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The canopy protecting the cockpit of an X-11-K15 individual high-grav fighter aircraft – charmingly nicknamed the “exclamation kiss” – does not open in flight.

Which is why, at 0130 hours the night before her flight exam, Belyn Morrow was in the hangar bay shaving latches with a diamond file. Remove too much and the craft would fail, too little and all this time, effort and the dozen rum-frosted cupcakes with which she’d bribed the night guard would be wasted. But there was a sweet spot, a tolerance within which the safety check – conducted from the outside of the craft – would show an intact cockpit but the pilot could with one hard punch pop the aeroglass canopy and fly with her face in the wind, without triggering the X-11-K15’s automatic ejection system.

Just in case, Morrow planned to do it over the Meridian Sea.

The practical skills portion of the Academy pilot’s final exam was a sort of aerial dressage. Vertical-grav liftoff, with instructors at the compass points of the craft. Nearly thirty percent of graduates failed at this point every year, before the test itself even began. They were simply too unsure of their ability to lift off without crushing an instructor.

Morrow scowled, rubbing her thumb over the second latch. Too much? Not enough? She swung a booted foot back inside the cockpit and leaned forward to check another latch. There wasn’t much of a difference. Probably still needed work.

From the liftoff, a long straight acceleration out over the Meridian Sea, proof the pilot’s body could handle multi-gee force. Then a series of hard wheeling turns in three dimensions, eventually returning to the airfield.

During the daytime a din of engineers, pilots, crew filled the hangar. Now Morrow could only hear her own breath and the scratching of her tools. She dropped the spare catch she’d snagged earlier in the week over the latch and tugged. It didn’t quite work free, but she hoped that enough sharp force would do the trick tomorrow.

The third portion of the test was the trickiest: fifteen targets to fly through, under, or shoot. Then another wheeling trip out over the sea, returning “at speed” (Morrow thought a more foolish description of an acceleration vector had never been coined). A landing “at the student’s discretion” and salute.

The salute. Her final prank of the term. She grinned to herself. Academy students had always played pranks. But switching the covers of the folios holding final exams, always under lock and key? Putting the headmaster-general’s hat –and undersuit – on the statue of Dr. Campante outside the Research building? Nobody suspected Belyn Morrow, driven scholarship student, with the highest grades and stiffest neck at the Academy. Only Cimri Ystar knew who was behind the ambitious pranks that marked their mutual year.

Cimri, who was waiting for Morrow in her dormitory, having slipped out of the Engineering dorms via the work tunnels crisscrossing the Academy campus.

“Bella, they’re going to disqualify you,” Cimri fretted, checking Morrow’s hands for residue.

“They could, I suppose.” Morrow shrugged and turned on the bed so that Cimri could unpick her braid. “But the rules just say a landing and salute of my choice. I’ll fling that in their faces if they try it. Stupid way to write a rule.”

“You’ve never done that landing on the ground.”

“It’s no different from water. I come in inverted, stall the antigrav drive, and roll over my own nose. A somersault.” Morrow suited action to words as she described the landing. Sprawled, she grinned up at her partner-in-crime. “I’ll be fine. Come to bed. Let tomorrow take care of tomorrow.”

For all her bravado of the night before, Morrow would later admit privately, she was unprepared for the pressure change when the canopy came free, spiraling into her wake and tapping the X-11’s tailfin. Her hands corrected her tilt and she ducked, squinting into the sudden biting wind and inhaling tanked oxygen.

Gritting her teeth, she heeled the X-11 into an inversion, trying not to think about how close her head would be to the tarmac as she approached landing. Ahead of her and curiously upside-down, her instructor stood calmly on his platform.

It might have been her imagination, his grin that matched hers as she extended one arm, fingers reaching even as her other hand started the engine sequence for the final somersault. But the recording showed them both smiling as, wheels on the ground, she saluted him with his own cap.

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