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.”
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.”