GRADUATION • by Nanci Schwartz

Liat grimaced as her starfighter dove to port. Below her the planet Haji shone with lush forests, jagged mountains, and tranquil oceans. There was no doubt in her mind why it had been the first world colonized by humans. Even in the midst of battle, Haji reminded her of Earth.

A laser blast across her starboard side brought her back to reality. This wasn’t the carefree first visit to another world she’d always imagined. Her orders didn’t include a sightseeing tour. She hadn’t been deployed on a simple training mission or colony set-up.

The Space Force had gone to Haji to fight a war.

“Stay alert,” said Natalie, her best friend and wingmate, over the subspace radio. “Four Vax ships at twelve o’clock.”

Liat glanced at her heads-up display. “I see them.”

The two women rolled their J-81s, but it was too late. Two enemy ships, taking advantage of their distraction, descended on them. Liat instinctively banked toward Natalie’s ship, and a red beam of light tore through her hull. She gripped her control stick, trying to stay alive long enough to take the Vax with her.

Then the world went black.

Liat tore off her helmet and cursed. Another sim, another death. She lumbered to her feet and jumped out of the false cockpit, landing next to the simulator.

Ten seconds later, Natalie descended from her cockpit. “It’s okay, Liat,” she said, anticipating her friend’s anger. “It’s just a sim.”

“Easy for you to say,” Liat snapped. “You’ve still alive.” She whipped around and left the sim room, striding through the corridors of the cruiser Aurora. Their new home.

“You’ve been in the sims too long, Liat,” Natalie said, trailing her. “You need to relax.”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Liat didn’t bother to answer. They headed toward the barracks, dodging other pilots and soldiers. The Aurora had rendezvoused with the remaining cruisers three days earlier, and her skin itched under her battle dress. She needed a shower. “Doesn’t matter. I’m beginning to doubt the Vax are even coming.”

“You know what the Secretary said. Haji is the next logical target after Earth.”

“That makes me feel so much better,” Liat muttered. The UN leaders hadn’t done anything to prevent the Vax from attacking in the first place. They’d sat in their high castle, assuring everyone on Earth they were safe–that the military was stationed all over the galaxy to keep the Vax far away from the Sol System.

That hadn’t stopped the Vax from sneaking in and wiping the planet off the galactic map.

They arrived at the barracks and Liat stripped out of her flight gear before Natalie could continue her lecture. She showered quickly, washing the grime off her body, but the cold water failed to quell her anger. She was beginning to doubt if anything would.


Two days later, the Vax still hadn’t arrived. Liat sat in the observation room with Natalie, nursing her ego after another failed sim. “I wish they’d just hurry up and get here,” she said, scrubbing her face with her hands. “I can’t take another sim.”

Natalie frowned. “Why are you so eager to fight them?”

Liat’s head snapped up. “Why aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you scared of dying?” Natalie asked, her voice cracking.

“Why should I be? Everyone I knew is dead anyway.”

“I wish you wouldn’t think that way.”

Liat rolled her eyes and looked away. She wasn’t in the mood to sit through another one of Natalie’s dissertations about the immorality of vengeance. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t traveled halfway across the galaxy to make friends with the Vax. If she died in battle, so be it.

But as Liat caught another glimpse of her friend — green eyes wide, fingers combing through the end of her blond braid — her stomach clenched. Natalie hadn’t joined the Space Force to kill aliens; she’d wanted to learn to fly starfighters.

Liat thought back to the day she’d enlisted, three short months ago — the day she’d turned eighteen. All she’d ever wanted was to see the galaxy. Then the Vax took everything from her, and now all she wanted was revenge.

Natalie was her only friend left in the galaxy. She couldn’t be mad at her for not feeling the same way.

Just as Liat opened her mouth to apologize, an alarm began to blare throughout the cruiser. “All hands to battle stations,” their commander’s voice announced. “Cruisers breaking orbit in thirty seconds. Repeat, all hands to battle stations…”

The Vax had finally arrived.

Liat’s earpiece sprang to life with chatter as squadron leaders disseminated orders. Other pilots — some whooping with excitement, others silent — streamed through the corridors towards the docking bay, ignoring the two women in the observation room.

Natalie was right: Liat had to stop dwelling on the past. She couldn’t afford to get upset during the battle or she’d end up dead, just like in the sims. She needed to be calm and stay alive so she could kill as many Vax as she could.

She’d do anything to protect her friend. Even live.

Liat reached over and tapped Natalie’s arm. “Hey. You ready?”

Natalie stared at her for a moment, like a deer caught in the headlights. Then her posture loosened, and Liat could imagine her repeating everything they’d learned during their training: Stay alert. Kill count isn’t an indicator of skill. Not paying attention is an easy way to die.

Natalie nodded. “I’m ready.”

They squeezed hands before following the other pilots to the docking bay and climbing into their starfighters. Liat tightened her harness and braced herself as the cruiser broke orbit. She glanced out the hold at the rapidly disappearing world behind her, and a chill ran through her body.

This was it. Training was officially over. War was about to begin.

She was suddenly very, very scared.

Nanci Schwartz wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up, but settled for writing science fiction. When she’s not writing or working her day job, she can be found visiting Orlando’s theme parks, reading, and wasting time with her friends when her chores are done. Nanci co-hosts Tosche Station Radio, a weekly geek culture podcast, and writes news and opinion pieces for the blog. Her personal website is

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