Pilot Tide, Chapter 3

Previously on Pen and Fire: [Chapter 1] and [Chapter 2]

Chapter 3

Jules has been the darling of the Flight Academy since her graduation, lighting the fuse for a long, decorated career. She joined the Cluster Defense Coalition for a brief stint before claiming her first Pilot Tide crown. Last year, she returned to the Academy as an instructor.

But Micanopy citizens are already putting credits on Suri to emerge victorious. She may be untested, but if she is even half the pilot Mona was, admirers predict she will steal the show.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Purple and crimson curtains draped from the arched ceiling, though only five tables spread across the tiled floor. Each one boasted a spray of wildflowers and china cutlery. A single chandelier hung overhead, the crystal chiseled into the form of an ewha.

Micanopy Major loomed large outside The Nebula’s viewport, its crimson haze set in stark contrast with the black space around it. The three moons of the Cluster floated distantly in the background.

When Suri stepped inside, there were nearly a dozen people mingling in the banquet hall. A server expertly moved from group to group, offering tasters and long-necked wine glasses.

“Suri, welcome!” A silver-haired man abandoned his conversation and strode towards her. His brassy voice drew the attention of others, and she flushed as she became a magnet for all the eyes in the room.

She shook his hand. “Argent, right?”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen me on holovision. Everyone is dying to meet you.” He motioned for her to follow him. “You, Jules, and Alai are at my table, of course.” As he led her further inside, he waved down a server. “We can start with dinner.”

Argent was a media giant, and his showmanship was apparent. He dressed the part, his stylish black leather outfit juxtaposed with his glossy hair. He gestured fluidly with his hands as he spoke, and Suri noticed how he enunciated each word with practiced precision. Did he ever conduct himself as if the holocams weren’t watching?

She felt mildly star-struck, but if The Mirror was right these days, Suri was becoming more of a legend than Argent. It was difficult to believe that being Mona’s daughter alone would thrust her renown to the edge of the Cluster. Was the inheritance of a name so powerful in Micanopy?

The other two Tide competitors were already seated when they arrived, making polite conversation. Suri recognized Jules from endless holovision reports and digital billboards. She wore a silk gown, her jet-black hair swept up in an elegant bun. The man beside her looked like he just stepped out of the cockpit after a long flight.

“Jules, Alai,” Argent interrupted, grinning broadly. “Allow me to introduce our third, infamous contender.”

She shook hands with both of them. Jules smiled, though something in her eye flinched at Argent’s description. Alai exuded an air of indifference, which Suri almost appreciated, as she felt gazes from other tables still following her furtively.

“I watched countless tapes of your mother flying,” Jules said. “You have a high, high standard to live up to.” Her soft voice did not disguise all the condescension in her tone.

Suri felt a flash of irritation, but she simply said, “I’m not my mother. But I hope to make her proud.”

“That’s the spirit,” Argent exclaimed. “I’m sure Jules is looking forward to a tough battle this time.” He winked at the other woman.

That was doubtful. Suri met Jules’ gaze over the table, and saw an icy hardness beneath her genteel features. Even from her holovision interviews, Suri sensed the celebrated pilot’s haughtiness. It did not surprise her that Jules would see Suri as a threat, if not as a better flyer, than as a more adored public figure. But she had always admired Jules’ career, and though they were rivals, she had hoped they could be friendly. She felt a pang of loss followed by solitude. Papa, Shell and Chip were far away in Nimrim, and The Nebula was like an alien world to her.

She turned to Alai, trying to shake off her melancholy. “I heard you fly a Stingray.”

“Yeah. It’s the only kind of ship worth flying.”

Suri cocked her head, surprised at his pithy bluntness. But then she detected the smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.

“My guess is you’ve never tried a One-Wing.”

A full grin broke over his face. “I know I’m the foreigner here, but I’d say the media’s got it wrong. All the buzz is about your famous mother, when it should be about your lunacy, entering this in a One-Wing.”

She laughed, feeling a weight lift, and wondered if she had gone mad. After all the scrutiny and blind adoration, it was strangely refreshing to hear someone—other than Papa—call her a lunatic.

“It’s almost half the cost of a Stingray. What I can’t afford in credits, I’ll make up for in skill,” she shot back.

Alai shrugged, unruffled. “Talk’s cheap. Prove it to me out there.” He gestured towards the viewport.

“Alright, alright, let’s not burn the station down before the Tide even begins,” Argent interjected lightly. “There’s some real fire here, isn’t there?” He threw a meaningful glance at Suri, and she saw the surprise in his expression.

The servers began bringing out the main course on large platters. A sizzling skillet of meat and side of leafy greens appeared before Suri. Her stomach growled. She realized, in the chaos of the day, she had not eaten a single meal yet.

“This,” Argent pointed at the dishes, “is a Micanopy delicacy. Boar liver and lungs.”

Suri hid a smirk when she noticed Alai wrinkle his nose. Citizens of other worlds viewed some Micanopy delicacies as vile, or barbarism veiled in the snobbery of the elite. Jules and Argent showed no hesitation slicing into their food.

She used the momentary silence to take in the environment. They sat at the best table in the hall, a few feet away from the wide-paned viewport. A brief thrill rushed through Suri. Inside the tight One-Wing, her view of space—from the naked eye, not counting digital enhancements—was limited to the strip of transparent steel bending around the cockpit. On The Nebula, the viewport extended almost from floor to ceiling.

The table beside them hosted a curious set of diners who seemed even more awestruck than Suri, and did a poor job hiding it. They gestured animatedly at the viewport, at Suri’s table, and their general surroundings.

“Were they the lottery winners?” she asked, looking to Argent.

“Oh, yes. I met them earlier—very nice, if a bit overzealous. But it’s understandable, with this being their first brush with real fame.” He spoke kindly, but gentle condescension also colored his voice.

“It’s mine, too,” Suri said.

Argent blinked, uncomprehending for a moment, before he broke into a smile. “I forget that, after all the chatter from The Mirror! Well, there’s no way you could escape it with your heritage.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jules grimace. If only I could, I would return this unsolicited fame in a heartbeat. Alai wore a similarly unhappy expression, but she surmised it came from the hunk of liver he just swallowed.

Suri returned to the original topic. “I thought Essgees despised flying.”

“Most do. It’s low on their rung of career choices. But I believe they are pilots also.” Argent nodded towards the other table. “Made a bit of a name for themselves on Micanopy Minor, at least among their people.”

“But your Flight Academy is for humans only.”

They all looked in surprise at Alai, who rejoined the conversation.

“It’s because we only take the best,” Jules said frankly. “Some call it discriminatory, but Essgees don’t have the physical build for flying as well as humans. And we send most graduates into military and defense. There’s no room for error there. It can cost your life.”

They were controversial words, but Suri recognized they came from a place of bald honesty. Even if she disagreed, her estimation of Jules inched up. It was the first authentic impression she sensed from the other woman.

It can cost your life. Surely, Jules knew that from experience. Sometime in her training and career, she must have lost someone. The words reverberated in Suri’s mind. They sounded almost like something Papa would say—and he knew from experience too.

“You’re saying it’s a mercy to ban them, then,” Alai said. His tone and expression did little to betray his own opinion.

“It sounds cruel, but yes.” Jules did not waver.

“What do you do in Renova?” Suri asked.

He shrugged. “They have training programs for pilots, but it’s strictly utilitarian. There’s no celebrity or glory attached. Humans are the minority too, so they don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.”

“They?” Suri echoed, wondering if he used the term consciously. “You don’t consider Renova home?”

He met her gaze, but if her perceptiveness surprised him, he masked it well. “The application asked for a home world. I left when I was young. Bounced from Cluster to Cluster, doing odd jobs. Flying was the one thing I was really good at.”

“Pity you didn’t come to Micanopy sooner. There’s no better place for a good pilot,” Jules said.

“Yes, and we’re not all about the flash and the show,” Argent put in. “Like Jules said, most of our top pilots go to the military.” He winked. “Put in a good performance, and they might try recruiting you.”

The corner of Suri’s mouth threatened to turn up. It was amusing to hear Argent, the long-standing host of Pilot Tide, defend piloting as more than an entertaining spectacle.

“I’m not the patriotic type,” Alai returned dryly.

Jules turned to Suri. “Why didn’t you consider coming to Flight Academy?” She added, half-grudgingly, “We would have snapped you up.”

“I did. But my father didn’t want me to go. Actually, he didn’t want me to fly at all.” She flushed, but held her chin up. “He knows the cost can be high.”

A somber moment of silence overtook their table. They knew she did not speak of money and credits. Suri thought she saw a flicker of understanding in Jules’ eyes, and felt a passing kinship with her.

The remainder of dinner was uneventful. Dessert consisted of colorful cinnacoa cakes, and afterward, they began to circulate around the room again. Suri met the six Essgees and their android. From their quick interaction, she wished she had been at their table, even though she couldn’t keep their names straight. The event concluded with a brief speech from Argent. Suri noticed he directed his gaze beyond the guests to the far wall of the banquet hall—she felt a jolt when she followed his eyes to an unobtrusive pair of holocams installed in the crevasses of the ceiling. Was the entire station under surveillance?

When she asked him, he waved her trepidation away. “Oh, it’s mostly for security, but they’ll repurpose a few good shots for the holovision.”

“Are they recording our conversations?” she pressed.

He laughed, giving her an incredulous look. “Again, I forget you’re new to this. Stars, no. They’ll have some of my speech since I had a mic in, but not our dinner table talk. I think Micanopy can do without all your political opinions flooding the wavelengths too, don’t you?”

She heartily agreed.

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