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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1108993
Rated: 13+ · Novella · Sci-fi · #1108993
Rivalry can be healthy competition, or a path into serious trouble.
"Tales of the ESDF [13+] by Eric the Fred
    Tales from the Earth System Defense Force
PREVIOUS:"Star Light

MOON DUTY
Eric Paul Fretheim
Chapter I

"Ten-five-seven to Ten-five-leader."

The tail fins of the Aviation Corps 105th Pursuit Squadron had cleared the atmosphere only moments before. It was too soon for ordinary chatter. The call came from one of the teenagers bringing up the rear. Given that and the numeric call sign and standard form, it wasn't an emergency. The CO shook his head and switched his mike to 'vox', which triggered his mike automatically when he spoke. "What's up, Kahuna?"

"Sir, I would like to discuss my trainee."

Commander Ferrar's concern turned to irritation... or perhaps to dread. The young Aviator rarely spoke in such formal style.

"..."

The last bit was an empty transmission. He guessed that the aforementioned trainee had triggered his mike, then bit off some wise-ass-ed response.

Ferrar suspected he should also know better. "Go ahead."

Kahuna returned to the air, now wearing his customary surfer-boy persona. "I would like to update my training report from 'flying cadet dude just might gonna make it' to 'flying cadet dude just not gonna make it.'"

This time, Vampire couldn't keep his mouth shut. "Hey! What's that supposed to mean?"

"What was up with that launch!? You better not have been trying to catch a wave, 'cause you know, they don't break that far off shore."

"I made it, didn't I?"

At that moment, Commander Ferrar wanted to ground both of them, but he held his temper. "Kahuna, what do you need from me?"

Kahuna reverted back to formal mode. The teenage veteran only became a model officer and pilot in absolute necessity. "Sir, I request that my trainee report to the sim center to run at least thirty takeoffs, commencing tomorrow morning. He is not gonna put one in the drink on my record!"

It was a reasonable request made on clear air where anyone who believed him wrong could intervene... but Ferrar didn't consider it appropriate for mid-flight talk and made a mental note to have a word with the young man later. Still, he had to deal with the request on the table.

"Cougar, you're Kahuna's adviser. Do you have anything to add?"

As a parent, Cougar enjoyed his struggles with the teenagers. He could hear the amusement in her voice. "Sorry, Lobo, I couldn't see Vampire's launch. I went up ahead of both of them."

That would be the case for everyone else as well; 'Vampire' and 'Kahuna' had been last in the launch order. So the decision stayed his. He hit on the Solomonic decision... at least he hoped it was. "Well, Kahuna, I've never known you to go out of your way to look for work. If you're willing to sit with Vampire through thirty launch sims, I guess he must need it."

With luck, Aviator Tony Ang never intended to be the one sitting at the boards for all thirty launches; he could learn a valuable lesson about volunteering others for work. Ferrar couldn't shake the suspicion that Kahuna had played him like a fiddle, though. It always seemed to work out that way.

                                       *      *      *

Actually, Tony admitted to himself as he climbed down from his Banshee, the noob did manage a decent landing. He found it incredible that the same pilot had been at the controls for the launch.

He knew why, though. Flying Cadet Poe had virtually lived in the simulators back on Earth for weeks leading up to this trip, anxious over his upcoming first airless landing. While dozens of different brave and glorious ways existed to buy the farm in the Corps, ways that could guarantee they knew the pilot's name for decades after, none of them included crashing into the lunar surface butt-first and above vee-max. Despite his fatalistic image, Poe refused to go out that way.

Well, if he could polish his landings in the sims, he could polish his launches.

Tony stepped into the airlock alongside two squadron-mates and a pair of ground crew. The deckhands didn't have the implants that rendered pilots' skin vacuum- and radiation-proof, so their bulky vacuum suits took up most of the available space in the lock.

He pulled off his breather once the air pressure came up, and wrinkled his nose against the inevitable gunpowder odor of fresh moon dust hitting oxygen. He'd be used to it within a couple days; that smell was inescapable anywhere in air pressure on the Moon. The first sniff each year was still a shock.

Several of his fellow fliers still stood outside awaiting the next cycle, including Poe. Tony lingered near the inner hatch for the trainee.

When the lock disgorged the next batch of incoming, a glowering 'Vampire' ripped off his mask and helmet and blazed past with a fierce scowl. Poe had a good five inches and twenty pounds on Tony, and the young aviator found his size, when combined with an angry demeanor and his gothic make-up, just a bit intimidating.

He couldn't let the freak get away with it this time. Poe needed to start adapting to military life, and Kahuna's job included making that happen. Besides, in the low lunar gravity the guy would mix it up with a wall soon if somebody didn't slow him down.

Tony glide-stepped and fell in beside the trainee. "What are you so hacked-off about?"

Poe stopped and turned, stubbornly maintaining his balance after the move when most lunar rookies would have fallen over. "You don't remember screwing me over for thirty sims?"

Tony folded his arms and smirked. "Brah, you weren't gonna hang at the mall for the next two weeks. Welcome to The Summer Camp From Hell."

"Thirty sims, Tony!"

"Cha. Whacha think you're gonna miss? S'mores?" He shook his head.

Dark eyes flashed. "The next time you need something to occupy your time, leave me out of it, okay?"

Tony pulled an impersonation learned from his grandfather's vast video collection. "Ah, Grasshopper, you have much to learn. Especially about honorable trainer."

"Whatever your plan is, it started with you telling the CO that my launch sucked. You were planning to say it no matter how well I did. That's just wrong."

Tony pursed his lips and thought for a moment. Did this sulking mean Poe cared what the CO thought? If he did, he had never shown it before.

"Your launch sucked eggs, Dude. That's no lie. My plan did depend upon you doing something that required plenty of sims. Trust me, until you polish your skills, I can count on you to screw up something. I didn't plan ahead of time to pick on your launch. You handed it to me."

"Fine." The big guy stared down at something on the floor. "Whatever."

"So you don't want to know?"

"Know what?"

Tony leered. "The evil master plan?"

"Knowing you, it involves a girl. That's all I need to know"

"Oh, man, so close and yet... so not close."

Poe shook his head, turned, and walked off.

"Seven-hundred Zulu tomorrow. Sim center."

As confirmation, Poe gave an almost invisible toss of the head and kept walking. Tony couldn't help chuckling.

He expected the guy to wake just in time to get to the sim center, but Poe surprised him by showing up in the cafeteria for breakfast, still unhappy but no longer grousing. Perhaps the reality of Farside Base boredom had already set in. The sooner Poe realized that Tony had done him a favor, the better.

For the next two weeks, the 105th, the 'Five and Dime', would share Farside with the 77th, the 'Lucky Double', for training and competition. The tradition dated back to a time when the Moon created an enormous blind spot in the sky which the ESDF needed to work around. Rather than marooning a squadron in the airless hell, a practice which would have hurt both health and morale, they rotated squadrons from Earth every two weeks to fill the gap in defenses. As the Force grew, the squadrons doubled up, and as naturally, competitions began.

Technology had long since eliminated the need for the base, but now Admiralty considered the competition a vital training tool. Nowhere else near Earth provided so much room for a Normal Space dogfight hidden from Earther eyes.

Secrecy was no longer as urgent as in past centuries, when the Enemy could have tricked average Earthers into seeing the ESDF as servants of the Devil, but Admiralty and the Alliance still agreed that they could not yet go public. Enough embedded Enemy agents still remained with enough influence to fool Humanity into seeing the ESDF as "aliens" and turn them against their own defenders. The Enemy continued to have Hollywood and its international counterparts crank out enough 'evil aliens among us' stories to keep the public primed for such a mistake.

Poe ate his breakfast in sullen silence. Tony left him alone until the girls of the Lucky Double trooped in for their meal. Tony's uncle had told the truth about the rival squadron. The 77th had an inordinate number of young female officers.

"Hey, Vampire." The dark eyes looked up at him from the pancakes they'd been studying. "If you look to your left, you will see the reason I wanted plenty of sim time."

A look, and a shake of the head. "You said it wasn't a girl."

"A girl? Your math skills need sharpening, Brah. I count five girls."

The big goth shrugged.

That's okay, Vampire. You'll be in the simulator. I'll be the one outside running the boards.

Instead of continuing to sulk, Poe actually had something to say, though. "You'll have a hard time with these ladies, Kahuna. This is the 77th out of Berenice. Can you imagine how weird a goth and and a surfer look to a bunch of small-town Texas girls?"

Tony looked at him with surprise. It wasn't just because Poe already knew about them; the big guy had just spoke more words than he normally put together in an average hour. "You mean you already knew about them?"

A rare grin. "My grandma lives in Berenice. She was stationed in Gulf Base Three most of her career, so she stayed when she retired. She told me all about them. You're looking at all that's left of them. Those girls plus a new commander. The unit got creamed out on the Centauri Current a couple months ago."

"My Uncle Wan told me the same thing. They got jumped by a Class E ring during that big incursion. They won, but it wiped most of them out first. Only four survivors out of the whole unit."

"There's five girls."

"Survivors were the XO and three girls. XO's the new CO. Two of these girls are flying cadets; they weren't along."

"So, that was your big plan."

"Cha. I'll be sitting on that board for hours, Dude. They'll be coming in to sharpen up, especially the poor little inexperienced FCs. Uncle Tony will be there to offer advice and encouragement."

Poe swallowed his last mouthful of pancake and began gathering his stuff onto his tray. "Pathetic. You're headed into eleventh grade, Tony."

"Your point?"

"You're too young to be a dirty old man."

"Ah, Vampire. So naïve. One is never too young to be a dirty old man."

                                       *      *      *

Senior Aviator Rissa Lee stared across the Sim bay at the two boys setting up at the far end. That's them? You can't be serious, Ginsu!

Commander Carter had ordered, Learn everything you can about those two. I'm counting on you.

Aviator Tony Ang, a little Asian guy with a lazy smirk and all the military bearing of a bum, sat at the control desk. Like Rissa, he was a 'Teenie'; he'd qualified for pilot before fourteen years old. He'd achieved Aviator rank two years ago. His forty two scores were incredible for a youth officer who hadn't yet made Senior. The grinning fool in the control chair didn't look like a fierce pilot, but she could see the shadow of those kills in his eyes.

The other boy didn't seem like much either, but Flying Cadet Austin Poe  had racked up four kills in only six weeks since earning his wings. He looked like a freak, a hulking giant of a boy with spiky black hair and eye-liner, hardware in the ears and nose, and some sort of ring in his eyebrow. A kid looking like that at Calvin County High would get messed with for sure... but someone with his build and standard Corps combat instruction could take care of himself in a fight. Still, what makes a guy do that to himself?

The big Cadet glowered down at the Aviator as he wrapped up his last-minute instructions, then spun on a heel and marched into the simulator without a word. Ang shook his head and tapped on some keys as Rissa strode across the room toward him. He grinned again as he looked up at her.

"Cadets. What do you do with 'em?"

She smiled back. "He wears a dog collar. Have you considered a leash?"

The Aviator's eyes bugged, then the grin spread out once more, bigger than ever as he jabbed out his hand. "I'll keep it in mind. Tony Ang. Kahuna."

She accepted his hand gingerly. Shaking hands instead of saluting might be the custom among ESDF pilots, but as a sixteen-year-old she still felt uncomfortable with the physical contact-- especially with boys her own age.

It didn't help that this one had been ogling her and her fellow pilots in the cafeteria when he thought they didn't see it. She forced it out of her mind and made herself think of him as a pilot instead of a teenage boy. "Rissa Lee. Cat-Girl."

"'Rissa'? I thought it was 'Ma-rissa'?" He'd been studying up as well.

"I go by 'Rissa'." She extracted her hand, which he had hung on to for way too long, then looked down at the control board to break free of his gaze. The Flying Cadet had a virtual Banshee running through its standard start-up routine. "You're simming launches? Not dogfights?"

"The last thing Vampire needs is combat sims. You'll find that out soon enough."

His confidence irritated her. "Really. We might just surprise you."

Ang put up a hand. "Whoa. I think you misunderstood. I was talking about Dude's skills. I wasn't bagging yours."

Simultaneous to Ang's declaration, the Flying Cadet began his first launch run. Standard subaquatic base sequence, she noted, just like back home. The 105th and the 77th both flew out of underwater bases far enough off the coast to hide from civilian eyes, launching out of the water like missiles and returning like submarines. 'Vampire' had surely done this hundreds of times in sim and at least dozens of times in RL, but his unorthodox execution... "What kind of a... "

"Vampire!" Ang snapped into the mike, "Watch your pressures!"

Up on the monitor, the virtual Banshee came lurching out of the water with its nose already trying to angle itself for a belly-flop back into the sea. The FC worked his nose thrusters, forcing his jets back underneath while simultaneously gunning them in a bid to recover the lost velocity. He slid sideways mere feet above the surface, casting up massive gouts of vapor, then ended the narrow scrape with virtual death by miraculously guiding his fighter toward space neatly back in the original ascent slot.

"What happened to my thrust?" 'Vampire' demanded over the comm. "I was fine, then..."

"Steam siphon. You over-thrusted, cavitated, siphoned in seawater and created a steam bubble that fooled you into thinking you still had normal thrust. You have to maintain pressure within a very narrow margin while you're still underwater, Brah."

No answer returned from within the simulator. Rissa considered the Aviator's explanation as he watched his student's ascent. Was he guessing? She'd heard of the siphon effect, one of those bugbears that bit only under the right conditions, but she'd never seen one in sim or real life. He couldn't diagnose something that rare on the fly, could he? He sounded so certain...

Despite the bungle, the FC had worked his way out of a condition that normally resulted in a crash, so perhaps he did have a skill or two. Still... she noted the irony of the screw-up, so soon after Ang talked him up like that.

"If he's so skillful, why'd he flunk out on the first try? He must have, right? He's a sixteen-year-old rookie."

Ang flicked a glance at her, then looked back to his work, a wry smile on his face. "He didn't flunk out. Don't bring it up around him unless you want him to take a swing at you."

"What happened?"

The grin vanished and an abruptly solemn Ang watched the boards without comment. She could see now that he had the FC doing a scramble sim, practicing a near-Earth intercept. She kept her gaze on the Aviator. After he glanced her way once more and saw her waiting for an answer, he shrugged. "He shoulda been a Teenie, just like you and me."

She puzzled at the claim. As an emergency measure, to counter a sharp increase in pilot losses, Command had pushed known candidates possessing the highest success potentials into receiving their nerveware as much as two years before the normal age. They had cut the practice back once the need stopped being as dire as the costs to the Teenies, but... "What do you mean, 'should have been'? Becoming a Teenie isn't standard procedure for anyone."

The haunted look in Ang's eyes and the softness in his voice when he looked up told her she'd misunderstood something. "Poe also received his nerveware at twelve years old. Something went wrong and he nearly died during the implant operation. Then his first nerveware implant failed. They replaced it, but he went through more pain than you or me, for ages longer, and it left him a physical and neurological wreck. It took four years for the shrinks to clear him for flight training."

More pain than we did, for longer... Every pilot in the ESDF went through the same horrid experience. The Ai'iin, the senior members of the Alliance, required the humans to buy their navigation and propulsion systems and they didn't permit it to be adpated for direct control by less advanced races. Because only Ai'iin and those they equipped with implants to imitate their capabilities could use it, the Enemy and their Slave races couldn't turn captured equipment against its makers.

Any race advanced enough could create and use their own systems instead, but the Alliance didn't permit selling the technology if it had to be adapted for less advanced compatriots such as Humans. The ESDF purchased Sesseem and Gr'ts'ck craft without controls, sensors or Meta-space generators. The Ai'iin sold them those instead and installed nerveware implants in the Human pilots.

The Human controller first went through the nightmare of implantation and then had to stress the implant at battle maximum levels while their bodies were still growing. Otherwise the implants would never operate at speeds or bandwidth sufficient to pilot fighters or sail-master the big ships. The ESDF found a balance between the necessity of nerveware and the horror of brutalizing their own children by waiting until candidates were fourteen to fifteen years old, and occasionally even taking an initially rejected sixteen-year-old.

Even if most pilots didn't face the ordeal as twelve-year-olds like she had, they all passed through that fire at some point. The reward on the other side of the trial made the sacrifice worthwhile-- but what about those for whom the procedure went wrong? She'd known it could happen, but she'd never thought about those who lost the lottery.

After the operation, she'd felt every nerve ending in her body burning. Even with the drugs and the baths, she lived in torment, but it faded through the first week. By the end of the second she merely felt like she'd been in heavy athletic training and she'd begun flight training.

For somebody to go through it for months on end, and with no reward for years? Or perhaps ever?

She shook her head. "Okay, fine. He's not a flunk-out. His flying still didn't look all that great, Kahuna."

"You said it's Cat-Girl, right?"

She nodded. He scratched his ear and kept talking as he turned his eyes back to the board. The FC had reached the final stages of transition into Meta-Space.

"Well, Cat-Girl, here's the thing about Vampire; out in space he's Buck Rogers, but put a planet in his way and he turns into George of the Jungle."

She looked back down at the aviator with a frown. "What are you talking about?"

"Dude's a terror in a dogfight, but only if you can get him space-borne. That's why we're here simming launches."

"I'm not buying it. And trying to psyche the opposition is an old tactic, mister. No matter what, that guy's a noob."

"Cha, like I need to psyche you!" Ang laughed. His laugh remained friendly, even if his words sounded like trash talk. "You got only three experienced pilots, plus a handful of beginners. Even if your high scorers are the best in the world, you're still way under-strength. You're up against a full squadron, and it'll be just you three against our best in no time. We don't need no psychological advantage."

Any sympathy from his sob story about the Flying Cadet vanished as she grew angry with his attitude.

"I'll make you eat those words, surfer boy."

He didn't look the least bit intimidated. In fact, he kept his loose grin and hooked a thumb at the screens. "Dude'll do the talkin' for us. He's the junior in the squadron and he's up against your CO in the first Test. Pay close attention, Ma'am."

                                       *      *      *

'Lobo' pulled the control hard aft while working the thrusters. Vertical thrust, pitch up and full throttle combined into twenty gees pressing his butt into the couch and his chin into his helmet collar. Without nerveware, vac-skin implants and the pressure exerted by his flight suit, the maneuver would be suicide. Even with them he almost blacked out. As soon as his lungs could move again, he huffed hard to push blood and oxygen back to his brain.

The FC's Banshee just missed his tail as he dove toward the Lunar surface. Commander Ferrar had been flying inverted the moment before. Now he hung nose-down, facing the Farside of the Moon, in an arcing path that would intersect the surface far too soon.

Vampire, his wing-man, had vanished over the horizon after the 77th's commander suckered him off a minute before. Ferrar and the diminutive Latina FC had the sky all to themselves. The first Test always pitted the commanders and most-junior pilots against each other, normally ending with the juniors wiped out early and the commanders battling each other, but this particular commander vs. junior match-up was just a bit upside down at the moment.

This shouldn't even be a contest! How'd she get behind me, anyway?

He spun his craft 180 degrees to counterthrust against his collision course with the Moon, watching her flipping around and fly backward to get a bead on him. Admit it, Lobo. You worried too much about Vampire and lost track of her. Besides, she got a weird style.

Instinct pushed him to roll the craft erratically while hitting the verticals again, producing the unpredictable 'knuckleball' maneuver Banshee pilots regularly used to save their skins. Even as his craft slid off its former path, the shield energy alarms howled, telling him of a glancing hit on him, the girl's neutron projectors firing in simulation mode.

The computer didn't declare it a kill. At this range, it could have been one, but he'd already been dodging as she shot. He continued his jerky evasions while looking for an opportunity to face his nose back over at the opponent and return fire. He wouldn't get it until he built up enough vee to avoid digging a divot in the Lunar soil below.

It won't matter how well I do in Eliminations if I get my butt shot out of the sky by a fifteen-year-old during Tests! They'll never let me hear the last of it!

The shield alarms wailed before he could think another thought, followed by the tell-tale buzzer of Farside Base's computer declaring him dead. Commander Carter of the 77th had spared him the indignity of losing to the girl. He rocked his craft in a quick back-and-forth roll, signaling defeat as he scanned around for his killer. Carter's Banshee was rising toward him off the deck.

So Vampire shook him, huh? Ferrar grinned to himself. Good job, Poe. But now it's you against both of them. You're going to need a crapload of luck to...

The thought died in his head as the computer plotted a virtual missile streaking across the sky beneath him targeted on Carter, and simulated shots firing on the 77th's junior flying officer. Below him, at point-blank range, flying nose up to aim the guns, his wing-man's Banshee hugged the deck in a tail-down trajectory that barely missed the top of a passing crater. Ferrar's amazement grew into a wild laugh as he heard the computer score two kills for FC Austin Poe.

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter II

An arm snaked out and caught Poe as they passed the table occupied by the girls from the 77th. Tony braked behind him as both of them worked to avoid spilling their trays from the abrupt stop.

"Sit," ordered Rissa Lee from the table. The arm belonged to one of the other girls, but Cat-Girl's voice made it clear who led the ambush. He recalled that she held the position of acting XO, unheard-of for a youth officer, now that the commander was the only adult left in the 77th.

Tony looked over at his big trainee and chuckled. "Dude, betcha could take her."

Poe looked down at him and shook his head, then put his lunch tray down in the spot next to the Senior Aviator.

"We have reservations for both Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. " She pointed to the last free spot at the table... next to the cute younger Flying Cadet. Ana Vega, if he remembered the roster correctly. The other FC, a pretty Vietnamese girl who was Poe's senior, sat on her other side.

"I won't ask which one of us is Dum," Tony commented as he sat, then smiled over at FC Vega, while hooking a thumb at Poe. "Just to be clear, Dude shot you down. I'm the charming one."

Her eyebrows arched as she cast him a giggling 'You gotta be kidding me' look. Rissa, however, used his line as a spring-board.

"His flight is what I wanted to talk about. You don't mind, Aviator?"

"Rank intimidation to fish for intel is a bit out of bounds during Moon Duty, Ma'am."

She gave him a big, friendly Texas-girl smile, and let her home state color her speech as well. "Nobody's intimidating anyone, Kahuna. You and the girls are here to witness that. Right?" She glanced around at her posse for their supporting nods. Tony suppressed another chuckle.

"I don't mind," Poe grudged. "What do you want to know?"

Her face slipped into deadly serious. "I don't like being played, and I don't like it when my trainee is played. I want to know, was my CO in on that little sucker play you pulled yesterday?"

Poe contemplated her for a moment, then turned to his pot-pie and spooned a bite. "No idea what you're talking about."

Anger flashed in her eyes. "You want me to believe a noob shook one of the most experienced pilots in the ESDF? I watched you take off! You darned near put your Banshee into the tower! Do our commanders have some kind of deal going?"

Tony suggested, "Why don't you pull the fight record? You can watch what they did, yourself."

She shook her head. "Until after the Tests are over, participants can only pull comm audio, ground visuals and radar. Whatever happened was on the deck and conveniently under the horizon. All I got was Ginsu squawking about a downed pilot, until the controllers told him they still had Vampire's flight data coming in. What happened?"

Poe declared, "I didn't lose him with skill. It was dumb luck."

"Oh I'm sure. He just happened to lose concentration and nod off."

"Why not?" Tony wondered. "You never grayed out during a dogfight?"

"We're talking about Commander Carter!" she retorted.

Tony shrugged. It could happen to anyone, even her commander.

"I almost intersected the surface trying to shake him," Vampire recounted. "I was kicking up dust before I could pull out. I bet I left exhaust marks out there. The dust fooled him into thinking I'd augured in. After that, I hugged the deck and scooted off to one side on vertical thrusters to stay out of sight until I could get back up to orbital vee. That's when I found both of your pilots lined up for a shot."

She grew angrier. "A six week rookie can not pull off a move like that, Vampire!"

"It was an accident! Dumb luck! And it nearly killed me! Gimme a break!"

Cat-Girl didn't look convinced. "Carter has a history of using tricks for training purposes. It's effective, but it pisses me off. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out he looked at this lopsided match-up, decided we didn't have a chance in a normal contest, and rigged something up with your commander to keep things interesting. If I find out either of you have any part in it, I will find a way to pay you back."

Tony shook his head, knowing why the theory didn't work. "Even if Ferrar cooperated with something like that, he'd never use Vampire."

"Why?" Poe looked ready to be offended again.

Tony grinned. "I ain't dissin' your flyin' skills, Brah. He just knows you wouldn't do it. Admit it, you'd never cooperate with something like that."

                                                 *      *      *

Rissa sat in her Banshee on the pad waiting to launch, her restless mind unable to stay put. Every thought led to the same conclusion. There's something up! I know it!

Her primary evidence that her CO had a plan in the works was that he'd insisted that she keep her eye on the two teenage boys from the 105th and give him daily updates. She was willing to believe the big FC didn't have anything to do with it-- everything about Poe's manner declared he had no time for silly games-- but the other guy had been acting suspicious since the day they arrived.

Base Comm sent the first warning chime, and the final announcements began. "Stay within the designated flight area. Upon launch, the 77th heads directly west and the 105th directly east. Maintain these heading until you receive the start signal from Base. A final reminder, one craft in this competition is a Attacker variant, which today will carry four extra anti-fighter missiles to compensate for its lower gun loading."

The flight controller meant her Banshee, built to carry anti-ship missiles for taking on the big enemies. To make room for them, the designers took out one of the two neutron projectors the Banshee normally carried, leaving her with a weak punch.

A second chime warned of impending launch clearance. She switched her mike to 'vox' as the plasma in her pre-chargers reached flight pressures. "Seven-seven-four, steam up."

Since Commander Carter had flown with her trainee in his Test, she would fly today with his winger. Thuy's cautious voice came over the comm, pronouncing every word with perfection. "Seven-seven-six, steam up."

"Ten-five-seven, steam up, man," came Ang's lazy surfer-boy drawl.

"Ten-five-three, steam up," the motherly 'Cougar', the XO of the 105th, signaled last.

"Lift on scheduled launch order, as you are ready," the flight controller directed, and Rissa throttled up her jets. Farside Base fell away behind her as her Banshee slid into the sky.

Thuy's Banshee slipped in next to Rissa just as they reached orbital velocity. They didn't chat like they would during a Real Life dogfight because their competitors shared the same comm channel for safety reasons. Some pilots trash-talked during a Test, but rarely would teams talk between themselves. It left her with a few quiet moments to continue her thoughts.

She couldn't figure why Ang bothered her, beyond the obvious possibility that he was in on Carter's plan. Clownish lady's men were common among pilots. She'd long since learned to ignore them. If anything, Ang and she were the same down inside. They showed different faces to the world, his surfer-boy guise and her starched-and-pressed Senior Aviator persona, but both acts were just gloves to cover their blood-soaked hands.

Eighty-three 'scores' between us. I've killed everything from Slave fighters to a Class-E ring. I wonder how many different targets his numbers cover?

The start signal erased the question. She shook off her mood, flashed a hand signal to Thuy, and flipped her Banshee around to start her turn.

                                                 *      *      *

"Are you sure you want to cooperate on this?" the 77th's CO asked him. 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 really benefits your squadron."

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, 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 intersect within a minute.

"I've heard that my squadron may not even be around next year," Carter noted. "The 77th is so understrength, Admiralty is considering breaking us up. This could be our last shot at the bucket."

The winner of each Moon Duty competition brought home a 'bucket of Lunar vacuum', scooping it up on on the landing field in an elaborate ceremony just before departure. Traditionally, the junior pilot carried it back andn the squadron hassled him for having 'spilled their hard-won vacuum' when they discovered the bucket 'full of air' back on Earth. 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' invariably meant a teenager.

"Ginsu, my advice is, just lead your pilots. Don't worry about crap you can't do anything about."

"Yeah. Can't aim at an invisible target, right?" Carter grinned, perfect white teeth shining against his dark face. "So, this is the last Test... traditionally, the unit commanders wager on it."

"I looked up your FC Nguyen. She's 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 war games. I guess that leaves your Cat-Girl against my Kahuna."

"Fine. I got Cat-Girl over Kahuna. What's the wager?"

"Loser flies to Winner's town and buys him dinner. Winner's choice of restaurant. I got a nice Sushi place already picked out."

"Hope you don't mind driving into Houston. We don't have any decent steakhouses in Berenice."

Thus far, the combatants had restricted themselves to a series of feints, but now Kahuna and Nguyen-- Ferrar found her call sign of 'Meatball' a strange moniker for such a pretty girl-- were locked together in a vertical rolling scissors. The combination of barrel rolls and continuous belly-jet burns kept them from colliding or breaking off as they climbed skyward in a double helix, trying to find a way to slip behind the other.

The end of the maneuver worked out different from Earthly combat, though. Without the threat of a stall or air resistance to worry about, space fighters could spin themselves in any direction to fire, but if they spun to fire at each other in this situation, they would accelerate into each other. Cutting one's jets cold in the middle of a dogfight would be suicide, so they sought instead to find the right moment to snap around, firing in the middle of the spin and simultaneously accelerating past the opponent after the shot. The craft farther back didn't have as far to spin, so both pilots wanted to achieve that split-second advantage, without losing too much energy.

The right moment came first for Nguyen, when Kahuna let her pull 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 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.

"You mean, two down," Carter answered, as the alarm went off once more. During the fight between Kahuna and Meatball, 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. Because of their low efficiency, the vertical thrusters in the belly of her craft and the attitude thrusters both used up mass far faster than the more powerful main jet, but she had to rely on these to fight in such a confined space.

She had only thirty percent reaction mass remaining. The safety rules required her to bow out 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 set to lock onto whatever they saw. 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 four.

It was a cheap trick and 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, and with only one gun, she needed extra time on target.

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. He'd elected to keep her occupied while he dealt with the approaching threat.

She'd used up her anti-missile mines while fighting 'Cougar', so she would have to play hide-and-seek with the missiles using the Lunar landscape. She found a jagged ridge line and slalomed through it, tracking her opponent through her nerveware. Sure enough, he dove the direction she'd expected, the same direction she'd headed, but how would he deal with the simulated missile now locking onto him?

He took the nearly-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, but once the missiles started having to circle mountains to reach her, they 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 he was playing mind games, feinting to throw off whatever attack she might have 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.

He lined up and she punched her verticals, 'knuckleballing' just as her shield energy warning told her of a glancing hit. On a hunch, 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 nerveware command. Understanding replaced shock as she recognized the twenty percent alert. She'd run past her limit. Swallowing the choice cuss words that sprang to mind, she rocked her wings and headed in.

                                                 *      *      *

"What was your next move?" Tony asked the girl as she came through the lock. She pulled off her mask and scowled at him, striding past without a word.

He caught up to her. "I really want to know, if you don't mind. What would you have done with a couple more seconds?"

"Two missiles up your backside. I was calling up the fire control menu 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 upon uttering those words, and the grinning surfer-boy materialized in his place, sticking out a thumb's up her direction. "Sweet ride, Babe."

He unfolded it for a handshake. 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 direction she was headed. "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, just like the lockers and the flight line units, sat on the surface a short walk from the primary personnel locks. By the time he'd arrived though, the entire squadron had already crowded around the window where the eight entries from the 105th were taped. Vampire glowered at him from one side.

"What? What's up?" Tony probed once he reached him.

"See for yourself," Poe practically spat, then turned away to stare at out the window. The velvet black sky, stars invisible in the daytime due to the brightness of 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 would 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 rankings on our team."

Tony almost never got angry, but if they had cheated 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 Poe ain't? Even my scores..."

Lobo cut him off. "You and Poe are both advancing to the Elimination, Kahuna."

Tony struggled to answer the contradiction, then jabbed his thumb over his shoulder at the window behind him. "Not accordin' to that paper, Sir."

"But according to that paper, you are." Ferrar pointed to the far end of the spectator room, at another window, where the girls of the 77th chattered softly and looked back at him with puzzled stares.

                                                 *      *      *

Rissa stopped as soon as she entered. Her teammates 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. She'd been right, 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. When a team showed up without enough players, officially the game was a forfeit, but we would still want to play, so we gave them a few of our guys and played a friendly. Sit down, Cat-Girl."

She sat, but she still groused, "This isn't a forfeit, and it isn't a friendly. We can still compete. We don't need eight."

The CO could have ignored her, but he explained, "Without eight, our highest seniority pair competes twice in the first round, and if they lose the first match, they forfeit 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 as an Aviator. A high school kid can't shine in a college squadron. If they know what's good for them, they will give us their best."

The girls watched her with amusement. As a pilot she had seniority on all of them but she was still the second youngest in the room and she didn't 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 resumed 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."

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 tick him off as badly 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 deeply, visible even through her chocolate 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 move up, and the Brass felt you should not miss the opportunity to fly with new partners. They ordered me to break the teams up. 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 shiny new, and her uniform didn't have an XO pin.

"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 can simulate most Enemy species and weapon systems. Teams from each squadron go up separately against unannounced scenarios from 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 in the middle of that awful running battle out on the Centauri Current that had killed most of her seniors, only a few months ago. 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.

"The first Test we'll look at is a classic example of resource management deciding the battle," Carter declared, and Rissa's cheeks burned as her dogfight with Ang appeared. "Youngsters complain that losing by the twenty-percent rule isn't really a loss, but 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 get help for the rest, following the battle on the Centauri. She'd been the only one able to do it, but she'd very nearly not made it. She'd sailed almost the entire distance on hyperlight currents, her tanks nearly dry, praying for her batteries to hold out.

A few hundred gallons less reaction mass in her tanks that day, and they all would have died. Was that a ghost that now haunted him, or was his mind on something else entirely?

What is your goal here, Ginsu? she demanded silently.

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter III

Rissa studied her reflection in the vending machine as her juice poured. The blond hair dropping around her shoulders rather than pinned back for flight should have morphed her into the pretty teenager that Nature intended, but her steely gaze ruined it. She lost her schoolgirl facade whenever she stayed in ESDF mode too long. Luckily she had a month of summer left before school started once she got home to recover it.

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, and she needed to insure everyone had their mind on work.

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 a would-be player like that. 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'd done it on purpose, of course, as an attempt to get her goat.

She frowned at him, but rather than saying something about the attitude, 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, they'll gimme a crapful no doubt, but Poe and I are bottom monkeys in the barrel in the Five-and-Dime. Gotta chance to give back what we been gettin', hella sure we'll take take it."

Ana's meek voice queried from behind him, "You two really think we can win?"

He frowned and turned to Ana. Judging from his expression, he too wanted to shake some fight into her. She blushed again and fiddled with a side-bang to cover her nervousness. "I mean... even Commander Carter..."

"We can win," Rissa growled in a stern tone. "We've never been out of the game, even without the reinforcements."

The young FC looked a little intimidated by her tone, but Kahuna laughed. "Sure 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 meant to them, but she bit it back and turned away.

Carter the efficient killing machine and Thuy the cautious-but-effective technician teamed up against one bogie after another while Rissa and Amanda monitored the simulation command boards. Predictable, smooth and lacking any real chance of serving up a surprise, the contest couldn't hold enough of Rissa's attention to keep her eyes from wandering back to the others in the room.

Poe and Marie both worked on their own. Vampire stared, occasionally shifting views or magnifications, his eyes fixed on the screen, while 'Full-Court' worked her terminal with the same intensity she gave a video game, which in Marie's case was considerable.

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 barely resisted the temptation to fling herself into the bunk. Releasing her frustrations in the low Lunar gravity like she might have on Earth 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 Ana chumming it up with the surfer boy 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. In the dim illumination of 'safety lighting level', she could just make out desk, chair, mirror, locker, bunk, and door. Stretching her foot out confirmed once again that she could touch the mirror while keeping her back against the opposite 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 her mood. She sat in the dark, her foot still propped on the desk, sulking about her lack of stature, about the annoying Aviator from the 105th, not to mention her annoying new wingman who barely spoke at all.

A knock on the door interrupted her stew.

"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 Goth-boy is rubbing off on me," she grumbled as she pulled her foot back so Amanda could enter. The older girl took a seat on the desk. Rissa reached her wrist into receiving distance of the nerveware pickup and ordered the ceiling lamp up to 'soft-full' illumination.

In the better light, she could see a lecture coming in Amanda's face. Ana's older sister 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 noting, "It's a good thing I've worked with you for three years, so I've listened to you crushing on four different guys."

"Because?"

"Because if I didn't already know you were straight, I'd get the wrong idea about the way you act around Tony over my little sister." 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!"

"Yeesh, Rissa, listen to yourself lately?"

She scowled and folded her arms, grumping, "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 thing that jerk is interested in is helping 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 stands no chance at all with Ana. He's not even remotely her type."

She considered Rissa for several seconds, then scratched her cheek and added, "Personally, I think you're the one who needs someone 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, 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 demanding, "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 totally turned off by guys who think they're hot stuff."

Amanda looked confused for a moment, then grinned. "Heh. You thought I meant Kahuna. I'm talking about the big guy, dummy."

The laughter that burst out of Rissa felt 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. "Seems I must, based on the evidence."

"That's totally ridiculous," Rissa declared, and giggled again. "Me and Poe. Yeah, right."

                                                 *      *      *

Tony didn't want to think of a fellow pilot as a liability, but he'd begun to suspect the cOs teamed him with Chiquita to help her grow a backbone. The way she flew, the girl stood little chance against the real Enemy. She'd survived three RL patrols so far, but apparently she had seen minimal opposition on those.

The mother hen hovering who chaperoned his every moment with the young FC had prevented him from having any serious discussion time. This morning, he had his chance. Rissa and Poe would fly first of the day. They had breakfasted early so they could suit up while the rest of the squadron went to eat.

He finished mopping up the last of the syrup with the last of his pancakes, shoveled it in and put his fork down.

"It's our turn this afternoon. How you gonna fly?"

She looked up at him, puzzled. While she pondered his question, her older sister looked on with interest.

"Don't understand?" he deduced.

She shrugged. "It's a weird question, sir."

He glanced over at Amanda and flicked his eyebrow up. "She flown with you before?"

"On my wing? Only in sims, but I know what you mean."

Ana glanced back and forth between them, looking perturbed. "I only know one way to fly!"

"Mmmm. Yeah. Thing is, I've watched you in sims and the Test, and seems to me, your way to fly is..."

He stopped, pondering how to say it.

"Is what?"

He shrugged. "Like a mouse."

Her eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

"You don't fly to win, Babe. You fly to not lose. Like you're afraid of gettin' hit."

Her sister nodded silent agreement.

Ana frowned at him. "You're supposed to bring the ship home in one piece, sir!"

"Sure, but you're supposed to accomplish somethin' while you're out. You can't fly scared, Cadet. Don't ever fly scared. You'll get foamed every time."

"I'm not scared!" she flared, showing some spine for once. "I'm just more... careful than you. I mean, like when you were fighting Cat-Girl! What were you going to do if you missed that shot?"

He figured out she meant the nasty turn Cat-Girl gave him when she boxed him in with a spray of missiles.

"Dodge the best I could," he answered, immediate and frank. He'd meditated over the split-second decision for hours since the Test. "No matter what, I would have been too close for anti-missile mines to work."

With a laugh, he saw that she'd brought up the perfect example. "Check it, that's exactly what I'm sayin'. I reacted with my fight, not my fear. Cat-Girl already boxed me in before I knew it. If I dodged, maybe I succeed or maybe not. The shot was close to head-on; she didn't necessarily have me cold but the angle was still enough to keep the odds in her favor. It's possible I lost a shade off my chance to evade by taking a half-second to shoot, but by fightin' back I bought myself an additional possibility. It worked out, you might recall."

She didn't sound convinced. "You couldn't possibly have analyzed the situation that fast!"

"I didn't. It's all instinct, Babe. If I were flyin' scared, I might dodge first and she might have me right then."

                                                 *      *      *

The scenario began the moment Rissa and Poe stepped into the airlock. The lights pulsed and the general quarters buzzer blared just after the inner door closed.

She recognized what was about to happen and grabbed a safety bar. "Take hold!"

Poe grabbed on just as the outer door banged open and the air in the lock rushed outward in an emergency blow. After they recovered their balance, they sprinted out  together through a newly blasted plume of dust and across the landing field to where their Banshees sat.

No crews headed out to prep the other Banshees, no flashing lights in the other locks... it's just the scenario, Rissa. She elected to not point it out to Vampire. She wanted to see him perform in a scramble.

The ground crews kept up their part of the act, jumping off the ships instead of taking the ladders. The gantries backed away while the crew bosses stayed to help the pilots into their cockpits, before taking their own dives.

Even in Lunar gravity, hitting the ground's gonna hurt, she reflected with admiration while watching hers fall more than thirty feet to the surface. You guys are troopers.

As the canopy closed over her head, she hurried through her prelaunch checklist while gathering as much as possible from the information about the simulated enemy on her command board.

Poe's voice came across the squadron frequency, a little derisive. "A battle cruiser getting in this close to the Moon before it's detected? No way!"

So he'd figured it out. No point in keeping quiet. "Concentrate on your startup, Vampire. One bad day for the fleet is all it would take for the front lines to shift back to our doorstep. This isn't unrealistic at all."

Although, it would be all over for the ESDF if that ever happened, she didn't add out loud. It was a doomsday scenario, the nightmare they tried to not think about too much.

"Seven-seven-four, steam up," she announced, wondering how long she'd wait for Vampire to be ready.

To her shock, he spoke immediately. "Seven-Seven-Nine, steam up." He'd been ready and waiting for her to announce first?

"Lift in flight order," the controller ordered, "As you are ready."

She throttled up on the word Ready, using her nerveware link to bring her weapons menus up. The simulated cruiser's plot looked in line to come out of Meta-Space right on top of them, as close in as the Moon's gravity would allow an exit. They would be pouring a ton of energy into the generators at that distance to keep from crashing out! Would anyone really do this?

Most scenarios, she reminded herself, were based on real battles. It had probably been some attack on an outlying base light-years from Earth. She wondered how it had gone for the unfortunates who had fought this scenario in Real Life.

I sure hope they had more than two Banshees on their side!

Just before the Enemy ship reached Emergence, an aft collision warning sounded in her ear. Rissa's heartbeat went off the scale. She laid her ship sideways to get out of the way of whatever it was, and looked over to see the attitude jets on Poe's Banshee blazing white-hot as he blasted upward barely to one side of her old exhaust trail.

She couldn't see any light at all from his main jet as he passed her; it glowed beyond visual range. He's in high-gee mode! she recognized with shock.

"Idiot! You can't..."

Poe's ship 'impacted' the simulated cruiser at the moment it entered Normal Space. A heartbeat later, Base Comm announced, "Simulation terminated. Return to base."

                                                 *      *      *

"Sorry to drag you into this," Carter apologized. "But considering you're his regular CO..."

Ferrar shrugged it off while he watched the inner lock door opening. "So, you're considering a disciplinary?"

Carter cleared his throat as the two pilots emerged, the stern Rissa Lee trailing the dour Poe. "Rissa radioed for action on the matter. I haven't made a decision."

The girl looked uncomfortable. "It isn't like I want... I mean, he needs to learn he can't do that kind of crap in training. It's wrong to screw up a scenario like that!"

Poe glowered at her as the lock door clanged shut behind them, but said nothing. Not quite boiling temperature yet, I see...

"Ginsu," Ferrar hazarded, "may I ask a few questions?"

"He's your pilot."

He scratched the corner of his lip, considering how to go about it. "Hmmm. Well, Vampire, what did you think you were doing?"

The young flier responded in a terse, military manner, "Reading and reacting, sir."

"Cat-Girl thinks you read 'stupid scenario' and you reacted with 'bug this one up and get it over with."

Poe just stared back at him, angry at the world. Ferrar responded with a thin smile. He already knew the young pilot would never have done such a thing, but he hadn't yet figured out what lurked inside that hard-to-read mind. "You don't agree?"

"With all due respect, sir, I didn't know that it was a scenario."

He had not expected that angle. "Your radio chatter made it pretty clear you did."

The boy stared down at the floor. "Well, I did... but then Rissa talked about how the front line could shift. I realized that if it had, we wouldn't be able to tell the difference. It was too early for visual confirmation and my boards would look the same either way. If it were real, the base underneath me would be toast and everyone would die, unless I found a solution fast."

A stone formed in Ferrar's stomach. He'd known that Poe wouldn't pull a suicide tactic in simulation without a reasonable cause-- it was a guaranteed disciplinary and a red flag to the head doctors-- but the idea that he'd done it because he thought it could be a real Enemy attack put a very different angle on the discussion. The silence prolonged until Rissa yelled, "Idiot! No way you could make that work in RL! The ship's guns would take you out before you hit!"

"If they got the chance. I had to time it so I would be there just as it emerged. We had no other options. We had no real missiles loaded and our projectors were rigged for simulated fire."

Another silence fell, which Poe eventually broke himself by adding in a sullen mutter, "Besides, it really was a stupid scenario. That made it all the more likely it was real."

Ferrar wondered, "How was it stupid, Vampire?"

The fire came back into his eyes as he looked back up. "Come on, sir! Two Banshees without anti-shipping weapons against a battle cruiser? Who came up with that?"

Carter looked ready to lose patience. "Had you let the scenario develop, two landing ships would have come in behind the cruiser. It was an invasion scenario. The Gr'ts'ck were coordinating a special training simulation with the local Surface Corps officers. You were to give them air support while avoiding the cruiser, until the base could recover from the initial barrage and launch a counterstrike."

Poe blinked in confusion. Rissa responded instead, puzzled as well. "We had no landing ships on the screen."

Ferrar took up the explanation. "It was an actual invasion attempt on one of our interstellar bases three months ago. We still don't know how the Enemy kept their landing craft hidden. Our side beat it back, but it started out just like you saw. The ready alert flight flew alone for the first hour, as sole air support to launch before a well timed barrage out of Meta-Space. Surface Corps ground batteries and the two ships in the air had to carry the fight until the field could recover."

He flashed a grudging smile. "The computers ended the re-enactment before the LCs showed up, because the aliens didn't program for the action you took. The machines couldn't calculate how much damage you might have done, so they couldn't continue."

As Poe stewed, Carter shook his head. "I'm sorry, Vampire, but I'm recommending you for counseling. We can't have guys thinking Kamikaze. Such tactics are wasteful, defeatist, and against Force policy. I can't condone..."

"That's fine, sir!" Poe interrupted, once again ready to blow. "I didn't expect anyone's approval!"

"Cadet!" Rissa barked, cutting him off. Poe glowered back at her in silence. The Senior Aviator looked very upset, either angry or on the verge of tears.

Her emotional energy wouldn't let her stay silent. "You would have killed yourself! How could you be so stupid?"

He looked away. "I already gave my reasons."

She grabbed his arm and braced her feet, yanking him around to face her. The storm clouds in his eyes did nothing to slow her down. "You told us why you picked that particular moment, but I want to know why you want to die at all!"

He shook his head and turned away, but she wouldn't let him go. He sighed and grumbled, "Don't be stupid. It's not like that."

"Spiky black hair, black eyeliner, too many piercings, sour attitude... none of this really screams 'In love with life'!"

He pulled himself free, snarling, "I'm not! Is that better? My life sucks! You want me to whine about it? I've got plenty!"

She stayed in his face, her fists now propped on her hips. "So you decided to take the easy way out?"

"No way! All the crap I go through, all the pills and therapy... it's all because of the damn nerveware! All the pain is for nothing if I don't keep flying!"

She visibly stumbled into confusion. Ferrar could imagine the thoughts running through her head. Pain? Therapy? He's still in post-nerveware treatment? Even though Ferrar already knew about it, Poe's outburst had also shocked him, because the FC normally kept his problems bottled up with grim resolve.

Carter looked just as flummoxed. He hadn't read the medical portion of Poe's personnel folder, it seemed. He needed a lot more information before he could deal with this, and he wouldn't get it from the kid. Ferrar decided it was once more time to take over.

"Ginsu, please don't take this the wrong way, but if you turn him in, I'll file a counter-recommendation."

The man turned toward him, surprised. "What? Surely you don't approve of what he did!"

"His method left a lot to be desired, but I approve of his quick thinking. The rest we should discuss elsewhere."

"Sir," Poe interjected, "I don't want..."

He cut the boy off with a stern tone. "Discussions between COs are not your concern, Cadet."

                                                 *      *      *

In Tony's previous Moon Duties, he'd met Sesseem RPV operators, and he'd worked with Zindavoor throughout his career, but these were his first live Gr'ts'ck. He'd been sneaking glances at them all through the meet-and-greet session, while the Human senior officers cranked through all the same speeches he'd already heard in two previous Moon Duties. The Air Boss, the Base Commandant, and the unit commanders all had to have their say, of course. Now, it was the aliens' turn to speak and he could go ahead and get a good look.

To him, the creatures on the other side of the mess hall did not look like the nightmares that most people described them, but they were still ugly. They balanced on the narrow joints of their folded up wings, which they walked upon like stilts, leaving their tails hanging several feet above the floor. Their skinny, almost human arms either held various unidentifiable objects or stayed folded behind them. Luna Moth long-range fighters had windows, and the ESDF made those out of Gr'ts'ck scout ships, so the aliens must have sight, but he had no guess what they used for sight. The featureless grasshopper faces didn't match the furry bodies, nor the bare arms nor the downy wings, but all features had one thing to tie them together. Every part looked dusty, dried-up and dead.

It isn't really dust, he reminded himself, It's desert camouflage for their native environment. They aren't 'dried up', they're just built very light and spindly for flight. And they aren't dead because one of them is talking to the interpreter right now.

Humans could learn to follow the Gr'ts'ck speech, but other than a few words such as the name of their race, no human stood a chance of pronouncing it. The road went both ways, however, so the alien addressed the squat shape next to it, a Kedevzha translator. That species rarely took part in fighting or interstellar commerce, but they had great skill in communication, both with audio-talkers like humans and Gr'ts'ck, and with users of many other forms of communication.

The Kedevzha also gave him a new definition for weird, but at least it didn't include ugly in its wardrobe. It was aesthetically neutral, like nothing from Earth at all: a tripod of fat legs like elephant trunks supporting a medicine ball body, a trio of tentacle 'arms', and no identifiable head-- only a hump at the top of its body rising up above its 'shoulders'.

Tony glanced around at his peers. All the pilots were present, but the four pairs going into the Semifinals stood in the front, and he had to smile at the strange group. No surprise on the 105th side with Ferrar and Bullpup and their wingers. Frankly, no surprise to him on the 77th side that Rissa and Poe made it. He would bet he was the only one who thought he and Ana would make it, though. Of course, following Cat-Girl and Vampire's bizarre victory, he'd had no choice but to go out and kick butt. No way could he let the hypercompetitive SA advance without him.

The speech ended and the Kedevzha's body shifted. A deep bass voice rolled forth from it, out of an unidentifiable location. "Honored human pilots, contest is not to death, but humans and Gr'ts'ck find death together many times in battle against Enemy. Honor and welcome to all brave ones here. Honored pilots, we pledge worthy challenge, that we both excel later in battle against Enemy side by side."

The creature shifted back, spoke a few clicking, grinding syllables to the Gr'ts'ck, listened to a short response, then added, "Unit leader wishes to see warrior who defeated invasion scenario. Zindavoor give name 'Vampire'. It is right?"

They had consulted the planetless alien refugees who served in the ESDF in return for a home for their families on Earth. Several served as soldiers and mechanics in Farside. The last bit, Tony realized, must have been the translator's own words, because he couldn't imagine anything the Gr'ts'ck had said to be a rendering of 'Vampire'.

"Well, Poe?" Carter growled in a low voice, glancing sidelong at the big FC. "Our allies want to say 'Howdy'."

Tony still couldn't believe they hadn't grounded Poe after he hosed a war game for the ground-pounders. The kid had pushed the envelope of bad pilot behavior harder than even the Kahuna himself ever dared... yet he'd come out of it with hardly a wrist slapped.

Nothing stuck in a commander's craw quite like stupidity validated. Commander Carter wore a lemon-sucking expression when he announced at dinner that the simulation jocks had analyzed Vampire's solution and concluded that the emergence collision did indeed destroy the battle cruiser and render the two LCs defenseless against the surviving Banshee and therefore constituted a successful defense of Farside Base.

Vampire was unlikely to let it go to his head. Tony doubted that Carter knew that, though, so Poe remained in the doghouse with the man.

After an all-but-silent sigh, the big goth stepped forward and came to attention. "Flying Cadet Poe, sir. My call sign is Vampire."

The Gr'ts'ck strode forward, its wings waving like lazy pendulums as they carried it across the floor. It stopped near Poe and rotated to face him, seeming to stare, although it was hard to tell if it was really doing so.

It began speaking again. With the alien now closer, Tony could see the speech process in detail. Mandibles worked to supply the clicks and grinds while pitched sounds came from papery sacks hanging from its neck. When he finished, the Kedevzha again translated.

"Honored pilot, rare is such meeting. To worthy warrior, we pledge satisfactory opposition."

For a moment, Poe stood frozen, still caught in a salute to an entity who would never return it, and stumped as to how he should respond. Tony cleared his throat with meaning, jarring Vampire's voice into action. "Um... Thank you, sir. I'll do my best to give you a good fight."

The being turned in place, then worked back to his side, adding one more comment as it walked away. Poe dropped the salute as the Kedevzha supplied, "Humble warriors become formidable foes."

Tony glanced around to the other pilots. Their eyes all reflected the same thought; Did they just throw him some sort of challenge?

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter IV

Kahuna tracked Chiquita's course on the screen with half his attention as he veered away from the simulated debris cloud. He tried not to be overprotective of her like the girls in the 77th, but she had even less business flying in the Semifinals than Vampire. He almost couldn't help it. Worse, she'd been separated from him ever since simulated Slave fighters split them up in the first seconds after contact.

Poor kid must be scared out of her skull right now.

Their opponents had already flown, and neither the college student called 'Rodeo' nor his pretty winger had lasted the time limit against the Gr'ts'ck. Their score included several kills, but because they earned no survival bonus, Chiquita had a real chance to go to the Finals instead of them. If Eliminations meant head-to-head combat against those two instead of alternately facing off against the same alien simulation team, she would have been toast...

His full attention snapped to the present as the tracks on his screen added up. Two plots, the two remaining groups of Slaves, intersected on Ana from different directions. She'd wandered right between them at some point. Did she recognize it yet? Based upon the way she kept flying the same direction, no. His mental math skills kicked into high gear. He had seven seconds to take on one group or the other.

"Bandits on your eight low!" He skewed sideways for the vector that would carry him into the other attackers. The burn and the message took two seconds. Five left.

She flipped around, knuckleballing backwards in a high-gee burn. He opened fire on his target; she dropped Moon-ward. At four seconds, he altered course. Her maneuver wouldn't shake the two craft he'd chosen to leave alone. He'd have to risk leaving his original three to her.

Three seconds. He had no idea what these guys were supposed to be. The computer analysis showed an identifying number rather than a species, indicating something so obscure, no Human word had been assigned to it yet. Before the two he was painting realized their peril and switched their attentions to him, his projectors overcame one shield, shredding that craft in a hellish neutron hail.

At two seconds, he trained on the other while it was still trying to turn onto him. By one second, he'd punched it four times, then jinked out of its return fire and flipped for braking burn as they passed each other.

Ana ought to have been coming up from below to take on the trio he'd abandoned by this time. Rad warnings he now read as he punched again should be meaningless, because the aliens would break away from him to focus on their new attacker...

He splashed the second simulated Slave, tried to jink out of the incoming fire from the other group, wondering where the heck his winger had disappeared to, then cursed as he heard the kill buzzer. His kill buzzer...

                                                 *      *      *

"What did that poor juice cup ever do to you?"

Rissa glanced up at Amanda, taking a seat next to her, then back down at the shredded container in her hands.

"I'm beginning to hate Kahuna," she declared, and the other Senior Aviator chuckled.

"I don't think you were ever all that fond of him." She methodically cut her spaghetti into bite sized sections, then scooped one up.

Rissa's first round flight had shaken her, but she'd thought she was over it until she watched her regular student fumble into victory. Now she'd fallen into a new funk. It wasn't Ana's latest flight she kept returning to, though. It was her own first round flight.

What had set her off? She should be thrilled for Ana. She should be thrilled as well to still be in it herself. She should also be determined to make sure Tony didn't outshine her as he now threatened to do if she didn't win her next match and keep up with him.

Instead, she just wanted out. The sooner the better.

It was insanity that a noob like Ana had made it to the Finals. Even so... maybe more insane was the way Tony's lecture had galled Rissa. He'd put himself into danger protecting the girl, but it would have been a minor risk if not for his timid winger. Instead, he'd paid for helping her. After they landed, he'd stood over her, making her analyze the flight record repeatedly, rehashing and reviewing so many times she would relive it in her dreams.

Rissa's mentor would have done the same for her, back in her own FC days. She would have handled it the same way with Ana. One made certain the error never repeated itself out where the bullets were real. Somehow though, hearing the same lecture in Kahuna's voice made it irritating.

In her defense, Ana and Tony would go to the final round partially because the girl stayed untouched for the rest of their flight. Tony's kills alone wouldn't have done it. But Rissa knew that wasn't the point.

"The reason Elimination sucks," Amanda observed, "is that you don't face your real opponent. You can only control half of the battle."

"And your point is?"

"That's the weirdness that is Moon Duty. It isn't designed to see who's best at killing other ESDF pilots, because they don't care about that. They want us to become more survivable against a wide variety of aliens. However she did it, Ana survived. Whatever you're hacked off about, and I don't really have a clue what that is, you need to accept that my little sister is going to the Finals, so you can focus on your own flight tomorrow."

Rissa closed her eyes and willed herself to stay calm. "It's got nothing to do with your sister."

"Really? You've been pissed off ever since her flight."

"Dumb luck saved her once again," Rissa concluded. She dug her fork into her own spaghetti, long and unruly rather than neat like Amanda's. "That, and insane evasion skills. I'm used to it."

"Then what has my lovely Rissa so vexed? Spit it out before it kills you, girl."

She looked across the cafeteria to where Poe and Ang were dining. Seeing Poe again, she finally understood what made her angry. "Kahuna gets to fly with a normal, sane winger. What do I get to fly with?"

"Is this a riddle? I give up. Tell me."

She glared, put down the fork, grabbed her tray and stood up, nearly losing the remains of her dinner in the low gravity.

"No. I think I'll tell Carter, instead."

                                                 *      *      *

Her CO continued his paperwork after Rissa entered his quarters. The room was no bigger than her own, which didn't seem right to her, even though space was at a premium within Farside. If the Chief Admiral of the Joint Command herself visited, they could offer nothing better.

She perched on the end of his bed and watched him finish up a flight report. They came to him already filled out, but he still had to initial several boxes on each and every page. From the thickness of the stack, Rissa  guessed he'd let them pile up since the unit first arrived. It seemed odd how a service as computerized as the ESDF could still force its officers to initial little boxes on paper reports, and she wondered if the alien allies who had fought the war for tens of thousands of years before Earth joined it still did their alien equivalent of the same chore. Probably. The Military would always be the Military, after all.

He finally placed his pen on the desk and turned toward her.

"What can I do for you, Rissa?"

Belatedly, she recognized in his attitude that she'd brought him a conversation he did not want to have. Amanda must have warned him on the intercom that she was coming. He'd probably grabbed the stack and started working on it just to delay her and give her more time to think things over. She took a breath to summon her courage. "Sir, if it is at all possible to substitute a pilot at this stage..."

He took an abrupt tone. "It isn't. The rules only allow substitutions in the event of a casualty."

Her shock at his blunt interruption must have shown. He smiled an apology. "Since that's the case, I'd rather be able to say you never asked me to pull him out."

She bridled. "I wasn't going to, sir! I want you to pull me out!"

Responding to his cocked eyebrow, she forged ahead. "The rules prevent teams from stacking their aces in the late rounds. I get that, but we wouldn't be doing that if I dropped out."

"Rissa, why on Earth..."

"I can't do it anymore!!" she blurted, then felt her cheeks color as she realized she'd interrupted her CO. "Sorry, sir. I mean... I get too much into it. Somewhere in the back of mind, I believe in it. So when Vampire just threw himself away like that... it was like..." To her horror, she noticed her tears welling, and looked away.

"You looked pretty upset at dinner after your first round. But since then, you've seemed okay. Why now?"

"I don't know. It just kind of hit me all over again while I watched Ana flying." She studied her hands. "I should be happy we're still in the competition, right?"

"In theory," Carter agreed. "So, why aren't you?"

"Do you have any idea what it's like to fly with a guy like that?"

"I've flown with many pilots, Cat-girl."

Not like this one! she wanted to snap, but held it in. "Every day since our flight, I've run sims with him. I try to get him to wig out again, but he's always fine. He's a great pilot in Sim; he's cool, sharp, everything you could ask. I didn't believe it when Tony told me, but the guy flies like he has years under his belt."

"But when you flew live with him, he did something suicidal."

"Not just then! I pulled his combat tapes, sir! Have you seen what he's like out there?"

Carter shook his head and waited for her to go on.

"It's the same damn thing! He's like, 'Shoot me!' every time an enemy shows up!"

Carter flinched slightly when she threw her arms out as a visual. She'd forgotten the close quarters for a moment. Embarrassed again, she pulled them back in. Get a grip, Rissa!

He studied something on the wall behind her, a habit he had while thinking. Finally, he summarized, "Poe brought home one lightly damaged fighter on his first combat mission. He's been untouched in RL combat ever since."

She stared as she searched for a response.

"Sir, it isn't the results that bother me..."

"While I'm inclined to agree with you, the results have to be taken into consideration," he stated quietly, with that firm edge in his voice that Carter did so well. "So... your solution is to let someone else fly with him? Who would you suggest?"

"Well, I guess... you, sir."

"Ferrar took me out in the first round. A little unfair to let me fly again, isn't it?"

"But we only have eight pilots! Of course it would be someone who lost in the first round!"

"It would be unfair no matter how you cut it."

"I don't mind!"

"I meant to Amanda, Thuy, and Marie." He'd named the other three in the 77th who'd lost in the first round. "Not to mention four out of eight pilots from the 105th. It's a moot point, anyhow. You're it. Tomorrow, you fly."

                                                 *      *      *

She bit back swear words, then triggered her mike. "Vampire, if one more launch sucks that totally, I'm signing you up for twenty more sims!"

Once he'd wrestled his abused Banshee back into the slot, his grumbling retort came through her headset. "That's nicer than Kahuna, I guess."

The comparison annoyed her. "Forty sims, then."

"Hey!"

She did her best to concentrate on the sky ahead of her as her craft climbed. Tony had Vampire right on another subject; he turned into a klutz whenever a rock got in his way. Something in his internal wiring just didn't deal well with gravity. Nobody who executed his take-offs that poorly had any business flying in Elimination.

Her headset crackled to life again. A woman with a cold British soprano was Base Comm today; her calm voice mismatched to her words. "High alert. Enemy signals intercepted at close range."

Translation: We can hear them, but our radar can't see them! Rissa scanned her screens for traces, also saw nothing.

They didn't count points off for bad take-offs, so today Cat-Girl and Vampire sallied forth into the semifinal round. Going into the first round of Eliminations, she'd had the excuse that he'd made it on dumb luck, and cursed her own dumb luck for being stuck with an anchor who would keep her out of the Finals. She wasn't sure what kind of luck to call it now.

The first bogie appeared on her HUD and her lip curled.

"Tally! Ten o'clock high! Show time!" She rotated her craft for the turn. Vampire stayed glued to her wing like a shadow. He must have seen them at the same moment.

"Two hundred clicks," he called the distance, letting her know that he could see the bogie as well, and would watch it while Rissa ran the analysis. By standard procedure, the leader determined which race and equipment they would be up against, while the winger performed the easier task of keeping his eye on the target. Closing nose-to-nose with the Enemy could be a poor strategy with some species, so she had to work fast. A short while later he updated, "One-Ninety."

"Blue Horde. Five light scouts," she read from the screen, her skin crawling. The approaching craft might be mere RPVs play-acting, but pilots feared the Blue Horde, products of Enemy genetic engineering, more than any other Slave race. Just the reminder of her real battles against them gave her jitters.

"And a faint double echo. Could be a Wraith. One-Eighty."

She confirmed the signal ghost she'd missed the first time. The big lunk had eagle's eyes to notice it at such a distance. "We can't meet head-on. With a Wraith in tow, they could be carrying a capture field."

A capture field had nearly finished off the 77th, a few months before. She knew it couldn't be a coincidence. The Gr'ts'ck were firing a psychological broadside at her, including a key piece of her recent waking nightmare.

"I don't like being played," she muttered to herself, fighting back the terrifying memories and keeping her head in the present.

"One-Seventy. You think the Gr'ts'ck can simulate the field?"

The Gr'ts'ck could simulate practical aspects of flying with their RPVs, such as how various alien biologies would effect piloting and maneuvering, because the technicians operated them remotely, using mental powers far more common among Gr'ts'ck than Humans. They could simulate weapons by borrowing the systems that Human simulation techs used, but she did not know how they would model the dreaded field using those. Unlike most Enemy weapon systems, the Allies didn't understand how capture fields worked, so they wouldn't have the actual technology at their disposal.

"It's more prudent to assume they can," she ruled. "They had some reason to include a Wraith. At One-Fifty, go outside and wide, high-gee. I'm going to play me some chicken."

"We're splitting up?"

"Standard procedure for capture fields, Vampire." She added a little swagger to her usually mild drawl, forcing calm to hide her own jumpy nerves. "Imagine a big net dragging behind the Wraith, and then stay out of its way. Avoid meeting head-on or you'll run right into it on the fly-by"

With the word fly-by, she triggered her compensation matrix. Trillions of subatomic-thickness beams shot through her and the surrounding air, enmeshing the cockpit and everything within it. Her muscles and organs became solid and unmoving, her eyes and ears senseless. It would have killed her, but the matrix also supplied every cell with oxygen, keeping her mind aware and her tissues alive. The artificial sights and sounds feeding in from the Banshee's sensory suite became her only world, and the direct fly-by-thought control of her ship her only motion. She switched her jets to high-gee mode and the Banshee blazed through the Lunar sky riding forces that would have crushed an uncompensated Human.

Two Blue craft separated from their partners and angled toward her as she turned 'inside'... closer to the Lunar surface. She could pilot while frozen in her matrix, flying harder and faster than most Allies or Slaves, but nerveware was less nimble than plain old hands, eyes and ears. In a high-speed dogfight, the Blues could outmaneuver her thanks to their artificially enhanced constitutions, able to stand up to such drastic gees without technological aids. For biology to favor her, she needed to get them into a slower, tighter match, where her quicker human reflexes would come into play. Her two new playmates wanted to sucker her into the higher speed contest.

Still compensated, she flipped her ship over, blasting backward and downward, slowing her speed and angling herself inward toward the remaining three Horde. She had put herself between them, and no doubt, they thought she'd gone insane. With luck, they wouldn't know she flew an attacker version. As her missiles armed, Poe's Banshee began its own high speed sprint to the other side of the enemy. She cut high-gee mode, dropped compensation and waited agonizing moments for her brain to regain control of its once-more living body.

"You're on the Wraith!" she ordered in synthetic voice, praying her words didn't come out as an unintelligible squawk. Her voice and lungs not yet recovered, she could only talk through computer synthesis or text, and text took far too long during a dogfight. She fired off a volley of four missiles as the horde craft took their first shots at her.

"******" came a blast of synthetic nonsense from Poe. She turned, trying to line up on one of the scouts. Missiles began to detonate silently around her.

"Say again!" she barked, finally able to talk.

"**Wr**th**!"

The first shots kicked her opponents around, but they all survived. She ordered the next volley to arm, jinking hard and aligning her craft to be at the right place once they came online. Then time abruptly slowed down, and for a puzzling second the screen seemed to blank, as did the imagery coming through her nerveware. Her brain lagged, unable to quite grasp the change in the flow of time. She found, even though all her opponents had disappeared from her screens, she could see one of the Gr'ts'ck remote piloted vehicles out her canopy, flying between her and the Lunar surface. She pondered the contradiction with abstract concern, unable to put her finger on why it bothered her.

Odd that it was coming closer, she mused. One rarely got the opportunity to see the opponent with the naked eye. Usually dogfights happened at too great a distance to see the opponent without magnification or sensors. Large ships, certainly, but not small craft no bigger than her Banshee. In visual contact, it didn't really look like a Blue, of course. The Gr'ts'ck RPV was a smaller cousin to the same hulls as Luna Moths, a sort of triangular pancake shape...

In the next heartbeat, three events jarred her mind back into high alert, blasting away the fog of the last few seconds like a gale-force wind. First, Poe's Banshee came sliding through her field of vision, between her and the RPV. Second, her nerveware data feed and her instrument board both flashed back to life... no, rather than coming on, it seemed they'd been on all along and she'd failed to take notice... and third, the score alarm buzzed, declaring a fatal blow on Poe. She now faced the Enemy alone...

As conscious thought took firmer hold and she regained command of her ship, she realized she'd been in a daze. The Gr'ts'ck Sensitives! They found some way to simulate a Wraith mind attack!

In a flash, she took in the screens and her nerveware data and spotted the wreckage of two eliminated foes-- one of them the RPV that had entranced her. The remainder of the Blues clearly thought she was either still dazed, or out of missiles, as they were still approaching, now near enough that she could tell they had no capture field after all. By her count, they should also be out of missiles. They were getting into range for their secondary weapons.

Just as the enemy guns began pulsing, she killed her jets cold, spun her Banshee, fired the weapons that had stood ready while her mind was blank. At this distance, the aliens stood no chance of dodging. Her shield alarms screamed as generators neared failure point under the hail of incoming fire, but before they reached critical, the four Blues took direct hits and splashed over her screens as spreading debris plumes.

Dead or not, many chunks of alien craft would still be incoming. In RL, the Gr'ts'ck RPVs were sneaking away, but the computer-generated wreckage on an interception course with her counted in the score if it struck, and her shields still carried an overload of absorbed energy. She still had to 'survive'. Goosing and prodding her balky main jets back to life, she spun and fired a retro burn, dropping toward the surface below. The sensor traces of simulated ex-aliens passed overhead as she fell.

"Simulation terminated," Base Comm declared once she was out of danger. "Return to base."

She willed the shakes from her voice. "Seven-Seven-Four, Aye."

Once on a safe path homeward, she allowed herself to analyze the events. I killed four, Vampire killed two. My four were all Horde and we had five to begin with. That means one of his kills was the Wraith.

She studied the battle on sensor replay while listening to instructions for her course homeward, jotting down the turns and vectors in her nerveware 'notepad' as she studied. The puzzle pieces fell together about the same time she nodded to the announcement that her survival bonus plus their five kills added up to a score that beat her opponent from the 105th, a fact that she'd already calculated on her own.

Poe had chucked his safety right out the window to kill the RPV paralleling her. She recovered right after he shot it, so that was their Wraith. A missile on Poe's tail got him immediately after, because he'd been too busy protecting her to evade it. He must have known it had locked on, but he stuck to his plan and stayed on the Wraith while the weapon flew up his tailpipe.

Beyond that, one glaring fact stood out. Vampire, a rookie, had tallied the Wraith before she did.

One almighty powerful Gr'ts'ck Sensitive must have been simulating the Wraith, to cut through the Banshee's shields and take her out before she recognized the attack and defended. Very few real Wraiths could have managed it so easily. The Gr'ts'ck couldn't have been working from the Base below; it must have flown as a passenger in the 'Wraith' RPV. Yet, even though he'd flown into closer range of it than she did, such a monstrous Sensitive couldn't defend itself against Vampire...

Did that make Poe one of those rarest of beings, a Human Sensitive?  No mention of such appeared anywhere in his personnel folder. Very few with mental powers of any useful strength had ever turned up, but could there be any other explanation?

Then her puzzlement faded and galling anger took hold, as she realized he'd also thrown his life away once again. Why? One of us was going to 'die' either way! Vampire! You idiot!

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter V

The Senior Aviator's rant echoed through the steel doors as soon as the pressure began rising in the lock. "We aren't playing games out here! Don't you EVER pull a stunt like that while you're on my wing! Ship! Training! Nerveware! They cost money! You carry a fortune out every time you fly, and you are to bring every dime of it home, hear me? Are you listening to me?"

"Rapt with attention, Ma'am! Hanging on every word, Miss Senior Aviator!"

Ferrar considered leaving before Vampire saw him, since it looked like he wouldn't be needed. Carter, Vega and Ang had all shown up as well, and they hadn't come to join Rissa in feeding Poe his own head.

The door swung open as she thundered, "Don't you get sarcastic on me, Mr FC! I haven't thrown a student in the brig yet, but you can by God be the first!"

Of course, Ferrar realized that the kid's seemingly supernatural victory would have spooked the younger commander as much as everyone else. No one really know what Poe had done out there, but his personnel folder didn't say anything about Sensitivity and Ferrar had never observed any previous hints of it in him. Even so, an inexperienced CO might not be thinking straight at the moment.

Because such powers factored so heavily between alien combatants, it might have seemed vital for humans to acquire them, but efforts to develop Sensitivity within the Corps had a long and sketchy history. Most pilots had come to hold the same opinion on the subject. Even if you got it, you can't depend on it. We're better off leaving the psychic stuff to the Allies. Our strength is weapons and brains, not magic tricks.

The door clanged at the end of its swing and Rissa glared out at the welcoming committee. She stepped forward out of the lock, peeling her flying gloves off, with the big goth trailing behind her at a discreet distance. Ferrar marveled at how scary the tiny girl could look. She's going to make a hell of a squadron commander some day. Or one hell of an admiral.

"Miss Senior Aviator Lee!" Carter barked before she spoke.

She stiffened, then saluted. "Aye, sir!"

He had Vampire caught off guard for a moment, but the FC then came to attention as well. Pilots rarely used such formality among themselves, but the man's tone had declared, This is an official occasion.

Carter didn't return their salutes just yet. He crossed his arms and inspected the Senior Aviator for a moment instead.

"I congratulate you on reaching the Final. I believe this is your second time to make it this far. Too bad for me I couldn't be on your wing once again."

She grew a dour expression. "Your absence is my disadvantage, sir."

"The evidence suggests otherwise," he noted, then turned to Vampire. "Mr Flying Cadet Poe, you deserve considerable praise as well. You've done your teachers proud."

Poe's eyes flicked toward Rissa, possibly anticipating a blow-up, then he bobbed his head. "Thank you, sir."

The young commander gave them his return salute, adding a quick "At ease."

Ferrar smiled within at the way his colleague had diffused Rissa's tirade. Inexperienced he might be, but incapable he was not. The girl's posture showed she wasn't finished, but she no longer had the same momentum.

She surveyed the crowd, then turned back to her CO. "Sir, I request a meeting with you and my trainee in private."

Amanda intervened. "Commander, please allow Kahuna and me to handle this for you. Go enjoy a coffee with Commander Ferrar."

"Why?" Rissa bridled, glaring at the other SA, the smoldering embers in her eyes beginning to reignite.

"Because if you're gonna take a swing at someone," the tall Hispanic answered, "it better be neither your CO nor your winger. In fact, I think for your sake it's vital we keep this amongst us kids."

The girl looked ready to take that swing right then, but instead she froze, her eyes locking on to something in the hall behind them.

"Honored pilots," the basso thrum of the Kedevzha seemed to penetrate Ferrar's skull from a few yards behind him. Surprised, he turned to see two Gr'ts'ck and the translator standing statue-still where Rissa stared. The bug faces of the Gr'ts'ck swiveled left and right, in search of someone willing to reply. He and Carter stepped back opposite directions, opening up the circle to include the newcomers.

He decided to break the silence. "Greetings, Honored Allies. What brings you to our humble presence?"

The Gr'ts'ck rotated toward him, its reply a series of scratches, clicks and grinds. The Kedevzha followed it in English. "To you... commanders, is the word?... we offer great esteem for your teaching of these fine warriors, your subordinates. Our measure of their abilities continues to prove inadequate, no matter how much we increase it. We come to give particular attention to one of these, the warrior Flying Cadet Poe and called Vampire."

"We're a team!" Rissa snapped, making no attempt at the profuse politeness in which Allies usually dressed interspecies dialog. She strode forward to stand between Ferrar and Carter with arms akimbo. "He's my winger. You have some business with him, you talk me!"

Carter looked ready to say something to her, but the Gr'ts'ck spoke before he could. The Kedevzha's translation sounded amused. "Senior Aviator Rissa Lee is known well to us already. A great warrior and has earned many honors. One of only fifteen Human pilots currently allowed to carry the nuclear weapons in a single-seat fighter. Award of the Solar Medal, the Flying Star, and two General Commendations. The Allies called Sesseem honored her with a Hero's Memorial. More than one species will remember her a very long time. She little requires recognition from these unworthy ones who stand here."

Rissa's irritation melted into confusion as the alien listed off her awards. As the Gr'ts'ck resumed its speech, Ferrar struggled to hide his own surprise. This kid has a Solar Medal? The highest honor in the ESDF? And what did she do to get recognition from the Sesseem?

The Kedevzha translation returned. "The Senior Aviator Amanda Vega, the Commander Gordon Ferrar and the Lieutenant Commander Devonne Carter are most worthy and known to us as well. The Aviator Tony Ang we know as another youth of impressive combat record. Great opponents, but all known to us, and the challenge loses its edge for this. Your winger was unknown, and it seems the more we improvise, the more unknown he is. We continue to challenge, and he continues to defeat us. Our admiration grows with each flight."

Rissa propped fists on her hips. "You want a challenge? I'll challenge you! I'll make you regret it if you overlook me tomorrow!"

The silence that fell stretched out as Ferrar stared at the petite blond with amazement. She looked ready to wrestle the two-and-a-half-meter-tall alien on the spot.

"Rissa, be polite," Amanda muttered as she moved up behind the girl. "They are our allies..."

The Gr'ts'ck clicked and moaned once more, and the translator relayed, "It is accepted with anticipation of a great contest. You have been and continue to be our most capable opponent in this contest. Also, we will challenge the warrior Vampire. Rissa Lee is a great slayer of the Enemy, and her defeat would be a great victory for our team. Vampire ..." The Kedevzha stopped, then turned and clicked a quick comment to the Gr'ts'ck.

It returned to English. "Apologies. A word which cannot be translated and must be explained. This unworthy speaks for itself to teach. The term our ally used conveys that-which-opposes-the-wind, but carries little meaning to you."

It seemed to mull for a moment. "It means many things which are not warrior. In terms familiar to you, to face combat as a soldier but go only carrying medical tools for others' sake. To sacrifice one's life in suicidal defense to give fleeing refugees a few more minutes. To use one's last moments of life as the flood approaches to boost a child to safety. Such valiant madness is honored most of all by the Gr'ts'ck."

"Poe's head won't fit his helmet if they keep talking," Amanda grumbled, too quiet for the alien to hear.

"The warrior Vampire is a special challenge for this. Unpredictable. Humans possess the term ... fun."

Ferrar stifled a laugh. "Give it up, Cat-Girl. You may be stronger, but flying against Vampire is more entertaining."

She seethed and Ferrar wasn't quite sure if he understood what exactly angered her, but Amanda was right. Rissa's equals needed to help her through this. He turned to the visitors. "Honored Allies, please accept our escort back to your area. Our subordinates have some matters they must discuss among themselves."

                                                 *      *      *

Rissa's thoughts churned, her temper hovering just below boiling temperature as they walked silently to the locker rooms. The commanders had led the aliens away, thank God, or she might have continued spouting off. She'd been stupid, but the surprise appearance had pushed her beyond her limit.

Why did they come? To praise the muscleheaded freak next to her? To rub her nose in her helplessness during the flight? The way they ignored me, you'd think he was the only one flying out there!

Perhaps they were attempting some up-close psychic field work, a supernatural inspection of Poe's head. The possibility that they could be doing research for tomorrow's flight annoyed her even more.

The job they'd done on her during the flight suggested they had the skill. Their simulated Wraith cut easily through her ship's shields. The Banshee's equipment should have at least slowed down a mind attack long enough to warn the pilot and let her begin the mental exercises which guarded against interference.

"Chill, Babe!" Tony's banter cut into her funk. "If anyone here should feel overlooked, it's the Kahuna. They barely recognized my existence at all, just now."

She turned on him. "So what are you doing here, anyway? Thought you might need to pull me off your buddy?"

"If necessary," he grinned. "Sounds like fun. Why not go for it?"

She bit back a choice word and glared at him.

Amanda supplied, "I thought we might have to pull you off the Gr'ts'ck. What were you thinking, Cat-Girl?"

She didn't have an answer. Humans couldn't tell which alien might be a private or a general, or what an alien would consider respect, so they paid all Allies extra courtesy, hoping the aliens knew what constituted courtesy among Humans. More than likely, the Gr'ts'ck knew she hadn't been polite.

"Yeah," Tony observed in philosophic tones, "you shouldn't have done that."

She glared again. "I didn't ask for your analysis!"

"The Kahuna never waits for an invitation, Babe."

She recognized his game now. By drawing her ire away from Vampire, he planned to keep her focus spread until she grew tired of fuming. Knowing he meant well didn't help much while the flames still smoldered.

The worst part was, she'd sassed a Gr'ts'ck. 'Allies' included many species, such as the Zindavoor who had adopted Earth as their replacement homeworld, the Sesseem who built her Banshee and the mysterious, ancient Ai'iin, but in this region, more than anyone else, it meant the Gr'ts'ck.

When Humans still waged war using wooden ships and muskets, the spindly winged beings had died by the tens of thousands to free primitive Earth from the grip of the Enemy. The Gr'ts'ck leadership had deemed the marginally civilized world worth the cost after their scouts stumbled upon the Human homeworld.

After that colossal battle, the war had returned to the eternal stalemate. Down on Earth, the Enemy continued to hold secret sway on the ground through their Human minions and their Specters, while the ESDF, Humans recruited by the Gr'ts'ck, continued to fight from hidden bases. Over the centuries, though, the Allies had kept Enemy reinforcements out and their supplies low. Someday, they would starve the aliens out and at last liberate Humanity from the ancient darkness. For the opportunity, Humans owed the Gr'ts'ck more than they owed any other race.

So, what does Rissa do to pay them back? She throws a challenge in their face.

Amanda noted, "Rissa, I think you'd better prepare yourself. I expect Carter to call you to his stateroom after dinner for a lecture on conduct befitting an officer. You make sure you hunker down and take it. Don't argue with him."

She grimaced. Most of the time she could lose herself in the adult world of warfare and forget her actual age. Those occasions when the real adults remembered she was a mere teenager were ugly slaps in the face, waking her out of the nightmare just long enough to remember how screwed her reality truly was.

"Well, here's where we go separate ways," Amanda declared as they approached the women's showers.

Rissa couldn't leave it there. Instead of going in, she turned toward Poe and crossed her arms. "So, Vampire, what's the story?"

The boys had already passed them to head to their own showers. They stopped as well, turning around to face her. Poe met her eye, waited for a moment as if he expected her to say more, then frowned. "What story?"

"What happened out there? You spotted the Wraith way before I could and you showed no effect at all from its attack, even though you came into closer range of it than me. Way closer range. Your personnel folder doesn't say anything about you being a Sensitive. Why?"

Dark eyes regarded her, communicating 'Why should I even respond to this?' but she held his gaze, intent on outwaiting him. He frowned deeper. "I'm not a Sensitive."

Planting fists on hips, she exploded with frustration. "BS! You might just be really, really good at blocking, and it would explain everything else, but it doesn't explain how you spotted the Wraith so easily! 'A faint double-echo', my butt! I didn't have anything on my screen until after you said that! I reread the logs on the way in!"

Poe crossed his arms, his voice remaining stony and level. "I don't know what you're talking about. I spotted it, I called it."

She set her jaw and glared at him, then let out a huff. "Fine! You know what? Whatever! Just stay the hell out of our brains, you got it? Oh and that cutesy trick at the end-- squeezing yourself between me and the Wraith? Don't you ever take that kind of stupid risk again!"

She spun and marched inside with an amused Amanda on her heels.

Rissa reached her locker and yanked it open. Stripping away her breather, she planted it on the shelf along with her helmet. Flight gloves and boots followed with a bang.

"Sucks to be Vampire today," her friend observed. "You have a heck of a way to say 'Thank You'."

With an agitated jerk, Rissa yanked the zipper of her flight jacket open and tore her arms free of it. "Stow it. You're out of line."

"We're equal rank."

"I'm the XO."

"Acting XO."

Jacket and pants slammed onto their respective hooks. "Then act like you're stowing it."

Amanda stayed there, leaning against the lockers, smirking at her and giggling. Rissa peeled away her thermal bodysuit off, wrinkling her nose against the inevitable gym-sock odor released from underneath it. Her skin glistened in the fluorescent lighting, reflections from the vac-skin woven into it, her permanent protection and yet another constant reminder of her warped reality. I may look like an ordinary girl once the flight gear comes off, but I'm actually a living space suit. A normal needle or surgeon's scalpel can't even penetrate my skin. Inexplicably, the thought led her to wonder about Poe's piercings. No tattoo parlor did those, she realized. Their tools would never puncture the implant.

Disrobing complete, she forced thoughts of irritating boys, disrespectful subordinates and noisy friends out of her mind, whipped a clean towel off the shelves, sniffed at Amanda, and marched into the showers.

                                                 *      *      *

Tony couldn't shake the idea his heartbeat was 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, so only those noises conducted through the metal fuselage reached his cockpit. Theoretically, his breath and his heartbeat were the loudest sounds around, but he doubted he heard them at all except in his stir-crazy imagination.

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 rays of the low-hanging 'evening' sun, the Banshees extended sharp black shadows across the field as they sat sucking Base power through their umbilicals. 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 buck. The only question remaining was, 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 try to count it as 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, and he needed to remember how to be one. The unoccupied interval weighed on him as it stretched out. Staring at the glowing indicators on his control panels, he fought down his jitters, preparing himself for the last minute talk he needed with Ana.

After sucking in cockpit air which tasted more of sweat than usual and letting it out in a steadying huff, he selected ground channel to route the conversation through the Base circuits rather than radio, then triggered his mike.

"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. Sure."

He frowned across at her ship. "I mean it. I should have said so before now, but we've benefited from your survival skills. I suspect we made it this far mostly because of the bonuses you kept 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. I did. I wanted you to jump in and become the best of the best ace fighter pilots. But, I sat down and had a long talk with myself last night, and we came to the conclusion we 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 for the Scouts to consider you for Sail Master. I also suggested you could drive LSTs 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? "You got it backwards, Babe. I'm sayin' you're good enough for the Scouts and the Surface Corps. Most of us aren't. Being hard to hit is a serious asset to those guys, and it's a hard talent to find. The ground pounders totally value pilots who get them to the LZ in one piece and safely home again. And Scout Fleet is 100% pure gold prestige. Both draw big hazard pay, too."

A yellow motion drew his eyes the other direction. The field boss, in his distinctively-colored gear, 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, which meant he was either a 'burnout', a pilot whose nerve-ware had fried, or a Zindavoor. Their manikins 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 on point, and I fly wing."

"Huh?"

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.

"Just until I tell you to switch. It looks like these aliens have studied us individually and 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. After that, we work normally."

Ana probably 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'm hopin' the Gr'ts'ck misidentify our craft. 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. We're gonna level the playin' field instead. We can pull it off if you confuse them as much as I expect you to."

"Because I don't fly like a fighter pilot, right?"

He frowned across at the other Banshee again. She had taken it the wrong way again and he truly needed her talents at full strength to make his plan work. How could he convince her?

"Because you have unreal 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. Buildin' on that, we shall commence 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. While you're at it, 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 as he commenced the final 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 Air 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 barely listened to the same old information he'd long since memorized, concentrating instead on hitting every log point of the rising curve of plasma pressure just right.

He timed it perfectly. Base Comm sent the all-clear chime, indicating all ground crew had taken cover, just as he 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 Air Boss had turned the mike back over to the regular radioman.

Faint sideways puffs blew in a rapid staccato out of the nose of his craft as he lifted; the control jets working to keep him vertical in the first moments of flight caught the sunlight before the exhaust dissipated in the vacuum. He proceeded through his normal glass-smooth liftoff, but lifted slower than normal.

As he lolligagged his way into the Lunar sky, he wondered how long it would take for Ana to catch on. She lifted, and for a moment he thought she would slot in behind and off to the starboard side out of habit, fitting in where the 'Two' craft of a pair flew, 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. 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.

Yeah, Babe, you hella sure got the brains, he thought with approval. Let's go show 'em how you use 'em.

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter VI

"Please proceed on a direct outbound route, Earth-normal. You are running a standard patrol scenario."

Tony kept himself from a rude response. Almost all Moon Duty contest were 'Scramble' scenarios, pursuits off the ground responding to an already detected threat. Less common were 'Target' scenarios, offensive missions for which they would receive preparatory briefings beforehand, and 'Patrol' scenarios. He'd never been on the latter, but he would have thought they also came with briefings. Instead, all he had was an order to fly straight up into space, headed the opposite direction from Earth.

Facing a complete lack of targets to work on, his tactical mind went to work instead on what a 'standard patrol scenario' would mean. Since he was supposed to be in deep space, he would have no Base Comm unless they wound up in an RL emergency, and he would receive no warnings or guidance from ground radar.

So was the sim a long range planet-based patrol, or carrier ops?

He tried out a hunch. "Battle Group Control, this is Foxtrot-Seven-Seven."

Across his nerve-ware streamed a text response from his flight computer. Current channel not active. Switch to Battle Group Frequency and resend transmission?

He grinned at his correct guess, flashed the 'Affirmative' icon back and then switched over to the 77th's side channel. "Chiquita, switch to 'Battle Group Frequency'. Our comps already have it programmed."

"Seven-seven-seven, Aye."

A new voice, neither of the controllers he'd heard so far, came across the new channel. "This is Control. We copy Foxtrot-Seven-Seven. You are out of sensory range; please update your flight path."

He had no idea where the battle group was supposed to be, and patrolling fighters gave their flight paths according to the location of the group's command ship. Lacking that, he gave the only answer he could.

"Flyin' in a straight line, Control. No contacts."

"Report in on five minute intervals or upon vector change. Control out."

He flipped back to side channel. "Let the boredom begin."

"They aren't going to leave us hanging out here?"

He didn't bother answering. They were, and she knew it full well.

The take-off slot from the Farside controller had ended on a high boost. Lacking any further instructions, they were still on it. He did the math and realized they would bite too far into their mass reserves unless he did something. "We're already way over escape velocity. Better save mass. Cut jets on my mark."

He set up a sync clock to transmit, and a few moments later, their thrust cut off in unison. Because it qualified as a 'vector change', he rattled off a quick update to the mystery flight controller.

In the silence following engine cutoff, his winger wondered, "So is this what a real Fleet patrol is like? Just coasting along in a free trajectory?"

"From the inside of a Banshee this is what everythin' except planet-based pursuit duty looks like, Babe."

"Would a Battle Group really just hang around in Normal Space?"

"Cha. Think picket duty. Or Line duty. Ninety-nine percent of the time, those poor slobs aren't fightin' the big Meta Space battles. They're coastin' along in Normal Space, bored to death, somewhere in the middle of Empty. In fact, you can pretty much use this as your definition of interstellar warfare, except for the rare occasions where it gets hellacious. The Gr'ts'ck think they're gonna catch us half-asleep, so stay frosty."

"Do Gr'ts'ck sleep?"

"No clue, Babe."

Fortunately, he mused, they had a time limit. Rissa and Poe had to fly, and the farther the aliens let him get from the Moon, the more time it would take to return to base before they launched. By his arithmetic, the Gr'ts'ck had not quite an hour to make their move without putting the contest behind schedule.

Long pursuits down the Centauri had trained him how to 'stay frosty', but Chiquita had never gone on one of those. After the first ten minutes he started making her take detailed sensor sweeps, just to keep her alert.

When that hour had almost expired, he'd begun wondering if the Gr'ts'ck understood about the time limit. He was ready to radio a comment to the controller when the bogeys appeared.

"Tally twelve," Ana called, "Dead ahead. High relative vee, range just under ten thousand klicks."

"I'm runnin' analysis." They might have reversed roles, but on the air he had to keep up the 'One' role, so he didn't tip off the aliens. "Keep callin' the range."

Twelve against two? he thought at the Gr'ts'ck with a grin. Swarming tactics were the best idea you could manage?

"They're on an intercept burn."

Their high relative speeds might have left them only one chance to shoot as they flashed past each other, but Ana's words meant the bogeys were already slowing down for a longer visit.

"Bring your main engines up, Babe. It's show time."

The plasma in their jets was still hot, of course. They didn't turn them off when they cut their jets; they simply decreased energy use and stopped throwing mass out the back. It did require a short time to get back to flying temperatures, but within the next few seconds they'd both declared, "Steam up".

Tony rattled off a quick update to Control as he waited. Ana counted down the distance by thousands, switching to hundreds when they got under two thousand and the intervals stretched out due to the decreasing speeds. He waited an unusually long time for his comp to run the analysis. Once it finally spat out an answer, he stared at it in disbelief.

"Kahuna? I've got a fuzzy visual on magnification, but they look like Banshees!"

Her 'magnification', just like his sensors, displayed fantasies created by the simulation units in Farside. More than likely the real incoming vehicles were RPVs, but on her screen she was seeing what his sensors claimed. Sort of. It worked as confirmation, anyhow.

"Not Banshees, Chiquita. Sesseem."

The aliens who built the hulls for Banshees used similar craft in their own fleets. Sesseem were tiny creatures, similar in size to Zindavoor, and their versions of the Banshee were ten-crew ships rather than single-seat fighters. When his own screen displayed the visual, he decided these were larger than Banshees.

Okay, we're badly outnumbered, but these are Allies. What game are you guys playing?

"Ping them on the Allied comm channel. Interspecies dot code greeting." He flipped over to Control. "Foxtrot-Seven-Seven to control, bogeys are twelve Sesseem, on intercept burn, approaching inbound on our vector."

"Seven-seven, no Sesseem operations in this area. Urgent you re-check. The reported vector intersects battle group."

Translating out of mil-speak, According to what you've told us, your bogeys are headed straight at us! He frowned at the computer console, began firing off a rerun command through his nerveware, then stopped when he realized it was unnecessary.

"Negative, Control, we have visual confirmation. Incoming are Sesseem, in Normal space, burning to match our trajectory. Squadron of twelve patrol cutters. Estimate fourteen-crew size."

After a long pause, the flight controller responded, "Seven-seven, we are sending inquiries to Regional HQ."

There wouldn't be time in the scenario for the response. In effect, the controller had just said You're on your own. Tony flipped back to Ana. "They answer?"

"Nothing. At this range, there's no way they don't hear us."

His skin crawled. "Get ready for combat."

"Huh? But they're Allies, aren't they?"

Tony realized that Ana sounded strange, like she wasn't quite awake. His uncertainty turned to alarm. "Cadet, begin mental exercises immediately!"

"I... Okay..." She sounded drunk. After a moment, she began mumbling quietly into her mike, probably unaware she was reciting names out loud as she built up each pattern element in her mind. Using only the mind's eye, without any visual aids, she was constructing mandalas, geometries which Zindavoor had created for Human pilots by studying meditating Buddhist monks. Scientists still weren't sure whether it was the images or the mental effort to build them that helped pilots block out Sensitive interference, but pilots didn't care, as long as it worked. He tuned her mumble out and began his own exercises.

Sensor alarms wailed, causing him to lose his first pattern. He watched in horror as a wall of Sesseem fire blazed across his display.

                                                 *      *      *

The observation lounge fell dead-silent when the simulated Sesseem opened fire on their own allies. Ferrar watched the main monitor, waiting for the overload flare to clear. The Sesseem projectors had concentrated on the lead Banshee, and their combined fire would have added up to over 300 gigajoules, enough to disrupt Meta space for kilometers around their target. True to the simulation, the flare effect obscured the sensor displays shown to the audience in Farside, just as would happen on live sensors in a real battle.

The next event should have been the flare fading into a cloud of debris. Twelve Sesseem patrol craft that size would be equal in firepower to an ESDF strike cruiser.

Instead, a glowing dot corkscrewed out of the flare, a plot that could only be a Banshee with heavily loaded shields 'knuckleballing' to avoid taking any more fire. For the moment the pilot was still in the game,having jinked in time to take only a glancing blow.

"Yeah! Alright Ana!" Amanda crowed. The rest of the crowd joined the cheer a heart-beat later, which then dissolved into excited jabber.

From the look of things, those shields wouldn't stand up to another hit, even if only one of the Sesseem connected. One salvo from the neutron projectors from a single ship that size delivered enough energy to power New York City for half a minute. It was also roughly the energy amount that the Banshee shields could hold back, if they weren't already loaded up with a charge from a previous hit.

"Ana?" Ferrar frowned. "I thought that was Tony."

"Your eyesight must be going, old man," his XO teased. "They switched right after launch. Ana took point about five hundred meters up."

Ana's voice came over the comm as if to confirm Cougar's words. "Shield capacity is just under ten percent from max. Negative critical damage." Her  dot jinked again just before another salvo and then abruptly accelerated, indicating a switch into high-gee mode to get clear. Three Sesseem took off after her, while the rest veered toward the equally fleeing Kahuna.

Carter exploded, "What are those idiot Gr'ts'ck thinking? Competition scenarios are supposed to be winnable!"

The older commander shook his head, "I don't know how, but it's winnable."

"What, a target-rich environment and a snowball's chance?"

Cougar touched Carter's arm, advising him with the same patient tones she'd used on Ferrar many times. "Sir, he's right. Think about it. The Air Boss approves all competition scenarios. Pucelli would never approve an impossible one. He just doesn't roll that way."

"There's a key that unlocks this one," Ferrar reinforced. "Let's see if the Kahuna can find it."

Ana wouldn't be able to outrun the Sesseem ships. They had similar ships, but with her shields 'hot' she couldn't use full acceleration without tipping them into overload with energy from her own jets. Worse, if she ran away in a straight line, they could just line up on her and fire.

Somehow, she kept changing direction just before they fired each time, and although they continued to close the gap on her, she stayed alive. Then just as the gap became too short for her evasions to continue working, she flipped end-over-end and jetted high-gee mode straight at them, firing just as she broke to one side to flit past them.

Kahuna was having an easier time manuevering with a 'cool' shield, but up againsts triple the opponents, he wouldn't last either, not even another minute.

                                                 *      *      *

Tony kept working the controls, trying to find a solution while still devoting sufficient attention to outmaneuvering the swarm behind him and continuing the never-ending blocking exercises. He was running out of brain cells to delegate tasks to.

They got me to hold my fire and let them in too close by using a Trojan Horse gambit, the analyst in the back seat critiqued. What was I supposed to do, open fire on Allies? Run away from them?

Never mind! he fumed back at himself. We're busy here! Do your post-mortem after we're mortem!

"How many are after me?" Ana called. "I thought it was two! It looks like three now!"

"It's been three all along!"

"Huh? But..." Her voice chopped off as she jinked with another high-gee jet burn.

Is she having trouble counting now? Why does she sound so confused?

He'd led nine Sesseem away from her earlier, but her last jink left her headed back his direction. The Sesseem behind him spread out now, three triangles, each at points of a bigger triangle, expecting him to run at an angle and preparing to catch him no matter which way he turned. Fortunately, the Sesseem only had projectors. If they used missiles like Humans, they would have had him by now. As long as he could keep them from lining up on him, he had a chance.

It wouldn't last though. He would run out of luck any moment now with the aliens herding Ana and him back together.

She does have only two on her! he realized with a jolt. Where'd the other one go?

He yawed his craft for another jink and a white orb rolled into view. His thoughts crumpled into confusion. We're in deep space! Where did that rock come from?!

Tis gravitic sensors pegged the airless planet at only a quarter million kilometers away. How could we get that close to some rock and not know it?

Then understanding hit him like projector fire. He screamed into the mike.

"Stop messing with my head!!!"

Psychically-induced confusion melted away, and puzzle pieces fell into place with an almost audible click. He spun the craft, lining up on the missing third ship in the Sesseem triangle following Ana-- the blank that shouldn't have been there-- and snapped two missiles at it. They found something to lock onto in the empty spot, tracked it and delivered to it a devastating blow.

His shield alarms shrieked and kill buzzers went off, one declaring him dead and the other eulogizing an invisible enemy. The projectors of the pursuing Sesseem had finally caught up, but he'd killed the alien that had fogged his mind. The two surviving Sesseem behind Ana broke off a moment later, and the nine ships that had been following him veered away rather than closing on her.

Long-absent Farside Base Comm came on to declare the scenario over.

He would hear the explanation later, but he already knew that the 'Sesseem' he had killed was either a simulated Wraith or some other Enemy mind weapon. Perhaps the other 'Sesseem' were supposed Slaves flying captured ships, although from the way they broke off after he'd killed the mystery ship, they might instead have been 'real' Sesseem under the control of the Enemy, being used as a means to sneak up on Allied shipping.

He wouldn't have worked it out if the 'Wraith' hadn't cloaked itself once it came within range of Banshee weapons, but that part of the simulation was accurate. Wraiths were notorious cowards. A real Wraith would have hidden itself rather than risk being one of the available targets.

Had this scenario come out of the records of real battles? The thought of meeting up with such an opponent chilled him. Or worse, of being captured and used that way himself...

Neither of them spoke at all, other than acknowledgments to Base Comm, all the way in. It would take him a while to shake this one off...

The combat had pulled them off 'direct outbound', and Earth was now visible, a blue eye to the left side of the Moon. They would all be heading back there in one more day. The thought lifted his spirits a bit.

It's time. I've had enough of this place.

                                                 *      *      *

Dark eyes watched her from the other side of the lock as she waited for the inner door to close. She shuddered with the memory of their first-round flight, which had begun with this same boy in this spot.

"What is it?" The tension in her voice surprised her a little.

The door clanged shut, stirring up the gunpowder odor of moon dust on the floor. He shrugged. "I was just thinking I should say something. Good luck, I guess." Spoken through his breather mask, his sullen voice didn't have quite the same dark tone.

She forced herself not to scowl. "Sure. Same to you. It's been interesting, Cadet."

They remained silent after that. Her mask and her earbuds sealed shut against her skin as the pressure dropped, and she breathed deep to make sure everything worked. An enormous red button on the wall stood ready to slap if anything failed.

Once the lock finished cycling, the outer door swung open into the empty environment of the landing field, revealing their Banshees, lit from one side by the low sun and almost black on the other. The low-angle sunlight didn't bounce straight up off the ground to light up the 'shadow side' of things anymore. It gave the lighting on their craft a more alien quality, like the cold light of deep space.

The sun is setting on this Moon Duty. This is our last flight. Tomorrow night, I'll sleep at home in my own bed.

Except for her pulse and the sound of her faint footsteps conducted through her bones, all was silence on their walk out to the pads. If Vampire or Base Comm spoke she would hear them, but nobody else used their frequency.

A touch on her shoulder brought her attention back to Vampire. He pointed to the sky above the next set of pads. Twin lights marked Kahuna and Ana's descending ships. They couldn't see the exhaust itself, of course, but the extreme temperature of the plasma made the jet nozzles glow white.

"They had a long trip home," she remarked.

Vampire didn't reply, but he gave a bare hint of a nod.

She'd avoided hearing the score for their flight, but she suspected they might have come close to maxing it out. They'd killed the only real enemy without touching the captive Sesseem. The only points they missed were one out of two survival bonuses. Her score would need to be almighty high to beat him.

She fought down the competitive tension, saving it for later. She couldn't afford to peak too soon.

This would be her second Final, so she knew how long a wait they were in for. She reminded Vampire of it just before they separated to board their ships.

Throughout the long wait on the pad, once she finished her preflights as far as she could, she had nothing to do but watch the crews and wonder about the Gr'ts'ck plans.

She would now deal with the same team that Tony and Ana had faced, and the scenario they'd served those two had been nasty including yet another Wraith. She'd warned Poe to be ready for more mind-tricks, but would they play that card a third time?

After an interminable wait, but before the crews cleared off, Base Comm  sounded the chime. She pulled up her checklist, half-finished and ready for the final steps.

"Scenario in play," the flight controller declared.

Her thoughts went into high alert; these words weren't part of the standard spiel. The general quarters buzzer began sounding and her gantry rapidly backed away as he continued. "You are the Ready Alert for this base. Take note of your data feed and react accordingly."

Almost as soon as he finished, the normal first buzzer sounded-- the signal for the ground crew to clear the field. She hurried through her startup, harvesting data off her feed with as much attention as she could spare. The all-clear chime found her ready. "Seven-seven-four, steam up."

As always, Vampire followed her immediately. "Seven-Seven-Nine, steam up."

"Lift in flight order, as you are ready."

She punched the throttle. The incoming threat was big, but still unidentified. One small blessing: it wasn't coming in on top of them like Vampire's cruiser. It occurred to her that Base Comm had made the unusual announcement 'Scenario in play' for Vampire's benefit, just to avoid any further misunderstandings.

"Foxtrot-seven-seven to Control. We have sensor contact in Meta-space. Estimate intercept beyond gravity limit. Permission to ready inducers for transit." She had to ask, after all. In RL, she would have done it.

"Negative, Seven-seven. Base sensors detect lesser tracks ahead of main threat and already nearing conventional exit envelope." The answer came as no surprise. Scenarios never included Meta-space combat. The dangers outweighed the training benefits. The Gr'ts'ck had worked in a reason why she couldn't do what she would have done in RL.

"Vampire, keep your eyes peeled for the scouts. I'll run analysis on the big guy."

"Aye."

As her comp mulled over the sensor data, she called up her weapons menu for a quick inventory. Four anti-fighter missiles in her 'A' bay, two meta-drives and two long range kinetics in her 'B' bay. No nukes.

The news came as no surprise. She was the Gulf's nuclear specialist, but no 'base ready alert' sat around with big ones aboard. In fact, she flew most missions with the exact load-out she now carried. She only carried nukes when circumstances warranted.

It left her badly equipped for the present situation. In a knife-fight, kinetics were next to useless because they needed distance to build up velocity, and the meta-drives might or might not work if she launched them this close to the Moon's gravity.

And this bogey looked awfully big.

"Transits!" Poe snapped. "Four exits, one hundred and twenty klicks dead ahead."

"Got 'em. Analyzing." She then drew in a sharp breath as she read the comp's almost instant conclusion. "Outriders."

Not a Slave Race but the Enemy species themselves-- the root cause of the war and thousands of years of human suffering. Fights with these guys and even simulations of them took on special meaning for any pilot.

Outriders never operated independently of their mother ships, so the big bogey following them would be a ring. Given the size of the contact it was only an A-class, but against two Banshees an A-class would be more than enough.

The battle on the Centauri came back to her once more, exactly as the Gr'ts'ck planned. All components of that battle thrown together at once would have been too much for one flight, so they'd restricted themselves first to the Wraith and the possibility of a capture field, and waited until now to come with the Ring and outriders.

But I've already figured out your game, boys. It's not going to work.

She called it in, praying she would never send such a message in RL. "Foxtrot-seven-seven to Control. We have one incoming A-class ring with Outriders. We're heavily outclassed here. Recommend second intercept. We'll hold them off as long as we can."

The old hands at Moon Duty had a name for this class of scenario. They called it a 'Last Stand'. Rack up as many kills as you can, they recommended, because you won't score a survival bonus.

                                                 *      *      *

                                                 Chapter VII

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 frankly he needed the break. For two weeks, he'd felt his 'RL' self and his teenager spirit fade into the background, and he needed to find them again before he hit the surf at Venice Breakwater.

Instead he fidgeted, anxious and coffeeless, having just set a personal best time 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 would soon fly off to participate in a Final.

Rather than return to his table, he parked himself at a workstation. During earlier flights, 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 like he'd done in previous Moon Duties, chatting and happy to be done with it all. He fiddled around with the windows and controls, setting up his live analysis the way he liked it, and waited impatiently yet again for ground crews to finish up with Banshees.

A weight settled on his chair back. He looked up to see Amanda leaning over him, peering at his monitor.

"So, whatcha think? Your boy gonna go 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. Personally, I just want to see him fly like RL for once. For future reference."

She apparently had Poe pegged as a 'Moon Duty Ace'. Most people brought their sense of self-preservation to the competition. Even though they flew against computer phantoms and RPVs firing simulated weapons, they remained aware they could still augur into the Lunar surface or collide with an RPV. Occasionally though, pilots came along who flew Moon Duty as if they were immortal, not caring whether they 'died' or not in the contest. These 'Moon  Duty Aces' endangering 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. 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, even if it's a long shot."

She studied him for several seconds, weighing his words before musing, "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 the Enemy sends us."

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 supposed to be 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 my parents, 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 help him take out as many of the bastards as he can first."

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 simultaneously beatin' up on an extra-large helpin' of Enemy.""

"'No one ever won a war by dying for their country'," Amanda quoted with a disapproving tone.

"Nobody ever won one by runnin' away, either." He set the coffee down and grinned. "You've got him wrong, Senior. All Poe wants to do is make sure that the crap he's been through is worthwhile."

Marie, the black girl he'd only had brief conversations with, came over and 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 got into the air, so he turned back to his work to see what was up.

"So you told him?" Marie asked.

"No, Marie, I have not," Amanda audibly glowered. He now found his attention divided between the field, where the Banshee jets built up plasma in pre-chargers as rapidly as physics would allow, and the junior Aviator's loaded question behind him.

"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 nerveware to download a more in-depth feed. The numbers flowed into his mind, filling in details the windows on his monitor were too small to include. Echo size, Meta-space distance and velocity, estimated arrival... 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 accumulated a crowd now. 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 gettin' aggro. 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 little 'patrol', Ginsu gave us the news. I guess you told Vampire and Cat-girl to go to lunch so they wouldn't hear it?"

Another nod. She continued. "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 under different divisions."

Ferrar supplied the answer. "You were assigned to the Five-n-Dime, Kahuna, but you weren't married to it."

He blinked, puzzled... then after a breath, he understood. The understaffed 77th needed pilots. Unlike bases near LA or Fort Lauderdale or Chicago, Gulf Base Three sat too far from a major city. The Brass would have a hard time arranging cover stories to transfer new personnel into the small town of Berenice. They were probably sweating over 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, fit the bill perfectly.

They might even have matched the 105th and the 77th up for Moon Duty specifically 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 must have wanted to insure Ginsu had no personality conflicts within his crew bad enough to make his job impossible before committing to the move.

"Those 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 and the startled group turned toward him. Amanda demanded, "What, sir?"

"What do you mean, 'What'? Check the screen!"

                                                 *      *      *

Rad warnings wailed and her shield capacity meter turned yellow, complaining of dangerous energy levels. She knuckleballed out of the line of fire, then reversed her ship, pumping projector fire into the outrider, all the while cursing at herself.

Vampire snapped, "Your six, high! Break off!"

She hit the compensation matrix and the high-gee mode as an invisible pseudopod from the Ring approached. She uncompensated and flipped again only moments later. Rings and outriders had killed far too many of her friends, so she'd dove in with a vengeance and had to admit in hindsight that the wily Gr'ts'ck had suckered her into doing something stupid-- even though she'd known what they were doing, and even though she'd sworn it wouldn't work.

She was out of pseudopod range but two groups of outriders were now converging on her. They had her boxed in against the ring.

Poe, like a good winger, needed to come in and take on one of the two groups so she had a shot at tackling the other. With a medium dose of luck, neither of their dogfights would carry into pseudopod reach. Given the opponent, she wouldn't have blamed someone as green as him if he were too intimidated to arrive in time... but she already knew deep in her heart what was about to happen. She flipped once more, just in time to see the unimpressed rookie wading right through, ignoring the outriders and running instead straight at the ring itself.

He didn't have a chance of taking it out. His sole intention was to draw fire away from her. The outriders wouldn't dare leave a Banshee with open season on their mothership. They had no choice. All eight outrider plots altered course as they grasped the threat.

"No!" she screamed and redlined her jet, intent on getting to the ring first, before his suicidal plan succeeded.

It was a classic noob mistake-- the sort she'd not made since her first week in the sims three years before. Nobody with her experience could even imagine screwing up so badly. A full-cycle direct-control plasma engine had a moderate chance of going from zero thrust to full output in one swing. The action didn't have to result in a core melt, and perhaps the alien engine designers had built no fail-safe into the controls because of that-- or perhaps they just didn't understand that Humans had the capacity to become complete idiots without warning.

The meters pegged, her couch slammed her as the gees ran up from zero up close to nine, the computer phantom 'ring' rushed at her on her screens and then around her as she kamikazed her way through it, and the wailing alarms and the kill buzzer for herself and the enemy kill buzzer all sounded nearly at once. Behind her, her main tore itself to pieces, metals and ceramics melting and feeding themselves into the collapsing mag skirt, becoming extra mass for propulsion.

The pre-chargers drained off and the batteries fell dead. Her ship was now a dead lump of metal hurtling along a collision path with the Moon.

                                                 *      *      *

Tony's hands went into action before he knew they'd moved. As he worked to secure a ground channel through the keyboard, data flowed through his wrist pick-up, vectors and energy states for two ships now alone in the sky as the scenario disappeared, out-prioritized by the RL emergency. He shoved reports aside with irritation. They told him nothing he didn't know. He'd already guessed the now-useless assessments on the mortal damage to the fictional ring and the jet status on the crippled Banshee. He needed to know only one thing now, and the rapid calculator buzzing in the back of his head gave it to him before the computers reported it.

She was above vee-max for successful extraction. The only motive force she could call upon was the short rocket burn from her ejection seat, and that would not provide even a small percentage of the delta-vee she needed. The thin chance still existed that her body might survive in freeze-up through the impending multiple-kilometer-per-second impact, but otherwise Rissa would soon die.

Even before he began on the next possibility, Vampire seemed to pick it out of his skull. Poe's Banshee fell into an interception burn with the stricken ship, powering directly at the Moon. He had no intention of letting his lead go easily.

Neither did Kahuna. He had the answer, but he didn't like it. There wasn't a pilot alive crazy enough to try it.

With one exception.

He had already opened a channel in the ground comm using his instructor's password. He closed his eyes so he could concentrate on sending his synthetic voice through the nerveware. "Control, this is Seven-seven-eight."

"Get off the air, kid! Your ship's on the ground! We've got a situation here!"

It might have been the situation, the flight controller's tone or maybe the word 'Kid', but Tony's rage took rare control for just a moment. Keeping his tone as cold as he could, he ordered, "This is Vampire's instructor and you will patch me through, now!"

He realized he had spoken out loud. The people gathered around his station stared at him. It then dawned on him that it didn't matter, since his synth voice had been coming over the observation lounge speaker anyhow, and they'd already been staring. He returned to the tunnel vision that had kept him from noticing.

Certain rules in the ESDF stood utterly absolute. A captain's word equaled law as long as his ship flew. Furthermore, whether he commanded the biggest cruiser in Fleet or a single-seat fighter, a captain was always a captain. Finally, if that captain happened to be a trainee, then the captain's instructor of record came with the package, whether he was on board or not. The voice of Senior Commander Pucelli, Farside's Air Boss, replaced the flight controller's with calm professional tones. "Patching you through, Aviator... Go ahead."

The two pilots had been arguing during his exchange with Bass Comm. Rissa's voice come across before he could speak.

"Break off!"

"No." Vampire's calm voice didn't show a hint of adrenalin, even though he must be watching the Moon rapidly growing in his windshield.

"Cadet! You will obey a direct order!"

"Make me."

Tony broke in. "Kahuna to Vampire! State your intentions, immediately!"

In the same matter-of-fact voice that he might have used to describe what he had for lunch, Vampire recited, "Invert, drop shields, get up under her belly, bring shields back up around her, push into her and rotate until we're sideways, then keep my belly jets and my main jet thrusting the rest of the way down. We'll have good horizontal motion before we hit. If I can shallow up the angle enough, we'll survive."

Tony allowed himself the tiniest of moments to be awestruck at the sheer madness. Until he heard it, he'd been ready to give credit to the girls' belief that Poe was psychic and had read his mind. In truth, the FC had a plan even more audacious than his own. Of course, since his ship would be on the bottom, the big guy's chances for survival were much lower than Rissa's, but Poe already knew that.

Rissa was nearly incoherent. "Order him to forget it and get away!"

Pucelli concurred, speaking over a second ground channel. "You are going to order him off?"

The extra chatter had him sweating over the clock now. Time was running out. He answered on the same channel. "I would if I could, sir, but he is going to do what he just proposed unless I give him a better plan. Please back me up, sir, because I think there's only one way either one of them gets out alive."

"We can eject him."

"On his current vector, you would be committing murder, sir." He flipped back over to the first channel. "Listen up, Cadet. I've got a better plan, but you're going to have to fly my numbers exactly. We're almost out of time. I'm sending them now. Cat-girl!"

"What the hell are you thinking? Order him off!"

"I'm sending numbers up to you. It's ejection time. You punch out exactly on my mark and Vampire catches you." As he spoke, Vampire corkscrewed around her vector to line up above her cockpit instead of beneath her belly. The cadet was fast approaching the mark.

"Have you gone mad? No way! I will not!"

The acid in his stomach began to burn as he watched the time dwindle away.

He went back to Pucelli. "Give me her punch-out code, now!"

"I can't allow this, Kahuna. You'd be killing both of them."

"They are already dead unless you give me that code!"

The pause that followed seemed to stretch out forever... but then the code streamed in.

He flipped back to the pilots. "Vampire! Your leader is unresponsive! I will punch her out remotely. Be ready on your intercept vectors."

"'Unresponsive'?" Cat-girl echoed, indignant.

"She must be unconscious. You should be receiving my sync clock now."

In the middle of his speech, she began trying to shout over him, but Base Comm dialed her volume down before he could hear what she was saying. Vampire finished jockeying his craft into place as the moment approached.

"Seven-seven-nine, aye. I'm in the slot."

With no-one else on the air, Rissa's voice became audible again, ratcheted up to a point somewhere between fury and apoplexy.

"... it this instant! Kahuna! Who the hell do you think..."

He couldn't help but grin as the punch-out code streamed up to her ship.

                                                 *      *      *

Rissa cut off mid-sentence as explosive bolts blew her canopy away and tons of thrust struck her couch from below like Goliath's fist. The catapult and the rocket burn added together lasted less than half a second, just long enough to empty her lungs as the demon acceleration crushed her. She gasped the air back in as the separation charge kicked her free of the couch. If she were in an atmosphere, the pack now strapped to her back by the webbing that formerly held her to her seat-back would open up as a parachute, but without air resistance it remained a useless backpack. She undid the clasps on the webbing, figuring she'd need to shed it.

She looked up to see where she was headed and found a Banshee rushing toward her, canopy open and Poe, his arms stretched wide, standing behind his own flight couch ready to field her. Why is he back there? was all she had time to wonder.

He grabbed her with a lot less force than she'd expected, then untangled her from the chute pack and inverted her. Before she had a chance to ask what he was doing, he'd planted her butt into his control couch and commanded, "Take the controls!"

His hands worked from behind her, strapping the webbing of his couch around her. Too shocked to protest, she grabbed the controls and brought up the throttle as quickly as she dared. He'd mentioned using the bellies along with the main jet and she borrowed his plan now, except backwards; the main firing downward and the bellies sideways, aiming to hit bottom at as great an angle as possible.

Through the comm, she heard the breath whuffing out of his lungs as the gees hit him and he banged into the back of the luggage space behind the couch. The so-called 'back seat' was used it for bags and supplies on extended missions. It wasn't meant for passengers.

Kahuna never intended for Poe to fold his big frame back there, either. Rissa and her much smaller body should have gone there. Poe had decided this on his own. He'd climbed back there while controlling his craft entirely by nerve-ware during the final moments of the intercept. She cringed as she completed cycling the jet up to max, knowing what she was doing to him.

She couldn't compensate with him back there, so she couldn't high-gee. Would max output in standard-mode be enough in the time left? Poe had decided she needed to be the one at the controls. Poe had put her in the safer seat to give them the best odds.

"Vampire," she hissed as the jet blazed, the alarms multiplied and the Lunar landscape grew behind and around her. "You idiot!"

                                                 *      *      *

The madness began, continued and expanded, from the gouts of moondust blasted by the approaching jet to the first thunderclap of the Banshee's tail hitting, to the rolling confusion outside the canopy. The Lunar surface spun around and below and then above. For only the first instants could she tell where the ship stood and what direction it headed, then she lost all track in the spinning nightmare.

                                                 *      *      *

Her vision cleared, but she didn't trust her senses. She saw neither neither sky nor moon outside her canopy, so she couldn't be in flight, but she seemed to be thrusting sideways and downward. Her mind then shifted into ground mode and grasped that the Banshee rested upside down, rather than sitting on its tail as intended by its makers. She hung shoulder-down from her harness, the seat and the back of her couch above her. The cockpit had survived, but the ship's systems either no longer functioned or reported only nonsense, because the instruments in front of her showed nothing sensible. More than likely the electronics would soon run out of battery power and die.

"Vampire?"

Her heart turned cold when he didn't answer. She released her webbing and slid her way out of her seat so that she could turn to see him.

Not enough light reached from her instrument panel into the back space. Through her nerveware, she switched on the utility light, acting out of habit before she had a chance to wonder if it would work.

All she could see of Poe was the top of his helmet and the vague outline of his back in the shadows beyond. He slumped against the back of her couch, chin tucked into his chest. Fortunately, nothing appeared damaged. His internal 'freeze-up' system, the pilot's last survival option, would have activated in the case of a potentially fatal blow, or if his breather had failed. Since he appeared whole, that upped his chances considerably.

Of course, if he's in freeze-up, he'll be a bastard to pull out from back there.

To her relief, she felt him breathing when she rested her hand on his back. The outside world could have her attention now. She fired off calls through her nerveware to various channels, short-range, long-range, even the Meta-space communicator. Nobody responded, so she spent no more time on it. She had to assume the ship's communication systems no longer functioned. Her mask communicator would still function, but she was too far from a base tower out here. The only one who would hear her was Poe. Her top priority now became getting away from the Banshee before the mass converter fried.

That proved to be a problem in itself. The canopy wouldn't open, although whatever blocked it lurked unseen beyond the shadows. She let go of the useless latch mechanism with a quiet curse word, then searched for the manual trigger that would blow the explosive bolts.

"Keep your head down," she said to the presumed unconscious Poe, then hunkered down and yanked the yellow lanyard ring. A blast and a shudder later, she kicked the tangle wreckage of the canopy out of her way and waved her foot in the darkness, trying to find the Lunar soil.

During a wider swing, her foot connected with the boulder that had pinned her canopy closed. It turned out to be a perfect place to kneel and pull out the survival pack. She laid down and peered out from below the ship to see sunlit ground a few feet away. They'd ended up in the shade near the wall of a small crater. The drop would only be a yard or so; she'd been within inches of touching with her foot on her first try. She tossed the pack out into the sunlight and returned inside to get Poe.

"You'll have to get yourself killed some other time, Cadet. We're getting out of here."

It took her several minutes in the tight space just to confirm the power pack for his breather functioned before she switched him onto battery power. It would run for an hour or so before she needed to hook him up to the survival pack's recharger.

Poe had folded his big body tightly in order to fit into the 'back seat', and as an unconscious mass of flopping limbs, it was a lot more work for her to get him out than for him to get in.

She managed it, somehow. They tumbled together to the ground once his feet came free.

Even though objects were 'lighter' in Lunar gravity, they still had the same mass. If they connected with something at a given speed, they connected as hard as on Earth. She saw stars when she struck the ground with Poe on top of her. Her shoulder would be feeling the impact for at least a week.

Shaking her head, she crawled out from beneath him. After attempting to carry him, which proved difficult to do without losing her balance, she gave up and dragged him, adding the survival pack to her load as she passed it. Nothing in the crater floor offered a good blast shadow if the Banshee blew. She circled around to search for an outcrop in the crater wall, a difficult task with only reflected sunlight from the soil in the distance. Morbid curiosity drove her to investigate the ruined fighter as she trudged along. The dim lighting and shadows only gave hints to the damage, but she'd seen enough by the time they arrived in a sheltered spot to know the ship had made its last landing.

Protected only by their thermies, the cold ground would freeze them. They needed the extra barrier of the thermal blanket from the pack. She spread it out, rolled Poe onto it, then went to work on the last few necessities. Her own beacon had been running since the ejection set it off. She made sure that his was running as well, then hooked both their breathers to the battery. Now free to rest, she joined him, curling up close because the blanket wasn't intended for two.

Poe would be fine, she decided. He might even get a medal for what he'd just done. Herself, not so much. She'd never lost a ship, but now she'd wasted two on a boneheaded move during a training exercise. Not a career advancing move, she suspected.

"You know, you're the second winger I've dragged out of a cockpit this year. It's getting old."

"Muh," Vampire answered. Encouraged, she shook him and he roused a bit more.

"...where?"

"Hell if I know. You really do have to work harder on your landings."

After a long pause, he mumbled. "...think that was your landing...?"

"Oh-oh-oh-oh, no! You can't prove nothin'! Your ship, your landing!"

He dragged in a breath, audible through the comm, then humphed. "... what shape... is your ship in?"

She broke out in an honest laugh. Her trusty Attacker Variant, the Banshee she'd flown for two years and over a hundred missions, now lay in a few thousand pieces distributed over several square kilometers. She caught her breath again, then repositioned herself to rest her head on his shoulder. Hopefully he would understand it was a matter of necessity. There just wasn't room for personal space on the blanket.

"Yeah. I guess we're both gonna need new rides now. Yours is probably still good for spare parts anyway, if the reactor doesn't fry. Nothing so far, but keep your head down, 'kay?"

He didn't answer. After a while, she felt driven to make more conversation. She still owed him a Thank-You, but she wasn't ready for that.

Three years in the cockpit made for unbreakable habits. Nothing could stop the battle analysis from running in the back of her mind. Only this time, it was Poe's rescue that she analyzed.

"Huh. Not psychic, my butt. You were flying Tony's plan before he told it to you."

"I was flying my own plan. I switched over to Tony's."

"B.S. First the Wraith and now this. Too much coincidence. You're a Sensitive. Trying to keep the brass from finding out?"

After another dark glance at her, he sighed. "The brass already know all about it."

"So there is an 'it'."

A slow nod, a dour pull of the lip, and then Vampire looked away. "You know about my implant problems. After the docs did all they could, I was still permanently doped up on painkillers. Then some Zindavoor came to see me."

"Zindavoor?"

"Shamans. Healers."

She puzzled over that. "What could alien doctors do for a human?"

"They could feel my pain. Literally. They trained me how to not broadcast it."

"Hah? What good does that do you?"

"Humans have some kind of feedback thing. Apparently, if we don't broadcast  the pain, we can ignore it. Not noticing it and not broadcasting it are sort of the same thing."

"That's the best they could do for you?"

His eyes closed. "Yeah."

"Sucks."

"Yeah. It's more than humans could do for me though. And it gives me an advantage. The moment some psychic attack like a Wraith disrupts me, the pain comes back. I know about them before I can even see them. And all that practice at blocking pain makes me really strong at blocking the attacks."

"That doesn't explain today."

He sighed, then gave a hoarse chuckle. "Any interception path would have been about the same. You would have realized that already if you weren't convinced I was psychic."

She had no answer for that. He had a point.

They remained silent for a time, until her mind finally settled on a new subject. "So, I wonder... do they count off for not bringing your ship back? In the contest, I mean. I have no idea if they have a rule about that."

He snorted. "You care? It still matters to you who won?"

She studied him for a few breaths, wondering how a pilot could fight so well in a simulated battle and care so little about the score. The way his eyes had reacted to her question bothered her.

"Yeah. I want to know who won. What's wrong with that?"

His eyes closed again, and she realized he wasn't blocking pain successfully right now. Without the cushioning of the seat and webbing, the landing had badly banged him up, and her dragging him across the ground couldn't have helped. She wondered if the damage included the shoulder she was borrowing.

Well, he hasn't complained yet.

"You're alive," he declared after a long silence. "Congratulations. You win."

"Tales of the ESDF [13+] by Eric the Fred
    Tales from the Earth System Defense Force

© Copyright 2006 Eric the Fred (ericthefred at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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