Tony tried to relax with a cup of coffee in the observation lounge while Rissa and Poe waited on the field. He’d completed his Moon Duty. Now he wanted to enjoy the show as a spectator, and he needed the break. For two weeks, his ‘RL’ self and his teenager spirit had faded into the background. He needed to find them again before he hit the surf at Venice Breakwater.
Instead he fidgeted, anxious and without coffee, having just set a personal best time for draining his cup. He went for a refill, facing the truth at last that he couldn’t relax before the end of Rissa and Vampire’s flight. Even though he now had no further control over the result, he had the championship within reach. On top of that, his trainee was flying in a Final.
Rather than return to his table, he parked himself at a terminal. During Tests, as many as a dozen pilots would have been on the computers lined up along the lounge walls, but for this flight he sat alone. Everyone else gathered around tables, just as he had in previous Moon Duties, chatting and happy their part was over. He fiddled around with the terminal, setting up his live analysis the way he liked it, then waited for ground crews to finish up.
A weight settled on his chair back. He looked up to see Amanda leaning over him, peering at his screen.
“So, whatcha think? Your boy goin’ out in a blaze of glory again?”
He stopped working and grabbed a sip. “Are the girls of the 77th takin’ bets or somethin’?”
“Eh. Could be. I just want to see him fly like RL for once. For future reference.”
Her words meant that she had Poe pegged as a ‘Moon Duty Ace’. Most people brought their sense of self-preservation to the competition. They flew against computer phantoms and RPVs, but remained aware they could still augur in or collide with an RPV. But some pilots came here flying as if they were immortal, not caring whether they ‘died’ or not in the contest. These ‘Moon Duty Aces’ endangered everyone by ignoring the real hazards along with the simulated ones.
The Poe he knew was no more one of those than he was Sensitive.
“Babe, that’s the real Vampire out there. He flies just like that in real combat. Sick dogfightin’ skills, works in too close, makes others think he doesn’t give a damn whether he lives or dies. But if you break it down later you discover he spent the whole time with his mind on his teammates. He’s got the angle, he picks them up whenever they’re on your tail and he jumps in whenever and wherever he can make a difference.”
She studied him for several seconds, weighing his words. “I cannot imagine anyone surviving this long if they flew real combat like he’s been flying here.”
“You and I both know that we’re up against better opposition in Moon Duty than we get most of the time IRL.”
After another long, contemplative stare, Vega narrowed her eyes. “I refuse to count on the poor skills of the Enemy, Kahuna. We need to reign Vampire in so he doesn’t get himself killed. Don’t you care about your boy? Survival is one of the goals.”
Tony stared at his coffee, wanting to give a surfer-boy wisecrack. A cold pang kept it from coming to him.
“We’re fightin’ a war, Cisco. People die. I’ve lost both my parents, plus a grandmother, an aunt, two uncles, two cousins… maybe I’m more used to the idea than most, but that’s our reality. Vampire’s type, though… they take lots of enemy with them when they go. Before he took his first solo, I knew I couldn’t keep him alive in the long run. Nobody can survive the war for long wrapped up in that much pain and poison and negative energy. The only thing we can do for him is give him the skills to take out as many of the bastards as he can, before he goes.”
He pulled another sip, then his humor found its footing. “I don’t know how it’ll happen, but I guarantee we’ll all hear about it when Dude buys it. I’m looking forward to the stories. It’ll be just like his last few flights. He’ll be pullin’ someone else’s hiney out of the fire while beatin’ up on an extra-large helpin’ of Enemy. I can guarantee it.”
“‘No one ever won a war by dying for their country’,” Amanda quoted with a disapproving tone.
“Nobody ever won a war by ignoring the facts, either.” He set the coffee down and grinned. “You’ve got him wrong, Senior. He said it himself the other day. All Poe wants is to make sure all the crap he’s been through has been worth it.”
Marie, the African American girl he only managed a few brief conversations with, came over. She pulled the chair for the next station out, turning it around so she could sit down backward and have a view of his screen. Puzzled, he looked from one girl to another while the newcomer crossed her arms across her chair back and settled in.
Base Comm picked that moment to declare the scenario underway, before the combatants even got into the air. He turned back to his work to see what was up.
“So you told him?” Marie asked.
“No, Marie, I have not,” Amanda’s voice sounded miffed. He now found his attention divided. The Banshee jets were building up plasma in pre-chargers as fast as physics would allow. The junior Aviator’s loaded question wouldn’t let him go though.
“Told me what?” he demanded.
The plots began and his data board showed the incoming targets as seen by the ground sensors. He frowned at it and pinged his nerve-ware to download a more in-depth feed. The numbers flowed into his mind, filling in details the windows on his screen were too small to include. Echo size, Meta-space distance and velocity, estimated emergence. The Banshees would get off the ground in plenty of time, but that was one big target.
“I think it’s okay to tell him, now,” Marie judged. “Right, Ginsu?”
He glanced back again and discovered he had now accumulated a crowd. Commanders Carter and Ferrar had joined them, and others were drifting in. He locked eyes with the smirking Aviator.
“Babe, I wanna watch my trainee here, and I can’t if you’re gonna keep messin’ with my head. Spill it already.”
Marie glanced at Carter, who gave her a confirming nod. She gestured around. “While you guys were boring the crap out of us with your ‘deep space patrol’, Ginsu gave the rest of us the news.”
With a another glance, she asked Carter, “I guess you told Vampire and Cat Girl to go to lunch so they wouldn’t hear it?”
Another nod. She turned back to Tony. “He told us to learn everything we could about you and Poe during your flights, because we would be seeing a lot more of you.”
That perplexed him. He turned to Carter. “To my knowledge, West Coast squadrons and Gulf squadrons almost never work together, sir. We’re in different divisions.”
Ferrar supplied the answer. “They only assigned you to the Five-n-Dime, Kahuna. They didn’t make you marry it.”
He blinked, puzzled… then after a breath, he understood. The understaffed 77th needed pilots. Unlike the bases near LA or Fort Lauderdale or Chicago or Houston, Gulf Base Three sat too far from a major city. The Brass had a hard time arranging cover stories to transfer new personnel into the small town of Berenice. They would be triple-checking the pilot rolls of the entire Force trying to find candidates for the Lucky Double. He and Vampire, both war orphans with family ties to Texas, would be a perfect fit.
They might even have matched the 105th and the 77th up for Moon Duty to try him and Vampire out with the the unit. No doubt they had concerns about piling on even more teenagers, with only one adult in the unit. They would want to insure Ginsu had no personality conflicts within his crew. His job was hard enough now. They had to be sure it wasn’t impossible before committing to the move.
“Those arrogant bastards,” he observed in awe.
Carter broke into a wide, toothy grin and stuck out his hand. “Welcome to the Lucky Double, Aviator.”
As soon as a still flummoxed Tony accepted Carter’s handshake, Ferrar swore. The startled group turned toward him. Amanda demanded, “What, sir?”
“What do you mean, ‘What’? Check the screen!”