Tony couldn’t shake the idea he could hear his heartbeat echoing off the cockpit canopy. The only real sounds coming to him were occasional muffled knocks and thumps on his hull from the ground crew’s efforts. Their chatter went over their own channels, not ship communications. They flashed light signals to each other, and waved an occasional hand sign, but from his point of view it all went on in surreal silence. A soundproof cocoon of vacuum covered his ship where he sat in the middle of the landing field. Only those noises conducted through the metal fuselage reached his cockpit. In theory, his breath and his heartbeat were the loudest sounds around.
He had nothing else to do except watch the ground crew fret over their spacecraft. The Finals were the Finals for everyone, not just the pilots. These guys would allow nothing but a perfect ship off the pad in this round.
Side-lit by the low hanging sun, the Banshees extended sharp black shadows across the field. Their massive engines and their pilots’ nerves strained in the late stages of ‘steam-up’.
He’d never gone this far into the competition before. For the first time since the beginning of this Moon Duty, he was on edge.
The 77th had already won the bucket. Only a few questions remained. Would the real star of the team fly home as official champion, or would the honor go to the late-season trade? If he won, would his squadron-mates call it a victory for the 105th despite their official exit? Would Rissa?
Ferrar wouldn’t. He would praise the individual accomplishment though. And his was the only opinion in the 105th that the Kahuna cared about anyhow. The college kids could think whatever they wanted.
Tony pushed all the distracting thoughts to the back of his mind and refocused on the present. The girl sitting on the neighboring pad needed the leadership of a confident upperclassman. It was time he got back to being one. The unoccupied interval weighed on him as he stared at the glowing indicators on his control panels. He fought down his jitters and prepared himself for the last minute talk he needed with Ana.
He inhaled cockpit air which tasted more of sweat than usual and letting it out in a steadying huff, then selected ground channel. It would route the conversation through the Base circuits rather than comm.
“Last chance to talk off-the-air, Chiquita. You nervous?”
Ana laughed. “You kidding me? I never dreamed I’d still be in the game at this point!”
“Neither did I. I expected to knock off a few competitors for our team-mates and exit by the semifinal round. It’s all thanks to you, Babe.”
After a long pause, he almost didn’t hear her quiet, “Yeah, right.”
He frowned across at her ship. “No, I really mean it. I should have said so before now, but we’ve benefited lots from your survival skills. We made it this far because of the survival bonuses you keep ringing up. We need to capitalize on that talent today.”
“I thought you wanted me taking more risks!” She couldn’t have sounded more suspicious.
He sighed and then gave an easy chuckle. “Yeah. So did I. I wanted you to jump in and become the bestest of the best ace fighter pilots. But, I sat down and had a long talk with myself last night, and two of us came to the conclusion I shouldn’t fight it anymore. You have a special talent for evasion. After I realized that, I added a trainer’s note to your folder to ask the Scouts to consider you for Sail Master track. I also recommended you could drive special assault ships for the ground-pounders.”
Instead of taking interest, she sounded hurt. “You saying I’m not good enough for the Aviation Corps?”
He shook his head. Did she know nothing about the world outside of Aviation? “Wow, that’s so backwards I barely know where to begin, Babe. I’m sayin’ you’re good enough for the Scouts or the Surface Corps. The Kahuna himself is not good enough. Most fighter jocks aren’t. Being hard to hit is a huge plus to those guys, and it’s a hard talent to find. The ground pounders hold pilots who will get them to the LZ and out again in the absolute highest regard. And Scout Fleet is one hundred percent pure gold prestige. Both draw big hazard pay, too.”
A yellow motion drew his eyes the other direction. The field boss was outside Tony’s canopy, flashing hand signs to let him know they’d finished. He wore a flight suit and thermies like a pilot, rather than a deckhand’s usual bulky space suit. It meant he was either a ‘burnout’, a pilot whose nerve-ware had fried, or a Zindavoor. Their mannequins could survive the radiation and vacuum just like a pilot in vac-skin.
The grounder climbed back down after Tony returned the salute. Focusing back on Ana, he hurried through the rest of his talk. “Look, you’re gonna be an asset today. Trust me. Here’s the plan; you’re lead, and I’m wing.”
He could understand her surprise. The senior pilot almost always flew as leader in the formation. Someone as junior as her would never take point except in Sim.
“Only until I tell you to switch. These aliens have studied us head to toe, so we need to steal a march on them. You go first. Unless I give an order and until I tell you to drop back into the ‘Two’ spot, you take charge. You decide where we go. I’ll follow your lead.”
He didn’t doubt Ana thought he was crazy, but she didn’t argue. He sighed, worrying that she might not be buying the explanation. Fine, I’ll hand it to her straight.
“I want the Gr’ts’ck to misidentify us. The aliens have studied us and we can’t return the favor, because we know nothin’ about their teams or which ones we’re up against. So we’re gonna level the playin’ field. We can pull it off if you confuse them as much as I know you can.”
“Because I fly like a mouse, right?”
He frowned across at the other Banshee again. She had taken it the wrong way again and he needed her talents at full strength to make his plan work. How could he convince her?
“Because you have wicked sick evasion skills,” he corrected with all the authority he could muster. “They’ll think you’re me, but I can’t dodge the way you can. We then build from there and proceed to mess with their minds.”
Especially when the winger starts going for the throat like Chiquita never would.
He left that part silent.
His winger didn’t answer. He didn’t know if that was good or bad, but crossed his fingers and went for the kill. “Trust your talents, Babe. And trust Uncle Tony. He’ll make it pay.”
They said nothing further after they switched to radio and Base sent them their take-off slots. The rattling clatter of the detaching umbilical echoed through his ship. He commenced the last stage of the preflight list, throwing mental switches in his nerve-ware each time he checked off an item. The flight controller hit the chime and began his spiel as Tony segued from pre-flight to startup sequence. From the sound of the voice, the Sky Boss himself had taken Base Comm duty today, which likely never happened except for Finals.
No matter what the rank behind the voice though, Tony only half-listened to the same old crap he’d long since memorized. He was concentrating on hitting every log point of the rising curve of plasma pressure just right.
He timed it on the dot. Base Comm sent the all-clear chime, indicating all ground crew had taken cover, just as his main jet hit liftoff pressures. He set his mike to ‘vox’. “Seven-seven-eight, steam up, man.”
Five long, frustrating seconds later, “Seven-seven-seven, steam up.”
“Lift on scheduled launch order, as you are ready.” The flight controller was a different and much younger voice now. Tony considered his guess confirmed. The Sky Boss had turned the mike back over to the regular radioman for the actual work.
Faint sideways puffs from the attitude jets blew in a rapid staccato to each side of the nose of his craft as he lifted. He proceeded through his normal glass-smooth liftoff, but he kept it slower than normal.
As he lollygagged his way into the Lunar sky, he wondered how long it would take for Ana to catch on. At last, she lifted, and for a moment he thought she would fall into winger position out of habit, but she then surged upward and rode past him. She even rolled her craft over. He grinned at her quick thinking and inverted as well. He should have realized and mentioned it, but she’d done it herself. Now they had a standard one-two formation with her ship on point and to port as if she had lifted off the ground in that position.
Cha, Babe, you hella sure got the brains, he thought with approval. Let’s go show ’em how you use ’em.