Taking Flight, Part X

Kali looked dazedly around herself as her fellow cadets crowded her, patting her back, shaking her hand, and offering their congratulations. Kali’s ears buzzed with the excited chatter of her classmates.

“There was a hit- you owe me five credits.”

“ No way- we bet she’d be hit on the first bend- I have it in writing.”

Sr. Cadet Miller slung an arm around Kali’s shoulders.  “Were you really flying out there, or did you switch places with Ingrid?”

“I- I was flying,” Kali stammered.

“Wow- Cadet, you actually beat Ingrid’s best time, and she got hit twice when she made the record.”

“Wait- what?”

Sr. Cadet Miller laughed. “You didn’t expect to do the course perfectly, did you? On your first time? You’re a mech pilot, Kali, and mech are built to take hits.”

“That sort of attitude,” Ingrid growled, “Is why you came in last in our class.”

“But I can take a lot of hits,” Cadet Miller replied, “Which is how I made it through training.”

Ingrid hit Cadet Miller on the back of the head. “Yeah, I guess you can.”

Sr. Cadet Miller laughed, and then stopped and looked around, as though he just remembered he was in command.

“Ah- you guys are going to be useless for the rest of the day, aren’t you? Dismissed.”

Sunny let out a whoop, and then the crowd dispersed. Glen, Sunny, and Jenna grabbed Kali and pulled her toward the mess hall, asking questions all at once.

 

#

 

Kali got away from her friends as soon as she could, ducking behind the mess hall and running away from the barracks, where the rest of her group were, no doubt, awaiting her return.

Somehow, Kali ended up back at the hangar, staring up at Seraph’s tailfins. The fin that had been struck was unharmed- there was no dent, or even a scratch. The right fin, however, was slightly out of alignment, so Kali grabbed an unmarked toolbox, told Bear to load fin repair instructions, and set to work.

With Bear’s instructions and the 3d diagram on her eyepiece, it took Kali very little time to finish re-aligning the tailfin. When she was finished, she took off her eyepiece and stood back to examine her work with a naked eye.

“Hey Cadet- you fixed my act of sabotage, so you deserve this.”

Kali spun around and saw Ingrid standing behind her, holding out a can of soda.

“Thanks,” Kali said, accepting the can.

Ingrid popped the top on her own can, and sat on the ground by Kali’s toolbox, staring up at the completed tailfin. Kali opened her own soda, and sat down beside Ingrid.

After a few moments of silence, Kali spoke. “Um- did you really sabotage your own mech?”

Ingrid nodded, and took another sip.

“I thought that drift to the left was odd.  Why did you do it? To test me?”

Ingrid nodded again.  “Tell me, Cadet; what’s the difference between flying in simulations, and flying for real?”

Kali frowned in thought, and for a while all she could hear was the hum of the huge air-vents overhead. There were very few mechanics in the hangar now. One dropped a wrench, on the opposite end of the hangar, and it echoed through the whole room.

“It feels the same,” Kali said. “I guess in real life, I’ll run into imperfections more often- like with the tail fin.”

“We can simulate imperfections, and we often do. We give you misaligned fins, bad wings, failing engines- everything. And every situation is perfectly calibrated to feel just like the real thing.”

“Huh- then I guess there is no difference.”

BZZZZZZZT,” Ingrid buzzed loudly. “Wrong. Error. Incorrect. Ther real difference is that in the simulation, there are no lasting consequences. If you crash, you won’t die- you’ll just try again. You can’t damage the mech. You won’t injure a fellow cadet. You’re perfectly safe.

“When you fly a real mech, though, you know there are consequences to everything you do- and you can feel it. That’s why you flew like my grandmother out of the hangar, even though you’re the best damn pilot here. You’re even better than me, now that you’ve had some proper training.”

“No- there’s no way I’m better than you.”

Ingrid grinned- a genuine, lopsided grin. “No, you’re right. You can beat me in a race, sure, but you’re a complete wreck in a crisis. You spend so much time trying to be perfect that you’ve forgotten to prepare for the worst. You got hit by one tiny, harmless target on the practice course, and you fell to pieces. As much as I hate to admit it, Cadet Miller is right- you will get hit. We all do. It’s life.”

Kali sighed and took another sip of soda. “So how do I train for that?”

“You can’t. You just need experience. Training is hell for a reason- the ones who can’t cut it usually leave.”

Kali paused, the drink can frozen on its way to her mouth. Ingrid was right- not a single Cadet who’d left had been failed. They’d all called home crying, and then their parents had come to take them.

“But I worry about you- you’ve done too well. Things have been too easy for you. I don’t think you’ll be ready for the field.”

“I guess-” Kali swallowed, took another drink, and then spoke. “I guess I have to stick it out, then.”

“I guess so. You could always be my mechanic, if you don’t make the cut.”

Kali laughed. “If I could survive working for you, I could survive anything.”

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Taking Flight, Part IX

Kali gripped the control yoke as she took the mech into the air- slowly, gradually, gently. It would be an easy flight, just so she could get used to the controls…

“Loosen your grip,” Ingrid said. “And punch the throttle, will you? I want you to take us up to speed.”

Kali complied, feeling a bit of a rush as she dared to push the throttle forward more, dared to loosen her grip a little.

“Take her east, and for heaven’s sake, stop flying like a grandmother. This is just like a simulation, and you’ll need all of your focus for your first run through the course.”

“The course?” Kali said. “Are we supposed to-”

“You’re supposed to do what I tell you. Now, punch it.”

At Ingrid’s command, Kali punched the throttle automatically, feeling the compulsion to obey and the desire to argue with Ingrid all at once. Kali frowned and pushed the throttle even further.

Ingrid let out a whoop as they were thrown back against their seats, and Kali smiled a little to herself. In the distance, she could see a circle of floating orbs, glittering and spinning in the sky like a spiral galaxy. Kali turned the seraph sharply east, toward the course.

“Great- that’s more like it. Now, orbit the course and when you see the entrance, dive in. I’ll time you.”

Kali saw a gap in the floating orbs and dove in, feeling an odd tug in the controls as Seraph listed slightly to the left. Kali corrected for this, and spiralled into the course.

She barely had time to get used to correcting for Seraph’s drift before the first set of obstacles were thrown her way- the orbs shifted out of their positions, changing the course’s shape. Some orbs even flew straight toward Seraph, and Kali dodged on instinct.

“This is a way better course than the one on astralnet, isn’t it?” Ingrid said.

The first barrage of obstacles was difficult enough for Kali, but the next barrage hit before she was ready, and she fought the controls to avoid the second barrage.

“Relax, cadet,” Ingrid said laughing. “This isn’t half as hard as the time we raced.”

It was the first time Ingrid had mentioned the race, and Kali gritted her teeth as she remembered the humiliation of that defeat.

“And now, Ingrid is my superior,” Kali thought.

Anger swelled in Kali’s chest, and at once all she could see was the obstacles that lay before her, outlined in red by her eyepiece. Fear vanished, and Kali pushed the throttle with renewed focus.

This time, Kali would win.

Obstacles were now passing her in a white blur, and she picked up a subtle pattern to their movement. She hit the center of the spiral and then spun, spiralling outward to the finish line.

She was almost there, now. The finish line was in sight.

As she crossed the finish line, however, she let go of her focus for just a moment, and that moment was enough. The last obstacle hit the wing, and the seraph spun in wild circles.

“Get it under control, cadet,” Ingrid shouted. “Turn into the spin- don’t fight it. Slow down and land it on that grassy field, by the runway.”

Kali’s whole body was shaking now, with either nerves or the ship’s inertia. She didn’t know how she got the ship down afterward- she thought she must have been running on automatic after all of the disaster simulations she’d run. Finally, though, she was on terra firma, and the rest of the ship was safe.

Ingrid opened the ship’s hatch, and Kali winced as Ingrid tossed her head angrily and jumped down from the ship without a word. Miserably, Kali followed, jumping down to the grassy field as the full force of the sun hit her eyes.

A moment later, the cheers of her classmates erupted around her.

A Special Announcement

timewarp

Good day, citizens.

Due to last night’s bi-annual time warp, many of you may be experiencing strange symptoms. The most common symptoms include fatigue, headaches, and disorientation. However, as mild as the symptoms may be, they are a cause of concern, as they can cause increased accidents and decreased productivity.

To reduce your post-time warp disorientation, citizens are advised to get to sleep at your usual time, take rest breaks as needed, and report to your local stimulant dispensary, or “starbucks,” for chemical assistance. If you continue to experience symptoms that are unusually strong, or last longer than a week, please see a physician.

Despite the illness, fatigue, and increase in fatal accidents following the bi-annual time warp, please remember that the time warps are necessary to maintain the stability of the space-time continuum, as well as the fabric of society. If we did not create time warps are regular intervals, entropy would erode, causality would fail, broken vases would fix themselves, old people would turn into babies, and Earth would spin backward, flinging us all into space. Because of this, we must all sacrifice a steady sleep schedule to the greater good.

Please continue to monitor your health, and thank you for your cooperation.

Sincerely,

The Department of Temporal Affairs

 

 

 

The Coven, Part V

The man stood and extended a black-gloved hand toward Hope. “It’s been too long,” he said earnestly.

“It has,” Hope said quietly. “How is your family? Are you… managing?”

Something about Hope’s speech sounded strange, but I said nothing.

“It is difficult, though not as difficult as it was at first,” the man said. “Nevertheless, I am here to impose on your generosity once more.”

The man turned back to the little girl, who was still sitting on the sofa, watching her feet as they swung back and forth. “Celeste, please come here.”

The little girl jumped down from the couch and walked over to the man, her heels clicking smartly on the marble floor. She took the man’s outstretched hand and gazed with open curiosity in her wide brown eyes.

Hope’s wide brown eyes stared back at her.

“Ever since Celeste’s mother died,” the man continued, “my mother has cared for her. But Maman is feeling her age more and more, and she finds it difficult to care for Celeste. As a soldier, I can’t care for a child. I thought that, as her godfather, you’d be in a better position to take her in- especially now, as you have a wife.”

The strange man and Hope both turned toward me, as though they both just realized I was in the room.

“Forgive me,” Hope said. “May I present my wife, Lady Grace Frey. Lady, this is Captain Goode, one of my oldest and dearest friends.”

I curtsied, and Captain Goode bowed and shook my hand.

“Please excuse me if I don’t remove my gloves,” he said. “I have a rare skin condition, and my doctor insists I wear them at all times.

“Of course. I am pleased to meet you.” I turned to Celeste, and dropped a little curtsey. “I’m pleased to meet you, too, my lady.”

Celeste giggled, and then slapped a hand over her mouth.

Hope took a deep breath and turned to me. “Grace, would you be so kind as to take Celeste to the rose garden? She may like to take a ride on the swing- the one on the sycamore.”

“Of course,” I said. “The rose garden is through the doors off the east wing, isn’t it?”

Hope nodded, and I took Celeste’s hand and left the room.

 

#

 

I opened the glass doors that led to the garden, and a warm, summer breeze met me, carrying with it the scent of roses.

Celeste dashed through the doors and ran down the garden path to the sycamore, and I sprinted to keep up. By the time I reached her, she had hopped onto the swing.

“May I have a push?” she asked.

I obliged her, and she pumped her legs as she started to swing, higher and higher.

“Oh- this is nice,” she said. “I can see all the way down into the valley, from up here. Look- there’s a little brook.”

I laughed and pushed her a little higher. “I can’t see it from here; you’ll have to tell me about the brook.”

“It winds through the hills like a little snake- its scales all sparkly in the sun.” Celeste dragged her toes on the ground, then, to slow herself down.

“Lady Frey, I thought you might be scary, like a wicked step mother, or at least stuck-up, but you’re very nice. It’s hard to believe you are a great lady.

“Oh! Look,” Celeste said suddenly. “There are some carriages coming up the road. I wish you might see them.”

“I think I might see them if I look over the hedge, there,” I said, pointing to the other side of the garden, “and wait for them to come around the bend.”

Celeste jumped from the swing at the height of its arc, showing far more boldness than I’d possessed at her age, and ran to the hedge. I followed close behind and in a few moments, I could see two carriages, each one black with gold trim, and each being pulled by two white horses. They passed close by the hedge, though not close enough for me to see the occupants, and then rattled away toward the front of the house.

“I wasn’t expecting visitors so soon after my arrival,” I said.

“Everyone will want to see you, of course,” Celeste said.

“Who?”

“Why- Uncle’s friends,” she replied. “They always visit when Uncle is home, and I think they visit Lord Frey whenever they can. They are all extremely odd.”

“Why do you say they are odd?”

“I… I don’t know how to explain.” Celeste turned away from the hedge and started to wander up the garden path, touching rose blossoms as she went. “They’re all odd in different ways. Lady Willoughby says strange things- things I would get in trouble for saying. I think she’s less of a Lady than you.”

“Celeste, you mustn’t talk of a Lady and an elder in such a way,” I said with a laugh.

Celeste turned away from the roses and regarded me with her wide eyes. “Are you going to scold me for it?”

“I just did.”

Celeste smiled a little, walked over, and took my hand in hers.

“Lady Willoughby isn’t the strangest one. Her husband never speaks- not even to the other grownups. He mostly sits in a corner by himself and stares. And then there’s Mrs. Auber. She’s a dowa- dow- she’s a very old lady.”

“Do you mean to say dowager?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s it. She *knows* things.”

I laughed again. “It’s not surprising that Mrs. Auber knows things. With age often comes wisdom.”

“No- I don’t think that’s true.” Celeste let go of my hand to scratch her nose. “Grandmamanalways tells me wisdom comes with age, but I think she just says so because she is old. She isn’t wise- she’s just crabby.”

“Celeste!”

“But Mrs. Auber knows things no one should know, even if they’re smart. It’s scary.”

I was saved the trouble of a response when the garden doors opened, and Chastity stepped through.

“Lady Frey,” she said in a tone even more formal than the one she had used before. “Lord Frey has requested that you come to the drawing room to receive his guests.”

The Coven, Part VI

Discoveries

 

Tick…tock…

The avocado clock on the wall seemed to tick louder and slower as the seconds passed, echoing through the empty classroom.

A few hours earlier, the room had been alive with the noise and chatter of adolescents who had been rounded up, forced into plastic chairs, and branded with the title “middle school students.” Now, however, the creatures had been freed, and the only living being left in the room was a middle-aged man with thinning hair and thick, coke bottle lenses.

The man sat hunched at a desk, where moved in an almost robotic fashion, taking a paper from the stack on his left, scratching at it with a red pencil, and then placing it in the stack on his right before repeating the whole process. His movements soon fell into syncopation with the ticking of the avocado clock, and the sounds echoed off of the scuffed linoleum floors and bare, yellow walls.

Tick…shuffle…tick…scratch…scratch…tick…shuffle…

After a few more rounds, the man seemed to deflate. He groaned, yawned, and took off his glasses, throwing them onto the desk where they landed with a heavy thunk among the crumpled papers and Styrofoam cups.

The man rubbed his eyes, yawned once more, and then slowly reached for the next paper on the desk.

He froze, staring at the paper while his face flushed. He reached for his glasses, put them on, and squinted at the paper again, mouth agape in astonishment.

Just then, the classroom door swung open, and the man jumped. Standing in the doorway was a tall, thin woman in a rumpled blouse.

“Hey, Gary. I’m going to go grab some takeout from the new Chinese place. Would you like anything?”

Karen,” the man hissed. “Come in and shut the door. I have something to show you.”

The woman shrugged and shut the door, coming to stand by the desk. “You okay, Gary?”

“Okay? I’ve never been better. How astonishing this is!” He thrust the paper at Karen, along with a heavy book. “I’ve just been grading labs, you see, and I’ve stumbled across an amazing result.”

He pointed at the book. “This is the result the children are supposed to get, and this is the result that Bobby Richards got.”

Karen frowned. “Doesn’t that just mean he got the wrong-“

“- it means that Bobby Richards has made the most important discovery in the history of science.”

Gary looked up at Karen again, his watery eyes gleaming behind his glasses.

“Think about it, Karen. This completely undoes everything we thought we knew about chemistry and physics. Who would have known that the greatest scientific genius of all time was sitting in my third period science class?”

“I certainly wouldn’t,” Karen said. “He usually just sleeps through my class.”

“He’s beyond anything we can teach him here, of course,” Gary said, waving this aside. “We need to get his work published in a journal right away.”

Karen took the paper from Gary again, and smirked. “Maybe we should erase the dirty pictures he’s doodled on the margins, before we submit it.”

“Those aren’t dirty pictures,” Gary said. “He’s had to invent an entirely new scientific notation to express his radical ideas.”

Karen shook her head. “Sure. Of course he has.” She turned and walked to the door.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“I should get back to grading my own papers. One of my students has written a poem- half of the words are misspelled, the grammar is atrocious, and the meter is completely off. Obviously, it’s a brilliantly existential deconstructionist critique of the human condition,” Karen said acidly.

Karen turned back, and saw that Gary had stood up. A broad grin stretched across his face, baring a mouthful of even, white teeth. He stretched his hand out.

“Congratulations,” he said, “on your discovery.”

Karen sighed, and turned back to the door. “I’ll bring you some lo mein.”