Chapter 5 - Suspicions
An arm pounced, snagging Poe, as they passed the cafeteria table occupied by the girls from the 77th. Tony braked behind him as both of them worked to avoid spilling their trays in the abrupt stop.
"Sit," ordered Rissa Lee from the table. The arm belonged to the taller Hispanic girl, but Cat Girl's voice made it clear who ordered the ambush. She was already comfortable in her role as XO. Commander Carter was the only adult left in the 77th, leaving her in an unheard-of position for a youth officer.
Tony looked over at his big trainee and chuckled. "Dude, betcha could take her."
Poe glowered down at him and shook his head, then put his lunch tray down in the spot next to the Senior Aviator.
"We have reservations for both Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. " She pointed to the last free spot at the table... next to the cute younger Flying Cadet. Ana Vega, he remembered from the roster. The other FC, a pretty Vietnamese girl who was Poe's senior, sat on her other side.
"I'm smart enough to not ask which one of us is Dum," Tony commented as he sat, then smiled over at FC Vega, while hooking a thumb at Poe. "Just to be clear, Dude shot you down. I'm the charming one."
Her eyebrows arched as she cast him a giggling 'You gotta be kidding me' look. But Rissa used his line as a spring-board.
"His flight is what I wanted to talk about. You don't mind, Aviator?"
"Rank intimidation to fish for intel is a bit out of bounds during Moon Duty, Ma'am."
She gave him a big Texas-friendly smile, and let her home state color her speech. "Nobody's intimidating anyone, Kahuna. You and the girls are here to witness that. Right?" She glanced around at her posse for their supporting nods. Tony suppressed another chuckle.
"I don't mind," Poe grudged. "What do you want to know?"
Her face slipped into deadly serious. "I don't like it when someone plays me, and I don't like it when someone plays my trainee. What I want to know is, was my CO in on that little sucker play you pulled yesterday?"
Poe contemplated her for a moment, then turned to his pot pie and spooned a bite. "No idea what you're talking about."
Anger flashed in her eyes. "I watched you take off! You darned near put your Banshee into the tower! You want me to believe a noob shook one of the most experienced pilots in the ESDF? Do our commanders have some kind of deal going?"
Tony suggested, "Why don't you pull the fight record? You can watch what they did, yourself."
She shook her head. "No I can't. Until after the Tests are over, participants can only pull comm audio, ground visuals and radar. Whatever happened was on the deck and under the horizon. All I got was Ginsu squawking about a downed pilot, until the controllers told him they still had Vampire's flight data feed. What happened?"
Poe declared, "I didn't lose him with skill. It was dumb luck."
"Oh I'm sure. He just happened to lose concentration and nod off."
"Why not?" Tony wondered. "You never grayed out during a dogfight?"
"We're talking about Commander Carter!" she retorted.
Tony shrugged. It could happen even to her commander.
"I almost intersected the surface trying to shake him," Vampire recounted. "I was literally kicking up dust before I could pull out. I bet I left exhaust marks out there. The dust fooled him into thinking I'd augured in. After that, I hugged the deck and scooted off to one side on vertical thrusters to stay out of sight until I could get back up to orbital vee. That's when I found I had both your pilots lined up for a shot."
She grew angrier. "A six week rookie can not pull off a move like that, Vampire!"
"It was an accident! Dumb luck! And it almost killed me! Gimme a break!"
Cat Girl didn't look convinced. "Carter has a history of using tricks for training purposes. It's effective, but it pisses me off. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find out he looked at this lopsided match-up and decided we didn't have a chance in a normal contest. He rigged something up with your commander to keep things interesting. If I find out either of you have any part in it, I will find a way to pay you back."
Tony shook his head, knowing why the theory didn't work. "Even if Ferrar would cooperate with something like that, and I do not think he would, he'd never use Vampire."
"Why?" Poe looked ready to take offense again.
Tony grinned. "Ain't dissin' your sick skills, Brah. He just knows you wouldn't do it. Admit it, you'd never agree to something like that."
# # #
Rissa sat in her Banshee on the pad waiting to launch, her restless mind unable to stay put. Every time she thought about it led to the same conclusion. There's something up! I know it!
Her first clue that her CO had something in the works was when he asked her to keep her eye on the two teens in the 105th and give him daily updates.
She could believe that the big FC wouldn't have anything to do with it. Everything in Poe's manner declared he wasted no time on silly games. But the other guy had acted in a suspicious way since the day they arrived.
Base Comm sent the first warning chime, and the final announcements began. "Stay within the designated flight area. Upon launch, the 77th heads due west and the 105th heads due east. Maintain heading until you receive the start signal from Base. The 105th should take note that one craft in the 77th is an attacker variant. It will carry four extra anti-fighter missiles to compensate for its lower gun loading."
The flight controller meant her Banshee, which was built to carry anti-ship missiles for taking on the big enemies. To make room for them, the designers had removed one of the two neutron projectors the fighter variant carried. It left her with a weaker punch.
A second chime warned of impending launch clearance. She switched her mike to 'vox' as the plasma in her pre-chargers reached flight pressures. "Seven-seven-four, steam up."
Since Commander Carter had flown with her trainee in his Test, she would fly today with his winger. Thuy's careful voice came over the comm, pronouncing every word with perfection. "Seven-seven-six, steam up."
"Ten-five-seven, steam up, man," came Ang's lazy surfer-boy drawl.
"Ten-five-three, steam up," 'Cougar', the XO of the 105th, signaled last.
"Lift on scheduled launch order, as you are ready," the flight controller directed. Rissa throttled up her jets. Farside Base fell away behind her as her Banshee slid into the sky.
Thuy's Banshee slipped in next to Rissa just as they reached orbital velocity. They wouldn't chat like they would during a real life dogfight. Their opponents shared the same comm channel for safety reasons. Some pilots trash-talked during a Test, but rarely would teams talk between themselves. It left her with a few quiet moments to continue her thoughts.
She couldn't figure why Ang bothered her, beyond the obvious possibility that he was in on Carter's plan. Clownish lady's men were common among pilots. She'd long since learned to ignore them. If anything, Ang and she were the same down inside. They showed different faces to the world. His surfer boy shtick and her starched and pressed persona were acts, gloves to cover their blood soaked hands.
Eighty-three 'scores' between us. I've killed everything from Slave fighters to a Class-E ring. I wonder how many different targets his numbers cover?
The start signal erased the question. She flashed a hand signal to Thuy, and flipped her Banshee around to start her turn.