Pilot Tide, Chapter 11

And we are nearing the end – one more installment after this. Hope you’re enjoying this ride through space!

Previously: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], [Chapter 6], [Chapter 7], [Chapter 8], [Chapter 9] and [Chapter 10]

Chapter 11

Daily Proverb: “Fly for more than self, for you are mortal.”

The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.110

A steady state of panic hummed through The Nebula.

Ceet didn’t know how long he stood gripping the railing along the viewing window, his double-jointed knuckles pale. The rest of Dwarf Squadron moved restlessly around the bridge, and occasionally, Argent’s voice echoed in the background. But he could not tear his gaze from Suri’s distant Apple Pod.

He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.

“They’re analyzing the trajectory of the ship and running a diagnostic,” Atta said.

“They’re taking too long. What if her oxygen is out again?”

“She’s always pulled through.”

It may have sounded hollow coming from anyone else, but he couldn’t help believing Atta. She didn’t waste her words on empty encouragements.

Ardee whirred over to join them. “I scanned her ship. All systems dark. Nothing is functional.” Ceet detected a note of concern in his metallic voice.

He felt a hitch in his throat. “And—Suri?”

“Bio signals are still strong.”

Relief spread through him before a greater sense of fear assaulted him. How long could she hold on like this?

The Mirror is exploding with this story,” Atta murmured. “The only other topic getting as much press is the Apple Pod model. The company stock is bottoming out. Engineers are getting death threats.”

“This isn’t engineering’s fault.” Veeta appeared behind them, along with Deeta and Neeta.

Ceet’s stomach tightened. He wasn’t an expert, but somehow, he wasn’t surprised.

“Sabotage?”

Veeta jabbed her finger out the view screen at Suri’s ship. “A malfunction would never send a ship into that kind of orbit. And all her comms are out? That’s convenient.”

Before he could reply, Argent stumbled in, wearing a harried expression. Ceet felt a mixture of pity and disgust for him. He was surely under pressure for this debacle, but his overriding concern seemed to be for his reputation and that of Pilot Tide. Suri’s life was almost an afterthought.

He waved his hand wearily for attention.

“The mechanics can’t give a certain diagnosis at this distance,” he began, “but they have a proposed salvage plan.” He ran his fingers through his hair, mussing up the slicked silver halo. “It’s madness.”

A reedy man slipped in behind him. He had a nervous twitch and thick eyeglasses, but he whispered forcefully to Argent.

“Alright, alright,” Argent muttered. He looked resigned. “Patch me through to them.”

The comms board flashed green. Raising his voice, he called, “Jules and Alai, do you copy?”

A heartbeat passed, and then an affirmative from both of them.

“Suri’s comms are completely dead, and as far as we know, she has no control over her Pod. Her spin velocity is increasing. The one chance we have is if another Apple Pod matches her spin speed, locks on to her, and maneuvers them back to The Nebula.” He kept his voice upbeat. “We need one of you to do this. Our experts will be on the line with you the entire time.”

Ceet knew shock was written across his face as he looked at the rest of his squadron. Heet had joined them now too, his dour expression grimmer than usual.

A hush came over the bridge. He strained to hear anything through the comms—breathing, tapping—but it was silent.

“Shut off the broadcast,” Ceet said suddenly. All eyes, including Argent’s, turned to him. His nerves tingled. “This isn’t a show anymore.”

Argent stared at him for a moment before he nodded and motioned to someone at the controls.

“Argent,” Jules voice sounded through the bridge, “are you sure—”

“I’ll do it,” Alai cut her off.

Jules said nothing.

“Okay, I like him now,” Deeta murmured, so only the squadron could hear.

After Argent gave an exuberant acknowledgement of his heroics, everyone on the bridge began moving. Argent transferred Alai to a private line with a small team of engineers aboard the station. He returned to the live Tide broadcast to give an update. Dwarf Squadron and the rest of The Nebula crew pressed around the railing for a front row view of the unfolding drama.

Jules’ Pod drifted back towards the station, while Alai’s moved slowly out to Suri’s.

“This will be one for the history books,” Neeta commented.

Ceet shook his head. “Think of all the speculators who made conspiracy theories out of Mona’s freak accident. What will they say about Suri?”

“Family curse,” Heet muttered.

“No such thing,” Atta retorted. “We know who’s out to get her.” Her glare followed Jules’ ship.

“Ardee, are you detecting any changes?” Ceet asked.

“No. All systems still dark, but sign of life is clear. Her heat signature is wavering, though.”

“Come on, Alai,” Ceet whispered, willing his Pod to move faster.

His Pod was inching into position right above Suri’s and beginning to pick up spin speed. Before long, both their ships appeared to be mirror images, one above the other, rotating on a slightly tilted axis. Ceet nearly forgot the dire nature of events as he watched, marveling at the spectacle. To an outsider, the two Apple Pods appeared to be performing a pilot’s space stunt, moving with synchrony and grace. Only the background chatter—“adjust axis by 1.3 degrees…pull up more, Alai…”—and fearful thump-thump of Ceet’s heart reminded him this was a rescue mission.

A hush fell over the bridge as Alai began closing the vertical space between his Pod and Suri’s. Ceet felt someone grip his arm and tighten, but he didn’t turn to see whose it was. Come on, Alai. Come on.

He could appreciate the extreme difficulty of this maneuver. The Claws that Dwarf Squadron flew had a similar round exterior to the Apple Pod. They had attempted attaching ships at nonzero velocity before, but it only resulted in an unintentional sparks show and three expensive ship repairs. Even with computational precision, it took surefire piloting to make it work. Luckily, they were flying inside Micanopy Minor’s atmosphere that time.

Doing this in the hard vacuum of space could easily be considered suicide.

The bridge erupted into cheers. Alai made contact with Suri’s ship. Now, the two Pods were spinning as one.

The grip on Ceet’s arm relaxed, and his friends burst into speech simultaneously.

“I didn’t think Alai could fly like that,” Atta admitted.

“Behold Micanopy’s new heartthrob,” Heet said sarcastically, but even he was smiling.

“Something new is on breaking on The Mirror,” Ardee said. “An incriminating audio tape.”

Ceet looked at the android, stunned. “And its getting press even with this happening?” He waved wildly at the view screen, where the two Apple Pods were moving back towards the space station.

“It is related to this. Alai sent a recording of his conversation with Jules from this morning.” Ardee’s systems whirred as he processed more data. “It incriminates her of intentional sabotage during Pilot Tide.”

“Yes.” Veeta’s eyes gleamed. “Justice.”

“And,” Ardee continued without pause, “it incriminates him too.”

Before they could digest that statement, Ardee made a click click sound and Alai’s voice came out of his speakers.

I don’t want your blood money.

“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.”

Ceet listened numbly as the entire recording played. He didn’t know what to think. After the second round, he became so confident that Alai’s motives were pure. That he cared for Suri.

“So… he was in on a deal with Jules.” Deeta looked furious and puzzled. “But he regretted it?”

The bridge buzzed with whispers as small groups huddled together, scrolling through the newsfeed. They heard snatches of Alai and Jules’ conversation replaying around them. Only Argent sat alone, his palms smothered against his face and eyes closed.

Ceet felt another wave of pity for the man and looked away. It seemed intrusive to witness his rare moment of vulnerability.

An announcement came over the intercom. “All Apple Pods have successfully docked.”

All eyes turned to Argent for directions.

The Pilot Tide host took a deep breath before rising to his feet. “Send medical assistance to the holding bay. And guards.”

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