Previously: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], [Chapter 6] and [Chapter 7]
Round Two: Rescue Mission. A carrier ship has lost power mid-flight, with a small crew of passengers aboard. Suri demonstrated a talent for wicked speed, but will she be able to save the luckless travelers?
– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.105
“In case of an emergency, we can reactivate the engines. Otherwise, only the comm units will be functional so the competitors can communicate with you.” Argent clapped his hands and looked at Dwarf Squadron. “All good?”
Ceet nodded. “Can we hear them talking to each other?”
“Only if they open the public channel. Otherwise, each ship has a private line to every other.”
The rest of the squadron was meandering around the cramped control room. There was little space to maneuver for seven of them plus Argent, but the ship was purposefully small. A frigate, or anything larger, would make them much easier to find and unrealistically difficult to rescue.
Suri, Jules and Alai were not given the ship’s coordinates, but a radial boundary from The Nebula as potential locations. Their task was to find it on their own and rescue the crew.
When Argent approached them with his proposition, most of Dwarf Squadron was eager to role-play the stranded passengers. Ceet and Atta were the only ones who hesitated. Ceet worried they would appear overly opportunistic, milking the publicity of their lottery win. Atta did not appreciate reinforcing the image of Essgees as those who needed to be “rescued” by humans. But the rest of the team—mostly Deeta, Veeta and Neeta—convinced them, insisting they would be better positioned to help Suri if she needed it.
“Everyone ready?” Argent swiveled around in his chair, giving them a wide smile. He turned back to his controls and flipped the mic on. “Welcome to Pilot Tide, round two!”
Ceet stared at the small plasma screen overhead. The Nebula hovered in the center, with Micanopy Major’s reddish hue creeping onto the edge of the holovision.
Three ships dropped out of the Nebula’s docking bay, all of them shooting off in different directions.
He closed his eyes and listened to Argent’s voice rise and fall. It was one of the most well known voices in Micanopy. During the last Tide, Ceet remembered gathering with Dwarf Squadron in his small flat, Argent’s perfect enunciation and smooth commentary pouring in through his speakers.
It felt strange to hear the same voice now, less than ten feet away, but broadcasting to the entire Cluster.
Someone tapped his shoulder. Veeta leaned on the dashboard beside him.
“Did you talk to Suri again?” she asked.
“I caught her briefly this morning. She trusts him.” Ceet pursed his lips. “I didn’t want to be pushy.”
“Well, nothing we can do now. After this round, I’ll talk to her.”
“She’s not a child, Veeta.”
“I didn’t say she was. She’s just too trusting.”
Atta interrupted them, pointing to the plasma screen silently. Jules’ Needle floated into view.
“…looks like her scanners have picked up the right location!” Argent was saying.
A fleeting sense of fear gripped Ceet, like cold fingers inside his ribcage, but the holovision flipped to a quick view of a One-Wing and then a Stingray. He relaxed. Suri and Alai had not located them, but that was all.
The ship’s comm unit crackled to life. “Dwarf Squadron, do you copy?” Jules’ voice reverberated against the walls.
Neeta made a face from across the room, but Ceet gave her a warning look. Regardless of who arrived first, his team promised to give their best effort and cooperate.
“We copy,” Atta responded. There was a frosty edge in her tone, but he trusted her to be professional.
“I’m running an analysis right now. We have no way of making it back to The Nebula attaching your ship to mine. You’re too large, and the Needle doesn’t have that kind of firepower.”
“Feel free to leave, then,” Heet muttered. Thankfully, his voice was too low to carry.
“What do you want us to do?” Ceet asked.
There was a brief pause on the line. Argent was also silent, listening to the dialogue that was being broadcast across Micanopy.
” Have your whole squadron wait beside the hatch door. I’m going to align mine above yours. We’ll ditch the ship, but at least you will be safe.”
“You want us to come aboard?” Deeta sounded incredulous.
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
“There are seven of us. We won’t fit inside a Needle.”
“You will. I’ve remodeled.” Her tone remained polite, but Ceet imagined her indignation at being contradicted. The fact that it came on live broadcast, and from an Essgee no less, just added insult to injury.
He glanced at Argent for any pointers, but the host merely shrugged. Your decision, he mouthed. After all, this was a real contest, not a scripted drama.
“We’ll be there,” Ceet said finally, earning a few mutinous looks from his squadron. “Tell us when you’re ready.”
“Excellent.” Jules signed off.
They crowded around the hatch door in silence as Argent rattled on with his commentary. When the comms crackled again, they looked at one another.
“That was quick,” Neeta murmured, a distinct absence of enthusiasm in her voice.
But it wasn’t Jules. “Dwarf Squadron, are you there?” Suri’s voice mingled with static.
“Suri!” Atta exclaimed.
Her sudden appearance breathed new energy into the squadron. Deeta and Veeta gripped each other’s arms, and some of the sullenness vanished from Heet’s expression.
“Alright, so we’re going to try something kind of wild—”
“Suri,” Ceet interrupted, picking his words carefully, “Jules has already proposed a plan, and we’re waiting for her to execute.” He could not show her greater favor, or reveal Jules’ strategy, but he hoped Suri would be able to improvise.
“Give me a second,” she replied, and the channel closed.
They exchanged anxious glances, but Suri quickly returned. “So, according to the rules, I can propose my plan, and you are free to choose the contestant you want to go with.”
“Great. Give us your strategy,” Deeta said.
“There’s no way my ship alone can pull yours, and I bet Jules can’t do that either. I called Alai and asked if he wanted to join forces. Two ships together should have just enough engine power to take us all home.” She paused. “I’m adding him onto this channel.”
A soft click came over the line.
“Alai, you’re live with Dwarf Squadron too. I just told them our idea.”
“Hey. We’re ready if you are,” he said.
Ceet glanced around, noting a spectrum of reactions, ranging from skeptical to unhappy. None of them looked too favorably upon Alai, especially after they found the cryptic note at the Flight Academy.
“We’ve identified where both our ships can lock onto yours,” Suri chimed in. “If you give us the go-ahead, we’ll move in.”
Atta muted the comms, giving them a brief moment of privacy, and crossed her arms. “I say we do it.”
“Well, between them and Jules, it’s not a hard decision,” Heet said.
“Jules is hailing,” Ardee intoned. A blue flight flashed overhead, indicating an incoming call.
“Don’t pick up yet.” Ceet hurried back into the control room and found Argent still in his seat. “We want to go with Suri and Alai. What do we tell Jules?”
The host seemed to register a flash of disappointment, but he resumed his usual enthusiasm so rapidly that Ceet might have imagined it. A good showman never shows his true face, he thought dryly.
“I’ll notify her. You can just work with Suri and Alai.”
While Jules did not intimidate him, he could not deny his relief that someone else would deliver the bad news to her. Remembering her deception in the first round, Ceet did not want to be on the receiving end of her fury after she learned her chances of winning the Tide just became slimmer.
Dwarf Squadron was still huddled around the hatch door when he returned, round eyes turned on him.
“We don’t need to talk to her.” Even as he spoke, he heard Argent broadcasting the latest updates. “Let’s get back on with Suri.”
Atta reopened the line. “Suri? Alai?”
Silence greeted them.
Ceet checked the small computer screen beside them. A green light indicated the connection was strong and clear.
“Suri or Alai, do you copy?” he tried.
A burst of static came through, and then Alai’s voice, low and urgent. “Suri needs help. Her oxygen levels are dangerously low.”
“What?” Atta exclaimed, her round eyes colored with apprehension.
“Her oxygen supply is malfunctioning. I told her not to speak so she can save air.” Alai paused. “Here’s what will happen. She will maneuver her ship above your hatch door and drop into the carrier. You need to be ready to receive her.”
“Done,” Ceet said, already punching in the airlock’s open sequence.
“Tell me when you have her.”
“How will we get back to The Nebula?” Ardee asked.
“Jules is already returning to the station,” Alai said. “The Stingray can’t accommodate more than three people comfortably, and there’s no way I can pull your ship alone.”
“But I can fly the One-Wing.”
Ceet stared at Ardee. Of course—he was the only one who could operate without oxygen.
“Suri is in place!” Deeta interrupted.
They popped the hatch, the airlock slid open, and she promptly dropped inside. Atta and Neeta steadied her as she drew in a ragged breath, her face pale. From her appearance, it seemed as if her oxygen supply was almost gone. Ceet shuddered at the thought of further delay. If they had been any slower to act…
He made a quick decision. Before they could close the hatch, he pulled Ardee aside. “You sure you know how to fly a One-Wing?”
“What I don’t know, I can download and learn instantaneously.”
Ceet grunted and pushed him onto the platform before he could change his mind.
“Alai, did you hear us? Ardee is going to pilot Suri’s ship. Go through with your original plan.”
“Copy that. Quick thinking.”
Suri and the rest of Dwarf Squadron were already inside the makeshift medical ward. It was the size of a single doctor’s room, with one cushioned exam table and a shelf lined with medicine. Suri sat with her back against the wall, while Heet checked her vitals. The former doctor wore a concentrated expression, his round eyes narrowed.
Everyone else was quiet when Ceet hurried in.
He whispered to Atta, “Did Heet ever work with humans?”
“I was medically trained on all major life forms,” Heet muttered without looking up.
“They gave you enhanced hearing too.” Suri grinned over his head. Some of the color was returning to her face.
After a few more minutes, Heet pronounced her stable. Extended lack of oxygen was a real fear among pilots, known to cause severe reactions. With the final round of Pilot Tide just around the corner, he advised her to avoid simulation runs or stressful training prior to it so her body could rest.
Heet pulled Ceet aside after they left the ward. “Do you think it was sabotage?”
“Perhaps.” Ceet replayed the series of events in his mind. “But I trust Alai now. I could tell he really did care for her.”
“There are good actors.”
“There are also good men,” he replied firmly.
They were interrupted by Argent’s commentary blasting through the ship. Startled by his voice, Ceet almost forgot this round of the Tide wasn’t over yet.
“And in a dramatic turn of events, the Stingray and One-Wing have successfully locked onto our stranded ship and we are heading back to The Nebula! The One-Wing is currently piloted by Ardee, the android from Dwarf Squadron, due to an oxygen malfunction aboard Suri’s ship.”
As he continued speaking, the squadron huddled around a large viewport. The stars blurred as they began to gain speed.
Suri came up behind them. “Thank you, all of you.” She swept her hand out and bent low in a traditional Essgee bow. It was considered an old-fashioned gesture, with undertones of honor and submission to those greater than oneself. “I owe you my life.”
They blushed and protested vehemently, waving for her to stand up straight.
Ceet touched her elbow. “We have your back, remember?”