Flight 104:  Turbulence Ahead


"Here you go," offered Mr. Neumann.  "Full marks plus 28 points for making it before the deadline."

Five heads clustered around the digipad in Eriko's hands.  Grins broke out at the same time and the high-fives flew through the air.

"Alright!"

"We did it!"

"Yes!"

Mr. Neumann chuckled and waited for them to settle down.  "Now then, about the matter of Team P... according to the radar, your team was closest when I picked them up.  What happened?"

They told him what happened.  His face grew stern.  "That was brave, but also stupid.  You girls could've died!  You should've used the trackers to call for help!"

"I was afraid that they would take a hostage if they saw the helicopter coming.  I decided not to call for help.  It's my poor judgment and doesn't involve the rest of the team," explained Eriko.

"Good thing you know.  20 points off on your score for endangering your team."

"Hold on!  I agreed with her and went along with her plan!" said Sheryl.

"Then 5 points off on you for endangering yourself."  He held up a hand to silence further protests.  "However, your team saved Team P from escaped prisoners.  It's not a fair exchange, but I'm allowed to award each of you an extra 10 points for saving them."

"Why were they in the forest?" demanded Aris.

"There was a breakout at San Quentin a few days before.  The police managed to roundup most of the inmates, but some got away."

"A-are the boys ok?" asked Kanagi.

"We rushed them to the hospital.  Bruises and some skull fractures and concussions.  By next Monday, at least three of them can come back for camp.  They're lucky that they weren't stabbed."

"And the other two?"

"It's up to the doctors to decide.  Don't worry about them.  They're in good hands now.  You should worry about yourselves.  You only have till Monday to recuperate."

"Once I'm in a suit, I'll be fine," said Tadyana confidently.

"M-mr. Neumann, how many teams made it?" asked Kanagi.

"14 out of 20 so far.  The other teams have until midnight to finish.  Anyway, you girls rest up.  I'm heading out to help the other proctors."  Mr. Neumann picked up the digipad and left the room.

Tadyana hopped over to the common room's sofa and lay down with her injured ankle elevated.  "So what now, Black?"

"You know the drill.  Aerial training's next.  We could take his advice and rest.  Or we could go over the maneuvers."

Red held out her hand with the middle fingers together while the pinky and thumb spread outward.  "Do we need to vote?"

Sheryl's left hand flew up in a similar position.  "Let's fly!"

Aris and Kanagi smiled and their hands joined Sheryl's.  Eriko grinned widely and her hand flew up to lead the formation.

"Phoenix squadron, Star Cross."

-----

Sheryl flopped down on her bunk bed.  Even though she shared a room in the barracks, she was grateful that she had her own bed.  Across the room, Kanagi was sleeping soundly.  The soft tapping from the top bunk indicated that Eriko was doing something on her digipad.

With a flick of her wrist, she checked the time.  FRI 10:12 PM.  She slipped under the covers and closed her eyes.  Her thoughts flew to her beloved.

"Ranka?"

After several attempts, Ranka's image hugged her in reply.  "Sheryl!  How's your shoulder?"

"The x-ray showed no fractures, thank god.  There's some minor tissue damage though.  I'm wearing a shoulder brace and sling to prevent it from moving too much."

"That's good!  Here's a little trick to make it heal faster."  Ranka kissed her injured shoulder and then her lips.  Slowly, she lowered her Fairy to the grassy ground of the meadow. 

The feel of her Cinderella seemed so real that by the time she drew away, Sheryl felt breathless.  Red-orange eyes gazed at her adoringly.  Her fingertips caressed the pale, smooth skin of her face.  "I once thought that this virus was a curse, but without it, I could never be with you like this."

Pert lips tickled her fingertips.  "Then prepare yourself, 'cause I'll never leave you alone."

Those words brought tears to her eyes and she kissed her Cinderella deeply.  They had first discovered that it was possible to feel during the link when Ranka slapped her during the battle for the Vajra homeworld.  But this time, instead of feeling pain, they experimented with sensing pleasure.

Hands wandered all over that petite body, feeling its subtle curves.  The sensations in the fold link were not the same as reality, but it was more intense than a dream. 

She guided Ranka to the ground and lay on top of her.  The setting sun cast a golden ochre color on the meadow grass, which contrasted colorfully with that verdant silky hair.  Red-orange eyes reflected a shade of pale blue. 

To be so close despite being so far was a blessing indeed.  "Being able to be here with you like this... it's the second best thing that happened to me."

"What's the first?" asked Ranka, her heart beating rapidly with mixed anxiety and hope.

"Do you have to ask?"

As warm and luscious lips caressed her own, Ranka received her answer.  Her hands threaded through those golden-coral locks.  Although she could sense her Fairy, it was a shame that she could not get the full effect.  Since piano training would start next week, she wondered if she would be allowed to visit her.  When her lips were released from that rapturous embrace, she took the chance to ask.

"Are they still testing you tomorrow?"

Lips teased the crook of her neck.  "No... the tests... start on Monday."

Ranka gasped at her ministrations.  "Then... what are you... doing tomorrow?"

She shrugged.  "I don't know...  it's our free time."

"You have free time...?" repeated Ranka slowly.

The realization shocked Sheryl for a moment.

"Can I see you tonight?"

"Can I see you tonight?"

They stared at each other in surprise.  Then they broke out in laughter at their simultaneous thoughts.

"How about we meet at the carrier at 10:45?" suggested Ranka.

Sheryl opened her eyes.  The top bunk light was still on.  "How about 12?  The captain's still awake.  I don't want her to see me packing my linen."

"Don't worry about that!  I'll bring what we need.  Just get over there!"

"Alright!"  She kissed her excitedly and caressed her cheek.  "I'll see you soon."

"Don't be late..." Ranka's image faded as the link ceased.

Sheryl threw off the covers and got up.  Eriko glanced in her direction.

"Having trouble sleeping?"

"I forgot to go to the bathroom," lied Sheryl.

Eriko nodded and returned to reading her digipad.  Sheryl put on her shoes and went out to the hallway.  When she did not see anyone, she cautiously made her way out of the barracks and at the same time, summoned a Vajra.

Once outside, she slipped into the shadows and made her way towards the rendezvous point with the Vajra.

"Going somewhere, Pink?" came a voice from above.

Alarmed, Sheryl looked up to see Aris' face from a nearby tree.  "I... uh... was just taking a walk..."

"I'll join you."  Before she could protest, Aris somersaulted off the tree and landed with cat-like grace.  Then she pocketed the small phone in her hand.

Trapped, Sheryl had no choice but to walk with her.  After walking for ten minutes, Aris spoke.

"We should head back."

Anxious to get rid of her, Sheryl acquiesced.  They went back to the barracks.  When they passed the common bathrooms, Sheryl tried again.

"You go ahead.  I need to go."

"Ok."

Sheryl made a pretense of going and even flushed the toilet.  Then she listened quietly for movement in the hallway.  When she heard none, she went out and walked to the back exit.  As she pushed the barracks door, a voice stopped her in her tracks.

"Aren't you done going to the bathroom?"

She turned to her left to see Eriko emerging from the shadows.  Footsteps on her right announced Aris' presence.

"How... how did you know?" asked Sheryl as she backed away from them.

"After talking to Red and Silver, we decided to keep an eye on you.  None of the male pilots were likely to be your lover, so he's probably not on the airbase."  She walked up to her and looked her straight in the eye.  "I'm sorry, Pink, but I'm going to hold you to your promise.  Even though you're a first-year and ranked dead last, you're here.  Some aerial tests will rank us as a team, so I can't risk anyone performing below her potential."

"But can't it wait till tomorrow?" asked Sheryl desperately.

"I just received clearance to use the airbase's simulator and wind tunnel," said Eriko.  She checked her watch.  "If we set aside 6 hours for sleep, 1 hour for meals and 1 hour for hygiene, that gives you over 30 hours of practice before Monday."

"Wait a second, I'm still injured!"

"None of the maneuvers require you to lift your arm.  But as an extra precaution, I can lock the shoulder joint on your suit.  You won't be able to move your upper arm, but your lower arm can move."

"Even though I promised..." protested Sheryl at first, but when the combined stares of Eriko and Aris attacked her, her complaints died in her throat.  It was then that she realized that the captain was not in her pajamas anymore.  She hung her head and sighed.  "When do we start?"

A smug smile spread over Black's face.  "So nice of you to ask... follow me."

As she followed them, she opened the fold link.  Ranka was already at the carrier and was obviously not happy to hear the news.  She apologized profusely.

When the link fell silent, Ranka stared at the stony ground of the crater for several seconds.  Then she kicked the bag of linen.  It landed about ten feet away with a dull thud.

Her scream of frustration echoed on the crater's walls.  "Why are pilots so hard to date?!"

-----

Another yawn escaped from her mouth as she held on to the tether.  She could not believe that she was here at 6 in the morning.  Across the wind tunnel, Tadyana and Eriko manned the control booth.  The helmet's speaker crackled.

"Phoenix Pink, wind activation in ten seconds," said Tadyana.

"Roger."

Tadyana counted down.  Sheryl watched the airspeed on the HMD.  When it was strong enough, she started the engines and let go.  She gripped the controls sticks in the arm compartments and adjusted the ailerons and flaps for the proper bank angle. 

"Level flight sustained," reported Sheryl.

"Execute Immelmann turn when ready." 

"Roger."

They spent the morning going over basic maneuvers.  By lunch, Sheryl was glad for a break.  As she stepped out of the suit, her legs felt unsteady and she swayed for balance.  A firm hand caught her left arm. 

"Hey, be careful!  One lame pilot is enough," said Tadyana jokingly as she leaned on her crutches.

She sat down on the bench with relief.  Eriko put two boxed lunches next to them.

"Here's your lunch.  Tadyana knows your flying best.  She'll work with you while I work with Green."

Sheryl blanched.  She assumed that the captain would be overseeing practice.  As Eriko left the room, she felt chills run down her spine. 

Tadyana picked up a box and sat across from her.  She took a bite.  "What are you doing?  Hurry up and eat.  You're still not there yet."

A drop of sweat rolled down her forehead.  As she ate her lunch, she hoped that Tadyana would not bully her.

-----

"Were you dropped in a zentran matrix!?" yelled Tadyana.  "I keep telling you to go easy on the control sticks and bleed off speed gradually!"

Sheryl cringed as Red continued her tirade.  The HMD replayed her last data.

"Now, look here... this is where you jerked the left control stick... see how the bank angle changed abruptly?  And then over here, you can see the huge effect it had on the climb..."

She tried her best to listen, but Red was not a very encouraging teacher.  As practice went on, a vein began to grow on her temple.  Finally, she burst out.

"Why should it matter as long as I get through?"

Ironically, Red replied in a calmer voice.  "Do you know why Meltrandi are called in when hundreds of zentran troops can't take out a problematic enemy squadron?  I'll tell you why.  A Meltran Queadluun-Rau squadron can swoop in and take them out without any prior experience of fighting them before.  And it's not because of superior weaponry.  A Q-Rau is just a useless machine without a pilot.  It's because the pilot flies the Q-Rau efficiently and effectively to outmaneuver and to adapt to the enemy.  Zentran troops operate by sheer numbers and firepower to win, but a Meltran Queadlunn-Rau squadron claims victory with coordinated hits and mobility.  So it's not about equipment.  It's about control."

"Your suit is the latest model and is way more responsive than mine.  You got to master it instead of letting it master you!  So stop charging recklessly and muscling your way through maneuvers!  It might get you to pass by the hair of your neck, but it sure isn't enough to meet my standards or Black's."

Sheryl gritted her teeth and glared at Tadyana in the control booth. 

"Having a clear head also helps.  Let's break here."

-----

Somehow, she made it through until dinner.  While she was taking off her suit, Aris came in.

"Here's yours," said Aris as she offered a pile of decals.

The shoulder decals showed an image of a phoenix with its wings spread.  Its body was a base of red with pink highlights.  It was crowned with black feathers while its wings were silver.  Its tail sported green highlights.  Under the phoenix was the number five, which was pink with a black outline.

Her eyes glowed with delight as her fingers traced the official callsign.  "Phoenix-5..."

"That's right.  I'm Phoenix-3.  See you at mess, Pink."  Silver slapped her on the back and left.

Excited, Sheryl spent the next few minutes aligning the decal on the shoulder pad.  When she was satisfied, she peeled it off and carefully stuck it into place.  Then she stood back and admired her handiwork.  By the time she got to the mess hall, the team was halfway done with dinner.

"What took you so long?" asked Aris.

Sheryl wolfed down some mashed potatoes.  "Sorry... I got carried away with the decals..."

"Couldn't you wait until after dinner to do them?" scolded Eriko.  "You only have twenty minutes left before the chefs take the food away."

"You're one to talk.  You spent thirty minutes measuring and lining them up to the marks you made," teased Aris.

"I have to set a good example as captain.  By the way, how was she?"

"Stubborn as a mule, but if you don't mind being a broken record, she'll get the idea," replied the vice-captain.

"Hey!  You didn't have to say it like that!" yelled Sheryl with indignation.

"Sorry, Pink.  I don't know how to coddle like instructors do."

"We don't have a lot of time.  Bear with her corrections and just do it," said Eriko calmly.  "You're her wingman, so you two have to get along."

"Eh?!  When was this decided?"

"Just now.  Also, I want to go over your corrections.  We'll be doing team maneuvers in the afternoon, so work on as much as you can in the morning."

After dinner, she sat down with Tadyana and Eriko and went over a long list.  Eriko marked several entries.

"Make sure she does these right, especially landing.  She has a tendency to pitch forward on touchdown.  I also agree with your suggestions for her suit adjustments."

"Will do," responded Tadyana.

They practiced in the wind tunnel that evening and returned for more practice in the morning.  After lunch, they assembled at Field A51. 

Eriko's suit sported the distinctive black and yellow trim for squadron captains.  As expected, her callsign was Phoenix-1.  As vice-captain, Phoenix-2 belonged to Tadyana.  Her number two was red outlined in black.  Similarly, Aris' and Kanagi's numbers were silver and green with a black outline.  Except for the captain, their suits also had trim matching their colors.

Eriko opened the portable recording system that would gather data.  She synchronized it with their IFFs and HMDs.

"We'll go over combat maneuvers.  One team will be the attackers and the other will be bogeys.  Silver, Green, you're team A.  Red, Pink, you're team B.  If I'm with Green, we'll be team C."

The captain gave instructions and explained the rules of engagement.  Then she announced the combat maneuvers to execute.

The sun was setting by the time the captain ended training.  After dinner, Sheryl spent more time in the simulator with Red.  Around 10 PM, the vice-captain ended the session. 

"Much better than Friday," remarked Tadyana with a pleased tone in her voice.  Then she hastily added, "But still not there yet."

It was the closest thing to praise from the obnoxious Red, so Sheryl gratefully accepted it. 

"So, what are we doing after this?"

"Go back and rest," replied the redhead.

"No drills?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

To make sure, she wanted to ask the captain directly.  However, Eriko was not in their room.  Kanagi did not know where she was either. 

"She told me to get some rest.  She also said that she had some business and won't be back till midnight," replied Kanagi.

Sheryl's heart was racing.  Did this mean that she actually had free time?  Before she lost her chance, she talked to Ranka.  They agreed to meet in thirty minutes.

Her entire body was trembling as she left the barracks.  On top of the wind tunnel, her summoned Vajra waited.  She only had to climb the stairs to the rooftop.

"Is that you, Nome?"

She turned around to see Mr. Neumann.  Surprisingly, Eriko and a male pilot were following him.  Even more surprising was Eriko's scowling expression, which replaced her usually calm one.

"Although I applaud your enthusiasm, you shouldn't burn yourself out before real training begins.  It's late.  Come along," ordered Mr. Neumann.

Sheryl helplessly followed him.  Along the way, he found other pilots.  When they arrived at the female barracks, he wished them good night.  Sheryl lingered long enough to see him slide an access card on the reader by the door and punch a few keys.

"What's he doing?"

"Setting the alarm," replied Eriko.

"Does that mean that the doors will be locked?"

"Not just the doors, but the windows as well."  A blue eye peered from under those dark bangs.  "If I were you, I wouldn't sneak out."

The captain paused before continuing, "I'm sorry.  I miscalculated.  The airbase is just letting us borrow the grounds for a week.  They don't like students running around at night, so the teachers have to make sure that everyone is in the barracks at lights out.  Neumann made his rounds around midnight last year.  I should've told Red to finish an hour earlier.  Now we're all paying the price."

"We?"

"It's not fair that only Aris and Tadyana get R&R."

It took at least a minute before she understood.  "Ah!  That's your boyfriend!?  You were making out?"

"Took you long enough.  And don't be so loud.  Everyone will hear you."

"Isn't there any way to bypass the alarm?"

"None."

They reached their room and opened the door.  The sight before them made their jaws drop. 

Kanagi and a pink-haired meltran were standing in the middle of the room.  Even though hot chocolate dripped from one of the cups that Kanagi held in her hands, they were still locked in deep kiss. 

The captain cleared her throat and the pink-haired girl pulled away quickly.  She stared at them for several moments before she grabbed the dripping cup and gulped it down.  She gave it back to Kanagi.

"Thanksforthechocolate!  GoodnightKanaIchijyo!" said the girl in rapid-fire speech.  Then she ran out of the room.

"Good night, Hitczewskey," replied Eriko calmly.  She stepped aside as the pink-haired girl ran by.

Kanagi broke out of her trance and chased after her.  "W-wait!  A-akiha!" 

The pink-haired girl bounded up the stairs and was out of sight.  Only then did Kanagi acknowledge Eriko and Sheryl.

"C-captain!  Y-you came back early!"

"Sorry, the higher-ups aborted my mission.  Don't worry.  There'll be other chances later."  She patted Kanagi on the back and whispered, "Maybe next time, you'll share more than just hot chocolate, hmm?"

Kanagi blushed to her ears.  "C-captain!"

They cleaned up the spill and got ready for bed.  As she sat on her bunk, Sheryl hung her head.  Ranka was not going to like this.  She opened the link.

"It's not your fault," said Ranka as her hair lost its usual bounce and fell limply along her cheek.  "They're really strict with you.  Anyway, I better head back.  Good luck tomorrow."  She kissed her good night and broke the link.

"She handled it better than I thought," wondered Sheryl.  She rubbed her temple.  "I'll make it up to her somehow..."

That should have been the end of it, but Ranka's disappointed face filled her vision as she tossed in bed.  An hour later, she asked Ai.

"She in bed.  Very sad," said Ai.

She was afraid of that.  "May I see?"

Ai opened her mind.  Ranka was lying in bed with her back toward Ai.  Sheryl concentrated on receiving Ai's senses.  Then Ranka shuddered and a soft sob reached her ears.

"Sheryl..."

Her heart almost stopped.  Through her carelessness, she had caused Ranka pain even though her Cinderella made so much effort to comfort her during the past week.  In the link, she fell to her knees.

"Sheryl sad too?  Why sad?"

"I promised to see her last Friday, but I couldn't come.  And today, I did the same thing..."

"Then see now.  Come now."

"I can't... they... my instructors won't let me."

"We are here."  Without warning, Ai expanded the link.  An image of Ranka materialized.

Ranka sat up and turned.  Her puffy eyes focused lazily.  "Huh?  What's wrong, Ai-chan... Sheryl?!"  Her hand went up to her mouth.

Sheryl caught her in her arms.  "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry..."  Words tumbled out repeatedly as tears brimmed in her eyes.

"D-don't cry..." said Ranka in a cracking voice.  "Or else... I'll cry too."

For about half a minute, they wept together.  Eventually, they calmed down.  Sheryl drew back and wiped Ranka's tears.  "I really miss you.  If only I wasn't caught..."

Slender fingers tapped her lips.  "I know... don't blame yourself.  You already apologized."  Those red-orange eyes stared at the ground.  "It's just me... I get depressed easily."

She hugged her.  "Then let it out.  Hit me... scream at me... do anything but hold it in!"

Ranka kissed her cheek and leaned her head on the Galaxy Fairy's shoulder.  "I can't do that to you.  Don't worry about me.  I'll deal with it on my own.  Besides, just having you here now made me feel better.  So get some rest.  You're the one in the pilot's course."

She kissed her Cinderella.  "I will.  And I'll make it up to you, ok?"

They held each other quietly for a while until Ranka's link faded.  Sheryl guessed that she fell asleep.  She turned to Ai.  "Can you keep an eye on her and cheer her up for me?"

"Ok.  Good night," said Ai.

"Good night," replied Sheryl.

At this point, she thought that she could sleep peacefully.  However, annoying sounds were coming from Aris and Tadyana's room even past midnight.  She shifted uneasily in her bunk, trying to ignore the warmth between her thighs.

"If we had some, it wouldn't be so bad," said Eriko softly.  "They're not going to stop anytime soon.  Do you want earplugs?"

"No, that's ok."  Then a thought occurred to her.  "Why do you have those anyway?"

"Have you ever slept in the barracks before?"

"No."

A soft chuckle escaped her lips.  "Then you wouldn't know...  I bring them in case of snoring roommates and in this case, loud neighbors.  Are you sure you don't want some?"

"No, thanks."  Sheryl held the pillow over her ears and buried her envy.  Perhaps, this was fate's way of punishing her for breaking her promise.

-----

The pilots assembled in the barracks courtyard at dawn.  Mr. Bernard addressed them from an elevated stage. 

"Good morning, everyone!  First of all, congratulations on those who passed the survival test.  For the groups that didn't, please prepare for next year... if you still have a next year."

At his last statement, several pilots hung their heads.  Mr. Bernard cleared his throat.  "The format for this week is as follows:  comprehensive review today, individual tests tomorrow, aerial combat on Wednesday and Thursday and team combat on Friday.  Also, we have a special guest instructor."

Sheryl's jaw dropped as Ozma Lee walked onto the stage.  Mr. Bernard explained that Ozma had generously accepted his request to teach and encouraged everyone to learn from him.  He handed the mic to Ozma.

"Thank you, Director.  I'm pleased to be here.  Given these times, NUNS needs pilots, but it also needs good ones who would be assets instead of liabilities.  I look forward to working with each of you very closely and figuring out which type you are."  When he said those last words, Sheryl was sure that he was staring at her.

Mr. Bernard received the mic from Ozma.  "Everyone, please do your best.  Proctors, check attendance."

Each proctor called out his or her groups.  Mr. Neumann checked his.

"Cobra squadron."

"Present," replied a skinny zentran captain with slightly green skin.

"Thunderbolts squadron."

"Uh, captain's not here, and there's only two of us."

"I'll reassign both of you to other teams.  Phoenix squadron."

"Present," responded Eriko.

At the mention of their name, some of the female teams, particularly the Harpy squadron and the Wasp squadron looked at them with envy.

They followed Mr. Neumann to the training field.  When they started the basic review, Sheryl looked around for Ozma.  He was with some third-years.  She sighed in relief.  Maybe she was just being paranoid.

By mid-afternoon, they were reviewing some advanced maneuvers.  Sheryl pulled out of a dive too steeply and ended up twirling head over heels.  When she returned to level flight, her helmet burst with sound.

"Are you trying to kill yourself?  Watch your velocity vector and brake sooner!" came Ozma's voice.

Her eyes went round in alarm.  Down by the flight recording station was Ozma.  He was wearing an instructor's headset.

"What are you doing!?  This isn't a supermarket checkout line!  Do the next one!"

Sheryl obeyed.  For each maneuver, Ozma gave his corrections and scathing insults.  With each one, her nervousness grew and she became more self-conscious.  She wanted the lesson to end and tried to finish as soon as possible.  In her haste, she squeezed the throttle lever too much during a climb, causing the engines to heat up considerably.  The temperature gauge crossed to the red zone.

"Engines are delicate!  Ya gotta handle 'em like virgins!" barked Ozma.

"What?!" exclaimed Sheryl who could not believe what he just said.

Meanwhile, Ozma berated himself.  "Damn... now I gave her funny ideas..."  He did not want to give her the idea that he approved of relationships between girls.  It was all right to say that remark to guys and sometimes, Meltrandi, since their military structure segregated the females from the males.  Because of that, zentraedi did not have the human aversion to homosexual relationships and were more likely to date someone of the same gender.

He smirked.  His psychological warfare was working and the Galaxy Fairy was making more mistakes.  "Just you wait, Nome.  I'll make you wish you never enrolled in this course!  This ain't a game." 

He spoke into the mic again.  "Forget that!  Don't burn your engines out!"

Eventually, Sheryl realized that hurrying was not going to help her.  She bore Ozma's criticism with all the patience that she could muster.  In her concentration to do a difficult maneuver, she almost did not notice it.  There was a whirring noise above her.

"Overhead collision at 1'oclock!" yelled Ozma.

Cobra squadron was practicing above them and their teammate was careening head over heels towards her.  There was no time to turn sharply, so she retracted her wings and twisted towards him.  Then she curled into a ball with her hands and feet out.  As soon as he hit, she allowed her arms and legs to absorb the impact.  The pneumatic gears in her suit strained with the force and she quickly guided him off to the side.  The resulting counter force caused her to spin. 

Ozma saw the collision.  Sheryl dropped like a rock towards the space shuttle hangar.  He yelled into the mic, "Pull the chute!" 

However, when he saw her velocity on the flight recording system, the chute would not be enough.  He opened a channel.  "Send rescue team to Moffett Field!  Hurry!"

The suit would absorb most of the impact, but she would probably be too injured to continue.  It was not part of his plan, but accidents happen.  Ozma thought, "Looks like it ends here."

As she spun in midair, she was reminded of her training with the Vajra queen.  The queen's words cut through her panic.

"Feel it... flow..."

She felt the swirling in her abdomen.  The V-type organisms were reacting to gravity and tugged in a particular direction. 

"This way... is up!"  Sheryl twisted to bring her feet toward the ground and extended the suit's wings.  Then she adjusted the flaps and ailerons to counter her spin. 

When her spinning slowed down, she saw the hangar.  Immediately, she applied the airbrakes and chute to reduce her velocity.  To her dismay, her velocity was still too high.  So she cut the engines and brought her knees towards her chest.  She pulled up and banked sharply, dipping her left wing towards the ground as she neared the hangar.  Then she pointed her feet towards the dome and blasted the foot boosters at maximum.

With a gut-wrenching rattle of metal, she landed level with the sloping dome and skidded several times with the foot wheels of her suit before skating over the dome.  Against the strain of the pneumatic gears in the leg compartments, she fought for balance.  Once she achieved some stability, she released the chute and turned off the foot boosters as well as the airbrakes.  Then she turned the engines on to maximum thrust and set the motorized wheels to full speed.  Before she ran out of roof, she leapt off by extending her bent legs and fired the boosters for additional thrust.

When her wings vibrated against the dragging wind, she swept her wings back ten degrees and continued to climb into the sky.  The HMD flashed warnings about engine and booster temperatures but she ignored them, trying to put as much distance between herself and the ground to sustain a level glide.

Meanwhile, Ozma was expecting her to crash.  Instead, he stood in surprised fascination as she managed to land and take off.  In his mind, she had transformed into battroid mode, deflected the enemy, switched to gerwalk and landed.  Then she launched from the roof and transformed to fighter mode.

Eriko and Tadyana rushed to Sheryl and flew to the left and right of her.  They watched her carefully for any sign of trouble.

"Are you alright, Pink?" asked the captain.

Her heart was pounding in her ears when she broke out her adrenalin daze.  "Y-yes..."

"Nome, land ASAP for crosscheck," ordered Mr. Neumann. 

Sheryl complied and was escorted by Eriko and Tadyana.  Some members of rescue team hovered around her when she landed.  The rest were helping the Cobra squadron pilot who landed with his chute on the sandy ground. 

"You two can go back to practice.  We'll take care of her," said Mr. Neumann.

"But..." started Tadyana until Eriko put a hand on her shoulder.

"She'll be fine.  Let them do their job," said Eriko.

Tadyana nodded and both of them returned to the sky.

Mr. Neumann spoke into the headset's mic.  "Everyone, continue practicing.  We're still watching you!"

The rescue team helped Sheryl out of her suit and led her to the ambulance where she sat on the cot.  They began checking for injuries.  Meanwhile, Sheryl tried her best to keep herself from trembling. 

"Nothing broken," declared the lead paramedic.  "But that shoulder... it's got some bruising.  Did this happen recently?"

In a shaking voice, Sheryl explained how she got it and the treatment she received so far.  The paramedic shook her head in disapproval.  "Kids like you abuse your body too much!  You should take care of yourself!"

"It's alright.  The shoulder joint in the suit is locked, so my arm doesn't move.  As long as I can use my hands, I can fly."

"In that case, let me give you a shot to reduce the swelling.  In the meantime, lie on your side.  Your heart rate's really high and you look pale."

Sheryl obeyed.  Meanwhile, up in the sky, Eriko hailed Mr. Neumann. 

"I'm sorry to bother you, Sir, but how's Nome?"

"She's not hurt and is resting right now," replied Mr. Neumann.  "Don't worry.  They said she'll be fine."

"Thank you."  She closed the channel and reported Sheryl's condition to the rest of the team.

"Thank space!" said Tadyana.

"S-she'll be up here in no time, like always," said Kanagi.

The vice-captain could not help but smile when she remembered Pink's bullheaded determination on the simulators.  "Yeah.  You have to wonder where she gets her confidence.  Hey, Green, can you be my wingman until she gets here?  I need a partner for the Scissor."

"Sure!"

"I thought you practiced that enough last night," remarked Aris with a sly leer.

"Aris!" exclaimed Tadyana with embarrassment.

"Don't use the public channel for idle chit-chat, Silver.  More practice, less talk," ordered the captain, but there was a hint of amusement in her voice.

After checking that Sheryl was fine, Ozma stared at the long black streaks on the hangar's metallic dome.  Nearby, the shuttle mechanics walked out of the hangar and surveyed the streaks as well.  He still could not believe that it happened. 

"That girl has guts," muttered Ozma.  He turned his attention on the Cobra squadron.  They had done a lot of crappy flying and needed to be straightened out.

When her heart finally calmed down enough, Sheryl suited up.  Thankfully, the maintenance squad had checked her suit, refueled it and even replaced the worn out foot wheels.  She thanked them and blasted off the catapult.  A grin graced her face when she was airborne once more.

For the rest of the day, Mr. Neumann oversaw their practice.  Across the sky, she could see Cobra squadron bumbling in midair.  At least, she was no longer Ozma's target for the day.

-----

After dinner, the Phoenix squadron gathered in their room.  Tadyana crossed her arms.

"'Fess up, Pink.  The Major was on your case all afternoon.  What did you do to him?"

"I don't know," lied Sheryl.  She certainly was not telling them about Ranka.

"In any case, don't let it get to you," said Eriko as she tapped on her digipad.  "Your performance wasn't the same level as yesterday.  Tomorrow is the real thing.  If I were you, I'd be ashamed to have scores like this on the tests."

Eriko flipped the digipad to show several graphs of data.  When she saw the difference, Sheryl bowed her head and clenched her fists.

"Do you have your flight plan already?" asked the vice-captain.

"Yes," replied Sheryl.  She pulled out her digipad from her duffel bag and showed her.

Tadyana reviewed the stage selections.  Each pilot had to go through an obstacle course.  The instructors selected the first five stages.  The next five were chosen by the pilot from a list.  Each stage had an adjustable difficulty rating.  In general, first-years usually did ratings 1 to 3, second-years did 4 to 6 and third-years did 7 to 10.  However, if the pilot was a gifted student and the chosen rating was below his ability, the instructor can increase the rating during the test. 

The rating set the minimum performance requirements per year and also challenged students.  Each rating above the year minimum had a multiplier, which was used to calculate the score.  For the third-years, rating 8 had a multiplier of 1.25 while rating 10 had a multiplier of 2.0.  If the pilot did a stage at rating 10, then his score was multiplied by 2.0.  Because of the multiplier, most pilots would attempt the highest rating possible even if mistakes were made because the multiplier made up the difference.  Since each stage was worth 10 points, the highest score possible would be 150 points instead of 100.

In Sheryl's case, she picked stages which required maneuvers that she was good at.  The ratings were either 1 or 2.

"These are fine," said Tadyana as she returned the digipad.  "Looks like I was worried for nothing."

"About what?" asked Sheryl.

"That you'd brazenly pick out the hard stages with rating 3."

"Hey, I like a challenge, but I'm not that crazy!"

The captain and vice-captains reviewed the rest of the flight plans and made suggestions.  After they were done, Eriko ended the meeting.

"It's been a long day for Pink.  Let's give her some R&R."

With that, they turned in for bed.  As she snuggled into her pillow, Sheryl was glad for the respite.  As usual, Ranka paid her a nightly visit.  They talked about their day for a few minutes.  Then Ranka sang for her.  Within minutes, she fell asleep.

-----

In the morning, the tests started with twenty maneuvers of the proctor's choice.  Each one was graded between one to ten.  With a score of 169, Sheryl was around the average for first-years.  The captain and vice-captain finished with impressive scores of 192 and 188.  Aris and Kanagi got 181 and 173.  While they had lunch, Sheryl could not help but wonder why Eriko was not in the top five with Alto, Luca and Frankie. 

The obstacle course was held in the afternoon and started with third-years.  While waiting for her turn, she practiced with Kanagi in Ames field.  From time to time, Aris would relay test results of certain pilots.

"Looks like Angelloni's keeping his rank.  His final score is 135," reported Aris.  "The captain's is just getting calculated... 137!"

Sheryl turned to Kanagi.  "Seems like the captain set the bar."

Kanagi held out her fist.  "W-we won't lose!"

With a metallic clang, Sheryl answered it with her left hand.  They resumed practice until it was time for Kanagi's test.  Sheryl went with her and wished her good luck as she flew to her stage setup.

For the obstacle course, the time limit to complete it was 60 seconds.  If the pilot collided with an obstacle, 1 point was deducted.  If the pilot did not complete the course within the time limit, a painful 20 points were deducted. 

Kanagi was obviously nervous in stage 1 and 2 but improved in later stages.  Her final score was 92.

Finally, it was Sheryl's turn along with the small group of first-years.  She flew to her test area and watched as her stages were assembled by the flying droids, which generated rays of light that simulated walls.  Her heart began to beat faster with nervousness.

Her helmet crackled to life.  Mr. Neumann announced, "Cadets, get ready.  5, 4, 3, 2, 1... Go!"

Engines roaring, Sheryl sprang forward and entered stage 1.  Carefully, she flew through it and watched her time.  Since the time limit was 60 seconds, she had to complete each stage in 6 seconds.  By the 31-second mark, she finished the first five stages.  The next stages were hers and she had practiced them repeatedly.  She increased her speed to make up for the lost time.

Upon entering stage 6, the corridors narrowed and lengthened.  Alarm filled her heart.  The HMD displayed a new rating of 3.  Nevertheless, she did the best that she could but ended up with 4 collisions. 

At stage 7, the same thing happened again, but the HMD reported a rating of 4.  Sheryl took a quick glance at the control station.  To her dismay, Ozma stood next to it.  She cursed under her breath and concentrated.  There was no choice but to continue.

The stage was longer and narrower than she was used to.  In order to maintain time, she was forced to speed up.  In her haste, she made 6 collisions.  Her jaw dropped when she saw the next rating: 6.

She tried to react accordingly with the HMD updates as she did the tight turns.  The resulting G-force made her light-headed and she contracted her neck muscles to avoid blackout.  At a particularly tight turn, her abdomen churned in response to the increased G-force.  An idea formed in her mind.

"That's right!  There's more than one way to fly!"  She accelerated once more and swept her wings by ten degrees.

Meanwhile, down by the control station, Mr. Neumann confronted Ozma.  "Major, are you trying to fail her?  This is too much!"

"It ain't.  She's just been slacking off," said Ozma who kept his hand at the rating control panel.

"But Nome is just an average student!" argued Neumann.

"Can an average student pilot a VF-25 in battle?"

"What?!  Please explain!"

"Later.  Time's running out," said Ozma as he increased the level.

The slalom stage was last.  When the course narrowed and shortened, Sheryl did not bother to look at the rating anymore.  She only had 5 seconds left.  With a cry of defiance, she charged ahead, feeling the swirling in her abdomen.

Wings swept back, she barrel rolled through the slalom as fast as she dared with just the feeling in her abdomen to guide her.  As she spun, her vision began to dim.  She contracted her neck muscles one more time and accelerated for the last section.  When she finally passed the finish line, she slowed the spin and resumed level flight.

"You ok?" came Tadyana's worried voice from the speakers.

Sheryl gulped in lungfuls of air to clear her head.  "N-no... I'm... not... I'm... I'm gonna... kill... him!"  She dived.

Tadyana reacted quickly and blocked her way.  "Calm down, Pink!  I know you're angry... By Miriya, I'd be angry too!  But don't do anything rash!  Let's talk to Neumann and ask him to let you retake the test."

They landed near the control station.  To their surprise, a sizeable group of students and proctors had gathered around Ozma and Neumann.

"...flew the VF-25 out of the Vajra battle zone to where Angelloni fought.  Remember Angelloni?" asked Ozma.

"Um, yes... I saw them," replied Luca nervously.  He was not sure why Ozma was telling this story.  However, what happened after was embarrassing since he did not have the skill to protect them.  He hoped that Ozma would not mention that part.

Ozma drove his point home.  "Most cadets freeze in the middle of battle, but not Nome.  She did what she could with the little training that she had and saved Blanc.  If that doesn't show ya her battle instincts, I dunno what will.  And then I come here and see her crappy flying yesterday.  Where's that battle instinct?  That's why I needed to test her."

He pointed at the test results.  "Just look at the last stage."

"11!" exclaimed Neumann.  "And only 3 collisions in 4.69 seconds!"  Since pilots had to weave between the pylons, a decrease in speed was required to make a sharp turn.  To minimize the speed decrease, most third-years opted to do an alternating vertical knife maneuver.  Another alternative was the barrel roll, but it was difficult to control because it required simultaneous adjustments on all three movement axes.  For Nome to do it at that velocity was amazing.

"That's right," said Ozma.  "So how come she's been flying so badly?  I think that she's been slackin'.  I don't care if she's an idol, but if you wanna be a pilot, you gotta be serious!  Foolin' around on the battlefield could cost you your life!"

"You have a point, Major.  For tomorrow, I will adjust her difficulty ratings accordingly.  But next time, please inform us to avoid misunderstandings."  He noticed Sheryl.  "Ah, here she is.  Nome, I'm pleased to announce your score of 101.  Well done!"

Behind him, Ozma stood with an impassive face, but his eyes declared victory.  Sheryl restrained her anger and tried to sound elated over her results. 

"Thank you, sir."  Then she rolled away before she unleashed her rage.  Behind her, Tadyana followed.

Ozma turned his attention to the next testers.  In preparation for his excuse, he occasionally adjusted other pilot's stages so they would not suspect him of foul play.  Sheryl's test could have gone either way and his argument could be adapted as needed.  If she failed, then he would pretend to be disappointed and she could retake it.  Her anxiety over the prior test would probably affect the retake.  If she did well, then he would hype her so that Neumann would make it harder for her.

However, something about her flying seemed strange.  He replayed her data.  Compared to the previous stages, her reaction time was faster in later stages.  In fact, her turn corrections happened even before the gyro feedback was displayed on the HMD.  When Neumann hovered near, he quickly closed the gyro data and decided to look at it later.

While Sheryl went back to her squadron, soft whispers spread through the squads.

"Did you hear?  She flew a VF-25!"

"I bet it's the new suit..."

"She could fly like that?  Maybe she really is a slacker..."

She did not care about them.  However, when she saw the saw the faces of her squad, her heart sank. 

"Let's talk over here," said the captain with a grim expression on her face.

When they were out of earshot from the crowd, Eriko looked at her squarely in the eye.  "Tell me that we didn't waste our time."

"He's twisted the story out of proportion!" fumed Sheryl.  "I'm not slacking off!"

"Then what's the deal with the VF-25?  Did that really happen?" demanded Tadyana.

"Ok, it did.  But what you don't know was that I got shot down and I didn't even know how to eject.  The AI ejected us and that's why we didn't explode with the fighter!  I was just lucky!"

"Lucky or not, it happened and you flew it," said Aris.  "And then there was that crazy landing yesterday.  Doesn't that say something?"

A scowl formed on Tadyana's face.  "I can't believe this... all that training when I could've been recuperating..."  The vice-captain turned around and wheeled away.  Aris followed her.

Desperation filled her.  She appealed to the rest of the team.  "I'm not slacking!  Do you think I made a fool of myself yesterday just for fun?  Why should I train like mad with an injured shoulder during ungodly hours if I could fly like that?"

"I-I believe you, Pink," said Kanagi.  "Don't you, captain?"

Deep blue eyes assessed her for a few moments.  Then the captain ran her hand through those dark unruly bangs.  "I see two sets of data that doesn't make sense.  It's like there's a novice pilot and an experienced one.  You say you can't but there's data that says you could.  Which am I supposed to believe?"

"I swear, captain, I'm flying the only way I know how."  It was true.  For the barrel roll, Sheryl practiced it a lot while learning to control Vajra.  From the experience, she gained an instinctive sense of the motion.

Eriko sighed.  "You've kept your promise so far.  I trust you."

Tears of relief brimmed in her eyes.  She blinked them back and bowed.  "Thank you."

"But you're not out of the woods yet.  Do you want me to talk to Red?"  She turned towards Aris and Tadyana who sat on a bench by the shuttle hangar.

"Yes, please.  At this point, I don't think she'll listen."

They rolled over to where Aris and Tadyana were.  The captain ordered them to sit and listen to Sheryl.  After Sheryl made her argument, she appealed as well.

"She's ranked dead last.  As of today, I don't think that'll be the case.  I think it's because of all that extra practice you spent with her."

"Well... it had better!" remarked Tadyana with a hint of waning irritation.  "We spent two hours reviewing landings!"

"We're sorry for doubting you," apologized Aris.  When Tadyana did not say anything, she nudged her in the ribs.

The vice-captain crossed her arms and looked away.  "It's all your fault, you know... having such weird skill gaps.  Just pick one level and stop confusing us!"

"I'm sure it'll be decided this week."  Eriko checked her watch.  "We better get going.  It's time for dinner."

With that, the Phoenix squadron rolled back to the locker rooms to change.

-----

"Ma'am is still at work, Mr. Lee," said Erenmeyer.

Ozma was surprised.  It was already 11 PM.  "Is it alright if I wait for her?" 

"Please.  Would you like some coffee?"

"Yeah.  Extra black."

Ozma sat in the sitting room and watched the news.  A wide grin crossed his face when the news anchor reported Wilder's promotion to Rear-Admiral by Grand Admiral Hayase.  In his official admiral uniform, he looked very impressive.  Ozma made a note to treat him to drinks after work.  When the reporter announced the appointment of Commodore Khellen Clang to Macross Quarter, he raised his cup in salute.

The following news was more disturbing.  There was a breakout at San Quentin Prison.  However, the reporter assured that all inmates, including the war criminal, Richard Bilrer, were caught.

Twenty minutes later, Erenmeyer walked in.  "I'm very sorry, Sir, but I have to pick up Murine and Soffie from the spaceport.  They have arrived earlier than anticipated.  Might you need anything?"

"Nah.  I'll just watch TV," replied Ozma.

"I'll be back as soon as possible," He handed him a slip of paper.  "Here's my mobile number in case of an emergency."

Ozma took it.  "Thanks."

After the butler left, an idea crossed his mind.  He decided to surprise Cathy, so he went upstairs to her room and found a hiding place behind heavy drapes.  He watched TV while waiting.

About fifteen minutes later, the door opened.  Cathy's voice echoed in the hall, calling for the butler.  Quickly, he turned the TV off and hid.  Footsteps thumped up the stairs and in the hallway.  The door creaked open and something heavy landed on the bed. 

Ozma peeked through the drapes.  Cathy was facing the bureau with a picture of her father on top.  She leaned her head against the bureau.

"Daddy... it's so hard..."  A soft sob shook her tall frame.  "I know I promised... oh, Daddy, give me strength..."

The sight wrenched his heart.  Ozma went to her immediately.  She must have noticed and faced him with alarm in her eyes.  He hugged her tightly.

"It's alright... things will work out, I'm sure." 

Cathy's restraint broke and she wept into his chest.  He held her until she calmed down.  Finally, she spoke.

"I made a mistake today."

"So what?  Everyone makes mistakes."

"I... I ended up contradicting Lehr.  Now the Frontier senators are at odds."

"Yeah, that's a problem."

"What should I do?"

"I hate to say this, but just do a public apology.  Say it's overwork or somethin'"  At his words, Cathy began to laugh.  "Why are you laughing?"

"It's so like you to make excuses."

"Hey!  I'm not..."

She kissed him to shut him up.  When she drew away, she asked, "Did you bring me some pie?"

Ozma looked at her with surprise.  "How'd you know?"

She leaned on his chest and inhaled deeply.  "You smell sweet.  C'mon, let's go downstairs."

At the dining room, they helped themselves to Ozma's homemade pineapple pie and freshly brewed zencoffee.  While eating, they discussed their week so far.

"I found a great sniper recruit.  Her hit ratio's 91% in flight, and no misses on stationary targets," said Ozma.

"Blanc's replacement?"

"Yeah.  I also found a bunch of candidates for Pixie squadron."

"Good for you.  How's Sheryl?"

Ozma hoped that she would not ask.  "She's doin' ok.  She managed to pass the combat tests, but just barely.  She really shouldn't be playin' around as a pilot.  There's no way she could take it seriously with all her work."

"It's her decision, so we'll just let her live with the consequences.  If she can't handle it, then I'm sure she'll back out eventually.  Are you still teaching next week?"

"Yeah, they asked me to stay on for the VF-19 training."

"I see.  What about Saturday?  What are you doing?"

Ozma grinned wolfishly.  "Want a date?"

"Duh, of course!"

Eyes shining with anticipation, they planned their Saturday rendezvous.

-----

Sheryl collapsed on her bunk.  Although Ozma did not interfere, Neumann elevated the difficulty level.  It took all she had to dodge the attack droids and score hits.  It was a miracle that she did not fail. 

Eriko climbed up the top bunk with feline grace.  Compared to her, the captain got a perfect score on all the ground targets.  The attack droids were no match for her either.

Sheryl was dozing off when a knock came from the door.  Kanagi opened it.

"I'd like to borrow Pink," said Tadyana.

"For what?" asked the captain.

"Target practice."

"Ok."

Sheryl slowly got up.  Her hand reached for her duffel bag for a change of clothes.

"You don't need to change.  Just come with me."

She followed Tadyana to the second floor.  They went into one of the common rooms and closed the door.  At a corner window, the redhead took her blade and peeled off the rubbery caulk along the windowpane's edges.  With the caulk gone, the pane fell into her hands. 

Tadyana reached into her pack and took out a practice gun.  She gave it to Sheryl and had her stand by the window.  Her right hand pointed at a pine tree about thirty feet away.

"Find a pine cone and shoot it," instructed Tadyana.

Sheryl obeyed.  For the next twenty minutes, the vice-captain gave her corrections. 

"Looks like your arm moves when you pull the trigger.  Try bracing it with your right hand.  No, don't raise your arm.  Just support your elbow."

Sheryl tried it and shot a pine cone.  It fell to the ground. 

"Nice.  Keep shooting until you're out of bullets."

After the bullets ran out, Tadyana returned the pane and they walked back to their rooms. 

"Tomorrow is team combat.  If you shoot like tonight, you won't embarrass us," said Tadyana.

Sheryl noted the challenge in her voice.  "I won't disappoint.  Thanks for the practice.  Good night."

"G'nite..." yawned the redhead as she went into her room.

Sheryl entered her dark room quietly and crept into her bunk.  Within minutes, her mind began to drift off to sleep.

"Sheryl..."

Her mind opened into link space.  The sky was tinted with a waning sunset and luminous red-orange eyes watched her adoringly.  Golden grass swayed in the wind and tickled her toes and legs.  A soft palm caressed her face.

"How was your day?" asked Ranka.

Her hand rose to overlap with that petite hand.  "Terrible," she replied.  Then she told her about her tests.  Those red-orange eyes misted with guilt.  Her Cinderella leaned down and kissed her.

"Oh, my poor Fairy!  I'm so sorry about Ozma-nii!  It's my fault!  I should be honest with him!"

Her hand threaded through those verdant locks.  "It's ok.  I don't want you to get in trouble.  I have to prove myself anyway.  At least, nobody can say that Sheryl Nome got in because of looks."

"How can I make it up to you?"

She tried to guide her down, but her arms felt weak.  However, Ranka noticed and lay next to her. 

"Just having you here is fine."

A leer formed on those pert lips and a kiss flew to the tip of her nose.  "I can do more than that."

The image shifted and reformed into an elegant room with a canopied bed.  Nimble fingers began to undo the crisscrossed lace strings of her nightgown.

"This is my room in the mansion," explained Ranka.

As excitement rose within her, another idea formed in Sheryl's mind.  "On second thought, let's go back to the meadow."  She concentrated and the meadow returned.

Ranka stared at her in confusion for a few moments before smirking in understanding.  "You're so wild sometimes..."

Sheryl winked.  "We Mayans like to be close to nature.  Maybe... we can go camping and..." 

Before she could finish, Ranka protested, "And get arrested for indecent exposure!?  No way!"

A seductive smile graced the Fairy's face.  "It's only indecent if someone else sees us..."  Her hands reached for Ranka's pajama buttons.

"Geez... you're impossible..."  Ranka gently moved those naughty hands.  She  straddled the Galaxy Fairy and pulled off her nightgown.  "You're tired, right?  So just relax and let me do all the work."

With the cool grass against her back, Sheryl did as she was told and relinquished her body to the ministrations of her beloved. 

Meanwhile, Eriko opened her eyes.  Strange noises were coming from under her bunk.  After the third gasp, her imagination drove her mind into the gutter.

"Is she masturbating?" she thought.  With another gasp and a rustle of sheets, her curiousity tempted her to peep over the edge.  On a nearby shelf, she reached into her bag and pulled out a pair of night goggles.  She put them on and stealthily looked underneath.

Nome was sprawled out with her left hand over her head while her right hand was over her stomach and on top of the bedsheet.  A little later, she arched, causing the bedsheet to slip off her chest.  Sharp creases on nightgown's thin fabric atop those shapely mounds did little to hide what lay beneath.  Her endowed chest that even meltrandi envied rose in time with her erratic breathing.  Those golden-coral locks framed her flushed cheeks and graceful neck.

She had seen her in concert.  She hiked with her and even slept so close to share body warmth.  And yet, she had never stared at her like she was staring right now.  Her eyes refused to stray from the mesmerizing sight under her bunk.

Only when her phone vibrated did her eyes break contact.  It was her boyfriend.  Eriko left the room to get some privacy.  When she returned, Nome whimpered.  Irritated, she reached out and was about to shake her.  But she stopped at the last minute and decided that it might be a bad idea to touch her so she picked up her pillow instead.  She whacked Nome several times.

"Wake up, Pink!  You're having a nightmare!"

Arms flailed up in response to block the attacking pillow.  "Wha--?  Wait... stop..."

Eriko stopped.  "Are you ok?" she asked with feigned concern.

Sheryl kept her left hand up.  "I... I'm fine...  Did I... wake you?"

"You were groaning or something.  Did you have a bad dream?"

"No... not at all."  Sheryl could not help but wonder what she heard or even worse, saw.  "Did I... say something?  Was I talking?"

"No, you were just making strange noises."

Relief calmed Sheryl's heart.  She did not accidentally speak her conversation with Ranka.  "I'm sorry.  I'll try to sleep quietly from now on."

"It's team combat tomorrow, so I'd appreciate it if we could all get some sleep."  Eriko climbed up the double bunk.  She really hoped that Nome would be quiet.  If she was subjected to more of that, she might not get any sleep.  Even now, she tried to erase that image from her mind and replaced it with her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Sheryl apologized to Ranka over the link interruption.  "I'm really sorry."

Ranka hugged her.  "No... it's my fault."  She kissed those rosy lips.  "I guess I went overboard."

Those red-orange eyes pleaded.  "Is it okay if I sing you to sleep?"

In reply, Sheryl laid her head on her lap and melted under the adoring gaze of her Cinderella.  As those gentle notes caressed her ears, her mind drifted off into dreamland.

------

The morning tests for team combat were made up ten matches against another squadron.  The winning squad is the one with the most members remaining after fifteen minutes.  If both squads have no casualties, then the match goes into penalty mode at which the first team to score wins.  Ten points were awarded to the winning team for a possible undefeated score of 100.

With Tadyana nearby, Sheryl flew confidently and made some shots.  Little by little, she noticed that more members of the opposing team were surrounding her.  Frantically, she dodged their barrage of bullets  Where was Red?  Just then, her opponent flew close enough that there was no way she could avoid getting hit.  She cringed for his shots.

Suddenly, splattering paintballs marked up his suit.  His gun deactivated.  The AI referee declared him shot down on her HMD.  The two other opponents met the same fate.  Sheryl looked around to find Red and Black flying above her.

"Hey, aren't we supposed to be paired up?" asked Sheryl angrily.

"Sorry, change of plan," said Tadyana while Eriko aimed at the opponent chasing Kanagi.

With one shot, the opponent was eliminated.  Aris took care of the last one for the win.

Realization dawned on her.  "I'm bait?"

"More or less," confirmed Eriko.  "We can dogfight by textbook or we can use you two as bait.  Based on the combat tests yesterday, you and Green have the worst hit ratios in the squad.  Your evasion skills are above average, so it's better if you fight defensively.  Red and I will snipe while Silver coordinates attacks."

Sheryl was not sure whether to be glad or not.  She was looking forward to using her improved shooting skill, but she would not be able to do that if she kept dodging.

"You had your chance at glory yesterday, Nome.  Right now, we're Phoenix squadron," said the vice-captain.

She hung her head at her pitiful performance yesterday.  Then her lips drew taut with determination.  If this were her contribution, then she would gladly support Phoenix squadron.

Their tactics worked well enough to earn them 90 points after their last match.  High-fives flew in the sky as they cheered each other in victory.  Their only loss was against Luca's squadron, the Seraphim.  He saw through their tactic and countered effectively. 

After lunch, they continued with the afternoon test, which was an elimination style tournament.  Squadrons were pitted against each other and the winner advanced to the next round.  The champion squadron was automatically qualified to train on the VF-19.  The prize was met with much excitement among the pilots.  The other squads were awarded points based on how many rounds they won, so even though a squad was a runner-up, there was a good chance they could qualify based on score.

Since some of the squads were aware of their bait tactic, the Phoenix squadron used a combination of classic dog fighting and baiting as appropriate.  Soon, they were among the last four teams left.  The winners of the round would fight each other for the championship.

Unfortunately, their opponents were the Seraphim squadron.  They fought bravely but in the end, they were outclassed by Luca's superior battle strategy. 

"Good match," said Luca as he shook Eriko's hand.

"Same to you," replied a disappointed Eriko.

"I hope that one day, we'll fly together as a team," said Luca cheerfully.

"That would be nice."

The Phoenix squadron landed to watch the final match:  Seraphim vs. Hellhounds.  It seemed evenly matched at first, but by the middle of the fight, the Hellhound ace was outmaneuvered and shot down by Luca.  Without the ace, they were eliminated one by one.

Finally, the week was over.  Their scores were tabulated.  Eriko, Tadyana and Aris qualified for the VF-19.  Mr. Neumann reviewed their test results and decided that Sheryl and Kanagi would do more combat training.

On the way to dinner, Eriko spoke.  "We may be separated next week, but remember, we're still a team.  So if you two have any problems, don't hesitate to ask for help."

"Thanks," said Sheryl gratefully.  She did not expect to be flying the VF-19 anyway especially since Ozma was teaching.  After dinner, she talked to Ranka. 

"I'm so happy for you!" exclaimed Ranka as she hugged her.

Sheryl relished the contact.  When she had enough, she drew back with a twinkle in her eye.  "I think I found a way to bypass the alarm."

Her Cinderella stared at her with round eyes.  "Then you can come tonight?"

"I hope so.  But I won't take the chance of leaving you alone at the carrier again.  I'll try to sneak out first and I'll give you a call by 11:30.  If you don't hear from me, I probably got caught."

"In that case, don't!  If you do, you'll miss this..."  Ranka leaned in and gave her a deep kiss that left her breathless.  "I'll pack now."

Sheryl closed the link.  If all went well, she would be with Ranka by midnight.  Lying in her bed, she made a show of being exhausted and waited for Neumann to make his rounds.  After he left, she went to the second floor common room.  There, she removed the pane from the corner window.  Hope waited outside and helped her get to the ground.  Carefully, she made her way to the wind tunnel's rooftop.  Once there, she mounted the summoned Vajra and flew away from the airbase. 

When they landed in the crater, she opened a link to Ranka excitedly.  "I'm here!  I made it!"

The face that appeared froze her heart.  Ranka's eyes were puffy and her verdant locks seemed lifeless.  She did not meet her eyes.  "I-I'm sorry... I can't see you tonight."

"Ranka!  What's wrong?"  She reached out to hold her, but Ranka stepped away.

"I think I need some time... to think about some things.  Please leave me alone," The link began to fade.

"Wait, Ra---" The link was gone.  Quickly, she pulled out her phone and punched Ranka's number.  After a few rings, it transferred to voicemail.  She left a message.

"Ranka, whatever it is, I'm sorry.  Please, tell me what's wrong!  I... I really miss you..."  Unable to continue, she hung up.  Tears fell from her eyes. 

She had no sense of how long she sat on the crater's cold ground.  Eventually, the phone in her hand rang.  She answered it immediately.

"Ranka..."

"It's me, Pink," said Kanagi.

"Oh..."

"T-the captain's worried about you.  It's almost 1."

She checked the time:  SAT 12:47 AM.  "Tell her I'm coming back now."

"Ok."  Kanagi hung up.

With a heavy heart, she mounted the Vajra and returned to base.

-----

Her gloom was evident the next day.  During the afternoon, Kanagi spoke to her discreetly.

"D-did you and Ranka have a fight?"

Sheryl sat up.  "How do you know?"

"You answered with her name yesterday.  D-don't you remember?"

She leaned her forehead on her left palm.  "Not really..."

"I-is there anything I can do?  Maybe I can't do it myself, b-but I have a friend in the same class as her."

"That's right!" thought Sheryl.  "I can ask Nanase!" 

She shook her head.  "No, thanks for offering.  But you did give me an idea.  I have a friend in PA too, so I'll ask her to be a go-between.  And please, can you keep this a secret?"

"O-ok.  You can count on me."

With that, Sheryl left Kanagi and called Nanase.

"Did anything happen to Ranka last Friday?"

"Well, Ozma came to visit after dinner," replied Nanase.

Her heart sank.  "Is she in trouble?"

"I don't know.  Ranka went to one of the video rooms with Ozma and Brera.  She didn't look too happy when she came back."

Do you know what they watched?"

"No."

She asked Nanase to keep her informed about Ranka and thanked her before hanging up.  Based on what Nanase said, Ozma must have said something to her.  There was no choice.  She had to do something in order to make Ozma accept them.




Board Flight 105:  Skull vs. Fairy