Pilot Tide, Chapter 7

Previously: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], and [Chapter 6]

Chapter 7

Daily Proverb: “Do not let a world define you. Another one will tell a different story.”

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.104

A tall, reticent android served Suri her drink as she sat in The Nebula’s cafe. Hidden behind the sprawling dining hall, it appeared to be carved out as an afterthought. She blew on the steam rising from her chamomile tea, inhaling its warm herbal scent.

Round two began tomorrow. While the visit to Flight Academy made Suri’s newfound fame more real to her, she half-expected to wake up at any moment to the sound of Papa tinkering with tools. She closed her eyes and imagined the sunlight filtering through her dilapidated blinds, splashing across posters of antique ships tacked around her room. It seemed unbelievable that only days ago, she lived behind the veil of obscurity.

The thought of Nimrim provoked nostalgic melancholy, but the image of Mona, memorialized in the Academy’s museum, hardened her.

“Micanopy waits with bated breath to see what else a One-Wing can do tomorrow.”

Suri swung her head around to find Alai leaning against the door. He raised an eyebrow at her, and only broke the gaze when the android came to take his order.

“Black coffee.”

“You won’t be able to sleep.”

“I don’t even know what that is.” He grinned, but she saw the circles under his eyes. “Perpetual insomnia.”

She studied his profile while he turned away to the ordering counter. Ceet had pulled her aside on the ride back to The Nebula and warned her about the note they found on Alai. She dismissed it, insisting they had no basis to make such an accusation. True, she did not really know him, but he did not seem the type to play underhanded games.

When the android pushed a steaming mug across the counter, Alai hesitated, glancing around the cafe.

“Can I take this to go?”

Suri raised her brow. “More simulator runs?”

“No, I’m resigned to my fate.”

“Want to join me, then?” She felt surprised as the invitation came genuinely, not out of mere politeness. “You clearly aren’t going to sleep.”

He laughed, for the first time Suri could recall. “That’s what you’ve reduced my life to: simulator runs and sleep.” But he wrapped his fingers around the mug and took the seat across from her.

Despite long days slogging through media events together, she realized that she never shared a private conversation with Alai. Even now, facing him across the table felt strange, and almost unnerving. He had a nondescript face, though his coffee-colored eyes were probing. For the first time, they were not turned on a reporter or a dashboard, but on Suri.

Wary of lingering silence, she asked, “Have you talked to Jules?”

Alai shook his head. “I’ve hardly seen her since the first round.” No hesitation, no trace of guilt. He did not seem uncomfortable with their current setting either, leaning back casually. “She won’t try another gimmick tomorrow.”

“How do you know?”

“She wouldn’t dare. Besides, it backfired the first time.” He paused. “She’s desperate to win, but not if it might cost her career.”

“And what’s in it for you?” She watched him over their twin mugs and the steam rising from them. His forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Why do you want to win Pilot Tide?” she clarified.

“The money.”

She looked incredulous. “I don’t believe you.”

“That’s your right. But I came from nothing. I didn’t have the luxury of a path paved for me. I don’t have the luxury of waiting for an inheritance the way most my people do.”

“Alright.” She leaned back, but her gaze didn’t falter. “But I just think there’s more to it for you.”

He stared down into his coffee and then back up at Suri. She willed herself to hold his penetrating gaze.

“I want to prove I can do this,” he said finally. The words emerged bald and blunt.

“Why?”

He raised a brow this time. “I thought I finished my interviews.”

Suri flushed, but did not look away. “I’m just curious. Everyone has a motivation.” She heard an echo of Ceet’s cautionary words in her own.

Moments passed before he spoke. “Both my parents died in a mining facility when I was eight. My only living family was an uncle who, to put it delicately, hardly knew my name even when he wasn’t at the bottom of a bottle. I had to fend for myself, but hard work and competence are not qualities that get you far in Renova. There is a premium on family name and honor, which I had none of.” His voice grew rough.

Most offers of sympathy sounded shallow to her, so she remained silent, waiting for him to continue. It made sense now why Alai sounded so detached when he spoke of Renova at the opening banquet.

“I did all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet,” he said. “The first time I climbed into a cockpit was an eye-opener. I didn’t have my head buried in muck and trash. I never really looked at the skies before. So, I forked almost all the credits I had to buy an old Z-Ray and began working as a cross-world transporter.”

“How long did that ship hold up?” Suri asked. She hardly noticed her elbows were propped on the table as she leaned in, engrossed in his story.

He grinned slightly, breaking the somber rhythm of the tale. “The Z-Ray? Guess. It was already going on eight years when I got it.”

“Two years?”

Alai’s grin widened. “Five. I learned some maintenance tricks and befriended a few mechanics in my travels.”

“Impressive.”

She leaned back and cocked her head, as if observing him at a different angle also allowed her to view him from a new perspective. He seemed an unlikely space chauffeur, but as he spoke, she could begin imagining it. Suri pictured Alai ferrying passengers in a beaten Z-Ray across Clusters, sharing stories and scrambling for impromptu repairs.

“Anyway, I learned something about the legalities of cross-world travel and immigration, made some good connections, and racked up some savings. I was good at what I did. But every step up I took, I wanted to prove I could do more.”

“Why?” she repeated, and bit back a grimace when realized what she did.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I want to prove Renova is wrong to judge you by your family name. I want to prove an orphan can be someone of value.”

“You do have value. Even if you never got into a cockpit, you have the same value.” Suri stared at him, feeling hot indignation stir inside her.

“Sure, I know that deep down.” Alai stared back, perhaps sensing her shift in tone. “Did I hit a nerve?”

She blinked, unbalanced by the directness of his question.

“I just think,” she began slowly, “that everyone here is consumed with proving themselves. Renova values you for family name. Micanopy values you for flying excellence. These are all constructs people made up to judge others. Why do we subject ourselves to them?”

He nodded, and while his gaze appeared thoughtful, a smirk teased at the corner of his mouth.

“Fair point.” He crossed his arms. “So, why do you want to win the Tide?”

Suri knew the question was coming, and searched for a response. Ever since she filmed her audition tape, she felt herself grasping for an answer to this question, unable to articulate something concrete.

She played the words through her mind before she said them aloud. “For my mother’s memory, and for my father’s future.”

“That’s a heavy load for small shoulders.”

“It’s an aspiration. I honestly didn’t think I’d even make it this far. I don’t have to win…” she trailed off, recalling the euphoria of her first victory. “But now I might be disappointed if I don’t,” she admitted, surprised by her own honesty.

Alai smirked. “Now I’ll feel guilty when I leave you in the dust.”

“Well, I’m glad not everyone in this contest is heartless.”

He feigned dismay. “I gave myself away.”

Suri laughed, and they carried on in light banter for a while longer before the android server announced the cafe was closing. She felt a twinge of regret as she emptied her mug.

The corridors of The Nebula were quiet as they walked back to their respective rooms. She glanced at the clock; they were hours away from the next round. Oddly, Alai’s confident stride beside her chased away some of the anxiety, as she felt she would enter tomorrow a little less alone than before.

They reached her room first, and Alai paused by the door. “Watch your back out there, alright?”

She tilted her head up at him. “Can you do that for me? Since you’ll be behind, anyway.”

He grinned. “You want to owe me two?”

“I’ll pay you out of my winnings.”

“You keep dreaming.”

Suri extended her hand to him and Alai grasped it. The size of his palm dwarfed hers, and he had a strong grip.

“Good luck tomorrow, Alai.”

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