As Davi Rhii gets to know the workers on Vertullis, he also meets an intriguing fellow pilot, a woman named Tela, who takes an instant dislike to him. The problem is, Davi can’t keep his eyes off of her or her off his mind. Here’s some of what ensues…
A week after their argument in the corridor, Davi found Tela sitting at the controls of her shuttle, reading through maintenance charts. He took care to make noise as he entered the cockpit so as not to sneak up on her. She turned her head and frowned when she saw him.
“We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot,” Davi said, sitting in the copilot’s seat. “I’ve been trying to figure out how it happened.”
“Maybe your charms won’t work on me,” Tela said. “I’m pretty good at seeing through people. Especially men.”
“Well, that’s just it. You seem to have taken some of the things I’ve said the wrong way,” Davi said, hoping she’d take another look.
“Like what?” Her eyes remained on the charts.
“I didn’t bring up your name in class to isolate you from the other trainees,” Davi said. “I was trying to pay you a compliment. I’m impressed with the way you flew the shuttle.”
“Well, thank you,” she said, still avoiding eye contact, focused on her charts. “But the last thing I need is people thinking you’re showing me special treatment. I’m there to learn the same as them.”
“And I’m there to teach you,” Davi said, “but someone with your flight experience is an asset for the entire class. You can help me to help them learn what they need to know.”
“I didn’t sign on to be a tutor,” Tela said.
“I won’t ask you to be, if you don’t want to,” Davi said. “All I’m asking is if they don’t understand something I’m trying to explain, maybe you can jump in and help me clarify it.”
“See?” She said, looking up for a moment. “You’re asking me to teach. No thanks.” Her eyes turned back to the charts as Davi wondered why he always seemed to choose the wrong words when he talked to her. A familiar buzz filled his stomach as heat rose within.
“Whatever you feel comfortable with,” Davi said. “The last thing I need is someone getting killed because they didn’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Tela said.
“Good. I can use all the help I can get,” Davi said. “I’ve never been an instructor before. And I’ve never been a worker before either. It’s all new to me. I pretty much have to relearn who I am.” I wish someone would teach me how to talk to you!
“You’re doing fine. You explain things well,” Tela said, her blue eyes meeting his for a moment.
“Was that a compliment?” Davi melted inside like icicles in a desert. He smiled. “I might have to write that down. It might be ages before I ever get another compliment from you.”
She laughed, rolling her eyes. “Don’t get too cocky, okay? There’s always room for improvement.”
“Okay, so don’t get mad at me when I suggest areas you can improve,” Davi said. “It’s my job as your teacher.”
“You can’t improve on perfection,” she said, smiling. Was she joking?
“Now who’s cocky?” He teased as she laughed. “Some of the cadets seem to resent me because of my past. They don’t seem to realize, I’m on your side.”
“Can you really blame them? You’re the Prince.”
Davi sighed, disappointed. “No, I suppose not.”
She slid back in the chair and her face softened a bit. “Give them time. They’ll come around.”
“I don’t suppose you could put in a good word for me?”
Tela’s face crinkled. “First I have to convince myself.”
“But you saw me at the rallies! Do you really believe—”
He stopped as Tela broke into laughter. “You’re giving me trouble?”
She smiled and nodded. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Well, I’d better let you get back to your work here. I wouldn’t want anyone to know we actually had a civil conversation.”
She smiled at him and his heart fluttered. “You like making jokes, don’t you?”
“When it makes you smile like that,” Davi said. Her eyes turned quickly back to her charts. “Okay, well, thanks for letting me explain.”
She nodded. “See you in class, professor.” It sounded so formal. He contorted his face, and she laughed again, twirling strands of her hair around her index finger. “I’m trying to work here.”
He nodded, stood, and backed out of the cockpit. The conversation went better than he’d expected. She’d laughed and joked with him. It was a start. And she’d twirled her hair—was she flirting with him? Best not to make too much of it. For some reason, all the way back to the command center, he found himself whistling a happy song.
After two weeks spent covering the basics of flight, Davi allowed the first of his students on the simulators. His class had doubled in size since it started, with Aron and the leaders adding more and more candidates with each new rally. Davi had done his best to keep the new students up to speed with the others. Some of them had the advantage of prior flight experience, while others had skill with Skitters. He still had neophytes to train, but at least some had a head start.
At the moment, Dru, Brie, Nila and another boy their age occupied the four simulators. Tela and the other students sat at desks behind Davi, observing as he took them through their first mock battle. Each student pilot sat in a mock cockpit, with controls similar to those of VS28 fighters—a screen where the blastshield would be simulated stars and incoming enemy fighter craft. The simulator itself moved as the trainees moved the joystick. Combined, the effect was a sensation reminiscent of being in an actual fighter during a battle.
“Keep your tails up there,” Davi instructed. “Easy on the joystick, Brie. It’s sensitive, designed to move as one with your body. Dru, you’ve got one on your tail. Evasive action!”
The trainees reacted to his instructions. Dru tried hard to stay out of the fire of the enemy on his tail as explosions flashed in front of him on the screen with each hit.
Brie steered her fighter toward the enemy behind Dru. “I got him!”
Davi realized that her excitement was distracting her. She was coming in at an odd angle and way too fast. “Slow down, Brie! You’re going to hit him!” Too late.
Brie’s screen erupted in flashes of yellow light and her console went dead. “What happened?” Brie asked, confused.
“You’re dead,” Tela said.
“You got him off my tail though. Thanks,” Dru said, chuckling.
Brie stuck out her tongue at him. “You’re welcome.” She turned to Davi with a sheepish grin. “I’m not getting it, am I?”
Davi smiled. “It takes practice.” For some more than others.
Brie cocked her head to one side in a flirty way. “Can you show me one more time please?”
Davi smiled. “Okay. Look.” He leaned over her from behind, holding his hand around hers on the joystick. “Pull back a tiny bit, like this. Enough to make her go the direction you want to go. Not too hard though.”
Brie smiled, looking up at him. “Oh, right. I gotta practice it.” Davi let go and she tried what he’d showed her. “Like that?”
Davi nodded, ignoring her flirting. “Much better. Keep practicing.”
He turned back to the other students and saw Tela shaking her head and heading out the door. Virun and a couple of others followed her.
“Wait a minute! Class isn’t over. Where’s everyone going?”
The others looked at him and shrugged.
What’s wrong with her?
Brie and the others climbed out of the simulators as other trainees took their place.
“Okay,” Davi said, “let’s try this again.”
The second group was better than the first. A third did better still. At the end of the session though, Davi walked away discouraged. Some of the students would improve with practice, but others had him wondering if they weren’t wasting their time. He wished Tela had participated. She would have handled herself quite well, he imagined. Her performancce would have at least been more encouraging.
He left the classroom confused and wondering why she’d disappeared.
Tired of watching Brie throwing herself at Davi, Tela had stormed out of the training room. It was disgusting, shameless—totally inappropriate in the classroom. She’d grown more and more irritated, until deciding she needed a breath of fresh air.
As she wound her way through the corridors, she started feeling silly. Why did it bother her so much? You don’t like him, remember? She’d known women who acted like Brie before. It wasn’t like she had any claim to Davi. They were barely friends.
Sure, things between them had settled down since they’d talked in the shuttle. He’d asked Tela’s opinion from time to time, and she’d done as he requested, helping him explain things when the trainees didn’t understand. So what was the big deal? Brie had every right to flirt with him. She’d acted like a fool. Why did she have such a tendency to do that when Davi was around?
She spent a few moments calming down, then turned back toward the classroom. Rounding a corner near the classroom, she spotted Davi exiting and heading up the corridor away from her. He looked very discouraged. She hoped not because of her.
She followed him across the hangar and into a smaller cave on the far side, where the Skitters sat parked in several rows.
Long slender bodies topped with leather seats and two handlebars attached to a control panel, Skitters had been designed for recreational use, but were so fast and easy to handle, they’d been adapted for other uses. Borali Alliance ground patrols used them on a regular basis.
She stood in the shadows as he began looking them over. Two mech-bots entered through another tunnel and began working on some of the Skitters behind him. As she stepped out of the shadows into the cave, Davi looked up at her.
“Hey,” she said, with a slight wave and a smile.
“Hey,” he said, going back to examining the Skitters.
“How’d the rest of the session go?”
He shrugged. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Not even eye contact. So maybe he was upset with her. “Sorry I left. I needed some air.”
“I was disappointed you didn’t stay for your turn,” Davi said as he examined another Skitter. “Seeing someone actually succeed on the simulators would have been encouraging. I sure could’ve used it.” His voice sounded tired.
“Was it really so bad?”
“You tell me. You saw how some of the students did,” Davi slid into the seat of a Skitter, fiddling with the controls.
“Some of them are a long way from being flight-worthy,” Tela said, watching the mech-bots working behind him.
“Some make me wonder if they ever will be.”
It saddened her to see him so discouraged. He had always been so positive and supportive of the students. She wanted to do something to cheer him up. She took a seat on another Skitter and turned it on, hearing the steady hum of the engine and feeling it rise up off the floor to float on the air as she adjusted the controls.
“Come with me.”
“For a joy ride?”
Tela smiled. “Sure. There’s something I want to show you.” She waved toward the Skitter he’d been examining.
He shrugged, climbing onto the Skitter. The engine hummed as it rose into the air. “Okay. Lead the way.”
She slid the Skitter into gear and drove it out of the cave into a small tunnel. Davi accelerated his own Skitter and followed along behind her.
They emerged into the dense forest along a path. Sunlight streamed through the tall cedars, creating a patchwork of dark and light areas on the ground. The chirping of birds and insects blended with the hum of the Skitters as a light breeze tousled their hair. The sweet smell of cedar filled her nose.
Tela sped up, forcing Davi to speed up behind her. She admired the fluidness with which he maneuvered the Skitter. She’d never seen him fly, of course, but it seemed to her he must be as skilled as the commanders said. She wondered if he’d had much time to explore the forest around the base yet. She hadn’t seen him in the Skitter bay, but then she hadn’t been there much until the past few days herself.
She led him through several twists and turns then around a bend into a clearing where she pulled to a stop and waited for him to come alongside.
Amid cedars at the edge of the course on both sides there were several wood pylons with various markings. As his Skitter pulled alongside hers and stopped, she smiled. “Well, here it is.”
“What is it?” Davi said, trying to make sense of the pylons and markers.
“Our Skitter training course,” Tela said. “Aron asked me to set one up.” Why was she so anxious waiting for his response?
Davi’s looked around and smiled. “You did all this yourself?”
“Well, I may have borrowed some from a schematic of one of the Alliance’s training courses. With a few minor adjustments to compensate for ours being on land and not in outer space.”
Davi nodded, looking pleased. “This is impressive. You amaze me!”
He’s impressed! She almost blushed. Why did she care so much what he thought? She’d never had time for men, not since her father’s disappearance. She’d been too busy for much of a social life.
“Thanks. Wanna give it a try?” She opened the side pocket on her Skitter and pulled out a helmet. “Gotta put on the helmet to see how it works.”
She slid the helmet on as Davi opened the pocket on his own Skitter and retrieved the helmet. As he began to put it on, Tela flipped the switch to activate the weapons simulator on her Skitter.
After they’d both adjusted their helmets, Davi nodded. “Ready.”
Tela accelerated and took off like a flash, zigzagging in and out between the pylons. Wind nipped at the skin of her face like tiny bugs. Trees passed almost as blur as she focusd on the markers and pylons. She glanced down at her control panel, verifying the weapons simulator was fully charged. The visor of her helmet showed a targeting frame as she passed the next pylon. Everything seemed to be working right.
The next pylon she came to, she maneuvered the frame to aim at the pylon and then hit the fire button. The visor image flashed as she hit the target.
She flipped her communicator on and keyed the switch. “Flip the red switch on to activate the targeting simulator. The black button on the joystick is for firing.”
She slowed down, allowing Davi to pull alongside as he fiddled with the controls. “Do you see it?”
“Yeah,” his voice came in through the helmet. “You did all this?”
“Well, I had some help. Go for a run,” Tela said, accelerating again and aiming as she came to each target.
Davi raced his Skitter alongside her, also aiming and firing. They raced in and out of the pylons, keeping pace with each other. The visor kept count in the bottom right corner of hits and misses. So far she had been dead on.
The total time for the course at full speed was less than four minutes. They reached the end in what seemed like a few seconds. She pulled to a stop as Davi stopped beside her.
“How’d you do?”
She smiled. “I didn’t miss any.”
“Well, you designed it. It’s my first time.” He said with a shrug, but she saw disappointment in his green eyes.
With an exaggerated shrug, she laughed. “Excuses, excuses.”
He scowled. “Wanna go again?”
Gotcha! She grinned and accelerated her Skitter like a rocket.
Davi raced to catch up with her.
They followed a curving path which took them back to the start of the course, and then both launched into it again. Davi gave it his best effort. She had to accelerate a few times to keep up with him.
As they neared the end of the course, he zipped in front of her. Her Skitter misfired. She groaned in frustration, pulling back alongside and getting back on course. He laughed as they raced onward, finishing the course in less than four minutes.
“Perfect score,” he said with a smirk.
That’s the Davi I know. She shook her head. “I missed because you distracted me.” But she knew his move to cut her off hadn’t been the only distraction. She had butterflies in her stomach.
“Oh right, like the enemy won’t ever try that,” he said, shooting her a look.
She laughed. He was right. They couldn’t count on total focus in a real battle. Maybe there were some things he could teach her on her own course after all.
“Shall we go again?” he asked, shifting excitedly on his seat. His voice had regained its usual energy, and she noticed the usual sparkle had returned to his eyes. The smell of adrenaline mixed with sweat wafted to her nose.
“Wanna switch sides?”
He nodded. “Catch me if you can!” He took off like a rocket.
She raced to catch up, determined that this time she’d be ready for any distractions.
326 pp · ISBN 978‐0‐9840209‐0‐4 ·Trade Paperback/Epub/Mobi · $14.95 tpb $3.99 Ebook · Publication: October 4, 2011 · Diminished Media Group
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