Pilot Tide, Chapter 9

Previously: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], [Chapter 6], [Chapter 7] and [Chapter 8]

Chapter 9

The competitors are now in a three-way tie. Jules scored points for reaching Dwarf Squadron first, but Alai and Suri earned a bonus for their creative solution. A viral petition also emerged following the second round to discount the scores due to Suri’s ship malfunction. Despite public fervor, it is unlikely to succeed.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.108

The blue hologram shimmered into existence on Suri’s table.

“Papa!” she exclaimed, a tornado of emotions rushing through her. While they exchanged messages, it was her first time seeing his face since she left Nimrim.

“My Suri,” he said quietly. “I thank God you are well.”

“Oh Papa, don’t worry, I’m doing fine.”

She swallowed the small lump forming in her throat. The words felt honest as they came out; her deadly incidents during the first two rounds felt distant as she took in the sight of her father’s face. Even through the holographic projection, she could see the lines on his forehead and the anxious aura in his eyes.

He smiled. “Show me your place,” he said, in a lighter tone.

Suri gave him a virtual tour of her quarters. Her room aboard The Nebula was small but immaculate, with new furnishings that stood in stark contrast to her worn belongings.

She pressed Papa to tell her what was happening in Nimrim, trying to experience the warmth and familiarity of home through his words. He obliged, but they exhausted the topic quickly. Nimrim was nothing like the Metropolis in its energy and excitement, and Papa was quick to point out the biggest news from their community was following Suri’s progress in Pilot Tide.

“Suri, what happened to your ship in the second round?”

She knew they would land on this topic eventually. “The mechanics looked at it. A few wires overheated and caused some complications with the oxygen tank.” She tried to brush it off. “They assured me its fixed.”

“Overheating should not shut off the oxygen supply.” He leaned forward. “Can anyone else look at it?”

“Papa, they have the best mechanics from the Metropolis here.”

Anger flashed through his expression. “You’re gambling with your life. I won’t even mention that stunt you pulled in the first round.”

Suri bit her lip, sensing they were treading on thin ice. If she said anything about Jules’ false distress call, Papa would force her to withdraw from the Tide.

“I’ll get a second opinion.”

“You know, your mother was the darling of the Flight Academy.” He held her gaze, a magnetic force behind his eyes. “She didn’t go out in a blaze of glory. She wasn’t fighting for Micanopy or shot down by a superior pilot. Her control panel stopped working.”

She looked away, unwilling to see the anguish in Papa’s eyes. He almost never spoke of Mona’s death. Growing up, Suri learned more from secretly searching The Mirror archives late at night.

The instructors from the Academy were doing a routine flight around the Cluster when Mona’s ship veered out of control. She broke away from the team and made a nosedive towards one of Micanopy’s moons. They found a smoky vestige of her Stingray on the surface a week later.

Conspiracy theorists whispered about sabotage. While top pilots were celebrities in Micanopy, they were also the objects of envy from competitors. Another minority group thought she was suicidal, given the pressure of performance and public attention. But the official investigation into her crash reported her controls fell prey to a technical glitch, rendering the ship unresponsive.

“You’re young, Suri,” he continued, and she cringed in anticipation of the reprimand, “but life is much more fragile than we think.”

“I know it’s a risk—”

“Death isn’t partial to celebrities.”

She took a deep breath. “I know it’s a risk,” she repeated. “But this isn’t about dying. It’s about living. Papa, I know, out in the cosmos, being a good pilot isn’t always enough.” Suri paused. “I really know that now. But I don’t want to cower in fear.”

He studied her for a long, hard moment. “You are your mother’s daughter.”

“Funny,” she said, a small smile forming, “I hear that refrain so much now, but it only sounds good coming from you.”

“Promise me you’ll be careful.”

Suri gripped her hands together, wishing again he were physically present. “I promise.”

The corridors of The Nebula were quiet at mid-day. Suri wandered through the empty banquet hall, pausing to examine the crystal chandelier. The ewha hung from the ceiling with a slight slant, its wings extended as if it were in flight.

Since the last round, she avoided the simulator room upon Heet’s advice, but it left her restless. Though her ship’s critical malfunction shook her more than she let on with Papa, she felt ready to climb back into a cockpit. The thrill of tearing through the stars, of molding a machine into an extension of her body, gripped her.

“Ever seen a real ewha?”

She started, just realizing Veeta came in.

“Yes, once. They’re disappearing.”

“There were many more on Micanopy Minor. The first time I saw one, I knew I wanted to be up there, flying.” Conviction mingled with nostalgia in her voice.

Suri smiled, affection for Veeta and Dwarf Squadron bubbling inside her. Their fierce blend of loyalty, humor, and depth drew her in and warmed her spirits, a beacon aboard an otherwise cold and isolating station.

“Sometimes, I think we’re all just adrenaline addicts,” she said.

Veeta laughed. “We could form a society. Adrenaline Addicts Anonymous.” Her expression grew serious again, her round eyes finding Suri’s. “How are you feeling? You had quite a scare.”

“I’m fine, really.” She paused, considering her actual feelings—a jumble of nerves and exhaustion. “But I am ready for this to be over.”

“I can’t even imagine how it’s been for you.” Veeta stared at her. “I know Ceet has talked to you about this already, but I also wanted to tell you, woman to woman.”

“You don’t trust Alai.”

“I think you have reason to be biased.” She blinked twice, the Essgee equivalent for an eyebrow raise.

Suri flushed. While Ceet was more diplomatic, Veeta did not mince words.

Between the media frenzy and her own crisis streak so far in the Tide, she did not afford much time to thinking about Alai. Sure, she had mulled over his cryptic note and wondered about his motives in helping her the first two rounds, but she never sorted through her feelings beyond that.

“I might not be standing here if it wasn’t for him.” She decided to ground herself in pure fact.

“And I don’t deny that. I agree, he won me over after the last round. But we still don’t know what that note was.” She paused, almost dramatically. “So be careful. And I don’t just mean about staying alive.”

Suri stared at her. “What?”

“Ceet is one of the best pilots I know, but he’s blind as a bat when it comes to romance.”

She choked. “You’re absurd,” she sputtered.

Veeta looked liked she was about to laugh, and Suri was unsure whether she was making fun of her now. Before she could form a more coherent comeback, Ceet and Ardee skidded into the hall.

“I heard Veeta say your name in a derogatory context,” Ardee intoned, turning to Ceet. “Would you like a replay?”

He shot the android an exasperated look. “No.” Turning to Veeta and Suri, he said, “Have you heard the news? It just hit The Mirror.”

A cold knot formed in Suri’s stomach. “What?”

“The newest ship model was announced! Ardee, show them.”

A holographic image booted up and hovered above the android. It was a perfect round shape. Ardee activated a video of it streaking through the sky, and then another one of it tumbling through the air like a soccer ball in an anti-gravity simulation.

Ceet turned to the last video. The hull, an off-white color, became transparent. They had a clear view of the small cockpit inside, clearly designed as a one-man ship.

“Its an Apple Pod.” Ceet glanced at Suri. “The rumor is, they’ll be used in the last round of the Tide.”

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