Rissa studied her reflection in the vending machine as her juice poured. The blond hair she pinned back for flight now dropped around her shoulders. It should have morphed her into the pretty teenager that Nature intended, but her steel-eyed gaze ruined it. She lost her schoolgirl facade whenever she stayed in ESDF mode too long. She was glad she had a month of summer left when she got home to recover it before school started.
She sipped the juice as she strode back to the observation lounge. Carter and Thuy would launch in a few minutes, kicking off the first round of the Eliminations. She needed to insure everyone had their mind on work.
During Tests, both squadrons crowded the lounge. The 77th had the place to themselves now. The squadron that flew second in Eliminations stayed sequestered during the first squadron’s round.
Sure enough, Surfer Boy was leaning against the wall chatting up Ana at her workstation. Rissa could still not believe that Ginsu had put a defenseless child like Chiquita in the hands of that wannabe player. She forced her irritation out of her face and strode over to him. “Stop yakking and get to work. Grab a terminal and start analyzing.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” he chirped, a little too gung-ho. He was trying to get her goat, of course.
She frowned at him as he took the neighboring terminal. Rather than saying something about the attitude though, she considered his face for a moment. “So Aviator, what do you think about this nonsense? You’ve been in Aviation as long as me, right?”
“You mean, about me and Poe flyin’ for you guys? It’s unique, but I don’t mind.”
“Your buddies in the 105th won’t ride you if you help us win?” she pressed, raising eyebrows.
He threw her a lazy surfer grin, drawing in a long breath and laughed out loud. “Cha, Babe, no doubt they’ll gimme a crapful, but Poe and I are bottom monkeys in the barrel in the Five-and-Dime. Gotta chance to give back what we been gettin’ here. Hella sure we’ll take it.”
Ana’s meek voice queried from behind him, “Do you think we can win for real?”
He frowned and turned to Ana. Judging from his expression, he wanted to shake some fight into her. Rissa felt the same way. Ana blushed and fiddled with a side-bang to cover her nervousness. “I mean… even with Commander Carter…”
“We can win,” Rissa answered in a stern tone. “We’ve never been out of the game, even without the reinforcements.”
The young FC looked a little intimidated, but Kahuna laughed. “Cha, and now you got Poe and me on your side! Uncle Tony’ll help make sure you bring that bucket home!”
Rissa’s mood soured further. She considered saying he might be overestimating the difference his presence made for them. She bit it back and turned away.
Once the round began, she monitored the simulation command board with Amanda. The contest was predictable, smooth and lacked any real chance of serving up a surprise. Carter the killing machine and Thuy the efficient technician tackled one bandit after another. It couldn’t hold enough of Rissa’s attention to keep her eyes from wandering back to the others in the room.
Each pilot had their own individual analysis terminals. Vampire stared, shifting views or magnifications only once in a while, dark eyes fixed on the screen. Full-Court worked her terminal with the same intensity she gave a video game. Kahuna didn’t seem to miss a single chance to lean over to Ana and point out some detail or another. She gave him one big-eyed nod after another, sucking up his instruction like he was the most amazing coach she’d ever met. By the time Ginsu and Meatball landed, Rissa had seen as much as she could stomach.
# # #
When she made it to her room, she only just resisted the temptation to fling herself into the bunk. Releasing her frustrations like that in the low Lunar gravity would have sent her careening off the mattress into the wall. No Farside noob mistakes for Rissa today!
Instead, she sat and unlaced her sneakers while the memory of surfer boy talking up Ana brought her close to rage again.
So he’ll help win it for us, will he? Where does he get off making promises like that?
She slumped back and cast her eyes around the tiny room. The little boxes that Farside Base called ‘officer staterooms’ all had the exact same layout. At ‘safety lighting level’, she could just make out desk, chair, mirror, locker, bunk, and door. Stretching her foot out, she confirmed that she could touch the mirror facing her with her back against the wall. To her chagrin, she realized that she couldn’t touch much more than she had during the previous summer.
The revelation didn’t help. She sat in the dark, her foot still propped on the desk. She sulked about her lack of stature, about the annoying Aviator from the 105th and her new wingman who almost never spoke.
A knock on the door interrupted her funk.
“Yeah?” she prompted, and her door slid open, revealing Amanda’s puzzled frown.
“What’s up with the dark? You weren’t sleeping already, were you? You haven’t had dinner yet!”
“Maybe Vampire is rubbing off on me,” she grumbled as she pulled her foot back to allow Amanda to enter. The older girl took a seat on the desk. Rissa reached her wrist toward the nerve-ware pickup and turned the ceiling lamp up.
In the better light, she could see a lecture coming in Amanda’s face. Ana’s older sibling acted as a self-appointed big sister for the rest of the unit as well. She would be a high school senior in the Fall, while the rest were mere juniors and sophomores… or was Ana a freshman? Rissa discovered with shock that she didn’t know something so basic about her own winger.
After Amanda sat there watching her a while, Rissa sighed and prompted, “You gonna say something?”
“Yeah, just not sure how.” She rubbed her nose in thought and stayed silent for several more seconds before continuing. “I tell you, it’s a good thing I’ve known you long enough to hear you crushing on four different guys.”
“Because if I didn’t already know you were straight, I’d get the wrong idea about the way you’re acting with my little sister around Tony.” Her mouth twisted into a smirk. “What’s bothering you?”
“She’s my winger, my trainee, and Surfer Boy’s got her hanging on every word he says!”
“Sheesh, Rissa, can you hear yourself?”
She scowled and folded her arms. “And I can’t say three words to his winger before the freak’s mind wanders off. He doesn’t have any interest in learning anything here.”
“So Kahuna’s hungry for a trainee who wants to learn.”
“Oh, he’s hungry all right, but the only help that jerk wants to give is to help your sister out of her jumpsuit! You’d better keep a close eye on them!”
Amanda chuckled for a moment and then shook her head. “He has no chance with Ana. He’s nothing like her type.”
She considered Rissa for several seconds, then scratched her cheek. “I think you’re the one who needs Big Sis looking out for her. That guy’s just the kind my Rissa might fall for.”
“What? Are you nuts? Me and him? No way!”
“Factor out the weird on the surface, and underneath you find exactly your kind of guy.”
For a moment, Rissa was speechless. Is she out of her mind?
Amanda’s grin irked her into arguing. “What, you think ’cause we were both ‘teenies’ with high kill records, we have enough in common that I’d go for the jerk? Hate to break it to you, Mandy, but I’m turned off by guys who think they’re hot stuff.”
Amanda looked confused for a moment, then broke into a broad smile. “Heh. You thought I meant Kahuna. I’m talking about the big guy, dummy.”
The laughter that burst out of Rissa was like a warm sun after a long cold snap. Once she caught her breath and wiped her eyes, she grinned at her fellow Senior Aviator.
“Man, I needed that. You do know how to break me out of a bad mood.”
Amanda nodded with a slight smile. “Seems I must, based on the evidence.”
“That’s so ridiculous,” Rissa declared, and giggled again. “Me and Poe. Yeah, right.”