw—he’d never been thrilled with Ogrufina’s direct manner of speaking—but gave the tablet back to her. While Andrei and Bodner watched in silence, Ogrufina reread the orders, lips tight and brow furrowed.
After a full minute, Bodner drummed his fingers on the desk. “Is there an issue, Captain?”
Ogrufina closed the folder and cleared her throat. She straightened her posture a little, setting her shoulders back. “Permission to speak freely, sir.”
The admiral offered a slight nod as he folded his hands on the desk. “Granted, Captain.” There was a warning in his voice, a subtle suggestion that she speak freely, but not too freely.
Ogrufina swallowed. “Are we certain a targeted attack on a core Menarian structure is wise at this point, sir?”
“What else would you suggest, Captain?” A note of terseness hinted at the man’s waning patience, and his chair squeaked quietly as he leaned back, eyeing both of them from beneath lowered eyebrows. “Why in the world would we delay the delivery of a crippling blow to such a critical target?”
In an equally terse voice, Ogrufina said, “With all due respect, sir, Squadron Four is down to three fighters. Our own squadron has lost—”
“I am aware of the status of the squadrons under my command, Captain,” the admiral snapped. “Make your point.”
“A target such as that will be heavily defended,” Ogrufina said. “Can Epsilon afford the inevitable casualties of such an attack?”
“Or adequately defend against a retaliation?” Andrei added.
The admiral’s gaze slid from Ogrufina to Andrei and back. “You have your orders.”
Ogrufina and Andrei glanced at each other again.
“Captain. Commander.” The admiral’s graying eyebrows slid farther downward, darkening his narrow eyes. “What do you want me to do? The Menarians cannot be allowed to recover from the damage we’ve already inflicted. The Fleet is addressing the personnel and mechanical shortages, and we can’t force pilots and gunners into the Elite Squadron. There are very few who qualify anyway. And we’re manufacturing aircraft and ordnance as fast as we can.”
“Is there perhaps another strategy for disabling the intel center, sir?” Andrei asked.
“I assume you have a better idea?” The admiral’s tone made it abundantly clear he had no genuine interest in Andrei’s input.
Still, Andrei said, “What about a ground attack?”
“That would be suicide, Commander,” the admiral snapped. “You know that.”
“I do, sir.” Andrei swallowed. “But if we’re in a position where an attack on this target must happen before we’ve had time to build the squadrons back up, then I’m not sure what alternative we have.”
The admiral lifted an eyebrow. “Are you volunteering?”
Andrei cleared his throat. “I . . .”
“No, Admiral,” Ogrufina broke in. “Not for a suicide mission. But perhaps a ground mission isn’t a suicide—”
“Enough,” the admiral growled. “Every option has been duly considered by the strategists. This”—he tapped the tablet emphatically—“is the decision we’ve come to. Now . . .” He folded his hands beneath his chin and raised his eyebrows again. “You’re the best crew I have. Top gunner, top pilot, best of the best. Can I count on the two of you to carry out this order and keep the casualties to a minimum?”
“Yes, sir,” they both said without hesitation.
“Brief your crews and get some sleep.” He sat back again. “You fly at 1500 hours. Dismissed.”
They saluted sharply and then turned on their heels and left his office.
They walked side by side through the corridors from the admin wing toward the briefing room. Ogrufina paused to summon their squadron via the loudspeaker, but as they continued down the corridor, neither said a word. All the way through the station, past the entrance to Hangar Three and the training decks, they were silent.
That memory chip in Ogrufina’s pocket made the skin on Andrei’s neck prickle. Missions like this were getting more and more common. Strategic targets that needed to be taken out, even when manpower and machinery were dangerously low, because time was of the essence.
They needed more pilots. More gunners. More ammunition. More birds. With the amount of resistance they faced, two or three more squadrons wouldn’t hurt.
A sick feeling twisted in Andrei’s gut. While he and Ogrufina were proud to be the best of the best, it was also a burden neither one cared to carry all the time. It was up to them to take out this target. It was up to them to do it quickly, cleanly, and get out before the Menarians shot them—or the rest of the formation—down. Ogrufina’s flying had to be flawless. Andrei couldn’t miss a single shot. And with a structure that size, it would take two or three blows to bring it all the way down. Once it fell, they'd have to come around again and drop two bigger missiles to make sure any subterranean bunkers were obliterated, as well.
If he missed, if she didn’t get him close enough, if either of them miscalculated anything, it would drag out the mission. A second pass to try again. A third if they really fucked up. Then still the return pass to finish off the bunkers. All of that opened windows for Menarian fighters to swoop in and pick off the rest of the squadron.
A hand on his arm startled him.
Ogrufina peered up at him. Then she gestured at the door beside them, and he realized he’d nearly walked right past the briefing room.
“Sorry. I was . . . preoccupied.”
They entered the room, and most of their squadron was waiting. Ogrufina loaded the memory chip into the projector at the front, and Andrei leaned against the podium, waiting for the stragglers to arrive. Though Ogrufina outranked him, he was usually the one to deliver briefings to the squadron. As much as it irritated both of them, some of the men still chafed at listening to a woman, even if that woman could outfly them with a blindfold on.
One of the pilots, Lieutenant Commander Lewis, got up from his chair and approached Andrei. “Commander, can . . .” His eyes darted toward the others, and then he lowered his voice. “Can I talk to you outside?”
“I need to brief the squadron. Can it—”
“I know. But . . .” The pilot chewed his lip and shifted his weight. Andrei eyed him—Lewis was one of the most levelheaded pilots on Epsilon. Being so visibly agitated was alarmingly out of character for him.
Andrei looked at Ogrufina and spoke to her in Russian. “Grushka, would you give the briefing? I need to speak to him.”
She glanced up from the projector, and her eyebrows rose when she saw Lewis. “I can handle this one.” She nodded toward the door. “Go ahead.”
Andrei and Lewis stepped out into the corridor.
“What’s going on?”
“Listen, uh . . .” Lewis’s eyes darted toward the door again, and he kept fidgeting. “I think something’s wrong with me. With my head.”
Andrei folded his arms loosely across his chest. “What do you mean?”
The lieutenant commander ran a hand through his hair. “I, um.” He paused and cleared his throat, staring at the deck between them. “On the last mission, I . . . I started seeing shit.”
“I don’t know. That’s the thing.” Lewis exhaled hard. “It was like everything I saw through the windscreen changed. My console, my controls—those stayed the same. But the view . . .” His eyes lost focus. “It was all wrong. It . . .” He shook his head. “One second I was seeing Menar, and the next I was seeing Earth, and then it was back to Menar.”
“And your gunner, did she—”
“She was looking at her console anyway, but—” He waved a hand. “She thinks I’m losing my mind, too.”
Andrei nodded slowly. “I do think it would be wise to have a psych eval, and—”
“Fuck.” Lewis lifted his gaze and swept his tongue across his lips. “So I am going crazy?”
“No, no.” Andrei put a hand on the pilot’s shoulder. “But this war and this space station, they do things to people’s heads. A psych eval is standard, but I think some time off would do you good, too. You might just need to relax.”
Lewis released a long breath. “You think that’ll do it?”
“You’re not the first who’s mentioned this to me.” Andrei smiled. “It’s not just you.”
“Well, that’s . . . reassuring. But the squadron’s already short-manned. If I—”
“If this place is getting to you, then you’re more of a liability out there than anything.” Andrei squeezed the man’s shoulder and then let go. “As of now, you’re grounded until the psych deck clears you to fly.”
Most pilots bristled when they were grounded, even when it was for their own good and for that of the squadron, but Lewis relaxed.
“I’ll report to the psych deck first thing in the morning.”
“Good. I’ll have the maintainers check your fighter, too. A pilot in Squadron Nine had an O2 system malfunction last year that led to him and his gunner hallucinating, so I’ll have it checked just to be sure.”
“All right. Thank you, Commander.”
* * *
“We can’t afford to lose another crew.” Ogrufina slipped her hand around Andrei’s elbow on the way back to their quarters.
“I know. But if he’s seeing things, he’s got no business flying.”
She nodded. “Da. I’m just worried about the rest of the squadron.”
She punched in the code beside the door, and the latch released. As she walked in ahead of him, she said, “Lock the door.”
Andrei had long ago gotten used to her habit of barking orders, but he wasn’t in the mood for it now. He also wasn’t in the mood to argue, so he locked the door.
She sat on the edge of their bed and unceremoniously dropped the memory chip beside her. She stared at it, and as Andrei watched, her battle-hardened exterior cracked, fell away. Chewing her thumbnail, Ogrufina transformed into the girl Andrei imagined she’d been before the war had hammered her into the cold, steel fighter pilot she was now. Her eyes were wide, her shoulders hunched, and she suddenly looked too small for her jacket and medals—a child playing dress-up with her mother’s uniform.
“You all right, printsessa?”
She nodded. “Da. Just thinking about the mission.”
She shoved the top button of her collar through its keeper and released a breath. Then she sat back, propping her hands behind her, and looked up at him. “This mission is foolish. They’re going to wipe out the entire squadron if this continues.”
Andrei grunted in agreement as he tugged open the top button of his own uniform. At least now he could breathe. “Truthfully, I’d be less concerned if I thought we were accomplishing something. Right now, it seems like we’re dropping structures and taking out targets, but we’re not gaining any ground.”
Ogrufina sighed, thumbing the edge of the duvet. “I wonder if our orders would be different if Bodner had to go with us.” She snorted derisively. “If he ever had to leave Epsilon and get close to Menar’s surface, things—”
“He’d shit himself before he made it through the atmosphere.” Andrei turned around, concentrating on unbuttoning his dress jacket, which seemed to take more effort than usual. “He’s not fit to command a squadron of fighters.”
“Ugh. Listen to us.” Ogrufina exhaled sharply. “We sound like the fucking Americans.”
His eyes flicked toward her reflection as he continued undressing. “How so?”
“They don’t respect their leaders. Question every order they’re given. Want explanations.” Rolling her eyes, she added, “Especially from anyone giving orders who isn’t also American.”
Andrei sighed. “Perhaps there’s more to that than insubordination.”
“We’re not here to make strategist decisions. We’re here to follow orders.” Her voice lacked its usual sharpness, and her shoulders dropped as she stared at the memory chip lying beside her. “It’s not . . . it’s not for us to question. We’re the fighters. It’s what we do.”
“It is. But if they’re sending us out to get killed—”
“Then we die.” Her voice had hardened even more. She stood and met his eyes in the mirror. “We’re soldiers.”
“I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to die for this, I’d at least like to bring some of those reptile bastards down with me.”
“As would I.” Ogrufina put her arms around his waist and rested the side of her head between his shoulders.
Andrei sighed, lacing their fingers together on top of his partially unbuttoned jacket. “I just wish we were getting somewhere down there.”
“I know, Dyusha.” She rubbed his thumb with the pad of her own. “But even if we’re not getting anywhere yet, I’m not ready to lie down and give up. Not with the things they’ve done to our home.”
Andrei shivered. He’d seen enough smoldering wreckages, burned corpses, and mass graves to last him till the end of his days.
“I’m not ready, either. We’ll keep fighting to the end.” He gently freed himself from her embrace, faced her, and pulled her against him again. Looking into her dark eyes, he caressed her face. “We came here to win or to die trying.”
“And we will.”
Andrei smiled, smoothing his wife’s short black hair. He admired her for countless reasons, but it was that unbreakable resilience that filled him with the most awe. She bent—everyone had to bend in this war—but she never broke. Ever. If Ogrufina did crack one day, if she snapped and crumbled, it would be after the Menarians had destroyed any reason she had to keep fighting. And as long as there was a scrap of ground on Earth that wasn’t soaked in human blood or occupied by Menarians, she would keep fighting.
And as long as she kept fighting, so would he.
He cupped her face and kissed her forehead. “We fly tomorrow. We should rest.”
“Agreed.” She stood up kissed him lightly, then stepped back and began unbuttoning her own jacket.
They stripped off their dress uniforms and changed into more comfortable sweatpants, and Ogrufina put on a loose T-shirt. They climbed into bed, Andrei on his back and Ogrufina on her side next to him.
She was undoubtedly running through every nuance of their mission in her head, mentally flying between the gleaming metal buildings and memorizing approach and escape routes. By all rights, Andrei should have been going through the same thing himself, calculating his shots from every possible vantage point. Where to hit the structure to take it down with the least amount of ordnance. Which missiles to use for which points of the structure. Which one could take out the underground bunkers.
But tonight, his mind wasn’t on the mission. It would be tomorrow. Once he was on the craft and they were ready to fly, he’d think of nothing but survival and the task at hand.
He’d been like this the night before a mission, lately. Fact was, every mission, no matter how complex, shared one simple reality: they could be killed. A Menarian missile. A mechanical malfunction. A crash. At every one of the turns Ogrufina was probably playing out in her mind right then, they could both die in a spectacular ball of fire. The proverbial blaze of glory, which Andrei believed was only glorious to anyone who’d never watched such a thing consume a friend.
He shivered. When they flew at 1500 tomorrow, as with every time they left Epsilon for Menar, they might not return.
Andrei carefully slid his arm free and turned onto his side. When he put his hand on her side and inched closer, Ogrufina stopped him with a palm flat on his chest.
“Dyusha,” she whispered. “We should sleep.”
“I know we should.” He backed off a little but ran his hand through her hair, the short strands cool between his fingers. “We have a few hours, though.”
The pressure she put on his chest eased. “We need . . .” Her hand slid upward, toward his neck, even as she said, “We need sleep.”
“I need you.”
“Andryushka . . .” Ogrufina’s fingers drifted into his hair.
He tenderly stroked her face. “Do you want to sleep?”
She didn’t answer.
She just pulled him to her.
Kyle grimaced against the ache in his legs as he made his way from their flat down to the subway station. It wasn’t an unpleasant sensation, he had to admit. Neither was the heavy fatigue that came from only a few short hours of sleep before he’d had to get up and head out again.
In spite of the soreness from his rough landing, he and Griff had fucked hard last night. Griff never fucked Kyle that hard except after close calls. Hungry, desperate, with a primal violence ignited by an insatiable need to tell the universe—in thrusts and whispered curses and no uncertain terms—that Kyle was his, only his, and that no one was permitted to take him away because Griff wasn’t finished with him.
Of course, that meant Kyle was paying for it today, but he couldn’t complain.
Walking through the city, he scanned his surroundings, searching for damage after yesterday’s battle. The fighting hadn’t centered over London, but battles frequently covered huge amounts of airspace. Thousands of miles sometimes. When Kyle had still been stateside, an attack centered on New York City had rained shrapnel and ordnance all along the eastern seaboard as the squadrons chased Menarians up and down the coast. A single attack on Mexico City had nearly crippled the northern half of Central America, and Israel and Jordan were putting out fires for days after an attack that had mostly concentrated on Cairo.
And this fight? They’d been just across the English Channel, duking it out in northern France like some bizarre aerial reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge. The possibility of a stray bomb, a piece of shrapnel, or a crippled aircraft falling on London was more likely than he cared to admit.
This place wasn’t “home” per se—he still felt out of place, keenly aware he was an American in London—but it was the closest thing he had. Ever since his squadron transferred here to replace one that had been wiped out, he’d done his best to make the city home for Griff and Brendan, and whether it felt like that or not, the fact remained that a bomb falling too close to London was a bomb falling too close to the only people Kyle had left.
From what he could see, though, there was no new damage, at least not to this end of the city. The half-crumbled ruins of a cluster of skyscrapers had been under repair since his squadron transferred here eighteen months ago. More than half the windows on this block were boarded up, and most had been that way for a while. Glass was just too expensive now to replace every window when a sonic boom or a nearby blast would shatter them again eventually anyway.
The street’s left lane was still cordoned off for a two-block stretch, thanks to a crater that had been there for at least a year, and the buildings that had been there prior to the Menarian craft crashing—and subsequently had been bombed for good measure—were still just a pile of rubble and warning signs.
Kyle blew out a breath and kept walking.
Horns honked and engines revved as morning commuters impatiently navigated their vehicles down the cracked, pothole-riddled one-lane road. Bicycles whizzed past, ringing their bells to warn pedestrians. People walked and talked, footsteps hitting pavement in a near-constant cadence alongside the sounds of chatter and traffic.
Construction equipment beeped and rumbled as crews slowly repaired the worst damage to streets and buildings alike. Sometimes Kyle wondered why they bothered. Even keeping the roads passable and the structures from collapsing seemed pointless when at any second, the Menarians could come screaming through here and destroy everything the crews had just repaired. But if they just let the damage accumulate, the city would grind to a halt. Morale was low enough without crews giving up on putting London back together.
Kyle sighed. He couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t listening for the telltale scream of an air raid siren. Or, worse, the shrill whine of a squadron of Menarian fighters.
The people around him seemed to be on edge too, throwing glances skyward in search of those familiar obsidian boomerang-shaped aircraft. Kyle didn’t look up. In spite of his irrational paranoia, he knew damn well that sneak attacks didn’t work on a city this well protected—even if the Menarians launched an assault on London, and even if the fighters couldn’t stop them, at the very least the invaders would be spotted before they arrived. The sirens would go off. The fighters themselves could be heard from well outside the city. There’d be chaos and panic well before the attackers were visible to anyone on the ground.
Kyle told himself that was why he didn’t look up. It made more sense than the irrational, skin-crawling certainty that if he looked up, he’d see them.
He shrugged away a shudder and turned off the sidewalk into the train station, past the boarded-up windows and the gaping hole in the outside wall that was covered in bright-yellow caution tape.
On his way through the crowded terminal, he kept his arm tucked against his side so his sleeve wouldn’t touch one of the anti-Menarian posters plastered along the cracked wall. Much as he understood the sentiment behind people squashing wads of used chewing gum onto the images of the hideous reptilian invaders, it was always just his luck he’d brush one of the fresh pieces. Nothing like spending a subway ride picking someone else’s gum off your clothes.
The corridor split off, and he stepped out onto the platform to wait for his train, which would be along in a couple of minutes. Much like the tunnels and stairwells leading down to it, the inside of the subway was lined with ever-changing posters. Kyle took a seat across from two of them. Both Fleet recruiting posters, of course.
THE FLEET NEEDS YOU, one of them said in bright-red lettering, SO THIS DOESN’T WIN.
Below the text was a shadowy image of a Menarian looming over the silhouette of the London skyline . . . on fire. The creature was eerily humanoid—same basic facial structure, two arms coming off a wide set of shoulders—but definitely was not human. Its torso tapered to a narrow pelvis, and below that were four legs. One of its clawed, prehensile feet was gripping the shape of the Tower Bridge—which had been destroyed shortly after this poster was produced—while six long fingers beckoned at viewers. Its mottled green-and-brown skin was weirdly coarse, vaguely resembling lizard scales, and that mouth looked like it could make mincemeat of just about anything in no time flat.
It was the eyes that always got to Kyle, though. Bright yellow with the strangest S-shaped pupils that his own eyes could never quite focus on. His brain expected black dots in the center, or maybe vertical slits like on a reptile, and couldn’t make sense of . . . that. The creepiest thing he’d ever seen had been a video—God knew how anyone had ever gotten that close—that showed a Menarian’s pupils expanding, then contracting.
He shook his head and looked away from the poster, and his gaze landed on the image right next to it. It was another recruiting poster and showed the two most famous members of the Elite Squadron.
Much the way he couldn’t help averting his eyes from the Menarian’s weird-shaped gaze, Kyle couldn’t help staring at the pair in this one, even though he’d seen their faces enough times. They were heroes. Worshipped like no other. Modern-day gods of war.
On the right, Commander Andrei Dezhnyov, the best gunner in the Elite Squadron. He had the second-highest number of confirmed kills of any Fleet member and the highest of any elite gunner since the squadron was formed.
Beside and slightly in front of him, with her helmet under her arm, was Captain Ogrufina Teterev, the pilot whose dogfighting skills made most men in the Fleet weep with envy. Not to mention the woman who inspired countless impure thoughts in most men—and some women—Kyle knew. Even the guys who insisted they weren’t into women with short hair still had a thing for her. When she’d been promoted to captain, someone had dubbed her “Faptain” Teterev, which irritated Kyle. The men could fap to whomever they wanted, but respect the woman’s rank and skill for God’s sake.
She didn’t register on Kyle’s radar that way anyhow. Emily had a thing for her—good God, did she ever—but Teterev wasn’t Kyle’s type. Her husband, on the other hand . . .
Kyle let his gaze slide over the image of Dezhnyov.
“If that man ever comes back to Earth,” Griff had said one day when they’d been sitting on another subway bench and looking up at a similar poster, “we should seriously try to grab him for a three-way.”
Kyle chuckled at the thought. Griff and Dezhnyov? At the same time? Oh hell, he probably wouldn’t survive it.
And anyway, aside from being a global hero—and a sex symbol—Dezhnyov was married. Straight.
Then again, being married to a woman didn’t mean much. After all, Kyle had a wife. The Fleet bought into the philosophy that an army of devoted couples would fight harder and better alongside their lovers than not. It had worked for the Sacred Band of Thebes, after all, though Kyle wondered how many of those soldiers had told their commanders they were lovers just so they could be a part of the army. God knew plenty of pilots and gunners in the Fleet had married on paper in order to secure the Fleet’s favor and coveted orders while they quietly had families on the side. Emily and Kyle had done it. Maybe Dezhnyov and Teterev had too. It was very much against regs, but as long as they weren’t performing adulterous acts within earshot of anyone with clout—or a grudge—most people just looked the other way.
Not that it mattered where Dezhnyov was concerned. Married on paper or in spirit, the Russian was also a few million miles from Earth, fighting the Menarians on their own scorched turf.
Kyle’s humor faded. Staring up at Teterev and Dezhnyov, admiring the sleek black uniforms and the numerous medals each wore on their chests, Kyle couldn’t help feeling that as they stared down at him, their eyes added to the pressure his CO had been applying for months.
We’re here. Why aren’t you?
Sometimes he asked himself the same thing.
Maybe he and Emily could make a dent over there, help cripple the Menarians before they made it to Earth. Especially Emily—after all, she was the reason Dezhnyov was only the second-deadliest gunner in the Fleet. Even with her shooting them down, though, they kept coming back, kept bringing down buildings. Chipping away at defenses, and knocking pilots out of the sky. The Fleet took one down, another took its place in the next attack.
No matter what they—
The train shot out of the tunnel and across Kyle’s line of sight, startling him as it kicked up trash and scattered political leaflets. He shook his head as he stood.
Focus, West. You’re flying today.
He’d be fine. A workout and some coffee, and he’d be golden.
When the doors opened, he boarded. It was still early enough that there were plenty of seats available, so he sat. Once he was situated, his mind immediately went back to the poster that was now obscured by the train.
“Lieutenant Commander, we need you over there,” Admiral Grady had said to him just last week. “We’re desperately short on personnel, and if we had your flying and Commander Blaine’s shooting . . .”
Kyle closed his eyes and sighed. No. He wasn’t leaving Earth. The Elite Squadron was there to try to destroy the Menarians on their own planet before they could get near this one. Obviously, though, in spite of the squadron’s best efforts, some of the lizards made it past, and as far as Kyle was concerned, he and Emily were here to destroy those who’d made it this far.
Between the Elite Squadron and the earthbound squadrons, maybe they’d eventually—
“Have you seen this, man?” A photo was suddenly thrust into Kyle’s face.
He jumped, pushing the photo away, which then put him face-to-face with a wild-eyed, unshaven guy in dirty, threadbare clothes. “You seen it, man? You fucking seen it?”
Kyle waved him away.
Fuck. Another homeless lunatic. They were always on the goddamned trains with their conspiracy theorist literature, and it was just Kyle’s luck that he’d wound up in the same car as one today. Because that was exactly what he was in the mood for this morning.
The man whirled around and accosted another passenger with the same question and photo. Not daring to reestablish direct eye contact, Kyle watched the man in the reflection in the dark window, just in case he made some sudden movement. These paranoid morons could be dangerously unhinged at times.
“The proof is right in front of you!” the man shouted, looking around for anyone who might listen to him. He shook the large, blurry photo in Kyle’s face again. Then on to the next passenger, who just buried her face deeper in a book.
“There’s a fourth orbital station!” the man screamed. “Why would they tell us there’s three when there’s four? Huh? Think about it! Stop being sheeple!”
Kyle resisted the urge to roll his eyes or give any outward indication of his annoyance. The “fourth station” conspiracy idiots needed to give it up. The Fleet had three manned stations in orbit as a first line of defense against Menarian invasions, all identical to Epsilon. Morons like this guy were convinced there was a fourth one orbiting Earth and demanded to know why they were being lied to about its existence.
Especially since the photos always showed precisely nothing. The stations were impossible to photograph or even see clearly because of fields designed to obscure them from Menarian detection. They were visible, as anything that size inevitably would be, but usually looked like little more than an opaque grease spot on the camera lens.
“What are they doing up there?” the man howled, staggering up and down the train car with his wrinkled photo. “Why are they lying? Why?”
“Exactly,” an irritated passenger said. “Why would they lie about it, dumbass?”
Kyle pinched the bridge of his nose. Three other passengers made exasperated noises.
You fucking idiot. Don’t encourage him.
“Why?” the crazy guy said. “I’ll tell you why . . .”
This was going to be one long train ride . . .
* * *
The train car lunatic’s lengthy diatribes were still ringing in Kyle’s ears when he stepped onto the platform almost an hour later. He wasn’t a fan of the cops who enforced the antialarmist laws, which forbade people from spreading propaganda and theories that could cause panics, but sometimes he could see where they were coming from. A jackass like that on a train full of gullible people could create mass hysteria in short order, and Kyle had seen the aftermath of the riots that could erupt following such a thing.
Freedom of information was great and all, but guys like that dude? Pour some pills down him or something. Christ. The last thing the planet needed these days was conflict among humans. Everyone had to focus on this war, from schoolchildren on up, and no amount of distrust or tension could be allowed to distract from constant preparation, vigilance, fortification, and the global cooperation that gave Earth a fighting chance against the relentless invaders.
Ironically, a new conspiracy theory had recently started going around that all the conspiracy theorists were Menarian plants, walking among humans and using some sort of hologram disguise so they could spread rumors to breed divisive paranoia and distrust.
On his way up the subway station stairs to base, Kyle pulled his arm against his side to avoid another gum-covered anti-Menarian poster and shook his head. Sometimes he thought people like that just sat up all night long—usually while he was up in the sky putting his ass on the line—thinking of stories to stir the pot. Assholes.
At the top of the stairs, he paused to slip his wedding ring out of his pocket and onto his finger. As far as the Fleet and anyone with authority knew, he was married to Emily, though a handful of people in his command knew about Griff and Brendan, just like he knew about their other families. They trusted him to keep that information confidential. So like Emily and her late girlfriend had been, Kyle was discreet. As long as he and Emily kept flying well and gunning down Menarians, and Kyle was careful about who he pissed off, no one was going to get excited about where he and his wife went when they were off duty.
Still, while Griff understood the arrangement and why the marriage behooved them, Kyle didn’t feel right wearing the ring around him. He always felt strange without it at work, though, as if someone might suddenly decide to call him out for the false pretenses of his marriage. And there were just enough higher-ups who didn’t like Kyle and were itching for something to use to hem him up. His mouth had already cost him a promotion. No sense getting busted for a fraudulent marriage and adulterous affair.
Ring in place, Kyle fished his ID badge out from under his shirt. He showed it to the sentry, who saluted him and then waved him through. Kyle returned the salute and continued past the Use of Deadly Force is Authorized sign.
He went into the stateroom that he and Emily shared whenever they had to stay on base overnight, changed into his flight suit, and headed down to the hangar. At the entrance, he showed his ID to another sentry before continuing inside.
The noise in the hangar was deafening as the aircrews, who’d probably been working around the clock, repaired damage to the remaining seven birds. The place where the eighth should have been was conspicuously empty, and it would stay that way until the bird was replaced. Even the aircrew, who were practically tripping over their equipment and tool carts, didn’t make use of that empty space.
Three spaces down from the empty one, his own bird was parked. The wing had been repaired during his twenty-four hours of liberty, and the fighter appeared to be good as new.
Someone stood under the bird, visible only from the waist down but wearing gray pants instead of the blue worn by the aircrew.
He tapped his knuckled on the craft. “Morning, sunshine.”
Emily ducked out from under the bird and offered a tired smile. “Hey, you. How are you?”
“Awake.” He stretched, gingerly, grimacing at the aches in his muscles.
She smirked, wiping at a smudge of grease on her cheek. “Having a little trouble moving today, Casanova?”
“Very funny.” He threw her a playful glare. “Back’s just off from that landing the other day.”
“Is that what kids are calling it now?”
He rolled his eyes. “Brat.” Resting his elbow on the wing, he said, “You haven’t been here the whole time, have you? You did take your liberty and get some rest?”
Emily shook her head and stood, dusting off her flight suit. “I took the lib, don’t worry. I just came in early today.” She looked over the bird and sighed. “Couldn’t sleep.”
He tilted his head. “You okay?”
She nodded. “Yeah, just . . .” She chewed her lip. Then she shook herself back to life and faced him. “Kept thinking about my shooting the other day, and I thought there might have been something wrong with the targeting system.”
“Nope.” She eyed the bird. “Just shitty aiming on my part, apparently.”
“Em.” He touched her arm. “That fight was intense. You’re not going to make every shot, especially when it’s like that.”
“I know.” She sighed and pushed a few strands of hair out of her face, leaving another greasy smudge across her cheek. “But you know how it is. If I could have made that one shot—”
“Em.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “Don’t do this to yourself. That shot could just as easily have missed because I maneuvered left when you thought I was going right. Everything we do out there is in split seconds and millimeters, and no one’s going to make every single shot.”
Her shoulders sagged beneath his hands, and she lowered her gaze. “I know. I really do know that. It’s just . . .”
“I know.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “And there isn’t a member of the Fleet who would ever question your ability out there.”
She said nothing.
“Come on, let’s go find some coffee.” He reached up and tapped the wing again. “Let the maintainers handle all this, okay?”
Finally, she smiled a little. “Okay.”
In the officers’ mess, they grabbed some coffee and a couple of bland-but-acceptable omelets. The rest of the squadron was already there, occupying their usual tables at the far end of the room, so Emily and Kyle joined them.
Everyone looked like they’d been through hell and back. Typical after a particularly intense fight. No one had slept. At least half of them were probably hungover.
While they ate breakfast and drank coffee, they all sent occasional surreptitious glances toward the two empty chairs at the end of the table. There was a cup of coffee in front of each and had been since the squadron returned from that hellish battle yesterday. Tomorrow morning, they would still be there. At the end of shift tomorrow, someone would take them away before everyone headed to the memorial service for the pilot and gunner they’d lost.
Aside from the pair of unattended coffee cups, though, the atmosphere in the mess hall was just like it always was at the crack of dawn. It had to be. They’d all struggle to keep it together at the memorial—and more than one of them would probably lose it before the service was over—but outside of that, they had to stay strong and stoic. If one crumbled, the whole squadron would crumble too. And they couldn’t let that happen. Not when that red light on the wall could come on at any moment, along with a shrill announcement that they had incoming bogeys.
Lieutenant Commander Robb ran a finger around the edge of his own coffee cup. “Lizards have been busy lately. One assault after another seems like.”
“Always comes in waves, don’t it?” Captain Barton said.
“Feast or famine,” Emily muttered.
That about summed it up. For weeks or even months, an area would get hammered by small but heavily armed formations while other cities went untouched. Then the Menarians would disappear for a while before coming back to focus their efforts on another city, or sometimes an entire region. The brass were convinced those were dry runs for an even larger attack, that they were testing Earth’s global defenses in preparation for an invasion on a scale no one particularly wanted to think about.
Kyle sipped his coffee. “Well, maybe they’ll get bored and find something else to do.”
“And leave us the fuck alone?” Barton asked.
“One could hope.” Kyle picked at his food. “There has got to be another planet closer to home that’s worth fucking with instead of coming all the way to us.”
Robb gave a dry laugh. “Well, if any of y’all ever find yourselves on a Menarian ship, feel free to drop that into the suggestion box.”
The rest of the squadron laughed, the collective sound underscoring the tired, bedraggled air of the entire group.
Emily pushed her half-finished omelet away. “If I ever find myself on a Menarian bird, I will—”
The piercing wail of the alarm cut her off. The red light on the wall burst to life, flashing in time with the blaring alarm.
The screech of chair legs grinding on the floor drowned out the alarm for a split second. One of the unattended coffee cups wobbled but didn’t fall.
Then came pounding boots. Kyle and Emily ran through the corridors with the others. The steel door at the end of the hall flew open, and the crews rushed across the hangar to their respective aircrafts.
Please don’t let the attack be close by, Kyle thought as he sprinted toward his fighter. Please let it be far from this city.
The noise in the hangar was deafening. The alarm wailed. Aircrew shouted over each other as they disconnected machinery and moved tools out of the way. Engines roared to life.
Kyle dropped into his fighter’s cockpit, sucking in a sharp breath when his sore spine protested. Emily took the gunner’s seat to his right.
Ignoring the eye-watering pain, he went through all the motions that had long ago become second nature. O2 masks on. Engines on. Brake released. Other lights came on as Emily activated the weapon systems.
The coordinates were farther away than the last attack. Still not safe as far as he was concerned—anything in this hemisphere was too close for comfort—but better than northern fucking France.
“Let’s do this,” he muttered as the other birds started taking off one by one. Eyes on the wide-open hangar door, he eased the throttle forward. The engine roared, and the fighter inched forward.
He turned onto the runway, gunned the throttle, and he and Emily both grunted as the g-forces shoved them back against their seats. The fighter sped down the paved strip, and it nosed upward as Kyle pulled the control stick back.
After the rest of the squadron had taken off, the birds fell into a tight triangular formation and sped toward the coordinates. Blood pounded in his ears. Even at these high speeds, it still took time to get to the attack, and every second they were en route was one more second a Menarian could tear down a building and kill innocent people.
Not a moment too soon, the radar chirped. Kyle glanced down as three bright-green blips lit up the screen. “We’re getting close.”
“Good. Weapons systems are—”
“I’ve got a visual!”
Three of the sleek black boomerangs swooped down from the clouds. They were also in a tight formation, wingtips almost touching, as they screamed toward the city in the distance.
Into the radio, Kyle said, “Squadron Four, we’ve got a visual. Three bogeys, heading southeast from my coordinates.” Then he clicked his radio over to a wider channel. “This is Squadron Four, Delta Company—we’ve got a confirmed visual at my coordinates. Three bogeys, possibly more.”
“Roger,” came a response in an accent he didn’t recognize. “Charlie Company is in your vicinity. Backup’s on its way.”
Beside him, Emily growled, “Let’s go get ’em.”
He chuckled beneath his O2 mask. Her enthusiasm for knocking these bastards out of the sky was almost rabid. No wonder she was such a kick-ass gunner.
Up ahead, the bogeys were rapidly closing in on a large city. He didn’t know which city—it was all numbers and coordinates in his mind until the debrief—but those Menarians were getting too close regardless.
He clicked back to the squadron’s channel. “Delta Four, break formation. Let’s get ’em out of the sky before they do any damage.”
The squadron broke apart, and Kyle gave their bird a little more throttle, pushing her to the highest speed she could maintain while still maneuvering.
“Which one do you want?” he asked Emily.
“Let’s take the one in the middle. Get in good and close. I want the maintainers scraping pieces of Menarian off our windscreen.”
Kyle wrinkled his nose but zeroed in on the center craft.
The Menarian on the right suddenly broke away, zipping to the side and darting downward, just avoiding a missile. The left fighter dropped down and took out the missile before it could reach its intended target.
Then they were both out of visual range, and Kyle focused on the remaining bird.
“Hold your fire,” he said through his teeth. “We’re getting too close to the city.”
Kyle moved just slightly to the left and then accelerated, bringing him in close to the Menarian’s wing, hoping to encourage a hard right.
Abruptly, the Menarian pulled up, swooping over their fighter and doubling back the other way. Kyle followed. He lost visual contact for a few seconds, but then found the craft darting toward the city, flying fast and low.
“Oh shit,” Emily murmured as the Menarian sailed toward the outer edge of the city.
“I’ve got him, I’ve got him.”
Another fighter came out of nowhere, engaging the Menarian. Kyle backed off but stayed on both their tails—if the other bird suddenly changed course, Emily could still take down the Menarian.
All three fighters dived and darted between structures, speeding along narrow streets and turning around corners that were way too sharp to take at this speed. Honed skill and sheer luck kept Kyle and the other fighter on the Menarian’s ass, though, and they cleared building after building, chasing the black boomerang into the heart of the city.
The Menarian fired.
A split second later, the alien craft pulled up, then banked to the left.
Kyle had no illusions that he could stop the building from being hit, and stayed on the Menarian’s six, but the other fighter hesitated. Though Kyle couldn’t see him, the other bird’s distress alarm chimed in his ear.
“Shit,” he muttered and whipped around another building.
Just in time to see the fighter smack into the building and burst into flames.
The craft tumbled out of the sky. Kyle flinched and quickly continued after the Menarian, in part to shoot the motherfucker down and in part to avoid watching the downed fighter hit the street below.
“Stay on his tail,” Emily said.
“Working on it.”
The Menarian whipped left, then right, nearly clipping a building. Kyle stayed close, though, gritting his teeth against the g-forces and the sharp turns.
“Come on, you little bastard,” Emily muttered.
“Wait till we’re clear of the structures,” Kyle said.
“I’m waiting. Come on . . . That’s—”
The fighter jolted slightly with the release of the missile, and a second later, the Menarian craft exploded in a spectacular fireball.
“Yeah!” Kyle pumped his fist. “Nice shot, Em.”
She laughed. “You sound surprised.”
“Not at all, baby. Not at all.” They high-fived over the console, and then he spoke into his radio. “I’ve got a clear radar. Any other visuals?”
“Negative, Four Leader,” someone said. “Two bogeys down, the rest are in full retreat. No further visual.”
“That’s what I like to hear, folks. We’re all clear. Delta Four, return to base.” Kyle turned the fighter around and set the course for home. The rest of the squadron headed in the same direction but didn’t pull back into formation.
In fact, some of the pilots went ahead. Dipped down. Barrel-rolled.
Kyle laughed. “Nothing winds down a successful mission like some hotdogging, am I right?”
“Little boys in expensive toys,” Emily said with a laugh.
“Hey, hey!” He glanced at her, trying but failing to scowl. “I’ll bet money one of those pilots is L.C. Daniels.”
“Probably.” Emily shrugged. “Maybe you should try to outdo her.”
Kyle chuckled. “No, thanks.”
He flipped her off, and she giggled, the sound muffled by her O2 mask.
London came into view. Much as the sight of the city was a relief—they’d made it home safe—it was depressing at the same time. The iconic skyline wasn’t what it used to be. A number of skyscrapers, including the enormous glass Shard, were gone, and others were in such bad shape now that they were being carefully dismantled before they collapsed. By the grace of God, and some makeshift supports, the lower third or so of the tower that had once housed Big Ben was still standing but more than half of Parliament had been reduced to a crater that had been flooded by the Thames.
They were past the city in no time, and Kyle put the fighter down gently on the runway outside the familiar hangar. They taxied in, pulling into their usual parking space, and he turned off the engines.
“Home in one piece.” Emily pulled off her O2 mask. “Thank God.”
Kyle took off his mask and shut down the oxygen system. “Always good to be home, eh?”
“Very good. Now I need something to eat.”
He chuckled, stretching as the fighter’s hatch yawned open behind them. Emily got out first, and he followed a moment later.
Once he was out of the craft, he pulled the zipper of his sweaty flight suit down a few inches, just to loosen it around his throat. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, he looked around. Though there was still that one empty parking spot, the other seven were occupied. There’d been casualties out there, but none of them had been from his squadron.
He released a breath, allowing himself a small, relieved smile. He wouldn’t relax completely until the all clear was given—hopefully soon—and he heard from Griff and Brendan, but the Menarians were retreating. The battle was over. The city was intact.
And the day was theirs.
“All available medical personnel to Hangar Four immediately,” a female voice shouted over the station-wide loudspeaker. “Medical personnel to Hangar Four.”
Andrei almost choked on his coffee. “Shit.”
“Let’s go.” Ogrufina pushed her chair back, and they, like everyone else in the officer’s mess, abandoned their coffees and ran for the hangar.
At the hangar door, everyone stopped. Andrei fidgeted and swore, waiting for the airlock to be secured.
“Hurry up,” he muttered under his breath. A medical all-call for a returning squadron could mean anything from one injured crew member to a mass casualty that even Epsilon’s medical facilities couldn’t handle. What was beyond that door right now was anyone’s guess.
Finally, the airlock was secured, and the hangar door opened.
Squadrons Five and Eight were a mess. Smoke rose from twisted, burned metal. Sparks arced from damaged wiring. It was a wonder several of the birds had made it through the atmosphere and back to Epsilon at all, and a quick count made Andrei’s heart sink—at least three hadn’t made it back.
Sweaty, exhausted crews emerged from their fighters. Most were unscathed, fortunately. One gunner slung her arm around her pilot’s waist and helped him limp away from the craft. Another pilot rubbed his neck and walked gingerly. Must’ve been a damned rough ride.
“Medics!” a familiar voice called out from one of the birds. “I need medics now!”
Andrei turned and saw Nabhi, another gunner, leaning out the back of her fighter, beckoning frantically to the medics who were sprinting across the hangar. Andrei’s heart dropped into his boots. “Oh no . . .”
As Andrei ran toward the craft, Nabhi turned to him. Her dark skin had lost some color, though that might have been the contrast of the blood streaming from her temple, and her eyes were huge. She stumbled down the steps.
“Andrei,” she murmured. “It’s Murari. He’s—” She glanced back at the craft, and Andrei caught her just as her knees started to buckle.
He embraced his friend gently. He didn’t have to ask how bad it was. Nabhi was one of the most stoic women on Epsilon. Like everyone here, she’d watched friends die. She’d been tasked with killing them herself from time to time, blowing up a crash site out of mercy, to keep a doomed crew from being captured by the Menarians, a fate that was truly worse than death. Even when she’d learned that their native Mumbai had taken the brunt of a horrific attack, she’d just held Murari and never even cracked. Not once.
Nabhi trembled against Andrei, gaze fixed on the smoldering fighter as she murmured what Andrei assumed was a prayer.
A moment later, the medics emerged from the fighter carrying the limp, bloody form of Murari Kamdar, Nabhi’s pilot and husband—and Andrei’s former lover.
A lump rose in Andrei’s throat. Nabhi cried out something in her native tongue and clung to Andrei as the medics carefully laid Murari on the stretcher.
Andrei’s breath caught. Murari was barely conscious, the insignia on his black flight suit stained red. Medics held blood-soaked bandages against his neck and chest, and Andrei caught the words “transfusion” and “vitals dropping” as they wheeled him toward the hangar door.
“No. No, please . . .” Nabhi dropped, her knees cracking hard against the deck. She cried out, and though the word wasn’t one Andrei understood, her anguish was palpable, shaking him straight to the core.
Ogrufina knelt beside her and gestured for Andrei to go to Murari. Andrei hesitated, not wanting to leave Nabhi behind, but his friend was in good hands with Ogrufina, so he hurried after the stretcher.
Running alongside the gurney, he gripped Murari’s bloody hand. “Stay with us, old friend. That’s an order.”
Murari’s eyes fluttered, and for a split second, he looked up at Andrei. Then he closed his eyes again, face contorting with pain, and he squeezed Andrei’s hand, grinding the bones against each other. The groan he released was weak and sickening.
Andrei held his breath, his heart pounding as if it could somehow beat for both of them if it just tried a little harder. Andrei willed Murari’s bloodied chest to keep rising and falling. As his friend’s grip started go to slack, he held tighter. “Murari, you’ll be fine.” He struggled to keep his teeth from chattering. “You’ll be all right. Just hang in there.”
When they reached medical, one of the medics gruffly ordered Andrei to wait outside.
He let go of Murari, and then the door banged shut, and he was alone, standing there with his blood-stained hand hovering in the air as his heart thundered and his stomach churned. Around him, two other stretchers rushed into medical. One patient was badly burned. The other didn’t have a mark on her, but she was ghostly white and barely conscious. More medics brought in others who were obviously in pain, but more or less mobile. Uninjured crew members joined Andrei in the waiting area, pacing nervously and gnawing thumbnails, eyes darting toward that metal door.
Andrei leaned against a wall and just prayed and prayed for Murari to pull through. If there was a friend on this station he couldn’t bear to lose . . .
They’d been lovers for only a little while. Ogrufina had known from the beginning that Andrei was bisexual, and just as Nabhi had done with Murari, she had always given him her blessing to have men on the side, though he hadn’t had many over the years. A few months after the beautiful Indian couple had arrived on Epsilon, Andrei and Murari had become intimate. They’d drifted apart over time, though, especially being on separate duty rotations—more often than not, one of them was flying while the other was sleeping—so they rarely had time for each other, and their interludes had stopped almost a year ago.
And now Murari was hanging by a thread.
Please, please, don’t die. Don’t you dare leave Nabhi alone.
He didn’t know how much time passed. Those with minor injuries slowly emerged from the back, bandaged and tired. A doctor came out and told the squadron leader—and everyone else waiting to hear—that while the burned gunner wasn’t out of the woods yet, he was stable for the moment.
Andrei stayed close to the squadron leader, craning his neck every time the woman got a report about one of her crew members.
Another doctor Andrei hadn’t seen before came out, and his heart slowly sank. The grim expression, the quiet voice—Andrei knew. Deep inside, he knew.
But he still nearly collapsed when he heard the words: “Lieutenant Commander Kamdar did not survive his injuries.”
Those gathered collectively gasped, and several murmured among themselves. The squadron leader thanked the doctor, and as he walked away, she put a hand to her mouth and released a ragged breath.
“Captain,” Andrei said softly.
She turned to him.
He steeled himself. “If it’s all right with you, I’ll tell his gunner.”
The captain held his gaze for a moment, then nodded. “Thank you, Commander.”
Andrei headed back to the hangar, blood pounding in his ears. He and Ogrufina had been tasked more than once with breaking terrible news to people within their squadron. A family wiped out. A hometown destroyed.
But this? Andrei was certain this would kill him.
He owed it to Nabhi and Murari, though. And the squadron leader had enough to deal with after her squadron had taken such a beating out there. In her position, he’d have been grateful to anyone who stepped up and took something like this out of his hands.
He paused outside the hangar, took a deep breath, and set his shoulders back. Then he stepped inside.
Nabhi was sitting on the ramp of her fighter with Ogrufina’s arm around her shoulders. Other members of the squadron milled around, looking equal parts exhausted and anxious. In a heartbeat, all eyes were on Andrei, and as he slowly made his way across the hangar, he pretended not to feel the weight of every stare that followed him. The entire hangar was deathly silent except for Andrei’s boots on the deck.
Nabhi locked eyes with him. As Andrei came closer, she stood, hugging herself and shivering. “Is he . . .”
Andrei stopped. He swallowed hard and pulled in a breath.
There were no words. None. Not in any of the languages he knew.
“Andrei,” Nabhi pleaded. “Please. Tell me he’s . . .”
Andrei stepped a little closer and finally managed to whisper, “I’m sorry, Nabhi.”
His friend’s eyes widened. “No. Murari, he’s . . . he’s all right, isn’t he?”
Slowly, Andrei shook his head. “He . . . The medics tried. They—”
“Andrei, no.” Nabhi’s already wet eyes welled up further. “Please . . .”
“He’s gone.” Andrei’s own words hit him in the gut. “Murari’s . . . gone.”
For a moment, Nabhi just stared at him.
Then she buried her face in her hands. Crumpled to her knees.
It was the most pained sound Andrei had ever heard, and as he knelt beside Nabhi and embraced her, he knew it was a sound that would haunt his dreams until the day he died.
He stroked her hair and tried to keep himself together. “I am so sorry, my friend.”
“Murari,” Nabhi sobbed in his arms. “No. No, Murari . . .”
Andrei’s eyes stung, and he just held on.
The Fleet loved their married pilots and gunners—especially since fatalities usually claimed both, and there were no widow’s benefits paid if there was no widow—but this was the downside none of them ever wanted to acknowledge. Yes, spouses had a degree of intimacy that let them communicate like few other pairs, some of them on an almost telepathic level. Yes, a pilot wasn’t quite so reckless when a false move could kill not only himself but his wife. Yes, lovers would go to the ends of the universe to save each other.
But when a Menarian’s aim was true and a craft was damaged, that didn’t necessarily mean both pilot and gunner were killed. And when only one survived . . .
Andrei held Nabhi tighter, stroking her hair and wishing there was something he could say. A good friend was gone, leaving behind a devastated partner. Feeling Nabhi sob against him was beyond excruciating.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
And words had never sounded more useless.
* * *
Andrei saw Nabhi to the psych deck—standard procedure for someone who’d just lost a pilot or gunner—while Ogrufina attended a briefing about what happened on the mission.
Losses were part of the game up here, but Murari . . . he was just too close. Losing him was unbearable and watching Nabhi grieve tore him apart. Especially since he was fairly certain he’d have had to bring Nabhi up to the psych deck even if it hadn’t been standard. The woman was inconsolable. It was as if she’d been steel-strong all this time, even after their city was destroyed and their families killed, for Murari’s benefit, and now that Murari was gone, all that pent-up grief was crashing down on her. She sobbed until she was sick, vomited until she couldn’t breathe, and then cried out Murari’s name over and over until she retched again.
The only reason she was calm now was that the psych nurses had finally been able to restrain her enough to inject her with a heavy sedative. She’d fought them, she’d fought the drug, but finally, she’d gone limp.
Now she was out cold. Head lolling to one side, she snored softly. She might’ve even passed for peaceful if not for the restraints on her wrists and ankles.
“We’ll keep an eye on her,” one of the nurses told Andrei as he herded him out. “Someone will be with her around the clock.”
“And you’ll let me know when she’s awake?”
“Yes, of course. Go get some rest, Commander.”
Andrei returned to his stateroom, and Ogrufina was already there.
“How is Nabhi?” she asked.
“They had to sedate her.”
Ogrufina winced. “I can’t even imagine.”
“I don’t want to,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around her. For a long moment, they just held each other, neither moving nor saying a word. He tried to put himself in Nabhi’s boots, but he refused to let that thought settle in. He held Ogrufina tighter and breathed her in, reminding himself with every breath that she was still here and alive.
After a while, they loosened their embrace.
“What happened to him?” Andrei asked. “Did they say in the briefing?”
Ogrufina nodded. “The missile that hit them wasn’t enough to cripple their navigation systems, but it caused a small explosion inside the craft. On Murari’s side. The shrapnel is what injured him.”
Andrei swore in Russian and sank onto the edge of the bed, cradling his head.
She put a hand on his shoulder. “The craft was so badly damaged, I don’t even know how they didn’t crash or lose their O2 system.” She shivered. “It’s a miracle they even made it back to Epsilon.”
Andrei lifted his gaze and met her eyes. “Somehow I don’t think Nabhi would agree that it was a miracle.”
Sighing, Ogrufina sat beside him. She wrapped her arms around him and stroked his hair just like he’d done for Nabhi in the hangar. “I’m so sorry, Dyusha.”
“This is going to happen again,” Andrei whispered. “Over and over and over. It’s . . .” He shook his head, exhaling hard. “Something’s got to change. All we’re doing is going out there and getting slaughtered.”
“I know, Dyusha.” She held him a little tighter. “We’re not gaining any ground, and . . .” She trailed off.
Andrei closed his eyes and sighed. “We need a new strat—”
“Squadron Seven to Hangar Three,” the voice on the loudspeaker cut in. “Squadron Seven, Hangar Three.”
Andrei stared up at the speaker. “They aren’t serious.”
Ogrufina sighed and stood. Holding out her hand, she said, “We’ll find out, won’t we?”
He took her hand and rose as well, his legs weak and his stomach twisting into knots. He and Ogrufina walked down to the hangar deck in silence.
The entire squadron was already there, wide-eyed and shell-shocked but present. Andrei gulped. They’d flown immediately after another squadron’s bad mission before, but every crew had their limits.
“Captain, Commander.” Admiral Bodner’s voice turned Andrei and Ogrufina around, and the admiral beckoned to both of them. They stepped out into the corridor. “I assume you and your crew will be suited up and ready to fly at 1500.”
Andrei blinked. “I . . . beg your pardon?”
Bodner’s eyes narrowed. “Was I unclear?”
“Admiral,” Ogrufina said. “With all due respect, we’ve got a crew member on psychiatric stand-down, and we’ve just today lost friends from—”
“This is combat, Captain.” Bodner glared at her. “It’s hell and it doesn’t wait for us to mourn our dead. Unless you can’t handle that?”
Her lips parted. “I—”
“Jesus Christ, Admiral,” Andrei snapped. “What difference does it make if we fly the mission now or in a few hours?”
“What difference does it make?” The admiral stepped right up in his face and thumped a finger in the center of Andrei’s chest. “Commander, every second we’re sitting around on Epsilon, the Menarians are recovering. They’re gathering intelligence, strategizing, building more ordnance and more birds. You can grieve after you’ve completed your mission.” He stepped back. “But your mission will be carried out. Understood?”
Andrei swallowed. “This is an extremely precise mission. I need to be able to focus enough—”
“Then I would suggest you focus,” the admiral growled. “You have your orders, Commander, and we have a mission out here. You want to avenge your friend’s death?” He gestured sharply at the fighters. “Get in your fucking bird and follow your orders.”
Ogrufina put a hand on Andrei’s back and spoke calmly. “Admiral, our squadron needs to regroup and—”
“I’m not asking your opinion, Captain! Fly your fucking birds, or I will court-martial your entire squadron for dereliction of duty.”
Ogrufina and Andrei glanced at each other.
“The station will be in position over your target at 1500,” Bodner growled. “Understood?”
They exchanged another glance, then both muttered, “Yes, sir.”
Alarms. Red lights.
Emily and Kyle both dropped the tablets they’d been reading and sprinted out of their stateroom. Doors flew open on both sides of the corridor, and the other members of their squadron were hot on their heels.
When they reached the hangar, the maintainers were scrambling to get their tools and scaffolding out of the way as pilots and gunners jumped into their fighters.
“Come on, come on,” Kyle muttered at the maintainers as he pulled on his O2 mask. “Out of the way, boys.” He kicked on the engines, and the maintainers moved even faster. By the time Emily lit up the weapon systems, they were clear.
He released the brake and eased the throttle forward.
And nothing happened.
One by one, the other birds rolled out, took the sharp turn beyond the hangar door, their engines screaming and afterburners flaring to life just before they snapped forward to launch into the air.
But Kyle’s didn’t move. At all.
“What the fuck is happening?” Emily shouted.
“Nothing!” Kyle frantically searched for something—an alarm, a light, anything—to indicate what was going on. “Nothing’s happening. That’s the problem!”
“Shit . . .”
He clicked the radio over to the aircrew channel. “I need aircrew over here for an undetermined malfunction. Now!”
“On it, sir.”
He didn’t even need to use his call sign or identify his fighter. There was only one bird left on the ground, and it was his. Aircrew came running from all directions.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Kyle muttered, tapping his fingers on the control stick. They didn’t have time for this. They had to fly. Right now.
Panels opened. Closed. Others opened. Closed. Warning lights came on. Went off. Came on again.
“What the fuck?” someone said on the radio. One of the men popped up from beneath the left wing and gestured for two others to join him.
Kyle’s heart stopped. That wasn’t good. “What the fuck is going on down there?”
Someone held up a gloved hand in a just a minute gesture. Just a minute? He didn’t have a minute. He didn’t have thirty seconds. His guys were about to be taking fire out there, if they weren’t already.
Digging his teeth into his lower lip and squirming in the cockpit, he stared helplessly at the hangar door. Though there was a cacophony of sound around his craft—voices and mechanical alike—the silence of the rest of the hangar threatened to drive him insane. The noise around his craft echoed through the empty, cavernous building.
And still, the bird didn’t move.
“What the fuck?” he barked into the radio. “Give me an update, guys. I need to get off the ground.”
“Uhhh . . .”
Kyle closed his eyes. Fuck. “Come on. Status update.”
“Sorry, sir,” a voice crackled on the radio. “This thing isn’t getting off the ground.”
“What the hell do you mean it’s—”
“With all due respect, sir,” the crewman snapped. “This isn’t something you can override. This aircraft is grounded pending major repairs.”
“Major repairs?” Emily said. “That’s not possible.”
“Come down and take a look, ma’am.”
Emily and Kyle got out of the fighter and dropped onto the concrete floor. They joined the crewmen who’d gathered around the wing.
“It was flying just fine yesterday,” Kyle said. “What the hell is—”
“That’s fine and good, sir.” The man gestured at the open panel. “But with those wires melted together like that, you’re not getting off the ground, and even if you did, you’d crash and burn before you made it past the flight line.” He looked Kyle in the eye. “Whatever happened here, it must have happened while you were in the air yesterday. You two are lucky you managed to land safely at all.”
Kyle’s blood turned cold. He stepped closer and inspected the damage. Several wires had burned through their insulation and melted together. He didn’t know for certain which wire went to what, but it was bad. Very bad.
“How did everyone miss this?” Kyle shouted, jabbing his finger at the damage. “How did anyone not see this on the preflight?”
“I don’t know, sir,” the crewman said. “But if you’ll get out of the way, we’ll fix it as fast as we can.”
He got out of the way. Someone’s ass was getting hemmed up for this. Someone’s career was over.
Kyle sank onto a closed toolbox and cradled his head in his hands.
The squadron should have been hundreds of miles away by now, but they must not have been as far as he’d hoped. Their engines still roared in the distance. He thought he even heard the scream of a missile, and he hoped to God it was one of theirs and not a Menarian missile.
And he hoped like hell that the rumble he’d just felt had been a Menarian crashing into an abandoned building.
He watched the aircrew pulling wires and guts out of the fighter. It would take at least a couple of hours just to get all that back in and properly seated. The repair itself? Anyone’s guess.
The air vibrated with another explosion in the distance. Holy fuck, the battle was close. Kyle shifted his gaze to the open hangar door, thankful he couldn’t see the smoke from here. But some of the aircrew, those who weren’t needed to fix Kyle and Emily’s fighter, stood at the door, watching something to the south. Kyle stayed put; he didn’t want to see it. He didn’t want to know what was happening unless it was a Menarian fighter that had gone down. Unless it was the whole lizards’ motherfucking formation going down in a ball of fire.
The battle went on, practically in the base’s backyard. Missiles whistled. Explosions thumped. It was going on longer than usual—more intense by the sound of it, as well—and too fucking close.
Griff, Brendan, please be safe. Please be safe.
Nearly ninety minutes after the alarm had gone off, while Kyle and Emily’s fighter was still a half-dissected mess of wires and equipment, the roar of engines and activity out on the flight line simultaneously relieved and frustrated Kyle. One of the fighters had made it home. Moments later, another landed. No one headed back to base if the fight was still going on unless they were badly damaged. Within the next twenty minutes or so, the whole squadron—God willing—would be back.
The first fighter rolled into the hangar, smoke rising from a gaping tear in the fuselage. One wingtip was damaged. He’d probably grazed a building or another fighter. Shit, they must have been fighting in tight quarters.
And they’d been here in London.
Lieutenant Commander Kyle West is one of Earth Fleet’s greatest fighter pilots. Every day, he leads his squadron into battle over Earth’s cities in a seemingly endless war against a vicious alien race, defending his home and his loved ones.
Millions of miles away, the Fleet’s Elite Squadron attacks from another angle, engaging the enemy on its home turf. Casualties are high, and the Squadron needs more of the Fleet’s very best. But joining the Elite is a death sentence — a surety Kyle isn’t willing to face. Until a devastating attack wipes out the family he refused to leave.
Commander Andrei Dezhnyov, an Elite Squadron gunner, isn’t sure what to make of the cocky new American pilot. Kyle is equally uncertain about the snarly Russian, but as they warm up to each other, their tentative alliance becomes a deep bond — one that endangers them both when a daring and disobedient rescue reveals secrets that call into question everything they’ve ever believed about their enemy. Secrets that their superiors would kill to protect.