The Senior Aviator’s rant echoed through the steel doors as soon as the pressure began rising in the lock.
“We aren’t playing games out here! Don’t you EVER pull a stunt like that while you’re on my wing! Ship! Training! Nerve-ware! They all cost big money! You carry a fortune out there every time you fly, and you are to bring every dime of it home, do you hear me? Are you listening to me?”
“Rapt with attention, Ma’am! Hanging on every word, Miss Senior Aviator, Ma’am!”
Ferrar considered leaving before Vampire saw him, since it looked like the 77th had it covered. Carter, Ang and the elder Vega sister had all shown up, and they hadn’t come to help Rissa feed Poe his own head.
The door swung open as she thundered, “Don’t you get sarcastic on me, Mr FC! I haven’t thrown a student in the brig yet, but I can by God make you the first!”
Of course, Ferrar realized that the kid’s victory would have spooked Carter as much as everyone else. No one knew what Poe had done out there, but his personnel folder didn’t say anything about psychic powers. Ferrar had never observed any previous hints of it in him either. Even so, an inexperienced CO like Carter might not be thinking straight at the moment.
Such abilities mattered in combat with aliens, but efforts to develop them in Humans had a long and sketchy history. Most pilots had come to hold the same opinion on the subject. Even if you got it, you can’t depend on it. Humans are better off leaving the psychic stuff to the Zindavoor. Our strength is weapons and brains, not magic tricks.
The door clanged at the end of its swing and Rissa glared out at the welcoming committee. She stepped forward out of the lock, peeling her flying gloves off. The big goth trailed behind her at a discreet distance. Ferrar marveled at how scary the tiny girl could make herself. She’s going to make a hell of a squadron commander some day. And then maybe a hell of an admiral.
“Miss Senior Aviator Lee!” Carter barked before she spoke.
She stiffened, then saluted. “Aye, sir!”
He had Vampire caught off guard for a moment, but the FC then came to attention as well. Pilots rarely used formality among themselves, but his tone said, This is an official occasion.
Carter didn’t return their salutes just yet. He crossed his arms and inspected the Senior Aviator for a moment instead.
“I congratulate you on reaching the Final Round. I believe this is your second time to make it this far. Too bad for me I’m not flying with you this time.”
She grew a dour expression. “Your absence is my disadvantage, sir.”
“The evidence suggests otherwise,” he noted, then turned to Vampire. “Mr Flying Cadet Poe, you also deserve considerable praise. You’ve done your teachers proud.”
Poe’s eyes flicked toward Rissa, anticipating a blow-up, then he bobbed his head. “Thank you, sir.”
The young commander gave them his return salute at last, adding a quick “At ease.”
Ferrar smiled within at the way his colleague had diffused Rissa’s tirade. Inexperienced he might be, but incapable he was not. The girl’s posture showed she wasn’t finished, but he had stolen the initiative from her.
She surveyed the crowd, then turned back to her CO. “Sir, I request a meeting with you and my trainee in private.”
Amanda intervened. “Commander, please allow Kahuna and me to handle this for you. Go enjoy a coffee with Commander Ferrar.”
“Why?” Rissa bridled, glaring at her squadron mate, the smoldering embers in her eyes beginning to reignite.
“Because if you’re gonna take a swing at someone,” the tall Hispanic answered, “it better be neither your CO nor your winger. In fact, I think for your sake it’s vital we keep this between us kids.”
Rissa looked ready to take that swing right then, but instead she froze, her eyes locking on to something in the hall behind Ferrar and Carter.
“Honored pilots,” the basso thrum of the Kedevzha seemed to penetrate Ferrar’s skull. He turned to see two Gr’ts’ck and the translator standing statue-still where Rissa stared. The bug faces of the Gr’ts’ck then swiveled left and right, in search of someone willing to reply. He and Carter stepped back in opposite directions, opening up the circle to include the newcomers.
Ferrar decided to break the silence. “Greetings, Honored Allies. What brings you to our humble presence?”
The Gr’ts’ck rotated toward him, its reply a series of scratches, clicks and grinds. The Kedevzha followed it in English. “To you commanders we offer great esteem for your leadership of these fine warriors, your subordinates. Our measure of their abilities continues to prove inadequate, no matter how much we raise it, and this reflects well upon their superiors. We come to give particular attention to one of these, the warrior Flying Cadet Poe and called Vampire.”
“We’re a team!” Rissa snapped, with none of the profuse politeness in which Allies usually dressed interspecies dialog. She strode forward to stand between Ferrar and Carter with arms akimbo. “He’s my winger. You have some business with him, you talk me!”
Carter looked ready to say something to her, but the Gr’ts’ck spoke before he could. It was a lengthy response, and the Kedevzha’s translation sounded amused. “Senior Aviator Rissa Lee we know well already. Great Warrior, you have earned many honors. One of only fifteen Human single-seater pilots permitted to carry nuclear weapons. Awarded the Solar Medal, the Flying Star, and two Admiralty Commendations. The Honored Allies Sesseem honor as well, have given the warrior a Hero’s Memorial of great esteem. More than one species will remember this warrior long into the future. She little requires recognition from these most unworthy ones who stand before her.”
Rissa’s irritation melted into confusion as the alien listed off her awards. As the Gr’ts’ck resumed its speech, Ferrar struggled to hide his own surprise. She has a Solar Medal? A kid her age earned the highest honor in the ESDF? And what did she do to get recognition from aliens?
The Kedevzha translation returned. “The Senior Aviator Amanda Vega, the Commander Gordon Ferrar, the Lieutenant Commander Devonne Carter. These are also known for their most worthy feats. The Aviator Tony Ang we know as another youth of impressive combat record from whom we eagerly await more. Great opponents, but all known to us, and the challenge loses its edge for this. Your winger was not known, and it seems the more we improvise, the more unknown he becomes. We continue to challenge, and he continues to defeat us. Our admiration grows with each flight.”
Rissa propped fists on her hips. “You want a challenge? I’ll challenge you! I’ll make you regret it if you overlook me tomorrow!”
The silence that fell stretched out as Ferrar stared at the petite blond with amazement. She looked ready to fist fight the two-and-a-half-meter-tall alien on the spot.
“Rissa, be polite,” Amanda muttered as she moved up behind the girl. “These are our closest allies…”
The Gr’ts’ck clicked and moaned once more, and the translator relayed the response. “Challenge accepted with pleasant anticipation of a great contest. You have been and continue to be our most capable opponent in this contest. Still, we continue to challenge the warrior Vampire. Rissa Lee is a great slayer of the Enemy, and her defeat would be a great victory for our team. Vampire …” The Kedevzha stopped, then turned and clicked a quick comment to the Gr’ts’ck.
It returned to English. “Apologies. A word which does not translate and this one must instead speak for itself for a moment, to teach. The term our ally used carries the form of that-which-flies-in-opposition-to-the-wind. This delivers little meaning to Human minds.”
It seemed to mull for a moment. “The concept of this contains many thoughts which are not warrior. That one who enters active combat unarmed and undefended, carrying only tools to give aid to others. That one who sacrifices self in suicidal defense that gives fleeing refugees a greater chance to survive. That one who spends last moments of life to boost a child to safety from an approaching flood. The valiant madness given noble purpose is that trait which the Gr’ts’ck honor above all other valors.”
“Poe’s head won’t fit his helmet if they keep talking,” Amanda grumbled, too quiet for the alien to hear.
“The warrior Vampire is a special challenge for this trait. Unpredictable. Confusing. And Humans use another term which perhaps applies… Entertaining.”
Ferrar stifled a laugh. “Give it up, Cat Girl. You may be stronger, but flying against Vampire is more fun.”
She seethed and Ferrar wasn’t quite sure if he understood what exactly angered her, but Amanda was right. Rissa’s equals needed to help her through this. He turned to the visitors. “Honored Allies, your praise is most treasured. Please accept our escort back to your area. Our subordinates have some matters they need to discuss amongst themselves.”
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