Her CO continued his paperwork even after Rissa entered his quarters. The room was no bigger than her own, which didn’t seem right to her, even though space was at a premium within Farside. If the Chief Admiral of the Joint Command herself visited Farside, they could offer even her nothing better.
She perched on the end of his bed and watched him finish up a flight report. They came to him already filled out, but he still had to initial several boxes on each page. From the thickness of the stack, Rissa guessed he’d let them pile up since the unit first arrived.
It seemed odd how a service as computerized as the ESDF could still force its officers to initial little boxes on paper reports. She wondered if the allies who had fought for tens of thousands of years before Earth joined the war did their alien analog of the same chore. The Military would always and forever be The Military, after all.
He finally placed his pen on the desk and turned toward her.
“What can I do for you, Rissa?”
She knew from his manner that she’d brought him a conversation he did not want to have. Amanda must have warned him on the intercom that she was coming. She suspected he’d grabbed the stack and started working on it just to delay her and give her more time to think things over. She took a breath to summon her courage. “Sir, if it is at all possible to substitute a pilot at this stage…”
He took an abrupt tone. “It isn’t. The rules only allow substitutions in the event of a casualty.”
Her shock at his blunt interruption must have shown. He smiled an apology. “Since that’s the case, I’d rather be able to say you never asked me to pull him out.”
She bridled. “I wasn’t going to, sir! I want you to pull me out!”
Responding to his cocked eyebrow, she forged ahead. “The rules prevent teams from stacking their aces in the late rounds. I get that, but we wouldn’t be doing that if I dropped out.”
“Rissa, why on Earth…”
“I can’t do it anymore!!” she blurted, then felt her cheeks color as she realized she’d interrupted her CO. “Sorry, sir. I mean… I get too much into it. Somewhere in the back of mind, I believe in it. So when Vampire just threw himself away like that… it was like…” To her horror, she noticed her tears welling, and looked away.
“You looked pretty upset at dinner after your first round. But since then, you’ve seemed okay. Why now?”
“I don’t know. It just kind of hit me all over again while I watched Ana flying.” She studied her hands. “I should be happy we’re still in the competition, right?”
“One would think,” Carter agreed. “So, why aren’t you happy?”
“Do you have any idea what it’s like to fly with a guy like that?”
“I’ve flown with many pilots, Cat Girl.”
Not like this one! she wanted to snap, but held it in. “Every day since our flight, I’ve run sims with him. I try to get him to wig out again, but he’s always fine. He’s a great pilot in Sim; he’s cool, sharp, everything you could ask. I didn’t believe it when Tony told me, but the guy flies like he has years under his belt.”
“But when you flew live with him, he did something suicidal.”
“Not just then! I pulled his combat tapes, sir! Have you seen what he’s like out there?”
Carter shook his head and waited for her to go on.
“It’s the same damn thing! He’s like, ‘Shoot me!’ every time an enemy shows up!”
Carter had flinched when she flung her arms out as a visual. She’d forgotten the close quarters for a moment. Embarrassed again, she pulled them back in. Get a grip, Rissa!
He studied something on the wall behind her, a habit he had while thinking. Finally, he summarized, “Poe took light damage on his first combat mission. Hasn’t had a scratch since then, IRL.”
She stared as she searched for a response.
“Sir, it isn’t the results that bother me…”
“While I’m inclined to agree with you, I have to take the results into consideration,” he stated. His voice had that quiet, firm edge that Carter did so well. “So… your solution is to let someone else fly with him? Who would you suggest?”
“Well, I guess… you, sir.”
“Ferrar took me out in the first round. A little unfair to let me fly again, isn’t it?”
“But we only have eight pilots! Of course it would be someone who lost in the first round!”
“It would be unfair no matter how you cut it.”
“I don’t mind!”
“I meant to Amanda, Thuy, and Marie.” He’d named the other three in the 77th who’d lost in the first round. “Not to mention four out of eight pilots from the 105th. It’s a moot point, anyhow. You’re it. I expect you to fly, tomorrow.”
# # #
She bit back swear words, then triggered her mike. “Vampire, if one more launch sucks that bad, I’m signing you up for twenty more sims!”
Once he’d wrestled his abused Banshee back into the slot, his muttered retort came through her headset. “That’s better than Kahuna, I guess.”
The comparison annoyed her. She amended, “Forty sims.”
She did her best to concentrate on the sky ahead of her as her craft climbed. Tony had Vampire nailed on another subject; he turned into a klutz whenever a rock got in his way. Something in his internal wiring couldn’t handle flying in a gravity well. Nobody who executed his take-offs like that had any business flying in Elimination.
But they didn’t count points off for bad take-offs. Today Cat Girl and Vampire sallied forth into the semifinal round. Going into the first round of Eliminations, she’d had the excuse that he’d made it on dumb luck. She’d cursed her own dumb luck for being stuck with a winger who would keep her out of the Finals. She wasn’t sure what kind of luck to call it now.
Her headset crackled to life again. A woman with a cold British soprano was Base Comm today; her calm voice mismatched her words. “High alert. Enemy signals intercepted at close range.”
Translation: We can hear them, but our radar can’t see them! Rissa scanned her screens for traces, also saw nothing.
In the next second, the first bogie appeared on her HUD and her lip curled.
“Tally! Ten o’clock high! Show time!” She rotated her craft for the turn. Vampire stayed glued to her wing like a shadow. He must have seen them at the same moment.
“Two hundred clicks,” he called the distance. It let her know that he could see it as well and was watching it while Rissa ran the analysis. By standard procedure, the leader determined which race and equipment they would be up against. Meanwhile the winger performed the easier task of keeping his eye on the target. Closing nose-to-nose with certain species was a bad idea, so she had to work fast. A short while later he updated, “One-Ninety.”
“Blue Horde. Five light scouts,” she read from the screen, her skin crawling.
Why, of all things, did they pick the Blue Horde?