14: Moon Duty Chapter 4
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Chapter 4 - First Test

More pain than we went through, for longer.

Every pilot in the ESDF went through the same horrid experience. The Ai'iin, the senior-most Alliance species, allowed Humans to buy their navigation and propulsion systems. But, they didn't permit anyone to adapt it for direct control by less advanced races. They had an excellent reason. Only those the Ai'iin gave implants could use their systems, so the Enemy couldn't turn captured gear on them.

The ESDF purchased alien craft without controls, sensors or Meta-space generators. The Ai'iin sold them the systems to equip those craft instead, and the technology for Humans to install nerve-ware implants in their pilots.

Even if most pilots didn't face the ordeal as twelve-year-olds like she had, they all passed through that fire at some point. The reward on the other side of the trial made the sacrifice worthwhile-- but what about those for whom the procedure went wrong? She'd known it could happen, but she'd never thought about what it would be like for those who lost that lottery.

After the operation, she'd felt every nerve ending in her body burning. Even with the drugs and the baths, she lived in torment, but it faded through the first week. By the end of the second she felt like she'd been in heavy athletic training, but she'd begun flight training.

For somebody to go through it for months on end, and with no reward for years? Or perhaps ever?

She shook her head. "Okay, fine. He's not a flunk-out. His flying still didn't look all that great, Kahuna."

"You said it's Cat Girl, right?"

She nodded. He scratched his ear and kept talking as he turned his eyes back to the board. The FC had reached the final stages of transition into Meta-Space.

"Well, Cat Girl, here's the thing about Vampire. Out in space he's Buck Rogers, but put a planet in his way and he turns into George of the Jungle."

She looked back down at the aviator with a frown. "What are you talking about?"

"Dude's a terror in a dogfight, but only if you can get him space-borne. That's why we're here, simming launches."

"I'm not buying it. And trying to psyche the opposition is an old tactic, mister. No matter what, that guy's a noob."

"Cha, like I need to psyche you!" Ang laughed. His laugh remained friendly, even if his words sounded like trash talk. "Your unit's got only four experienced pilots, plus a couple beginners. Even if your high scorers are the best in the world, you're still way under-strength. You're up against a full squadron, and it'll be just you four against our best in no time. We got numbers. We don't need no stinkin' psychological advantage."

Any sympathy from his sob story about the Flying Cadet vanished as she grew angry with his attitude.

"I'll make you eat those words, surfer boy."

He didn't look the least bit intimidated. In fact, he kept his loose grin and hooked a thumb at the screens. "Dude'll do the talkin' for himself. He's the junior in the squadron and he's up against your CO in the first Test. Pay close attention, Ma'am."

# # #

'Lobo' pulled the control hard aft while working the thrusters. Vertical thrust, pitch up and full throttle combined into twenty gees. It pressed his butt into the couch and his chin into his helmet collar. The maneuver would have been suicide without nerve-ware and vac-skin. Even with their help he almost blacked out. As soon as his lungs could move again, he huffed hard to push blood and oxygen back to his brain.

The FC's Banshee just missed his tail as he dove toward the Lunar surface. Commander Ferrar had been flying inverted the moment before. Now he hung nose-down, facing the Farside of the Moon, in an arcing path that would intersect the surface far too soon.

His wing-man Vampire had vanished over the horizon after the 77th's commander suckered him a minute before. Ferrar and the diminutive Latina FC had the sky all to themselves. The first Test always pitted the commanders and most-junior pilots against each other. The normal ending had the juniors wiped out early and the commanders battling each other. This particular commander vs. junior match-up was just a bit upside down at the moment.

This shouldn't even be a contest! How'd she get behind me, anyway?

He spun his craft 180 degrees to counter-thrust against his collision course with the Moon. She flipped around and flew backward to get a bead on him. Admit it, Lobo. You worried too much about Vampire and lost track of her. Besides, she's got a weird style.

Instinct pushed him to roll the craft at random while hitting the verticals again. That produced the unpredictable 'knuckleball' maneuver that Banshee pilots used to save their skins. Even as his craft slid off its former path, the shield energy alarms howled. The board told him of a glancing hit from the girl's simulated neutron projectors.

The computer didn't declare it a kill. At this range, it could have been one, but he'd already been dodging as she shot. He continued his jerky evasions while looking for an opportunity to face his nose back over at the opponent and return fire. He wouldn't get it until he built up enough vee to avoid digging a divot in the Lunar soil below.

It won't matter how well I do in Eliminations if I get my butt shot out of the sky by a fifteen-year-old during Tests! They'll never let me hear the last of it!

The shield alarms wailed before he could think another thought. The tell-tale buzzer of Farside Base's computer declaring him dead followed. He rocked his craft in a quick back-and-forth roll, signaling defeat as he scanned around for his killer. Commander Carter's Banshee was rising toward him off the deck. The CO of the 77th had spared him the indignity of losing to the girl.

So Vampire shook him, huh? Ferrar grinned to himself. Good job, Poe. But now it's you against both of them. You're going to need a crapload of luck to...

The thought died in his head as the computer plotted a virtual missile streaking across the sky beneath him targeted on Carter. Simulated shots fired on the 77th's junior flying officer. Below him, at point-blank range, his wing-man's Banshee flew nose up to aim the guns. He was hugging the deck in a tail-down trajectory that just cleared the rim of a passing crater. Ferrar's amazement grew into a wild laugh as he heard the computer score two kills for FC Austin Poe.

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