Pilot Tide, Chapter 5

Previously: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3] and [Chapter 4]

Chapter 5

The twenty-sixth Pilot Tide begins! Each challenge is crafted with care, testing the contestants’ skill and character. This year will feature three rounds of competition. The judges have cryptically revealed the themes of each: speed, courage, and adaptability.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.100

Suri, Jules and Alai waited in the docking bay for Argent to arrive. It was the coldest part of The Nebula, with whitewashed walls and too much space. Their three ships, the seven Claws belonging to Dwarf Squadron, and a few nondescript carriers only filled a quarter of the room.

It was difficult to believe they were minutes away from the Tide’s commencement, where millions of Micanopy citizens would be watching their every maneuver.

While Jules examined her Needle, Alai sauntered over to Suri’s One-Wing.

“Good luck.” He patted her ship and grinned. “With this hunk, you’ll need it.”

“Never counted on luck to get here,” she returned, though she felt less confident than she sounded. A slight sick feeling gripped her stomach.

“Yeah, I saw some of your simulator runs yesterday. Impressive.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Spying?”

“Just getting to know the competition.” His expression grew serious. “Take care out there.” He stuck his hands into the pockets of his flight suit and turned away.

Suri looked at his retreating figure with surprise. “Hey,” she called, and he glanced back at her. “You too.”

After enduring four days of media events, interviews, and guided tours together, Suri struggled to read him. Jules was more straightforward. She soaked up attention and glory like a dry sponge, never growing weary of the spotlight. Alai remained largely aloof, and that only heightened the focus on the two women. But away from the holocams, Suri found he vacillated between sarcasm and sobriety.

By the time Alai reached his Stingray, Argent appeared in the bay, flanked by two assistants. He clapped and grinned broadly.

“Today’s the day!”

They murmured greetings with notably less enthusiasm. Even Jules’ face registered some apprehension.

Argent launched into a set of instructions. “Each of your ships has already been programmed with a preset route. You will slingshot around Micanopy Minor and back to the station. You’ll be judged on time, smoothness of flight, and handling any obstacles.”

“What obstacles should we expect?” Jules asked.

“No asteroid fields,” he laughed. The last Tide Jules participated in featured one. “But the far side of the planet is where the gaseous rings are thickest, so visibility will be low, and your comms may go out. So be prepared, because the course takes your through there.

“You know that everyone will be watching on holovision, but they will only hear my commentary. All your communications will be private. You can listen in to me on Channel One for live updates, Channel Two will put you through to Nebula Control, and Channel Three is a private comm between all of you.” He paused. “Don’t worry. Reminders are taped to your view screens.”

Suri felt the hairs on her skin stand on end as she climbed into her cockpit. She studied the route on her computer. It seemed simple enough, though she had never ventured to the far side of Micanopy Minor. She ran her fingers over the dashboard, almost afraid her nerves would render her senseless and drive the familiar controls from her mind.

Her fears evaporated into black vacuum as the docking bay opened and she flew out of The Nebula. Once again, the control yoke was an extension of her body. She hardly even registered the Needle and Stingray that dropped down beside her and roared away.

Turning her thrusters on full, Suri set her One-Wing on the pre-programmed course. She flipped her comm to Channel One.

“…early in the game, but Jules is in the lead. This first round will give viewers a good idea of whether newcomers Suri and Alai pose a threat to the reigning Tide champion. Oh! And Alai veers slightly off course to avoid some debris…”

She straightened her back and examined the computer. Sensors indicated a clear path ahead, but Argent’s comment reminded her to remain vigilant.

The flight was smooth all the way to Micanopy Minor. Suri easily maneuvered around some debris, but so far, she found this far less challenging than most the simulator runs aboard The Nebula.

A smoky haze gathered around her ship as she approached the planet. She triple-checked the course route and switched all her sensors on and off to ensure they were functional. Soon, she was flying blind through the gas rings.

Static mingled in with Argent’s commentary, and she turned her comm off as he became less intelligible.

But as crimson fog covered her entire viewport, another voice burst into her cockpit with clarity.

“No! Stop! Stop…” Jules cried, before the line went silent.

Suri felt her blood turn to ice. Her dashboard indicated Channel Three lit up for the first time en route. She fumbled her comm back on with numb fingers.

“Jules?” she croaked. No response, so she tried again. “Alai?”

Another burst of static came over her speakers before she caught the other woman’s voice. “There…gravity well…into planet…”

“Where are you?” She scanned for Jules’ ship, but her signals kept scrambling.

Suri broke away from her computer’s course and angled closer to Micanopy Minor. She maintained a safe distance, trying fruitlessly to recall the best strategies for pulling out of a gravity well.

Coordinates suddenly appeared on her screen. She keyed them in.

They took her inward towards the planet, where the gaseous rings grew thicker, nearly painting her viewport a blood-red shade. The planetary pull strengthened, and it took jerking motions on the yoke to make her ship respond.

“Jules?” she tried again.

Her comm unit lit up, but indicated a private hail from an unknown channel. She accepted the incoming call.

“Get out of there.” Alai’s voice was distant, but his words clear.

She felt a sharp wave of relief. “I’m sending you coordinates. Jules is in trouble.”

A muffled grunt came over the line. “She’s playing you.”

“What?”

“She’s fine! I see her ahead of me.”

Suri’s stomach hollowed out, while her mind still scrambled to grasp the implications. Would Jules actually stoop so low to secure a victory? There were always rumors that beneath the high and honorable veneer of the Flight Academy, cheating and backstabbing were rampant. There were always whispers that those whose careers rose to the top achieved success by trampling over others, not by true merit.

But she had seen Jules fly on holovision. Politics and personality aside, she could outfly anyone without playing dirty.

“Suri,” Alai’s voice crackled again.

“There’s no gravity well, then,” she murmured.

He muttered something foreign, perhaps a Renovan curse. “There is! You’re flying straight at it.”

Alarmed, she pulled the control yoke all the way back, forcing her One-Wing into a portside roll. For a moment, the planetary pull loosened its grip, but soon the ship continued to drift slowly but steadily towards Micanopy Minor. Panic swelled up inside her like rising water. The red gas around the planet seemed to swallow her whole.

“Fire all your thrusters and accelerate,” Alai instructed.

She followed his directions without stopping to reply. She briefly wondered where he was and why she could hear him clearly, but her anxiety quickly chewed up any curiosity.

The engines sputtered rebelliously. In that long, agonizing second, Suri accepted that she would be the most spectacular Pilot Tide failure in years. She would return to Nimrim, live in peaceful obscurity with Papa, and study something dull at university. The future she once dreaded became a more welcome thought. Was it such a loss to give up flying among the giants?

A green light blinked on her dashboard, thrusting her back into reality.

“I’m alright!” The words fell out in shock.

A fleeting sense of disappointment touched Suri as her imagined future slid away, but then iron-like determination sliced through her.

“Good,” Alai said, and their private channel closed.

She did not have time to ponder his behavior. Putting all other thoughts out of her mind, she pushed her ship away from the planet, re-aligning with the original course. Once her computer indicated she was back on track, she threw the One-Wing into full-tilt acceleration, curving around Micanopy Minor.

Black space enveloped her when she shot out of the crimson mist’s last vestiges. Suri could not see them, but her sensors indicated two ships straight ahead.

She flipped her comm unit back to Channel One.

“There she is, finally pulling out of the Minor’s rings!” Argent boomed, loud and clear now. “All three contestants are now clear of the planet and shooting back towards the station. When we look at the arc…”

Suri shut him off and gritted her teeth. Anger towards Jules bubbled up and hardened in her gut. She would not allow a cheap gimmick to put her out of the running.

The One-Wing came with a little-known speed burst feature. Suri had tried it once before. The ship had folded into itself, becoming pill-shaped, which allowed it to shoot forward like a cannonball. The peak velocity was higher than that of any other ship model, but the tradeoff was limited manual control.

She activated the setting, trying not to think of the dangerous consequences should more obstacles lie ahead.

Her wing contracted and wrapped around her ship like a shell. Half the controls grayed out and Suri felt the acceleration kick in, as the stars became blurred lines in her viewport.

She kept her hand on the yoke, gently shifting it to make small directional adjustments. Her visuals and sensors were closed down in this mode, so she had no idea where Jules or Alai were. All her computer showed was the target destination, The Nebula, and she was flying full throttle towards it.

When the space station grew larger, she angled her ship down at the last possible moment to avoid slamming into the hull. As she dipped below The Nebula she decelerated and switched off the speed feature.

The entire length of the dashboard lit up, including her comm unit.

“…at that! What a move. Did you all know the One-Wing could do that?” Argent was jabbering excitedly. “And she steals the first round in lightning fashion. This girl has Mona’s skills and daring.”

Adrenaline churned through Suri’s veins. Somehow, miraculously, her gamble paid off. She maneuvered her ship back into the docking bay and then allowed her limbs to go slack. Before she climbed out and met the fanfare, she imagined Papa watching from home, his heart racing through corkscrew loops. She imagined Shell and Chip shouting at the holovision. She thought of Dwarf Squadron cheering her on from above.

The other two pilots had also made it by the time she left the ship. Jules was walking ahead to meet Argent and the media ambassadors descending upon them. Suri felt a hot surge of anger.

Alai came from behind and tapped her shoulder. “Nice flying. Made up for the missing wing with a neat bag of tricks.”

She grinned in spite of herself. “Thanks. I’m happy to trade for your Stingray.”

“I’ll pass.”

Suri hesitated a moment. “Thanks for what you did. You didn’t need to help me.”

To her surprise, his expression became somber. “Don’t report her.”

“I haven’t thought about it…”

“No, don’t. There were no holocams following us on the far side of the planet, and our comms weren’t functioning right. You’ll be painted as a villain for accusing someone of her standing. You have no proof.”

She studied him, her dark eyes locked on his. “That’s what she intended,” she said at last, her words tinged with a ring of bitterness.

“Of course.” He cocked his head. “But you still beat her.”

Suri nodded and managed a small smile. A melancholy sensation swept over her and she suddenly wished she were home with Papa. As Argent’s silver hair gleamed and the holocam flashes grew bright in the docking bay, the reality of Pilot Tide began to settle like a hard rock inside her.

She stared at the back of Jules’ head. The Mirror might sing her praises, but its warm words stretched thinly over the ruthless world of fame and glory.

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