Taking Flight, Part VIII

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the long absence. I’ve been dealing with some unexpected challenges in my personal life, but I’m back on schedule. Thank you for your support.

The hangar was a cavernous building, with mech of all kinds scattered around, in various stages of repair. Workers in white jumpsuits went from mech to mech testing, tinkering, and examining the mech through their astralnet eyepieces. One or two workers whizzed down the aisles between the mech on tiny personal transporters.
Kali gazed about, half in wonder at the assortment of machines around, and half in trepidation. Was she being re-assigned to mechanic? Certainly, the workings of mech were fascinating, but to never be able to actually pilot one would be torment.
Many brilliant student pilots had to be grounded for health reasons, however, and Kali’s endurance scores were pretty lousy.
Ingrid stopped walking abruptly and pointed up to the elegantly curved, white mech ahead.
“Does that look familiar, Cadet?”
“It looks like Seraph,” Kali said.
“It’s the real one- the one and only. Beautiful, isn’t it? And yet- it’s a little dirty. It’s so hard to keep a white
mech in top shape. “
Ingrid turned back to Kali and smirked. Then she reached into a bin next to the mech and fished out a rag and a canister of cleaner.
“I’ll be back in about an hour,” Ingrid said, tossing the rag and the canister to Kali. “I expect Seraph will be shining.”
Kali could almost hear her heart shattering in her chest. Tears stung Kali’s eyes, but she could not let them fall- not while Ingrid was watching. Ingrid laughed- actually laughed- at the expression on Kali’s face, and then she spun on her heel and walked away.
Kali watched Ingrid leave, and then she put the rag and canister on the ground, and took the eyepiece from her pocket.
“Bear?” she whispered after she put the eyepiece on.
“Yes, Kali?” bear said, appearing in his usual shower of stars.
“Delete my current schedule and the file labeled, ‘Bear’s Rules for Self-Control.’ The program hasn’t been effective.”
“Are you sure, Kali? Your academic progress-”
“Just delete it. “
Kali stared up at the mech. For a moment, she considered walking out of the hangar and heading straight home, but the very idea of facing her mother, and explaining her failure, made her want to sit down and cry. She couldn’t decide what else to do, however, so picked up the rag and cleaner, and spent the next hour half-heartedly wiping Seraph down.
“What the heck have you been doing?”
Kali continued wiping in circles, ignoring Ingrid.
“I’ve been gone a whole hour, and you aren’t even half-finished. I had thought that, since I must be your instructor, I might as well get a clean mech out of the deal.”
Kali dropped the rag and turned. “My instructor?”
“Trust me; I don’t like this any more than you, but I can’t ignore orders, so we’re stuck together. I expect you to work harder in the future, though. Well, you might as well put away the cleaning stuff so I can show you the controls.”
Kali could only stare at Ingrid as she opened the cockpit hatch and climbed in.
“Come on- what are you waiting for?” Ingrid said. “I’ll be in the back- you sit in the pilot’s seat.”
Kali blinked. Tears were gathering in her eyes again, but it was much easier to keep the tears back than it was to keep her breathing steady, and not hyperventilate.  She took a couple of deep breaths, and then clambered into the cockpit. She squeezed into the pilot’s seat- it was far more cramped than she’d imagined it would be, judging from the exterior size of the mech and how large cockpits seemed in simulations.
Kali strapped herself into the seat and took the yoke. Somehow, the solid feel of the rough vinyl yoke in her hands seemed less real than the simulation controls, which she could never physically touch. The entire situation was so surreal, she barely heard Ingrid as she told Kali the function of each button and dial on the control panel.
“You know,” Kali said when Ingrid had finished, “you’ve managed to tie my brain into a knot, today. I’m not exactly in the best mental state for my first flight.”
“Oh, boo-hoo,” Ingrid replied. “When you’re flying a rescue mission light years from earth, you can’t quit because someone hurt your feelings, so toughen up.”
“But- that’s not the best way to engender confidence in new pilots,” Kali argued. “If we start out with consistent feedback regarding our progress and abilities, we’ll have the confidence to face difficult scenarios later. But if we don’t get consistent feedback, we’ll be prone to anxiety, and-“
“God, Cadet, shut up and do your pre-flight check. You can treat your student cadets any way you want if you become a senior cadet.”
“But I can show you-“
“-controlled studies…”
Kali sighed, and took the controls once more.

Taking Flight, part VII

The morning alarm sounded- shrill and jarring- but no one in the girl’s barracks jumped up or fell out of bed.
The surviving junior cadets were all still awake, sitting on their still-made bunks, revising their assignments.
 To Kali, the sound was welcome- even exhilarating. She put her tablet away and went to stand at the end of her bunk for inspection.
“Kali!” Sunny’s shrill voice echoed through the room. “Are you excited, Kali? Are you ready for me to humiliate you? Isn’t this going to be fun?”
 Kali smirked, but kept her eyes fixed ahead. They were a month into training, and Sunny hadn’t decided whether to be a friend or foe to Kali. She was determined to be one or the other, though, so any time she beat Kali at a task, she would taunt her, and any time Kali would beat her, she would congratulate her. Every chance she got, she would try to break Kali’s concentration- she would even make loud noises behind Kali when she ran flight simulations.
 The class was considerably smaller than it had been at the beginning of the summer, and each of the remaining cadets had their own strengths. Kali was top in flight simulations, Alex and Jenna were tied for top academic scores, and Sunny had the best physical endurance scores, despite her tiny stature.
 “Today we’ll see who’s really at the top of the class, won’t we?” Sunny yelled happily. “Today we pilot a real mech.”
 Just then, as it did every day at 7:00 sharp, the door slammed open. Senior Cadet Ingrid Schumann stepped briskly through the door and gazed around her with sharp eyes.
 “Which mech do you think you’ll get, Kali?” Sunny continued, ignoring the senior cadet’s entrance.
 “Quiet, Cadet Chaudry,” Ingrid snapped, though Kali hadn’t spoken. “No talking during inspection.”
 Sunny giggled.
 Ingrid ignored Sunny as she strode between the bunks. Kali felt sinking sensation in her stomach as Ingrid approached. Of course she had been blamed for Sunny’s outburst. Nothing she ever did seemed to satisfy Ingrid. Sometimes she wondered why she tried.
 Kali just closed her eyes and, as Bear had instructed, pictured herself in the cockpit of a real fighter, soaring through the sky.
 “Pay attention, Cadet Chaudry,” Ingrid snapped.
 Kali opened her eyes, and suppressed the urge to sigh.
 Ingrid continued to inspect each bunk, occasionally stopping to flick away and imaginary particle of dust, or smooth an imaginary wrinkle, until, apparently satisfied, she stepped into the center of the room.
 “Listen up, Cadets. This morning, I’m taking you to the airfield, where you’ll be given your mech assignments. Two cadets will be assigned to each mech- one pilot, and one co-pilot. There are three types of mech- the fighters, which are assigned to the defense force, passenger/freight vehicles, and search-and-rescue mech. Each kind of mech can transform to suit the environment where you’ll be piloting, and you’ll practice piloting in a variety of environments, but today we’re going to focus on atmospheric flight.”
 Even Ingrid couldn’t suppress the collective cheer that went up at that statement.
After Ingrid had announced the day’s assignment, she’d proceeded to torture all of the cadets with two hours of repetitive calisthenics. They exercised outside, in full view of the airfield, but every time someone’s eyes wandered in the direction of the mech that stood in a line at the end of the airfield- waiting for the students- Ingrid would yell at the offender, and make them run laps.
Even so, everyone got a good look at the mech. Soon it became clear that there were too many students, and too few mech.
“There are 25 students, and 12 mech,” Sunny gasped as she did jumping jacks. “But if there’s only one pilot and one co-pilot…”
“I’m sure they’ll just assign three to one mech,” Alex gasped back.
“But there’s not room in a cockpit, if you include the instructor,” Jenna said.
“Maybe they’re going to-“ Sunny started,
“No talking cadets. Just for that, 10 laps around the track. We won’t go to the airfield until everyone finishes,” Ingrid snapped.
There was a collective groan from the junior cadets, and they all headed to the track.
10 laps later, an exhausted and subdued junior cadet corps made their way to the airfield. Kali stood near the back of the group and stared up at the mech. The first one was a shining black fighter- an f-5 almost identical to the one she flew on Astralnet. It was solid- the black metal glinting in the sunlight. If she had been bold enough to reach out her hand, she could have touched it.
Each Mech in line was progressively older, and the very last was an old model J-16 freighter, complete with rusted bolts and poorly patched metal.
Kali wondered which would be worse: being assigned to the J-16 as pilot, or the f-5 as co-pilot? She just as soon realized that the worst fate would be to have no assignment at all. Would she be the one to go? She was top of the class in simulations, and at least the top 5 academically, but her physical endurance was, by far, the worst in the class. Ingrid has always emphasized that simulations meant nothing in the real world.
She looked around and saw her own fears reflected in the frowns of those around her- who would be the odd person out?
The f-5’s hatch opened, then, and Senior Cadet Miller jumped out of the cockpit with a clipboard in his hand, and his signature cocky grin on his face.
“Ok Cadets- at ease. Gather around; I have your assignments right here.
“First up is the J-16. Cadet Goldberg, you’re the pilot. Cadet Lucas, you’re the co-pilot.”
Alex shot Kali a wry grin before jogging over to his mech, Maria on his heels, to meet his instructor.
Cadet Miller went down the list, working his way up to the F-5. Every time he read a name, Kali’s heart would skip a beat. He got to the f-5, and she was among the three left.
“Finally, we have the f-5. Cadet Brown, you’re the pilot. Cadet Owens, you’re the co-pilot.”
Sunny and Jenna smiled and high fived before rushing over to the f-5. Then, halfway there, Sunny looked back and pointed to Kali.
“Hey- Cadet Miller, what about Kali?”
“Cadet Chaudry- you have a special assignment.” Cadet Miller smirked and gestured to Ingrid. “Go with Cadet Schumann.”
Sunny and Jenna each gave Kali a sympathetic smile before turning back to Cadet Miller.
Ingrid gazed at Kali for a moment with a sadistic grin on her face before she turned back to the hangar.
“Follow me, Cadet,” she said.