Harry was flunking. He hadn’t said anything, but Shereth knew it from the tautness that had shown up in every action, every word over the last few weeks.
It wasn’t unusual to flunk at the Academy. Eight levels, and the administration claimed a student could complete it in eight years, but no one had in thirty years. There was a wall, tucked into the back of Flight Prep, where the few who did scribbled their names. It was the only graffiti that the Academy allowed. The wall wasn’t even close to being filled.
There was no shame to flunking, but there was panic that set in right before it happened. Harry had it all over his face. It was familiar – Shereth had seen it on so many classmates – but she’d never seen it on him, and it made her skin crawl. He’d repeated four years already, before she caught up to him in the program. She never thought he would face the possibility of another so roughly.
He rammed his fist into the wall of the common room as she entered. The metal wall clanged on impact. She jumped.
She must have made some noise too, because he whirled toward her. He looked sorry, head down, jaw clenched, and she watched him try to force calm.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“It’s three a.m.,” she said.
“You’re not my mother,” Harry said.
Shereth laughed, one quiet burst before she stopped herself. It was absurd. He had five years on her, and a lot more sense. She had the habit of skipping meals to get in one more flight run, staying up late, too caught up in the problem at hand. He was the steady one, always on time, always catching eight hours’ sleep, always bringing an energy bar and a lecture to class because he knew she would be starving. She’d gotten through four levels without him, but the last three had been easier.
“Thought I’d help,” she told him.
He had a monitor set up on the table, a flight record paused right after a crash. The wing of the Flier was crumbled into the wall of the track. The only grace to it was the way Harry had turned the cockpit away from the wall, so the glass was intact, himself unharmed. That was the first thing they all learned in a new jetter: how to crash and walk away. Machines could be rebuilt. The Academy had put years of training into them; it would be a tragedy to waste the life.
Harry considered the monitor. Then he turned toward Shereth, looking at her out of the tops of his eyes as if he wasn’t sure he actually wanted to face her.
“You wanna take a look?” he asked.
He leaned against the chair back in front of the table to push play. It was a short flight and neither of them bothered to sit down to watch it.
It was one of Rankaw’s mazes. Shereth could read his signature in the turns, but it wasn’t one of the challenge runs he expected his students to fail. There was a steady slope of difficulty to every maneuver, each building to the next. If executed properly, the jetter swung from each turn, setting up for the next. It was a perfect puzzle and Shereth had to keep herself from planning her own path through it while she watched. She wondered why Rankaw hadn’t sent her through. Then she saw Harry’s mistake: a turn that was almost a double back. The Flier was an older jetter, and it didn’t handle it well, sliding to the side, skidding on air. She got out a three-count before the wobble on the Flier’s tail disappeared and she knew that Harry had control again. By then it was too late to line up for the next turn and he rammed into the wall.
Harry rapped the pause key, crossed his arms over the back of the chair.
She looked down at him, unnerved by his silence more than she’d been by him punching the wall. He had his eyes trained on the chair.
“That’s the first time I ran it,” Harry told her after a heavy minute. “I’ve done it three more times, and this is the best I got. Rankaw’s only gonna give me one more run. I need this one to pass.” He paused, finally looked up at her. “They’re trying to flunk me.”
She looked back at him, confused. “I don’t think so…”
He slammed his hand against the chair back. “I’ve been running sims all day, Reth. Every time, I crash. There’s no way to do that turn, and they know it and they’re just waiting to see how long I’ll bang my head against this before I pack up and quit and run home and–”
“Does he allow an invert on this?” she asked.
He glared at her for cutting him off. Like either of them didn’t know that that sentence was going to degenerate into cussing and shouting and wall-punching. She met his gaze and waited.
“I don’t think doing it upside down is gonna help,” he told her.
“There’s only one way to come out of that turn,” she told him slowly. “Turn into the skid, not against it.” He cocked his head, listening, eyebrows coming together. “You follow it, until you know you’re running on your own engines, not momentum. You need to roll up into an invert to get the extra space you’ll need, but you come out clean.”
Shereth hesitated, before adding the next bit. “They’re being kind.”
He turned away from her immediately, maybe looking for another wall.
“People don’t quit around here because they flunk,” Shereth told his back. “They quit because they scrape into the next level and can’t handle it. You know it. More people drop at the beginning of a year than the end. They knew you’d figure this out. Yeah, they wanted you to bang your head against it for hours. They wanted you to understand they’re asking you to skid for a minute. Wait. Come into Level Eight on engine power, not momentum. Let yourself flunk this time around.”
Harry looked at her over his shoulder. “Says the girl who’s never flunked.”
Shereth hated him a little for that. “Says the girl who just handed you the answer. Go to sleep. Decide what to do with it in the morning.”
She turned for the door, hit it hard to swing it open and didn’t care that it hit the wall.
“You’re not my mother!” Harry called after her. She turned back, caught the rough smile he was offering. She’d never understand how he could do that: be so angry, and still have a joke to throw out. She stuck out her tongue and stalked back to her dorm.