Taking Flight, Part XIII- Epilogue

It was midnight, one week from the final exam, and Kali and Ingrid lay side by side, staring up at the stars.

The girls remained silent, because this had been a day for speeches- from morning, when the cadet’s visiting families were welcomed to the academy, to evening, when everyone had filed out to the field to watch the cadets’ graduation.

“It had been decades since we’ve seen a class with such promise,” Commander Schumann had said to the assembled crowd, as the Flightcorps banner clanged against the flagpole once more. “Every single cadet who remained in the program passed the final exam, and this was due to the leadership of several cadets.

“Cadet Goldberg, during the mock battle you took a hit for a fellow cadet, and for that show of courage, as well as for getting the highest test score on the written exams, you have earned the title of Senior Cadet, a place at the officer training school, and the Flightcorps  blue medal. Please step forward.”

Glenn went to the podium, where he shook the commander’s hand and accepted his medal. Kali clapped so hard, her hands stung.

“Cadet Milgram, after several cadets were involved in a crash at the edge of the Red Forest, you landed your mech and attempted to administer first aid, and you stayed by the radio afterward to make sure that everyone else was safe. For this you have earned the title of Senior Cadet, a place at the search and rescue training academy, and the Flightcorps blue medal. Please step forward.”

As Jenna stepped up to the podium there was a deafening cheer from the crowd- Jenna’s very large family was cheering her from the front row.

“The last award is shared by two cadets. The first Cadet, Cadet Owens, encouraged her fellow cadets to break protocol and protect a village of civilians. During the ensuing battle, she assumed the role of commander and had the presence of mind to issue orders in the heat of battle. Cadet Chaudry, in addition to fighting one of the most impressive battles ever seen in the history of Flightcorps, was also the first one to break protocol and go to the rescue of the villagers. Cadet Chaudry and Cadet Owens have shown remarkable valor, as well as remarkable wisdom- the wisdom to act when they knew they must act.

“Cadet Owens, Cadet Chaudry, please step forward.”

Kali could hardly hear the crowd as she stepped to the podium. Her ears seemed to be buzzing.

“For your valor, for your wisdom, and for your excellence as pilots, you have both earned the title of Senior Cadet, a place at the officer training school, and the Flightcorps medal of honor.”

 

#

“So,” Ingrid said as they stared up at the stars.

“So,” Kali said.

“I haven’t congratulated you.”

“No, you haven’t.”

“The Senior Cadets graduate tomorrow,” Ingrid continued, “but it’s just a formality. I already have my orders.”

“So we aren’t equals now, after all,” Kali said.

“No- I’m a Lieutenant,” Ingrid said. “And by Monday, I’ll be at the Titan base.”

The two lay in silence again. A sudden flash of silver streaked across the sky, near Cassiopeia, and for a moment Kali thought it must be a meteor. Then she remembered where she was, and recognized it as a mech, leaving atmosphere.

“Will we see each other again?” Kali asked.

“I’ll try to keep tabs on my trainees, but you know how those things go.”

“I know.”

Kali sat up and stretched her back. “Why are you here with me, then?”

“I dunno- I’m trying to get used to not hating you anymore. I haven’t had that much time.”

Kali laughed. “Why did you hate me?”

“Just stupid pride. I set out to prove that you didn’t belong on Brave Sector- you remember our race. I chose to race you because if I could humiliate the very best ameteur, the others would see that they were hopeless and leave. Instead, you almost won, and Commander Schumann was so impressed that he gave you a place here. And he was right- Miss Medal-of-honor.”

“I’m sure you have a shelf full of them.”

“Damn straight I do.” Ingrid stood up and stretched her own back- and in the dim light, she looked almost the same to Kali as Ingrid’s avatar had the day of their contest.

Kali opened her mouth to promise to write, to beg Ingrid to write to her, to swear that she’d try to get stationed on Titan when she graduated…

“Well, keep practicing. The next time we meet, I’ll slaughter you.”

And then Ingrid turned and walked across the field, to the barracks.
The End

Taking Flight, Part XII

 

“Sr. Cadet Sansloy- Sr Cadet Sansloy- come in. If you can hear me, please respond,” Kali shouted, pressing the button on the side of her eyepiece periodically to reset it.

“She can’t hear you,” Jana said. “Something must have happened. There’s no connection.”

“Sr. Cadet Sansloy- please respond,” Kali continued, ignoring Jana. “Sr. Cadet… INGRID! You have to be alright. You have to be. INGRID!”

The last word came out as a desperate scream, which pierced the empty, silent air.

“Kali, stop. You can’t help her,” Glen said gently.

Kali took a deep breath. No- she couldn’t help Ingrid, and she also couldn’t depend on her. She couldn’t tell her about the village.

“Sr Cadet Miller? Commander Schumann? Anyone?”

“Kali- pull yourself together.” Cadet Johnson, a usually quiet girl, said. “No one can help us. Everyone is gone.”

Kali turned away from the girl, towards Sunny.

“Can you reach anyone?”

“No- it’s dead. Everyone’s gone silent.”

In the case of a very difficult problem, Bear had said to take five minutes to think. Kali didn’t have five minutes, though. The enemy mech were too fast.

And then, Kali realized she didn’t need five minutes. She’d already made up her mind to act, and now there was a piece of her mind trying to keep her from following through. It was the piece of her mind that had been telling her to give up, to stop practicing, to beat herself up for not being perfect- it was the piece of her mind that was afraid to fail. Now it was the piece of her mind telling her to find someone else- someone in authority- do do what she had to do.

It was the piece of her mind that was afraid.

And then Kali was running toward the hangar. She could barely hear the others calling behind her.

“Kali- come back. Where are you going? We have to take shelter.”

Kali kept running until Glen got ahead of her. She should have known that would happen- she was a very slow runner.

“Glen, don’t try to stop me. We have to get to the hangar- we have to get to the mech and we have to fight.”

“But Kali- we have our orders. No matter what…”

He trailed off as Sunny blurred past them, her pigtails fluttering like twin banners.

“Sunny!” Called Kali. “Tell them. Tell them all why we have to disobey orders.”

Sunny stopped running and turned back. “Everyone- I don’t care if they kick me out. If I let those villagers die, I’ll never be able to pilot a mech again, anyway.”

 

#

 

It was a good sign, Kali decided, that she was able to find a mech just like her own virtual mech in the hangar. Kali ran straight to the black arrow in the back of the hangar and opened the hatch, stealing just one moment to relish the feeling of sleek, cool metal under her palm.

Kali’s eyepiece connected with the arrow right away- it recognized it as the same ship she piloted in brave sector.

As Kali performed her pre-flight check, she could see the others filing into the hangar and taking the remaining mech. Kali told Bear to count them as she taxied toward the runway, and he highlighted every cadet in her eyepiece as she passed. Every single student cadet had followed Kali.

“Good. We might have a chance,” Kali murmured.

“What was that, Cadet?” Sunny’s voice said through the eyepiece.

“I think we have a chance,” Kali said in a louder voice.

“Damn straight, we do,” Sunny said. “Cadets, follow Kali- the black arrow points the way. Johnson and Lasalle, you need to cover the right and left flank. Everyone else, fill out the formation just like we’ve practiced. Glenn and I will cover the rear. Now- move your butts!”

No one contradicted Sunny’s orders, or even questioned why she’d taken charge. Instead, they all followed Kali down the runway and took off in formation as ordered.

Kali didn’t take the time to watch the others as they fell in behind her. She flew in the direction the enemy ships had gone as fast as the arrow would take her, which was very fast in unobstructed flight.

Soon she could see the enemy ships ahead. They flew, seemingly against the laws of physics, like heavy black bricks that had been hurled by a giant. Bear superimposed a target over each ship- eight in all. Kali got above them, though there was no cloudline for her to rise above and hide her position.

“Hey Sunny- we outnumber the enemy. Let’s try to engulf them.”

“Good idea, Black Arrow,” Sunny said in a sharp voice- an obvious impression of Ingrid’s voice. “You stay above. Glen and I will get below, Johnson and Lasalle, you flank them, and everyone else try to fill in the gaps.”

The rest of the Cadets fell into position, and when 2 other mech got above, Kali was able to push the throttle, and get ahead of the enemy, locking them in.

“Great job,” Sunny said. “Let’s take this party home.”

“Wait- god damn it- one slipped past me,” Jana said.

“There, to the right- I see it,” Kali replied. An enemy ship had indeed slipped through the formation, and was spiralling toward the town with an agility that belied the ship’s bulk.

“Rogers, fall into my position. I’m going after it,” Kali said. As soon as the silver arrow- a near duplicate to her own mech- got ahead of the enemy ships, Kali spiralled out of formation after the rogue ship.

Kali fired her blasters just above the ship, hoping to force it onto the ground, but the other ship rolled and fired up toward Kali’s own ship.

“If it’s a dogfight you want,” Kali grunted as she rolled her own mech in unison, “then it’s a dogfight you’ll get.”

The two mech circled each other, but as they did the ground grew closer and closer. They were far from the village and far into the woods as they approached the ground.

Kali pulled her mech’s nose up just in time to avoid disaster, but the rogue ship wasn’t so lucky. It plummeted into the woods and crashed belly-up as Kali ran her own ship into the bush.

The enemy ship was destroyed, Kali thought. It had to be. It couldn’t take off in its present state, but the enemy could still be alive, and it could escape from the hatch that most enemy fighters had in the bottom.

Kali grabbed her hand blaster and scrambled down from her own mech. Her boots hit the ground just as the hatch on the enemy ship started to open.

Kali raised her weapon, sweat beading on her brow. Would it really look like a jellyfish? Would she be able to take it hostage, or would it resist? Some aliens could communicate in English, she knew, but would this one even try?

The hatch swung open all the way, and a very human-shaped, flesh colored arm emerged, followed by another. Then a girl- in a blue flightsuit with a long, dark braid swung over her shoulder- heaved herself through the hatch.

“Congratulations,” Ingrid said. “You pass.”

Taking Flight, Part XI

 

Bear’s Updated Rules:

1- Bear will give you special star points right away when you accomplish a goal.

2- If you come across a problem, don’t call it impossible until you try to solve it.

3- If the problem is really tough, think about it for at least 5 minutes, by the clock.

4- You get double star points for solving a really tough problem.

 

Kali smiled to herself as she reviewed her weekly goals. She had accumulated 40 star points in the last week, most of which she’d earned after passing her diving test.

In order to make sure a mech pilot could survive a water landing or get to safety if the mech malfunctioned underwater, all cadets were required to learn to swim. After a near herculean effort, Kali had succeeded in floating, swimming laps, and diving in rough, near-freezing water.

The ability to survive in water should have been enough to motivate Kali to practice swimming, but for some reason, sparkly virtual stars awarded by a cartoon bear had been a much better motivator.

Sometimes, Kali hated her own brain.

“Hey, Kali.” Glen said, interrupting Kali’s thoughts. Kali switched off her eyepiece and smiled up at her friend as he put his tray on the table across from her.

“Hi Glen.”

“You seemed deep in thought. You aren’t worried about the finals, are you?”

“I am, a little,” Kali admitted. “You haven’t heard anything about what might be on it, have you?”

Glen shook his head and ran a hand through his closely shorn hair. “I haven’t heard a whisper, except from Sunny.”

Kali laughed. “Don’t believe anything she says; you know it’s all made-up. She told me last week that for my final exam, I’d have to beat Ingrid in hand-to-hand combat.”

“That’s nothing. She told Luke that he’d have to field-dress a bear. But I’m not worried about the exams- I’m more worried about what happens afterward.”

Kali’s mouth opened- just by habit- to ask Glen what he meant, but Kali already knew. In her mind, she could hear her last conversation with Ingrid. After the exam, all of the cadets would be beholden to real-life consequences.

“I know what we should do after the exams,” Sunny said, sitting down with her own tray by Glen. “We should steal the Jeeps, drive to Blackmine Village, and get drunk.”

Glen rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. I mean- what about our assignments? I really want to go be a rescue pilot. I’ve been taking extra paramedic courses and everything, but I’ve been reading the news sites, and listening to rumors…”

“Don’t listen to rumors,” Jenna said, sitting next to Kali. “But I’ve heard them too- that we might go to war, soon.”

“We’ve been at war for a while,” Sunny said. “We’ve just been in a lull. I don’t care if I go into combat. I’m not afraid.”

“I’m not afraid, either,” Glen said, “but I don’t want to fight anyone. The Jovians don’t look like people- they don’t even communicate like us- but they think. They’re sentient- not ‘space jellyfish’ like everyone calls them.”

“If it weren’t for our fight with the ‘space jellyfish,’ the mech force wouldn’t even exist,” Kali said. “Like it or not, the war is the reason we’re all here.”

The group fell into silence for a few moments, and then an alarm sounded.

“Attention cadets- please report to the airfield. This is not a drill- I repeat- this is not a drill.”

 

#

 

A few minutes later, Kali stood in a row with all of the other student cadets, facing the hangar in their usual formation. The airfield was strangely quiet. There were no Senior cadets or officers on the field, no mech on the runways, and no maintenance workers on the field. There was just the whistle of the wind, and the clank clank of the pulley on the flagpole.

Kali looked up at the flag- a blue circle on a sea of black stars, with words around the edge that read Earth Defence Force.

When had they changed the banner from Flightcorps?

Just then, Kali’s eyepiece activated, and all around her, the other cadet’s eyepieces activated, as well. She could see Ingrid looking back at her through the eyepiece, seated in a cockpit, seeming to struggle with the controls.

“This isn’t a drill, Cadets,” Ingrid said. “We’re under attack by the Jovians. The Senior cadets and Officers are all engaged. Take cover in the bunkers, and do not leave until you’re given the all clear. You aren’t to leave, no matter what. THIS IS AN ORDER CADETS…”

The message crackled, then, and Ingrid’s image broke up into digital noise.

“Take cover… order… move.”

And then there was silence.

Kali’s blood seemed to freeze in her veins. Not Ingrid, she thought desperately.  Ingrid is too tough to die.

“You heard her,” said Glen’s shaking voice. “We have to get to the bunker. Let’s go.”

“Wait-” Sunny cried out. “Look!”

Sunny pointed into the sky, and everyone watched as 4 black fighters, followed by 3 more, passed overhead, leaving trails of heavy smoke across the blue sky.

“They aren’t attacking,” Jenna said, sounding relieved.

“They-” Kali’s voice cracked, and she swallowed and spoke again. “They’re heading for the village.”