Our next challenge of the blog challenge was to click through BuzzFeed’s 99 prompts list and find one that we could write. I have to say, I’ve had a lot of trouble with this, mostly because every one of their prompts reminded me of a book, or movie, or an anime series. Or several. This was hard to start, but once I started writing, I could see the characters and the organization, and it got a little out of hand. I tried to cut it down, but I ended up with more words than I started with. Luckily WordPress doesn’t seem to have a word limit (that I reached, anyway).
“The Knights of the Round Table still exist, only now they pilot robotic suits of armour, which they use to keep Britain safe against the mysterious giant creatures trying to invade our world.”
“You’re going to have to find some cadets that can graduate early. This new schedule is killing the pilots, not to mention you. When did you last sleep, sir?”
Sir Lyonel Palamedes, Marshal of the Order of the Round Table, scratched the stubble growing on his jaw and had to seriously think about the answer — that alone was answer enough. “They’re not ready.” He frowned at Boris Bedivere, his second in command, across the glowing map table of Britain and Western Europe. “I did ask him to try and set the achievements early.” His eyes slid away from the contest of wills; even to his own ears he seemed defensive.
“There should be six hours you could sleep right now, if you trust me and Gawain’s squad enough to handle the upcoming small event.” He eyed the countdown clock in the corner of the screen that said they had a little more than an hour before combat.
Palamedes shook his head. “There’s something about this new pattern I’m missing. I can’t step away until I’ve found it. Or did you come up with a good reason they’ve decided to attack in formations we can predict?”
The Vice-Marshal growled under his breath. “They’re alien. Do they need a reason we can fathom?”
“Yes,” his commanding officer stated firmly, every line of his face saying he would be stubborn on this one point. “Even if it comes down to their means of transport, whatever that is. It’s not like they’ve been hiding in the ice cap all this time, we’d have seen something before this.”
Bedivere sighed. “Sir, you’ll think clearer after you’ve slept. I really must insist… if we do nothing but turn away the vanguard, we’ll have nothing to show for ourselves when the rest of the army arrives.”
This logic earned him silence, a long enough silence that it seemed perhaps rational thought had won. But ultimately Sir Lyonel shook his head. “I can run on caffeine and stimulants another eight hours if needs be — and yes, it’s necessary.”
“It’s been a long time since college, sir,” Bedivere pointed out. “You’re not as young as you used to be. That sort of thing is best left to the cadets.”
“Did you just call me old?” There was a note of humor in the tired voice.
“You’n me both.”
The Marshal gave a dry laugh. “I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”
“What else are the cadets good for, if not all the things we can’t do anymore?” Humor had broken through the fixated stare, which was a point in Bedivere’s favor if nothing else. “Let’s get the rankings and see if Agravain has any he can recommend for some kind of accelerated training. Let them do the grunt work and watch the knights fly. If we can get them in suits and flying backup formations, all the better.”
“They’re doing that already,” was Palamedes dry answer. “The entire senior class has been reinforcing the ground crews and hangars for the last week and a half. If they’re ready, Agravain hasn’t said so. We’ll have to hope that the top five or six can mount the empty suits and learn on the fly.” He used a gesture to move the map and bring up statistics. “Daniels, Gaheris, and now Geraint are going to be out for a couple weeks at least. The top cadets could fly those suits, it’s not like they could scratch them much more than they’ve already been damaged.”
Sir Boris made a choked noise in his throat. “I’m not even sure Geraint’s is going to fly. Have you gotten the engineering report back yet?”
“Mmhmm.” Scrolling through the list he had been reading, the commander found Geraint’s name and two recent reports, one from the medical team, one from engineering. Both men heaved a sigh without even reading the medical report; they knew how badly the man had been injured. The engineers summed up their report with ‘it’ll fly, but it won’t be pretty’, which was about as honest as they could be. But the suits weren’t meant to be pretty, so they would manage.
“Might need to ask if any of the others would be willing to trade with a cadet,” Bedivere mused. “I’d hesitate to put a cadet in that suit, it’s damaged enough that without the perfect reflexes they haven’t had a chance to build yet, a nanosecond’s delay could be the end of them.”
“Crowd control detail for a start,” Palamedes said with a shrug. “I don’t want to slow anyone down in damaged hardware if I can help it. We need all of our fighters.”
“That we do. I’ll see if I can get the seniors’ rankings so we can assign the top five to suits and get them into the backup formations for the 4AM shift.” He paused, looking over his commander again. “You sure I can’t get you to take a nap?”
“You’re dismissed, Bedivere,” growled the older man. It didn’t help his fatigue any that his second grinned at the command.
Kayleigh wasn’t sure if she was excited or scared, both were appropriate in context. She and four of her classmates, those she knew had the best ranks in piloting, were going to be flying with the wings. Backup, she was certain, but it was no less frightening to be on the edge of the combat when the damn croakers came out of nowhere the way they did. She was slightly worried she had put her flight suit on backwards, or wrong, somehow.
Sure, she had had a flight suit already, but all the cadets had them. Whether it was practice in one of the simulators or in an actual suit, they learned to work with the constricting garments. They had to, if they wanted to survive their first combat. But somehow it was different, putting on each piece now. She wasn’t getting more practice, this was the real thing. It would’ve happened sooner or later, certainly, she was well enough ranked in her class there was no fear that she wouldn’t graduate. But when she’d started college things were different. None of the primary wing’s squad leaders had been injured, then. Now there were injuries across all the wings, and the human body didn’t repair quite as easily as did the machines they piloted.
Movement from her left was barely enough warning for the arrival of her friend Adam, who punched her shoulder. “Ha! This is it!”
“Why are you so happy?” she asked him. “It’s three AM and you’re about to face an actual croa–” She turned the slang word into cough as their training instructor walked in, hopping to her feet and saluting as the others did.
“Kayleigh, thirty. Adam, one fourty-four. Eli, two sixteen. David, two twenty-one. Eva, two thirty-two.”
She nearly choked. Thirty was not a backup position. “Sir?”
“Don’t give me that look, Kayleigh. Doc signed off on it.”
“Yes, sir, but surely someone with a bit more experience would be a better replacement for Geraint?”
His eyes narrowed. “That’s Sir Gregory to you, cadet.”
“Of course, sir. Sorry, sir.” She frowned at him. “Is Sir Gregory’s suit even flight capable?”
“It’s been repaired and fully checks out. Anything else?” He stared at her until she subsided. “Good. You have your assignments. You four, report to Sir Antony in green hangar one for formations. He’ll pair you with someone and you’ll fly their tail, no matter what. Am I understood?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” Four cadets saluted and raced off.
He turned his eyes back to Kayleigh. “Don’t give me that look, Kayleigh. I didn’t make the assignments.”
She swallowed. “That doesn’t change the fact I’m supposed to be flying my first mission in a half-scrapped suit, sir. Not that it necessarily matters to anyone but me, but did anyone actually ask Sir Gregory if he cares that I might wreck his suit?”
Whatever her training instructor was about to say, that stopped him. “It’s not his to give, Kayleigh, you know that. I’m not certain he’s awake to ask.” It was a sobering thought, for the both of them. That one of the experienced knights had been so badly injured said something for the state of the battles they’d been fighting. They’d turned back the alien monstrosities, sure, but the battles were hard fought. And they still had no idea what it was the croakers were after.
“Yes, sir. I’ll just… I had better prep number thirty” She tried to ignore the look in his eyes as she saluted and left. It was far more pitying than sympathetic, and she had a feeling her training instructor was trying not to feel guilty that she, still a cadet, might not make it back from the next flight. That’s why she needed to lose herself in the prep work, or she would start considering the potential outcomes and then she’d be a nervous wreck and useless. She jogged into the hangar, trying to ignore the heads turning at her blue cadet’s flight suit, and some of the comments of the engineers as they finished last minute repairs were none too quiet. There was someone standing over the ground-level console at her suit. “Excuse me? I… oh!” She hastily saluted when the man turned and she recognized Sir Boris Bedivere, second in command of the entire order.
He was shorter in person. “You’re Kayleigh Cross?”
She could tell he recognized her, and there was only one bright blue cadet in the entire hangar. “Yes, sir.” Best to be polite.
“Caradoc went to check on Geraint, he’ll be down shortly. I expect he’ll want to suit up and get you outside first.”
It was nice of him to meet her here, even if she knew there was more to it than passing along a message… the console he was standing at would’ve sufficed for that. She glanced that direction, but wouldn’t dream of interrupting Sir Boris.
“Be my guest.” He stepped aside and waved her to take his place. “I wanted to thank you for accepting this mission without any warning. In another climate you would have had to finish out your semester before taking on anything for us, but this new pattern means we must change to match. I don’t think you’ll miss out on much, unless you’re midflight for the graduation ceremony.”
“Wait, you’re graduating me?” He had Kayleigh’s full attention. “I knew about the mission, but…”
“Do you disagree?” His eyes were hard to read.
“Well, no, but isn’t it a tad bit presumptuous of me to start flying lead wing? Shouldn’t I be graduating into the backup formations, just like everyone else?” She couldn’t quite make herself say all the things going through her head in that instant, not to his face. But she knew others wouldn’t hesitate to fault her for this.
“Not everyone in the backup formations can fly like you do. Some never will make it above backup. They know it, as I think you do. We’ll come up with something by the time you land. I expect if you blame the scrap you’re about to fly and suggest that they didn’t want to risk a ‘real pilot’, most won’t argue?”
She could practically hear the air quotes in his statement and flushed, looking down at the console instead of accepting that he knew exactly what was on her mind.
“If you haven’t called your mother, you’d better do it fast.” Where that statement came from, she really didn’t know, but he continued on the same track. “If she learns you graduated early… that you’re flying today… after the fact, she will not be pleased.” There was a momentary pause and she had to wonder where his thoughts would go next. He still surprised her. “Your ancestor was Pellinore, correct? Do you want me to register you as Kayleigh Cross or Kayleigh Pellinore?”
She blinked and looked back up from the console, not having been able to read any of the information there while he was talking to her. “I… forgot that was an option. We don’t have another Pellinore, do we?”
“Not yet we don’t. I think there’s a sophomore from that lineage. It’s yours if you want it.”
She had to consider all the options. It would be a legal name change, should she want the name Pellinore, that much she knew from others who had taken their ancestor’s name upon graduation. It had been mentioned in a first-year seminar, even, and she’d briefly toyed with the idea before forgetting about it completely in the crush of freshman year craziness. “Kayleigh Pellinore,” she said quietly to herself. She shook her head. “It doesn’t sound right. No, I’m Kayleigh Cross. Thank you, Vice-Marshal, for the offer, though.” It didn’t feel right, claiming that lineage, not when she’d be claiming technically royal blood. That was too much hassle for her to want to investigate.
One side of his mouth moved in what might have been the start of a smile, but he remained formal. “As you wish, Pilot Cross. Do call your mother, though, if you can find a moment. She’ll have my head if you don’t.” And with that perplexing comment, he nodded to her and left her alone.
Kayleigh’s head spun for a moment with the idea of her mother berating the second in command of the Knights organization. It was an amusing thought, except she would never live it down if it came to pass. It was nice of him to mention it, in fact, since she hadn’t known the two even knew one another. They were about the same age, so maybe they were at college together? But no, it didn’t matter. She should be familiarizing herself with the flight suit, not daydreaming! Bedivere had said Caradoc was on his way, so she couldn’t have too much time to herself to do so.
Her fingerprint logged her on, started the onboard computer, and accessed the console’s full data functions, giving her the specs on suit thirty, including the engineering report that deemed it fit to fly. She wasn’t sure that was normally something released to the pilot, but it did make her feel a bit better to see that someone had signed off. There would’ve been that tiny question in the back of her head otherwise, just enough to distract her at the worst possible moment. This way she was freed of that.
Rather than bother with the elevator, she leapt up the front of the suit, catching the handholds placed just for that. There was no elevator in the field, her instructor had pointed out once, and she’d taken that comment to heart. Better to get used to the work when she didn’t need to do it than get caught in a situation where she needed it, but couldn’t muster the strength. She scaled the flight suit, the cockpit easily five if not six meters above the hangar floor. The hatch was open, left that way for fast turnaround when needed, and she slid easily inside.
At that point she had to take a deep breath and calm her nerves. For all intents and purposes, she’d just graduated at the head of her class, been promoted to Pilot, and then advanced further still, a change which usually came with either a promotion or a knighthood, neither of which she’d received nor earned. The blue flight suit gleamed in the blue-white light of the displays, a constant reminder that she had still been a cadet this morning when she woke to receive her new orders. The gray and white flight suit would no doubt be waiting for her when she got back — scratch that. If she made it back.
She knew she wasn’t supposed to do it, but given the Vice-Marshal’s suggestion, Kayleigh keyed in to link the suit to her personal phone over the net so she could call her mom. The phone might still be in her dormitory, but there was enough tech here to fix that. She just hoped no one caught her doing it. The phone rang and rang, and for a moment she worried she’d have to do this by message, which would not be nearly enough to satisfy her mother, but finally a sleepy voice answered.
“Mom, it’s me. Vice-Marshal Bedivere suggested I call you… they graduated me and a few others to fly this morning.”
Kayleigh waited. She was certain there was no question about what she had said.
“You listen to me, Kayleigh. You do exactly as you’re told, you hear? Who’s your squadron leader?”
“I don’t actually know yet. I’m waiting on instructions.” She glanced around the hangar, just to make sure. It was still mostly empty, her orders having woken her with plenty of extra time. So far the few pilots present didn’t seem to be making a big deal of the blue cadet in their midst.
“They didn’t stick you with Baudwin, did they? That man is not an easy wing leader.” Though Kayleigh’s mother had never been flight-rated, she still worked for the Knights organization and knew most of the higher ranking officers at least by name.
“No, it’s not Baudwin.” She didn’t want to tell her mother outright, but she knew the questions would come and lead around to it soon enough. “They advanced me to lead wing. Under Caradoc.”
Complete silence. That wasn’t good.
She waited, but the growing silence made her uncomfortable until she had to say something. “Mom.”
“Care to run that by me again?”
Oh shit. She knew that tone of voice, and it wasn’t good. Luckily the ire was directed at whoever had made the decision, not Kayleigh herself. “Mum, I gotta go, I’m calling you from the suit and I’m really not supposed to. If they catch me at it my first day I’ll be in serious trouble.”
“You will call me the moment you get back.” It wasn’t a question.
“Of course, mum. First thing.” Kayleigh had a feeling there would be a lecture involved, but she knew there wouldn’t be much for her mom to blame her for, not when she would’ve graduated to do this at the end of the semester, anyway, and her orders weren’t of her own making. No, orders were orders and she would either follow them or wash out. And Kayleigh refused to wash out. She was better than that.
“If you get yourself killed, I will never forgive you.”
Before she could even attempt to reply, the line went dead. That was not the ideal way to end what could potentially be the last time she talked to her mother, but she couldn’t change that now. Just to set herself right, she sent her mother a message with a simple ‘I love you’ and a heart. That way, whatever happened…
No, she couldn’t think like that. She was qualified for this, and she knew it. Agravain had given her top marks in actual flight competence, which was hard to accomplish. He may have been lenient where theory was concerned, as long as a cadet learned the basics, but the actual flight skills were required, no ifs ands or buts. So she knew why she was selected to pilot this suit, half-scrapped or otherwise. Numerically she was probably ahead of most of the pilots, even, as nothing stayed perfect for long in actual combat. Since she hadn’t been in conflict yet, her record was still clean. Yes, she could understand why she sat where she sat. All she had to do now was accept it.
Could she force acceptance? It was weird, not having the cadet hangar around her. Normally there were two flight suits for the cadets, and one was bolted to the wall. It was for learning the interface, the commands, and getting used to the controls. The flight simulator didn’t even count as a suit, it was a gyro-mounted cockpit with simulated display. The other flight suit was fully functional, but they rarely took it out of the hangar. When they did, it was for duo flights with Agravain himself.
This was a new view, and it was a little daunting to be faced with a row of suits against the far wall, each with its sequential number painted in fluorescent white. It was only when she was faced with the rank sigils on the opposite suits that she realized she was marked as both a knight and a squad leader. They weren’t expecting her to… no. They couldn’t. She had no training to lead.
“I see you’re making yourself comfortable.” The voice over the intercom made her jump.
She hastily looked around, finding Sir William “Doc” Caradoc at the foot of her suit. She’d been too lost in thought to spot him coming. “Yes, sir. Shall I come down?”
In response he stepped onto the elevator and keyed it up to cockpit height. In contrast to VIce-Marshal Bedivere’s calm official facade, Doc gave her a friendly smile and leaned in to offer his hand. “Nice to meet you, Kayleigh. I don’t think we’ve met before.”
She hastily accepted his hand, even if they were stretched too far for her to really shake it. “No, sir, we haven’t. The honor is mine.” The wing leader had more than a few fans in the college, and something of a cult following in the wider world. He’d made enough headlines he was probably used to the attention, but to her it was like meeting royalty… not that she’d ever admit as much aloud.
“Geraint wanted me to tell you she answers to the name Helga,” he told her, smile widening.
“Helga?” Kayleigh’s eyebrows rose.
“Helga.” There was similar amusement written across his features.
“Oh my.” Kayleigh bit her lip, but she couldn’t help it. She knew many of the pilots had customized their AIs over time, but she had never realized they named them. She had to wonder who Helga was, or had been, to have a flight suit AI for a namesake.
“She’ll suit you fine.” He seemed sure of it, so she decided to just trust him on it. He nodded at the controls, which she had yet to turn on. “Everything is still standard, I had the engineers check that when they repaired it, just in case we could fit another pilot to this suit.”
“Thank you for that.” Her top marks for flight wouldn’t do her any good if some of the controls had been customized. Usually that was to work around a handicap caused by injury, though, and Geraint hadn’t had any major wounds until now. “Sir, I only just realized that he’s a squad leader. Is there someone else who can take over?”
Doc nodded. “She should be arriving a bit early to meet you and retask the squad AIs for the new formation. You’ll be taking her place in the second row instead of primary position.” He glanced down the hangar as if expecting her any minute. “Kim Evans is good people, you won’t have any trouble with her.”
The way he said it made her wonder who she would have trouble with, and whether they were in her squad or not. It made sense that not everyone would like her taking Geraint’s place, but there was a difference between not liking it and actively causing trouble for her, which could easily amount to injury in the field. But she didn’t want to ask, it felt like admitting weakness to her new commanding officer. “Yes, sir,” she said instead. “Can you tell me if there are any particular formations that this squad usually flies?”
There was definitely something going on in his head as he nodded, his eyes were complicated to read. “We call it in the air, usually, which you won’t have to do, you’ll just have to listen for Kim’s orders. Violet squad is usually ground if we have to split up the forward units, I take ROY in the air and Lucan takes BIV to meet them on land. But beyond that, I just want you to listen to Kim and do what she tells you. Whatever happens, it’s easier to take it as it comes that way.”
“Yes, sir,” Kayleigh repeated. “I can do that.” She nodded past his shoulder at a short woman headed their direction with purpose in her step. “Is that Kim Evans?”
He turned and nodded. “Aye. Let’s get you ready to go, you can meet her outside.”
It seemed he didn’t feel quite as strongly about letting her meet Kim in person as he had about meeting her in person himself. Hopefully that wasn’t a bad sign. “Hi Helga, let’s get started.”
All the lights flickered on as a pleasant female voice replied. “Hi, Kayleigh, do you want to do the system checks or shall I?”
“I’ll leave you to it,” Doc told her, and grabbed the rail of the elevator, hitting the ‘ground’ switch as he did so.
“I’d like to view the checks, Helga,” she told the AI, saluting Doc quickly. As he disappeared from sight she grabbed the hatch and pulled it shut, reaching for her helmet in the next breath. “Put them on screen. Cockpit.”
“Check!” The list scrolled up for her to see each individual check happen as switches flipped and lit across the dashboard.
“Check!” The list just kept coming as Kayleigh buckled herself in.
“Check!” The peppy female voice was more than a little shrill, but she sounded pleased enough to be performing even basic tasks.
“Helga, can you be a little quieter? My hearing’s just fine,” Kayleigh quipped at the AI.
“Nose, check!” was all the AI replied, though it was mercifully a few decibels quieter.
Kayleigh waited until the list of everything had finished scrolling past her heads up display. “How’s the maintenance work? Anything slow to react?”
“Everything is up to code,” the AI replied. “The tail fins seem fractionally slower than previous statistics, but fully within specs.”
So much for in good shape. She’d have to test them as she got off the ground with her squad leader here, before everyone was in formation and she wouldn’t have room to test the rock speed. “Last checks.”
“Let’s get started,” she told the AI.
The engine started with the same familiar spinal vibration as always, which relaxed her in a perverse sort of way. She could do this. “Confirm ready for takeoff?”
“Ready!” She couldn’t hear the siren in the hangar that accompanied her docking clamp release through the thickness of her helmet padding and the cockpit itself, but she could see the green and then red lights flash in quick succession, giving everyone around the very clear warning that her unit was about to move. Even at taxiing speeds, the movement of the flight suits could injure the unwary. Built like a harrier jet that stood upright on its elongated tail, the flight suits were too massive to be casual about.
“Alright, kid, let’s get started. I want a quick duo flight before everyone else is suited up.”
Kim’s voice over the radio sounded harsh, but Kayleigh had a feeling that was just the poor quality of the sound. “Yes, marm.” She made it out to the tarmac and waited for her squad leader to catch up.
“I want you on my tail no matter what, for this test flight and mission.”
“Yes’m. Safest place for me to be.” Kayleigh watched, both out her window and the heads up display in her helmet, waiting for Kim’s suit to come even with her and lift off.
There was barely half a second between liftoff and acceleration.
Apparently this was a test, not just a check that Kayleigh was flight capable. Her fingers flew on the buttons to key in liftoff and hit the accelerator. She followed her squad leader at as exact a distance as she could manage, though Kim tried to throw her off. Luckily the tail fins that Helga had questioned didn’t seem that bad to Kayleigh. Perhaps it was just having been used to flying the cadet suit, an up-to-spec suit was a dream.
“Not bad, kid,” came the squad leader’s voice after about fifteen minutes of this acrobatic flying. “Alright, I can definitely use you.”
Kayleigh sighed. She’d had a feeling that’s what this was about. “The more you tell me about how Violet squad flies, the better I’ll be able to follow you in the field,” she pointed out over the radio. “Doc wasn’t really able to give me specifics.”
“Aye, he let’s us do as we need to do.” Kim’s flight path evened out, making a lazy circle around the hangar.
Kayleigh matched her. “Can you give me the short version on who else is in our squad, please? I don’t even know their names.”
“V3 is Danai Carran, she’s a good offensive fighter. V4 is Rafael Santos. He does better with defense, but they suit each other well. Five is Constantin Blackburn, and if you get flak from any of them, it’ll be him. Don’t take any of it too seriously, he just won’t like how easily you made it this far. He’s got more attitude than most squad leaders like, is all. V6 is Martin Galeshin. He’s usually quiet, so I wouldn’t expect too much trouble. He’s the best long-range shot we’ve got, but he doesn’t get to use it much. That’s not really what we’re in for, y’know?”
“It’s a shame, I think. If we could do more of this long distance, maybe fewer of us would end up where Ger– er, where Sir Gregory is right now.” She had to assume the silence from Evans was agreement. Glancing down at the hangar she spotted movement, the first squads were suited up and on the move. “Do we need to land, or did Doc say this was more important than muster?”
“You’re good enough, kid, I’m not going to keep you at it just to see if you slip.” That seemed to be as rousing a compliment as she was likely to get, but she understood. Getting close to a rookie was asking for heartache. “Land on the south side and wait for violet squad to show up.”
“Yes’m.” The dive for the ground was not one of her favorite parts of flying a massive suit of armor that flew best horizontally. By default, if they were in flight mode, landing was a headfirst game of chicken against the ground. She couldn’t deny the rush of exhilaration, however. Kayleigh counted herself among the crazy bastards who had clearly been born to fly one of these things.
A dry chuckle sounded over the radio. “You might as well start calling me Kim, kid, if we’re going to be flying together.” The pair swooped in and landed just as Indigo squad were lining up.
Kayleigh debated whether to ask Kim not to call her ‘kid’, but it was nicer than some of the things she could think of, so she stayed silent. Just as the violet squad appeared in the sunlight she thought of another question. “Are they all knighted already, Kim?”
“Yes we are,” replied a nasal male voice. “Guess it’s easy enough to figure out you’re not. Who are you, anyway?”
“Constantin, be nice,” Kim cut in.
“My name is Kayleigh Cross. And before you ask, I was a cadet this morning. That’s why you don’t know me.” She was sorely tempted to sass him right back, but she figured it wouldn’t be the ideal way to start a relationship with this team. The Vice-Marshal’s suggestion was a better bet. “They didn’t want to risk a real pilot in this scrap.”
“She flies better than you do, Constantin, so I wouldn’t suggest any wise cracks.” It sounded rather like Kim was enjoying that fact. Laughter over the radio from at least one woman and one man joined the squad leader’s amusement. Sounded like the rest of the team appreciated the chance to shut up the mouthy squad member. “Alright, listen up. Kayleigh’s flying second, so she and I will be partnered up and the rest of you stay the same. You listen and keep your eyes open, we’ll do just fine. Best way to get Geraint out of that infirmary, right?”
“Aye, he’d hate that!” “Yeah!” “Damn right.”
“Doc says we’re headed up Aberdeen way, so keep an eye on the land as well as the water! I won’t let any of you end up like Geraint on my first tour as leader, y’hear?”
This was more like Kayleigh had expected. The drill sergeant tone mixed with some light-hearted banter.
“Constantin, you will behave yourself around civilians, or you’ll hear about it from me, Doc, and Geraint, too. You copy?”
His response was delayed just long enough to be insolent. “Copy.”
“I’ll deal with you later,” Kim replied with just as much vitriol as the master chief signaled Doc’s arrival. “You can help repaint Kayleigh’s and my suit badges tonight.” Thirty-five roughly human shaped suits saluted.
Any response from Constantin was denied a chance by the wing leader’s entrance. “We need to cut this short, one of the croakers is moving faster than the others, and it’s nearly made land already. Lucan has permission to head straight for it, if so, so make sure you’re paying attention as we reach Aberdeen airspace. Let’s light the spiky bastards up.” His turn and takeoff weren’t immediately visible to Kayleigh in her lineup at the back of the triangular formation, but once he was off the ground he was moving fast.
There wasn’t much jocularity on the flight up, Kayleigh doubted that anyone liked the sound of faster moving creatures to fight. They had enough trouble with the types they’d already met.
“Hey cadet. You go by Kayleigh, or Cross, or what?” Her HUD said it was V3 asking over their squad channel, the pilot Kim had named Danai Carran.
“I don’t know, depends on whether Kim keeps calling me ‘kid’.” Laughter met her response. She had to smile. “I’ll answer to either, as long as I know you mean me. Either is gotta be better than ‘thirty’, right?”
“Got that right. Most of us use first names, except for Santos,” Danai offered helpfully. “He insists on the formality of Sir Rafael if we want to use his given name.”
“Just because you’re a hussy, Danai…” drawled a male voice that must be Santos’.
“Cut that out, you two,” Kim interrupted before Danai could reply. “I want your heads back in the game. We’re nearly there.”
Kayleigh started looking at their surroundings more as the formation spread out into attack positions, giving her a better view of what lay ahead instead of just a view of the forward squads. Then she spotted a shadow that she didn’t like the look of. “Is that our croaker?” she radioed the others.
“Holy shit,” was Kim’s response.
This one had six legs and a longer tail, instead of the frog-cum-tadpole anatomy that dubbed the alien species “croakers” in the first place. It was clear why this one was moving faster, it had definitely hit land already, and it was headed straight for Aberdeen. It moved more like an alligator with too many legs, and that analogy didn’t leave Kayleigh with a particularly fuzzy feeling.
“On me, BIV, we’ve got work to do.” Kayleigh assumed that was blue leader Lucan that Doc had mentioned took control of land defense in the event they needed it. “Dive and spread out, we need to turn it back before it reaches the city. Green leader, do you have eyes on this?”
Kayleigh tuned out the inter-squad chatter of Lucan making sure the backup units would reach the city in time to evacuate if needs be. She was far more concerned with the fast-moving croaker and the dive aimed more or less right in front of it’s toothy maw. Rather than consider the potential for injury, she locked eyes on Kim’s tail and kept them there as the squad dove for the right flank.
Almost as soon as blue squad landed, there was a massive thump that nearly upset indigo’s landing; the thing thudded its tail in the ground and used it like a springboard. Lucan’s lead squad had to dodge quick to avoid the ugly flat face being driven their way by the muscular body. It’s head was tiny comparatively, so when it swung side to side it wasn’t as dangerous as some of the croakers, but it still required a fast hand and eye to keep ahead of it’s long tongue, which it used like a whip. Lasers lit up the far side from where Kayleigh was, likely indigo squad causing a distraction for blue. It didn’t seem like they were going to get much out of it, though, as the croaker went for them next with another tail-sprung leap.
“Keep him focused on us!” insisted Lucan over the radio, a pointless order if Kayleigh had ever heard one. The thing was having a field day. “Violet, pair off and harry from the air!”
Kayleigh followed Kim as the squad leader pulled up and took them with her, each of them headed for a different angle around the creature’s head. As leader, Kim of course took them front and center.
When violet squad lit it up from multiple directions at once, the croaker looked for the nearest target and found it in Kim. The head reared back, and to their dismay, two of the arms left the ground as well. The thing nearly doubled in height and suddenly had arms free to use to smash the ground suits that got too close, which it started doing immediately amid radio calls of alarm. But its focus was definitely still on the airborne units.
“Kim, look out!” Kayleigh shrieked as the thing opened its mouth and spit… something… at them. It was like a pair of harpoons without the trailing cables.
Kim’s acrobatics were good, but not that good.
Kayleigh heard cries of alarm from the others of her team, but all she could see was the floundering flight suit in front of her. She cranked the throttle and sped up to dive after Kim, releasing the catch on her suit arms as she got close enough to reach out and grab the falling squad leader’s suit. She found she was furious. “Back off and give him hell, Martin,” she snapped. Her finger toggled the comm switch to reach the rest of the wings. “Blue leader, watch it’s head, it’s got a nasty harpoon.” She narrowly avoided crashing with the extra weight of Kim’s suit throwing her way off balance, but she managed to get Kim on the ground and a fair distance from the battle. “Green leader, thirty-one is down. I need immediate evac for the pilot.” She popped a can of violet smoke out the side of her suit to mark the position.
With a large and clumsy suit hand, she jammed the cockpit release and pulled the suit open. The harpoon had blasted through the area just below the cockpit, and Kim seemed stunned, though there was definitely a wound from some of the shrapnel, for she was bleeding. “C’mon Kim,” Kayleigh breathed, waiting for signs of life, but saw none. “Green leader, have paramedics standing by.”
“Copy, violet leader.”
It took Kayleigh a moment to realize he meant her, assuming 30 was the lead suit in the violet squad. Well, she was now. She toggled back to just her squad’s frequency. “Constantin, on me. We’re going to take this nasty mess down.” She saw a missile fly by her from Martin’s suit, but it didn’t seem to accomplish much other than a puff of smoke against the side of its neck. It must have some kind of armor that she couldn’t see at this distance.
“You are not our leader!”
“Argue with me later, dammit, Kim’s injured!” she forced out through gritted teeth. “We are not losing another squad member to these bastards.” To her surprise, there was no comment, and suit thirty-five fell into place behind her as her suit rose into the air and reformed for flight. “Danai, you and Santos take the far side, and watch that harpoon. You’re cleared for ordnance. Kindly don’t take my head off with it.”
The chuckle over squad comms was positively predatory, and it gave her a shiver even as Danai replied. “Copy, violet leader.”
She was slightly worried by Kim’s earlier comment that she flew better than Constantin, but she would have to hope he could keep up with her or their squad was going to take more damage. She flew wide, taking the pair of suits out of the immediate fight and around to the back of its head. Unfortunately there seemed to be something that she could only comprehend was like a hood of scaly armor. No wonder Martin’s shot had done little damage. “Shit. Danai, you may have to find a soft spot inside its mouth.”
A whistle and trailing smoke to her left told her something had been fired, and the head and arms suddenly swung that direction. “It has rather squishy eyes, too,” came Danai’s response.
“Violet leader, it’s armored below, you may be on your own to take it out.”
Kayleigh nodded to herself, steeling herself for what she needed to do. “Copy, blue leader.” She glanced around and saw the other two violet squad members circling. She toggled her squad. “We need to line up shots for Martin and Danai.”
She heard Santos growl before he spoke. “Close quarters that armor probably won’t hold.”
“That’s risky and you know it. Constantin, you want to piss something off, you’ve got it. Circle till Danai and Martin are lined up. Santos, it doesn’t have eyes in the top of its head, and the armor has to stop somewhere. Up you get.” She pulled back and lasered the hood-like armor, and as expected, nothing happened. The croaker didn’t even seem to notice. She took position opposite Constantin, shooting lasers at its eyes when she had line of sight to them.
“Landfall.” The single word over the wings’ radio told them they were behind the game.
“That’s it, we need to drop this one, now.” She didn’t dare look to see what lay ahead, she knew there would be at least two more, though hopefully of the kind they’d fought prior. “Martin, you’re first. Danai, you’re going to need to be fast.”
“You worry about not getting smashed.”
Kayleigh watched Constantin, figuring she could get him out of trouble if she made quick work of the eye coming up on her side of the head. She just had to still have line of sight if the thing swung towards him, as it seemed to do when it actually felt the attacks. Kayleigh sped up. “Santos. On your mark.”
“Three. Two. One. Mark.” A missile left Santos’ suit as he pulled up and away.
Light of lasers lit Constantin’s cockpit, the thing’s head swung hard, and Kayleigh chased her target. She saw Martin’s shot coming straight at the open mouth and pressed her trigger. The missile hit squarely, and the croaker roared, its a nice wide mouth eating Martin’s missile. The impact detonated and it teetered, the upper body ceasing to attack the ground squads as its head moved as if in a daze. Kayleigh waited until she had it’s other eye in her sights, this time using her lasers to save ammunition. Its head swung around and knocked into her, sending her into a tailspin. As she hauled at the controls, trying desperately to pull up, she saw another missile land squarely in its open mouth.
Kayleigh didn’t see the results until she’d pulled up and away and was finally stable again; it was over. The second shot had taken it out, and actually blown out the top of its head in the process. The organization’s researchers would be enthusiastic, no doubt.
“Damn girl, you can fly,” she heard, and was surprised to realize it was Constantin.
“No shit, Sherlock,” was out of her mouth before she could censor it. Luckily, the others all chimed in with laughter.
“Alright, maybe you can stay,” he quipped.
“Nice flying, violet squad! You take the third incoming, with yellow squad.” That was Doc, not Lucan’s voice, so he was on top of their battle as well as his own. That she would envy later.
“Copy, wing leader.” She looked around, seeing that her squad had inadvertently formed up on her position while she wasn’t looking. “I’ll fly solo, you two pair off. Let’s give it something else to worry about so it stops bashing yellow out of the air.”
“Copy, violet leader!” Five units sped out to support the other squad.