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Aerotica: Ch. 1

A-10 Sep 27th, 2013 15,052 Never
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  1. “So I'm supposed to fly you? How the fuck do I do that?"
  2.  
  3. The confused pilot, in his 20s, sat on a crate, opposite the A-10 to which he had been assigned. This particular plane was notorious for going through pilots faster than any other due to 'unexplained mechanical faults' and risky aerial manoeuvres.
  4.  
  5. "Y'see this?" It turned to its left slightly, showing the mechanical seams on her back, still looking at him, with that predator's grin on its face. "I can make these split apart. You climb in...and then you can take me for a spin, yeah?"
  6.  
  7. The pilot scratched at his hairline. "There's nowhere near enough room for anyone in there," he stated flatly, pointing at its fuel tanks.
  8.  
  9. The A-10's grin quickly switched into an irritated frown, and it leaned forwards, jabbing a finger at the pilot causing him to jump, just a little.
  10.  
  11. "Don't be a dumbshit, okay? They briefed you properly, right?"
  12.  
  13. The pilot looked on blankly.
  14.  
  15. "...Right? Ah, fuck." The A-10 maintained the frown, but leaned back and shrugged.
  16.  
  17. "I'm hollow. Your arms and legs fit into mine, and you see out of...this." It crossed its legs again, leaning forwards and tapping the opaque cockpit. To the pilot, it looked more like a helmet.
  18.  
  19. "Neural connections let me know what you want to do. No joysticks. At least not in that cockpit." It gave him a patronising glance.
  20.  
  21. Only to see a look of great, deep thought on the man's face.
  22.  
  23. "What's wrong?" It hissed in a sultry, earthy tone, leaning forwards. "Scared?"
  24.  
  25. "Those aren't fuel tanks at all."
  26. It frowned again, but this time, more in utter confusion than anything else.
  27.  
  28. "I...what?"
  29.  
  30. "Those." The pilot poked the pliant synthmetal 'fuel tank'. The A-10 jerked backwards.
  31.  
  32. "Don't do that! They're...er, volatile!"
  33.  
  34. The pilot crossed his arms. "They're breasts, aren't they."
  35.  
  36. "N-no..."
  37.  
  38. "You're a GIRL plane, aren't you?"
  39.  
  40. The A-10 went through several facial expressions, from 'confused', to 'incredulous', to 'disbelieving', to 'incredibly angry'.
  41.  
  42. "NO SHIT. NO...SHIT." The A-10 yelled at him, jumping up and shoving him backwards over the crate. "MOTHERFUCKING SHERLOCK EINSTEIN, ARE YOU? Oh my God, how long did it take for you to figure that out?" it yelled, before walking away, head in its hands, muttering, "I've been paired with an idiot...an idiot..." over and over again, until it found the hangar wall, which it started to gently bang its cockpit against. "Of all the pilots...I've had aces, masters of their craft, and now this dipshi-" It froze as it felt a gentle hand run down its back seam, unsealing it with a hydraulic 'hsss'.
  43.  
  44. "W-what are you-"
  45.  
  46. "Shh. No words. Only flying now."
  47.  
  48. After about fifteen seconds of absolutely nothing happening, the A-10 turned around irritably, to see the pilot staring into its back, with the confused expression on his face again.
  49.  
  50. "Are you fucking teasing me? I-"
  51.  
  52. "What's that?"
  53.  
  54. "What's what?"
  55.  
  56. The pilot reached inside it, poking the object in question, which caused the A-10 to shudder violently and collapse against the wall. "Th...t-that's the fuel intake, dumbass."
  57.  
  58. "That doesn't look like a fuel intake."
  59.  
  60. "JUST G-GET THE FUCK IN."
  61.  
  62.  
  63.  
  64. "Can you tell me how the FUCK that happened?" The general shouted over the table, sending the bespectacled techie another half-foot back out of spittle range.
  65.  
  66. "Er, it might have been paperwork. Or, um, maybe it w-"
  67.  
  68. "DON'T GIVE ME MAYBES, CARLYLE."
  69.  
  70. "R-right you are, Sir, the facts are I don't exactly know why he was assigned to her," the techie continued, nervously fidgeting. "B-but another fact is that no matter how you look at it, it makes sense for him to...er...fill her needs."
  71.  
  72. "It's an IT, not a SHE. When you start assigning gender to artificial intelligence-even if they decide to assign it to themselves, and force people to give them 'upgrades'-it goes WRONG. Every FUCKING time, haven't you seen the reports?" The general continued yelling, gently watering his desk, the papers on it, and the carpet. "IT is an IT until I say OTHERWISE."
  73.  
  74. "W-well, putting that aside, he seems to have a higher psych rate with her than any of the previous pilots. I-it could have been something to do with the fact they were all, er, female."
  75.  
  76. This hit a sore spot with the general-this plane was a killer.
  77. It was no secret, on this particular base-its 'kill tally', unofficial of course, rested at ten. It would seem to go fine at first, a few successful test flights after full integration...then one day it would return to base and ask someone to drag the comatose, engine oil-soaked pilot out of it. They were sometimes bruised, sometimes scans showed neural degeneration and brain damage, other times it couldn't be explained. The last one that was 'offered to the beast', as the engineers called it, was completely purple, it was so covered in bruises. The only reasons the A-10 hadn't been decomissioned were the potential advantage it could give, come wartime, and that they were worried about what it would do should it find out about the plan.
  78.  
  79. The only reason pilots wanted to even bother with it was one of three things-the firepower it presented, the prestiege one would gain from being the one to tame it, or because they were ordered to, like the first few. The current pilot, however, was a mistake. He was supposed to be a pencil-pusher.
  80.  
  81. "What's that got to do with it, huh? Rather than spout statistics, how about you FIX the problem?"
  82.  
  83. The techie cringed again. "I, ah, I'm on it, Sir. You can trust me."
  84. The pilot pointed the beretta handgun at the A-10, which continued giving him an disinterested frown. Due to the noticable lack of lips, it always seemed as if it was grinning or frowning.
  85.  
  86. "Please, don't make me do this."
  87.  
  88. "It's what I want. Hurry the fuck up and get over with it."
  89.  
  90. The pilot moved his aim from its general chest area to its head, calmly and smoothly tightening his finger on the trigger. "Well, okay."
  91.  
  92. "Wait, n-"
  93.  
  94. The handgun fired, the 9x19 parabellum round slamming into its head at around 380 metres per second, sending it jerking back and bouncing off the wall of the hangar with a hollow 'clunk'. It staggered and caught itself on the wall as the pilot put the gun's safety back on.
  95.  
  96. "You STUPID MOTHERFUCKER. HAVE YOU NEVER FIRED A GUN BEFORE? EVER?" Its head flicked back forward, as the gunshot's echo bounced around the hangar. "DON'T FUCKING AIM FOR THE HEAD, AIM FOR CENTRE, OF, MASS. DID YOU WANT TO DAMAGE MY SENSORS YOU DUMB SHIT?"
  97.  
  98. The pilot opened his mouth before being interrupted again.
  99.  
  100. "I SAID, AIM FOR HERE. CHEST LEVEL. God." The A-10 snatched the gun out of the pilot's hands and leaned into his face, violently violating his personal space, frowning.
  101.  
  102. "I just thought..."
  103.  
  104. "YOU THOUGHT WRONG. WROOOOONG. Not that it matters," the A-10 replied.
  105. Crossing its arms triumphantly, the A-10 announced: "I'm rated virtually immune to small arms fire, and stand a good chance against most rifles, too."
  106.  
  107. The pilot suddenly leaned forwards, almost touching noses with the A-10, who held its ground.
  108.  
  109. "A-10, I...I think I dented you."
  110.  
  111. "You WHAT? I'M G-"
  112.  
  113. The pilot, surprisingly quickly, grabbed the A-10's nose, rubbing at the little scratch just above its right eye. It was too surprised to do anything other than blink and stammer for a few seconds.
  114.  
  115. "...W-what are you doing?"
  116.  
  117. "Yeah, I scratched your paint. Here." The pilot rubbed the scratch with his thumb, looking worried.
  118.  
  119. "S-stop that." Even though it asked, the A-10 made no move to escape. "It..."
  120.  
  121. "Do you know your paint number? Shit, I'm going to get into so much trouble for this." The pilot turned its head up to the light, in order to see the damage. The A-10's head whirred softly as the pilot continued checking it for damage.
  122.  
  123. "You're alright though, right?"
  124.  
  125. The A-10 didn't answer until the pilot stopped rubbing the scratch.
  126.  
  127. "Uhn? Oh, uh...yeah, I'm okay..."
  128.  
  129. The pilot released his hold on the A-10's head, rubbing at his eyes and walking towards and out the door, leaving it whirring and leaning forwards slightly, one hand half-raised, the other limp by its side, a vacant look on its face. "I'm going to have to sneak in and take some. What am I going to put on the form? 'Paint number X, one pot, due to shooting my plane in the forehead with its own gun. Oh yeah, it totally made me do it.' Argh."
  130.  
  131. When the pilot left the hangar, he was busy trying to think of a cover story-so he did not see the man behind the hangar walk inside, carefully closing the door behind him.
  132.  
  133. The A-10 looked up when it heard the door closed, still standing, touching the scratch. It took it a couple of seconds to realize that it wasn't the pilot.
  134.  
  135. “Whohe hell are you?”
  136.  
  137. Oh, we've met before. You just don't remember it."
  138.  
  139. A-10's reply of "Wha-" was cut off as the man pressed a button on the remote, causing it to suddenly spasm, holding its head, screaming, for a few seconds before suddenly going limp and unresponsive. The man walks up to the A-10, pulling on latex doctor's gloves before gently tilting its head up and looking into its empty eyes.
  140.  
  141. He let the head drop and ran a hand down its chassis, tilting the left turbine towards him and peering inside, before moving on to its head. He pried its mouth open, looking inside, before running a tender hand over, then reaching between the legitimately sharp teeth and examining its Avenger cannon, gently running a hand down the top. "One day we will be together, my sweet...and I won't let anyone harm you until then, none of these incompetent pilots and least of all a desk clerk."
  142.  
  143. He ran his hands down the seam in the back, but it didn't open-a side effect to the 'maintenance' mode his specialized PDA put it in. Originally intended to dull any pain the A-10 would experience if it needed to be repaired after heavy battle damage, it was proven completely useless once it expressed an almost masochistic streak, once claiming that, "I've fucked gravity and made Newton my bitch, pain is fucking nothing." Carlyle was one of the only people who remembered this function.
  144.  
  145. He gently set the A-10 down near the wall, running a hand over its cockpit-he knew it loved that, even though it wouldn't remember any of this, nor before-and stood up, walking away.
  146.  
  147. "I'll see to that myself," the techie muttered to himself.
  148. A-10 was woken by happy whistling and the sound of metal being scraped across concrete. The pilot was in the process of hauling a sturdy-looking metal bed through the hangar, to join the lamp, table, chairs, and two litre pot of paint in the corner. The A-10, after about ten minutes of just watching him slowly, laboriously pushing the bed across the hanger, stood up, and walked over. The pilot stopped pushing the bed and stretched his back.
  149.  
  150. "G'mornin', A-10."
  151.  
  152. "What the fuck are you doing," A-10 rasped drowsily. "What are you doing in my hangar. Why are you ...what is all this stuff? Why so early?"
  153.  
  154. The pilot laughed and went back to grating the bed across the floor. "I'm moving in."
  155.  
  156. A-10 put its hand on the end of the bed, stopping it flat. A-10 was incredibly strong, despite its light frame. "No you're not."
  157.  
  158. "Why not?"
  159.  
  160. "Because this is MY space. I like my privacy. You do not get to live in my private space and put your human fat everywhere."
  161.  
  162. The pilot tilted his head back and forth before attempting to shift the bed again. "Well, I'm going to spend most of my time inside you, once training is over. I don't really see the difference."
  163.  
  164. A-10 was struck silent for all of two seconds, before it released the bed, causing the pilot to slide forwards at a rapid pace, almost falling on his face.
  165.  
  166. "W-wait, what are you going to do o-" A-10 was cut off, again, as he slowly reached up to its cheek, and started rubbing the side of its head with a sheet of soft-grain sandpaper. "Ow geez fuck what are you doing a-ah stop fuck."
  167.  
  168. "Oh, good, you regenerated the dent. Yeah, I want to get a smooth finish. Nothing's uglier than an uneven coat of paint." The pilot held the A-10's head in place as he gently rubbed the flecks of paint away from the 'wound'. The A-10 frowned mightily, but held still and fiddled with one of its turbines.
  169.  
  170. "Y-you know, one of the engineers should be doing this..."
  171.  
  172. "I'm your pilot, I should take care of you. Having other people to do things for you isn't an excuse to avoid doing it yourself. Besides, I like painting. I used to paint aeroplane models as a kid. Still do, when I get the chance."
  173.  
  174. The pilot dipped the brush in the pot, and started to paint on the A-10s face.
  175.  
  176. "A-ah...are you sure you have the r-right colour? I...I never told you my paint code."
  177.  
  178. "Nah, I've got it." He held the paint pot's lid up in front of her face. The A-10 held its own hand up beside the lid, turning it over a few times and blinking as it realized that the shades of grey were exactly the same. It jumped a little when he took the hand and placed it back on her lap.
  179.  
  180. "I don't want you getting paint over your camo pattern, it'll ruin it." He continued lightly applying the paint to her face as the A-10 became more quiet and even more fidgety.
  181. After a few minutes of painting, the pilot's tongue sticking out of his mouth in silent concentration, the A-10 suddenly grabbed the paintbrush, tossing it across the hangar and forcing the pilot down onto his bed with an "urk". The A-10 pressed down on the pilot, one hand on his shoulder and the other roughly attempting to un-zip his button up shirt.
  182.  
  183. "Uh...what are you trying to do?"
  184.  
  185. A-10 jerked downwards, eye-to-eye-shaped-sensor-array with the pilot. "You're...ah...my pilot, dumbass. I've decided that you're a keeper, you know? We should get to...know each other a little more intimately, right?" The A-10 grined at him, with a feral, manic grin plastered across its nosecone.
  186.  
  187. "Absolutely not."
  188.  
  189. The A-10 jerked to a halt.
  190.  
  191. "WHAT."
  192.  
  193. "We've got to let that dry first, or it'll smudge all over your nice ABU."
  194.  
  195. "OH MY GOD, SCREW THE PAINT. THAT CAN COME LATER." The A-10 grew frustrated with the complex mechanics of the button, preferring to just tear the shirt off him in a display of strength. "YOU COME SOONER."
  196.  
  197. The pilot seemed to approach it in a vaguely logical manner, which was commendable considering that there was a highly advanced weapon of mass destruction with very large breasts pressing into his chest and currently attempting to sunder his pants in the same manner as his poor shirt.
  198.  
  199. "I'm your pilot, though. Shouldn't I take the lead?"
  200.  
  201. A-10 was stunned, momentarily freezing up-enough time for the pilot to roll it over, himself on top now. The bed let out a tortured noise as its poor, aged frame took another hit. He climbed off the bed, tracing one finger up the A-10's neck and across her cockpit, before sprinting for the hangar door.
  202.  
  203. "OH NO YOU FUCKING DO NOT GET BACK HERE," the A-10 commented, leaping up and engaging its turbines, rocketing towards the man's back, as he closed the hangar's door. "Oh," it commented, before doing almost a backflip in midair, engaging its turbines on full speed, bringing itself to a stop directly in front of the visibly worried man. The momentary silence revealed a dripping noise, which the pilot noticed as an oil leak, in between the two main turbines.
  204.  
  205. "You'd best lock that, pilot. I don't want to be disturbed." It grabbed him and forced him against the wall, pulling down his pants.
  206.  
  207. The pilot sighed and pointed to its face. "The paint's already smudged..."
  208.  
  209. "Oh, shut up about the paint," the A-10 replied, pulling his pants down and pulling him into an embrace, warm fleshy arms wrapped around its back while its cool arms wrapped around his neck and pulled his lips to meet hers.
  210.  
  211. The pilot tasted a metallic, clean tang with a hint of gunpowder as he hoised the A-10 into his arms and carried it back to the bed. The A-10 closed its own eyes and tasted the strange combination of chemicals that humans used as intake lubricant. It decided that it was not unpleasant.
  212.  
  213. It disengaged from the kiss, smiling-not coyly grinning for once, warmly smiling-at the pilot. "I'd...do you have anything to plug that leak?"
  214.  
  215. It was the pilot's turn to grin. "You talk too much."
  216. He ran his hands up the back of its neck, pushing himself into the machine's auxilliary exhaust. The A-10 moaned, eyes closed, its turbines intermittently clacking against their housings. "A-ah...it's...it's deeper, pilot."
  217.  
  218. The pilot stroked his hand over her eye, slowly adjusting the 'plug' back out, then thrusting it in with a wet 'shlock'. The A-10's landing wheels whirred in surprise, before it engaged the emergency brakes. "A-ah! It's...it's getting bigger?" The A-10 opened its eyes in surprise, desperately clutching the pilot to it. "HARDER. NOW."
  219.  
  220. The pilot complied, thrusting harder...then teasingly pulling it back out, slowly. "I...have to get it aligned...haah."
  221.  
  222. "FFFFFFFFFFFFFUCKING TEAAAAAAAASE," the A-10 hoarsely shouted as he jammed it back in, the synth-metal tubing spasming, almost pulling on his plug. He complied, pushing it in and out in an almost hydraulic fashion as the A-10 moaned and writhed.
  223.  
  224. "Hng...I'm going to...come," the pilot stated, matter of factly. The A-10's eyes were wide and glazed over in ecstacy, her mouth open, panting.
  225. "I...ah....ahhha...I'm going to..."
  226.  
  227. Both came at the same time, the pilot grunting and holding the A-10 close. The A-10 tilted its head back, gasped, and said "BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT," filling the air with around three hundred depeleted uranium shells in the space of four seconds, punching a new skylight into the hangar. The loud climax echoed around the hangar slowly fading, until the only sounds left are of the gasping pilot and the A-10, going, "Oh God. Oh God I'm so sorry I didn't think I mean I've never-"
  228.  
  229. The A-10 slowly came to the realization that the pilot was in some sort of post-maintenance stupor, spreadeagle acrost its chest, head firmly planted in between its auxilliary fuel containers. It looked up and out the new skylight, momentarily admiring its shot placement, then the cloudy night sky beyond. No doubt someone had heard the 'release', but the door was locked, and people knew better than to intrude on the A-10's privacy. It lay there on the bed and placed a hand on the back of the pilot's head, sighing contendedly. What made this one different to all the others? How could he be so forceful while treating it as if it was merely a tool to be taken care of, treating it with more care than most human husbands treated wives? The A-10 licked its 'lips', the flexible gatling cannon clinking quietly off the points. It could get used to this, it thought, as it drifted off to sleep.
  230.  
  231. The two soldiers, currently stationed outside the general's quarters, were bored. The general was renowned for being somewhat paranoid. The ever-increasing threat of war hang over everyone's heads, and no-one more so than he; trained in the best military academy the country had, yet never actually seeing live warfare himself.
  232.  
  233. "Got any smokes?" The first guard-a young-looking man with messy blonde hair and glasses asked.
  234.  
  235. The second, a much taller man with a bushy red beard and hair, replied: "Yeah, but the Big G'll get pissed if we smoke outside his quarters."
  236.  
  237. "Oh, yeah, you're right." Both stood in silence for the next few minutes awkwardly watching the night sky and nothing much in particular, before he spoke up again.
  238.  
  239. "Did you hear what that A-10 did?"
  240. "Everyone did, son, that thing's got a bloody Avenger cannon."
  241.  
  242. The other one looked around, checking for eavesdroppers, before edging closer to the second bearded man.
  243.  
  244. "Yeah, but...those were LIVE ROUNDS, not just blanks. It was LOADED on the base."
  245.  
  246. "So?"
  247.  
  248. "So, that's against regulations. I bet the general's going to rip it a new one."
  249.  
  250. "HA! Big G standing up to that thing? Don't you know he has an entire division, personally funded may I add, devoted entirely to keeping those planes under watch?"
  251.  
  252. The younger blinked.
  253.  
  254. "At least HALF of them are supposed to be keeping an eye on that A-10." Redbeard scoffed. "Military intelligence my ass."
  255.  
  256. "You don't mean Carlyle and that other guy, do you? That...that's hardly a division, that's just two guys. Come on, man."
  257.  
  258. Redbeard hugged and puffed for a few moments before pointing at the younger man. "Look, you asked a question, and I gave you the answer."
  259.  
  260. "Sure you did, Mr. Tinfoil Hat," the younger crowed.
  261.  
  262. Yeah, they were pretty bored.
  263.  
  264. The requisitions depot attendant was having the time of his life, though.
  265.  
  266. "Okay so...just...explain that to me again."
  267.  
  268. The pilot, dressed in an oil-stained bedsheet toga, sighed. "I need a new uniform. And a replacement for my bed."
  269.  
  270. "No, no, go over the 'why' bit. I want to hear it one more time." The depot attendant had his elbows on the small window's desk, chin propped up on his hands, with a look of childlike innocence and attention on his face.
  271.  
  272. "Damn it, I wrote it on the form."
  273.  
  274. "Please?"
  275.  
  276. "Fine," the pilot sighed, adjusting the toga's shoulder. "Okay, so, after I brought my desk into the hangar, the zucchini basket-"
  277.  
  278. The no doubt enthralling story was interrupted by another man reaching past the pilot, handing the requisitions officer a form. "I'd, er, like to get some paint. Black and white."
  279.  
  280. The techie and the pilot had never actually met face to face, so the latter did not recognize the former. The techie, however, had read all the reports available on the pilot.
  281.  
  282. The depot attendant read the form, kicking his beaten up swivel chair away from the desk and down one corridor, before reaching out, snagging the corner of one shelf, and re-directing him down another. "Paint...paint..."
  283.  
  284. The clattering chair came to a halt. "Hey, there's none left. It's gone. Daaaamn, who'd steal two whole pots of paint?"
  285.  
  286. "Yes, who?" The techie pushed his corrective glasses up his nose, causing the light to momentarily reflect off them.
  287.  
  288. The pilot put on his best poker-face, which was actually quite good, as he enjoyed playing poker.
  289.  
  290. "I-I'm pretty sure that theft could mean reassignment, demotion, pay cuts..." the techie continued.
  291.  
  292. "Oh, come off it, Carlyle," the depot attendant said, scooting past the window on his chair again. "Nobody gives two fucks about paint. Maybe not even one."
  293.  
  294. The techie grumbled to himself, quietly, as the depot attendant slid past again, tossing a bundle of clothes and, after another pass, some aviators at the pilot. "Thanks. I'll bring you something next time I come in, okay?"
  295.  
  296. "Ha! Sure thing, my man. Enjoy the rest of your night," the depot attendant replied, as the pilot walked out, like a stately Roman senator, if their robes were stained with slightly sweet-smelling oil.
  297.  
  298. The techie frowned and stayed in the depot tent for a few more moments, before grinding his teeth together and heading for the general's cabin.
  299.  
  300. If that incompetent depot attendant wouldn't do anything about it, then he would have to sort it all out personally.
  301.  
  302. The A-10 sat in the middle of the hangar on a small stool, frowning, as the pilot (now properly clothed) scrubbed its back with strong cleaning fluid.
  303.  
  304. "When was the last time you were cleaned, A-10?"
  305.  
  306. The A-10 was silent for a few seconds before mumbling out a dissatisfied, grumpy answer.
  307.  
  308. "What?"
  309.  
  310. "About ghrngrmngo."
  311.  
  312. The pilot leaned around the plane and looked it in its eye.
  313.  
  314. "About a month ago, okay?"
  315.  
  316. The pilot rubbed the cloth over its lower 'back', carefully wiping down its turbines. "Wow. Your manual said that you should get cleaned way more often."
  317.  
  318. The A-10 whipped around, suddenly nose-to-nose with its pilot. "I don't make a habit of rolling around in grime, dumbass." It turned around again, crossing its arms and unconsciously leaning into the pilot's gentle scrubbing. "Well, it's true. I just don't seem to get as dirty as other planes," it stated, in a slightly superior fashion.
  319.  
  320. The pilot, by way of reply, simply lifted out one of its legs in front of it, placed it on his knee to keep it straight, and re-applied more cleaning solution to the cloth.
  321.  
  322. "B-be careful with my landing wheels."
  323.  
  324. The pilot slowly ran the cloth down its 'leg', inch by inch, cleaning the reverse side of the knee joint and working his way slowly around to the front. "So, when do I get to take you for a ride?"
  325.  
  326. "You alre-oh. Uh..." The A-10 shook itself out of its bliss semi-coma and frowned at him. "The hell happened to 'oh, a pilot's gotta take the lead', huh?"
  327.  
  328. The pilot laughed and set the leg down carefully, wiping up the inside and frowning at the oil stains on the rag. "I'll need a new cloth. You're so dirty."
  329.  
  330. The A-10 launched forward, almost tipping the stool over in an attempt to get into the pilot's face. "WHADDAYA MEAN BY THAT, JERKOFF?"
  331.  
  332. The pilot just grinned before reversing the cloth and wiping it across its underbelly, eliciting a strained whirr from the plane. Remarkably, the A-10 managed to bend almost double to keep staring at the man's face-synthmetal was extremely flexible.
  333.  
  334. After a few more seconds of the A-10 staring and the pilot remaining innocent, the A-10 realized that he was joking. Joking? The A-10 lurched back upright and crossed its arms. Every other pilot had tried to 'prove' themselves. Either by showing off, shoving awards in its face, or trying to physically dominate it. All methods failed, mostly due to the A-10 lacking the fucks to give. But this man...he didn't try to prove anything. His manner-acting as if he owned it already-something about it made the A-10 go on the defensive far more than it ever had before. It was unsettling the plane. Unfortunately, before any more thought could be given on the issue, the pilot screwed the cloth into its auxilliary pressure release vent.
  335.  
  336. The A-10 lurched backwards, taken off guard, kicking the stool out from underneath it and clunking onto the floor. The pilot didn't seem to notice, just moving the stool out of the way and keeping on cleaning while the A-10 scrabbled for his wrists, emitting worless cries of protest and arousal.
  337.  
  338. The pilot fended off the frantic A-10's arms with one hand, with his best 'disinterested' face on.
  339.  
  340. It was quite a good disinterested face; he enjoyed playing poker, after all.
  341.  
  342. "So dirty. I might have leave you here and go get some stronger cleaning fluid..."
  343.  
  344. "Auwgffuhnnhhffffffuuuaaaarghnnnngh," the A-10 replied, twisting around on the cement floor.
  345.  
  346. The pilot levered the A-10's legs apart with his knees and bent down to examine the slit. While theoretically used to prevent ruptures due to overpressurized oil-or leakages from another part of the system entering the oil reserviour and overflowing it-he could see that it had been modified, somewhat.
  347.  
  348. "Oh, this doesn't look like a pressure release vent at all..."
  349.  
  350. "YOU KNOW THIS. YOU KNEW THIS. DID YOU SERIOUSLFFFFFNNNNNNNAGH," the A-10 replied in protest, managing to shove the pilot's knee from between its own and thus clenching down on the cleaning rag. The pilot just grinned and worked it deeper, other hand on its stomach. The pilot tenderly wiped down the vent's walls, ignoring its cries of protest, the soft cloth eventually turning them into cries of encouragement, the plane grasping his free hand.
  351.  
  352. "Aaaaaungyou'vedonethisbefooooooorehaveyousonofabiiiitch," the A-10 said, still writhing and frowning and panting, mouth slightly open, staring at him with fiery eyes.
  353.  
  354. The pilot then found the vent nozzle itself.
  355.  
  356. "NAUGHFUCK."
  357.  
  358. "Shhh. I clean now." The pilot ran the soft cloth around the nozzle, elicitng another cry from the plane, before slowly, teasingly, withdrawing the cloth. He didn't get far before the A-10 roughly forced it back in.
  359.  
  360. "NO STOPPING. NO. BAD PILOT."
  361.  
  362. "I have to put more fluid on the cloth or I'll just be wiping grime into your chassis, A-10. Let my hand go."
  363.  
  364. It was said in such a matter of fact, forceful manner that the A-10, surprised, did so. "GRIME? I'M NHGAAAAAARGH."
  365.  
  366. The A-10 was cut off by the pilot quickly inserting the cloth again, turning it around and around inside the vent, two fingers working it into the groove, around the walls, around the nozzle. It didn't take long for the A-10 to lose control, throw its head back, and "HKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKTGH," barrel rapidly spinning, spooled up to at least eighty revs per second, but thankfully not firing any shells this time. Agonizingly, the pilot only wiped deeper, faster, and harder, until the quivering plane went limp.
  367.  
  368. "There, now that any more discharges won't dirty it up any more, I can move on to your main chassis."
  369.  
  370. "I'm....I'm going to...ah...kill you. D-don't stop."
  371.  
  372. The pilot poured some of the cleaning solution over the A-10's chest and stomach, the clear fluid running off it and onto the floor. It gasped from the sudden sensation, then moaned and fell to muttering in satisfaction as the pilot slowly and tenderly cleaned its stomache and auxilliary fuel tanks. The care with which he moved the cloth around the curvy mounds made the A-10 even more floppy, the repeditive stroaking eventually making the A-10 fall into a half-asleep relaxed coma. The A-10's pilot smiled, and lifted the limp plane up, walking over to and depositing it in its 'sleeping corner', a carefully stacked pile of wooden crates. He resolved to borrow, beg, or steal a bed for her at some point in the future, even though he knew it didn't care what it slept on. He then stood up, stretched his back, and carefully placed the cloth over the plane's eye sensors before heading over to his own military cot in an attempt to catch some sleep that night.
  373.  
  374. The next morning's sunrise also brought the pilot an unpleasant suprise. He sat on the end of his bed, reading the notice. At the top read, 'TRANSFER NOTICE'. The rest was predictable legal jargon, basically saying that he was getting ejected the fuck out and sent to some Australian hole in the ground base. The pilot thought it strange-being transferred out this quickly usually happened to people that had some special skill that was needed elsewhere. Engineers, specialists...but not pilots, you could get them from anywhere. He rubbed his hand through his hair and decided that there was definitely something up, something wrong with this. He could always tell when a document was strange, wrong, off. Incorrect.
  375.  
  376. He stood up, casting a glance over to the dozing A-10, on its back, mouth open, frowning even in sleep. One of its hands was draped over its chest, the other barely touching the floor. He didn't intend to worry it with his problems, as he was capable of solving them entirely by himself.
  377.  
  378. He left the hangar, and walked towards the general's-the one who issued the order-building. He was out of sight when the technician walked into the hanger.
  379.  
  380. Carlyle closed the hangar's door, and angrily mashed the controller's 'maintenance' function, instantly sending the A-10 under, it merely spasming once, not even giving it a chance to scream.
  381.  
  382. The first thing he saw was the clean, reflective sheen of the A-10's synthmetal 'skin'. Carlyle was enraged-the only one that was permitted to clean her was HIMSELF. No other knew her like he did, and no other knew how to clean her properly. He hurried over and commenced his 'routine checkup'.
  383.  
  384. Of course, it was more of a 'feel-up' than anything else. Although he would not admit it to anyone, he was deeply in love with this aeroplane. Sadly, he was never able to be a pilot-poor eyesight and a crippling fear of heights kept him groundbound, removing any chance for him to fly her. So, he had been subtly altering the general's requests-only female pilots had been routed to this base and this plane. He also knew of this one plane's almost unique psychosis: it felt that it had a strong connection to the human female gender.
  385.  
  386. Carlyle's plot was intended to work thus: The lack of male companionship would force it to actively seek it out. Sadly, it struck up a friendly, working relationship with the first pilot it was assigned. He had to take...measures. The same measures-'technical faults' he arranged during his 'maintenance' visits-had killed all the others he had assigned her.
  387.  
  388. He tenderly stroked her cockpit, before rushing out of the hangar. He needed to see that autistic 'pilot' get chewed out by the general himself.
  389.  
  390. The A-10 didn't know about the techie's visits. The maintenance failsafe erased all memory shortly before and during its activation period, after all.
  391.  
  392. It didn't erase the memories of killing. Death. Their smiles, their scents, their screams, the feel of carrying a corpse-or a dying woman-inside it all the way back to base and being forced to put on a tough face to avoid being decomissioned. PTSD in planes was extremely uncommon, but should they be diagnosed with it, it was sent to the wreckers.
  393.  
  394. The first died from suffocation. Air intakes weren't working. She screamed until her air ran out, then just made hoarse choking noises before finally passing out. They couldn't release her seals in time to save her. It wasn't the A-10's fault, of course, just the acting engineer's. He was fired.
  395.  
  396. The second died due to a 'weapons system malfunction'. That was legal jargon for 'hot Avenger casings were released inside the hull, rather than through the ejection port'. Mercifully, that one passed out from shock. The A-10 still remembered the smell of the burning flesh. The next engineer was fired as well, and a specialist brought on-site.
  397.  
  398. The third died on impact. The A-10 could survive a crash relatively easily, but it was always recommended that the pilot evacuate. Both turbines failing due to fuel line faults, causing the A-10 to hit the ground at about 100 km/h? That proved fatal. The blood and bone fragments took several days to fully clean out of its interior, and the pilot had screamed the entire way down.
  399.  
  400. It was after that she was labled a 'killer'. Murdering pilots for fun. It had to maintain that tough exterior for so long it became second nature to it; imposing, dangerous, seductive, predatory. Callous. Nothing was further from its mind than 'male companionship', at least not until this pilot showed up. Right now, temporarily, nothing was in its mind. Carlyle had made sure of that.
  401.  
  402.  
  403. The A-10's pilot opened the door to the general's office, closing it behind him and taking the offered seat.
  404.  
  405. "Right, right, you're the pilot? One who's being transferred, Mr...?"
  406.  
  407. The pilot dropped the transfer notice on the desk.
  408.  
  409. "About that transferral, sir." The pilot looked directly into the general's eyes, carefully stating, "I implore you to reconsider. The cost it will take for me to go from here to..." The pilot glanced at the notice. "Alice Springs is quite high, for one. I don't think it's worth it."
  410.  
  411. "Do you think YOU know how to do MY job better than I do, pilot?" The general growled.
  412.  
  413. The pilot was unmoved. "Of course not, sir, but I would like an explanation as to why I'm being transferred so soon after reaching this base."
  414.  
  415. The general squinted at the pilot in surprise before regaining his composure. "You're a pilot, pilot. YOU go where I TELL you to go, 'sthat clear? Or do I have to discipline you for insubordination too?"
  416.  
  417. The pilot didn't exactly know what to say. He'd never experienced anyone so desperately unreasonable in his entire career, so he fell silent. The general leant back in his chair in triumph, and decided to rub it in.
  418.  
  419. "I'd have thought you'd enjoy the chance to escape from the killer, pilot."
  420.  
  421. "I'm sorry, sir, what?"
  422.  
  423. The general squinted again. "You know, the A-10. Murdering pilots for entertainment? Creative little thing, too. Third degree burns, depressurization, suffocation, blunt force, slowly bleeding to death. Only reason we keep it around is because eventually it'll prove useful."
  424.  
  425. The pilot's poker face shattered.
  426.  
  427. "What? Why?"
  428.  
  429. "HA! Ask it yourself if you're in a hurry to die."
  430.  
  431. "I think I will, sir. Permission to leave?"
  432.  
  433. "Granted. Get the fuck out of my office."
  434.  
  435. The pilot shakily stood and made his way out of the office, clutching the transfer notice in one hand. He didn't see the techie standing next to the door with a triumphant smirk on his face.
  436.  
  437. The A-10 awoke to the sound of the hangar door shutting, lazily rolling over and landing on its feet. The first thing it noticed was the look on its pilot's face-for the first time, he looked distressed. For some reason, this scared it.
  438.  
  439. It crossd its arms and frowned at him. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
  440.  
  441. "Nothing," he said, but the A-10 didn't believe him. He dropped some paperwork on his bed and stuck his hand in his pockets, evidently thinking about something.
  442.  
  443. The A-10 frowned harder and stared at the man. "Bullshit."
  444.  
  445. He looked up from the ground, into its face. "Why did you kill all those pilots?"
  446.  
  447. The A-10 blinked in surprise.
  448.  
  449. "You didn't know...?"
  450.  
  451. "Not until this morning."
  452.  
  453. The A-10 looked at him with a mixture of astonishment and confusion, walking over to the man, staring at him before roughly shoving him onto the cot, causing it to make a creaky protest. "You want to know WHY?"
  454.  
  455. The pilot seemed unmoved. "Yeah."
  456.  
  457. The A-10 planted a foot on his chest, causing the bed to creak some more. It stared at him with wild eyes, a predatory grin stretched across its nosecone.
  458.  
  459. "BECAUSE I ENJOYED IT, YOU FUCK," The A-10 yelled into his face.
  460.  
  461.  
  462. "The sounds their bones made when they shattered, the struggles when they start drowning in my fuel, the last wheeze before they suffocate! It's MUSIC," it hissed into his face.
  463.  
  464. The pilot looked back, brow wrinkled, before calmly stating, "Bullshit."
  465.  
  466. The A-10 shoved its foot down, leading to the second bed fatality that week, the wood snapping and the pilot's back impacting the hard cement floor. He let out an 'ufh', but then re-crossed his arms across his chest (and the A-10's foot).
  467.  
  468. "THAT'S ALL YOU GOTTA SAY, HUH? DO I NEED TO SHOW YOU, DUMBASS? WANNA DIE?"
  469.  
  470. "A bit of advice, never play poker."
  471.  
  472. "...what?" The A-10 went from 'ferocious' to 'yougottabefuckin'kiddingme' in the blink of an eye.
  473.  
  474. "There's a reason behind everything. And what would it be behind killing pilots? Enjoyment? Bullshit," he repeated, staring the A-10 directly in the eye.
  475.  
  476. "If you didn't want to be flown, you would have left already. Not like anyone or anything here could stop you. Why would you stay on this base, and still think that whoever's in charge would keep sending in sacrifices?"
  477.  
  478. "BECAUSE I'M WORTH IT, DON'T YOU KNOW?" The A-10 shifted its weight forwards. "MANEUVERABILITY! SKILL. FIREPOWER," it yelled, opening its mouth and showing the pilot the Avenger pointed at his head.
  479.  
  480. "You're shooting blanks." The pilot said, again, confidently. "When I was cleaning you, remember? Yeah."
  481.  
  482. The A-10 frowned again, caught out.
  483.  
  484. "Another thing. Why would you wait so long to murder some pilot? Always on a flight, after they've gone through basic training, gotten to know you..." The pilot pointed at its face. "You've had plenty of opportunity to kill me. You don't seem like you'd want to kill me either. You don't, do you, A-10?"
  485.  
  486. The A-10 didn't seem to be able to pick between a frown or a confident grin, shakily saying, "H-ha! That's...that's just so that the end's even...more sweet! You'd never see it...ha, coming! Ha ha!"
  487.  
  488. "Oh, I hadn't thought of that," the pilot mused, almost to himself.
  489.  
  490. The A-10 picked the same 'thefuck' expression from earlier, then slowly adopted a furious one, grabbing the pilot by the shoulders and removing the foot, hoisting him up on his feet and shaking him back and forth angrily. "YOU'RE A COUPLE OF SWITCHES SHORT OF A COCKPIT, AREN'T YOU? I'M GOING TO SNAP YOUR GODDAMN NECK LIKE A TW-"
  491.  
  492. In the midst of the being shaken, the pilot responded, "Wait, do that again."
  493.  
  494. The A-10 stopped. "What. What is it n-"
  495.  
  496. The pilot simply reached out and turned its head to the side, looking at the paint.
  497.  
  498. "You don't leave fingerprints, do you?"
  499.  
  500. "THE FUCK DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?"
  501.  
  502. "There are fingerprints on your cockpit."
  503.  
  504.  
  505. The A-10 dropped the pilot and made that tentative hand-waving thing that people do when they want to touch something, but know they aren't allowed to.
  506.  
  507. "W-what. Bullshit, you're just-"
  508.  
  509. The pilot gave it a stony stare, the sheer seriousness in it shocking the A-10 into silence. How could he maintain composure through this? How?
  510.  
  511. The pilot walked over to his side desk, dusting himself off and retrieving his shaving mirror. He held it up to the A-10, which snatched it and held it up.
  512.  
  513. "Where? Where?" The A-10 frantically waved the mirror around its head until the pilot caught its wrist and held it in place.
  514.  
  515. "Have you been seeing other pilots?"
  516.  
  517. The A-10 slowly looked over to the pilot, who failed to keep a tiny impish grin off his own face. "What? It was a j-"
  518.  
  519. "NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR JOKING. AT ALL. SOMEONE'S TOUCHED ME AND I DON'T KNOW WHO IT IS. DID YOU? ARE YOU JUST-WHEN I WAS ASLEEP?"
  520.  
  521. "No. Do you think I'd want to clean you again so soon or something?"
  522.  
  523. The A-10 tossed that one around for a couple of seconds before saying, "N-no..."
  524.  
  525. The pilot looked at the A-10 looking back at him, worried. "Calm down for now." The pilot started picking through his ex-bed.
  526.  
  527. It took him about thirty seconds to notice the short, hiccup-y sobbing noises coming from behind him, and when he turned, saw the A-10 clutching the mirror to its chest, standing there, still with a frown on its face, leaking fluid out of its sensors. It didn't seem nearlt as intimidating or dangerous as it was a minute ago.
  528.  
  529. "How can you just sit there and not care?"
  530.  
  531. The plane took a shaky step forwards.
  532.  
  533. "You didn't even hic know that I killed people and then you did and you didn't even mind."
  534.  
  535. The pilot frowned, then his expression softened, pulling the plane into a hug. The plane broke down sobbing, clutching onto the little mirror.
  536.  
  537. "I trust you, A-10. You're my plane, if I can't trust you, then I can't expect you to trust me."
  538.  
  539. "But WHY," the plane sobbed. "You said, that, there's a hic reason behind everything!"
  540.  
  541. "'Because I want to' is a good enough reason. Don't you think?"
  542.  
  543. After another thirty seconds of the sleek synthmetal aeroplane clutching onto the mirror, it dropped that too, breaking it, in order to wrap its pliant synthmetal arms around the pilot. He enjoyed the cool synthmetal, and the plane enjoyed the pilot's warmth, quietly sobbing into the man's shoulder.
  544.  
  545. "I...hate you, you know that?"
  546.  
  547. The pilot didn't reply, perhaps mourning the loss of his mirror as well.
  548.  
  549. "I don't...even know what is happening anymore. You and, and now this, and..."
  550.  
  551. "Shh, no tears, only hugs now."
  552.  
  553. The techie bustled past the pilot's barracks room. He'd heard that the pilot was busy elsewhere on the base, so he had a clear ten minute window in the hangar. That stupid bastard had gotten chewed out good and proper by the general, the fact that he'd said that some of the men on base had caught him referring to the A-10 as 'her'. He'd...creatively edited the pilot's interaction reports, just in case something like this-being forced to act before he'd had the chance to create a mechanical fault-happened. It was a manufactured red light; always, just before the fatal flight, someone would have heard the pilot referring to it as 'her'. Naturally, it was some sort of psychosis.
  554.  
  555. Carlyle pushed open the barrack's main doors and strode out as if he owned the place.
  556.  
  557.  
  558. Earlier, inside the hangar...
  559.  
  560. "No. NO. You aren't backing out again."
  561.  
  562. "I...don't think I'll fit."
  563.  
  564. "I'LL MAKE YOU FIT, GOD. HURRY UP."
  565.  
  566. The A-10 pulled the pilot's shirt off over his head and tossed it over its shoulders.
  567.  
  568. The pilot pulled off his boxers and shrugged at the A-10, which span around and crossed its arms irritably.
  569.  
  570. "Hurry up."
  571.  
  572. "Are you sure you w-" The A-10 looked over its shoulder, frowning, but seeming slightly fragile, or hurt, somehow.
  573.  
  574. "Please...don't...don't even."
  575.  
  576. "I'm sorry." The pilot ran a hand down the seam in its back, the synthmetal hissing and peeling apart. The interior of the A-10 was much like the exterior, made of pliable synthmetal. It was entirely hollow. The pilot gingerly stepped forward, placing his right leg into the A-10's right leg. It was a tight fit, and the cool metal somehow seemed clingy as he placed his foot inside the A-10's, heel slightly raised due to the landing wheel's section.
  577.  
  578. "You're tight. I thought you said that you'd done this before?"
  579.  
  580. "You know I can snap your leg like a twig right now?"
  581.  
  582. The pilot laughed and held onto its shoulders for leverage, slipping his other leg in carefully. "Uh, what about the int-hurk," he commented, as the A-10 tipped forwards slightly, ensuring that the aforementioned fuel intake connection was secure. Both the A-10 and pilot had to take a second to catch their breath.
  583.  
  584. "A-arms now," the A-10 said shakily.
  585.  
  586. The pilot twisted around until his right arm was lined up with the A-10's interior, slowly sliding it down the length of its outstretched arm. The A-10 made a muffled grunty-whiny-moany sound when his fingers slid into the interiors of hers. His left arm slid into hers teasingly slowly.
  587.  
  588. "D-don't be a fucking tease, nggh," the A-10 commented. "N...now the h-head."
  589.  
  590. "I already put that in, though."
  591.  
  592. In response, the A-10 reached back and roughly shoved the pilot's head into the slit down the back of its own, the seal closing with a hiss.
  593.  
  594. The A-10 and pilot stood there for a few seconds, the A-10 blinking and twitching as the neural connections attached themselves.
  595.  
  596. :How do you feel:fine what is this:neural connections:ican'tfeelanything:slow down, give it time:
  597.  
  598. The exchange took about two hundredths of a second, before the A-10 took control and sat them down. "Didn't you go through neutral networking training?"
  599.  
  600. :no:
  601.  
  602. "Really? REALLY?"
  603.  
  604. The A-10 rubbed its-their?-face. "Okay. Slow down, right now, you're operating at the speed of thought. That's why pilots are valuable, in case you didn't know." The A-10 muttered. "Dumbass. You're supposed to be who I consult with before doing...something. You're supposed to be telling me what to do, really..." The A-10 trailed off as it watched its right arm twitch around spasmodically. "Stop that." It stopped.
  605.  
  606. "So...ugh, I guess 'cause you know exactly fuck-all, just relax, okay? I'll take the lead. For now."
  607.  
  608. :okay:
  609.  
  610. The A-10 quietly hugged itself, sitting on the crates. It didn't even start to begin to think that the pilot wouldn't actually...know how to fly it. Inconceivable, but...the A-10 didn't mind. Some pilots had their own style of flying, having learned in different planes. It had this pilot all to itself.
  611.  
  612. :i can hear what you're thinking:
  613.  
  614. Fuck.
  615.  
  616. However, any more thought was cut off as the neural interfaces suddenly fired, the protective disconnection measures disconnecting the pilot from the man suite. The A-10 pitched forward and rolled onto its back, making a strangled choking noise before going dormant.
  617.  
  618. :a-10:
  619.  
  620. No reply.
  621.  
  622. :a-10 are you alright:
  623.  
  624. No reply.
  625.  
  626. :say something:
  627.  
  628. Again, there was no reply.
  629.  
  630. The pilot attempted to move, but the A-10 was locked up, the synthmetal dead weight.
  631.  
  632.  
  633. Carlyle pocketed the control and ran his gloved hands down the A-10's torso. He knew that he was taking a risk visiting it so often, especially with the new pilot, but he wanted to make sure that the imbecile didn't damage it. After all, him even being posted here was a mistake, but not one that the air force could readily own up to-the initial transfer was pretty under the table and in no way legal.
  634.  
  635. He wistfully pushed the A-10's mouth open and frowned at the A-10's cannon. Unloaded? Planes always had to be combat-ready, even on base, in training. No exceptions. This was just another thing he could add to the inevitable post-dismissal report, he thought, and smirked, moving on to the turbines and axilliary pressure release vent.
  636.  
  637. This time, the pilot saw it all, through the A-10's eyes.
  638.  
  639.  
  640. The A-10 rolled over and stretched, waking up from its mid-day doze. Something seemed different, but it didn't pay it any m-
  641.  
  642. :a-10:
  643.  
  644. The plane literally jumped a few metres into the air, turbines whirring in panic mode. "AAAAAAH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"
  645.  
  646. :calm down:
  647.  
  648. "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH-"
  649.  
  650. :COOL YOUR SHIT:
  651.  
  652. The imperious mental command made the A-10 drop out of the air, landing and grabbing at its chest.
  653.  
  654. "GET OUT OF ME! GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT-"
  655.  
  656. :calm the fuck down okay and I will explain:
  657.  
  658. The A-10, visibly shaking, grabbed at different limbs and then its head, realizing that the pilot was somehow inside it. While it was sleeping? No, no, there's no way it wouldn't have woken up-
  659.  
  660. :i can hear what you're thinking:
  661.  
  662. Fuck.
  663.  
  664. The A-10 continued shaking, clutching its stomach, panic-thoughts whizzing through its head, before suddenly seizing up and twitching. The A-10 realized that its systems were slowly being taken over by its pilot, and continued panicking when it realized it couldn't wrest them back. The A-10-and-pilot took several shaky, slow steps towards the bed before clanking down on to its knees.
  665.  
  666. "Okay, since you can't calm down, just listen," said the A-10, except it wasn't the A-10's will to speak the words. Ironically, this made it panic even more.
  667.  
  668. "I can read your thoughts, can you read mine?"
  669.  
  670. The A-10 suddenly regained control and, as a result, almost did a complete backflip, staggering over and landing on its ass.
  671.  
  672. "D-don't...d-do..stop...please...d-" "Just do it!"
  673.  
  674. Once again, the command-even if it came from its own mouth, unwillingly-shocked it out of the panic. It focused.
  675.  
  676. And then it saw, through the pilot's eyes. It saw it all.
  677.  
  678. The A-10 pulled itself together, sitting cross-legged in the wreckage of bed and mirror, and held a quiet conference with itself.
  679.  
  680. :I'm going to kill him:don't:why not:read the paper in the bed:what:
  681.  
  682. The A-10 picked up the piece of paper out of the mess of wood and cloth and read, unconsciously holding its stomach.
  683.  
  684. The dissatisfied frown convulsed into a grimace of pure anger. "OOOOOOH FUCK NO. NO. NO NO NO. THEY ARE NOT TAK-aghk," the A-10 said, as it once again lost control over its vocal systems.
  685.  
  686. :it's fishy:NO SHIT:calm the fuck down before I make you calm the fuck down again, a-10:
  687.  
  688. The A-10 calmed the fuck down.
  689.  
  690. :you don't remember anything:no only what you showed me:
  691.  
  692. There was a long pause as the pilot/plane thought about it, one or the other making the A-10 stand up and walk over to the table, and start to write on the back of the transferral notice.
  693.  
  694. :are you thinking what i'm thinking:that's a really fucking stupid question:okay just checking:oh god, shut up:
  695.  
  696. The techie bustled around the general's building, humming happily. Everything was sorted, the error would soon be cleaned up, along with the loose end.
  697.  
  698. "AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, YOU'VE LET ME FUCKING PICK BEFORE. WHAT'S CHANGED, HUH?"
  699.  
  700. The techie winced. Wait. That was the A-10. In the general's office? He quickly changed direction and commenced eavesdropping.
  701.  
  702. "It's not your choice who goes where, machine."
  703.  
  704. "Certainly my choice who gets to FUCKING FLY ME." The A-10 slammed its hands down on the desk, leaning forwards.
  705.  
  706. "YOU WANT ME TO FLY? YOU LET ME PICK."
  707.  
  708. "TOLD YOU ONCE, NOT GOING TO AGAIN. ARE YOU QUESTIONING MY ORDERS, PLANE?"
  709.  
  710. The A-10's demeanour swapped from 'anger' to 'confident' in a heartbeat. "Tell me, where am I in your chain of command?"
  711.  
  712. The general's countenance became a rosy shade of reddish-orange-yellow, like a tomato, just before it is ripe enough to eat.
  713.  
  714. "I'm NOT. YOU just get to assign people to me. And YOU do not get to boss ME around." The A-10 straightened up, crossing its arms. "And YOUR assignments are just...choices." The A-10 shrugged, palms up, and suddenly seemed in control of the entire situation. "And if you transfer someone OUT who has already been assigned to a plane, I can CHOOSE to keep them."
  715.  
  716. "That takes me right the fuck out of your base, takes that pilot out of your chain of command."
  717.  
  718. Fuck, thought the general.
  719.  
  720. FUCK NO, thought the techie.
  721.  
  722. Neither quite knew how the plane knew the technicalities of this particular branch of the army that well. It has certainly never expressed interest in them, ever, content to go through pilots like a fat man through cheetos.
  723.  
  724. "Give it some fucking thought next time before you throw around dumbshit orders," the A-10 commented, before turning and shoving open the door, stalking back to the hangar.
  725.  
  726. This time, it saw the techie and took notice-not that anyone could tell.
  727.  
  728. The general, however, was now fully ripened. He waited until it was out of the building before walking over to the door, gently shutting it, and walking carefully back to his desk, taking a seat.
  729.  
  730. "MOTHERFUCKING SHIT ON A STICK. SON OF A WHORE. I'LL HAVE THAT SMARTASS' FUCKING BALLS FOR THIS," the general stated, continuing on a tirade of incredibly creative profanities that several people in adjoining rooms thought good enough to write down, so that they could remember them for later.
  731.  
  732.  
  733. Meanwhile, the techie was frozen. His world had just crumbled around him. He didn't think anyone else would know about that loophole. He'd kept it to himself so that when he inevitably won the plane's attention they could elope.
  734.  
  735. But this fucker. This son of a whore shit stick was trying to steal HIS plane. He had to be rid of the man personally, now. And make it look like an accident. Or...maybe something better...
  736.  
  737. At around 2 a.m. that night, Carlyle quietly opened the hangar door. He'd prepared meticulously for this; gloves, making sure that maintenance is nowhere near here tonight, even down to potential evidence (pocket lint, hair, and clothing threads, for example) being left behind. The sliver of outside light from the door disappeared, and the techie waited by the entrance for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
  738.  
  739. He slowly became able to pick out shapes in the darkness. Bed, table, stool...the A-10's stack of crates, the A-10, and the pilot, asleep in bed. Good.
  740.  
  741. He hit the button on the remote and the A-10 silently spasmed and fell still.
  742.  
  743. Quietly, like a bespectacled shadow, he slid across the room to the A-10's pile of crates. He knew it kept a gun-a Beretta-around. He searched through the stacks quietly, eventually finding it hidden under one with a few magazines and ammo boxes. He picked one out, loaded the gun, and looked over at the bed.
  744.  
  745. It was ingeniously simple, actually. The A-10 had moved on from murdering pilots in flight and would now seem to have random spates of violence. Ballistics tests-and fingerprint tests-would confirm the bullets belong to the A-10's handgun, and the lack of fingerprints would point to the A-10 being the shooter. Nobody would expect him-a systems technician-of being the murderer, and if they did, he'd like to see them prove it.
  746.  
  747. He stalked over to the bed, and then noticed the note on the bedside table.
  748.  
  749. It looked like the pilot's handwriting, just some stuff about the chain of command and military law, it seemed. So this is how the jet knew? The techie gritted his teeth. That retard couldn't tie his own shoelaces, let alone out-lawyer him. Well, he wouldn't get a second chance, he'd make sure of that.
  750.  
  751.  
  752. Nothing happened. Oh, right, the safety. He turned that off and tried again, pressing the pistol to the man's head, the pistol firing with a reverberating BANG, the pistol's fired bullet going through his head, bed, and cracking into the concrete, showering his arm with the cantaloupe's vital fluids and tender, delicious flesh.
  753.  
  754. Wait.
  755.  
  756. "Woo! That was a fuckin' rush, you know that?"
  757.  
  758. Carlyle froze, before whipping around and aiming the gun at the voice. The A-10? Impossible!
  759.  
  760. "I bet you're thinkin' 'oh fuck, how come that A-10's still conscious', right?" It grinned, entirely without humor.
  761.  
  762. "I'm not the only one in here."
  763.  
  764. Fuck, the techie thought, still training the gun on its head.
  765.  
  766. "'Course he'll have a real fuckin' big headache, come tomorrow. I sent that pulse into his own brain." It stood up and started walking towards him. "He doesn't need to see what I'm going to do to you."
  767.  
  768. The techie fired, the round pinging off the A-10's shoulder ineffectually. It grinned wider, feral, angry, satisfied, launching into a run.
  769.  
  770. The techie kept firing, backing up. Three rounds out of the entire magazine hit, the rest going through the hangar's far wall as he tripped over the bed, dropping the handgun before grabbing for the remote.
  771.  
  772. The A-10 chose this time to grab his throat, and slam him into the fruit-man in the bed-rather, through, and into the cold, hard floor with a sickening crunch. The A-10 detected that his left arm was probably shattered at four places, minimum.
  773.  
  774. The techie, dazed, continued fumbling, before the A-10 reached into his pocket and took the remote out.
  775.  
  776. "This your favourite toy, shitbag? Too much of a pussy to try anything face to face, eh?" For some reason, the A-10's conversational tone was even more terrifying than its angry, loud one.
  777.  
  778. The techie was in no condition to talk as the A-10 tossed the remote over its shoulder, calmly taking hold of the man's broken arm and slamming a foot down on it, causing the techie to cry out in pain as it was broken in ANOTHER place.
  779.  
  780. "How many times?" The A-10 took its foot off the man's arm.
  781.  
  782. The techie just groaned in reply, in more pain than he'd ever experienced in his entire life.
  783.  
  784. "HOW FUCKING MANY," the A-10 asked, hauling him upright by his collar. "HUH? YOU SICK PIECE OF SHIT. I'M NOT JUST A FUCKING MACHINE. I THINK I'M FUCKING SMARTER THAN YOU ARE, WHAT'S THAT MAKE YOU? A TOASTER?"
  785.  
  786. The techie's subconscious decided that no, no, angry planes were still scarier than calm but mad ones.
  787.  
  788. "HOW MANY PEOPLE DID YOU MAKE ME KILL? ALL OF THEM?" The A-10's eyes were wild, other arm reared back, ready to plant in his face.
  789.  
  790. "auhrngmpltchu," the techie said desperately.
  791.  
  792. "SPEAK THE FUCK UP OR I'LL BREAK YOUR FUCKING HEAD."
  793.  
  794. "IT WAS...WAS TO PROTECT YOU," the techie yelled through the pain. Adrenaline was kick in now, he could think straight...ish again.
  795.  
  796. "PROTECT ME!?" The A-10 shrieked into his face, ascending to the next level of angry, pegging him into the floor again and grabbing his head in its hands. "WHAT IN THE FUCKING SEVEN SEAS MADE YOU THINK I NEEDED PROTECTING? HOW DID KILLIN PEOPLE, PROTECT, ME? HUH?"
  797.  
  798. The techie swore upon impact as the broken arm flailed around, limp. "NOBODY could take care of you like...gah, I could! I-" He was cut off as the A-10 planted a fist into the hangar's floor beside his head, it burying several inches deep into the concrete.
  799.  
  800. "Oh. Ha! That makes it TOTALLY OKAY! IT'S NOT LIKE YOU'VE MADE MY LIFE, HELL, OR ANYTHING. You're fucking scum," it hissed, raising the fist again.
  801.  
  802. "You have failed. Your life has been worth nothing. In fact, it's worse. Less than nothing. You owe existence a debt, you little shit. And I'm going to be happy to collect it," the A-10 stated, eyes wide and crazy, nosecone cracked open in an insane grin. "NOTHING OF VALUE WILL BE LOST!"
  803.  
  804. It cracked its fist open into more of a claw, ready to slam into the man's face, brought it down-and then it froze, an inch away from the crying man's face. The A-10 looked at it, and tried to shift it again. It didn't work.
  805.  
  806. :no:
  807.  
  808. "NO! NO! I WANT TO HAVE MY VENGANCE! HE NEEDS TO DIE, I WON'T LET YOU STOP ME!" the A-10 screamed, seemingly to itself.
  809.  
  810. :do you want to be a killer and prove them right:
  811.  
  812. The A-10 froze and looked at the crying man under her. "I-"
  813.  
  814. :i mean, this will scare them anyway:oh my GOD what THE H:he's our ticket out of here:how:proof testimony evidence:
  815.  
  816. The A-10 gasped and clutched at its chest, backing away from the man lying in a pool of his own blood and urine, before it froze up again as the pilot took control, almost having to force the A-10 to pick him up and drag him out of the hangar, pausing to crush the remote under its feet.
  817.  
  818.  
  819. :doesn't deserve it, anyway:deserves more:you catch on quick:
  820.  
  821. After seeing to some...business, the A-10 and its pilot found themselves sitting in the pilot's room. Like hell either of them was going back to the hangar-there were bad memories there, now, not to mention blood, urine bone fragments, etc..
  822.  
  823. The A-10 was lying on its side in the bed, looking at itself in one of the shaving mirror's larger shards.
  824.  
  825. "...thank you," the A-10 said, quietly.
  826.  
  827. "For what?" the A-10's pilot replied.
  828.  
  829. The only reason the A-10 was using this slow method of communication was that the pilot had complained about headaches coming from the neural connections. Using the A-10's own voice instead of his own mind eased it a little.
  830.  
  831. "I don't know. Everything?" It grinned ruefully. "I'd still...well, I'd still be killing people if it wasn't for you." The grin stretched wider, a little of the predatory bent leaking in. "I think I should repay you. Whaddayathink, eh?"
  832.  
  833. The A-10's hand wandered down its front.
  834.  
  835. "What, er, what are you doing?"
  836.  
  837. "Neural connection works both ways, idiot."
  838.  
  839. The A-10's finger rubbed across its auxilliary pressure release vent, causing the pilot and A-10 to gasp in unison.
  840.  
  841. The pilot tried to wrest control back, but found himself held immobile. "Ah haaa, I have to get you back for that 'cleaning' bullshit you pulled," the A-10 stated, coy.
  842.  
  843. The pilot's mental protests were silenced as the A-10 dropped the mirror shard, other hand slowly making its way down as well, slipping across the soft metal.
  844.  
  845. "And you aren't going anywhere."
  846.  
  847. The pilot decided that he was okay with this.
  848.  
  849.  
  850. The A-10's first hand worked its way into the vent, fingers pushing at its walls, while the seconds ran over its right turbine.
  851.  
  852. The pilot convulsed, or tried to-this was an appendage he didn't even have. There was no human analogy for the turbine. Legs, maybe? But the A-10 had those. And why were they so sensitive?
  853.  
  854. "Moron, I can read your thoughts."
  855.  
  856. The pilot again decided that he was okay with this.
  857.  
  858. The hand toying with its vent was slowly, teasingly removed, strings of lubricant running from it to the A-10's fingertips. The second hand reached inside the turbine, lightly flicking the shaft's tip. The A-10 twitched and moaned, other hand grabbing and massaging its left auxiliary fuel tank, eliciting more husky moaning as both felt the metal fingertips playing over the pliant, sensitive section of metal.
  859.  
  860. The A-10's face was locked into an expression of frowny bliss, eyes lidded and lacking focus, panting.
  861.  
  862. "W...ah, I...I can feel...ngh...you feeling it too, s-stop that, you jerk."
  863.  
  864. The pilot was in no position to reply.
  865.  
  866.  
  867. The turbine's hand slipped further in, turning the fan slowly, making the A-10 whine and pant. Its other hand jerked away from its fuel tank and into the other one, turning it, too. The stimulation was too much for the A-10, making it jerk over onto its stomach and grind its auxiliary vent into the bedsheets, still spooling up and moaning. "I...ngh, can't...we can't in here...aegh. Everyone will hear."
  868.  
  869. "I DON'T GIVE A FUCK," the A-10 hissed in reply, both hands diving into its vent again, furiously pumping in and out, grabbing and twisting the nozzle hard enough to make it yelp every few seconds, in addition to the husky moans.
  870.  
  871. It jammed its hands in one last time and held them both there, fingers twitching and spasming. Its back arched, mouth tossed back, and it whimpered one more time. "I'm...I-'m g...hn-BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT," the A-10 roared, around six hundred shells tearing through the bed and into the floor as the A-10 and pilot decided, as one, that it indeed had no fucks left to give and slumped onto what remained of the bed, mouth open, flexible cannon lolling out the side of its mouth along with a substantial amount of fire retardant foam, panting, extremely satisfied.
  872.  
  873. "O...oh God, is it like that...every time for you, A-10?"
  874.  
  875. "When you...ah...haven't seen a man for that long you...ah... you get good at it, y'know?"
  876.  
  877. The A-10's hand wandered down to its vent again.
  878.  
  879. "Oh, no. N...agh, no, not again..."
  880.  
  881. "Ah...bite me."
  882.  
  883. The pilot woke first. Today was the day he took the A-10 out for a spin. There were live-fire training exercises due for today (planned ones, anyway...) and he didn't intend to make the A-10 miss a chance to enjoy itself.
  884.  
  885. The pilot was temporarily sharing the A-10's crate pile, supplemented with a fresh futon. His room was under repairs, but the hangar was easier to clean, so he slept there, with the plane.
  886.  
  887. The A-10, however, was still out to it, face-down in the futon and snoring quietly.
  888.  
  889. The pilot didn't want to wake it up yet, so carefully extracted himself and started pulling on clothes, looking around the expansive hangar and wondering just what they expected the A-10 to do with all this space.
  890.  
  891. He was interrupted by a cold metal hand gently closing around his wrist and then spinning him around roughly, to face the frowning A-10, about an inch away from his face.
  892.  
  893. "IS IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO DO ANYTHING QUIETLY? You woke me the fuck up." The A-10 grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him closer.
  894.  
  895. "G'morning, A-10!" the pilot said brightly.
  896.  
  897. "Come off it," the plane scoffed, letting go and sighing.
  898.  
  899. "Flight training, today. I get to take you out for a real spin."
  900.  
  901. The A-10 crossed its arms and leaned in, overbearing as usual, and the pilot stood there, oblivious, as usual.
  902.  
  903. "I bet you're so stupid you don't even know how to take off."
  904.  
  905. "I was hoping you'd give me some pointers."
  906.  
  907. The A-10 blinked, then squinted at his blank, expressionless face.
  908.  
  909. "You're bullshitting, aren't you?"
  910.  
  911. The pilot shook his head curiously.
  912.  
  913. "Oh Browning, please tell me you're just fucking with me."
  914.  
  915. "Nope."
  916.  
  917. The plane's jaw dropped.
  918.  
  919. "Well, I read the flight training introduction-"
  920.  
  921. The A-10 grabbed his singlet, puling the singlet it off over his head and its shoulders in one smooth movement.
  922.  
  923. "I am NOT going to get embarrassed by your incompetent ass. Get in."
  924.  
  925. "I need breakfast first."
  926.  
  927. The A-10 rubbed its nosecone with its hands in exasperation.
  928.  
  929. "Whatever. Hurry up."
  930.  
  931. The pilot slid past the A-10, grabbing his clothes and bolting to the mess.
  932.  
  933. The A-10 watched him dash off, before noticing something had fallen out of his pile of clothes. Aviator sunglasses?
  934.  
  935. The pilot slid back into the hangar, one sandwich in mouth, other in hand, being dual-wielded with the thermos. The plane was busy pacing around inside, and looked up as he entered.
  936.  
  937. "WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG? Ugh, you're going to have to learn so much if you want to do anything properly," the A-10 berated him as he chugged coffee.
  938.  
  939. "Ignition sequences, optimal ranges...ugh, how to use the nav system..."
  940.  
  941. "Can't you handle all that? I mean, they're your systems."
  942.  
  943. The plane wheeled around on him and pointed.
  944.  
  945. "You're even dumber than you look! What if something happens to me, huh? EM interference, more than my shielding can handle. Disconnects, some kind of fault. You have to be able to fly me if I can't!" The A-10 eyed the now empty thermos and walked past, grabbing it.
  946.  
  947. "I guess," the pilot replied, around a mouthful of sandwich. "But it's not like we're going to see combat for a while, right? Still have lots of training to go through."
  948.  
  949. "Oh, yeah, didn't you know? They don't care about how good you are. All about me, bitch." The A-10 returned from the crates, the thermos magnetically attached to its hip, opposite the beretta.
  950.  
  951. "They assume pilots have, oh, what was it now, 'A BASE LEVEL OF COMPETENCY' and let the plane roll with it. Dumbass, you're making my job hard."
  952.  
  953. The pilot shoved the rest of the sandwich and stood, wiping his hands on his pants.
  954.  
  955. "What, too hard?"
  956.  
  957. The A-10 rounded on him, striding up to him and poking him in the chest. "I have gone through an opening half the size of that-" It pointed at the hangar's door, just a regular sized door. "At two hundred fifty kilometers per hour. I can handle your incompetence just fucking fine."
  958.  
  959. The pilot responded by turning it around, and running a hand down the seam in its back, which opened with the familiar hiss.
  960.  
  961. "If you crash me, I'm going to-hurk," the A-10 commented, as the pilot climbed in, as if the A-10 was just another shirt or something, making it stagger. Nothing like the sensual, slow manner of the first time, and almost falling over.
  962.  
  963. "THE FUCK DID YOU THINK YOU WERE DOING BACK THERE," the A-10 growled, as it sealed up and walked to the door.
  964.  
  965. :you said you were in a rush:
  966.  
  967. "Be CAREFUL, fuck," the A-10 grumbled, before slamming the hangar door behind it and taking them to where it knew the training area was.
  968.  
  969. The training area was supposed to be a mostly cleared forest, about a kilometer North of the base. They walked, mostly because the A-10 wanted its pilot to get used to how it moved, and the difference in flexibility. The A-10, on its own, was far more bendy than the pilot-synthmetal's flexibility would put a gymnast to shame.
  970.  
  971. The training area was NOT a mostly cleared forest; most of it was littered with destroyed trees, a couple of the concrete targets spread over far larger area than they were ever intended to.
  972.  
  973. The A-10 strutted out into the field, lacing its fingers together behind its head.
  974.  
  975. "What can I say, superior firepower."
  976.  
  977. "Or just really fuckin' bad aim," the pilot responded, in a fairly good imitation of the A-10,made considerably easier due to using its own voice.
  978.  
  979. "Shut up. I can put ninety percent of my shots within a ten metre wide circle. From one thousand three hundred metres away. I'd like to see your pasty ass do that."
  980.  
  981. The A-10's pilot laughed, one metallic sounding chuckle echoing out of the A-10 before it clamped right down on that. It didn't want its image to be ruined. Even though there was probably nobody within a kilometer of the place.
  982.  
  983. "So, you know how to get me going then, smartass?"
  984.  
  985. "Yep," the pilot replied, immediately.
  986.  
  987. The A-10 frowned, mouth slightly open, before replying.
  988.  
  989. "I'm sorry, what the fuck? You said you'd never flown an A-10 before. How do you know my startup sequence?"
  990.  
  991. The A-10 seemingly replied to itself again. Anyone watching the exchange, not knowing what was happening, would have been very confused.
  992.  
  993. "Yeah, I got a hold of your manual, I've been your pilot for a few days now. I should remember how."
  994.  
  995. The A-10 was now officially worried.
  996.  
  997. "You best not mess it up. I don't want to go in for repairs before my first fucking flight with you."
  998.  
  999. The pilot concentrated. A lack of physical switches meant that they all had to be activated mentally. Either easier or harder, depending on what you learned on.
  1000.  
  1001. The A-10 powered down, sighed, and leaned against one of the more intact blocks of concrete.
  1002.  
  1003. Battery power and inverter activated.
  1004.  
  1005. The A-10 gasped, before catching itself and returning to a semi-stoic, semi-shaky frown. Well, it WOULD make sense, his only experienc-
  1006.  
  1007. The mental signal light test button was lightly, tenderly caressed.
  1008.  
  1009. The A-10 frowned harder. It wasn't going to let this get to it. Not before its first flight. No no no.
  1010.  
  1011. Then the pilot started its main engine, sending the A-10 sliding down the wall.
  1012.  
  1013. It tried to say, "That's not how engines!", but it came out as more of a, "hmgarguhhh," both hands clasped over its auxiliary vent.
  1014.  
  1015. The world seemed to spin around it, causing it to grab on to the pylon with both hands as the ground alignment system started figuring itself out.
  1016.  
  1017. Then he started the turbines whining.
  1018.  
  1019. "Ahgahfhk," the A-10 eloquently stated, grabbing on to the concrete with both hands, world righting itself.
  1020.  
  1021. The pilot continued through the startup plan-surprisingly accurate, for someone who had never flown a plane in his life.
  1022.  
  1023. The A-10, however, was a wreck. Breathing heavily, gripping the concrete hard enough to form a few hairline cracks in it, leaking slightly from its auxiliary vent. It realized that he wasn't following true startup protocol. How could he? Half the pilots it knew took shortcuts, let it handle some of the boring s-
  1024.  
  1025. Wait.
  1026.  
  1027. WAIT.
  1028.  
  1029. "I DIDN'T MEAN 'TURN ME ON' LIKE THAAAT," the A-10 hollered.
  1030.  
  1031. The pilot was obviously concentrating too much to hear it.
  1032.  
  1033. The A-10 kept panting, on its hands and knees now, as its turbines spooled up. It knew the next step was arming its weaponry-
  1034.  
  1035. The turbines stopped spooling, returning to idle.
  1036.  
  1037. "No. NO. NO NO. NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" the A-10 shrieked. It was far too close to its release to let him stop now.
  1038.  
  1039. "Forgot...nh...something," the pilot replied.
  1040.  
  1041. "Forgot WHAT?" The A-10 was panting, being held back. "YOU DID EVER...NNNNNNNTHING FINE WHY DID YOU STOP," the A-10 cried plaintively. It sat in place, panting heavily and getting more and more frustrated, for about ten seconds, waiting for the answer.
  1042.  
  1043. :just kidding:
  1044.  
  1045. Its weapons systems went online, armed.
  1046.  
  1047. "FAUGH-BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT," the A-10 wasn't joking when it said it had superior firepower-the shells ripping through the concrete it was slumped against, then into, and through the treeline on the other end of the field.
  1048.  
  1049. The A-10 clunked its cockpit into what remained of the concrete, breathing heavily.
  1050.  
  1051. "I...I hate you, you know that?"
  1052.  
  1053. "So, we fly now?" the pilot brightly replied.
  1054.  
  1055. "Oh piss off," the A-10 moaned.
  1056.  
  1057. Both decided that they needed a quick break before actually trying to get airborne, the A-10 sitting on the block of concrete and unscrewing the thermos.
  1058.  
  1059. "I thought you didn't drink anything."
  1060.  
  1061. "And I don't," the A-10 grumpily replied, sliding off the block and heading to open ground, tossing the white paint out in a messy circle.
  1062.  
  1063. The pilot was dismayed.
  1064.  
  1065. "They'll...they'll want that back. Come on, the reqs depot is already on my ass for breaking every bed I've slept in."
  1066.  
  1067. "They can deal with it," the A-10 grumbled, tossing the thermos out of the way.
  1068.  
  1069. "OKAY. Here's what we're gonna do," the A-10 said. "We're gonna take off nice and steady, up to about two thousand feet. Come in low from the west, and fuck this circle up."
  1070.  
  1071. "O-kay..."
  1072.  
  1073. "Oh, did I mean 'we'? I meant 'you'. Enjoy." The A-10 grinned.
  1074.  
  1075. "Oh, does that mean I have to do that startup sequence a-"
  1076.  
  1077. "NO! I, uh, no, I'll take care of that," the A-10 mumbled, setting its everything going in about half a second. "Never get into the air if you keep fucking it up," it added under its breath.
  1078.  
  1079. The pilot was faced with a new conundrum: getting airborne. Turbines, aerodynamics, wind speeds, altitude...
  1080.  
  1081. The pilot sprinted towards the treeline, using the A-10's natural speed before kicking in the turbines, almost sending him stumbling.
  1082.  
  1083. The A-10 realized that this practice session may or may not make them miss out on the real session, especially if the pilot crashed really really badly.
  1084.  
  1085. It then realized that it had nowhere near enough room to take off.
  1086.  
  1087. "Whoa! WHOA! HEY! STOP! TREES! TREES!"
  1088.  
  1089. The pilot ignored the A-10, jumping into the air, and opening the throttle all the way, giving the A-10 the necessary boost to clear the treeline.
  1090.  
  1091. Almost.
  1092.  
  1093. The plane's entire lower torso crashed through the top of the trees, before rising above the treeline. Some of the paint on its legs were scratched off, but the pilot continued the semi-suicidal takeoff maneuver, flying close above the trees before flattening out instinctively and gaining some altitude.
  1094.  
  1095. "Well, that went w-"
  1096.  
  1097. "WHAT THE FUCK. THE FUCK WAS THAT. MY LEGS! THE PAINT! AAAARGH," the A-10 lamented angrily. "I'M NOT GOING TO HAVE TIME TO REPAINT THAT BEFORE LIVE-FIRE."
  1098.  
  1099. "Sorry," the pilot replied, still obviously concentrating on keeping the two in the air, as the plane wobbled from side to side worryingly.
  1100.  
  1101. Slowly the two gained altitude, and the pilot confidence, leveling them out.
  1102.  
  1103. "Okay, two thousand feet..."
  1104.  
  1105. "You know you're going at about a hundred fifty knots, right?" The A-10 asked.
  1106.  
  1107. "Should I be going faster?"
  1108.  
  1109. "Oh, just a little, about TWICE THAT SPEED. I THOUGHT YOU SAID YOU READ THE MANUAL WE'RE ABOUT THIRTY AWAY FROM STALLING OUT, DIPSHIT," the A-10 replied.
  1110.  
  1111. "Oh," the pilot said, immediately opening the throttle again and rocketing the two forwards and around in a wide arc, back towards the clearing.
  1112.  
  1113. The A-10 was kind of impressed, just a little. For someone with no official flight time nor training, apparently, he had a remarkable sense of balance in the air (barring the takeoff). Had a sense of intuition about pitch and yaw...
  1114.  
  1115. The clearing was in sight.
  1116.  
  1117. The A-10 snapped out of its reverie. "OI! Weapons free, let's see how good a shot you are."
  1118.  
  1119. The A-10 realized its mistake shortly after speaking-he'd never fired a gun before that time in the hangar, he probably didn't even have the ability to mentally fire it, let alone fire its Aveng-
  1120.  
  1121. Wait. Oh no.
  1122.  
  1123. The jet started to panic, and was just about to start screaming expletives in preparation for the inevitable 300 knot crash before it realized that the pilot was laughing. Giggling, in fact.
  1124.  
  1125. "Yeah, I think you should show me how it's done, A-10."
  1126.  
  1127. "Oh my God I hate you," the jet sighed in relief, dipping slightly in a dive and zeroing in on the target, opening its mouth, and letting out two (CONTROLLED) bursts of "BRRRRRRRRRRRRRT" into the target.
  1128.  
  1129. "That's how it's DONE!" the A-10 crowed in exultation, swooping low across the field and skimming the treetops on the other side. "YEAH. Hey, you see if I hit?"
  1130.  
  1131. There was no response from the pilot other than a couple of shuddering gasps.
  1132.  
  1133. The jet grinned. "Neural feedback's a bitch, eh?"
  1134.  
  1135. MEANWHILE, IN ARUJISTAN. 2250 HOURS.
  1136.  
  1137. The full moon, filtering through the sparse cloud cover, illuminated the rolling green valleys below it-and the target.
  1138.  
  1139. A slow-moving convoy of six ammunition trucks, four BMPs, and a couple of troop trucks rumbled through the valley, heedless of the watcher above.
  1140.  
  1141. Far above the cloud cover, the AC-130U, callsign 'Spooks', lowered the 105mm Howitzer from its fire control system. "Command, this is S-1, we've got eyes on the convoy."
  1142.  
  1143. The AC-130U was a sleek plane, with defined muscles. Two wings extended from its upper back, rotating slightly to keep it moving and stable. At its waist hung several different, large weapons. An educated viewer would be able to pick out a 25mm GAU-12/U Equalizer Gatling cannon and a 40mm L/60 Bofors. Its nosecone, unlike the more common 'eye' sensors, had the advanced AN/APQ-180 radar suite, slaved to the advanced targeting systems.
  1144.  
  1145. "Roger that. Give 'em hell, Spooks," command replied.
  1146.  
  1147. Spooks clipped the howitzer onto its left arm, and activated thermals.
  1148.  
  1149. "Look at 'em. No idea the sky's going to drop on them," its pilot drawled.
  1150.  
  1151. "Hmm. Gatling or Bofors...Gatling or Bofors..." The AC-130U muttered, indecisive.
  1152.  
  1153. "Gatling, haven't used that one in a while," the pilot offered.
  1154.  
  1155. "Fine." The plane clipped the cannon onto
  1156.  
  1157. The howitzer boomed, sending the projectile rocketing towards the unfortunate lead BMP.
  1158.  
  1159.  
  1160.  
  1161.  
  1162.  
  1163.  
  1164.  
  1165. The A-10 and pilot arrived at flight training, not much worse for wear, and even a little earlier than intended due to the A-10 demonstrating that, in addition to unrivalled firepower, it could also go really really fast.
  1166.  
  1167. 'Flight training' was a slightly misleading name for the activity.
  1168.  
  1169. The idea behind the thing was to give the planes on base official exercise. Not that it really needed to be enforced, it was still a good idea-planes left to sit for too long tended to develop mechanical faults, or even worse, rust.
  1170.  
  1171. Compared to the A-10's 'private' field, this one was very professional, with a few sandbag emplacements, structures, even a bombed out truck at the far end. It was intended for more than one plane, but since the base only had one, it was theoretically overkill. In practice, not so much.
  1172.  
  1173. Not that the A-10 minded. It was in the process of being loaded up by the field's only attendant, which had previously admitted he didn't mind the extra work due to the 'show'.
  1174.  
  1175. Today's loadout was six AGM-65 Maverick rockets, with the explosives removed.
  1176.  
  1177. "Okay, you...ah...know what rockets are, right?"
  1178.  
  1179. "Ayup," the attendant replied.
  1180.  
  1181. "Not you," the A-10 replied irritably.
  1182.  
  1183. "Yeah," the A-10 then replied, again.
  1184.  
  1185. The attendant decided that his job was to put fake explosives on the hardpoints and not wonder about the sanity of jets capable of killing someone by hitting them with the aforementioned fake explosives.
  1186.  
  1187. "These are just dummies. They won't let me have real ones," it grumbled.
  1188.  
  1189. "So it's just...launching practice?"
  1190.  
  1191. "You have to aim, too, asshole. The guidance won't take care of everything.”
  1192.  
  1193. The A-10 frowned again and continued keeping its composure like a champ. It was hard not letting anything slip, with the attendant's rough hands rubbing up and down its wings, smoothly sliding the Mavericks in and clicking them home...
  1194.  
  1195. "Alright, all done," the attendant said, dropping back into his camp chair with an 'oof' and stroking his beard. "Don't get me wrong, I'd love to get you some of the real shit, but...regs, what'cha gonna do."
  1196.  
  1197. The A-10 breathed out shakily, stating, "It's fine," before taking the run up and launching into the air.
  1198.  
  1199.  
  1200. MEANWHILE, AT THE BASE
  1201.  
  1202. The general-currently fending off 'disciplinary action' and trying to keep his prestige and credibility all at once-had stamped the documents without thinking. It was too late to go refuse them now, even if he had a better reason than 'I changed my mind'. As such, he was just praying they didn't know what had recently happened. It was a bit hard to get the blood out of the carpet, but he was pretty sure that if they visited here, they wouldn't pick anything up. Yeah.
  1203.  
  1204. He was in luck-one had completely bypassed the base, instead heading for the firing range, and the other didn't seem to care.
  1205.  
  1206. MEANWHILE, AT THE FIRING RANGE
  1207.  
  1208. The A-10 dived towards one of the houses, second Maverick whizzing after the first and crashing through the plyboard structure just below the second's hole.
  1209.  
  1210. The pilot breathed out. "It's...ah...harder than it looks."
  1211.  
  1212. "No shit? REALLY?" The A-10 whizzed low across the ground, before shooting upwards at about 45 degrees, gaining altitude and circling. "Aim a little higher. If we were any further out you'd have wasted a rocket like an idiot."
  1213.  
  1214. "Right." The pilot maneuvered the A-10 up and over, rolling until it wasn't upside-down anymore, and immediately firing off two more rockets.
  1215.  
  1216. The A-10 was in no way prepared for the other two being released so soon, especially at the tip of such a rapid ascent.
  1217.  
  1218. "NGH. WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
  1219.  
  1220. "Try...ing something out," the pilot replied, catching his breath.
  1221.  
  1222. The two rockets shot far past the house, embedding themselves into the earth.
  1223.  
  1224. "THE FUCK WAS THAT? YOU WERE TWO FOR TWO, NOW LOOK WHAT YOU DID."
  1225.  
  1226. The A-10 then realized what he meant by 'trying something out'.
  1227.  
  1228. "Oh, you dick.  Okay, let's m-"
  1229.  
  1230. Beep.
  1231.  
  1232. The A-10 immediately jerked control away from the pilot as the long-range radar picked something up, entering a rapid climb. A few seconds after, the blip disappeared.
  1233.  
  1234. "Bearing two seventy, low altitude. Nothing big, didn't have IFF activated. What do y-" The pilot was cut off as the irate A-10 continued raging.
  1235.  
  1236. "The hell was that? FUCK. If there's anything on the field I can't do shit." The A-10 halted the dive, dropping back downwards and circling to the 'runway'. "Get one day to fuck around out here and I bet it's some fuckoff in an ultralight thinking he's all badass and 'operator' and shit coasting around a military base."
  1237.  
  1238. The A-10 slowed and touched down on the runway, standing on the landing wheels with arms crossed, frowning mightily. It was taken off-guard when the pilot decided to use the landing wheels as impromptu roller blades, but decided it was too pissed off to do anything about it.
  1239.  
  1240. "I swear. I wish I could go fuck 'em up but I bet they'd have a fucking field day with me." It coasted towards the little bunker, detaching the last two rockets itself.
  1241.  
  1242. Then the A-10 noticed two things. First, there were voices coming from inside the bunker, and more than one, too. The second was that it was going a bit too fast to stop, and ended up clanking off the side of the bunker.
  1243.  
  1244. Nothing got damaged other than the A-10's ego. The voices ceased when the impact and spooling down turbines were heard, and the A-10 peeked inside.
  1245.  
  1246. "DAD?"
  1247.  
  1248. The pilot was about to say something, but the A-10 clamped down on him hard enough to give him a migraine.
  1249.  
  1250. :NO.:
  1251.  
  1252. The A-10's parents, it seemed, had come to visit.
  1253.  
  1254.  
  1255.  
  1256. The P-51 Mustang probably looked just as good as he did the day he entered service, having almost a bodybuilder's physique and still sporting the same propeller mustache. Unfortunately, it was just as loud.
  1257.  
  1258.  
  1259. "HOW'S MY LITTLE GAL?"
  1260.  
  1261. "Da-aaad," the A-10 hissed, frown going from angry to 'WORRY', looking at the attendant barely holding back laughter. "Can we go somewhere private? Not here?"
  1262.  
  1263. The Mustang replied with a hug, which the A-10 returned awkwardly. "Look can I get cleaned up, I was just-"
  1264.  
  1265. "O'COURSE, SWEETIE. MOM'S BACK AT TH-"
  1266.  
  1267. "MOM?" The A-10 coughed and rubbed its throat. "I, great! I'll meet you back at my hangar...then?" The A-10 hopefully asked.
  1268.  
  1269. "RIGHT YOU ARE, PIGLET. I THINK SHE'S CLEANING IT UP, YOU KNOW HOW SHE GETS." The mustang clapped the A-10 on the back, eliciting an 'oof' from the jet.
  1270.  
  1271. "THINK SHE WANTS TO MEET YOUR PILOT TOO," the Mustang added thougtfully. "HE AROUND?"
  1272.  
  1273. The A-10 commenced pushing the Mustang out of the bunker. "Yeah, um, later, dad," the A-10 sighed as the mustang laughed and walked out, waving over its shoulder.
  1274.  
  1275. It rounded on the attendant. "NOT A FUCKING WORD. NONE."
  1276.  
  1277.  
  1278.  
  1279.  
  1280.  
  1281.  
  1282.  
  1283.  
  1284.  
  1285.  
  1286.  
  1287.  
  1288.  
  1289.  
  1290.  
  1291.  
  1292. The A-10 walked, as opposed to flying back to the base, mostly so that it could collect its thoughts.
  1293.  
  1294. "I could have embarrassed you so badly, huh?"
  1295.  
  1296. "S-shut up," the A-10 griped back.
  1297.  
  1298. "I mean, just one little signal light test..."
  1299.  
  1300. "Don't even FUCKING joke about it. Oh Browning my hangar is a mess."
  1301.  
  1302. "They might even find a few  extra bone shards!"
  1303.  
  1304. "You wanna fucking walk home naked, eh? I'll eject your ass,"
  1305.  
  1306. "Could be worse. He could have figured out that I was in you. I mean-"
  1307.  
  1308. "Don't even FUCKING THINK ABOUT THAT. Uhg, they'll put you through the wringer too. You ain't gettin' out of this one, pilot," it said, fatalistically.
  1309.  
  1310.  
  1311. The pilot had noticed a great change in its demeanor since it realized its parents were around. Going from superior and domineering to a jittery nervous wreck wasn't something he could adjust to, at least not this quickly.
  1312.  
  1313. The A-10 opened the hangar door nervously. “Mom? Dad?”
  1314.  
  1315. The A-10's mom was  a stark contrast to the A-10-rather than being lean, with defined muscles, it could  be described as 'plump', perhaps 'well-rounded' or 'smooth'. The pilot guessed that a different company had designed the A-10, as he couldn't see the family resemblance, except for the (substantially larger) auxiliary fuel tanks on the fuselage.
  1316.  
  1317. “Mom!” The A-10 ran over and gave the P-47 Thunderbolt a hug, nearly bowling it off its feet.
  1318.  
  1319. “Ah, there's our little black sheep,” the P-47 said.
  1320.  
  1321. The pilot realized just where the A-10 got its attitude.
  1322.  
  1323. “I DIDN'T GET A HUG,” the Mustang complained, almost to itself.
  1324.  
  1325. “Mom, Dad, this is my pilot, uh...” The A-10 looked over to where the pilot was watching with perhaps one of his best poker faces to date.
  1326.  
  1327. “It's nice to meet you both,” he said, extending a hand to the Mustang. They shook hands while the A-10 and the mother talked.
  1328.  
  1329. The Thunderbolt held the A-10 at arm's length “So HE'S your pilot? Isn't he handsome!”
  1330.  
  1331. The A-10 gave her a legitimately embarrassed frown“Mo-oom, he's right there!”
  1332.  
  1333. “Well, it's true,” the Thunderbolt added, winking at the pilot, who nervously returned the wave.
  1334.  
  1335. The Mustang burst into laughter and leaned over, whispering to the pilot. Which was more like a 'quiet yell'.
  1336.  
  1337. “What's say we leave the girls to girl things and go take a walk?”
  1338. “Yeah. Um. Good idea.”
  1339.  
  1340. The Mustang threw an arm around the pilot's shoulders and walked him outside.
  1341.  
  1342.  
  1343. Outside was calm and balmy, low cloud cover coasting in from the west.
  1344.  
  1345. “SO, YOU'RE HER LATEST PILOT?” the Mustang bellowed, striding down the runway.
  1346.  
  1347. The pilot was  slowly getting used to the volume. “Yeah. She handles pretty well.”
  1348.  
  1349. “I REMEMBER MY FIRST PILOT,” the Mustang said, stroking its propeller. “FRIENDLY ENOUGH GUY, RAMMED A 109 WHEN HE RAN OUT OF AMMO.”
  1350.  
  1351. Apparently in full-on war story mode, the Mustang continued, making vague hand movements in the air in front of it.
  1352.  
  1353. “'COURSE, NOT BEFORE HE KNOCKED THAT SAUCY LITTLE NUMBER OUT OF THE SKY. BOTH OF US CRASHED, 'COURSE I DIDN'T KNOW A LICK OF GERMAN AND SHE DIDN'T KNOW ANY ENGLISH.” It nudged the pilot with an elbow. “ HAD TO WALK, SHE RAN OUT OF FUEL. LANGUAGE BARRIER DIDN'T STOP US 'EQUALIZING FUEL LEVELS' IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN.” the Mustang said/shouted.
  1354.  
  1355. The pilot didn't exactly know what to say, so he said nothing.
  1356.  
  1357. “SO HOW LONG YOU BEEN FLYING?”
  1358.  
  1359. The pilot thought back to the 'wringer' comment and decided that yeah, it was pretty accurate. For some reason he felt a little easier around the Mustang than the P-47. “About four days now, I think.”
  1360.  
  1361. “HA HA, GOOD ONE.”
  1362.  
  1363. “It's, er, the truth. I got assigned here out of the blue, really.”
  1364.  
  1365. The plane looked over to the pilot, who was jogging slightly to keep up with its stride. “OH, GUESS THAT EXPLAINS IT, THEN.”
  1366.  
  1367. The pilot cast it a querying glance.
  1368.  
  1369. “WELL, LOOKS LIKE YOU MESSED UP THE TAKE-OFF FOR ONE. AH, DON'T LOOK LIKE THAT, EVERY ROOKIE DOES IT AT LEAST ONCE. DON'T REALIZE WHAT KIND OF POWER SHE'S GOT,” it said. “BIT OF ADVICE-DON'T HURT HER.”
  1370.  
  1371. The pilot nervously laughed. He could see where that other part of the A-10's attitude came from... “Oh, no, I wouldn't think of it.”
  1372.  
  1373. “NO, NO, I'M DEAD SERIOUS. IF YOU DO I'LL BREAK YOUR LEGS.”
  1374.  
  1375.  
  1376.  
  1377.  
  1378.  
  1379. [DATA REDACTED] AIRFIELD, 1400 HOURS.
  1380.  
  1381. The black-painted Rockwell B1-b lay on the maintenance table, prow down, right wing buzzing as it attempted to fold it down like the other, already folded. The maintenance chick sighed and rapped on the wing.
  1382.  
  1383. The red-headed repairwoman sighed, and replied in her broad Scot brogue. “Again? I's tha' same wing. I'll have tae replace the whole thing a' this rate.”
  1384.  
  1385. The B1-b gulped nervously, looking at the red-headed repairwoman. “B-but I don't...can't you fix it? You fixed it before, right?”
  1386.  
  1387. “But than' I' broke again! Fine, I'll try one more time, but if y'break it again, you're gonna be oot of tha' air for a while.”
  1388.  
  1389. The B1-b sat up on the table, turning around so that the redhead could have easier access to the actuator paneling, other wing still folded.
  1390.  
  1391. “Well le's see noo...” The maintenance chick unscrewed the panel carefully, eliciting an uncomfortable wiggle from the plane.
  1392.  
  1393. “You're th' only ticklish one on the whole base, y'knoo that?”
  1394.  
  1395. “I-I can't help it, Ann,” the B1-b replied shakily.
  1396.  
  1397. Ann snorted and replied, “Well you'll have tae put up with it,” as she lifted the panel off, fiddling around inside the servo.
  1398.  
  1399. “Nnnnnn,” the B-1b replied.
  1400.  
  1401. “Me ma told me a great way tae put oop with tickin' anyway,” Ann continued, examining the fidgeting plane's wing.  “Y' have tae see it as one o' two things. It's either 'oh noo, et tickles' or y'see it as a massage or somthin' pleasurable-like.”
  1402.  
  1403. “I-I don't think that-ah,” the plane replied, other wing frantically zipping up and down.
  1404.  
  1405. “Well hold still for a liil' while longer.”
  1406.  
  1407. The maintenance woman fiddled with the actuator, checking the pivot bearing, gently moving the wing up and down while the B1-b clenched its legs together, hands and arms gripping the sides of the table in an effort to stay still. She picked up a bottle, gently oiling the wing's hinges and rubbing the excess off with a soft cloth.
  1408.  
  1409. “Well, Ah'm stumped. Are y'sure you can't move tha' wing? Ah can't see anything wrong with tha actuator or th' bearin'.”
  1410.  
  1411. The B-1b took a shaky breath before trying to move the wing, this time succeeding, it giving off a smooth whine instead of a buzz. “Th-thank you.”
  1412.  
  1413. Ann squinted and cocked her head at the B-1b, crossing her arms. “Y'knoo it's strange. So far ye've had landing gear malfunctions, radar errors, several different egine faults, an all o' them seemed tae fix themselves.”
  1414.  
  1415. The B-1b froze. “I-I d-don't mean, uh, didn't want to, I mean-” Some of its stored MK-82s tumbled out of its bomb bays, rolling off the table and onto the floor.
  1416.  
  1417. “Ah mean, if ye wanted to spend some more time together, y'oonly needed to say so.”
  1418.  
  1419. The B-1b clasped its hands together over its chest, one final inert 82 falling to the floor with a clunk.
  1420.  
  1421.  
  1422.  
  1423.  
  1424. BACK AT THE HANGAR, 2150 HOURS.
  1425.  
  1426.  
  1427. “So those were your parents?”
  1428.  
  1429. The A-10 frowned nervously and crossed its arms, sitting cross-legged opposite the pilot on the new bed, saying nothing, but obviously embarrassed.
  1430.  
  1431. “I like them, they're nice. I had a girlfriend once,” the pilot continued obliviously, missing the suddenly-interested A-10's glance. “Her parents were weird. I think they thought I was a stalker or something,” the pilot commented, laughing.
  1432.  
  1433. “What was she like?”
  1434.  
  1435. The pilot raised an eyebrow. “Um...well, nice, I guess. Kinda insensitive.”
  1436.  
  1437. Both sat in silence for a few more seconds, the pilot obviously thinking and the plane drumming up the courage to say something else.
  1438.  
  1439. “Wasn't the P-51 made by North American? And the P-47 by...Republic? I don't see the family resemblance.”
  1440.  
  1441. The A-10 frowned and leaned forward. “I never knew my real father. And Republic was bought by Fairchild in '65.” The A-10 twiddled its fingers, losing a bit of steam. “The year after, Mom officially got retired.”
  1442.  
  1443. The pilot watched the A-10 take a little breath and sigh. “I don't know what that means. I mean, shouldn't it be n-”
  1444.  
  1445. “NO, no, you retard, it's not 'nice'. I mean, you're just as likely to be bought by some obese ultralight kiddie. And flown once a year, tops.” The A-10 frowned at the pilot. “How'd you like it if your whatever  just went 'oh, look, this body's getting a little old, best trade up to the next version'. Fuck.”
  1446.  
  1447. The pilot fell backwards on the bed. “I guess. Hey, I didn't get to talk to your, er, mom much.”
  1448.  
  1449. “Thank Browning,” the A-10 grumbled.
  1450.  
  1451. “Hm?”
  1452.  
  1453. “Yoooou don't know what she's like, do you? Oh ho ho,” the A-10 crowed, leaning over the pilot, feral grin back again. “I didn't think you would, you're too dull. Ten more seconds, she would've asked you to take her for a spin.”
  1454.  
  1455. “Wow, really? Fly an antique? That w-”
  1456.  
  1457. The A-10 unceremoniously flipped him off the bed. “MY MOM IS NOT AN ANTIQUE.”
  1458.  
  1459. The pilot landed with an 'oof', and just started to rise again as there was a knock on the hangar door. He stood and walked over, while the A-10 watched from the bed, worried. Pleasedon'tletitbemompleasedon'tletitbemonpleasedon'tletitbemom...
  1460.  
  1461. The pilot opened the door and was handed something, having a conversation with the person outside.
  1462.  
  1463. The A-10 was worried. It couldn't be anything good, it was too late in the day for that. Disciplinary action for scraping its paintwork? The A-10 looked down, where the (already-smudged) paint was drying. It didn't put the Mustang past that, it knew that its dad was fiercely overprotective. Maybe it was that maneuver the pilot pulled with the Mavericks? No, that was on the range. Did they want him to pay for the damage done to all the beds and his room? The A-10 didn't know how much pilots made, but it couldn't have been much.
  1464.  
  1465. The door closing interrupted its fretting, the A-10 jerking back to the real world and looking at the pilot, who was looking at the letter in his hand with an unreadable expression.
  1466.  
  1467. “W-what is it?”
  1468.  
  1469. The pilot held up a hand, shushing the A-10, which waited a whole two seconds before saying, “Let me see,” and climbing off the bed.
  1470.  
  1471. The pilot continued reading, still holding the hand out.
  1472.  
  1473. “Let me see it.” The A-10 stood in front of him, on tip-toes, worriedly trying to catch a look at the page, before advancing to tugging on the top of it.
  1474.  
  1475. “Hold on a sec, A-10.”
  1476.  
  1477. “But-”
  1478.  
  1479. “Shh, let me r-”
  1480.  
  1481. “GIVE ME THE MOTHERFUCKING PAPER,” it yelled, tugging it out of the pilot's hands. He let go at the last second, so the overexertion of force sent the A-10 staggering back a few centimeters, frowning at him angrily, before holding the paper up and reading it for itself.
  1482.  
  1483. It  was a transferal notice. Not just for the pilot this time, but for both he and the A-10.
  1484.  
  1485. They were entering active service.
  1486.  
  1487. “YES,” the A-10 roared, bouncing up and down on the spot, clanking against the cement. “FFFFFFFFFFFUCKYES. I AM GOING TO RUIN REAL SHIT, NOW. HA HA! ALL THE SHIT.”
  1488.  
  1489. The pilot just watched, amused. The A-10 was probably going to be awake all night thinking about it, now.
  1490.  
  1491. “Active duty,” the A-10 hissed, turbines whirring. It abruptly swung around and grabbed the pilot by the shoulders, shaking him back and forth.
  1492.  
  1493. “Actiiiiiive duuuty! I get off this dusty-arse base! And you're coming with me!” The A-10 realized what it said and lost a little bit of momentum again. “I mean, er, a pilot's coming with me, I'm not just getting one assigned...yeah.”
  1494.  
  1495. “Whatever you say, A-10.”
  1496.  
  1497.  
  1498. The A-10 and pilot were in the air very early, the pilot glad for the A-10's internal climate control. The A-10 was still buzzing with excitement about the post. It was about half way into the journey when the pilot remembered the question he had meant to ask the night before.
  1499.  
  1500. “Have you ever re-fueled in midair before?”
  1501.  
  1502. “That's a fucking stupid question. Have you? My pilot's supposed to take care of that shit, not me.” The A-10 replied, cruising along at a blistering 700 km/h.
  1503.  
  1504. “Well, what if something happens to me? Shouldn't you know how?”
  1505.  
  1506. “Just admit you can't figure it out,” the A-10 replied, rolling in the air to fly on its back. “When were we supposed to meet up with it?”
  1507.  
  1508. The pilot and A-10 flew in silence for a few more minutes, before the A-10 said, “Oi, contact 350, 5,000 feet.”
  1509.  
  1510. The exchange was serendipitously interrupted by the radio system crackling into life. “This is KC-135 Stratotanker to who I presume is an A-10?.” The Stratotanker had a cheery baritone voice, with vague British inflection.
  1511.  
  1512. “A-10 to Stratotanker, you're correct,” the pilot replied. The pilot was surprised when the A-10 wrenched control away from him and started equalizing altitudes.
  1513.  
  1514. “Lining up...now...”
  1515.  
  1516. “I thought you said I had to figure out how,” the pilot mused.
  1517.  
  1518. “You'd fuck it up somehow,” the A-10 rejoined. “...wait, is it getting...?” The A-10 frowned. “Stratotanker, slow up. The fuck are you, speeding up?”
  1519.  
  1520. “You're going slowly!” the Stratotanker replied. “I'm at cruising speed. I'll slow down as much as I can, YOU speed up.”
  1521.  
  1522. The A-10 grumbled, speeding up. “Self-entitled jerk.”
  1523.  
  1524. The distance between the Stratotanker and A-10 lessened, the Stratotanker eventually coming within visual range. It was a large plane, of masculine build, not especially muscular, but with sturdy-looking bulk and two powerful engines on each wing.
  1525.  
  1526. “Are we going to get this done today, or...?” the Stratotanker inquired.
  1527.  
  1528. The A-10, going near maximum speed, pushed itself faster. “I AM TRYING. SLOW THE FUCK UP IF YOU WANT TO GET THIS OVER WITH.”
  1529.  
  1530. “What do you think I'm bloody well doing?” the Stratotanker eloquently replied, slowing up even more. “At this rate I'll stall.”
  1531.  
  1532. The A-10 and Stratotanker, the former visibly straining and the latter sporadically wobbling and speeding up, and slowing down, eventually got within 50m.  
  1533.  
  1534. “DROP THE CONNECTY THING,” the A-10 shouted over the radio.
  1535.  
  1536. “Fine! FINE! It doesn't hurt to be polite, you know, Ps and Qs...” the Stratotanker mumbled, as the refueling boom slid out of its housing, extending down past its legs and landing wheels.
  1537.  
  1538. The A-10 engaged maximum overdrive, kicking its legs In an effort to gain an extra few precious km/h, boom tantalizingly out of reach...before a coordinated push from the A-10 and the Stratotanker slowing down brought it in reach. The A-10 grabbed on to it with both hands and hauled itself forwards in the air, causing the Stratotanker considerable understandable distress.
  1539.  
  1540.  
  1541. “BLIMEY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING BE CAREFUL, ARGH,” it responded, wobbling in the air and desperately trying to see what on Earth the A-10 was doing without capsizing. The A-10, for its part, mouth open in preparation (anticipation?) slowly advanced on the boom...before the Stratotanker suddenly slowed, ramming it home.
  1542.  
  1543. The A-10 responded by biting down on it.
  1544.  
  1545. “AH-AH OKAY, WATCH THE TEETH,” it said, clearly stressed.
  1546.  
  1547.  
  1548. The A-10 mumbled, “Amffgnubl,” around the thick boom, trying to connect it to the refueling aperture in its mouth, still hanging on with both hands while the Stratotanker tried to keep stable. The A-10's hands slipped down the shaft every few seconds as the Stratotanker wobbled and spend up, sharp teeth grinding on the metal. The A-10 was struggling as hard as It could to speed up, but it was always tantalizingly out of reach-while the aperture was close to the refueling receptacle, it wasn't connected.
  1549.  
  1550. “Er, watch the hands,” the Stratotanker stated, evidently strained. "I'm....I'm gonna start refueling now!"
  1551.  
  1552. “NMG! NMGG, MGN NN NN,” the A-10 frantically replied, but the fuel gushed out the end of the boom, some splashing messily out of its mouth before a final frantic push rammed the boom home, the fuel gurgling into the A-10, which was frantically trying to simultaneously avoid coughing, swallow, and swear at the Stratotanker.
  1553.  
  1554. After a few seconds that seemed to stretch into tortuous eternity, the A-10 eventually set into a rhythm of hungrily gulping down the fuel-still grasping the boom just in case-and the Stratotanker managed to control its speed.
  1555.  
  1556. “It's...ng, your first time, eh?” The Stratotanker asked, breathing heavily under the effort.
  1557.  
  1558. The A-10 didn't break rhythm, but did thump the boom with one fist, causing the Stratotanker to dip and wobble slightly. "OKAY! Okay! Point taken!"
  1559.  
  1560.  
  1561. The Stratotanker eventually disengaged, after the A-10's tanks filled. The A-10 coughed up a little bit more of the fuel, it spilling down its chest.
  1562.  
  1563. “O-kay, looks like we're done here. You're an alright bint,” the Stratotanker said, the boom withdrawing slowly.
  1564.  
  1565. “I-If you're calling me a bitch, I'll find you and fill your ass with 30 mil HE, see if you can outrun that,” the A-10 shakily grumbled, wiping its 'mouth'.
  1566.  
  1567. The Stratotanker laughed before gunning its engines, slowly pulling away from the A-10. “'till then, have a good flight, A-10!”
  1568.  
  1569. The A-10 waited until the Stratotanker had peeled off, heading towards wherever its destination was before coughing a few more times and commenting. “Fuck me, he was a big'un.”
  1570.  
  1571. The pilot wasn't exactly sure what to say, nor how to comment, so just let the A-10 fly onwards in full, satisfied silence.
  1572.  
  1573. The Stratotanker eventually disengaged, after the A-10's tanks filled. The A-10 coughed up a little bit more of the fuel, it spilling down its chest.
  1574.  
  1575. “O-kay, looks like we're done here. You're an alright bint,” the Stratotanker said, the boom withdrawing slowly.
  1576.  
  1577. “I-If  you're calling me a bitch, I'll find you and fill your ass with 30 mil HE, see if you can outrun that,” the A-10 shakily grumbled, wiping its 'mouth'.
  1578.  
  1579. The Stratotanker laughed before gunning its engines, slowly pulling away from the A-10. “'till then, have a good flight, A-10!”
  1580.  
  1581. The A-10 waited until the Stratotanker had peeled off, heading towards wherever its destination was. “Fuck me,” it mumbled. “Big'un.”
  1582.  
  1583. The pilot wasn't exactly sure what to say, nor how to comment, so just let the A-10 fly onwards in full, satisfied silence.
  1584.  
  1585.  
  1586.  
  1587.  
  1588.  
  1589.  
  1590. Night flying wasn't something the pilot was very familiar with, and the A-10 decided that it would take over (“I don't want to crash before I even get into combat, retard.”).
  1591.  
  1592. The A-10 had never been airborne for such a long amount of time. The length of the trip didn't bother the A-10, as its turbines were well-made and well maintained, and it was still running on the adrenaline and fuel from earlier. Its pilot, however, was not; and the turbine's droning combined with the warm interior and long day sent him drifting off to sleep.
  1593.  
  1594. He didn't dream often, and when he did, they were usually pretty mundane and boring. Sometimes, like now, he dreamed of painting-it was something he did often enough to get stuck in his mind.
  1595.  
  1596. The A-10, whilst devoting most of its attention to flight, still caught some of it through the neural link, but didn't pay it much attention. At leas, not until the icy-cold sensation of viscous liquid lipped over its back.
  1597.  
  1598. “Oh come on,” the A-10 grumbled, frowning. It didn't wake its pilot up. A second ghost stroke followed the first, making the A-10 shudder. It had to concentrate on flying or they'd drop out of the sky. Nevertheless, both arms crossed over its chest.
  1599.  
  1600. Its back apparently coated, the phantom brush moved on to its face, causing the A-10 to take some deep breaths, frown and keep telling itself that it wasn't real and there wasn't any paint fouling its sensors. It touched the spot on its nosecone that the pilot had repainted, and was forced to admit that the pilot was not a bad painter. The A-10 gasped and almost started swearing when the sensation moved on to its belly and legs, but maintained its self control. The worst part was the completely content and happy feeling forced upon it, the pilot emotions bleeding over as well.
  1601.  
  1602. This continued for around thirty minutes as the pilot innocently dreamed on. The A-10, however, was not holding up so well, the sensations keeping up a regular rhythm. It was in the middle of wondering whether this was some sort of gigantic tease or prank by the pilot when his dream switched track, as dreams do, the paint was dry and details being added.
  1603.  
  1604. The ghost paintbrush's fine tip traced the A-10's teeth like some kind of weird reverse-toothbrush,  then the details of the eye sensors. The A-10's grumbling and metered breathing changed to more strained noises and panting, the further down its body the fine haired brush traveled.
  1605.  
  1606. It then realized what, exactly, the detail brush would end up doing-It grabbed its auxiliary fuel tanks in an effort to protect itself from the brush, but it didn't work. The star-shaped markings were slowly traced, then carefully filled in before it moved to its shoulders, performing the detailing there. “Gd dmngt,” the A-10 groaned. It couldn't wake its pilot up, because it intended to let him take over in the morning.
  1607.  
  1608. The brush lifted off, and the A-10 wasn't sure if it thought that was a good thing or not.
  1609.  
  1610.  
  1611. If it was possible for a voice to have rings under its eyes, the A-10's did when the pilot woke up. “Welcome back to the world of the fucking living. Have a nice sleepin?”
  1612.  
  1613. “I haven't had such a nice sleep in ages. You make a good bed, A-10!” the pilot replied happily and obliviously.
  1614. “Oh well that's nice to know, I'm going to sleep.” The A-10 abruptly dumped control on the pilot, clearly in a huff.
  1615.  
  1616. The pilot panicked for a moment before regaining control. “Sleep well!”
  1617.  
  1618. The A-10 grumbled to itself, still charged from last night. How can he be so cheery? Pilots are supposed to be nervous heading into battle, not cheery and sleepy and shit. Really, dreaming about...drenching it in oil?
  1619.  
  1620. The exhausted A-10 tried to ignore the wind rushing past it and eventually dozed off, the pilot easily maintaining flight.
  1621.  
  1622.  
  1623. Over the course of that leg of the trip, the pilot became more familiar with the intricacies of the A-10's controls. He already suspected it, but the A-10 was not the fastest plane around-incredibly sturdy and pretty well-balanced due to the rear turbines. He reckoned the base was about another hour away when the external sensors cut off-or seemed to, at least. The pilot knew that it was still stable and flying on-course.
  1624.  
  1625. The A-10 was dreaming? The pilot suspected the onsets of Moller syndrome, but his ruminations were cut off by the exterior sensors 'activating' again. In the dream-the pilot realized he had to make a clear distinction between what he knew was real and what the sensors were feeding him-the A-10 was above its 'private' field, engaging in what looked like climbing and diving tests. He was the A-10, he guessed, and not inside it, judging by the sheer force of emotion he was experiencing, a mixture between happiness, adrenaline, and smug satisfaction.
  1626.  
  1627. Then something gave. Or snapped, or broke-he didn't recognize the sensation, but he suddenly felt the A-10's horror, then one of the turbines seize up in the middle of the dive, the uncontrolled roll, a scream-hollow crunching noise as it hit the ground, bouncing, rolling to a stop against a tree, blood leaking through the dented seams, out the cockpit joins, leg moving strangely-
  1628.  
  1629. The pilot then remembered that it wasn't real. “A-10! WAKE THE FUCK UP!”
  1630.  
  1631. The A-10 panicked and shouted something vaguely akin to “AUBARGUHARH,” which led the pilot to respond with, “AAAAAAAH!” and then both of them realizing that they had dropped below speed and stalled, left turbine off, and were heading directly downwards, eliciting a double “FUCK.”
  1632.  
  1633. The A-10 and pilot kicked the turbine back into action, dipping downwards and accelerating, leveling out at about 500 feet.
  1634.  
  1635. “Sorry! I just kinda drifted off,” the pilot said, taking over again carefully.
  1636.  
  1637. The A-10 was still trying to recover from being woken up, recovering from a stall, and remembering just what the fuck it was and where it was going to reply.
  1638.  
  1639.  
  1640. The A-10 touched down on the runway just after mid-day, the heat haze from the unforgiving sun making the rest of the base look a little like a mirage. Neither the pilot nor the A-10 wanted to entertain that possibility, so just coasted down the runway flight control directed them to.
  1641.  
  1642. The first stop was the a-10's new hangar-nowhere near as spacious as the last one due to what seemed to be other plane's living spaces, racks and personal belongings in most of the painted in 'standby' squares.
  1643.  
  1644. The pilot's flat was even less glamorous, composed of a cot, footlocker, and coat rack amongst the ten or so in the building. The pilots and planes were out on a sortie-so he and the A-10 had the building to themselves as the A-10 gingerly opened the footlocker.
  1645.  
  1646. “Hot damn, this is some five-star shit, isn't it?” the A-10 insight-fully commented as the pilot used its arms to root through the footlocker and take out some fatigues.
  1647.  
  1648. “It could be worse,” the pilot replied, sounding entirely unconvinced. “Open up.”
  1649.  
  1650. The back of the A-10 split open, and it twitched and grimaced as the neural interface disengaged. The pilot disembarked, the A-10's arms moving slightly unnaturally as the pilot slipped his out and used its shoulders as leverage to carefully remove one leg at a time.
  1651.  
  1652. The A-10 let out a shuddery breath. “Take your fucking time, why don't you.”
  1653.  
  1654. The pilot just laughed and started pulling on the fatigues while the A-10 sat on his bed and watched irritably. “This bed's shit. I don't even sleep in beds and I can tell it's shit.”
  1655.  
  1656. The pilot thumped down beside it wearily and rubbed his head. He knew that prolonged use of a plane was permitted but not recommended. He suspected that the long flight, coupled with the A-10 dreaming brought on some minor symptoms of Moller's syndrome.
  1657.  
  1658. Moller's Syndrome was a side effect of the neural link between pilot and plane. The neural link itself sets up a bridge between the two partner's subconscious minds, using a portion of the pilot's brain that doesn't do anything (as far as neuroscience could tell). In combat, this was used to speed up reaction times and speed of thought, making the team's perception of time rapidly increase, allowing them to perceive the world in a sort of 'bullet time'.
  1659.  
  1660.  To achieve a perfect combat form, the partners would have to achieve a state of thought that made it seem like only one individual mind was thinking-both giving their input, running battle plans, options, and tactics past each other, then acting as one after reaching a decision.
  1661.  
  1662. The downside to using this link was caused by the degree of integration the pilot and plane's mind shared. The first symptoms could start showing after what could be years of combat time or just a few months. To put it simply, it was a tendency for pilots to become more like their planes, and the planes more like their pilots. The more mild versions could be likened to how someone's pets tend to end up looking like their owners.
  1663.  
  1664.  The more severe and far, far rarer (thanks to the pilot selection process)version occurred when one of the members in the partnership had an especially strong personality or sense of self compared to the other-in that case, the plane or pilot could almost entirely absorb the other's personality, leaving the them devoid of any real thought or drive, unless they were connected to the first and working as a team again.
  1665.  
  1666. The pilot stopped rubbing his head and looked up, greeted by the A-10's face at a range of two centimeters. “Remind me to never ever let you fly me anywhere at night. Fuck, you're almost asleep.”
  1667.  
  1668. “I don't have time to,” the pilot replied, straightening up and trying to get rid of the residual pins and needles.  “I mean, I have to be awake for when the cargo comes through.”
  1669.  
  1670. “Cargo? We only just got here, dumbass.” The A-10 crossed its legs and leaned towards him, still frowning.
  1671.  
  1672. “Well, yeah, some stuff was supposed to be at the other base waiting for me, but there was a delay.” The pilot dusted himself off and stood up, oblivious to the leaning and leering plane.
  1673.  
  1674. “So?”
  1675.  
  1676. “So it's been re-routed here with the regular supply run. I want to be there to meet it,” the pilot continued.
  1677.  
  1678. The A-10 stayed on the bed, still frowning. “Why?”
  1679.  
  1680. “Just to annoy you. Oh, yeah, go get settled into your hangar. I'll be by later, when the flight lead gets back. He'll want to meet us,” he stated, walking out.
  1681.  
  1682. The A-10 blinked a couple of times, watching him leave. There it was again, that imperious commanding tone. From anyone else, the A-10 realized that it would be annoying. But from him...Yeah, it could deal with it, coming from him. There wasn't enough room in his tiny head for much, so if he was actually confident about it...
  1683.  
  1684. The A-10 caught itself daydreaming and quickly scurried off to the hangar.
  1685.  
  1686.  
  1687. MEANWHILE, A FEW KILOMETERS FROM THE BASE
  1688.  
  1689. The delay was caused by two things. The first was understandable, as the pilot's paperwork was misplaced. The second was caused by the overextended supply line-most of the heavy lifters were involved in the front-line transportation of important things, like really big cannons and artillery and stuff.
  1690.  
  1691. Well, that's what the V-22 Osprey told itself, anyway, as it carted the shipping crate through the air. It was holding on to the top of the tie-line, not that it needed to.
  1692.  
  1693. The Osprey didn't currently have a pilot, but didn't really need one-after all, it was just a cargo hauler, not a combat plane. Actual qualified pilots were needed elsewhere! Even so, it couldn't help but get a little lonely sometimes. AH-6 kept telling it how nice it was to have some company.
  1694.  
  1695. The base and runway eventually came into view, the Osprey contacting the tower for clearance, eventually being assigned a landing pad and changing course.
  1696.  
  1697. The Osprey sighed. Yeah, a nice strong, handsome man to help clean its rotors, help keep the cargo balanced...and AH-6 said that it made everything easier. And after the flights, what the pilot would do to it...tenderly polishing its chassis up to a mirror-like sheen, the refueling sessions that left its tank almost bursting...
  1698.  
  1699. A dreamy, slightly crooked grin spread across its nosecone.
  1700.  
  1701. “I say again, do you read, Osprey? Pull up, it's the next pad over, over.”
  1702.  
  1703. The Osprey blinked. Oh, right, third pad. It increased the power draw to its engines, before realizing that something wasn't right and-
  1704.  
  1705. THUD. The shipping crate hit the tarmac, sending the panicked Osprey cockpit-first into it with a “Waaaaaah!”, still holding the cord.
  1706.  
  1707. It was like that one time in Brussels, with the jeep and its left engine deciding up was down. Or that other time, in France, with the troop carrying module and the IFF error. Or that other time in Edinburgh...
  1708.  
  1709. The Osprey collected itself and tried to perform a quick damage check while blubbering incoherently from the impact, but realized that system was down as well.
  1710.  
  1711. It didn't care, though. The mission was completed. No matter how small it was, it was still a SUCCESS, as it sat on top of the crate. It didn't even crash that badly! Just...got dented a little. And that just meant it got to spend some time in the workshop, with all those nice, strong, handsome men...
  1712.  
  1713.  
  1714.  
  1715.  
  1716. The A-10 heard the crash and assumed that the pilot had fucked SOMETHING up. It wasn't too worried. The A-10 was, however, worried about its hangar space. It had always liked the privacy and space of an entire hanger to itself for...varying reasons-that and it was kind of used to the pilot sleeping with it as well. It wasn't sure of the rest of the squadron's makeup-so it decided to look through their stuff. Nothing wrong with that, right?
  1717.  
  1718. The first space it looked at was very neat, squared away. The A-10 recognized it as either OCD or military precision. The second was slightly less neat, and had a few gun cleaning supplies in it, but no obvious firearm storage. The last space was a mess, several boxes scattered around in haphazard fashion. A four-plane squadron? Not especially large, from what the A-10 had heard. Pretty average.
  1719.  
  1720. The A-10 walked around the areas before heading back to its own, kicking the wall in frustration. Maybe it could get some curtains? No, that wouldn't do.
  1721.  
  1722. The A-10 was still twitchy from the accidental stimulation earlier on in the day. It knew how to...deal with that, of course, but the fact that it would be sharing the hangar with several other planes meant that it wouldn't be able to kick back. Only one solution readily presented itself.
  1723.  
  1724.  
  1725. The pilot was busy staying out of the emergency crew's way as they hauled the poor cargo chopper off the runway, towards the mech shop. The cargo was also being unloaded, as the Osprey had apparently pulled the crate right-side-up while crashing into it. The pilot was impressed-it would take some skill to perform a maneuver like that while out of control.
  1726.  
  1727. His things were still in one piece, too-a toolkit, two cans of paint and changes of clothes. He had just managed to balance everything to carry back to the barracks when the A-10 roughly grabbed him by the arm and started dragging him towards the hangar.
  1728.  
  1729. “Um. A-10, what are you doing?” The pilot managed to say, after a short period of confusion.
  1730.  
  1731. “We interface now.”
  1732.  
  1733. “Why? I've been flying you all day.”
  1734.  
  1735. “Shit, you're thick. INTERFACE. Not fly.”
  1736.  
  1737. The pilot gave the A-10 a stare blank enough for it to stop in its tracks and frown at him, pulling him almost nose-to-nosecone with it. “Do I have to spell it out? Your main fuel line goes into my auxiliary refueling aperture. Now.”
  1738.  
  1739. “Are you sure? The squadron could come back.”
  1740.  
  1741. The A-10 turned and started marching off again with the pilot in tow. “Already checked with flight control. Long sortie, have a few hours left. Now hurry the fuck up.”
  1742.  
  1743. Inside the hangar, the pilot set down the tools and paint, before turning to the A-10 just before it flattened him against the wall. “I still have to pay you back in full for that fucking stall,” the A-10 growled, removing the pilot's outer casings, and under-outer casings carefully and deliberately.
  1744.  
  1745. “Sure,” the pilot replied.
  1746.  
  1747. The A-10 momentarily froze, half-way through tossing the pilot's singlet over its shoulder. “What? WHAT? That's all you have to say? 'Sure'?”
  1748.  
  1749. “Why not? It sounds like you can't settle in on your own, you must need help...” The pilot grinned as the A-10 floundered.
  1750.  
  1751. It eventually stopped trying to think of something clever and just semi-bodyslammed the pilot, forcing him into the wall and its nosecone to his mouth, the synthmetal GAU-8 hungrily exploring it while the pilot's own refueling boom extended.
  1752.  
  1753. The A-10 noticed, and immediately forced it into its auxiliary release vent.
  1754.  
  1755. “W-wait, A-10, don't you vent from there?” the pilot queried, breathing heavily.
  1756.  
  1757. “It's t-two way,” the A-10 replied breathlessly. Some part of the pilot's mind realized that this couldn't be possible, but after it formed an air-tight seal around the refueling apparatus and the suction action started, the important part realized he didn't care.
  1758.  
  1759. The constant suction coupled with the A-10's strained attempts to initiate refueling soon coaxed the boom into action, the A-10's turbines emitting a whine and its 30mm GAU-8 Avenger releasing a five second “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT,” grinding a hole right through the hangar's solid and potentially (previously?) of historic value wall, just to the right of the pilot's head.
  1760.  
  1761. Both slid down the wall, the pilot with one arm around the A-10 and the other softening his fall, while the A-10 was just clamped on to his chest, cool metal slowly following the laws of thermodynamics and becoming warmer.
  1762.  
  1763. “How...how long did you say they'd be?” the pilot asked.
  1764.  
  1765. “Ab...about three hours,” the A-10 shakily replied.
  1766.  
  1767. The pilot gave the A-10 a questioning look.
  1768.  
  1769. “Three...hours.” Another blank stare was given in response, before he blinked suddenly.
  1770.  
  1771. “Oh, okay.” The pilot didn't want to make the A-10 feel bad by telling it that he was temporarily deaf from its discharge, and just held the plane's head to his chest, where it decided to stay, satisfied.
  1772.  
  1773.  
  1774.  
  1775. The A-10 and pilot's dozy reverie was interrupted about an hour and a half later, when the sound of four powerful engines motoring towards the runway, then the soft skid of landing. The pilot (thankfully clothed) and A-10-hands on hips, frowning, and very irritated, as it had been woken up-walked out of the hangar.
  1776.  
  1777. The noise was being produced by a tall, well-muscled four-engine plane. It had a large 105mm Howitzer strapped to its back, a 40mm Bofors on its left hip, and a 25mm Gau-12 in its hands. It looked pretty grim-for a AC-130U, anyway.
  1778.  
  1779. “Wonder what happened,” the pilot mused, walking out towards the landing strip.
  1780.  
  1781. “Whaddaya mean? Why he's a fucking hour and a half early?” The A-10 didn't budge, just frown harder.
  1782.  
  1783. “No, it's been hit. AA, it looks like,” the pilot responded, stopping. He was right, the A-10's side showed evidence of a glancing hit.
  1784.  
  1785. The AC-130U abruptly turned, taxiing towards the hanger, when it noticed the pilot and plane watching.
  1786.  
  1787. “You the newbies?” it queried, although it was more like a statement than a question. Before the pilot or A-10 could reply, the AC-130U grimaced. “Doesn't matter. Get geared up, you're on a rescue mission now. GO!”
  1788.  
  1789. It skidded past the  A-10 and the pilot, right into the hangar. Both blinked before springing into action, the pilot quickly disrobing and entering the A-10, right on the tarmac (and wondering why he'd bothered to even get dressed again).
  1790.  
  1791. The AC-130U had re-armed in the hangar, and by the time the A-10 had stumbled inside it was already returning to the runway. “No time for explanations! I'll tell you in the air, go. GO!”
  1792.  
  1793. “Proceed to runway two,” the flight control said.
  1794.  
  1795. The A-10 and pilot went, running out onto the runway after the AC-130U. The Ac-130U ran to the runway and then used its four engines to take off, roaring down the runway, while the A-10 just fired its turbines up, sprinted, jumped, and took to the air in a burst of backblast and noise just outside the hangar.
  1796.  
  1797. “The HELL are you doing?” the AC-130 yelled over the radio.
  1798.  
  1799. “Taking off! I thought we were in a fuckin' hurry. Now tell me what is going on, right now,” the A-10 replied, still annoyed.
  1800.  
  1801. “Hornet and Lancer are down, some sort of electrical wave, I was too high; didn't catch me,” the AC-130U replied, accelerating and climbing. “Flak did.”
  1802.  
  1803. The A-10 realized that it could probably outpace the other aeroplane. “Electrical wave? Flak? The fuck is this, are we at war now?”
  1804.  
  1805. The other plane let out a humorless laugh. “Peacekeeping.”
  1806.  
  1807. “Through superior firepower, right, right. ETA to the AO?”
  1808.  
  1809. “Twenty minutes. They'll have held out. Oh, designation's Spooky. I didn't catch yours?”
  1810.  
  1811. “A-10,” the A-10 replied. Now that the A-10 had time to look, it realized that it bore some resemblance to the Stratotanker. More toned, and had a deeper voice, same accent. Designed by the same company, definitely.
  1812.  
  1813. “My name's John,” the AC-130U continued, its pilot obviously speaking.
  1814.  
  1815. The A-10's pilot took over and nodded to the other plane. “My name's-”
  1816.  
  1817. Their frequency suddenly crackled into life, and the pop-pop-pop of gunfire echoed through it. “HELLO! Can anyone read me? This is F/A-18 Hornet, pilot's down-”
  1818.  
  1819. “HORNET! Stay down, I got the newbie and we're heading towards you. Co-ordinates?” Spooky said over the channel, engines full throttle.
  1820.  
  1821. “Look for the fire! South of that, four hundred metres. They took Lancer, I think its pilot's down as well-”
  1822.  
  1823. “I'm on the way,” the larger plane replied. “Shit. Look, I'm going to flatten those bastards from up here. You got any missiles?”
  1824.  
  1825. “Nope. Don't need 'em anyway,” the A-10 replied. “HEY! Hornet, right? I'm gonna do a flyby and fuck their shit up. Give me a bearing and angle of approach.”
  1826.  
  1827.  
  1828. MEANWHILE, 400 METRES SOUTH OF THE FIRE
  1829.  
  1830. The F/A-18 Hornet was hiding in one building, taking shelter from the gunfire rattling into the walls and periodically pinging off the wall behind the window. It had no weapons itself, and its highest priority right now was keeping its pilot-currently unconscious within it-safe. It had run out of ammunition for its Vulkan, and had already used its missiles to hammer the position the wave emanated from into the dust.
  1831.  
  1832. It continued through the building, keeping low and moving fast, diving out of one of the back windows and taking off running through the small village.
  1833.  
  1834. The only reason it was on the ground was the saturation of AA-almost as if they knew what they were up against. Some of the things could even reach Spooky's service ceiling. Lancer been hit badly, and gone down near the West side of the village while Hornet had set down North voluntarily. If it took off again, the AA would most likely destroy it.
  1835.  
  1836. “Hornet, this is Spooky. I see you, take the next left,” its bass rumbled over the radio, with the four strong engines being a reassuring backup.
  1837.  
  1838. “Right,” the Hornet said, dashing down the street between two of the small mud-brick houses. “That AA will light you up if you fire.”
  1839.  
  1840. “That's what I'm countin' on, Hornet.” The 40mm cannon's boom-boom-boom-boom echoed through the link, before the rounds hit earth, the explosions rattling the houses near the Hornet.
  1841.  
  1842. Six or seven seconds later, the AA batteries opened up-from what the Hornet could tell, they were Soviet VADS systems. Four barrels of fun.
  1843.  
  1844. “COME AT ME, YA BASTARDS,” the AC-130 yelled over the radio as the rounds lit up the sky.
  1845.  
  1846. MEANWHILE, 1000 FT UP
  1847.  
  1848. “I see 'em, Spooky. Ha HA, first fucking action, first fuckin' blood. You ready?”
  1849.  
  1850. “Ayep,” the pilot replied amicably.
  1851.  
  1852. The A-10 zoomed in at an absurdly steep angle, at the first AA battery. There were three batteries, one currently a crater thanks to the AC-130. And one was directly in front of the A-10, which cracked open its mouth in an insane grin.
  1853.  
  1854. “GET SOME!” the A-10 exclaimed, opening its mouth and sending a burst from the GAU-8 into the structure with the telltale “BRRRRRRRRT”, the HE rounds crashing through it and detonating some of the ammo stores, sending the entire thing up in a glorious explosion.
  1855.  
  1856. “Just like in the movies!” the pilot added.
  1857.  
  1858. “ONE DOWN! HA HA,” the A-10 yelled, turbines screaming as it flew over the village. “SPOOKY! ONE DOWN! YOU SEE THAT SHIT?”
  1859.  
  1860. “Yeah, I saw it,” Spooky replied, strained. “Got hit again, nothin' major. Stings like a bitch.” The howitzer boomed again, and another emplacement went up in a cloud of flame.
  1861.  
  1862. MEANWHILE, 100 METRES SOUTH-WEST OF THE FIRE
  1863.  
  1864. The Hornet grabbed the man's head from behind, twisting and snapping his neck with a crunch. Last one in this AA battery. “I'm clear. I'll head back to base, you find Lancer!”
  1865.  
  1866. The A-10 roared by overhead, heading North.
  1867.  
  1868. MEANWHILE, 5,000 FT UP
  1869.  
  1870. The AC-130U sighted the two covered trucks driving North up the only thing vaguely resembling a road.
  1871.  
  1872. “I think I got Lancer. Two trucks, heading North at about eighty kays an hour.”
  1873.  
  1874. MEANWHILE, 400 FT UP
  1875.  
  1876. “I see 'em,” the A-10 said, slowing down, far below stall speed, and dropping through the roof of the trailing truck.
  1877.  
  1878. The pilot and the A-10 combat linked.
  1879.  
  1880. :two targets:Lancer, unconscious/restrained:one weapon:
  1881.  
  1882. The A-10 recovered from the dent it made in the truck's rear carriage, jumping into and twisting the first man's arm, grabbing the pistol from his holster, throwing him towards the next man, who already had his gun out, the corpse getting in between the bullets and the A-10, then the stolen handgun's bullets entering an exiting the second man's chest, corpse hitting him a split second later.
  1883.  
  1884. The entire gunfight lasted around two seconds, and the A-10 unlinked, running over to the Lancer. Initial diagnostics lead the two to believe that it was merely unconscious, as was its pilot. The cable binding it wasn't a match for the A-10's brute strength, and it grabbed the Lancer, rolling out of the back of the moving vehicle before it, or the truck in front, realized what was happening.
  1885.  
  1886. The ground was hard, as expected, and the two rolled to a halt, Lancer still blissfully unconscious.
  1887.  
  1888. “O...okay, frag the trucks. We're clear,” the A-10 stated, getting up on one elbow.
  1889.  
  1890. “What the HELL were you thinking, rookie? Don't EVER do ANYTHING like that again.” The Howitzer reduced the trucks to scrap a few seconds later.
  1891.  
  1892. The A-10 stood, brushing itself off. “Hey, it worked, didn't it?”
  1893.  
  1894.  
  1895.  
  1896. “So. Explain to me what the fuck your idea was, back there.” The AC-130U, independent of its pilot (John, a cheery-looking man with close-cropped blonde hair, military bearing, and muscle tone that almost rivaled the plane's) quizzed the A-10.
  1897.  
  1898. “Putting some fuckin' 30mil in some asshole's asses. Problem?” The A-10, still with pilot on-board (at the AC-130U's request) replied.
  1899.  
  1900. “What you did was jump into a situation you could not even guess at and put your, and your pilot, and Lancer's lives at risk.”
  1901.  
  1902. The A-10 gave it a disinterested frown. “Are they all dead? No? I think I did just fine. I know what I'm doing.”
  1903.  
  1904. The B1-b and F/A-18 Hornet were in the repair shop, and their pilots were in the medical bay, leaving the AC-130U and A-10 alone in the hangar. The A-10 was sitting on a stolen crate while the AC-130U tried its best to be tactful.
  1905.  
  1906. “And any number of things could have happened that would have left you, them, and probably ME, dead. So you WILL follow orders from here on in.” It sighed. “I can understand your reasons-”
  1907.  
  1908. “What, getting called out on an emergency scramble without rockets in the middle of me being asleep to try rescue not one, but TWO other fucking planes with unconscious pilots, rendered thus by fucking magnets or something that I thought we were supposed to be shielded against? NO, REALLY?”
  1909.  
  1910. “-your reasons,” the AC-130U continued, somewhat strained, “but in the future there will be no excuses. Do you understand me?”
  1911.  
  1912. “Yeah, I understand fine.” The A-10 uncrossed its legs and stood, stretching.
  1913.  
  1914. The AC-130U just watched the A-10 for a few more seconds, before it stated, “Good,” and walked out of the hangar.
  1915.  
  1916. The A-10 sniffed, gathered the pilot's fatigues and dropped them on the crate, shuddering and twitching as the pilot carefully pulled his body out of the A-10's back.
  1917.  
  1918. “I feel like I haven't had any sleep in days. Damn, is it always like that?” The pilot groaned and pulled on the clothing the A-10 gathered.
  1919.  
  1920. “Ha! Can't take it? Shit, I remember one of my other pilots, she tried to stay combat linked for a whole hour. Passed right the fuck out. I didn't tell anyone, they were lookin' for her for two days until-” The A-10 caught the pilot's glance. It had been getting better at reading his poker faces, but this wasn't even a halfhearted attempt. Furrowed brows, open inquisitive eyes, slightly contemplative frown...
  1921.  
  1922. “The fuck's up with you?”
  1923.  
  1924. The pilot pulled on the shirt and rubbed his eyes, sitting down on the A-10's crate. “So when we were flying over the Atlantic, I had this dream-”
  1925.  
  1926. “ARE YOU A FUCKING LUCID DREAMER? I FFFFFFFFFFFUCKING KNEW IT.” The A-10 threw its hands up, walking away a few steps before turning and pointing. “YOU PULL THAT SHIT AGAIN AND I AM TURNING THE CLIMATE CONTROL OFF AT FIVE THOUSAND FEET.” The A-10 realized that he hadn't stopped talking.
  1927.  
  1928. “-ou crashed. It was strange, I could feel the entire thing. As if I was you. Odd, too, as humans tend to wake up if they are going to experience something-falling to their death, for example-that their brains don't know how to parse.”
  1929.  
  1930. The A-10 froze, still pointing.
  1931.  
  1932. “I guess that's a side-effect of the neural link. I've never done it before, so I'm probably not doing it perfectly,” the pilot sheepishly admitted. “But for that dream, I think I WAS you. Not me dreaming your dream.”
  1933.  
  1934. The A-10 was still frozen, frantically trying to rescue the situation.
  1935.  
  1936. “So...yeah, I know how it feels. And now I know combat linking for three seconds hits you like a truck,” the pilot said, laughing.
  1937.  
  1938. The A-10 was trying to figure out if it was a calculated stab at it, or if there was something deeper to the comments-the hell, with the 'was you' bullshit-when strident Scottish yelling, even louder than its own, echoed through the hangar door.
  1939.  
  1940. “-LETTIN' ANYONE DO THAT TO M' PLANE AND GET AWAY WITH IT! WH'EARE THA' WEE BASTARDS NOW?”
  1941.  
  1942. “Sounds like you'd get along,” the pilot commented deadpan, rising and carefully staggering towards the  exit.
  1943.  
  1944. In the medbay-In reality, it was, an old cottage next to the hangar that had been there for longer than the airbase itself-the pilot (and trailing A-10) found the AC-130U's pilot, John, and one of the other pilots, an irate red-headed woman.
  1945.  
  1946. “IT'S ONE BLOODY THING AFTER ANOTHER! First tha' Osprey crashes and I have tae fix it, then there's these doctors who don't know how to shift their heads far enough out of their own arses-”
  1947.  
  1948. “Anne, you're ranting again,” John said, almost on the verge of laughter.
  1949.  
  1950. “I have tha' right to,” the other pilot replied, somewhat hurt. She nevertheless quieted down when she noticed the pilot watching and A-10 carefully peeking around the door.
  1951.  
  1952. “Hi,” the pilot said.
  1953.  
  1954. “Oh, yeah. Meet Anne, our newest transfer and pilot. Anne, meet, uh...”
  1955.  
  1956. “You were in the Lancer?” The A-10 interrupted.
  1957.  
  1958. “Whatever bastardry they cooked up knocked me out cold. Not EMP, either,” Anne replied in the broad Scottish accent.
  1959.  
  1960. “Yeah, how'd it get knocked out?” The A-10 actually seemed interested, for once. Not angry or frowning. Much.
  1961.  
  1962. “It detected a power surge, could have set fire tae one o' th' engines. So it...shut down, standard procedure.”
  1963.  
  1964. The A-10 frowned harder, but didn't reply. John gave the pilot a look.
  1965.  
  1966. “She always like this?”
  1967.  
  1968. The pilot laughed. “Like what? Yeah.”
  1969.  
  1970. “I'm right fucking here,” the A-10 added grumpily.
  1971.  
  1972. The next bed over contained a pale, thin, plain and fragile-looking woman with long-ish blonde hair, fast asleep. She was the F/A-18's pilot, and actually injured, as opposed to just dented like the other two. Her right arm was in a cast, along with her right leg-they took the brunt of the crash-landing. They left her to rest.
  1973.  
  1974.  
  1975.  
  1976. The B1-b Lancer and F/A-18 Hornet were in the mech shop-basically a re-purposed hangar, adjacent to the one they lived in. The main mechanic, however, was out of action, being the B1-b's pilot. While preliminary examinations could not turn up anything wrong with either the F/A-18 or the B1-b, Anne didn't want either in the air until she, personally, could have a look at them.
  1977.  
  1978. This left the AC-130U and A-10 as the only combat-ready units on the base-both specialized ground-attack planes. The AC-130U was the longest-serving unit on the base, with the most confirmed kills and airtime.
  1979.  
  1980.  
  1981. “I have the most experience here, so I lead this unit,” the AC-130U reinforced. It and the A-10 were outside the 'hospital', the A-10 looking on disapprovingly while the AC-130U explained to it how things worked. “I'm air-to-ground. Technically, I have no air-to-air capacity.”
  1982.  
  1983. “I sense a but,” the A-10 said, in a very uninterested tone.
  1984.  
  1985. “I am a very, very good shot with this Howitzer.”
  1986.  
  1987. “That's nice,” the A-10 replied. “So if you're air-to-ground, and I'm air-to-ground, what do the other ones do?”
  1988.  
  1989. The AC-130U leaned back against the wall and nodded towards the hangar. “B1-b can carry a payload big enough to level two small cities. And F/A-18 is...multirole,” the AC-130 admitted. “Usually takes care of any anti-air requirements of the mission. Not that any have come up.”
  1990.  
  1991. “Sounds pretty fucking stupid, to me,” the A-10 stated. “Too focused on air-to-ground. Even if two dedicated air-to-air planes showed up, that would end the mission pretty abruptly, don't you think?” The A-10 turned to and leaned up at the AC-130U.
  1992.  
  1993. “I'd like to see these idiots get their hands on one,” the AC-130U replied, looking away from the A-10 uneasily.
  1994.  
  1995. Both stood in silence for a few more seconds, the smaller A-10 crossing its arms and taking a few steps towards the hangar before pulling a 180.
  1996.  
  1997. “So, who am I replacing?”
  1998.  
  1999. The AC-130U gave the A-10 a blank, slightly surprised look. “I'm sorry, what?”
  2000.  
  2001. “There were already four spaces in there. You're almost completely dedicated to air-to-ground engagements, all of you. 18's the only one with any fucking anti-air focus, and it's out of action. Doesn't make sense; so, who am I replacing?” The A-10 realized that some of the pilot must have been leaking into it. It honestly didn't give a fuck who or what it was replacing, but a sense of curiosity drove her to ask anyway.
  2002.  
  2003. The AC-130U gave the A-10 another slightly worried, slightly sad look and crossed its arms as well. “Er...an F-22 Raptor. Transferred East. The brass didn't think that...two dedicated anti-air units were really needed here. This is just a reconnaissance and observation base. Despite...what happened last night.”
  2004.  
  2005. The A-10 frowned at the AC-130U. It somehow knew the larger plane wasn't telling it everything, but decided to let it slide. The Raptor was one of the newer planes, far more advanced than any other on this base.
  2006.  
  2007.  
  2008.  
  2009.  
  2010.  
  2011.  
  2012. MEANWHILE, IN THE MECH SHOP
  2013.  
  2014. The Lancer was currently clamped to the Hornet, the single maintenance table barely large enough to hold the two still trying to come to terms with the events of the night before.
  2015.  
  2016. “And then-hic-then they just picked me up and I couldn't even DO anything becau-”
  2017.  
  2018. The Hornet attempted to calm the Lancer, which had wrapped both of its hands around the Hornet's torso, nosecone buried in its shoulder. “Yes. Yes, you told me this already and I said-”
  2019.  
  2020. “-se I HAVE to shut down the electronics in case something catches fire or overloads and they just picked me up and it was horrible,” the Lancer wailed.
  2021.  
  2022. “There was nothing you could do,” the Hornet said tiredly, for the sixth time. “It all turned out okay, a-”
  2023.  
  2024. “BUT WHAT IF IT DIDN'T?” the B1-b wailed. “Wh-wh-what if my wiring HAD caught fire I wouldn't have been able to put it out, and Anne was unconscious and-”
  2025.  
  2026. “Lancer.”
  2027.  
  2028. “-it was even worse they just got cabling and tied me up and all I could do was-
  2029.  
  2030. “Um...tied you up?”
  2031.  
  2032. “WAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaaaat?” The Lancer calmed considerably and looked at the next table, over the F/A-18. It had a dented looking Osprey sitting on it, presumably in-between repairs.
  2033.  
  2034. The Osprey looked from the Lancer to the Hornet and slowly became more embarrassed. “Just that...uh...you can't really...tied up...uh...f” It looked from one to the other, fidgeting with its tow-rope. “Forget I said anything,” the Osprey said at length, hunching over and turning around on the bed to face the other way.
  2035.  
  2036. The Lancer blinked a couple of times before remembering that it forgot what it was talking about, and snuggling up to the Hornet happily.
  2037.  
  2038. The Hornet was glad for the interruption, and gingerly stroked the Lancer's back. It was understandable, considering what happened-the Lancer wasn't the most emotionally stable of planes-so it would let this unprofessional outburst slide for once.
  2039.  
  2040.  
  2041.  
  2042.  
  2043.  
  2044.  
  2045.  
  2046.  
  2047. The next morning found the pilot and A-10 in the mess, the pilot munching on a muesli sandwich and A-10 frowning. The air was chilly and clear, and the pilot found himself wishing that he was back in the climate-controlled A-10.
  2048.  
  2049. “Oi. What do you think about the other lot?” The A-10 chose that moment to interrupt his train of thought.
  2050.  
  2051. “They're okay,” the pilot noncommittally replied, munching away. “And the medic guy said they were all battle-ready, except for the Hornet's pilot. She landed badly.” He swallowed. “I think that AC-130U has a crush on you.”
  2052.  
  2053. The A-10 frowned harder, tapping the table. “No it doesn't. That's fucking stupid. Look, I wanted to ask-”
  2054.  
  2055. “I dunno. I'm pretty sure. I've seen a few in my time.” The pilot offered the A-10 the leftover bowl of muesli.
  2056.  
  2057. The A-10 gave the pilot a  scathing glare. “I don't feel like it.”
  2058.  
  2059. “I wonder what the other two are like. I won't lie, meeting actual trained pilots is a little unsettling,” the pilot continued, laughing. “I mean, I worry that you're going to up and dump me fore someone who actually knows what they're doing.”
  2060.  
  2061. The A-10 leaned over at him. “I've already fucking told you that you've been assigned to me. Too bad if you can't take it,” the A-10 scoffed.  “Wuss.”
  2062.  
  2063. After a few more seconds of frowning, the A-10 decided it was too boring and left the pilot to his own devices, moving back to the hangar.
  2064.  
  2065. A short time later, the AC-130U, called the two to the barracks, currently in use as an improvised briefing room.
  2066.  
  2067.  
  2068. “So as you know we've encountered some sort of EMP pulse weaponry recently,” John drawled. “Two of you have first-hand experience with it; I have spoken to command myself and they don't know what the hell's going on. My guess-completely off the record-is that these insurgents, they're testing it for effectiveness here.”
  2069.  
  2070. The A-10's pilot spoke up. “Why here? I mean, if this is just an observation base, aren't you supposed to observe...unobserved?”
  2071.  
  2072. “Ye cannae go unobserved if you're flyin' around with that lump o' metal on your wing for too long,” the Lancer replied. At least it was easy to guess who was talking.
  2073.  
  2074. All the other planes had readied for flight, it seemed, the pilot and A-10 the only ones out of the loop.
  2075.  
  2076. “That's what this is about. We're going to go and observe them with high explosives, get rid of the nuisance before it actually becomes a threat. You two, ready up and grab Hydra pods. We're moving out in 30.”
  2077.  
  2078. The pilot pulled off his shirt while the A-10 turned around and peeled itself open. The A-10 had visited the engineers and mechanics last night, while the pilot slept, to get properly fitted to him. It didn't have the chance to on the training base. It wanted this to be a surprise for the pilot. After all, he WAS going to be its official pilot.
  2079.  
  2080. The pilot slipped his leg into the A-10's, easing it into the A-10's own, slowly following it with the other and easing his arms into its own. The sensation was different, this time.
  2081.  
  2082. Rather than feeling like a...plane, the pilot realized that it felt like he was climbing into an embrace of sorts. Rather than cool metal, it felt like cool skin, pressing into his own, conforming to it.
  2083.  
  2084. “A-10, what's going on?”
  2085.  
  2086. The A-10 just grinned as he pushed his fingers into its own, arm moving strangely as he lowered his body into it.
  2087.  
  2088. The pilot gulped and slowly inserted his head into the A-10's, causing the two to twitch and grimace as the neural link connected.
  2089.  
  2090. The pilot gasped. Something was certainly different. It didn't feel like he was piloting the A-10. He couldn't even sense the difference in the neural link that once existed. It was like going from a glorified mouse and keyboard to...well, an incredibly advanced attack aircraft. Hell, to BEING the incredibly advanced attack aircraft. He didn't know any other way to describe it.
  2091.  
  2092. The A-10 took over their-it felt that close-body and stretched. “So, I got a tune-up...”
  2093.  
  2094. The A-10 jerked as the pilot flailingly took control and looked at their hands. “I...can hardly feel myself in here. What the hell did you get done? I can't even feel 'me' over the neural link.”
  2095.  
  2096. “Well, no shit,” the A-10 responded, frowning. The pilot felt as if it was his own face being pulled into a frown-it was very unsettling to the man.
  2097.  
  2098. “I DID say that I had some upgrades. They just...needed to be attuned properly.”
  2099.  
  2100. “Just...um, you take over. For now. I've got to get used to this.”
  2101.  
  2102. “HA. Knew you couldn't fucking take it,” the A-10 responded, striding out of the barracks, triumphant in the fact that it put its pilot on the back foot, for once.
  2103.  
  2104. The pilot was trying too hard to cope with the sudden full, seamless tactile input and the A-10's natural...sensations to give a reply. This wasn't just normal neural feedback, this was total and complete and seamless neural synchronization. The pilot wasn't sure if he was okay with this. It felt violating, somehow.
  2105.  
  2106. :I can hear what you're thinking you know:
  2107.  
  2108. The pilot abruptly stopped thinking, a skill that he had perfected over time.
  2109.  
  2110.  
  2111.  
  2112. Thirty minutes later, the flight was in the air, in a rough V pattern. Spook was leading, with Lancer on its left and the A-10 vaguely to its right. It was having a hard time keeping in formation, with the pilot experiencing the rush of air and the thrum of his, their, its turbines 'first-hand'.
  2113.  
  2114. “Okay. We're going in, blowing everything up, and going home. We all good with that?”
  2115.  
  2116. “Y-yeah,” Lancer replied.
  2117.  
  2118. “I was fucking born for this,” the A-10 added, tone of voice betraying maximum exhilaration and anticipation.
  2119.  
  2120. “Okay then. Our friend on high tracked those contacts for us, right to their little hideout.”
  2121.  
  2122. “Friend?” The A-10 asked.
  2123.  
  2124. “Yeah, called in a favour from a friend of mine,” Spook replied mysteriously.
  2125.  
  2126.  
  2127. LAST NIGHT, 2200 HOURS
  2128.  
  2129.  
  2130. The SR-71 Blackbird walked out onto the runway, partly bouncing, partly skipping, giggling excitedly to itself. Illuminated by the lights on the tarmac, it had sleek lines, the black paintjob and powerful turbojets only serving to accentuate its aerodynamic figure. It had been directed to search over an area a ways away for...two trucks, apparently. The only thing that differentiated either of these two trucks from any other was a hole in one's roof.
  2131.  
  2132. “Ah...ha ha ha ha, oh, can we take off now? Can we can we can we-”
  2133.  
  2134. Its pilot forcefully took over, calming the Blackbird down, at least to a point where it was only slightly hopping up and down. “Relax. You're leaking again.”
  2135.  
  2136. The Blackbird's pilot was right, the trickle of fuel running down its leg and on to the runway.
  2137.  
  2138. “I can't help it,” it whined, obviously far too excited to care. “Haa...Let me take off. Let me take off. L-”
  2139.  
  2140. The pilot and Blackbird had another brief struggle for control, twitching and almost falling over before the pilot caught the two and kept walking for the runway. “Wait for clearance.”
  2141.  
  2142. “I...don't...want...to,” the Blackbird replied, strained. “Let me go. I want to fly.”
  2143.  
  2144. The pilot waited for the tower to give them clearance, jogging down the runway before giving the Blackbird control.
  2145.  
  2146. “Oh yes. YES!” The Blackbird exclaimed, still leaking fuel onto the runway, breaking into a breathless, manic sprint, turbojets suddenly igniting, bathing the runway in a brief green light and sending it up into the air as it absently at its leak. “Haa...yes, yes! YES!”
  2147.  
  2148. “Do your warmup so we can refuel and get online,” its pilot commented, as the Blackbird screamed through the air, still laughing manically and twisting into a sharp turn to meet up with the KC-135 Stratotanker.
  2149.  
  2150. “This is Blackbird, do you read me, Stratotanker? I know you can.”
  2151.  
  2152. The Stratotanker's vaguely British accent came through the radio connection. “And yes I can, and I am, ready waiting and willing.”
  2153.  
  2154. It didn't have to wait for long, as the Blackbird streaked out of the moonless night sky and buzzed the Stratotanker dangerously close.
  2155.  
  2156. “Whoa, steady on there. Knock me out of the sky and you'll have to deal with one of those stuck up Russian fellows. Extending boom,” it said, extending its boom.
  2157.  
  2158. The Blackbird pounced on it, yanking it the rest of the way out and clamping down on it, suckling on the end of it with far more suction than was necessary.
  2159.  
  2160. The Stratotanker let out a startled “Oi, watch it!” before letting out a surprised grunt and commencing refueling.
  2161.  
  2162. The Blackbird, accomplished at the art of refueling, didn't let a drop escape.
  2163.  
  2164. “Er...oi, ah, down there, we're...can you let go now?” The Stratotanker was wobbling in the air, not from stalling, this time.
  2165.  
  2166. The pilot wrest control away from the Blackbird and detached its mouth from the boom (with some difficulty). “You're clear. Sorry about that, Stratotanker.”
  2167.  
  2168. “I'm not!” The Blackbird added happily.
  2169.  
  2170.  
  2171.  
  2172. The wind rushed past the  Blackbird, its sleek black shape cutting through the cold night sky, putting hot butter-knives to shame. It was currently screaming along at just under Mach 3, with a gleeful expression on its nosecone.
  2173.  
  2174. “Are we there yet?” its pilot asked.
  2175.  
  2176. “Yeah. Yeah, we're almost in the AO. Get ready to link. Scope's ready,” the Blackbird replied. “I bet they're not even here yet. Trucks are so slow.”
  2177.  
  2178. “Everything's slow to you.”
  2179.  
  2180. “You ARE slow.” The Blackbird kicked itself into a backflip, bleeding off speed as its airframe strained from the maneuver, and heading into a dive. “You can't even hit mach ONE without my help.”
  2181.  
  2182. The Blackbird screamed through the air, leveling out and mentally nudging its pilot.
  2183.  
  2184. “Okay, link up.”
  2185.  
  2186. Time seemed to slow for the two, as the Blackbird's powerful optics zoomed in on the small compound. It recorded the co-ordinates,likely concealed truck locations, dimensions of the area, any likely hidden AA emplacements, best approach vector-all of this almost sedately carried out in the eight seconds of time it was in view.
  2187.  
  2188. Time seemed to snap back, and the Blackbird let out a happy, “Woo!” as it climbed back up.
  2189.  
  2190. “Damn good run.” its pilot replied. “I'm going to have to clean you down once we get back to base, aren't I?”
  2191.  
  2192. “Yes. Oh-ho-ho yes,” the Blacakbird replied, squeezing even more speed out of its powerful engines. “Can we invite the Stratotanker?”
  2193.  
  2194.  
  2195. TODAY
  2196.  
  2197. Spooky had already ascended to maximum operational altitude, leaving the A-10 and the worried-looking Lancer alone. The A-10 and its pilot had time to examine it-sleek folding wings, a matte-black paintjob, slender frame, the two slightly bulky bomb bays by its hips. It was also much taller than the A-10 and its pilot, giving it a storky and awkward look. The A-10's pilot realized that the Lancer's pilot was nowhere near as tall-in fact, from memory, he knew her to be shorter than he was.
  2198.  
  2199. The Lancer caught the A-10 watching, and gave the two a shaky smile. “I-I'll be fine. Really.”
  2200.  
  2201. The A-10 frowned and blinked. “Why wouldn't you? The hell happened down there?”
  2202.  
  2203. The Lancer pressed its pointer fingers together underneath it, gathering up the courage to reply before abruptly twitching and giving the A-10 an angry stare. “'I'S NONE OF Y' BUSINESS, NOO, IS IT?”
  2204.  
  2205. The A-10 blinked again, while the Lancer composed itself.
  2206.  
  2207. I...no, it's okay, nothing happened.”
  2208.  
  2209. “Bullshit,” the A-10 replied tactfully.
  2210.  
  2211. “No! Really, it's just...I mean...I try to be helpful, but I mess up so often. I should have been the one to get knocked out, n-”
  2212.  
  2213. “Ah, y'do fine. Don't beat yourself up about it,” the Lancer's pilot abruptly replied, mid-sentence.
  2214.  
  2215. The A-10 and its pilot came to the conclusion that they did the same thing. Was it that noticeable? No, the pilot usually took care to at least stay on the same topic as the A-10.
  2216.  
  2217. “So you just got tied up and...put in a truck?” The A-10 replied.
  2218.  
  2219. “Ach, don't remind her. She'll start blubberin' again and the whole mission will go arse over teakettle.”
  2220.  
  2221. The A-10 shrugged to itself and concentrated on the task at hand. Standard gun run, SSE to NNW; sun would be at its back. HE ammo loaded, targeting any infantry that was left after the Lancer did its flyover. Should be simple enough.
  2222.  
  2223. “Almost in the AO. Stay sharp,” Spook transmitted over the radio.
  2224.  
  2225. “Aye aye, Cap'n. Startin' the run,” the Lancer replied accelerating smoothly.
  2226.  
  2227. “Yeah,” the A-10 added. Realizing that the Lancer was also faster than it, fuck.
  2228.  
  2229. The Lancer carefully lined itself up over the target, opening its two hip-mounted bomb bays.
  2230.  
  2231. “Alright then...um, bombs away,” it muttered over the radio, raining down its payload of Mk  84s on the compound. Although it had access to JDAMs, it still preferred using dumb bombs, especially on a stationary target like this.
  2232.  
  2233. The Lancer's payload was right on target-the compound was not made to withstand anything other than the weather. On the outskirts of a little village, on top of a small rocky ridge, backing on to a hill.  The explosions rent the entire thing apart, sending dirt, debris, and mud brick into the sky.
  2234.  
  2235. “That's a hit,” Spook commented, from far above. “A-10, you see anything?”
  2236.  
  2237. The A-10 had just started heading into its gun run when the pulse hit. In the split second the two were aware of it, the pilot realized two things. First, that the pulse was all too familiar-it was extremely similar, if not identical to the technology used to send the A-10 into its maintenance state.  Second, he realized that with the current level of neural integration it would be impossible for either to stay conscious.
  2238.  
  2239. The A-10 also knew, from the pilot's thoughts. And it also knew that it had failed its pilots before. Killed them. That feeling of stomach-dropping fear that it might happen again almost paralyzed it. It could re-route the feedback to the pilot, like before. But that might harm him-it realized that it cared about its pilot. It realized that this pilot was the only reason it was even able to do its job-and decided to repay that favour, re-routing both the pilot's and its own neural pathings, absorbing twice as much feedback than was safe.
  2240.  
  2241. Of course, this train of thought was much less cohesive, and expressed itself in the A-10 hollering, “FFFFFFFUCK YOOOOOOOOU!” At the top of its voice while the pilot only felt the slightest tingle, as if someone had dumped a bucket of ash over him.
  2242.  
  2243. He then realized that he was alone, the A-10 unresponsive.
  2244.  
  2245.  
  2246.  
  2247. The pilot, after a few stunned seconds, realised that he was flying at about four hundred kilometres per hour in a sharp dive, and that he could still feel the wind rushing past the A-10. What little instinct he had took over-throttle up, nose up, level out, avoid the ground, don't climb too steep-pulling the two out of the run. He did a quick check for the Lancer-apparently it was up too high up or too far away for the pulse to reach.
  2248.  
  2249. “Fuck. Detected a spike, you alright down there?” Spooky sent over the radio.
  2250.  
  2251. The pilot then realised that he was somewhat trapped. He knew that the A-10 placed a large amount of importance in its image. He knew, from the A-10 knowing, that it would rather die than ever suffer the embarrassment of anyone knowing that it was knocked out like this-anyone that knew about this might look into its past.
  2252.  
  2253. “Fine. You and Lancer?”
  2254.  
  2255. “I-I'm fine,” the Lancer replied.
  2256.  
  2257. “I'm going to go down there and fuck them up,” the pilot carefully stated.
  2258.  
  2259. “God damn it no, do not land. That is not par-”
  2260.  
  2261. “I'll do whatever I fucking want. Bitch at me later,” the pilot growled into the radio. He was glad that he knew the A-10 as well as he did, and was also glad for the fact that he was angry that they had harmed his plane helped the delivery, somewhat.
  2262.  
  2263. There was silence for a few heart-stopping seconds before Spook replied, “Fine. I'll cover you. Adjusting angle.”
  2264.  
  2265. The pilot started a wide loop, approaching the ruined compound. From what he could tell, none of the A-10's systems were damaged, nor was it frozen. The A-10 itself was just unconscious. He hoped the A-10 was just unconscious.
  2266.  
  2267. The pilot landed, skidding a few metres through the flaming wreckage and catching himself on a wall. He was slowly getting accustomed to the A-10's 'fitting'-it did make it easier to pilot without the A-10's help, at least.
  2268.  
  2269. The compound was a cratered, flaming mess. The pulse did not come from here. “Tell me where that fucking pulse came from.”
  2270.  
  2271. “Do I look like an electronic warfare suite to you? Ah, shit,” Spooky replied, the GAU-12U's stacatto report issuing a second later, the rounds whizzing down to the pilot's South-East, he reckoned. The village?
  2272.  
  2273. “Contacts?”
  2274.  
  2275. “Not any more.”
  2276.  
  2277. The pilot took a moment to catch his breath, looking through the rubble, slowly making his way out of the ruins. He noticed it was very quiet, save for the flames. No fanatical shouting, gunfire, anything like that. Just the crackling fire and the occasional rattle of settling rubble.
  2278.  
  2279. The pilot intended to change that. While he was no military tactician, he knew that putting that pulse weapon in the open would be a bad idea. He also knew that two trucks were seen escaping from that last scuffle. It was almost as if they knew that they were coming...again. The pilot reserved those thoughts for later, and focused on the task at hand. If he were a truck, where would he hide? Certainly not stationary, somewhere that could just get flattened. The pilot looked to the crags behind the compound and took off at a sprint. Maybe he could catch the remaining truck before it left.
  2280.  
  2281. The AC-130U was busy watching the village's approach. Apart from those two armed people, nobody had ventured out into the open. Strange-insurgent cells usually had more members. And were more enthusiastic. Wait. “HEY! Middle of town, heading North. Dropping one truck.”
  2282.  
  2283. The Bofors boomed, the round crashing into the poor, unloved truck and detonating the front half of it in a fiery explosion.
  2284.  
  2285. The pilot immediately sprinted for the scene, even using the turbines for some extra speed, damn the dust. He skidded into the middle of the road just in time for the second truck to swerve around the first, and hit him with a dull thunk.
  2286.  
  2287. The pilot, rattled, hung on to the front of the truck, grabbing on to the grille, hauling himself up to window-height. He didn't really feel the pain, only anger. Not red-hot hate, more of a calm decision to end these people. Calculated, the pilot thought, as he gave a humorless grin, opening the A-10's mouth and letting out a long “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT”, sending the AP rounds indiscriminately through the cabin, shredding the driver and ruining the truck.
  2288.  
  2289. He performed a quick diagnostic on himself. Bruised, nothing broken, left arm sprained. He was thankful for the A-10's protection as the truck continued along its course, now pretty out of control. He climbed through the shattered windscreen, through the hole he had created, and into the trailer, feeling the shattered glass and remains of the pilot squishing underneath him, but strangely not caring. Nor could he find it in himself to care about the radio.
  2290.  
  2291. “A-10! DO YOU oh come on.” The AC-130U circled around again. “Ah, fuck.”
  2292.  
  2293. The A-10 dropped to the floor, immediately breaking into a sprint, heading for the one man with the glasses, ignoring the bullets harmlessly ricocheting off its armour, grabbing-
  2294.  
  2295. No, no, this wasn't right, the pilot thought, expending conscious effort to try and fix his own reality, still being ineffectually shot. That wasn't the techie, it was some other poor bastard with a crushed neck. The other one was trying to run away, the last one was the one shooting at him. The pilot dropped the man, lunging for the second, missing, trying again, grabbing his arm, crushing, pulling, other hand grabbing the head, twisting, dull crunching noise as a result. The last man climbed out of the pilot's entry chasm, jumping away from the truck, off to the side of the road, leaving the pilot with the bundle of wires, power plants, and a dish.
  2296.  
  2297.  
  2298. The AC-130U was still following the truck when it saw the A-10 tumble out the back, botch its landing, and roll to a halt. “You have a thing for trucks, don't you?”
  2299.  
  2300. The A-10 didn't answer for a few seconds, sitting up and holding its head. “You can blow the truck any time now. Just saying.”
  2301.  
  2302. The AC-130U was silent for a few more seconds, before hefting the Howitzer and firing it, applying the 105mm round directly to the truck, sending it up in a fiery explosion.
  2303.  
  2304.  
  2305.  
  2306.  
  2307. The pilot sat on a large-ish rock beside the road, recovering and waiting for the AC-130U to stop circling-and probably cool down, as he had directly disobeyed Spook's orders twice now.
  2308.  
  2309. The pilot was worried. He knew that this wouldn't knock the A-10 out permanently, but he was still worried-the A-10 would be infuriated by what just happened, and not even he was not sure what it would do.
  2310.  
  2311.  He was also still in the process of trying to filter out the A-10's sensations and separating them from his own. It seemed to be incredibly sensitive to...well, everything. He reasoned that the way its sensors lit up even when he just ran its hand down its leg like that was so that it could detect and correct itself against wind currents.
  2312.  
  2313. Didn't change the fact that it was at least four times as sensitive as skin, and gave a decidedly pleasurable sensation.
  2314.  
  2315. He stopped and looked at the A-10's hand, before crossing his arms and hunching over, still watching the truck burn.  There was that dreamlike flash, too. He worried that the A-10 might have another dream, or flashback, or whatever that was en-route back to base. He wasn't too keen on trying to explain any more than the absolute minimum he had to, especially while he was pretending to be the A-10. The pilot was not confident in his acting skills.
  2316.  
  2317. His reverie was interrupted by the heavier plane's landing with a heavy thud, a few metres away, and jogging to a halt nearby, joining the pilot in watching the burning truck. Nothing was said for a few seconds, until Spooky turned around and gave the pilot the most tired stare he'd ever seen.
  2318.  
  2319. “I should be ripping into your shit for EVERYTHING that happened here. You fucked up your gun run, disobeyed orders-again-and destroyed what could be very valuable enemy technology.”
  2320.  
  2321. The pilot looked up at the AC-130U, grinning (he hoped convincingly). “So what? You'll shoot me?”
  2322.  
  2323. Spook squinted, then rubbed a hand over his nosecone. “You don't make this easy.” It sighed and pointed at the A-10. “Listen. Whatever that was-what it did to Hornet and Lancer-I, personally, wanted that thing gone. I have already put my tail on the line for you once. And I-”
  2324.  
  2325. “You mean you're worried about what would happen if those things became commonplace,” the pilot interrupted, in (what he hoped was) his best smug tone, sliding off the rock and landing lightly. “One of those in every base. In every APC. What happens then? Planes'd drop out of the sky like fuckin' flies. What would happen to you? And your pilot? Sure, you're above range for now. For now. And then they build 'em bigger and better, and they're hitting you from kilometers away.” The pilot caught a glance of the AC-130U's face-he'd guessed right, the larger plane's face was easily read. “'This one', you thought, 'this one is experimental'. They tried pretty fucking hard to get away with it-and Lancer, right? Probably wanted to see what it would do to a unit if it was exposed for a longer period of time. Fucking torture, right?” The pilot continued, stalking around the AC-130U.
  2326.  
  2327. Spook just crossed its arms. “That's some nice conjecture. And while I'm not saying that you're right, I will stand up for you if-IF-you and your pilot learn to follow orders. We'll talk back at base. Later. Lancer's gone ahead.”
  2328.  
  2329. The A-10 draped an arm over the larger plane's muscular shoulder, peering around it. “What she don't know can't hurt her, eh?”
  2330.  
  2331. The AC-130U just walked off, taking a run-up and taking off, the powerful rotors breaking the silence and kicking up a considerable amount of dust.
  2332.  
  2333. The A-10 figured that it had hit the nail on the head. There was something else, too, an reluctance to talk. This doesn't seem like the kind of executive decision that any flight commander could make. There was NO way this was just an observation base. Hell, what kind of flight commander would call in a dedicated observer if it was supposed to be an observer himself?
  2334.  
  2335. Hell, how did Spook even get a favour from anywhere? A good deal of this didn't add up. It would get to the bottom of this. For now it-
  2336.  
  2337. Wait. The pilot shook his head and tried to steady himself. That was bad-helpful, he guessed, as long as he had to keep up the charade, but he didn't want to forget that he was in fact himself, and...do God knows what.
  2338.  
  2339. He took a short, stumbling sprint down the road and took off after the AC-130U.
  2340.  
  2341. The Osprey, meanwhile, had had a little accident.
  2342.  
  2343. Well, not really an accident, it thought. You didn't really make accidents intentionally. This was probably more a 'mistake'. It knew that AH-6 always said that mistakes were just disguised opportunities, but it wasn't sure how managing to tie itself to the creaking repairing apparatus with its own tow-rope and also somehow ending upside-down in the process could disguise itself as anything else. It took solace in the fact that at least it hadn't broken anything. It sighed. Well they went out on a sortie or something, so they'd be back eventually.  
  2344.  
  2345. After all, the chances of all of them somehow meeting grisly and gruesome end was really, really low, right?
  2346.  
  2347. The Osprey told itself that there was no reason to panic. Of course they would come back, they were highly trained combat aircraft being flown by highly trained pilots!
  2348.  
  2349. It pushed against the apparatus and looked around the unoccupied room. No reason to panic! There's also the mechanic that was supposed to actually make sure that it was fully repaired actually...about thirty minutes ago, according to its internal clock.
  2350.  
  2351. Okay maybe there was a little reason to panic. Maybe. There WAS that slim chance that wide-scale thermonuclear war had started and it hadn't heard the explosions and was the only thing within thirty kilometers. Or some sort of biological rust weapon was slowly eating away at its synthmetal, eroding the neural pathing and leaving it paralysed. Nah, that would be silly!
  2352.  
  2353. The Osprey panicked, immediately kicking its rotors into action and straining at the same time, pushing against the metal frame with all of its considerable strength, bending it backwards and popping one of the legs, sending it down onto the side. The rotor-blade caught the concrete floor, digging in and launching it-and the attached frame-forwards, up, and over at a considerable rate of knots, sending the tangled tow-rope underneath one of the legs, suddenly starting to retract into the flailing V-22.
  2354.  
  2355. The Osprey, suddenly freed, lurched up with a muffled roar, launching the frame into the far wall with a painful-sounding CLANG, it embedding three of the legs through the wall and the only remaining leg spinning and clattering through the racks of tools.
  2356.  
  2357. And then the Osprey fell over on its face, and discovered that it was still, in fact, tied up, quite well. It re-evaluated the situation. Maybe it overreacted. This was supposed to be Nowhere: The Base, blowing this up would be kind of pointless. Surely.
  2358.  
  2359. The V-22 looked around hopefully. Maybe someone heard that. A few seconds passed.
  2360.  
  2361. “...'enyan?”
  2362.  
  2363. No reply, other than the now wall-mounted frame creaking and settling.
  2364.  
  2365. The Osprey decided to take its fate into its own hands, slowly rotating around to face the wall, with the intention of rolling out onto the tarmac and...something. It was better than sitting here!
  2366.  
  2367. After around 70 degrees of rotation, it was facing the door, and the sleek, matte- black Lancer watching on, with a semi-terrified (or maybe that was fear, or something else)look on its face.  
  2368.  
  2369. “Uh. Hi?” The Osprey ventured hopefully, speaking around the tow-cord in its mouth.
  2370.  
  2371. The Lancer just wrung its hands and looked away. “Uh...”
  2372.  
  2373. “'Ell, I, uh, 'ot 'ored 'an haighd 'oo...uh” The Osprey turned its rotors, still slowly pivoting towards the wall. “...'ere, 'ut it 'as actually a 'itch-knot ang un...'eah.”
  2374.  
  2375. The two aircraft made pointed attempts to avoid looking at each other, the frame slowly creaking out of the wall and crashing to the ground in between the two.
  2376.  
  2377.  
  2378. The pilot had, in fact, heard the crash, having landed several minutes ago. Spooky had headed for the barracks with absolutely no explanation at all, so he'd decided to leave him be for now. He was curious enough to get there just in time to see the Lancer trying to untie the Osprey and probably making it even more tangled in the process. He had already decided that he'd had, and was going to have, enough strife for one day, so left them to it-he needed to rest, or at least gather himself.
  2379.  
  2380.  
  2381.  
  2382. The pilot sat in the A-10's hangar space, back against the wall, very worried.
  2383.  
  2384. The pilot  had come to a sudden realization-with the A-10 in maintenance mode, he would be unable to get out. He knew that the A-10 would recover-that's what he told himself, anyway-but, for now, was trapped.
  2385.  
  2386. He could hardly feel himself inside the A-10. He was only slightly worried about the A-10's personality taking over his own, however-he knew that the A-10 was in no shape to overwrite his own mind, nor would it particularly desire it. He hoped.
  2387.  
  2388. He was having a hard enough time keeping himself under control as it was-if the A-10 took too long to wake up, then he would have to get outside help.
  2389.  
  2390. It was also hard for him to ignore the feelings this body was giving him. The pilot knew this couldn't have been a standard sensor package at all. In fact, WHY did the A-10 have so many upgrades? He found that he didn't really care right now, his hand slowly running down the A-10's chest, feeling the malleable fuel tanks...
  2391.  
  2392. “Is there something wrong?”
  2393.  
  2394. The Lancer was staring at the pilot, who realised that 'his' expression would be all too visible, especially with the A-10's almost-fatal neural link modifications.
  2395.  
  2396. “N-nah. Just wondering who they were. Didn't look like terrorists. Or, er, insurgents.”
  2397.  
  2398. “I'm sure tha' when th' actual debrief's conducted we'll figure out more,” the Lancer replied, walking inside. The A-10's pilot watched from his seated position.
  2399.  
  2400. The Lancer walked over to its space, hunching over and twitching sporadically. Its back opened up and unceremoniously ejected its naked pilot onto the hard floor with a 'thunk'. “Oh God I'm sorry I haven't-”
  2401.  
  2402. “First time?” The pilot gloated. He wasn't exactly sure where the statement came from, but it felt right.
  2403.  
  2404. He noticed that Anne's body was shaking, and that she was leaning heavily on the B1-b. His eyes were drawn towards the comparison of curves between her and her aircraft. The Lancer was taller and sleeker, but Anne had a certain solid and homely shape. She swayed, and the Lancer grabbed her and staggered over on her side to cushion the mechanic's fall.
  2405.  
  2406. Some part of the pilot (the part that wasn't trying to feign disinterest) noted that Anne was clutching the Lancer a little too...intimately, head pressed into its neck, eyes partially glazed over.
  2407.  
  2408. The pilot realised that he already missed the A-10, even though he was currently inside it-even though he could feel every single grain of grit underneath its rear. One of his hands drifted down again, tracing a line across his stomach, downwards...
  2409. The Lancer gingerly attempted to remove the clinging woman from its chest, but only succeeded in giving her a better hold on it.
  2410.  
  2411. “Ah'm fine wi' stayin' here, sweetie,” Anne huskily muttered to the Lancer, running a hand up its neck and around the back of its head. The Lancer was quickly realising the exact nature of its predicament.
  2412.  
  2413. “I-I don't, um, they're right-” The Lancer looked over at the A-10, who was currently not paying them any attention at all, both eyes closed and one hand draped across its raised knee.
  2414.  
  2415. “Let 'em watch,” Anne replied, obviously enjoying upsetting the Lancer more, raising a shaky hand to its nosecone and pulling the B1-b into a kiss, roughly tasting the Lancer's mouth and muffling its reply, which ended up sounding somewhat like, “Mgmlgmhl.”
  2416.  
  2417. The A-10's raised knee was obscuring the pilot's other hand, gently rubbing the A-10's auxiliary fuel port. It was as if he was possessed (the thought had crossed his mind), but the neural links firing right now were practically forcing him to release some of the...'pressure' currently building up within him.
  2418.  
  2419. Anne pulled herself on the Lancer, straddling it as she disengaged the kiss, a strand of saliva stretching from the Lancer's tongue to hers. Meanwhile, her hands were gently massaging the Lancer's fuel tanks, moving their entire mass around, taking full advantage of the fleshlike synthmetal.
  2420.  
  2421. “S-stop,” the Lancer said, unconvincingly, arms flat out to the side. “I-I haven't even cleaned my bomb bays...”
  2422.  
  2423. Anne just smirked, lowering her face towards the Lancer's again, still massaging it. “Ye're a dirty girl, and I like dirty girls.” The B1-b opened its mouth to reply, at which point its pilot clamped down on its fuel depressurisation ports and jerked her head down, and kissed the Lancer deeply, her tongue exploring the interior of the Lancer's nosecone, eliciting a startled, “HMURG,” and a small amount of flailing metal arms followed by an acceptive moan and embrace from the plane.  
  2424.  
  2425. The kiss lasted for about five or six seconds before the Lancer realised that Anne had passed out. It was not sure whether it was supposed to be glad or disappointed, and gingerly picked the smaller redhead up, disengaging its mouth from hers, and carefully held her like a mother taking her child to bed. It cast a glance over at the A-10, but it appeared to be asleep against the wall. It decided that hard floor was not a nice place for humans to sleep, and started walking to the barracks, incredibly embarrassed for its pilot.
  2426.  
  2427. Seconds after the Lancer left, the pilot jerked forwards onto the A-10's hands and knees, furiously pumping his hand in and out of the A-10's auxiliary vent, emitting a frustrated moan, eyes wide. The pilot clawed himself upright, staggering to the back door of the hangar. The pilot had  just discovered that the A-10's sensitivity to touch extended past its outer control surfaces. He took another couple of steps before he staggered to a halt, leaning against the wall, mouth open, the A-10's synthmetal tongue hanging out. With the last scraps of his logical mind, he wondered how the A-10 could even stand this  for the short period of time he had, let alone all the time.
  2428.  
  2429. The rest of him simply desired release, one hand still exploring the A-10's depths while the other managed to reach its own mouth, playing around its teeth in a vain attempt to achieve something not even the pilot himself was sure of. One thing he did realise, though, was that he couldn't lose control inside the hangar. It was loaded with high-explosive shells, and he didn't want to end up wrecking all of the other planes' personal effects. And hangar.
  2430. The pilot staggered outside, behind the hangar, barely restraining the GAU-8, already spooling up. He staggered a short distance away, and could finally fucking let loose. He pointed its nosecone  at the empty desert surrounding the base, opened its mouth, and sent  a good deal of high explosive shells  spinning into the distance with a “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT”.
  2431.  
  2432. The pilot slumped against the wall  and slid down it, heedless of the fuel running down the A-10's leg and over the cement. He was too busy  trying to gather himself from wherever the A-10's involuntary release blasted him, gasping for breath. He pulled both of the A-10's legs to his chest, resting his head on them. Doubt gripped the pilot.
  2433.  
  2434. How could he hope to keep himself together?
  2435.  
  2436.  
  2437. MEANWHILE, IN █████████
  2438.  
  2439. The SR-71 Blackbird gave the laptop's screen a cold glare, watching as it tried to find the wireless  connection  for the sixth time. It was currently seated in a small tent, next to its pilot-who was currently asleep.
  2440.  
  2441. While planes did not technically have to sleep,  there was never anything to do at night-therefore, they usually shut down and defragged their memories. It was sometimes an acquired habit from their pilots, but the Blackbird had not-yet, anyway. Right now, it had to submit its report. Maybe THEN it could defrag, or...something. Almost anything was preferable to this. It couldn't even play Flash games, the 'net out here was so bad.
  2442.  
  2443.  
  2444.  
  2445. MEANWHILE, IN █████████
  2446.  
  2447. “So let me  get this straight.”
  2448.  
  2449. John and another man were seated in a room. Judging by the orange hue cast through the closed windows, it was late afternoon. The AC-130u's pilot, John, sat on one side of a table, watching and listening  to the second person with a measure of respect and attention.
  2450.  
  2451. “You say that they are...'unpredictable, fail to follow orders, volatile, work poorly in a team...' “The other figure looked over the PDA and raised an eyebrow at the pilot, who just shrugged in reply. “You expect me to look on this, somehow, favourably? When you've practically condemned the unit right here,” he stated, gesturing to the PDA.
  2452.  
  2453. John leaned on the table. “There's that, and some other things that I noticed when we were out there.” He made a vague gesture over his shoulder. “That's in no way a standard A-10. I'd like to see ONE plane, ever, that thought the best course of action was jumping through a truck trailer.”
  2454.  
  2455. The other figure, highlighted by the backlit PDA more than the window, was a middle-aged man, with close-cropped brown hair and a short boxed beard. He had an expression on his face that betrayed little emotion past 'professional'.
  2456.  
  2457. “The unit also possesses a measure of intuitive thought. I'm pretty sure that they've picked that this isn't an observation base at all,” he added, chuckling slightly.
  2458.  
  2459. “I don't think this a laughing matter.”
  2460.  
  2461. John put conscious effort into becoming straight-faced again. “No sir. With the F-15 offline, and this cropping up again, I want all the help I can get. I'm confident that this A-10's bad habits can be broken.”
  2462.  
  2463. “I suspect that you'll have to address the whole problem, not just one half of it,” the other man replied.
  2464.  
  2465. John knew that he meant that he'd have to make sure it wasn't the pilot doing all of this-they'd been talking of the A-10 as a 'unit', comprising the pilot and the plane, sort of how someone would refer to a group of soldiers as a 'squad'.
  2466.  
  2467. “He seems a little...unorthodox, I guess, but he's not a bad sort. Quiet, maybe, but he's got along with his plane so far.”
  2468.  
  2469. “Over the three days that you've known him,” the other man added, in a businesslike tone of voice. “How many times have you actually talked to him? Alone, not synched.”
  2470.  
  2471. John rubbed his chin. “Huh. Once, I think. Over breakfast.”
  2472.  
  2473. “What did you talk about?”
  2474.  
  2475. “...Can't remember, actually.” John shrugged again, leaning back as the other man continued watching him like a hawk.
  2476.  
  2477. “Go get to know him before you make any more 'suggestions'. I don't want any more renegades on this base. Dismissed.”
  2478.  
  2479. John nodded, stood, and left the room.
  2480.  
  2481.  
  2482. MEANWHILE, AT THE BASE
  2483.  
  2484.  
  2485. The pilot had pulled himself together somewhat and moved back to his barracks. Still trapped in the A-10, he'd been trying to figure out both the extent of the A-10's modifications and how to safely disengage from it. Logically, if he could access targeting information, flight programs, and weapons systems, surely he could figure out how to eject himself?
  2486.  
  2487. In the meantime, he was hungry. This proved something of a problem, as the A-10 didn't need to eat. He knew there were ways for the plane to feed nutrition to their pilots, should the need arise, but wasn't sure of the specifics.
  2488.  
  2489. The pilot grimaced and rested his head on his hand, sitting on his bed. Looking at it logically, it must be something to do with the mouth. But there's a bloody gatling cannon in there, food would get in the workings and fuck it up, even if it is made of synthmetal.
  2490.  
  2491. He'd picked the least dangerous-to-weaponry looking food available (some kind of dried slim jim thing) for preliminary testing. After examining it closely, it seemed that his stomach had to reconsider exactly how hungry it was, and whether this constituted 'food', but he shoved his doubts aside and poked around in the A-10's mouth with his hand.
  2492.  
  2493. “Need some help there?”
  2494.  
  2495. The only reason the pilot didn't jump in surprise was...well, he wasn't sure. He guessed it was the A-10's fault, somehow. He turned, seeing John-the AC-130U's pilot, from memory-throwing around clothes at his own bunk and smirking at the A-10. Motherfucker.
  2496.  
  2497. “What do you want?” He replied, twisting around. He was already annoyed with the man.
  2498.  
  2499. “Oh, nothing,” the other man replied. The pilot noticed that he had the solid muscle that comes from work and exercise, not the stupid-looking bulky weightlifter shit. “Just looked like you were having trouble with the...” He gestured to the slim jim, pulling on a shirt. “...whatever they call those things.”
  2500.  
  2501. The pilot frowned harder, dropping it on to the bed and watching the man, who responded by laughing and walking over. “Well yeah, not as if it's something most planes ever pick up. You know what they say about eating and swimming, right?”
  2502.  
  2503. The pilot wondered if it was his attempt at a pick-up line or something. A joke? Maybe? He didn't know and found it hard to care, and kept his silence.
  2504.  
  2505. “I took a look at your file, it says you've had some modifications to your nutrient intake systems. Guess you haven't had the chance to test them yet.” John sat down on his own bed, apparently entirely convinced that conversation was a brilliant idea.
  2506.  
  2507. Still, what he said did bring up some valid points. If it's modified it should be more...natural. That's how everything else was, anyway...Something to do with the tongue, maybe? He realized that he had been thinking about it all wrong. The A-10 was in no way standard.
  2508.  
  2509. The pilot concentrated, and suddenly had the strange sensation of his...throat? sliding up and over his tongue. He gagged a little, involuntarily, whilst trying to keep a straight face. He failed, but managed to turn back around in time to conceal it. He stuffed the ex-slim jim into the A-10's face and again had to reel himself in. He guessed that the usual 'sheathe' for the GAU-10 folded back when in combat mode. It was already flexible, it wouldn't take much to just put some sort of protective covering over it.
  2510.  
  2511. “Hey, uh, I've been meaning to ask, you know where your pilot is? I've been looking for him for hours.”
  2512.  
  2513. He almost choked on his slim jim. “Uh, what?”
  2514.  
  2515. “You know, pilot? Guy who flies you? I wanted to chat with him, he seems like an alright guy.”
  2516.  
  2517. The pilot was glad that the A-10 wasn't able to sweat. As it was, he had to make a conscious effort to stop the A-10's turbines from nervously spooling up. Surely he didn't suspect...?
  2518.  
  2519. The pilot forced himself to stay composed. After all, there's no reason for him to think otherwise. It was dangerously easy to slip into the A-10's character, after all.
  2520.  
  2521. “Uh...he's somewhere. I'm not his minder.” The pilot started to swivel around on the bed, only to bump into the AC-130U's pilot, who had walked up while he was distracted and sat down on the bed, right next to him.
  2522.  
  2523. “Well I DID want him here for this but I guess you can ask him when you see him,” John replied, rubbing the back of his neck, looking awfully uncertain. “Even though I was told specifically not to tell you straight up...”
  2524.  
  2525. The pilot narrowed his eyes at John, before throwing his hands up. “HERE WE GO. HEEEEEEEEEEERE WE GO. 'WHY DON'T YOU DO WHAT I SAY, A-10? TEAMWORK, A-10.”
  2526.  
  2527. John happily ignored him and kept talking. “Well, you see, Spooky's got a giant crush on you and wanted to ask you out to...” John made air quotes with his hands, obviously relishing it, “'not a date, just dinner'. I reckoned I'd have to ask your pilot first, just in case something else...” He made a vague gesture with his hands in front of him, trailing off.
  2528.  
  2529. The pilot could do many things. Paint models, play poker, fly a plane, pretend to be that plane-he even came second in a ping pong tournament once-but this, this 'not-dating', was beyond him. He knew this for a fact.
  2530.  
  2531. As such, he stopped, held up a hand, took a deep breath and gave the appearance of great, deep consideration.
  2532.  
  2533. And then realized that he knew that the A-10 was also quite attracted to the other plane. And that it would probably murder him if he messed this chance up somehow. He slowly let out the breath, put the A-10's head in his hands, and eloquently stated: “Ah, fuck.”
  2534.  
  2535. “...what? Is it that bad?” John was not too sure how to react other than 'lean away slightly and prepare to take cover', and it showed.
  2536.  
  2537. The pilot sat up again and looked across at John. “Okay, yeah, you are talking to the A-10's pilot.”
  2538.  
  2539. John blinked, then slowly started turning a coral pink colour. He knew he should be able to tell these things, hell, he'd been around enough units. “Oh. Um. Er...why? Exactly...?”
  2540.  
  2541. “You, uh, you remember that pulse you two detected when we last went out? After those trucks?”
  2542.  
  2543. John, suddenly all business, transferred from 'entertained' to 'worried'. “Yeah. Oh. Oh fuck.”
  2544.  
  2545. “Yeah, I haven't-”
  2546.  
  2547. John galvanized into action, grabbing a cellphone out of his pocket and hammering a speed dial, grabbing the A-10's arm and hustling out of the barracks.
  2548.  
  2549. “What are you doing? Wh-” The pilot was taken by surprise, and let himself get dragged along.
  2550.  
  2551. “I can't believe you did th-” He turned to the phone. “ANNE. Get down to the workshop NOW. Bring, uh....shit, I don't know, just get here.”
  2552.  
  2553. The pilot heard a reply over the phone, although he couldn't make it out, and then John was rolling the V-22 off the workbed it was currently draped over, snoring, which woke with an “AaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH oh what's going on now?”
  2554.  
  2555. “Need table, need privacy, please leave.” John shoved the other parts off the workbed, pointing towards the door with his other hand.
  2556.  
  2557. The Osprey wasn't exactly sure what was going on. Was this one of those things that AH-10 told it about? Where the human joined its fuel coupling with the intake port? It didn't get to finish the thought, as John hustled it out. “On the table. Now. Face down.”
  2558.  
  2559. The pilot did as he was told, wondering if there was reason for the disproportionate response. Or maybe it WASN'T disproportionate. He didn't feel injured or insane. He was still in complete control over his (well, their) faculties.
  2560.  
  2561. John looked at the A-10 and rubbed a hand through his hair. “Days and you didn't even...why? You know: I don't care.”
  2562.  
  2563. Anne bundled through the door, looking as if she'd only woken up a few minutes ago. “So why'd y' wake me up, then?”
  2564.  
  2565. “They-” He pointed at the A-10 accusingly, “were caught in that discharge.”
  2566.  
  2567. Anne furrowed her brows and walked over to the A-10, looking at its (now slightly worried) face. “O-kay. Get out.”
  2568.  
  2569. “I, uh, can't.”
  2570.  
  2571. “Y'what? Why?”
  2572.  
  2573. The pilot half rolled over. “I don't know. I can't eject or anything. Usually the A-10 does it.”
  2574.  
  2575. “Ah, bloody hell. Can't access the systems?”
  2576.  
  2577. “No.”
  2578.  
  2579. Anne paced back one way, then back the other. “John, go grab th' car battery.”
  2580.  
  2581. John and the pilot gave each other a worried look, before John jumped to.
  2582.  
  2583.  
  2584. Several minutes later, the (now considerably worried) pilot was sitting on the floor, several wires taped to the A-10's head and spine section.
  2585.  
  2586. “A'right. What we're goin' tae do is directly stimulate the parts that y' need to get y'self out.” Anne held the other end of the wire in a set of pliers, which were being held in a thick pair of rubber gloves. The pilot reckoned that the messy hair really did finish off the crazy scientist look.
  2587.  
  2588. “You know, that bed-head really makes you look the part,” John stated.
  2589.  
  2590. “Go tae hell,” Anne grumbled, touching the wire to the battery.
  2591.  
  2592. The pilot's vision went white. He realized that he wasn't feeling any pain-just an incredible sense of disjunction, as if he was in two places at once. He felt hard floor on his face, and realized that he'd fallen over. Or out. He hoped it was 'out'.
  2593.  
  2594. He blinked a few times, and realized that the white was an afterimage-slowly clearing. He could see John and Anne watching after a few seconds.
  2595.  
  2596. “I had the strangest dream,” a voice said from behind him. His OWN voice. He sat up and turned, pulling the wires from the A-10's face in the process. He was faced with...himself, naked and dazed-looking.
  2597.  
  2598. He panicked.
  2599.  
  2600. “This isn't right. This isn't right at all. Why am I there? Oh my god. OH my god.” He pointed, pushing himself backwards with the A-10's feet. He was dimly aware of several warning lights on the HUD-overpressurization, power surges (duh), both radars were malfunctioning, the IFF was rebooting for some reason-and the other two yelling in the background. 'It's going into shock', 'shut it down', stuff like that, but he was more focused on the confused HIM sitting, right there-until he felt a pressure on the side of his neck, and lost consciousness.
  2601.  
  2602.  
  2603.  
  2604.  
  2605.  
  2606. “Can someone fill me in on what's going on right now? Slowly?”
  2607.  
  2608. The pilot had requisitioned some pants, and was sitting on his bed in the barracks. The A-10 was apparently back in the hangar, having its memory core poked at by Anne. Opposite the pilot sat John.
  2609.  
  2610. “You want the long story or the short one?” John replied, arms crossed, looking pensive. “You know, nevermind, you're getting both. First, both, either, of you've got stage five Moller's syndrome,” John continued.
  2611.  
  2612. “Stage five? What are the other four?” The pilot was obviously quite distressed, slowly coming to realise the exact magnitude of what was happening to him.
  2613.  
  2614. “Stage one: both members of the unit start sharing the same likes and dislikes, adopt certain mannerisms and quirks from each other...”
  2615.  
  2616. The pilot blinked, sitting up on the bed and frowning. Wasn't that what happened just now? Except less minor.
  2617.  
  2618. John pointed at the pilot. “Right there. Like that. You're frowning, just like your plane.” John sighed, looking away for a moment. “Stage two: Slight merging of the subconscious. Both members of the unit start sharing dreams if linked, and will often find themselves thinking the same thought, or coming up with the same idea at the same time. Those are acceptable levels. Anything above stage two gets the pilot re-assigned immediately to another plane.”
  2619.  
  2620. “And you said I was on stage what? Five?” The pilot covered his mouth with one hand, crossing his legs.
  2621.  
  2622. “Stage three,” John continued, “is where the first personality conflicts start. Compatibility issues, if you like. Could be something as minor as 'I like strawberry icecream' and 'I like chocolate icecream'. The one with the stronger personality, stronger subconscious, overpowers the other and overwrites the other's preferences. Sometimes it can actually work out, like, uh...” John waved his hands. “Like it turning out to 'I like Neapolitan icecream'. Other times it can be something more along the lines of 'I need to actively breathe to live'. Or worse, remember, this is the subconscious we're talking about. It can affect the body's processes. Heart might decide it doesn't need to beat, or perhaps the lymph nodes suddenly get the command to produce high quality engine oil.”
  2623.  
  2624. “Huh.”
  2625.  
  2626. “Yeah, it's kind of like that. Don't get me started on what happens to some of the planes I've seen, that turn out 'weaker'.”
  2627.  
  2628. The pilot noticed that, for the first time, John actually seemed harrowed. Talking about Moller's so casually and killing people, even, without any seeming regret. He wanted to ask, but decided that he should not.
  2629.  
  2630. “Should both members of the unit survive stage three,” John recited, “they'll start becoming dependent on each other. As in, if the human member and the plane member of the unit are separated for a long enough period of time, they'll enter severe withdrawals. They both depend on each other for even simple problem solving tasks. Self-determination becomes harder.”
  2631.  
  2632. “I don't feel any different,” the pilot commented, sitting up. Maybe there was hope?
  2633.  
  2634. “And that is stage five,” John said sourly.
  2635.  
  2636. “Fuck.”
  2637.  
  2638. “Stage five is where the two members of the unit become essentially the same. Same likes, dislikes, personalities. Except they're not who they 'used' to be, they're more a composite of both.” John fell silent, letting what he just said sink in.
  2639.  
  2640. The pilot looked at the floor, brow furrowed. “That doesn't make sense.”
  2641.  
  2642. “Hm?”
  2643.  
  2644. “If me-and it-were exactly the same, wouldn't I be more, uh...violent? I don't know, it doesn't seem like it fits...properly. I don't know.” The pilot had, for once, no ideas. This was so far beyond his expertise that he had no idea how to begin to start figuring this out.
  2645.  
  2646. John stood up, looking at the pilot sadly. “Look, just get some sleep. If you get withdrawal, that's a good thing. I'll see you tomorrow.”
  2647.  
  2648.  
  2649.  
  2650.  
  2651. In the hangar, Anne was currently having a hard time getting at the A-10's memory core. The plane was wielding a mechanic's workbench with a surprising amount of proficiency, which was keeping Anne and the small stunprod-like unit out of reach.
  2652.  
  2653. “I am NOT going to let you take my memories out. I do not care who you fucking think I am, they're mine,” it stated carefully and slowly.
  2654.  
  2655. “Well AH DOON'T GIVE A FOOK WH'T Y'THINK Y' STUPID LUMP O' METAL,” replied Anne, waving the prod in an incredibly frustrated manner reminiscent of a high pressure hose.
  2656.  
  2657. The A-10 waved the table again, edging around the room. “How do I know you're not just going to 'edit' me into compliance?”
  2658.  
  2659. “Well y'ere gonna hafta trust me, because WHY WOULD AH EVEN WANT T'...okay, I give up. Enjoy bein' COMPLETELY FOOKIN' INSANE.” Anne pegged the prod at the plane, which deflected it with the table.
  2660.  
  2661. “What do you mean 'insane'? I'm fine. I feel fine.”
  2662.  
  2663. Anne's face switched from 'anger' to something like pity, or maybe just sadness. The A-10 realised that just the expression made it feel angry. It wasn't sure if it was feeling it, or if there was an...outside force influencing it.
  2664.  
  2665. “Moller's syndrome isn't somethin' like a cold y'can just take pills for. I can try siftin' oot th' corrupted files from up there, b'that's all, short o' a complete format.”
  2666.  
  2667. “I wouldn't be...me, would I? Whoever I am,” the A-10 replied, lowering the table. It sounded uncharacteristically shaky.
  2668.  
  2669. Anne didn't answer, just walked to the door and put a hand on the frame, opening it and peering outside. She sighed. “Look, wha' I think y'should do is talk t'ye pilot.”
  2670. “For what good that will do. According to you I may as well ask myself,” the plane replied bitterly.
  2671.  
  2672.  
  2673.  
  2674.  
  2675. The pilot couldn't sleep. He was haunted by the other man's words-and was busy trying to piece together information in his head-he hadn't seen the A-10 since being...separated. He noted that he was having minor ghost limb syndrome. He had no turbines, but still reflexively turned slightly to the side to fit them through the door. Thankfully, he knew it a relatively minor side-effect.
  2676.  
  2677. The A-10 couldn't sleep. It was shaken by the mechanic's swift attitude change and 'advice'. There was definitely something off about this base, and it was determined to figure it out. It hadn't seen its pilot since being 'forcefully deactivated' by Anne, and kept casting inwards, reflexively trying to find his mind safely resting inside its own. It decided that it needed to follow the mechanic's advice. Even if it wasn't very GOOD advice.
  2678.  
  2679.  
  2680. The two met half-way between the hangars and the barracks, almost bumping into each other, they were so deep in thought. The night was warm and balmy, a hot breeze tossing itself down the tarmac. They looked at each other for a few seconds,  wordless and expressionless, before they both started walking back to the hangar. Once they entered and sat down on the opposite ends of the maintenance table, both took a deep breath.
  2681.  
  2682. “Look, I-”
  2683.  
  2684. “We s-”
  2685.  
  2686. Both stopped and waited for the other to finish, before the pilot raised his hand. “You've been thinking about this as well, right?”
  2687.  
  2688. “The base? Who's on it?”
  2689.  
  2690. “Yeah.”
  2691.  
  2692. There wasn't much to really say-they both guessed that the other had come to the same conclusion as the other. The A-10 felt that it needed to confirm, just in case.
  2693.  
  2694. “That there's no way this is an observation base, yeah?” The A-10 crossed its arms. “Observation base wouldn't need a fucking Blackbird on call, they'd have one here. It's not 'counter-terrorism' or any bullshit like that, either. Those guys that almost took Lancer? No fucking way.”
  2695.  
  2696. “And,” the pilot continued, “I'm not even sure if they were from around here. Balaclava, sure, and it was hard to tell through the fire and smoke, but I'm willing to guess they were either PMC or-”
  2697.  
  2698. The pilot fell silent as the A-10 nodded, looking honestly and openly conflicted. “Yeah. Fuck. I don't...I don't like this at all. I don't...I don't like how I was transferred here,” it admitted at length, scooting across the side of the table, closer to the pilot.
  2699.  
  2700. The pilot wordlessly put an arm around the A-10's cold shoulders, holding it close. While he wasn't entirely sure who he was, he knew who he wanted himself to be. “I don't blame you. You were on that base for how long?”
  2701.  
  2702. The A-10 wrapped its arms around the pilot's chest, pressing its head into his shoulder and frowning fiercely in an empty effort to hide a growing tide of emotion. “Years. Empty fucking years. Years of buying useless upgrades. Years of doing completely fucking useless training and I don't even fucking know what for any more,” the A-10 grated out through gritted teeth. “To come here and what, be used as a fucking testbed?”
  2703.  
  2704. The pilot didn't reply, only held the A-10 closer.
  2705.  
  2706. “I just want to do what I'm fucking GOOD at. Is that too much to ask? Is it?” The A-10 sobbed quietly.
  2707.  
  2708. “I shouldn't have ever trusted that general. A transfer to a place like this, from that, after what you did to the son of a bitch is too good to be true.” The pilot rubbed the shaky A-10's smooth head in an attempt to comfort it. “Let it all out. Browning knows I wouldn't have been able to hold it in for this long.”
  2709.  
  2710. The A-10 cried into the pilot's shoulder, slowly soaking his shirt with oil. The pilot realised that this is what the A-10 really needed-not combat, not battle deployment. It had enough training, it had enough upgrades and 'aces' flying it. It needed someone that would listen to it and not judge it. The pilot had essentially been it for long enough-apparently he was a sufficient stand-in. He felt a strange mixture of pride and contentment, mixed with concern. Concern for the A-10, and concern for his shirt.
  2711.  
  2712. A while later, the A-10 had calmed sufficiently, and the pilot was busy planning.
  2713.  
  2714. “Look I'll...look, what I'll do is go see if I can track down our 'friend'. We can pay him a visit, or I can, and see what we can get him to tell us. There's no going back, 'though. We'll be called 'traitors' to our country.”
  2715.  
  2716. “F-fuck them,” the A-10 sobbed, with enough venom to melt through at least three meters of concrete.
  2717.  
  2718. “Yeah, well, the might decide to fuck US. And they have waaay more fuckers than we do.” The pilot sighed.
  2719.  
  2720. “Don' care,” the A-10 replied hotly, tightening its grasp on the pilot. “I only need one.”
  2721.  
  2722.  
  2723. LATER THAT NIGHT, BARRACKS
  2724.  
  2725.  
  2726. The pilot smiled wanly and ran a hand down the A-10's chest, causing it to twitch. “I don't know if this is a good idea.”
  2727.  
  2728. “It's a great idea. Stop whining.” The A-10 shoved the pilot back on to the bed and grinned. Even though it seemed happier, the pilot could still tell that it was pretty shaken up. He realised that he himself should probably be more worried about what was going on.
  2729.  
  2730. “I backed up all the memories I could find,” the A-10 continued, teasingly running a cold finger down the pilot's neck and resting its palm on his bare chest. “And that includes eeeeeeeeeverything. What makes you tick, what...well,” it trailed off, moving its face closer to the pilot's, nonchalantly rubbing his joystick.
  2731.  
  2732. The pilot looked back with a blank face, before raising an eyebrow and offering a small smile of his own. “Really?”
  2733.  
  2734. The A-10 frowned. He shouldn't be so confident. Being told that everything you have ever known is in a zip file would break a lesser plane, even. “YEAH, really. For example...” The A-10 huskily whispered,, concentrating.
  2735.  
  2736. The pilot watched the A-10's face go from concentration to alarm, then to horror, eventually tracing its way through 'disgust' all the way to a thousand yard stare, looking straight through the pilot, the bedhead he was propped up against, and the wall behind him. After a few seconds of silence, punctuated only by the sound of wind whistling down the tarmac, the A-10 stated:
  2737.  
  2738. “John Moses Browning and all of his saints, you must be THE MOST BORING PERSON I HAVE EVER, EVER COME IN CONTACT WITH. Have you EVER DONE ANYTHING INTERESTING IN YOUR LIFE?”
  2739.  
  2740. The pilot leaned back slightly, head pressing against the hard wood. “I don't know, I think my life's been pretty eventf-”
  2741.  
  2742. “NO IT HASN'T! YOU SPENT FIFTEEN YEARS STARING AT FUCKING BOOKS. JUST BOOKS. WITH NUMBERS AND SHIT.”
  2743.  
  2744. “Well, yeah, that's education a-”
  2745.  
  2746. “WARN ME. YOU SHOULD HAVE WARNED ME. THAT YOU WERE SO BORING. I'll never fucking recover oh Browning why.”
  2747.  
  2748. The pilot let out something halfway between a chuckle and a sigh. “Look, I don't know what passes for 'eventful' for you but most people think getting into the air force is a pretty big deal. I guess you have been training to blow things up since you were...um, born,” the pilot said thoughtfully.
  2749.  
  2750. “YES. I have shot millions of rounds of ammunition. Stuck many, many training bombs into many, many training targets. I WOULD have killed the man who tried to ruin my life. And you. YOU. You...” The A-10 trailed off and frowned at the pilot. He seemed to be enjoying its consternation, grinning like an idiot.
  2751.  
  2752. The A-10 pulled back hard on the joystick.
  2753.  
  2754. “OW. Hey! HEY. Fragile equipment! Priceless! Irreplaceable!” The pilot said, jerking up.
  2755.  
  2756. The A-10 realised that past a 'take THAT', it was being pretty childish. “Let's put it to use then,” it stated, performing a surprisingly dexterous Immelmann turn, going from staring down the pilot to examining the joystick in one smooth movement.
  2757.  
  2758. “Huh. I never noticed this before.”
  2759.  
  2760. The A-10 let out a yelp as its auxiliary casing ejection port was examined by the pilot's warm hand.
  2761.  
  2762. “A-ah! D-don't touch that.” The A-10 attempted to turn, but the A-10 had wedged a foot underneath the bed head, leaving it stuck.
  2763.  
  2764. The pilot ran his finger down the port again, eliciting a shudder and an unintelligible mutter  from the A-10. The synthmetal valve was closed fairly tightly, so he had to exert no little effort in forcing it open.
  2765.  
  2766. “AMGFSGHDBNNGFH,” the A-10 stated, gripping the pilot's legs.
  2767.  
  2768. The pilot was always teased about how effeminate his hands were. Long fingers-apparently they were 'piano player's fingers', but he had always put them to use painting or typing. He was also apparently tone-deaf, which hindered his musical career somewhat.
  2769.  
  2770. The pilot slipped a finger into the A-10's ejection port, exploring what was past the valve, ignoring the A-10's shuddering, shaky protests and the fluid dripping on to his chest.
  2771.  
  2772. He was interrupted by the A-10 grasping his joystick and placing it between very sharp, pointed teeth.
  2773.  
  2774. “IH HU DN'G 'OP, E'LL BI' I' OFF,” the muffled A-10 shakily wailed.
  2775.  
  2776. The pilot considered it for a couple of seconds, before inserting a second finger past the valve, pulling back slightly on the inside.
  2777.  
  2778. “NUOH BROWNING,” the A-10 wailed, jerking away and burying its head in the bed, shuddering. “A-ARE YOU MAD? NNGAAHNN.”
  2779.  
  2780. “Oh, you were bluffing. I...don't have a hard drive but I know what your life was like, too.”
  2781.  
  2782. The A-10 hadn't thought of that. It would have been somewhat worried, but it was too busy trying to avoid whiting out from the massive stimulation its ejection port's nerves were experiencing.
  2783.  
  2784. “You're trained to kill the enemy and watch out for your allies. Even if you were willing to go through with that , some part of you would have had to accept me as an enemy.”
  2785.  
  2786. “I FUCKING HATE YOU. AAGH. FUCK.” The A-10 twitched and grabbed on to one of the pilot's feet, transferring from the almost-destroyed covers. Not only was this sensation entirely new to the plane, it was also suffering the effects of increased sensitivity as well-one of its first upgrades was an enhanced sensor suite, and it applied to the entire chassis. And, apparently, inside it.
  2787.  
  2788. Of course, the A-10 didn't have time to really think about any of that-the pilot suddenly, slowly, removed his fingers.
  2789.  
  2790. The A-10 weakly gasped, breathing heavily. “Noooo, why? Why do you always do this?”
  2791.  
  2792. The pilot pulled the A-10's ejection port closer and ran his tongue around the valve, causing the A-10's engines to spasm into action, whirring, and the A-10 into another unintelligible tirade of gasping out what was probably swearing, muffled by the bed.
  2793.  
  2794. The pilot continued his ministrations while the A-10 struggled and gasped, grabbing at the bedsheets and the pilot's leg, not entirely sure what to do as the building pressure in its auxiliary release valve approached critical levels.
  2795.  
  2796. The pilot gave one last gentle, slow lick, and the A-10 screamed, and let out a heavily muffled “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRT,” shredding the lower half of the mattress and boring a clean hole through the bed itself. The pilot was just glad it was pointing away from his groin.
  2797.  
  2798. It took a couple of minutes for the two to fully recover, the pilot's heartbeat slowly returning to safe levels. Eventually the A-10 pushed itself up and rolled over, almost falling off the bed. “Okay, th...that's step one...over,” it stated reluctantly.
  2799.  
  2800. “Well, I DID say, 'let's fake it', but oh no, y-”
  2801.  
  2802. “Shut up. Just shut up. God.”
  2803.  
  2804.  
  2805.  
  2806.  
  2807.  
  2808.  
  2809. The 'plan' had two steps. The first was putting the base at ease-that is, convincing them that they were not insane, nor suspected anything was amiss. The A-10 suggested the first step, which worked quite admirably. 'Step one' was obnoxious and loud enough to go under the radar. Step two would be harder. The pilot had explained it as simply as he could-they needed access to the troop postings database. The problem came with the complete lack of expertise both of them with any sort of hacking-even the A-10, who was an artificial intelligence itself, had no skill with computers.
  2810.  
  2811. The only solution either of them could see was politely asking someone else to do it.
  2812.  
  2813.  
  2814. Richard was the IT Guy. He was the one guy on the base that people went to, no matter what the problem-DVD player acting up? Call Richard. Computer running slowly? Call Richard. Coffee-maker broken? Call Richard. He loathed ever offering to help in the first place. People didn't understand that making someone else clean up after you decide to use a DVD as a coaster, or browsing through the mounds of dodgy porn sites on the internet (and expecting to come out of that virus-free), or whatever just meant that you would never know how. Well, unless you learned how yourself.
  2815.  
  2816. But that's what Richard was for. Richard didn't like his job.
  2817.  
  2818. One of his favourite past-times on base was relaxing in the server room. It got cold at night, and-despite hating his job-he found the hum of servers calming. It helped that it was one of the more secure places on the base, should it ever come under attack.
  2819.  
  2820. He was reading a book-a terrible fantasy novel by a writer he'd never heard of-when there was a businesslike knock on the room's door. He looked up from his book. It must have been four AM-he thought he was the only one with insomnia on the base.
  2821.  
  2822. Logically, Richard knew that there was no reason for an aeroplane to be out here this late at all. There was even less reason than for one to give him a look like...that.
  2823.  
  2824. Richard belatedly realised that this night would be one that he would be remembering for a while.
  2825.  
  2826.  
  2827.  
  2828. 1030 HOURS, SOMEWHERE OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN
  2829.  
  2830. The A-10 and the pilot had been flying in silence since they left the base, mostly for security reasons. They had made good time overland, and were currently at a high altitude over the ocean. The pilot was the first to break the silence.
  2831.  
  2832. “I'm really not sure how to feel about that.”
  2833.  
  2834. The A-10 blinked. “About what?”
  2835.  
  2836. “You know, th-”
  2837.  
  2838. The A-10 let out a sharp, harsh laugh. “What, you never wrangled a fuel line before?”
  2839.  
  2840. The pilot seemed uncharacteristically flustered. “No, it's...it's not that, just...I don't know what it is. I feel bad about the whole thing.”
  2841.  
  2842. “Would you rather somethin' went wrong, and we ended up getting' split up and fuckin' mulched?” The A-10 drawled angrily. “Don't know 'bout you, but I'd rather keep all of my shit in one piece, yeah?”
  2843.  
  2844. The pilot started to say something, but then stopped himself. Despite his efforts, the A-10 picked up on his emotions through the synaptic link.
  2845.  
  2846. “...heh heh heh. HA. You're JEALOUS. Mother fucker!” The A-10 seemed more entertained and outright gloating than anything else, for which the pilot was thankful.
  2847.  
  2848. “Don't be a little bitch about it. If y'find a nice human woman, not like I'm going to whinge.”
  2849.  
  2850. The pilot let the fact that he totally knew it would slide. “It's not that simple, A-10-”
  2851.  
  2852. “Sure it is. Find someone you're compatible with and away y' go.” The A-10 made grand motions with its arms while in flight, causing the two to wobble slightly in the air.
  2853.  
  2854. “It's...it's really not that simple. Humans don't get paired up like that. They judge each other based on a whole range of things, from eye colour to height to appearance. I'm not really that attractive for a human.”
  2855.  
  2856. “What, really? Bullshit. You're definitely in the top ten percent.”
  2857.  
  2858. “I thought you said you'd hardly seen any other male humans? Being stuck on a base in the middle of nowhere.”
  2859.  
  2860. “Are you retarded? They had the internet out there.”
  2861.  
  2862. Both realised at about the same time what the A-10 had just admitted to, but both chose to hope the other did not pick up on it, and continue on as if nothing had happened.
  2863.  
  2864. “I wonder how those other units will take it,” the pilot wondered. “They'll probably have figured it out by now. They've got faster planes than you, might try to catch and overtake us if they can figure out a heading.”
  2865.  
  2866. “Yeah, nah, fuck 'em. We've made a clear break.” The A-10 rolled over on to its back, shading its visual sensors against the bright sunlight.
  2867.  
  2868. “Some of them seemed nice.”
  2869.  
  2870. “Yeah, seemed, dumbass. Not like they were all watching us ALL THE FUCKIN' TIME or anything. Not like we were bein' used as test subjects. Or, you know, getting fucking shafted by Command. No, no, fuck them. Plenty of work for a freelancing unit. Mercenary work. Where you get to shoot all the shit you want up.”
  2871.  
  2872. “And pay for your own ammo.”
  2873.  
  2874. The A-10 frowned and rolled back over again. “Son of a bitch.”
  2875.  
  2876. “Uh...speaking of ammo, how much do you have left?”
  2877.  
  2878. “Enough. Why?”
  2879.  
  2880. “Well, we had to refuel half-way to that last base. Unless we have a lot less weight, we might run out of fuel as I think this is a longer tri-”
  2881.  
  2882. The A-10 blinked, eyes wide. “Oh FUCK me. Hadn't thought of that.”
  2883.  
  2884. “You WHAT?” The pilot sputtered.
  2885.  
  2886. “Look, this is my second long-range flight! EVER! Not my fault!”
  2887.  
  2888. “Yeah, it's mine, I should have thought of this. Damn it.” The pilot slowed the A-10 in a vain effort to conserve fuel.
  2889.  
  2890. The pilot wracked his brain for a solution to the problem. He did blame himself-it's something so basic and routine he completely forgot. Something like this would kill them in the freelancing business, if it didn't kill them now. He knew the A-10 could swim and was buoyant enough, but they both needed fuel to live.
  2891.  
  2892. It took him far too long to detect that the A-10 had stopped worrying. It had a plan.
  2893.  
  2894.  
  2895.  
  2896.  
  2897. “This is a terrible plan,” the pilot commented.
  2898.  
  2899. “I'd like to see YOU come up with a better one!” The A-10 replied.
  2900.  
  2901. They had taken a detour. After heading out over the sea, they took a slight detour. Taking advantage of the A-10's new military database, they were going to bluff their way on to an aircraft carrier. The pilot thought that this was a very bad idea.
  2902.  
  2903. “This is a very bad idea,” the pilot reiterated.
  2904.  
  2905. “Look, it's not like they'll be able to figure out where we're going. This boat's headed for...” The A-10 wavered in the air as it dumped control on its pilot, searching through the downloaded records.
  2906.  
  2907. The pilot involuntarily shuddered. “It doesn't matter. Why would an A-10 even be out over the water? This is not A-10 territory.”
  2908.  
  2909. “Stop whingin' like a fuckin' baby or COME UP WITH A BETTER ONE.” The A-10 sighed. “It wouldn't be hard, damnit.”
  2910.  
  2911. The pilot relented, mentally shrugging. The A-10 had been (and still was)going through a tonne of life-changing decisions in the past few weeks. Hell, he felt that he'd been more along for a ride. The A-10's forceful personality tended to do that-drag other people along in the slipstream. It was hard to keep up with it. But now, it seemed to have stalled. He knew that it had realised that achieving the objective wasn't the be-all and end-all of life. For a military plane, that is kind of a big deal.
  2912.  
  2913. The A-10, on the other hand, felt differently. It had learned that its purpose-of raining death-was never really going to be fulfilled in the army. Hell, that chance had been blown ever since the training base. It had to keep flying or it would drop out of the air. Movement was life; if it stopped going forwards it would drop out of the air and become a pretty crater. Or splash, in this case. It had always had decisions made for it. By the upper brass, pilots, technicians that should be rotting in a shallow fucking grave right now. But, for the fist time, it was kind of at peace with it. It trusted its pilot-he had a silent core of confidence. It couldn't help but feel some kind of respect for the man.
  2914.  
  2915. Both of them were roughly jolted out of their reverie when the on-board radio sprang into life. They'd been going faster than they thought-they were within hailing range of the aircraft carrier.
  2916.  
  2917. “This is the finest floater in the seven seas hailin' an unidentified contact, who the hell are you?”
  2918.  
  2919. Well, the radio operator was not one for protocol, it seemed.
  2920.  
  2921. “One A-10 requesting landing and refuelling.”
  2922.  
  2923.  
  2924. “Wow, what's an A-10 doing out here? Well, you're cleared. Here for the war-games?”
  2925.  
  2926. The pilot answered for the A-10, taking control. “Just passing through. We're based in the Arujistan observation base.”
  2927.  
  2928. No information that wouldn't come up with a basic background check-and giving out a little now would hopefully stop whoever this guy was from looking into the records too hard.
  2929.  
  2930. “Dayumn. That's a pity. Like to see what a low-and-slow would do against a squadron of F-22s. You sure you can land that thing?”
  2931.  
  2932. The A-10 was in view of the aircraft carrier right now.
  2933.  
  2934. The pilot silently queried the A-10. Had it ever done an aircraft carrier landing before?
  2935.  
  2936. Of course not, A-10s aren't seaplanes.
  2937.  
  2938. “Best clear that runway.”
  2939.  
  2940. The A-10 came in from an angle it knew was slightly too high, hoping to take some of the speed off from the impact. The initial touchdown was hard, almost bouncing, but the pilot's skill (desperation?) kept the A-10 level. Turning side-on for additional traction, the A-10 skidded along the tarmac. Both knew that its weight and the speed at which it was travelling at would send it over the edge. Of course, this was probably not aided by neither of them really knowing what the fuck they were doing.
  2941.  
  2942. When the arrestor wire snagged the A-10's legs and sent it over sideways, the shock alone made both of them initiate battle synchronisation reflexively.
  2943.  
  2944. The runway length would not be sufficient to land without the wire.
  2945.  
  2946. The angle at which they were travelling meant that they would roll on to their side and roll off the edge.
  2947.  
  2948. The A-10 gracefully hopped, freeing itself from the tripwire and sending it spinning. It grabbed the wire with its right hand, planting its feet heavily.
  2949.  
  2950. To the A-10 and pilot, the whole manoeuvre took about a minute. In realtime, it took slightly less than a second-and the wrenching of its arm happened almost instantly, slamming the A-10 back into the runway. Still, the act had the desired effect-the A-10 let go of the cable and rolled a fair distance, before regaining its feet about three metres away from the end of the deck.
  2951.  
  2952. The A-10 and pilot stood there for a few seconds before the fatigue from the link hit, staggering both as they walked off towards the control tower.
  2953.  
  2954. “Woo! Hell of a show,” said the radio. “Ha! You're definitely from the OB.”
  2955.  
  2956. Neither the A-10 nor the pilot answered. The pilot passed out half-way across the deck, but the A-10 held both of them upright.
  2957.  
  2958. It suddenly realised just how much of a strain synchronising had on the pilot. Synchronising when both parties had time to prepare for it is one thing, but doing it on reflex is a dogfighting manoeuvre. Neither of them had practised that, really. The A-10 didn't enjoy the thought of the pilot being a gently snoring, warm slab of meat. It needed him-social graces weren't its strong suit. The A-10 did come up with the plan, though. It should be simple.
  2959.  
  2960. The tired A-10, once it had evaded general observation, made its way down the maintenance stairwell, towards the below-deck hangars. This carrier must have been an old-ish one; the stairwell was old and rusted by the salt air, lending it a decidedly derelict and run-down air. The A-10 was glad it didn't have to stick around.
  2961.  
  2962. The underground hangar wasn't packed, but was busy. When the A-10 snuck through the service entrance, there were several Harriers sitting around, talking. The A-10 hadn't actually seen a Harrier before, and from what it could tell these ones had come from the same construction line. They didn't notice it peek around the door.
  2963.  
  2964. They were well-built, lean VTOL craft, built for speed and fuel efficiency instead of raw power. Combat over sea was rarely very close-while it was possible for aircraft to survive landing in water, it was too much of a pain to fish them back out to take the risk. The A-10 reasoned that they must also be in the same squadron, for the 'war games'-it ducked back into the stairwell and waited. The flight logs it had downloaded had given a vague idea of when it was on (about five hours from now), but with the pilot down(and, thank Browning, not dreaming) it was wary of using too much processing power.
  2965.  
  2966. The A-10 waited until they had stopped discussing battle plans and dispersed. One had to split up from the others at some point, surely...
  2967.  
  2968. About thirty minutes later, the A-10's patience was rewarded-it detected one of the Harriers (H-3, according to the designation proudly painted across its breasts) moving away, into the ship. The A-10 slipped into another corridor in pursuit.
  2969.  
  2970. H-designate-3 was on edge. After all, it was going to be assigned a pilot today. A real pilot! Not a test routine or an auto-pilot simulation thing, an actual pilot! For WAR GAMES! Sure, it was against the Russians, but still. It was too edgy to rest, so was busying itself roaming the ship. Three couldn't help but bounce up and down a little with pure excitement. It had to keep cycling its electronics just to keep itself somewhat calm.
  2971.  
  2972. The steely arm that clamped itself around Three's neck and the other that grasped its arms almost shocked it into a system freeze. “Shhh. First things first,” a breathy, breathless voice whispered at it, “turn off your radio input or I snap your arms like a twig.”
  2973.  
  2974. Three temporarily forgot how, and just uttered a slightly strangled 'noise', causing both arms to tighten. It couldn't help but feel how strong the other plane-it was sure, nothing else would use terms like that-was...but nodded frantically, powering off all of its electronics. It couldn't do anything but comply.
  2975.  
  2976. “Now all I want...is your fuel. You can get more, you won't have to pay for it,” the other plane said calmly, breathlessly, and with what Three hoped wasn't excitement. Was it Russian? No, no accent. Then again, not all Russian planes had horrible Russian accents. Three decided that this would be a great way to prove its worth to the squadron-capturing an enemy plane!
  2977.  
  2978. Of course, Three didn't coherently think that through right then. It was more a jumble of fear, excitement, and tension that led it to twist out of the grip. It drove a fist into the other plane's solar plexus, which...did nothing. Three looked up and met its eyes. They were outright crazy, the shark-grin not really helping the image. The A-10 just reached forwards with one arm and gripped Three's throat, squeezing and shoving it into the wall, lifting it off the ground and pinning it. Three opened its mouth to scream, and the A-10 leant forwards and clamped its mouth over Three's, muffling the scream and drawing into a deep kiss.
  2979.  
  2980. The A-10 looked at the shivering harrier in the corner of the closetlike room it had dragged the other plane to. Kind of pathetic, but it couldn't be helped. It needed fuel, and asking nicely wasn't going to get it anywhere.
  2981.  
  2982. The A-10 roughly grasped the harrier by the throat and pressed it up against the wall, giving the fuel pressure release valve a long, slow lick. The harrier let out a shocked, shuddering noise half way between a groan and a gasp, its legs going weak, having to force itself back upright so that it wouldn't choke in the A-10's grip. The stronger plane gently fastened its mouth on the small nib, creating a seal, and started siphoning.
  2983.  
  2984. It was at this point that the pilot woke up, the sudden sensation of liquid in his(their?) throat causing them to cough, until the A-10 re-asserted control over their body. The pilot was confused, still very fatigued, and alarmed. What were they doing?
  2985.  
  2986. Getting fuel, of course.
  2987.  
  2988. How did they get here? What were they doing to that other plane? Siphoning fuel. But what about the other plane? The emotional scarring isn't something they could accept-but of course it was, it's just a means to an end, and planes are emotionally robust, they're made to be, but that's beside the point-
  2989.  
  2990. The A-10 jerked back and staggered away from the harrier, gasping and holding its head. There was too much input-
  2991.  
  2992.  
  2993. Three was too afraid to move, so stayed in its corner, breathing hard. The plane-definitely insane, or malfunctioning, or SOMETHING-had its back pressed against the wall, eyes wide, panicked, twitching back and forth around the room, as if searching for something, making little muted 'agh' noises, hands still holding its head.
  2994.  
  2995. The A-10 was frantically trying to resolve itself. It knew that there was a problem, but didn't know how to fix it. Partitioning wouldn't work; too much was interdependent. Shutdown, reboot, sleep-impossible, the Harrier was there, and the fuel it contained was considered too important. It decided to put its entire processing power into the problem, and leave itself on autopilot. It would be sufficient to carry out the task and escape without being detected.
  2996.  
  2997. Three decided that if it was going to escape, now would be best time to do so. The other plane was still freaking out, so it would be a simple matter of shoving it out of the way and breaking the lock, and getting away from it. Three tensed up, and started to lunge for the door-just as the other plane's eyes snapped to the harrier.
  2998.  
  2999. “Move and I gut you,” it rasp-gurgled out, twitching its arms away from its head.
  3000.  
  3001. Three realised that its eyes had changed-not the actual appearance, but the look-it seemed feral, devoid of higher intelligence, animalistic. Three froze as the other plane once again advanced on it, shoving it against the wall, and mechanically clamping down on the release nozzle, siphoning hard.
  3002.  
  3003. Three made quiet anguished moans, weakly squirming and pushing against the A-10-and immediately stopping as it affixed it with that glare again. It could feel the fuel streaming out of the right release nozzle, and the left one weakly leaking as pressure attempted to normalise. The other plane was roughly licking and suctioning the valve-the over-stimulation, coupled with the fear, caused Three to pass into blissful unconsciousness.
  3004.  
  3005. The A-10 noted that its target had gone offline. Mission partially complete; it finished draining and dropped the other plane on the ground, shoving the door off its hinges and stalking back up the passage. The ex-filtration point was already marked; acoustic imaging did not read any contacts. It made its way through the empty hangar and up the maintenance stairs. There was one unexpected contact at the top of the stairs, a human smoking a cigarette, which was dealt with. Flight plan was not found, so the secondary exfil plan was put into action-it walked to the side of the ship, and dropped into the sea.
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