“What was your next move?” Tony asked the girl as she came through the lock. She pulled off her mask, scowled at him and strode past without a word.
He caught up to her. “I want to know, if you don’t mind. What would you have done with a couple more seconds?”
“Two missiles up your backside. I had the fire control menu up when the buzzer went off.”
“I thought so. You had me. Dumb move, evadin’ up. Damn.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Simulate it when you get a chance. I dodged the wrong way. I had no anti-missile mines left, but I headed upward. At that range, I could never evade in time.”
The serious pilot disappeared and the grinning surfer-boy returned. He threw a thumb’s up her direction. “Sweet ride, Babe.”
He unfolded his hand to shake. She accepted with a puzzled frown. With a nod, he turned to head the other way.
“Hey!” she called from behind him. When he turned, she pointed the opposite direction. “Aren’t you going to the locker room? You’re still in your flight suit.”
He shrugged. “They post the Elimination participants as soon as the last Test is over. I want to make sure I’m in.”
The spectator room, like the lockers and the flight line units, sat on the surface a short walk from the primary personnel locks. When he arrived, the entire squadron had already crowded around the window where the Brass had taped the list for 105th. Vampire glowered at him from one side.
“What? What’s up?” Tony probed once he reached him
“See for yourself,” Poe growled, then turned away to stare at out the window. The velvet black sky, devoid of stars due to the sunshine reflecting off the Lunar soil, made a perfect match for his dark gaze.
Puzzled, Tony shoved his way through the crowd. With two kills in the Test, Vampire should make it, despite being a rookie. With Cat Girl out of the fight on fuel, Tony would have credit for two kills as well. He read the eight names on the paper.
“This is wrong,” he told no one. “This has got to be wrong.”
“It’s not wrong,” Commander Ferrar’s voice answered from behind him. “Those are the eight highest scores for our side.”
Tony almost never got angry, but if they had cheated not only him but his trainee… he spun around and came close to yelling in his CO’s face. “Weasel didn’t even survive his Test! What’s he doin’ up there and Vampire ain’t? Even my scores…”
Lobo cut him off. “You have it all wrong, Kahuna. You and Poe are both advancing to the Elimination.”
Tony struggled to answer the contradiction, then jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the window behind him. “Not accordin’ to that paper, sir.”
“True. But according to that paper, you are.” Ferrar pointed to the window at the far end of the room, where the girls of the 77th stood murmuring and looking in his direction with puzzled stares.
# # #
Rissa stopped as soon as she entered. Her teammates stood crowded around the two teenagers from the 105th, seated at desks in the middle of the briefing room.
“What are they doing here?”
Her team-mates looked at each other. Marie Blessing spoke up, with the hint of a giggle. “What’s the problem, Rissa?”
“‘What’s the problem?’ This is our planning session!”
Amanda grinned. “I guess you never checked the postings?”
“There’s no reason. We’re all in by default. Eight slots and only six of us means…”
Rissa broke off as she realized what the commanders had done. Her suspicions had been right. The commanders had something going on, after all.
“No,” she argued against it. “No way.”
Commander Carter’s voice came from behind her. “Way, and you need to take your seat, Rissa.”
She spun around to face the CO in the doorway. “They’re flying on our side?”
He walked over to the lectern, placed a notebook there and turned back to her. “I used to play amateur soccer. Once, when a team didn’t have enough players show up, they had to forfeit the game. But we had the field, and had to pay the refs anyway, and everyone still wanted to play some ball, so we lent them a few of our guys and played a friendly. Sit down, Cat Girl.”
She sat, but she still groused, “We aren’t forfeiting, and this isn’t a friendly. We can still compete. We don’t need eight.”
The CO had every right to ignore her but he didn’t. “There’s no byes here. Without eight, our highest seniority pair competes twice in the first round. It’s one loss you’re out, so if they lose the first match, they also lose the second.”
She looked at the two boys with doubt. “And these guys will help us beat their own squadron?”
Carter glanced at them as well, with a wry smile. “Whether he knows it or not, the rookie needs to show the Brass what he’s made of, or they might chalk up what he’s done so far to luck. And Kahuna should be itching to add a ‘Senior’ to his rank, after more than two years at Aviator. A high school kid can’t shine in a college squadron like the One-Oh-Five. If they know what’s good for their own careers, they will grab this opportunity and give us their best.”
The girls watched her with amusement. As a pilot she had seniority on everyone except Carter, but she was still the second youngest in the room. She didn’t yet have their respect as XO. She needed to act like one to get it. Right now, that meant supporting her CO in public and bringing her objections to him in private… no matter how sure she was. Her impulsive mouth had already started her off on the wrong foot.
She fixed her glare on the two. “Well then, gentlemen, let’s hope you know what’s good for you.”
Carter took back control of the meeting. “I’ll go over a few highlights from our Tests and then cover our training plans. First though, I want to brief FC Poe on what to expect. Ang’s been up here before and I briefed our own first-timers back on Earth, but I doubt Ferrar briefed Vampire. Nobody expected him to make Eliminations.”
He looked toward Poe for confirmation and received only the barest of shrugs. The FC looked angry. Was it his normal attitude or did the situation piss him off as much as it did her?
“Mm. Well,” Carter chewed on his lip. “For the next few days, we will practice with our new partners…”
“New partners?” Marie broke in. “What’s the point if all the usual teams are still in?”
Carter expected adult military discipline even though his charges were all teenagers. He stared at Marie until she colored, visible even through her dark complexion.
She muttered, “Sorry for interrupting, Sir.
He nodded acknowledgment and continued. “Under normal circumstance, it’s rare for more than one member of each team to move up. Since the other side will fly with all new partners, the Brass felt you should too. I’m with Thuy, Amanda pairs with Marie, Ang flies with Ana and Rissa gets Poe. Bring any objections to me in private.”
Rissa noticed him glance her direction with those last words. Yes, she’d blown it at the beginning of the meeting but he didn’t need to rub it in. Especially when Marie had spouted off, too. Of course, Marie’s Aviator insignia was only weeks old, and she didn’t wear the XO pin.
“Elimination is dissimilar combat. You aren’t flying against Banshees anymore. Beginning three days from now, we fly against alien technicians operating RPVs. Alien minds as opponents make the contest a more realistic simulation of war against the real-life Enemy. The Gr’ts’ck have the contract this year. They have technology to simulate most Enemy species and weapon systems.”
Carter scratched his chin, then grinned. “That confused the heck out of me in my rookie year. If we were flying against alien opponents, how did we decide which squadron won the round? The way they do it is, each team goes up against the same scenario and the same opponent, and the best score advances. The Gr’ts’ck have their own contest going, but don’t ask me how they keep score. Their concept of ‘competition’ probably doesn’t even match up with ours, but in theory, the two best teams face the aliens’ best team at the end.”
The commander dimmed the lights, started the projector and began his critiques as if he’d done it for years. During their last Moon Duty he’d been the XO, not the CO. He’d inherited the top job only a few months before, in a nightmare battle out on the Centauri Current that had killed most of her seniors. The CO who’d died during that battle had been Carter’s best friend…
He wears a mask too. He’s showing us a false front straight out of the leadership textbooks. He must feel horrible right now, doing this job that shouldn’t be his.
Instead of sympathy for him though, Rissa only felt worse for herself now, and she didn’t quite know why.
“First we’ll look at a good example of resource management deciding the battle,” Carter declared. Rissa’s cheeks burned as her dogfight with Ang appeared. “Youngsters complain that a loss by the twenty-percent rule isn’t a real loss. They’re wrong. Out on the Current against the real Enemy, you need something left in the tank to fly home on. Even if you can hyper-sail all the way back, you still need reaction mass to get into Meta-space first. You can’t get out and push.”
He tapped the end of the pointer against the side of his skull, reflecting on something. He might have been remembering her solo flight to fetch help for the squadron, following that same battle. She’d been the only one able to do it, and she’d nearly not made it. She’d sailed the entire distance on hyperlight currents, her tanks all but dry, praying for her batteries to hold out.
A hundred liters less reaction mass in her tanks that day, and everyone would have died. Was that ghost now haunting him too, or was his mind on something else?
What is your goal here, Ginsu?