Chapter 3 - Cat Girl
Senior Aviator Rissa Lee looked across the Sim bay to the two boys setting up at the far end. That's them? You can't be serious, Ginsu!
Commander Carter had ordered, "Learn everything you can about those two. I'm counting on you."
Aviator Tony Ang, a little Asian guy with a lazy smirk and all the military bearing of a bum, sat at the control desk. Like Rissa, he was a 'Teeny', meaning he'd qualified for pilot before his fourteenth birthday. He'd achieved Aviator rank two years ago. His forty two scores were impressive for a youth officer who hadn't yet made Senior. The grinning fool in the control chair didn't look like a fierce pilot, but she could see the killer shadow in his eyes.
The other boy didn't look like much either, but Flying Cadet Austin Poe had scored four kills in the short six weeks that had passed since he earned his wings. He still looked like a freak. The hulking giant had spiky black hair and eye-liner, hardware in the ears and nose, and some sort of ring in his eyebrow. Looking like that at Calvin County High, they would mess with him for sure. Someone with his build and Corps individual combat training would win the fight, but, what made a guy do that to himself?
He glowered down at the aviator who was giving him last minute instructions. Once Ang finished, the cadet entered the simulator without a word. Ang shook his head and tapped on some keys as Rissa strode across the room toward him. He grinned again as he looked up at her.
"Cadets. What can you do with 'em?"
She smiled back. "He's wearing a dog collar. Have you considered a leash?"
The aviator's eyes bugged, then the grin spread out once more, bigger than ever. "I'll keep it in mind."
He jabbed out his hand. "Tony Ang. Kahuna."
She accepted his hand with some discomfort. Shaking hands instead of saluting was the custom between ESDF pilots, but as a sixteen-year-old, she still felt uncomfortable with the physical contact. Especially with boys her own age.
It didn't help that this one had been ogling her and her fellow pilots in the cafeteria when he thought they didn't see it. She forced it out of her mind and made herself think of him as a pilot instead of a boy. "Rissa Lee. Cat Girl."
"'Rissa'? I thought it was 'Ma-rissa'?" He'd been studying up on her squadron as well.
"I go by 'Rissa'." She extracted her hand, which he had hung on to for way too long, then looked down at the control board to break free of his gaze. The Flying Cadet had a virtual Banshee running through its standard start-up routine. "You're simming launches? Not dogfights?"
"The last thing Vampire needs is combat sims. You'll find that out soon enough."
His confidence irritated her. "You think so? We might just surprise you."
Ang put up a hand. "Whoa! Regrettable misunderstanding! I was talking about Dude's skills. I had no intention of bagging yours."
She decided his manner of speech, bouncing from normal pilot to surfer bum to fresh-of-the-boat Asian and back, would probably become annoying after not too much longer. For the moment, she would try to continue ignoring it.
Simultaneous to Ang's declaration, the Flying Cadet had begun his first launch run. Standard subaquatic base sequence, she noted, just like back home. The 105th and the 77th both flew out of underwater bases far enough off the coast to hide from civilian eyes. They launched out of the water like missiles and returned like submarines. 'Vampire' must have done this hundreds of times in sim and at least dozens of times in RL, but his unorthodox execution... "What kind of a... "
"Vampire!" Ang snapped into the mike, "Watch your pressures!"
On the screen, the virtual Banshee lunged from the water already trying to angle its nose for a belly-flop back into the sea. The FC worked his nose thrusters, forcing his jets back beneath him while gunning them to recover lost velocity. His craft slid sideways mere feet above the surface, casting up massive gouts of vapor. The narrow scrape with virtual death ended at last, through some miracle. His fighter slipped back in the original ascent slot.
"What happened to my thrust?" 'Vampire' demanded over the comm. "I was fine, then..."
"Steam siphon. You over-thrusted, cavitated then siphoned in seawater. The steam bubble you created fooled you into thinking you still had normal thrust. You have to maintain pressure dead on the numbers while you're still underwater, Brah."
No answer returned from within the simulator.
Rissa considered the Aviator's explanation as she watched his student's ascent. Was he guessing? She'd heard of the siphon effect. It was one of those bugbears that bit only under certain exact conditions, but she'd never seen one in sim or real life. He couldn't diagnose something that rare on the fly, could he? He sounded so certain...
Despite the bungle, the FC had worked his way out of a condition that under normal circumstances resulted in a crash. Perhaps he did have a skill or two. Still... she noticed the irony of the screw-up, so soon after Ang talked him up like that.
"If he's so skillful, why'd he flunk out on the first try? He must have, right? He's a sixteen-year-old rookie."
Ang flicked a glance at her, then looked back to his work, a wry smile on his face. "He didn't flunk out. Don't bring it up around him unless you want him to take a swing at you."
His eyes didn't reflect the easy-going sound of his voice.
Feeling uneasy about his odd attitude, she asked, "What happened?"
The grin had vanished and a solemn Ang was watching the boards without comment. She could see now that he had the FC doing a scramble sim, practicing a near-Earth intercept. She kept her gaze on the aviator. After he glanced her way once more and saw her waiting for an answer, he shrugged. "He shoulda been a teeny, just like you and me."
She puzzled at the claim. Due to a sharp drop in able pilots, Admiralty had pushed candidates with higher potentials into early implants. They had cut the practice back once the need stopped outweighing the cost to 'teenies', but... "What do you mean, 'should have been'? Being a teeny isn't standard procedure for anyone."
The haunted look in Ang's eyes and the softness in his voice when he looked up told her she'd misunderstood something. "Poe received his 'ware at twelve years old just like you and me, but something went wrong. He almost died during the implant operation. Then his first implant failed. They had to replace it, so he went through more pain than you or I could imagine. It lasted for ages longer too, and it left him a wreck. Took four years of therapy before the shrinks would give him flight clearance."