The summer sky was a limitless blue expanse and the sun a gleam on the metal nose of the Stingray. Perfect flying conditions. Acceleration pressed Adelie into her seat, and only a thin brown line on her left reminded her of Westerhaven Academy. She scanned the blue until she spotted the little black dot moving towards her. The cadets of Squadrons Albatross Alpha and Omega were pitched against each other in a bout of one against one, and Nate “English” Havisham, Alpha’s top dog, was her adversary. He was as cocky as they came and wouldn’t be an easy opponent. Her fingers gripped the stick harder. The planes engaged in a waltz across the sky. Beautiful to observe, but deadly for those participating in it. They pulled each other into an endless progression of loops, rolls, and turns, but the only result was that they both pushed the limits of their planes and bodies until nausea unsettled her stomach. Sweat trickled down her back; the cooling system of her flight suit had trouble with keeping up. Neither of them managed to bring the other in front or even into shooting range, and concentration began to wear thin. Eventually, he was coming up behind her, and she forced her ’ray into a sharp turn, almost causing the bird to skid across the sky. Her attacker hadn’t suspected her move, or he was getting tired too, but he overshot considerably, ending up in front of her. The opportunity to fire. The crosshairs almost aligned themselves with his tailpipe and she pressed the trigger.
“English, you’re dead. Princess, excellent shot. Fantastic fight everybody. Return to base.” The confirmation from Mission Control was music in her comm and delighted she pointed the ’ray into the direction of the airbase. Time for a shower.
The air flickered over the tarmac of the runway. A light breeze brushed as hot as jet exhaust over his face as Nate popped open the canopy and it wasn’t helping with cooling his mood. He climbed out of his jet and narrowly resisted throwing the helmet across the ground. It hadn’t been his day to begin with and now he lost to a girl, after such a rookie mistake. Next to him, the other pilot exited her plane. She was tall, and even the baggy flight suit couldn’t hide the fact that she had more assets than just being an ace pilot. Because she was, he grudgingly had to admit to himself. She had pushed his limits like nobody had before her. A long brown braid fell over her back as she pulled off the helmet. Her eyes met his as she turned around, her face unreadable and professional.
“English.” She gave him a commendatory nod.
“Princess.” He forced himself to smile.
“Thanks for the excellent fight. You kept me on my toes.” A smile broke through her aloofness, lightening up her face with mischief. Wowza.
“You’re welcome,” he grumbled, crossing his arms in front of his chest. He leant against the body of his plane and glowered at her. “When are you free for a rematch?”
She laughed, delightedly even. “You don’t like losing to a girl, eh?”
“I don’t like losing at all.”
Her opponent was a poster boy for the United Space Force: tall, athletic and cheekbones commissioned from Michelangelo. Tanned skin and bright blue eyes which were trained on her in an upset glare. Jet-black hair stuck up in every direction, damp with sweat. ’rays weren’t known for being cool rides.
“Should I get you some ice for the burn?” She teased.
He huffed and pushed himself away from the hull, getting close enough that he blocked the sun. “Next time you won’t defeat me so easily.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” If he thought he could intimidate her, he was wrong. Years spent racing overconfident guys had steeled her for any sort of encounter. But her remark lit up his face in an unexpected smile. He extended his hand and said: “Challenge accepted.”
She shook his hand. “You better check your six, English.”
Warm air rose from the old stone steps leading to the entrance of the Faculty for Tactical Aeronautics. It wafted over her bare legs as Adelie left after a long and busy morning in one of the library’s reading rooms. After the quiet inside, the noise of campus life engulfed her like the surf of the sea, as she headed into the direction of the cafeteria. Groups of students sat on the lawns in front of mighty red brick houses, enjoying their lunch break. Some kicked around a football. Heat hung over the academy like an invisible cheese dome and not only the gardeners wished for a thunderstorm. Walking down the tree-lined street, she mulled over Wilfried Kittendorf’s theories, and she paid not much attention to her surroundings. Alarmed yells plucked her out of her thoughts. One of the football players was about to collect the escaped ball from the street and oblivious to an approaching speeding van! Without hesitating, she dropped her books and ran towards him. She tackled the unsuspecting player and pushed him out of harm’s way. Together they rolled through the dust, as the truck passed them by a whisker, brakes screeching. For a split second she remembered that she wore a dress with a full skirt, and hoped for a decent landing. Their tumble came to a halt at the border stone. Her shoulder would complain in the morning, and her knee burned like it was scraped, she thought while staring up into the blue sky, trying to catch her breath.
He found his bearings first, scrambling to his knees.
Nate stared at the woman lying in front of him. His heart hammered in his chest, and he had trouble keeping up with getting enough air into his lungs. Blood rushed in his ears. Her chest was heaving as well, and he could see red trickle down a pale knee.
“English?” She blinked at him, then a sly smile spread across her face, and she sat up. “I told you to check your six.”
Shouts pierced his bubble of adrenaline.
“Shit, man, are you alright? This idiot must’ve won his license in the lottery!” Jake sounded upset as he reached them. “You can thank your guardian angel your career didn’t end right here and now.” The eyes of his friend fell on his rescuer. He didn’t even know her first name, dammit. “Woah, isn’t that the mighty Princess who eliminated our Prince Charming?”
“Shut up.” Suddenly Nate wasn’t keen on giving her an idea how much this had bruised his ego.
“Prince Charming? Is that your other callsign?” Her mouth twitched as her eyes wandered between him and Jake.
“Are you telling me he hasn’t tried to charm you yet?” Jake waggled his eyebrows.
“Will you shut up now!” Nate glared at his friend as he heard her giggle. Others reached them. They were helped up, dust was brushed off their shoulders and several student nurses checked if they were unharmed. One applied a band-aid to her scraped knee. Some others yelled at the driver, asking him if he had lost his mind. As it was evident that neither of them got hurt, the hubbub subsided, and the spectators left the scene. Jake returned to the rest of their group, to report that Nate hadn’t been injured.
Adelie turned to collect her books, which were scattered all over the sidewalk, as Nate freed himself from the over-attentive nurses and followed her.
“Hey! Wait. I want to thank you.”
She awkwardly brushed a fleck of dust from the skirt of her red gingham dress. “Don’t mention it, it was no big deal.”
“No big deal? You’re joking, right? You could’ve ended up under the van! You risked your life, your career!” He was right, of course. She had risked a lot without thinking about it, and it hit her unexpectedly. Black dots danced in front of her eyes as she realised what could’ve happened. Had she lost her mind?
“Hey, you okay?” His arm was around her shoulders to support her until her vision cleared again.
“Yes, I’m okay. Thank you.”
He kneeled down beside her and now helped her picking up the books. Without being grumpy, he indeed seemed to be made entirely out of charm and gallantry and had a terrific smile. No wonder the student nurses had been so occupied with checking if he was alright.
“I was on my way to the cafeteria.” She pointed towards the narrow yellow building at the end of the street. “And I don’t know about you, but I certainly could use a drink now.”
The cafeteria was almost empty and pleasantly cool. They found a table in the back, and Nate went to the counter to get their drinks, ignoring her protests. Her knee must hurt, and he wasn’t going to see her hobbling around the tables. They both could use something with lots of sugar, so he opted for two lemonades.
“One elderberry lemonade coming up.” He placed the glass with the sparkling beverage in front of her, getting a broad smile in return.
“Thank you.” She took a sip and sighed happily. “This is refreshing after the heat outside.”
“Yes, it is.” He cleared his throat. “Before this gets even more awkward - I never learned your first name. And I can’t call you Princess all the time, can I?”
She brushed her hair out of her face and answered with a smile: “No, English, you can’t. Especially because I’m in fact a Baroness.”
“You’re what?” He nearly dropped his glass, and she laughed.
“My full name is Baroness Adelie von Klaiber, but the USF likes to shorten me to Adelie Klaiber. I’m from Eden.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“I am.” She smoothed an invisible crease on her skirt and avoided his glance.
“I’m Nathan Havisham, but I guess you know that already since you didn’t ask. My friends call me Nate. I’m from Earth.”
“Why did your friend call you Prince Charming?”
Heat rushed over his face and neck. “Insider,” he murmured, and she laughed softly.
“You didn’t seem too thrilled with him telling me that.”
A piece of dry leaf was stuck in her hair, and he reached over to pluck it out, happy to be able to create a diversion.
“Thank you.” Their eyes met. Hers were brown with golden speckles, sparkling with amusement. “I must look like a rat, dust all over, a bloody knee. Maybe I should go to the restroom and adjust my appearance.”
He shook his head, unable to divert his eyes. “You look fine. Give your knee a rest.”