Four planes soared. Four planes banked. Four planes swept in perfect unison around the double peaks of Mount Saeda and headed into the vast playground beyond.
Nova Whiteside could see into the cockpits of the other planes when the squad grouped at the testing grounds, hovering almost silently below one of the towers. "Hey, Keta!" she spoke into her microphone. "Your door is open!"
After a shocked second the Caspian in the plane next to her turned his head, as sleek and alien in its helmet as without. He shook a fist at her.
"Captain Whiteside," the voice of the flight lead rumbled over the com. "When you're done annoying the Lieutenant we can begin."
Nova waved at Keta who would forgive her, as always. She was glad that he was part of the chase instead of Fynn Bridger, who surely would have been a natural choice for this trial. Fynn, her sometime lover and frequent tormentor, had a way of taking the fun out of days like these.
She tipped her head to settle her helmet against her seat and ran her hand along its sensor to display her fingerprints. Several connectors inside the helmet grasped her head like so many tiny fingers massaging her scalp. It took only a second before the indicators on her control board acknowledged the connection to her brain.
"I'm off," she transmitted to the others. "Let's see who gets home first."
Her plane relayed her mental commands as if she had become a part of its circuitry. She tipped a wing, veered, and immediately shot away from the others across the red, marshy flats, faster than any living thing would ever traverse these plains. She soon passed the terminator into daylight. Three of Myra's moons faded against the brightening sky.
Using their ships' neural interface, the squad was to circle Myra's equator to test a much-anticipated systems update especially designed for the Kite class planes. Gossip among the pilots suggested not only a new top speed for the combat ships but also greater maneuverability. Every one of them coveted one of the four spots when the exercise had also turned into a contest.
Nova cared nothing for the prize - another day off on this stint was not something she needed. Just the thought of winning held enough fascination.
"This update is just brilliant!" she exalted. "Are you getting this, O'Neill?" She watched her velocity with awe. A minute adjustment to her heading brought immediate results as the machine understood her command, calculated the risks, evaluated for pilot error and responded, all of it in an instant. A tingle of excitement shivered along her spine when she saw some of the other planes catch up.
"Nova, we need you to relax a little," O'Neill said. "Don't get distracted. You're really pulling the G's now. Don't be puking in my plane."
"This is amazing," she marveled. "And I can't feel anything. Shields are fine."
"You're approaching the first marker. Whiteside's point; good work, Captain. Cut your speed, everyone. Down to ninety spins. Start maneuvers over the lakelands, my voice direction only. See how they relay."
The team obeyed and the pack slowed their headlong chase across the flat landscape.
Their commander began issuing directions which the pilots passed along to their planes using only the microscopic sensors buried in their brains. Again, the Kites performed as hoped-for, handling their tasks with ease, obedient to their flesh and blood masters.
"All right, looks good," O'Neill said much too soon. Nova heard a few groans from the other pilots as well. "We've got enough. Let's get home for dinner. Go!"
Nova launched herself at the distant horizon, waiting not another nanosecond for the others to process his command and pick up the chase again.
"Nice reflexes, Nova," she heard a smile in O'Neill's voice. "We'll have to-"
"Lost you on that last bit, sir."
There was no reply.
"O'Neill, come in."
An orange light flashed among the controls, indicating another plane nearby. The others were closing in. "Did any of you lose the tower?" she asked.
No one answered. The orange blip continued to eat the distance between them.
She felt her heart beat high in her throat and cursed herself into calmness. Medical sensors taped to her chest, head and neck fed back her vital signs to the control center for analysis as this test unfolded. Not just the planes were under scrutiny.
"Keta? Dylan? Is that you back there?" Nova muttered unfine endearments to herself as she tried to identify her pursuer. By now it was obvious that he was pursuing her, dangerously close, and not just sharing her flight path. Her mechanical sensor faithfully reported a Union issue fighter plane. He moved above her and began to lose altitude.
Her alarm systems screamed at her.
The Kite continued to drop, forcing her to do the same. Where were the others? She varied her speed, hoping to slide out from under him. He stayed with her, not losing a single meter of distance.
Nova smiled grimly, having met her match. Only a few of her peers flew with such precision. She decided to stay in the neural link and play him along, her plane twitching the way a rabbit runs before a predator. Perhaps she could still outfox him. The concept of surrender did not occur to her nor did the repeated warnings of the instructors not to risk the expensive Kites needlessly. This might be fun. She began to maneuver, pushing the machine to decide between her unspoken commands and the safety parameters of the plane's design.
"Hey! What the..?"
He had opened fire! She saw projectiles tearing into the ground below, flinging up clods of red mud in twin rows running after her shadow.
"Are you crazy?" she hissed into her microphone. "What are you doing?" She raised her visor to get a better look at the plane above her.
The hunter answered with another round.
"Identify!" Nova's voice shook. Fear sliced into her gut like the blade of a cold knife. Rumors of rebels on the base were now widely accepted as fact. Could one of them be on that plane? She brought her gun controls online and prepared to return his fire, knowing that there was still a chance that one of her overzealous colleagues was simply playing the bad guy. But how long could she wait?
Then something grazed along her hull that sent her Kite into a wild spin. The ground rushed toward her at a sickening speed and sky changed places with earth in a kaleidoscope of red and blue. Out of instinct, she reached for the steering bars of the plane but then recalled her direct link with a far more precise steering system than she could ever hope to be. She allowed it to follow her mental commands to steady the ship, gaining control by sheer, teeth-grinding determination.
She felt anger rise in her throat, pushing her fear somewhere into the background where she didn't have to deal with it. "Bastard," she breathed and forced the Kite into reverse. The plane obeyed, held together by little more than its shields, less successful in protecting its Human cargo. She was thrown hard into her seat belts and felt her helmet collide with the steering bars.
The hunter swooped over her head, guns blazing.
"Control, Whiteside under fire," she reported, forcing a calmness into her voice. "It's live and not what I signed up for today!" A bright beacon on her dashboard reported further trouble. "I've lost my left interface. Come in, Control!"
Still, no reply.
Her pursuer had banked into a tight turn and now came head-on, his fire barely missing her Kite. She continued her evasive tactics, now relying only on a single neural link to her machine.
This game had turned into a mindless bid for survival. And now, although she had not taken a direct hit, her displays signaled yet another malfunction, this time in the crossdrive system. Her velocity dropped steadily.
Cursing, Nova stopped the plane and hovered it into a passable emergency landing on a clear patch among the tall grasses and pools of stagnant water that made up most of Myra's surface. She disengaged from the sensors in her helmet to break the neurolink, retracted the canopy and freed herself from her seatbelts. She slid across the plane's triangular wing to land on spongy ground, taking only her gun and a small backpack containing medical supplies and emergency rations.
Her actions were automatic, a list of priorities ingrained into her since the day she walked into basic training over a decade ago. Her only conscious thought now was to abandon the plane before the enemy's missiles turned it into a deadly storm of shrapnel. She ran toward a gully, slowed by the surface mire, tearing through brambles and reeds until she found a hump of moss-covered rocks among tall fronds of fern. She gasped for air, her lungs on fire.
Had he given up? Nova listened for the other plane, hearing nothing. Had he landed, too? She waited through uncounted minutes, letting the insects of this bog find her. Her head throbbed. She knew that the people back at the base would be shaking their heads over her erratic read-outs. She forced her breath to slow, tempted to remove the wireless sensor that still stuck to her chest beneath jacket and shirt.
Something trickled along her cheek and when she touched it her hand came away bloodied. Gingerly, she prodded her neural interface node and found that it had torn away from her skin.
"Oh, Noooova," a contrived falsetto sing-songed behind her. The barrel of a gun stabbed into her nape. Startled, she spun to raise her own weapon. A heavy boot came down on it, crushing it along with her hand against the rock that was supposed to have hidden her.
"Interesting reflex there. I could have taken your head off."
Nova wrenched her hand free. She rubbed it, glaring at the Lieutenant, angry at herself for having allowed him to come up behind her. "You're a pig sometimes, Fynn."
"Whatever that is." He looked at the blood on her face in thoughtful fascination. "I've caught myself a prisoner."
"Good for you. Let me up." She pushed his leg aside and stood up. Her uniform dripped with swamp water and her boots were probably ruined. "How dare you shoot at me? Why are you even out here? If O'Neill finds out you'll be demerited into oblivion!" She jammed her gun into its holster and turned to march back to her plane.
"Hold it," he said. "Didn't you hear me say that you're my prisoner?"
"Yeah, so?" Nova said irritably, the terror of the chase already receding in her memory. She had lost the contest!
"I'm playing a Rhuwac today. Big mean Rhuwac rebel wants to play with his prisoner."
"You're not funny."
He gripped her arm, more forcefully than necessary to turn her around. "Good, because I'm not joking."
"But you're crazy."
He leered unpleasantly. "This is turning me on."
"And you're pissing me off, Fynn." Nova stalked away. "You probably damaged my plane, I've hurt my head thanks to you and you've used your guns. You better figure out a way to keep O'Neill calm when he sees you."
"I had orders to shoot."
Nova halted. "You what?"
He caught up with her. "Command told me to force an emergency landing. They know it would take guns to make you land. They fabricated your malfunction when you weren't about to give up. Nothing wrong with your plane. Don't worry about them finding out how easily I tracked you down here. The game was over for you the minute you left the cockpit. That's all they cared about."
"And you let me run for my life and scare the hell out of me for nothing?"
"Fun, wasn't it?"
"Bastard," she hissed and slapped him.
He caught her wrist and twisted it until she winced in pain. "We could have some more fun, if you like."
Nova recognized the half-angry, half-excited glint in his eyes. She was tempted to reach for her gun. "Let me go," she said evenly, in no mood for a fight today. "I need to see a medic."
Fynn hesitated, disappointed with her reaction. He released her.
Nova walked ahead of him back to the ships, her anger smoldering. Why did she allow him to bully her like that? And why did she keep going back for yet another taste of his abusive nature? He was unpredictable in his moods and could be downright nasty when the wrong mood was upon him.
When Nova took leave from active combat for retraining on Myra, what seemed a lifetime of dangers and discomforts already lay behind her. The squad she had left behind consisted of seasoned career pilots who had expected her to shoulder her load under any conditions. And, for the most part, conditions on Ud Mrak were miserable. Fynn had been quick to realize this and had claimed her attention, soon marking her as his own. He showed her how to have fun on this base where there were only tests to worry about and superior officers to elude. Adept at the latter, Fynn made a game of ignoring curfews, breaking rules for the sake of breaking them, and infusing as much recreation into his stay here as possible.
Nova joined in his games at first, enjoying the relative freedom of Myra for a while. But her nature and upbringing did not allow her to defy authority or create new rules for herself.
Growing up on one army base after another taught her the value of order and routine that did not vary from one post to the next.She knew that it would not be long before she would end this. For all the technical skill she admired in him, Fynn was a danger in combat. She would never be able to accept his disregard for others from which not even she was exempt. In bed he was a fierce as in battle, but away from her cot he had the social skills of a Rhuwac. If anyone ever socialized with a Rhuwac. Nova laughed at the thought, her fit of anger gone with the last giggle.
Fynn scowled at her. No doubt she was laughing at him again. He balled his fists, loving her in his own way, hating her for being gifted and beautiful and totally without need of him or anyone else.