“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.”