“Are you sure you want to agree to this?” the 77th’s CO asked Commander Ferrar.
Devonne Carter had the chiseled features of an athlete. He taught PE at the local high school in Berenice and looked the part. He also looked the part of an ESDF ace.
The commanders stood together in the spectator room, away from the various pilots observing the Test.
“I can’t see any way it benefits your squadron,” he added.
Ferrar shrugged and nodded. “You know, I never believed in ‘the good of the many outweighs the good of the few’. To me, that’s hive-mind hogwash. If it’s the right thing for those two, then it’s the right thing. As things stand now, those boys aren’t getting what they need.”
Carter stared at the screens, watching the developing fight. Ferrar turned his eyes back to it. The plots would merge within a minute.
“I’ve heard that my squadron may not even be around next year,” Carter noted. “We’re so understrength, Admiralty is considering breaking us up. This could be our last shot at the bucket.”
The winning squadron brought home a ‘bucket of vacuum’ scooped up on the landing field in a ceremony just before departure. Per tradition, the junior pilot carried it back and the rest would discover the bucket ‘full of air’ back on Earth.
After they hassled him for ‘spilling their hard-won vacuum’, the kid then had to buy a round of sodas for everyone. In any other military it would have been alcohol, but in the ESDF ‘junior pilot’ in an Earth-based squadron almost always meant a minor.
“Ginsu, my advice is, just lead your pilots. Don’t worry about crap you can’t do anything about.”
“Yeah. Can’t shoot at an invisible target, right?” Carter grinned, perfect white teeth shining against his dark face. “So, this is the last Test… custom is the unit commanders wager on it.”
“I looked up your FC Nguyen. She’s good, but way out of her league against these other three, so she’s toast. And Cougar never does well unless it’s a real combat. She just doesn’t get into it for war games. I guess that leaves your Cat Girl against my Kahuna.”
“Fine. I’m thinking Cat Girl takes Kahuna. What’s the wager?”
“Loser flies to Winner’s town and buys him dinner. Winner’s choice. I got a nice Sushi place already picked out.”
“Hope you don’t mind driving into Houston. I can’t find a proper steakhouse any closer to Berenice.”
Thus far, the combatants had restricted themselves to a series of feints. Now, Meatball– a strange call sign for such a pretty girl as Nguyen– pulled off a textbook power reverse to get in behind Kahuna. He wasn’t falling for it, though. His break left her parallel to him, and they fell into a climbing rolling scissors. Barrel rolls and belly jets kept them from colliding or breaking off as they traced a double helix skyward.
With no drag and no threat of a stall to worry about, space fighters could spin themselves in any direction to fire. That fact made most space combat different than atmospheric combat. But cutting jets cold in the middle of a dogfight was suicide, and if they spun to fire from this distance with thrust, they would collide. Thus, they ended up in this situation any jet fighter pilot in the Korean War would have recognized. They now needed to find the right moment to get behind the opponent for a shot, or split off at a moment when the opponent couldn’t get behind them.
The right moment came first for Meatball, when Kahuna pulled off a little wide, but she failed to take advantage. Ferrar shook his head. Rookies!
Ang found his chance as they approached the hundred kilometer altitude limit. In seconds, they would leave the combat area, and Base Comm would order them to separate. Meatball must have been anticipating getting out of the bind by flying out of bounds. She didn’t notice she’d inched ahead of her opponent.
Kahuna throttled back and spun his craft into hers. Too late, she recognized the danger and broke, but not before he fired his projectors at close range. As the kill buzzer went off, she rocked her wings and turned for the base.
“One down,” Ferrar declared with a grin.
“Two down,” Carter answered, as the alarm immediately went off again. While the fight between Kahuna and Meatball had held their attention, Cougar had engaged Cat Girl and lost. The match-up the commanders predicted in their wager had just come true.
# # #
Rissa cataloged her remaining resources as her opponent descended. The problem with near-Luna combat was the sheer reaction mass it used up. Fighting in such a confined space required heavy use of belly jets and attitude thrusters. These used mass far faster than the more efficient main jet.
She had only thirty percent reaction mass remaining. The safety rules ended her round when she reached twenty. Seven remaining missiles, plus the weak punch of her single projector. Time for a little creativity.
She checked her position and his, picked a direction, and snapped her nose upward, throttling up to full power. As soon as her nose came to bear on the descending opponent, she clicked off three directions around him and fired a spread of missiles. She had them set to lock onto the first thing that fell into a narrow cone ahead of them. As they approached, he either had to pick a direction and tangle with one of them, or stay on his course and deal with all three plus her.
It was a cheap trick and would be an expensive waste if the missiles were real, but she had few options. Her winger hadn’t worn him down enough. If they got into an extended dogfight, she’d be out of fuel before she ever got behind him. If she did, with only one gun, she had to keep firing for far too long.
Two blips appeared, missiles on their way back at her. She grinned and flipped over, using her verticals to push herself back toward the Lunar soil. Smart move on his part; he’d elected to keep her occupied with his own expensive volley while he dealt with the approaching threat.
She’d used up her anti-missile mines while fighting Cougar. Her only option was to play hide-and-seek with the missiles down amongst the landscape. She found a jagged ridge line and slalomed through it, tracking her opponent through her nerve-ware. He dove the direction she’d expected, the heading she was on, but how would he deal with the simulated missile now locked onto him?
He took the impossible interception shot and the missile blew up. It was so unexpected, she almost flew into a peak in her shock. She didn’t have a plan to deal with him so soon, and she still had to shake his missiles, closing fast. It took ten more long seconds of high energy turns and flips. The missiles started having to circle mountains to reach her, ran out of energy and dropped away. She flicked another glance at her mass level. Twenty four percent… she nosed up in preparation for his dive. He had already come about to face her, only a few kilometers out.
Her rad warning sounded and she jinked out of habit.
A head-on missile lock?
Too late, she realized it was a mind game, to throw off whatever attack she might have up her sleeve. He had no more than two remaining missiles; he wouldn’t burn them on such a low-odds shot.
She growled and kept clawing for altitude. She no longer had the mass left to play tag amongst the craters. Twenty two percent.
He lined up and she punched her verticals, ‘knuckle-balling’ just as her shield energy warning told her of a glancing hit. On a hunch, she took the gamble nobody ever took. She stopped her main jet cold and snapped around. Sure enough, he’d rolled off target in the same moment in a bid to get behind her. She worked her attitude jets and verticals to stay lined up while painting him with her own projector. His Banshee nosed up to get out before her weapon could get through his shield.
A buzzer froze her in the middle of her next nerve-ware command. Understanding replaced shock as she recognized that she had hit the twenty percent limit. Swallowing the choice curse words that sprang to mind, she rocked her wings and began engine restart so she could head in.