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.”

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.”

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.

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-“
“Shut.”
“-controlled studies…”
“UP.”
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.