Within hours, Erik found himself in the cockpit of a viking, joining a unit of veterans as they rocketed toward the northern ridge of the Grendel Mountains, the spot where Command said the zerg had landed their invasion force. Erik hadn't flown a fighter in over three years, and he'd hoped the muscle memory he'd relied on during his active-duty days would come back to him right away.
But the viking threw him hard. The controls bucked in his hands like reins on a wild horse. There was just too much for him to keep track of, and he hadn't had any time to train with the damn thing before he'd been asked to climb into it.
"Are you sure you don't have a Wraith back there somewhere?" Erik had said when the armorer told him he'd be operating a viking.
The man laughed at him and shook his head. "The few we had are out helping with the evacuation. You're flying with Varg. You get a viking."
Erik had spent so much time in his Wraith that it was like a natural extension of his body. By contrast, the viking felt like a violation, as if someone had surgically attached two extra legs, three extra arms, and a prehensile tail to him. The problem wasn't that he didn't know how to operate any individual piece; it was that he couldn't figure out how to coordinate them in a way that didn't feel as if he was going to trip and fall—or crash.
Of course, everyone else on the team had put in dozens, if not hundreds, of hours in these craft. These pilots worked together like a well-oiled machine, able not only to wield their vikings like fencers with sabers but also to anticipate one another's movements. It was as if their actions had been choreographed and practiced endlessly, the team a seamless whole but for the jagged bit of broken bone that Erik represented.
Erik had never been in a viking before—a real one, not a simulator—and he'd never met anyone in the crew, much less worked with them. He'd heard of Varg, who was a legend on Braxis, but the rest of the team remained a mystery. If there was a weak link in this chain, he knew who it was. He could only pray he wouldn't snap and destroy them all.
"We're practically there, kid," Varg said, interrupting Erik's reverie. "Time for regrets ended after takeoff."
"I wanted to defend my family," Erik said, explaining now to Varg why he'd volunteered for this mission. "I didn't realize it would be in one of these."
"You got to choose whether or not to fight," Varg said. "That's more than the rest of us got. You just didn't get to choose your weapon."
"I know how he feels, though." The voice belonged to Olaf Kraftig, a massive bear of a man flying off Erik's starboard side. "These beasts are neither fish nor fowl. An armored walker that can convert into an aircraft? It doesn't seem natural, does it?"
Varg laughed at the comment. "What do you have to say to that, Scorch?"
"Scorch" was the nickname for Captain Drake, a redheaded firebrand of a woman Erik had spotted in the hangar. They hadn't spoken, but she'd snapped a quick salute at him as he climbed into his viking, and he'd reciprocated, more out of reflex than intent.
"It's a machine that can do it all," she said. Her voice was so raspy that Erik had to wonder how she'd damaged it. No one sounded that raw and throaty naturally, right? "Air superiority and ground-support capabilities. What's not to love?"
"Might ask Johan," Baleog Grym said in a bitter tone. "He was flying young Erik's rig up until last week."
The fifth and final member of the wing, Baleog hadn't had much to say to Erik the entire trip. He seemed to resent Erik's presence, to think the wing would be better off without him. Erik wasn't sure he could disagree.
"What happened to Johan?" Erik said.
"Put it this way," Baleog said, grim as ever. "If he was still around, Varg here wouldn't have asked for volunteers to take his place."
Olaf threw back his head and laughed. "Too true!"
"He died in a training accident," Scorch said. "He lost control of his craft while transforming from an assault walker to an air-superiority fighter. Smashed right into the ground."
"Happens more often than you'd think," Varg said. "There's nothing easy about flying a viking. Only the best of the best can pull it off."
Baleog grunted at that. "The best—or the desperate."
"Look," Scorch said, "there aren't a whole lot of spare combat-tested terran pilots on Braxis these days. Varg wouldn't have asked for Erik if we hadn't been stuck."
Erik felt his heart sink. "How desperate are you?"
"I wouldn't have tapped you if I didn't think you could hack it," said Varg. "Having a bad pilot in a wing's worse than being shy a ship."