Pilot Tide, Chapter 2

Happy Friday! Even if you’re in quarantine, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the weekend. How about a fun read?

If you’re just joining in, the previous installment is here: Chapter 1

Chapter 2

The Tide is not without its controversies. Citizens of other Clusters are welcome to audition for the contest, provided they are human. Micanopy natives, such as Essgees, have traditionally been prohibited from competing or joining the prestigious Flight Academy. While organizers cite safety reasons—Essgees are smaller in build with slower reaction times—protestors have long railed against these policies.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Marble and bronze statues encircled Rhiannon Square like silent watchmen. The eight most prominent figures stood at the forefront, well-polished and bathed in golden sunlight. While most Metropolis residents took the landmark for granted, Ceet and his squadron gawked and fumbled for their holorecorders.

“Stephan was The Octagon’s pilot.” Neeta pointed at one of the men in the center.

She wore a faintly dreamy expression, her round eyes focused on the colossal sculpture. Stephan was handsome even in effigy, carved with strong cheekbones and a chiseled jaw.

“He was named most eligible bachelor of the galaxy after they discovered Micanopy,” Veeta noted.

Deeta snorted. “Or most inaccessible? Micanopy was at the edge of Unknown Space back then.”

“Every girl wants what she can’t have.” Neeta grinned.

“Humans are strange,” Deeta mused, her gaze straying to the people milling around them. She was not the only one looking. Their group of seven drew more than a few furtive glances and whispers. They were almost two feet shorter than the average human, and they had already been mistaken for children two times that day. While Essgees were native to both of Micanopy’s worlds, they were more unusual in the Metropolis. Only Pilot Tide brought an influx of them into the city. “Frankly, I think Stephan was a terrible pilot.”

“Blasphemy.” Veeta feigned a look of horror.

“He veered off course by more than ten star systems! He probably mistyped a coordinate and ended up here.”

“Sounds like something Heet would do.”

Heet was digging through his pack for an energy bar, but paused to scowl at them. “Read human history. That’s how all their discoveries are made. Accidents and idiots.”

Ceet tuned out their bickering and trailed behind Atta, who was angling her holorecorder painstakingly to capture a panorama of Rhiannon. While they were all close in age, Ceet often felt the two of them shouldered parental responsibility for the squadron. Though they began as professional colleagues, choosing the pilot’s life—the rugged, less-traveled path—knit them together as family.

While flying was the most glorified occupation for humans in Micanopy, it was one of the lowliest among Essgees. Though many expressed outrage over the Flight Academy’s discriminatory practices, Ceet knew Essgees quietly acknowledged their small stature was a limitation. Humans were not entirely wrong in the their diagnosis that physical constraints turned Essgee culture inward, away from planetary exploration.

But their culture was rich in other ways, perhaps more than most, due to their earthbound nature. Essgees were known for pursuing advanced education and research in diverse fields. Ceet’s squadron was a microcosmic representation of that. He had pursued a career in medicine. Atta was a linguist, fluent in the Essgee tongue and three human languages. They met in university, and a chance experience with a flight simulator called them both to the stars.

Ceet winced as he remembered the scorn he received when they tried to start an Essgee pilot school. His family’s words left deeper wounds than his roughest flights.

Only five others arrived to their grand opening. Heet was an overworked, cynical doctor who saw too many patients extorted by his employers. Neeta, Deeta, and Veeta were childhood friends and brilliant technologists. They sold their own line of gadgets, and built one of the most high-functioning—and cheeky—androids Ceet had ever encountered. Ardee rounded out their small band of misfits, and Dwarf Squadron was born.

“My hands won’t hold steady,” Atta murmured from behind the lens, bringing him back to the present.

Ardee whirred up beside Ceet. “You know, I have a high-definition recording of Rhiannon Square. I can print a photo of any frame you want.”

“It’s not the same. Photography is an art form.”

“But art has no utility.”

“Can we cut his philosophical wires?” Heet glared at Ardee, though with no real malice.

“Let’s move along,” Ceet cut in, waving the rest of their group towards him. “Atta, are you ready?”

She peeled the holorecorder from her face. Ceet glanced around them. It was late afternoon and the Square was growing crowded. Workers were installing floating plasma screens above the statues for broadcasting Pilot Tide. Until the screens were activated, they camouflaged with their surroundings, so Ceet could still see through them to the sky’s pale pink hue.

They wove through the maze of people. Some set up small camps around the Square, reserving a viewing spot days before the Tide’s commencement.

“Let’s get some cocoa pods,” Veeta called from behind.

Ceet felt his stomach groan in protest. He and Atta had left their home world to attend university on Micanopy Major, but this was the rest of Dwarf Squadron’s first time on the planet. Of all the novelties in the Metropolis, they were most excited about the edible ones. After two days of tasting human, Essgee, and more alien cuisines, he feared for the already-tight safety buckles in his cockpit.

Ardee located a premier sweet shop near Rhiannon, and they followed the android’s lead as he routed them.

The Metropolis was the apex of a high-tech, human city. Skyscrapers were angular and sleek, sporting wide glass panes. The variations in height seemed symmetrical down any given street. In contrast to most Micanopy Minor cities, which often featured dilapidated buildings next to new construction sites, the Metropolis demonstrated consistent architecture and aesthetics from end to end. Even with the massive population, ground and air traffic crisscrossed the city in orderly fashion.

“Look at these,” Neeta breathed.

They had arrived at their destination, and she was admiring the elaborate dessert displays in the window. Each pastry demonstrated meticulous detail: the ridges in the One-Wing, the razor-sharp tip of the Needle, and the smoothness of the Stingray.

“The ships of each Tide competitor this year.” Atta ran a critical eye over the designs. “I wonder which one is selling best.”

“My bet is on the Stingray,” Ceet commented dryly. “It’s got the largest surface area.”

Inside, the heady scent of cinnacoa clung to the furnishings. They snatched a table and ordered a large serving of cocoa pods to share.

Chatter from groups around them muted the holovision, but the plasma screen overhead drew Ceet’s eye. It was showing a full-orbed view of the large, oblong space station hovering just above Micanopy Major.

He was not the only one who noticed. Deeta turned everyone’s attention to the holovision. “They just christened it The Nebula. It’s crazy. Competitors have always stayed in the Metropolis before.”

“That whole station for three of them?” Heet looked dubious.

“And Argent, Pilot Tide’s host,” Deeta said. “I’m sure they have mad security up there too, so guards on every corridor.”

“And a handful of lucky guests,” Veeta added. “They ran a lottery, remember?”

Ceet felt Atta’s eyes skim over him, but he avoided meeting her gaze. She was the only one in the squadron who knew, other than Ardee.

The cost of the lottery tickets was not trivial, but they had racked up a decent sum of credits from their last few engagements: flying bootcamps for young Essgees and air shows for private celebrations. With a squadron to look after and tight finances, Ceet did not have the luxury of making impulsive investments.

But the Tide was every pilot’s pipe dream. Essgees could not audition for it, but he could not pass up the possibility, however slim, of staying aboard The Nebula during the event.

Their server returned with a large bowl, crackling with hot cocoa pods, dusted with cinnacoa spice. As the others eagerly dug their spoons in, Ceet finally met Atta’s gaze, and she nodded.

“I have something to share,” he began, wincing at how abrupt the words sounded.

“Uh oh,” Heet mumbled, mid-crunch. It was his favorite human colloquialism.

Ceet glared at him. “Trust me, this will be the best news you’ve heard in years.” He paused. “Have you all swallowed? Are you ready?”

Veeta forced a large mouthful down. “Ay, Captain.”

“We’re staying on The Nebula.”

Silence struck them like a sudden bolt of lightning, and Ceet felt the heat from each pair of round eyes trained on him. The world continued to move in slow motion beyond them, but Dwarf Squadron was frozen around the table, spoons in mid-air. He almost laughed; if only their holorecorder could capture and enshrine this moment. It was more priceless than a hundred panoramas of Rhiannon Square.

Ardee interrupted with a mechanical beep, and seven holographic tickets appeared above him. As they stared at the images, reality broke over them like cold water.

“You entered the lottery?”

Neeta’s spoon clattered to the table, and she gripped Ceet’s shoulder, a frenzied look in her eyes.

The rest of the squadron unfroze, rounding on Ceet with partially coherent exclamations of shock and indignation that he kept the matter quiet. They shouted over each other for a few minutes before angry looks from other diners began to subdue them.

Ceet glanced around the table, exasperated but amused. “So, aren’t any of you happy?”

“I don’t have the capacity for that level of happiness,” Heet grumbled. “But I guess now would be the time I’d feel it, if I did.”

They all laughed, their faces flushed red and feverish as the implications dawned on them more fully.

Deeta looked pointedly across the table at Ceet. “You still owe us an explanation.”

“Alright.” Ceet grew quiet, meeting each of their eyes. Silence fell over the table again, until he began. “When I first heard about the lottery, I felt this…nudge. It was almost like the first time Atta and I went through a flight simulator—the pull was so strong, I left my career behind in pursuit of the skies.

“I know it cost all of us to take up flying. There is a ceiling we can never bypass, no matter how good we get. We can never go to the Academy or compete in a Tide. You work hard and I don’t blame you if you wonder whether we will ever be more than a stunt show or traveling circus.” Ceet’s voice became low and rough with passion. “But you all are born to fly. That’s why you don’t quit. And I wanted to give you something memorable.”

A tear slipped down Deeta’s face, and she did not bother to hide it. She reached over and gripped Ceet’s hand wordlessly.

“You’re too good for us, Captain,” Veeta tried to joke, though her words sounded strangled in her throat.

“Nobler than Captain Stephan,” Neeta piped.

“Oh, he did it for himself too,” Atta returned, and that drew a chuckle from all of them, including Ceet.

Heet, who sat beside Ceet, clapped him on the back. “Best boss I’ve had. Though the old ones ranged from vile to dreadful.”

“So, when do we go?” Veeta looked expectant.

A wide smile spread over Ceet’s face. “Finish your cocoa pods. We can dock at The Nebula tonight.”

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