Chapter 20 - Final Mission
Dark eyes watched her from the other side of the lock as she waited for the inner door to close. She shuddered with the memory of their first-round flight, which had begun with this same boy in this spot.
"What is it?" The tension in her voice surprised her a little.
The door clanged shut, stirring up the gunpowder odor of moon dust on the floor. He shrugged. "I was just thinking I should say something. Good luck, I guess."
Spoken through his breather mask, his sullen voice didn't have quite the same dark tone.
She forced herself not to scowl. "Sure. Same to you. It's been downright interesting, Cadet."
They remained silent after that. Her mask and her earbuds sealed shut against her skin as the pressure dropped. She breathed deep to make sure everything worked. An enormous red button on the wall stood ready to slap if anything failed.
The outer door swung open into the empty environment of the landing field, revealing their Banshees. The low-angle sunlight didn't bounce straight up off the ground to light up the 'shadow side' of things anymore. It gave the lighting on their craft a more alien quality, like the cold light of deep space.
The sun is setting on this Moon Duty. This is our last flight. Tomorrow night, I get to sleep at home in my own bed.
Except for her pulse and the sound of her faint footsteps conducted through her bones, all was silence on their walk out to the pads. If Vampire or Base Comm spoke she would hear them, but nobody else used their frequency.
A touch on her shoulder brought her attention back to Vampire. He pointed to the sky above the next set of pads. Twin lights marked Kahuna and Ana's descending ships. They couldn't see the exhaust itself, of course, but the extreme temperature of the plasma made the jet nozzles glow white.
"They had a long trip home," she remarked.
Vampire didn't reply, but he gave a bare hint of a nod.
She'd avoided hearing the score for their flight, but she suspected they might have come close to maxing it out. They'd killed the only real enemy without touching the captive Sesseem. The only points they missed were one out of two survival bonuses. Her score would need to be almighty high to beat him.
She fought down the competitive tension, saving it for later. She couldn't afford to peak too soon.
This would be her second Final, so she knew how long a wait they were in for. She reminded Vampire of it just before they separated to board their ships.
Throughout the long wait on the pad, once she ran her preflights as far as she could, she had nothing to do. She could only watch the crews and wonder about the Gr'ts'ck plans.
She would now deal with the same team that Tony and Ana had faced, and the scenario they'd served those two had been nasty. It had even included another Wraith. She'd warned Poe to be ready for more mind-tricks, but would they play that card a third time?
After an interminable wait, but before the crews cleared off, Base Comm sounded the chime. She pulled up her checklist, half-finished and ready for the final steps.
"Scenario in play," the flight controller declared.
Her thoughts went into high alert; these words weren't part of the standard spiel. The general quarters buzzer began sounding and her gantry backed away as he continued. "You are the Ready Alert for this base. Check your data feed."
Almost as soon as he finished, the normal first buzzer sounded-- the signal for the ground crew to clear the field. She hurried through her startup, harvesting data off her feed with as much attention as she could spare. The all-clear chime found her ready. "Seven-seven-four, steam up."
As always, Vampire followed her without a pause. "Seven-Seven-Nine, steam up."
"Lift in flight order, as you are ready."
She punched the throttle. The incoming threat was big, but still unidentified. It wasn't coming in on top of them like Vampire's cruiser though. It occurred to her that they might have made the unusual 'Scenario in play' announcement for Vampire's benefit. Just to avoid any further misunderstandings.
"Foxtrot-seven-seven to Control. We have sensor contact in Meta-space. Estimate intercept beyond gravity limit. Permission to ready inducers for transit." She had to ask, after all. In RL, she would have done it.
"Negative, Seven-seven. Base sensors detect lesser tracks ahead of main threat already nearing conventional exit envelope." The answer came as no surprise. Scenarios never included Meta-space combat. The dangers outweighed the training benefits. The Gr'ts'ck had worked in a reason why she couldn't do what she would have done in RL.
"Vampire, keep your eyes peeled for the scouts. I'll run analysis on the big guy."
As her comp mulled over the sensor data, she called up her weapons menu for a quick inventory. Four anti-fighter missiles in her 'A' bay, two meta-drives and two long range kinetics in her 'B' bay. No nukes.
The news came as no surprise. She might be Gulf Base Three's nuclear specialist, but a 'base ready alert' would not have big ones loaded. In fact, she flew most missions with the exact load-out she now carried. She only carried nukes when circumstances warranted.
It left her ill equipped for the present situation. In a knife-fight, kinetics were next to useless. They needed distance to build up velocity. The meta-drives might or might not work if she launched them this close to the Moon's gravity.
So she had four missiles and one projector. And this bogey looked awful big.
"Transits!" Poe snapped. "Four exits, one hundred and twenty klicks dead ahead."
"Got 'em. Analyzing." She then drew in a sharp breath as she read the comp's almost instant conclusion. "Outriders."
Not a Slave Race but the ruling Enemy species themselves. They were the root cause for the war and thousands of years of human suffering. Fights with these guys and even simulations of them took on special meaning for any pilot.
Outriders never operated without their mother ships, so the big bogey following them would be a ring. Given the size of the contact it was only an A-class, but against two Banshees an A-class would be big enough.
The battle on the Centauri came back to her once more, exactly as the Gr'ts'ck planned. All components of that battle thrown together at once would have been too much for one flight. They'd restricted themselves first to the Wraith and the possibility of a capture field. Now they'd brought out the ring and and its outriders.
But I've already figured out your game, boys. It's not going to work.
She called it in, praying she would never send such a message in RL. "Foxtrot-seven-seven to Control. We have one incoming A-class ring with Outriders. We're outclassed here. Recommend second intercept. We'll hold them off as long as we can."
The old hands at Moon Duty had a name for this particular kind of scenario. They called it a 'Last Stand'. Rack up as many kills as you can, they recommended, because you won't score a survival bonus.