Pilot Tide, Chapter 4

Previously on Pen and Fire: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2] and [Chapter 3]

Chapter 4

Daily Proverb: “The flight, the fury, the ecstasy—give me the stars.”

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.98

“Here’s the simulator room!”

Deeta disappeared through the sliding doors and the rest of the squadron followed. Ceet drew in his breath as they stepped inside.

The walls were covered with plasma screens displaying data dashboards and artificial landscapes. A few holographic images of three-dimensional ships hovered in the air, rotating slowly on an axis. Ceet blinked a few times to adjust to the dim lighting. As his gaze swept the room, he noticed a single guard stationed in the corner, silently watching them.

He jerked. “Oh, are we allowed in here?”

The guard nodded. “You’re welcome to try the simulator.” He motioned to a series of closed hatches against the wall.

“Wow,” Veeta breathed. “Must be state-of-the-art equipment.”

“Doesn’t anyone monitor the controls in here?” Heet asked.

“The technology is self-sustaining,” the guard replied. “The computers have sufficient intelligence to perform maintenance without assistance.”

Heet flicked a gaze at Ardee. “Yeah, their kind killed a lot of careers.”

“Androids are forcing organic life forms to constantly improve themselves and aspire to higher intellectual activities.” Ardee swiveled his head to look from Heet to the guard. “We cannot be responsible for those who fall behind.”

“Alright, let’s not accidentally offend anyone here,” Ceet muttered under his breath, coming up behind the android.

“What about intentionally?” Ardee also lowered his volume dial.

Ceet ignored him, his gaze drifting to the hatch doors. Atta, Veeta, Deeta and Neeta were also eyeing them from the other side of the room. Excitement swelled up inside him. They had received a guided tour of The Nebula the day after arriving, and formal activities filled the next. As much as he enjoyed the pampered lifestyle aboard the station, he was itching for the inside of a ship, his hand around a control yoke.

“Let’s do this.”

The rest of the team whooped as the hatch doors slid open with a loud hiss, and they each climbed inside one.

Ceet found himself in a small cockpit that hummed to life. The black screen in front lit up with a selection of simulator runs, and a control panel glowed beneath it. He fastened himself into the pilot seat, pushing it as far forward as he could. The height and reach was clearly designed for humans, but it was flexible enough that he could manage. Running a critical eye over the available switches, he flipped the communication link on.

“Testing. Dwarf One here, all systems ready.”

“Dwarf Two on board. I’m your wing.” Neeta’s voice came back, high and clear.

“Dwarf Three,” Atta called. “Which simulator run are we doing?”

As the rest of the squadron chimed in, Ceet scanned the available options. Volcano run, asteroid belt, combat mission… The last one caught his eye. They had never flown into a live-fire situation. He was privately grateful for that—he felt a significant burden for his squadron’s safety, and that was without being in the crosshairs of enemy guns. What better time to try a combat mission than when they were flying inside a simulation?

“Let’s run number three,” he said.

The panel in front of him went dark before it returned with a new view. The black overlay rolled away to both sides like a curtain, and he found himself staring at a giant blue planet, a shimmering shield wrapped around the globe. A combat space station hung above the shield on the far side of the world, and his side computer indicated his companions were formed up behind him in their ships.

A few gasps cut across the comm unit, and Ceet guessed they were all seeing the same thing. The screen dimmed for a moment, and text scrolled across:

The water planet Galileo is in the grip of a cruel imperial regime. You are among the brave forces Micanopy is sending to break through the planet’s defenses so ground military can capture the capitol. The space station above Galileo controls the planetary shield, and enemy fighters are also docked there. Your mission is to dismantle the shield with as little loss of life as possible.

The text faded, and the planetary view returned.

“How inspiring,” Deeta laughed.

“What’s the strategy, Captain?” Neeta asked.

Ceet looked over the mission field. The space station seemed quiet, but he figured the enemy fighters would activate and release once they began to move.

“We need to take down the station. Dwarf Two, you and I get as close as we can. Three, Four, Five, and Six, you are our diversions. Engage the other side. Shoot them down if you can, or at least lead them on a wild ewha chase. Seven, you run scans on that station and call out the weak points.”

“What if they shoot at me?” Ardee almost sounded whiny.

“Shoot back.”

Ceet shut down his comm line and fired up his engines. The controls were slightly different from his Claw, a round ship with four pincer-shaped extensions, but he quickly identified the crucial ones.

Seconds later, at least a dozen enemy fighters appeared from behind the space station.

When they came within firing range, he dropped altitude, diving beneath the row of oncoming pilots. Neeta followed him smoothly. His visual indicated that the two other pairs of Dwarf Squadron broke off to port and starboard respectively, and Ardee hung back from the clash.

It was a testament to their years together that they could operate with limited verbal communication, even in unfamiliar situations.

As Ceet expected, the enemy pilots scattered to follow each wing pair. He noted two fighters match their altitude drop ahead of them, directly in their path to the space station.

He flipped his private comm with Neeta on. “Two, not sure how intelligent this sim is, but let’s not make ourselves obvious.”

“As in, don’t blast straight to the station?” she returned dryly.

“Nah, let’s have some fun first.”

Ceet accelerated into a reckless head-on collision course towards one of the fighters before pulling up into a last minute roll. Blood rushed to his head, and he briefly marveled at the gravity simulation.

In the same span of time, Neeta had fired on the other fighter. An orange blaze lit up in front of her.

“Great shot!” Ceet exclaimed.

He glanced at his dashboard. Dwarf Three had scored two kills and Dwarf Four had scored one. Five and Six were fending off four enemy ships at once. Ceet caught a glimpse of them weaving through the opposing fighters and the bright streams of laser fire.

Ardee’s voice filled the cockpit. “One and Two, go for station. Path is clear.”

“Any weaknesses we can target?” Ceet was already flying towards it, with Neeta tailing him closely.

“Structurally, the bridge seems most vulnerable. I will transmit my analysis to you.”

A digital mapping of the space station filled his visual. Ardee highlighted the points of greatest exposure on the bridge, which jutted out towards the planet. While his analysis seemed sound, Ceet knew they would first need to dismantle the shields.

A red alert flashed on his screen. Dwarf Five is out. Dwarf Six is critically hit.

He bit back a curse, reminding himself this was merely a simulator run.

“Six here,” Deeta said, her voice shaky. “Five’s comms are cut since she’s out. One more shot and I’m down too.”

“Alright, hang in there.” Ceet switched his visual to a view of the field. “Seven, can you enter the fray as Six’s wing?”

“Negative, I’m on the run.”

Ardee’s relatively stationary ship was no longer being ignored. Two fighters were angling towards him, and he had made a sharp nosedive to avoid their fire.

Neeta came on their private channel. “One, I think our best shot is to take out the bridge quickly.”

“Agreed.”

Again, he felt grateful he did not fly for the military. Ceet could not imagine maintaining course and focusing on the mission at hand while his friends blinked out of existence with each blip on the dashboard. In a real battle, he felt certain he would turn around and fight the enemy off his squadron. The simulation felt so authentic, he was almost tempted to do just that.

The space station grew large on his view screen, and his visuals indicated the bridge was within range. On his port side, Neeta was already unleashing a torpedo stream.

“Shields at eighty percent,” she muttered.

He followed suit and turned a barrage of fire on the bridge.

“One and Two, they’ve noticed you,” Heet said tersely.

Enemy fighters were circling back towards the station. Ceet estimated they had just seconds more before they would need to divide their attention between the bridge and the sim pilots.

A new, female voice came over the line. “Hello, Dwarf Squadron. Need a hand?”

He frowned at the comm line. She was not one of them, but her voice sounded vaguely familiar…

“Suri!” Neeta gasped.

“Good ear,” she replied. “I just swung by the simulator. The nice guard let me into the extra hatch. Can I join the fun?”

“Yes,” Ardee said. “Please, just start shooting.”

Ceet grimaced, but heard her laugh over the line. She hardly needed the encouragement. Before he could say anything, she was flying straight into the chaos, lasers flaring from her ship. Two orange blossoms lit up behind him as she tore through the battle.

“Wow,” he breathed.

“Boss, no time for admiring the light show now!” Neeta exclaimed.

He came to himself and rejoined Neeta in battering the station shields. They were down to thirty percent, and Suri’s heroic entry had confused the fighters angling towards them, as some turned around to engage her.

Another red alert. Dwarf Six and Seven are out.

“We need more firepower,” Ceet said.

“Three here, we’re on it,” Atta returned. “Suri can take care of these fighters singlehandedly.”

Atta and Heet flew in behind them, adding their torpedoes to the mix. Ceet watched Suri fly from his side viewport, wheeling through the half-dozen fighters trying to shoot her down. Her ship sailed effortlessly through the crosshairs of laser fire. She added two more kills to her tally.

He was not the only one watching. “That girl is going to win the Tide,” Neeta said.

“Five percent,” Atta interrupted. “Almost there.”

The shields collapsed. Without hesitation, Ceet fired two torpedoes straight towards the bridge, and the station erupted in a blaze of crimson and gold.

The screen went black and the comm line shut down. Congratulations! Galileo Simulation: Success. Ceet read the words that scrolled across the computer, along with a dozen statistics of their performance.

The hatch behind him opened with a hiss, jarring him back into reality.

As he climbed out, the rest of his squadron was already gathered around Suri, wrapped up in animated conversation. She was grinning down at them, her dark eyes crinkled with mirth.

They had met her briefly at the opening banquet, where Ceet sensed her discomfort with the spotlight. Still, she seemed spirited and strong-willed, though her youthfulness gave her an air of naïveté too.

He shook her hand. “You were amazing. Thanks for the help.”

“Of course.” She studied him for a moment. “Ceet, right?”

“Yes,” he replied, surprised and flattered that she remembered. “I think you just made our day.”

“It was fun for me. I don’t get to fly with too many people.” She looked around at them. “You all were great. I was watching for awhile before I climbed in.”

Her tone conveyed sincerity, not mere courtesy. As the rest of the squadron flushed with pride, Ceet felt a deep rush of gratitude towards her.

“You’re too kind,” Veeta said. “We were dead in space without you.”

After a few more minutes of chatter, Suri was forced to leave for an exclusive pre-Tide event. She seemed reluctant to go, as they were in the middle of speculating what the newest model of ships, set to release in the next few days, would resemble.

“Can I fly with your squadron again sometime?” She turned to Ceet as she reached the door.

He almost choked on his incredulity. She was asking permission?

“If you win Pilot Tide,” Ardee deadpanned. “We only fly with the best.”

The entire squadron turned death glares on him, but Suri only laughed, undeterred. “I’ll do my best. Thanks for the motivation.”

She waved and disappeared, leaving Dwarf Squadron to stare at each other and pinch themselves, wondering if they had really left the simulator and reentered reality.

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