For the first time, One-Wings surpassed Stingrays in sales volume. Will they hold up when the newest ship model hits the cargo bay?
– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.110
Three new ships lined the edge of the docking bay. It was empty except for Jules, who was hunched beneath one of the Apple Pods. Her gaze flitted to Alai as he approached.
“You went off script last round.”
He stared at her, his expression unreadable. “You went too far. She could have died.”
“Do you know how many unseen safety protocols are in place for an event like Pilot Tide?” Jules climbed out from under the ship and leveled her gaze at him. “She wasn’t in real danger.”
“But you don’t care if she is.”
“And you do?”
Alai ignored the question. “She called me in-flight, proposing we work together. I thought you’d reach the carrier long before us.”
“Well, you’ve slashed my chances to almost none. I need a wide margin this round to win.” She raised an eyebrow. “And if I do, I’m not sure you’ve earned your share of the prize.”
His gaze didn’t waver, but a shock of regret cut through him. This time, it was not from the loss of half a million credits, but the memory of his clandestine arrangement with Jules. His stomach churned with disgust.
Slipping a hand deep into his pocket, he toggled a switch.
“I don’t want your blood money,” he said, his voice surprisingly even.
“You’re a bit soft-hearted for a mercenary.”
“You cut the oxygen supply and hacked the emergency backup protocols in her ship. Not many people know how to do that.”
Jules shrugged. “That’s how it works at the top, not just in Micanopy. Suri is naive, but I figured you would know better. No one gets here with clean hands.”
“So it was you.”
She didn’t reply right away, looking past him.
“Yes.” She met his eyes again, lowering her voice. “Argent’s coming. Forget the deal then.”
He inclined his head and turned around. Argent was stepping into the docking bay with a small camera crew flocking behind him. Suri’s dark head bounced behind them.
Alai flipped the switch again inside his pocket.
Argent grinned widely upon arrival, flourishing his hands at the new ships while the cameramen circled them furiously.
“And for once, The Mirror has it right,” Argent began wryly. “The last round features the Apple Pods, an unexpected departure from traditional ship models. Our competitors will be among the first to try them out.”
After a brief narrative on the ship’s core features, he launched into an explanation of the Tide finale. The rules were simple. They would engage in head-to-head mock combat. Each Pod was equipped with phantom laser fire, and the ships would register “hits” on their sensor board by the other pilots. Last one standing wins.
Jules climbed into her ship without further adieu, and Suri offered Alai a ragged smile before she disappeared too. He noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes.
In contrast with the flat, oblong shape of the Stingray, the Apple Pod’s cockpit curved around Alai. The controls were similar enough to his ship, with some upgrades to the interface. He turned his attention outside, waiting for their ready signal.
Something hard pressed against his hip. He pulled the small recording device from his flight suit and stared at it before tapping the replay switch.
“I don’t want your blood money.”
He shut it off. He spent his life betting on the best odds, from who would pay the most for cross-world transportation to dice games in dimly lit casinos. Entering Pilot Tide, Jules had the best shot at victory, so he bet on that too. She knew Suri was a threat, and offered Alai a sweet deal to help her seal a win.
“You’re a bit soft-hearted for a mercenary.”
Suri, with her dark hair and dark eyes, believed he was here for more than a fistful of credits. He felt ill thinking of it. While Alai didn’t think Jules would go to life-threatening extremes, he could never undo his decisions.
A green light flashed in the docking bay. It was showtime.
Determination welled up inside him. One last round. One last chance to prove Suri right and shake off his past.
Alai pushed his Pod into full throttle, making a wide loop above The Nebula. The controls were more sensitive than his Stingray, making the ship highly maneuverable. The compact nature of the Pod also made any acceleration feel more acute. On his port side, he watched Jules and Suri slingshot around the station, warming up for the battle.
Jules fired first. Her phantom laser flashed across his view screen with a ghostly red color, and his dashboard registered a hit.
His comm unit immediately lit up. “Are you alright?”
“Suri, it’s not real firepower.” The weight of guilt only mounted with her concern.
He threw himself into a sharp dive and pulled up hard beneath Jules’ ship. He fired two shots in succession.
One hit the mark. Not allies anymore, I guess.
But she didn’t turn on him. Instead, she raced towards Suri, who immediately began weaving a sharp zigzag pattern to evade her fire. He stopped to admire her sheer elegance in flying. The two women’s Apple Pods sparked with speed and fury, their bright engines dancing through space.
A few minutes in, they each scored a hit on the other, but the head-to-head battle gave no sign of ceasing. They stitched the space around them with spectral red flares. The crimson sharpened then dissolved slowly, giving the illusion that they were weaving through a confection of red dust. Alai felt almost like a sidelined spectator.
Time to spice things up.
He dove straight into the fray, intercepting a shot from Jules’ ship at Suri. His shield power went down further. He caught a glimpse of Jules in her cockpit, her eyes narrowed in rage. Before he could swing into evasive maneuvers, another flash glanced across his bow.
“Sorry Alai,” Suri said, “it’s not personal.” Her voice was tense, but he detected a mischievous edge to it.
“Of course. Fire away.” He almost laughed. Would she apologize when she won the Tide?
The three of them pulled apart, their ships spinning away from each other. They formed a triangle of sorts, each hovering and waiting to see who would strike next. As the deadlock drew on, he was tempted to tune into Argent’s channel just to break the tension.
Suri broke formation first, shooting upwards with startling acceleration. Jules followed her immediately, but as she began closing in, Suri went into a hard vertical drop.
Alai’s eyes widened briefly. Something about the cockpit transformed the sensible girl into a half-maniacal prodigy hurtling through the stars.
From his vantage point they were both easy targets. He fired off a shot at each for good measure.
In a split second, Suri was racing back up, setting her and Jules on a head-on collision course. Her Pod showed no signs of deceleration, and Jules pulled away milliseconds before they would smear the paint off each other’s hull. Alai released a long breath.
Then something strange began to happen. Suri’s Pod began to rotate in place, slowly picking up velocity, until it was spinning at a dizzying pace.
Was this another ruse? It seemed doubtful, and Alai grew cold inside.
He hailed her. “Suri?” The comm unit blinked, but no response came from her ship.
Her Apple Pod was now spinning and slowly drifting away from them and the space station. “Suri!”
He turned to Jules’ channel. “Are you doing this?” He kept his voice steely hard to hide the alarm flooding through him.
“I’m crammed inside this ball,” she returned, her voice artificially incredulous. “What in space could I do to her?”
Alai slammed the comm unit, closing the line.
The small recording device that sat on his dashboard bounced and caught his eye. He contemplated it for a moment, and then popped the memory chip out.
A red light flashed. “Attention,” Argent’s voice boomed into the ship. “We’re calling this round to a halt. Suri’s ship is suffering a malfunction. Again, her ship is suffering a malfunction—”
Alai located The Micanopy Mirror’s transmission channel and took a deep breath. He appended a short message to the recording: I’m sorry. He pushed send.
“—appears all of her ship functions are down and she is unable to receive communication. Jules and Alai, please remain in your Pods and stand by for further instructions.”