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Fiction – “Last Tango in Gamma Sector” by Michael R. Underwood

Lt. Anton Biagi dashed onto the elevated balcony that encircled the room above the piloting floor. Vivid lights cast the bridge in red as smooth consoles flashed fields of data. The audio transducers played the overture of battle, a mournful bandoneon warbling out a building beat as violins sustained a warlike tremolo.

Captain Munoz shouted for Lt. Biagi from his red velvet chair. “Suit up Lieutenant, we’re taking a beating!”

Anton finished buttoning up his shirt, straightened his red tie, and stepped into his piloting shoes. He’d had them since he graduated from flight academy: polished black leather with a knotwork accent on the toe–they were a gift from his mentor, a grand master of the dance.

In the center of the floor stood Lt. Lucia D’Arienzo. Red curls cascaded over her right shoulder, trailing down towards a backless red dress bias-cut over the left knee. She regarded him with a hurried nod as he stepped onto the floor and raised her arms to meet him.

They’d only practiced together a handful of times, the training simulations required by regulation. Pilots were allowed their favorite partners, but in an emergency, any two should be able to dance the Lunático through a sortie. And with Lt. Marisela Pugliese gone and Lt. Fernando Villabosos injured, this was an unavoidable partnering.

The screams of strafing fighters made a complex chord while Lunático‘s guns drummed tight triplets. The music of battle flowed into his heart as he donned his fedora and tapped the button on his collar to synch with the Kinesthetic Drive. A panoramic view of battle played out around them in three dimensions, centered on Lunático and the dancers, the edges of a neutrino storm filling the background. He reached around to cup D’Arienzo’s shoulder blade and then rest his left arm on her right. She mirrored him in the basic pilot’s embrace.

As soon as they touched, Anton dove into the dance and Lunático switched to manual control via the Kinesthetic Drive. Without proper time to warm up and forge the connection, Anton danced cold. He advanced in a long stride with his left leg to push the ship out of a withering strafing run. D’Arienzo followed half a beat later. In those dangerous first moments, they struggled to match pace and stride.

Anton processed the sight of the battle as he and D’Arienzo moved almost in synch. Lunático wove through the firing arcs of fighter squadrons and three Seshslovan Firebird cruisers. No cover to speak of, just the black expanse between the planets of the newly-discovered Gamma Sector that had led Lunático and the rest of the Ladas expeditionary force into unknown space. Command thought they’d found a sector untouched by Seshlovan influence. They were wrong.

Captain Munoz’s voice rang in his ear. “Get us out of this crossfire.” D’Arienzo pulled him back as she brought the ship into a dive to break off from engaging all three Firebirds. Their connection was clumsy, halting. He nearly lost the embrace, and the ship drifted starboard into a barrage from the nearest Firebird. The floor beneath them shook; Anton pressed through the balls of his feet to stay on balance as they danced the Lunático under and around the closest enemy ship.

Anton and D’Arienzo strained to find a balance between them as Lunático‘s cannons sounded staccato beats. She had a higher center, longer limbs, different breathing patterns. Hot breath on his ear made Anton think of Marisela, and he almost missed a step as memory and pain flooded over him, his stomach collapsing on itself like a black hole.

After recovering, Anton took a broad sidestep around D’Arienzo to bank out of the way of a building impact cannon blast. Where’s the rest of our force? Anton thought.

The neutrino storm raging around them was a maelstrom of pulsating colors, a beautiful backdrop for the unfolding carnage. Two other Firebirds came around, creating a quarter-circle field of cross-fire. D’Arienzo circled around Anton one, two, three steps in an instant. He turned with her, pivoting as the belly thrusters fired at maximum to push them out of the Firebirds’ firing arcs. As it escaped, Lunático caught fire from the Seshlovan fighters harrying them from all sides. Anton gritted his teeth and breathed out, putting more energy into his fingers to intensify their connection.

“Where is our fighter screen?” Anton asked.

“Triolo and his group are on a bombing run against Firebird one. Firpo wing took heavy casualties at the beginning of the sortie,” said the officer of the watch. Seshlovan fighters strafed Lunático‘s stern, which erupted in a river of explosions which the transducer played as a roll of drum crashes.

“We still need some cover fire here. Any word from forward command?” asked Anton.

“Support inbound, ETA three minutes.”

Anton side-stepped to bank to port.

D’Arienzo said, “Then pull those squadrons back and give me a fighter screen for three minutes, can you?”

Two distant fighter squadrons peeled off their attack run and engaged the buzzing cloud of Seshslovan fighters that harried the Lunático.

Anton and D’Arienzo closed their embrace until her cheek was pressed against his, her breath hot on his ears. Their steps became shorter, faster, stepping in and out of the beats and chords of the battle. They danced outside the music to break the fighter’s attack patterns and the unrelenting Seshlovan cannon barrage.

Push and pull, D’Arienzo led him into a suspended turn as they circled the nearest Firebird. A fire broke out on the consoles above, flames dancing at the edge of his vision, overlaid by a holographic projection of the battle.

Anton and D’Arienzo silently agreed on a single-axis turn that spun Lunático in a tight flip that bought them a moment’s reprieve and put the nearest Firebird at their bow. The gunnery captain called for a full frontal salvo and the Firebird bloomed with flame. Lunático spun through the spreading debris that scattered across the sky.

Then Lunático went on the offensive, speed flagging but still more maneuverable than the bulky Firebird cruisers. Anton and Lt. D’Arienzo danced the ship around a long-range arc where Lunático picked away at the Firebirds until the rest of the fleet arrived and the Seshlovan ships broke and fled.

***

Three weeks earlier, Anton had sat with Marisela Pugliese in her room. Its walls were lined with the impressionist paintings she did when she wasn’t on duty or practicing. She wore a plain orange shirt and loose slacks, her chair pointed to the wall instead of Anton. She looked over her shoulder at him as he sat on the low futon.

“I can’t do this anymore, Anton.”

It was the third time she’d said it, and all he could do was shake his head. The edge of his vision was going hazy with warm tears. He felt like he should vomit, but couldn’t.

“Can’t do what? We’re happy together, Mari. I’ve never been happier in my life.” He straightened up, leaned in toward her.

She pulled back, turned her shoulder and looked away. “And I want you to be happy, Anton. The dance is all we have, and it’s been wonderful, but it’s not enough.” She turned back to face him.

He looked at her and saw his perfect woman–smooth features and café-au-lait skin, subtle muscle on a compact frame. She wore her hair tied back in a simple ponytail but he saw her as if on the pilot’s floor, curled perfection swept back with the butterfly hairpin he’d given her on her birthday. His partner, his best friend, the love of his life.

She stood. “That look, right there. When you look at me with that look, I know that I can’t return it. I don’t have that love in me to give to you, and you deserve it. To find someone who can return that look and mean it.

“I’m doing this now when I have the courage. I’ve been granted a transfer to La Paloma. I leave when we dock next week, before the expeditionary force goes through the Gate.”

Anton stood, took a long stride towards her on the polished mahogany floor. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier? We could have done something, I could have done something.”

Marisela took a step towards Anton, took his hand in hers, one hand below, the other palm on top. “No, you couldn’t.” She held his hand to her heart and dipped her head. “I was swept up by the dance, the romance of it all.” She moved his hand away and let go. “But it wasn’t real–not for me.”

He ached to run his hands through her hair, wanted only to wrap her in his arms like he’d done so many times before and dance until the whole conversation was nothing but a distant memory.

“Why? What did I do wrong, what didn’t I do?” He was not used to looking down at Marisela, so rarely was she not in heels.

She sighed. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Know that. You are a wonderful man, but I can’t be who you want me to be. I can’t be your partner, and I can’t be here anymore.” She stepped back one, two, three paces, then turned to her dresser, humming a mournful cancion.

Anton’s knees buckled, and he steadied himself on the wall. He turned and walked out of her quarters, walked through the long corridors lined with softly glowing panels all the way back to his quarters before collapsing on his bed. He ordered the sound buffers to max and screamed until his voice was hoarse, then cried himself to sleep.

***

After a nap to mitigate the exhaustion from the sortie, Anton swung through the lounge and the café looking for D’Arienzo. He found her on the bridge, running simulations on the polished hardwood floor. Upstairs, the bridge crew sipped wine as they worked, moved from table to table checking instruments and chatting. There hadn’t been any sign of enemy ships for hours.

When not in battle, light on the piloting level was sparse. A shaded lamp here, a string of small candles there. Red velvet seats lined the outside of the room for pilots to rest between battles, or for the reserve couple when sorties stretched on for hours. But right now there was no reserve couple. Marisela’s replacement had been killed when her transport was ambushed in transit, and Lt. Villabosos would be recovering from his cracked rib for another month.

Anton walked onto the floor and watched her dancing with an invisible partner. He stood and watched for a moment, taking the chance to see her piloting style from the outside. She acknowledged his presence with a slight nod of the head without missing a beat. She wore a tank-top and black slacks, had her hair tied back in a simple ponytail. Tradition and pride demanded that for battle they dress as paragons of the dance, but in practice they could be comfortable. An alert could call them to battle at any moment, but with no back-up, Captain Munoz was being lenient. The heavy air clung to Anton’s skin; he fanned himself as he stretched and watched.

D’Arienzo’s long limbs were made for large strides; graceful extensions of her powerful calves played out in the soft blue light of the bridge. In his mind, he filled in music from her steps, watched the turns and weight changes. The dynamics of her motion rose and fell with what had to be the sweeping passes of fighters.

From her steps, he guessed she was re-playing their last sortie. That turn followed by the pivot and back-step when Ladas fighters executed a hammer-and-anvil assault on one of the Firebirds.

D’Arienzo stopped the program, equalized her weight, then cocked her hip and looked over her shoulder. “We can’t afford to be that sloppy again.”

He held out his hands as he approached. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

She gave a long slow nod accompanied by the sound of keying buttons on the back of her left hand.

“Put on your shoes.”

He did.

D’Arienzo called up a middle-difficulty simulation, the battle of Haruki Nebula, ten years gone. This was before Empress Ladas and her Royal Corps of Engineers poured the empire’s dwindling resources into the Kinesthetic Drive. After capturing a Firebird, they’d reverse-engineered the Seshlovan technology the scaled invaders used to pilot their ships.

The Seshlovan invaders’ dance was a violent one, filled with powerful turns and dominance games, a game of power and flamboyance. With a great deal of luck and several years’ time, the Ladas engineers retrofitted the system to the more subtle and collaborative dance of the Ladas.

Even the engineers who did the retrofit didn’t know exactly why it worked, just that it did. It took two years and thirty dead or critically injured pilots before they’d gotten to that point. With the Kinesthetic Drive, two pilots could control a ship more precisely through dance than any combination of buttons and levers.

“Let’s see how it would have been with a K-Drive,” D’Arienzo said, cracking her neck in a head roll. She held her hands up and beckoned him with come-here hands.

They joined in the open pilot’s embrace, took a moment to settle in. He felt the rise and fall of her breath, extended his presence to feel the minutia of her movement, his attention focused on their connection. He saw now what he hadn’t in their last sortie. She moved like a panther, stalking after his every movement. She was taller that Marisela, stronger. He would have to take larger strides, give more energy to match hers.

The display flickered on, presenting a holographic sphere of vision. They were flying in the Ladas fleet back when the Empire’s power was at its apex. Before the arrival of the Seshlovan horde.

Haruki was the first portent of weakness that no one in imperial command deigned to notice. Was D’Arienzo making a statement about their own possible downfall?

No time for navel-gazing. The battle was joined.

Five enemy cruisers in a flying V-inbound with a fighter screen. Anton and D’Arienzo had only two other cruisers at their back, but superior fighter squadrons. This was back when Los Compadritos were more than a ceremonial guard. A troupe of fighter pilots that drew upon the dancing communities of Ladas Prime, Los Compadritos had given most of their number to the K-Drive tests, and never recovered. In his youth, Anton had wanted to join them, be one of Ladas’ stars.

An almost-matched side-step let them bank under the fighter screen, clearing their top guns to fire after the front batteries. There was a drumming volley of fire from the sim system as they adjusted to face the enemy cruisers. The drumming gave Anton context, a groundwork of rhythm that he and D’Arienzo danced with and between.

While they danced the ship through the battle, fleets colliding in a symphony of engines and ordnance, Anton studied his co-pilot. D’Arienzo moved faster than Marisela, and was more likely to re-position in double-time. She followed the drum rolls of fighter ordnance more than the bass booms of the cannon fire or the pizzicato sounds of the tighter turns that Marisela had preferred.

The first Ladas dreadnaught went down a minute earlier than in the original battle.

“To the sunside flank,” she said as they watched the dreadnaught’s larger fragments carve a path in the flow of battle. He responded by closing the embrace as they stepped into a difficult turn. Anton shifted his feet and stepped back, keeping his chest up to hold D’Arienzo as she gave him her weight. He took three steps in a wide circle to come about while her free leg traced along the floor like a paintbrush caressing the canvas. The carry held until the last second–D’Arienzo had to change weight a half-beat before he was done, which botched the exit.

Still not there. But better.

The battle dragged on, Ladas forces crumbling beneath overwhelming numbers.

They flew spiraling attack runs the length of a battleship, moving between fields of fire while the cruiser’s simulated gunners pounded away at the slower ship.

Their ship was taking heavy damage. It wouldn’t last much longer under that much fire.

“Pull back, then full burn out of their range,” he said, communicating the motion with his embrace as well as his words. For a moment, they moved as one, a stride as long as he could manage trying to keep up with her as they surged out of the battleship’s cannon fire.

They didn’t make it out.

D’Arienzo broke the embrace and wiped the sweat off her brow. She rested her hands on her knees, her breath quick and shallow. “Again.”

They practiced for another three hours, working their way through a series of famous battles. They were blown to pieces by fighters in the Deng-Howe Rebellion, were annihilated by a dreadnaught at the opening of the Fifth Insurrection, and then re-played their most recent sortie beyond the Gate.

This time the dancers kept their distance at first, and the Seshlovan cruisers took different positions as they advanced. Seeing an opening, they punched Lunático straight through the middle, taking less fire from each ship but suffering the guns of all three: a downpour of ordnance dodged by twists and crossed steps, suspended holds, and tight turns. But for their audacity, they got behind the Firebirds’ formation and hammered away at their engines.

The Lunático took several early hits, but then they found a rhythm and devastated a fighter squadron with a well-placed pass and a lucky volley from their aft cannons.

Two Firebirds were slagged by the time the Ladas reinforcements arrived.

Anton’s collared shirt was drenched when the simulation was done. D’Arienzo collapsed onto one of the velvet couches, her skin flushed. Her damp tank-top left nothing of her softly-toned figure to the imagination.

She met his wandering eyes and chuckled. “Let’s get something to eat.”

He nodded, and they made for the showers.

After the practice, Anton knew her body and her style of movement better, but for him, it took more than knowing your co-pilot’s body. Damnfool romantic that he was, he had to know their soul. If I could have gotten rid of that block, I’d have done it back in flight school, Anton thought.

He wished for Marisela to return, for the whole last month to just fade away. Instead, she’d taken his heart, impaled it on her stilettos, then fled rather than face the consequences.

If he botched a sortie because he was a heartbroken fool, it’d mean a ship’s worth of funerals in absentia and folded flags delivered to weeping families.

***

Anton toweled off and quickly dressed. He found Lucia D’Arienzo waiting for him just outside Café Lunático. The room was smoky, the overhead fans clearing out the air only as fast as required to keep the atmosphere from crossing over the line from smoky and sultry to unhealthy.

The crewmembers were huddled in small groups, four or five to a table; they talked and laughed over wine, dinner, snacks. The men’s hair was slicked back, as sculpted and purposeful as the women’s makeup. The bridge, the engine room, the firing bays–those were where the crew fulfilled their duties. But Café Lunático was where deals were made, relationships built, favors traded and promotions arranged. The café would be a dance floor even without the raised parquet at the center.

Anton looked around for an empty table, or one with seats to spare. The tables were arranged by role on the ship—command crew lined around the dance floor, gunners and engineers at the far side by the café bar, administrative and janitorial the near side, with the fighter pilots along the outside. The dancer-pilots sat wherever they wanted, as there were never more than four on a ship.

“There.” Lucia pointed at an empty table in the innermost row, by the dance floor.

She led the way, weaving through the archipelago of bodies and tables as if it too were a dance: the tables tight-packed asteroids and the people and tables fighters and ships. The others made way for them with nods and sometimes-genuine smiles. No one wanted to draw the ire of Lunático‘s pilots: diva savants treasured by the Empire. Anton pulled out a chair for Lucia, who nodded politely as she sat. He took off his jacket, folded it over the back of his chair, and sank into its velvet embrace.

The server on duty brought them their drinks and they talked over hot mugs of yerba mate. They were both on stand-by alert for the next ten hours and couldn’t afford to be tired.

“What made you join the flight academy?” he asked, blowing over the surface of his mate.

Lucia sat back in her chair, leg crossed and knees pointed off to the side. “I grew up on Nuevo Rosario. My family has been dancers since before the Exodus. My whole life, there was nothing greater. My first word was ‘abrazo.'” She mimicked the basic embrace and affected a fake smile. Anton chuckled, and Lucia took up her mug for a drink. “I enlisted to get back at my family, to strike my own path.

“And then, the call for test-pilots for the K-Drive came. I can’t escape the dance, so I’ve made my peace with it.” She sat back, arms open, and at the corner of her mouth, a half-smile grew between sips from the bombilla straw.

They kept talking, trading stories of flight school, horrible dance partners and clothing malfunctions.

“And that’s why I don’t wear vests anymore…” Anton said, to a loud, earthy laugh from Lucia.

The café had emptied out a bit over the hour. At other tables, wine glasses emptied and filled again, more bottles were brought out, served over laughter. Several groups took their turns at the parquet, dancing to the classics on Ladas Stellar Radio. Anton tried not to watch them too closely–no reason to make the amateurs uncomfortable. The dance was supposed to be for everyone.

The conversation lulled then, and Lucia half-started a sentence several times, frowning each time she failed to find the words.

“What’s wrong?” Anton asked.

Lucia shook her head. “Nothing’s wrong, it’s just. I…I wanted…”

She was cut off again as the alert klaxons called all to attention, the soft lighting of the room brightening to a flood of flashing reds. The whole room was on its feet in a moment.

“Looks like it’ll have to wait,” Lucia said as they stood and hurried for the bridge.

Anton wondered what she was about to say, but put the thought away and began to focus on the dance. The only way to find out would be to keep the ship (and Lucia) alive another day.

***

The Seshslovan reinforcements had arrived. They outnumbered the Ladas expeditionary force three to two.

But any good Ladas soldier was used to odds like that. The captain briefed them as the enemy fleet closed.

“We must defend the Gate. Otherwise, Seshslovan reinforcements will overpower us and we’ll be cut off. The Empress is counting on us to secure this system’s resources.”

“So we’re just going to hit them straight on?” Anton asked, looking up towards the suspended balcony where Captain Munoz stood giving the orders.

“We’re going to use the sensor shadow of these three moons to give ourselves a defensible position and set an ambush here.” He gestured to a display, marking a position between three bright planets with thick atmospheres. “They won’t be able to deploy their superior numbers if we lure them into tight quarters.”

“The whole fleet is baiting them?” D’Arienzo asked.

“Just the cruisers. Lunático is the vanguard,” the captain said. “Get started.” His expression said ‘We’re counting on you.’ No pressure.

Anton looked to D’Arienzo. She bared perfect teeth in a predatory smile. Anton and D’Arienzo slipped into the pilot’s embrace. It felt easier this time as they extended their attention towards one another. They locked eyes as the holographic display came alive around them.

His calves burned from the hours of practice, but he’d hang up his shoes before he’d complain about it. Pain, worry–that was all just fuel.

They took long, slow strides towards the Seshslovan fleet. There were eight cruisers, five battleships and a dreadnaught at center.

At Lunático‘s back were three other cruisers (none with K-Drives), three battleships and the Dreadnaught, El Gaucho.

Lunático set the pace for the Ladas cruisers, which trailed on a long arc to close with the Seshlovan fleet.

D’Arienzo and Anton brought Lunático to the attention of the Seshslovan cruisers on the perimeter, flourishing enough to advertise that they were one of ten remaining Ladas K-Drive ships in the universe. ‘Come and get us,’ they said with their spins and rolls born of crisp turns and flamboyant play of feet. Legs flashed in hooks around knees and arced through the tight shifting space between bodies as the command crew watched from the balcony.

Anton hoped their connection would hold. Showing off was the easy part.

The overture of battle was underway. Ladas fighter squadrons swarmed out of battleships in clouds; a cluster of chords emerged from the audio transducer.

“Come out and play, Seshis,” D’Arienzo said.

The battleships and their fighter escorts took the bait, Firebirds hanging back as support for the Dreadnaught.

The remainder of the Ladas fleet stayed hidden in the sensor shadow of the tightly orbiting moons.

“They’ve taken our lead,” the captain said as the sensors confirmed his words. “Bring us back around to the moons.”

Anton drew D’Arienzo into a tighter embrace. His right foot sandwiched between hers, and then he stepped around with his left foot for a single-axis turn. Lunático dove into a tight reversal and led the Ladas cruisers in a ‘retreat’ toward the moons. Long-range fire arced past them and D’Arienzo led a turn that banked to port, bearing for the nearest moon.

Lunático brought the Seshslovans around the moons and into sight and range of El Gaucho and the rest of the waiting fleet. Lunático and the rest of the bait pulled a hard turn, perpendicular to the plane of the Seshslovans and El Gaucho.

The Ladas dreadnaught opened fire with all batteries and tore a cruiser-sized hole in one of the Seshslovan battleships.

Lunático came about again and executed a pincer maneuver on the then-surrounded Seshslovans. The sounds of battle were almost deafening–the screeching of fighters emerged from the clash of canon fire, scrambling ships, and the rapid explosions consuming the ambushed Seshslovan battleship.

He saw only the battle around him; heard only the music of the battle; felt only D’Arienzo’s body, the floor, and the energy of the dance.

Lunático drew the fire of a pair of cruisers and some fighters, countered by Lunático‘s own squadrons.

By then, the Seshslovans had received word of the ambush, and the rest of the fleet lurched forward from the Gate to join the battle.

The captain’s voice roared through the song of battle. “Their dreadnaught is coming around the moons Gate-side. Orders from El Gaucho are to escort El Chico and battleships Espirtu and Malena. We’re going straight into the line of fire.”

Violins wailed as they turned, weaving through cruisers to syncopated steps. D’Arienzo danced the beat while he played against it. Minute firings of the attitude thrusters snuck them through tiny holes between ships.

Anton lost the connection for a split-second, too deep into the music to remember he wasn’t dancing with Marisela and her small steps. He moved a half-beat late and they clipped a Ladas fighter. A cymbal crash rang in his ears as the fighter exploded in the corner of his vision.

Anton swore loudly as D’Arienzo pulled him in a side-step, banking away into a roll as the Seshslovan dreadnaught’s cannons fired.

“Keep it together,” D’Arienzo said through clenched teeth, her lips moving against his cheek. His legs burned.

Lunático was still damaged from the last engagement. And the Dreadnaught they faced was fifty times their size.

“Strafing run, moonside,” Anton said, leading the beginning of a rapid turn. Anton stepped past D’Arienzo, who stepped around Anton who stepped around D’Arienzo. They continued the turn with steps only centimeters long and as fast as they could manage. Lunático dove into a rapid spin as it flew within a few hundred kilometers of the moon. The sight of its thick churning atmosphere filled the starboard semi-sphere of the display.

A thick wave of Seshlovan fighters converged in front of their dreadnaught, and then broke into five clusters. Three made for the Ladas battleships, and two turned to engage Lunático and its fighters.

Anton remembered to breathe as they moved faster. D’Arienzo’s giant strides forced him to push to keep up. They raced towards the dreadnaught, struggling to break through its firing solution. The layered bass sounds of cannon fire blurred into a deep continuous drone as Lunático took fire, battering its way into position for the strafing run.

Anton and D’Arienzo achieved a favorable firing position, subtle pivots to guide smooth banks.

The captain said, “Come about and line up another run. Concentrate all fire on the starboard engine.”

Three more runs of precise steps and pinpoint turns. Three more runs of catching fire as ordnance tore into their ship. Darting feet raced across the floor through breakneck turns and rapid steps as the music reached a climax.

Sparks flew on the bridge and the two caught themselves when the ship’s stabilizers flickered and the floor moved beneath them. Anton felt his ankle roll and swallowed a scream. He continued moving, steps traded back and forth with D’Arienzo with imperceptible delay as adrenaline carried him through the pain.

On the fourth run, Lunático‘s nav system took a direct hit. The floor dropped out from beneath D’Arienzo. Anton pivoted hard to put himself to cushion her fall with his body as they dropped. Something tore in his knee when the two crashed to the floor.

But the Seshslovan Dreadnaught took a direct hit to its starboard engine.

El Chico and Espiritu drew the Dreadnaught’s fire while Malena pulled into the corridor created by Lunático‘s strafing runs. The Ladas battleship unloaded a perpendicular broadside to the Seshslovan dreadnaught’s aft, obliterating its engine. Anton forced his eyes open to watch the battle while pain wracked his body.

“Manual flight control, pull back!” the captain shouted. The K-Drive deactivated and the hologram disappeared.

“No! Get that back on! Let us get the ship out of the sortie!” Anton shouted as he tried to push back waves of pain. D’Arienzo’s eyes were wide as she pulled him to his feet with his arm over her shoulder and made for the couches on the side.

Lucia chided him at a whisper. “Don’t. You need a doctor.”

“Captain, please!” Anton pleaded as explosions rocked the ship, withdrawing with predictable and sluggish movements. The music of battle continued, Anton heard the crescendo as a wing of Seshslovan fighters closed in.

Another explosion rocked the ship. Lucia looked at Anton, then sighed. “We can do it, captain.” Munoz nodded and the K-Drive re-activated.

“Just keep going until we’re clear. Don’t worry about me,” Anton said, putting his weight on his uninjured right leg. He couldn’t tell how bad the injury was, but Lunático would never make it to safety on manual piloting; he’d never know what Lucia couldn’t quite tell him; never make his family proud of their son the star of the Ladas fleet.

D’Arienzo led a side-step to bank the ship, drawing Anton into a lift. He pushed down on her shoulders and the pair spun, sending Lunático into a rapid barrel roll.

Every other step brought another wave of pain, even though Lucia was practically carrying him across the floor. He ground his teeth and tried to sink into the music, dodging here and there as they pushed ship and body to the limit trying to escape the field of engagement. He listened by touch, responding to Lucia’s lead and giving feedback so they could bank away from missiles and cannonades. The other Ladas ships were holding their own while the dreadnaughts were locked into circling broadsides.

With a final turn and lift, Lunático broke off from the pursuing Firebirds and came around towards Malena‘s port docking bay.

“We’re cleared to dock with Malena,” the captain said. “Someone get me a medic!”

Malena and El Chico flanked the Seshslovan dreadnaught, all guns firing. The chain explosion of the dying dreadnaught was the most beautiful music, a manic drum solo with crashing cymbals and thumping bass.

Anton collapsed into a ball as his vision blurred with pain. Strong fingers ran through his hair, and Anton leaned into them, rocking on his back.

She was there with him. He’d done it, shown Marisela that he could fly with anyone. He looked through slit eyes and saw hair not short and dark but burgundy and long.

Lucia D’Arienzo held him tight. “Hold on. Be calm. We’re fine.”

“We’re fine.” He let the pain overtake him, carry him off into the dark.

***

He expected to wake to white light, clouds and final judgment in the beyond. Instead he awoke in his room, in his bed, with soft music from the golden age from his console.

Lucia stood above him, and smiled when he met her gaze.

“Good morning, hero.”

“How long was I out?” he asked.

“Better part of two days. Lunático‘s pulled back beyond the Gate for repairs, but the Seshis have scattered. The system’s ours, for now.”

Anton smiled, and tried to pull himself up on his bed. His body didn’t agree with the attempt.

“Where’s the doctor?” he asked.

“Dr. Manolo was here a few hours ago. He said you have meniscus tear in your left knee, but we’ve been icing it and he said you should be back on rotation within a week. Do you want me to call him?”

“Later,” he said. Anton took the mate offered him, nursed it for a few minutes until it kicked in and the fuzziness of sleep receded.

“What was it you wanted to say in the café, before the attack?”

Lucia sat in the chair set by his bed. Several cups and plates had accumulated around the room, but Anton hadn’t remembered leaving anything out before the last sortie. How long had she been here, watching over him? His heart sped at her closeness.

She leaned over, brushed his sweat-slicked bangs out of his eyes. “I wanted to say that I’m glad that Marisela left.”

His stomach clenched. “Why? You know what she meant to me.”

“Exactly. But when she was here, I could never do this.” And then D’Arienzo–Lucia–leaned in and kissed him full on the lips. She ran a hand through his hair, then stood, winked, and then walked over to his sink to pour a glass of water.

Anton lay there for a moment, stunned and confused. He tried to sort out signals, separate the pain brought on by invoking Marisela’s name from the electrifying surprise of the kiss and something else that hadn’t yet settled.

Lucia returned with the glass, wrapped his hand around it, then her hand around his. “You’ve been chasing the wrong star, Tony.”

He laughed as everything clicked, and pulled the cup and Lucia’s arm forward, drawing her in for another kiss as he laughed. The pain slipped away as her lips closed over his.

Countless moments later, they came up for air. He saw her looking at him with that look he’d waited a year for Marisela to give him. The look he knew he was giving Lucia now.

The wrong star. The whole time.


.

About the Author

Michael R. Underwood dances Argentine tango, studies renaissance fencing, and writes speculative fiction in Bloomington, Indiana. He holds a M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon and lived in a sit-com-esque co-op with a dozen other grad students. Michael is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion West Writers Workshop, where he wrote the original draft of this story. Tales of Michael’s fantastic, ridiculous, genre-mashing life can be found at http://ninja-turbo.livejournal.com, and his writings on popular culture and media reside at http://geektheory.wordpress.com.

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  1. […] which would eventually become “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in Crossed Genres. I applied my love of Argentine Tango to the genre of Space Opera, and in feedback, I was urged to […]

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