Suri races to the top of the leaderboard with a spectacular come-from-behind flight. But the competition is far from over. Jules pulled in a close second, with Alai on her tail. With two more rounds over the next ten days, the star field remains wide open.
– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.102
In the center of the Metropolis, the Flight Academy’s expansive facility spiraled from ground to sky. It housed a museum of old models and artifacts, a fleet of live ships, and hundreds of instructors and students.
The glass fogged up as Ceet pressed his face closer to the window. Their carrier was landing inside the Academy.
Mixed emotions churned within him. Essgees never saw the inside of the Academy, making Dwarf Squadron’s opportunity second to none. But guilt tempered his anticipation. While he never felt piloting was a betrayal of his people, stepping inside this elite human-only institution was another matter.
Neeta, Deeta and Veeta were pointing out the window and chattering excitedly. In front of them, Suri and Alai sat slightly apart, silent. Jules had skipped the outing, remaining aboard The Nebula. Ceet was not surprised. She taught at the Academy already, unlike her two rivals who had never seen it in person. Besides, Jules still seemed to be smarting from her loss.
They broke into two tour groups upon stepping outside. Ceet, Atta, Ardee and Suri joined a bright, petite instructor named Renee, while the rest of Dwarf Squadron and Alai followed another guide.
“Welcome! I was hoping I would get you all for my group.” Renee grinned, making eye contact with each of them, and Ceet liked her instantly.
As she led them through the first floor, she shared a brief background on herself. “I trained with Jules for years,” she told them. “My claim to fame.”
“But she’s much more pleasant,” Atta muttered beside him.
Ceet noticed Suri grimace at Renee’s comment. He had seen little of her after the Tide’s first round, but she seemed subdued the whole flight into the Metropolis. As they continued their trek towards one of the museums, he slowed down to match her pace.
“Hey Suri,” he murmured. “Getting used to the media frenzy?”
She gave him a small smile. “Never.”
“I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you yet. You were spectacular out there.”
In front of a yawning archway, two plasma screens were replaying highlights from the Tide. Ceet watched as Suri’s One-Wing folded into itself, blazing across the black expanse. Though the holovision was muted, he could still imagine Argent’s distinct voice reaching a fever pitch and Dwarf Squadron cheering wildly around him.
He glanced at Suri. Her gaze also fluttered to the screens.
“Thanks,” she said, though her voice lacked the exuberance she demonstrated after their Galileo simulator run.
“Are you alright?” he asked gently.
He winced, realizing he sounded almost fatherly. He was older than her, but it felt silly to appear protective. She was more than two feet taller than him, the most famed pilot in Micanopy right now, and more than capable of blasting him to smithereens from inside a cockpit.
Suri opened her mouth, but Renee stopped their group under the archway.
“This is the oldest museum on Micanopy Major, and its housed inside the Flight Academy. As you walk through, you will see the evolution of ships from the founding of the Cluster to today. We also highlight some of the most notable pilots in our history, many of whom I am sure you’re acquainted with.”
She led them inside. Ceet sucked in his breath and Atta exclaimed, “Oh!”
The archway they entered through slanted up into a high-vaulted ceiling twinkling with stars. Miniature ship models hung at varying lengths from above, appearing to hover in mid-air. The floor of the museum was designed like the interior of a large ship, with a bridge and control center stretching across it. The room was dimly lit, but fluorescent lights on the ground indicated the way forward.
“A standard museum wouldn’t do justice to our subjects,” Renee explained, grinning at their reactions. “We tried to recreate the sense of wonder that comes with space and flight.”
Ceet continued to walk with Suri, trailing behind Renee, Atta and Ardee. They passed a holographic recording of The Octagon pilots in their flight suits, waving at a large crowd.
“Neeta will love this. She’s a rabid fan of Stephan,” Ceet pointed him out, a small smile tugging at his mouth.
“I was too,” Suri said, “Until I read the actual history and discovered he’s the most overrated pilot in Micanopy.”
“Well, there’s the historical Stephan and the holoshow one,” he returned.
Suri laughed, and he felt heartened. They continued following the others along the fluorescent path as Renee pointed out various landmarks in flight history.
After a long silence, Suri said quietly, “It’s people like you and Dwarf Squadron who should get recognition in the pilot community.”
He looked up at her, startled. “Why?”
“You treat one another like family. Your team knows you have their back.” She hesitated. “And I’m sure it takes perseverance and courage to go against your culture’s norms, but you’re fighting for your dream. Aren’t those the values we should celebrate as pilots?”
Ceet digested her words, surprised yet moved. He also sensed an undercurrent of bitterness in her speech.
“You’re kind, Suri. I do wish we could join the Academy or compete in the Tide—”
“You don’t,” she interrupted.
“You don’t want to compete in the Tide.” A grim smile etched across her face, making him wonder if he imagined the naïveté he saw in her previously. “Believe me, I would trade with you if I could.”
He recalled her bright-eyed enthusiasm the day before the first round, and the contrast hit him like a hammer.
“What happened out there?”
A few moments passed before she spoke. “Jules sent a false distress signal, and I fell for it.” She bit her lip and recounted what happened. “I beat her, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. I keep thinking how she must have planned it. Waiting until our comms were flaky, and I’d have no proof. Having the fake coordinates to send me.”
As he listened, Ceet felt disbelief, a wrench of sympathy, and then a burst of anger.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He clenched his fists. “She should be disqualified. Or worse.”
“Alai told me not to report her because I don’t have evidence.”
He remained quiet for a moment. “Do you trust Alai?”
“Well, yes,” she said, a note of bafflement in her voice, “I trust he means well at least. He helped me out there, and didn’t even begrudge coming in last. Why?”
Ceet shrugged. “I don’t mean to be cynical. But everyone has motives, and often those who don’t reveal theirs are more dangerous. We know Jules wants the glory and status of the Tide. But what does Alai want?”
“I don’t know. But I can’t distrust everyone,” she murmured.
They were interrupted as Renee brought the group to another halt. Ceet realized they had walked through a significant portion of the museum, though he missed most of the details because of their conversation.
Renee pointed at a life-size bronze plaque they stopped in front of. “You all should be familiar with this pilot.” She caught Suri’s eye especially and winked.
A holographic image flickered at the top of plaque. Ceet stared at it—a woman with the same dark eyes and high cheekbones as Suri smiled back at them.
“Mona is one of the most celebrated pilots of our day,” Renee said. “And now her daughter walks in her footsteps.”
“You really look like her,” Atta said. “She’s beautiful.”
“My advanced facial recognition software can hardly tell you apart.” Ardee whirred closer to the holograph. “My confidence in my programming is taking a dip.”
Ceet gave his shell a hard knock. “Your programming doesn’t include any sensitivity, apparently.”
He looked at Suri with concern, but she smiled at them. He thought her eyes glistened a bit, but no tears fell. Rather, a steely look of determination undergirded her gaze.
“I didn’t know this was here.” She stared at the holographic image. “I was too young to remember much. I wish I had known her.”
While other groups passed them, they stood in silence. Ceet knew the customary human gestures for comfort, but she was too far above the ground for him to reach. Instead, he touched her elbow with two fingers, a distinctly Essgee gesture of reassurance and friendship.
She smiled gratefully at him, and he knew she understood its meaning.
“Win the Tide for her,” Renee whispered, and Ceet could tell she meant it, despite her long-standing relationship with Jules. “You fly like an ewha.”
“No,” Atta returned, “She’s better than that. She flies like her mother.”
This time, a tear did slide down Suri’s face. She didn’t try to wipe it away, and Ceet admired her for it.
He touched her elbow again. “We have your back too.”
They ended the tour of the Academy mid-afternoon when everyone’s feet were sore from walking. Many of the instructors and students came up to meet them, and though their attention was mostly given to Suri, some wanted to hear Dwarf Squadron’s perspective on pilots in the Essgee culture. Ceet felt warmed by the words of many aspiring pilots, who said they were inspired by his story and encouraged the squadron to keep flying.
On the way back to the carrier ship, their two groups reconvened. After bidding farewell to Renee, Suri wandered ahead with Alai, but Deeta held the rest of them back, a tense look in her eye.
“What’s wrong?” Atta asked, alarmed.
Deeta handed them a crumpled note. “This fell out of Alai’s pocket.”
They crowded around to read it, and Ceet felt a strange sense of foreboding grip him.
Well played. Deal is still on. J
“J is…” Atta trailed off.
“For Jules!” Veeta exclaimed, a distressed gleam in her eye. “They’re conspiring against Suri, I know it.”
Deeta and Neeta nodded, but Heet rolled his eyes. “I keep telling them they’ve watched too many human holoshows.”
Atta also looked skeptical. “It is a pretty big stretch of imagination.” She glanced at Ceet questioningly, expecting him to see it from her side.
“It’s not a big stretch.” He felt his gut twist in a knot, and told them what Suri confided in him.
All of them expressed shock and outrage, and even Heet seemed indignant. Ceet was only half-listening to their responses, as his mind swirled with the implications that Alai might be involved. Was he really pretending to be Suri’s ally while he collaborated with Jules? A spike of anger shot through him, but cooled into sadness as he pictured Suri’s reaction to the news.
“We have to warn her,” Neeta said.
Ceet looked ahead to Suri and Alai’s figures, shrinking as they approached the docking bay.
“Yes, we do.”