You Are The Border

You are the border
the invisible, dividing line:
The Comedy Show that makes a little girl laugh
—”quick, shove the food in!”—and eat,
you dance for me before you can reason about
starving third-world kids and immigrant dreams;
The Watermelon Drummer, the fruit’s final judge,
unlocking it’s mystery through your tapping fingers
you do your magic trick, and we crack open
the reddest sweet flesh behind a shell of green.

You are the border
between lunacy and sanity:
The Unlicensed Therapist, raised on a diet of
communism, logic, and serendipity
but you do quite well—for others, and for me
You are the peacemaker in our fights, and sometimes,
even the ones in my own mind.

You are the border
an unbroken wall and shield:
The Guardian who saves me from howling dinosaurs,
enormous spiders, and my own poor schemes;
but when the time comes, like summer fruit ripened,
you give me wings to rise
And though I’ve left the nest for a wild world
with no crib railings or safety nets
I know I am safe with you in a love that never leaves
and it’s more than just your culture, blood, and duty
that promises to stay with me,
come
hell
or
high water
Your love is not, like a young man’s romance, some flighty dream
Your love is tested by fire,
You love is no fragile thing.

Pilot Tide, Epilogue

And we have reached the finale – which is just a relatively short Epilogue. I hope you enjoyed the ride! Always happy to hear any feedback, reactions, moans (well, hopefully not that), etc. from readers. Stay safe and happy reading!

Previously on Pilot Tide: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], [Chapter 5], [Chapter 6], [Chapter 7], [Chapter 8], [Chapter 9], [Chapter 10] and [Chapter 11]

Epilogue

The most dramatic Pilot Tide of our generation concluded in tumult, scandal, and redemption. Jules has been relieved of her post at the Flight Academy and awaits trial. While an old Micanopy tradition dictated that dishonorable actions of active pilots should be punished by “suicide flights,” Jules’ loyal fan base rose up in protest against the outdated law. Eventually, Suri put the nail in that coffin, pleading mercy for her adversary.

Alai, the outsider contestant from Renova, emerged as a controversial figure himself. While many hailed him as a hero for his actions, insisting he more than redeemed himself, some of Suri’s biggest supporters are still campaigning for retribution. Suri briefly stated she would not press any charges.

And what can we say for Suri, the daughter of renowned pilot Mona? She has rightfully earned her own place in Micanopy’s story. When the final round of the Tide was called to a halt, she held the highest score among the three contestants. But given the circumstances, no victor will be officially declared this year. Instead, Suri has been offered a position on the board of the Flight Academy. Whether she will accept remains to be seen.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.120

The Metropolis sprawled out below them in a landscape of lights with Rhiannon Square gleaming in the center. Micanopy’s moons hung in dusk’s afterglow. Suri glanced out the fiftieth floor window and felt a tremor in her knees. Her comfort in a cockpit never fully eased her problem with heights.

“How do you like it?” she asked, turning away.

“I like it,” Alai said immediately, sweeping his hand around the cherrywood floors and wine-colored furnishings. “I’m not used to it yet. It’s too—”

“Fancy?”

“—grounded.”

“You’re on the fiftieth floor.” Suri raised an eyebrow.

“And I could be looking out a viewport at the stars,” he countered.

She laughed. “I’m surprised you’re settling here. After everything.”

“Because I’m famous and some people hate me?” He shifted his head back and forth. “Yeah, I don’t love either reality. But after the Tide I feel tied to this place, in a way I never did with Renova or any other star system. It seems like the right place to figure out what I’m doing next.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re staying.”

And she meant it. The aftermath of Pilot Tide was overwhelming. Suri had stumbled helplessly out of her Apple Pod into an even more dizzying whirlwind of revelations. While Jules awaited trial, a serious investigation into Flight Academy politics ensued. She was bombarded with interview requests.

Alai’s betrayal stung, but she found it easy to forgive him. He made the deal with Jules before he really knew her, and his regret was prodigiously earnest. Suri felt a surprisingly sincere delight when he decided to rent a flat in the Metropolis. Fame was still new to her. Jules’ trial was still coming, and she would need to testify. It was good to have a friend nearby.

A flurry of knocks came from the front door. Alai unlocked it remotely and Dwarf Squadron burst through.

“Suri! Alai!”

“Hey,” she greeted, smiling warmly.

“Thanks for inviting us over, Alai,” Ceet said. He paced the room, his gaze catching on the view. “This is an incredible end to our stint on Micanopy Major.”

Alai poured thin glasses of champagne for all of them.

“A toast to surviving Pilot Tide,” he said. “Especially Suri.”

They laughed.

“So Alai,” Veeta said, settling onto the plush sofa, “rumor has it they’re going to make a film about you. The newest heartthrob pilot of Micanopy.”

He groaned. “A heartthrob is an invention by those who don’t know you.”

“Oh, really? What do you think, Suri?” Veeta asked.

“I think he has no shortage of admirers,” she sidestepped gracefully, before tilting her head at him. “Perhaps that’s why you’re staying.”

“I’m sure Alai has other reasons for staying,” Deeta put in knowingly, before he could reply.

“Suri, are you going to join Flight Academy?” Atta changed the subject, to both Alai and Suri’s relief.

She sighed. “I don’t know yet. I’m going back to Nimrim first. If my father is willing to move here, then I might.” She thought of how Papa cried when she called him from the med bay after Alai rescued her. “Regardless, I’m petitioning the Academy to open eligibility to all people, Essgees included.”

“Would you attend the Academy, if you could?” Alai looked around at the team sprawled across his floor.

They exchanged surreptitious glances and Suri felt her chest tighten.

“Well,” Ceet began, “this is a very early idea, but we were thinking of opening up our own academy on Micanopy Minor.”

“That would be amazing!” Suri exclaimed.

She felt a swell of pride for them, but also a pang of melancholy. As trying as Pilot Tide was, the experience knit her heart with Dwarf Squadron. It would not be easy to say goodbye.

They spent the remainder of the evening eating and speculating about what the future held for each of them. Suri received more than one overt hint from her Essgee friends about Alai, but she brushed it off.

Maybe one day, when the dust settled and they both healed some more, she could think about it. But for now, romance seemed more in the realm of holoshows than reality. For now, his friendship was what felt solid, and sufficient.

“So, are we going to spend our last night here getting fat on cinnacoa cakes?” Deeta groaned, after they devoured generous helpings of dinner and dessert.

“I have an idea.” Alai swept up his keys. “Let’s go fly.”

They all cheered in response.

“This is even better than winning that lottery,” Neeta relished. “Flying with the biggest stars of Micanopy.”

“It’s better than that.” Suri smiled, warmth spreading through her limbs. “Flying with friends.”

 

End.

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.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 10

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

Chapter 10

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?”

Liar.

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—”

File downloaded.

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.”

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.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 8

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

Chapter 8

Round Two: Rescue Mission. A carrier ship has lost power mid-flight, with a small crew of passengers aboard. Suri demonstrated a talent for wicked speed, but will she be able to save the luckless travelers?

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.105

“In case of an emergency, we can reactivate the engines. Otherwise, only the comm units will be functional so the competitors can communicate with you.” Argent clapped his hands and looked at Dwarf Squadron. “All good?”

Ceet nodded. “Can we hear them talking to each other?”

“Only if they open the public channel. Otherwise, each ship has a private line to every other.”

The rest of the squadron was meandering around the cramped control room. There was little space to maneuver for seven of them plus Argent, but the ship was purposefully small. A frigate, or anything larger, would make them much easier to find and unrealistically difficult to rescue.

Suri, Jules and Alai were not given the ship’s coordinates, but a radial boundary from The Nebula as potential locations. Their task was to find it on their own and rescue the crew.

When Argent approached them with his proposition, most of Dwarf Squadron was eager to role-play the stranded passengers. Ceet and Atta were the only ones who hesitated. Ceet worried they would appear overly opportunistic, milking the publicity of their lottery win. Atta did not appreciate reinforcing the image of Essgees as those who needed to be “rescued” by humans. But the rest of the team—mostly Deeta, Veeta and Neeta—convinced them, insisting they would be better positioned to help Suri if she needed it.

“Everyone ready?” Argent swiveled around in his chair, giving them a wide smile. He turned back to his controls and flipped the mic on. “Welcome to Pilot Tide, round two!”

Ceet stared at the small plasma screen overhead. The Nebula hovered in the center, with Micanopy Major’s reddish hue creeping onto the edge of the holovision.

Three ships dropped out of the Nebula’s docking bay, all of them shooting off in different directions.

He closed his eyes and listened to Argent’s voice rise and fall. It was one of the most well known voices in Micanopy. During the last Tide, Ceet remembered gathering with Dwarf Squadron in his small flat, Argent’s perfect enunciation and smooth commentary pouring in through his speakers.

It felt strange to hear the same voice now, less than ten feet away, but broadcasting to the entire Cluster.

Someone tapped his shoulder. Veeta leaned on the dashboard beside him.

“Did you talk to Suri again?” she asked.

“I caught her briefly this morning. She trusts him.” Ceet pursed his lips. “I didn’t want to be pushy.”

“Well, nothing we can do now. After this round, I’ll talk to her.”

“She’s not a child, Veeta.”

“I didn’t say she was. She’s just too trusting.”

Atta interrupted them, pointing to the plasma screen silently. Jules’ Needle floated into view.

“…looks like her scanners have picked up the right location!” Argent was saying.

A fleeting sense of fear gripped Ceet, like cold fingers inside his ribcage, but the holovision flipped to a quick view of a One-Wing and then a Stingray. He relaxed. Suri and Alai had not located them, but that was all.

The ship’s comm unit crackled to life. “Dwarf Squadron, do you copy?” Jules’ voice reverberated against the walls.

Neeta made a face from across the room, but Ceet gave her a warning look. Regardless of who arrived first, his team promised to give their best effort and cooperate.

“We copy,” Atta responded. There was a frosty edge in her tone, but he trusted her to be professional.

“I’m running an analysis right now. We have no way of making it back to The Nebula attaching your ship to mine. You’re too large, and the Needle doesn’t have that kind of firepower.”

“Feel free to leave, then,” Heet muttered. Thankfully, his voice was too low to carry.

“What do you want us to do?” Ceet asked.

There was a brief pause on the line. Argent was also silent, listening to the dialogue that was being broadcast across Micanopy.

” Have your whole squadron wait beside the hatch door. I’m going to align mine above yours. We’ll ditch the ship, but at least you will be safe.”

“You want us to come aboard?” Deeta sounded incredulous.

“Yes. Is there a problem?”

“There are seven of us. We won’t fit inside a Needle.”

“You will. I’ve remodeled.” Her tone remained polite, but Ceet imagined her indignation at being contradicted. The fact that it came on live broadcast, and from an Essgee no less, just added insult to injury.

He glanced at Argent for any pointers, but the host merely shrugged. Your decision, he mouthed. After all, this was a real contest, not a scripted drama.

“We’ll be there,” Ceet said finally, earning a few mutinous looks from his squadron. “Tell us when you’re ready.”

“Excellent.” Jules signed off.

They crowded around the hatch door in silence as Argent rattled on with his commentary. When the comms crackled again, they looked at one another.

“That was quick,” Neeta murmured, a distinct absence of enthusiasm in her voice.

But it wasn’t Jules. “Dwarf Squadron, are you there?” Suri’s voice mingled with static.

“Suri!” Atta exclaimed.

Her sudden appearance breathed new energy into the squadron. Deeta and Veeta gripped each other’s arms, and some of the sullenness vanished from Heet’s expression.

“Alright, so we’re going to try something kind of wild—”

“Suri,” Ceet interrupted, picking his words carefully, “Jules has already proposed a plan, and we’re waiting for her to execute.” He could not show her greater favor, or reveal Jules’ strategy, but he hoped Suri would be able to improvise.

“Give me a second,” she replied, and the channel closed.

They exchanged anxious glances, but Suri quickly returned. “So, according to the rules, I can propose my plan, and you are free to choose the contestant you want to go with.”

“Great. Give us your strategy,” Deeta said.

“There’s no way my ship alone can pull yours, and I bet Jules can’t do that either. I called Alai and asked if he wanted to join forces. Two ships together should have just enough engine power to take us all home.” She paused. “I’m adding him onto this channel.”

A soft click came over the line.

“Alai, you’re live with Dwarf Squadron too. I just told them our idea.”

“Hey. We’re ready if you are,” he said.

Ceet glanced around, noting a spectrum of reactions, ranging from skeptical to unhappy. None of them looked too favorably upon Alai, especially after they found the cryptic note at the Flight Academy.

“We’ve identified where both our ships can lock onto yours,” Suri chimed in. “If you give us the go-ahead, we’ll move in.”

Atta muted the comms, giving them a brief moment of privacy, and crossed her arms. “I say we do it.”

“Well, between them and Jules, it’s not a hard decision,” Heet said.

“Jules is hailing,” Ardee intoned. A blue flight flashed overhead, indicating an incoming call.

“Don’t pick up yet.” Ceet hurried back into the control room and found Argent still in his seat. “We want to go with Suri and Alai. What do we tell Jules?”

The host seemed to register a flash of disappointment, but he resumed his usual enthusiasm so rapidly that Ceet might have imagined it. A good showman never shows his true face, he thought dryly.

“I’ll notify her. You can just work with Suri and Alai.”

While Jules did not intimidate him, he could not deny his relief that someone else would deliver the bad news to her. Remembering her deception in the first round, Ceet did not want to be on the receiving end of her fury after she learned her chances of winning the Tide just became slimmer.

Dwarf Squadron was still huddled around the hatch door when he returned, round eyes turned on him.

“We don’t need to talk to her.” Even as he spoke, he heard Argent broadcasting the latest updates. “Let’s get back on with Suri.”

Atta reopened the line. “Suri? Alai?”

Silence greeted them.

Ceet checked the small computer screen beside them. A green light indicated the connection was strong and clear.

“Suri or Alai, do you copy?” he tried.

A burst of static came through, and then Alai’s voice, low and urgent. “Suri needs help. Her oxygen levels are dangerously low.”

“What?” Atta exclaimed, her round eyes colored with apprehension.

“Her oxygen supply is malfunctioning. I told her not to speak so she can save air.” Alai paused. “Here’s what will happen. She will maneuver her ship above your hatch door and drop into the carrier. You need to be ready to receive her.”

“Done,” Ceet said, already punching in the airlock’s open sequence.

“Tell me when you have her.”

“How will we get back to The Nebula?” Ardee asked.

“Jules is already returning to the station,” Alai said. “The Stingray can’t accommodate more than three people comfortably, and there’s no way I can pull your ship alone.”

“But I can fly the One-Wing.”

Ceet stared at Ardee. Of course—he was the only one who could operate without oxygen.

“Suri is in place!” Deeta interrupted.

They popped the hatch, the airlock slid open, and she promptly dropped inside. Atta and Neeta steadied her as she drew in a ragged breath, her face pale. From her appearance, it seemed as if her oxygen supply was almost gone. Ceet shuddered at the thought of further delay. If they had been any slower to act…

He made a quick decision. Before they could close the hatch, he pulled Ardee aside. “You sure you know how to fly a One-Wing?”

“What I don’t know, I can download and learn instantaneously.”

Ceet grunted and pushed him onto the platform before he could change his mind.

“Alai, did you hear us? Ardee is going to pilot Suri’s ship. Go through with your original plan.”

“Copy that. Quick thinking.”

Suri and the rest of Dwarf Squadron were already inside the makeshift medical ward. It was the size of a single doctor’s room, with one cushioned exam table and a shelf lined with medicine. Suri sat with her back against the wall, while Heet checked her vitals. The former doctor wore a concentrated expression, his round eyes narrowed.

Everyone else was quiet when Ceet hurried in.

He whispered to Atta, “Did Heet ever work with humans?”

“I was medically trained on all major life forms,” Heet muttered without looking up.

“They gave you enhanced hearing too.” Suri grinned over his head. Some of the color was returning to her face.

After a few more minutes, Heet pronounced her stable. Extended lack of oxygen was a real fear among pilots, known to cause severe reactions. With the final round of Pilot Tide just around the corner, he advised her to avoid simulation runs or stressful training prior to it so her body could rest.

Heet pulled Ceet aside after they left the ward. “Do you think it was sabotage?”

“Perhaps.” Ceet replayed the series of events in his mind. “But I trust Alai now. I could tell he really did care for her.”

“There are good actors.”

“There are also good men,” he replied firmly.

They were interrupted by Argent’s commentary blasting through the ship. Startled by his voice, Ceet almost forgot this round of the Tide wasn’t over yet.

“And in a dramatic turn of events, the Stingray and One-Wing have successfully locked onto our stranded ship and we are heading back to The Nebula! The One-Wing is currently piloted by Ardee, the android from Dwarf Squadron, due to an oxygen malfunction aboard Suri’s ship.”

As he continued speaking, the squadron huddled around a large viewport. The stars blurred as they began to gain speed.

Suri came up behind them. “Thank you, all of you.” She swept her hand out and bent low in a traditional Essgee bow. It was considered an old-fashioned gesture, with undertones of honor and submission to those greater than oneself. “I owe you my life.”

They blushed and protested vehemently, waving for her to stand up straight.

Ceet touched her elbow. “We have your back, remember?”

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.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 6

Hope you’re all hanging in there, and enjoying some warm drinks and good reads in quarantine! Previously in Pilot Tide: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2], [Chapter 3], [Chapter 4], and [Chapter 5]

Chapter 6

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.

“What?”

“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.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 5

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

Chapter 5

The twenty-sixth Pilot Tide begins! Each challenge is crafted with care, testing the contestants’ skill and character. This year will feature three rounds of competition. The judges have cryptically revealed the themes of each: speed, courage, and adaptability.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.100

Suri, Jules and Alai waited in the docking bay for Argent to arrive. It was the coldest part of The Nebula, with whitewashed walls and too much space. Their three ships, the seven Claws belonging to Dwarf Squadron, and a few nondescript carriers only filled a quarter of the room.

It was difficult to believe they were minutes away from the Tide’s commencement, where millions of Micanopy citizens would be watching their every maneuver.

While Jules examined her Needle, Alai sauntered over to Suri’s One-Wing.

“Good luck.” He patted her ship and grinned. “With this hunk, you’ll need it.”

“Never counted on luck to get here,” she returned, though she felt less confident than she sounded. A slight sick feeling gripped her stomach.

“Yeah, I saw some of your simulator runs yesterday. Impressive.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Spying?”

“Just getting to know the competition.” His expression grew serious. “Take care out there.” He stuck his hands into the pockets of his flight suit and turned away.

Suri looked at his retreating figure with surprise. “Hey,” she called, and he glanced back at her. “You too.”

After enduring four days of media events, interviews, and guided tours together, Suri struggled to read him. Jules was more straightforward. She soaked up attention and glory like a dry sponge, never growing weary of the spotlight. Alai remained largely aloof, and that only heightened the focus on the two women. But away from the holocams, Suri found he vacillated between sarcasm and sobriety.

By the time Alai reached his Stingray, Argent appeared in the bay, flanked by two assistants. He clapped and grinned broadly.

“Today’s the day!”

They murmured greetings with notably less enthusiasm. Even Jules’ face registered some apprehension.

Argent launched into a set of instructions. “Each of your ships has already been programmed with a preset route. You will slingshot around Micanopy Minor and back to the station. You’ll be judged on time, smoothness of flight, and handling any obstacles.”

“What obstacles should we expect?” Jules asked.

“No asteroid fields,” he laughed. The last Tide Jules participated in featured one. “But the far side of the planet is where the gaseous rings are thickest, so visibility will be low, and your comms may go out. So be prepared, because the course takes your through there.

“You know that everyone will be watching on holovision, but they will only hear my commentary. All your communications will be private. You can listen in to me on Channel One for live updates, Channel Two will put you through to Nebula Control, and Channel Three is a private comm between all of you.” He paused. “Don’t worry. Reminders are taped to your view screens.”

Suri felt the hairs on her skin stand on end as she climbed into her cockpit. She studied the route on her computer. It seemed simple enough, though she had never ventured to the far side of Micanopy Minor. She ran her fingers over the dashboard, almost afraid her nerves would render her senseless and drive the familiar controls from her mind.

Her fears evaporated into black vacuum as the docking bay opened and she flew out of The Nebula. Once again, the control yoke was an extension of her body. She hardly even registered the Needle and Stingray that dropped down beside her and roared away.

Turning her thrusters on full, Suri set her One-Wing on the pre-programmed course. She flipped her comm to Channel One.

“…early in the game, but Jules is in the lead. This first round will give viewers a good idea of whether newcomers Suri and Alai pose a threat to the reigning Tide champion. Oh! And Alai veers slightly off course to avoid some debris…”

She straightened her back and examined the computer. Sensors indicated a clear path ahead, but Argent’s comment reminded her to remain vigilant.

The flight was smooth all the way to Micanopy Minor. Suri easily maneuvered around some debris, but so far, she found this far less challenging than most the simulator runs aboard The Nebula.

A smoky haze gathered around her ship as she approached the planet. She triple-checked the course route and switched all her sensors on and off to ensure they were functional. Soon, she was flying blind through the gas rings.

Static mingled in with Argent’s commentary, and she turned her comm off as he became less intelligible.

But as crimson fog covered her entire viewport, another voice burst into her cockpit with clarity.

“No! Stop! Stop…” Jules cried, before the line went silent.

Suri felt her blood turn to ice. Her dashboard indicated Channel Three lit up for the first time en route. She fumbled her comm back on with numb fingers.

“Jules?” she croaked. No response, so she tried again. “Alai?”

Another burst of static came over her speakers before she caught the other woman’s voice. “There…gravity well…into planet…”

“Where are you?” She scanned for Jules’ ship, but her signals kept scrambling.

Suri broke away from her computer’s course and angled closer to Micanopy Minor. She maintained a safe distance, trying fruitlessly to recall the best strategies for pulling out of a gravity well.

Coordinates suddenly appeared on her screen. She keyed them in.

They took her inward towards the planet, where the gaseous rings grew thicker, nearly painting her viewport a blood-red shade. The planetary pull strengthened, and it took jerking motions on the yoke to make her ship respond.

“Jules?” she tried again.

Her comm unit lit up, but indicated a private hail from an unknown channel. She accepted the incoming call.

“Get out of there.” Alai’s voice was distant, but his words clear.

She felt a sharp wave of relief. “I’m sending you coordinates. Jules is in trouble.”

A muffled grunt came over the line. “She’s playing you.”

“What?”

“She’s fine! I see her ahead of me.”

Suri’s stomach hollowed out, while her mind still scrambled to grasp the implications. Would Jules actually stoop so low to secure a victory? There were always rumors that beneath the high and honorable veneer of the Flight Academy, cheating and backstabbing were rampant. There were always whispers that those whose careers rose to the top achieved success by trampling over others, not by true merit.

But she had seen Jules fly on holovision. Politics and personality aside, she could outfly anyone without playing dirty.

“Suri,” Alai’s voice crackled again.

“There’s no gravity well, then,” she murmured.

He muttered something foreign, perhaps a Renovan curse. “There is! You’re flying straight at it.”

Alarmed, she pulled the control yoke all the way back, forcing her One-Wing into a portside roll. For a moment, the planetary pull loosened its grip, but soon the ship continued to drift slowly but steadily towards Micanopy Minor. Panic swelled up inside her like rising water. The red gas around the planet seemed to swallow her whole.

“Fire all your thrusters and accelerate,” Alai instructed.

She followed his directions without stopping to reply. She briefly wondered where he was and why she could hear him clearly, but her anxiety quickly chewed up any curiosity.

The engines sputtered rebelliously. In that long, agonizing second, Suri accepted that she would be the most spectacular Pilot Tide failure in years. She would return to Nimrim, live in peaceful obscurity with Papa, and study something dull at university. The future she once dreaded became a more welcome thought. Was it such a loss to give up flying among the giants?

A green light blinked on her dashboard, thrusting her back into reality.

“I’m alright!” The words fell out in shock.

A fleeting sense of disappointment touched Suri as her imagined future slid away, but then iron-like determination sliced through her.

“Good,” Alai said, and their private channel closed.

She did not have time to ponder his behavior. Putting all other thoughts out of her mind, she pushed her ship away from the planet, re-aligning with the original course. Once her computer indicated she was back on track, she threw the One-Wing into full-tilt acceleration, curving around Micanopy Minor.

Black space enveloped her when she shot out of the crimson mist’s last vestiges. Suri could not see them, but her sensors indicated two ships straight ahead.

She flipped her comm unit back to Channel One.

“There she is, finally pulling out of the Minor’s rings!” Argent boomed, loud and clear now. “All three contestants are now clear of the planet and shooting back towards the station. When we look at the arc…”

Suri shut him off and gritted her teeth. Anger towards Jules bubbled up and hardened in her gut. She would not allow a cheap gimmick to put her out of the running.

The One-Wing came with a little-known speed burst feature. Suri had tried it once before. The ship had folded into itself, becoming pill-shaped, which allowed it to shoot forward like a cannonball. The peak velocity was higher than that of any other ship model, but the tradeoff was limited manual control.

She activated the setting, trying not to think of the dangerous consequences should more obstacles lie ahead.

Her wing contracted and wrapped around her ship like a shell. Half the controls grayed out and Suri felt the acceleration kick in, as the stars became blurred lines in her viewport.

She kept her hand on the yoke, gently shifting it to make small directional adjustments. Her visuals and sensors were closed down in this mode, so she had no idea where Jules or Alai were. All her computer showed was the target destination, The Nebula, and she was flying full throttle towards it.

When the space station grew larger, she angled her ship down at the last possible moment to avoid slamming into the hull. As she dipped below The Nebula she decelerated and switched off the speed feature.

The entire length of the dashboard lit up, including her comm unit.

“…at that! What a move. Did you all know the One-Wing could do that?” Argent was jabbering excitedly. “And she steals the first round in lightning fashion. This girl has Mona’s skills and daring.”

Adrenaline churned through Suri’s veins. Somehow, miraculously, her gamble paid off. She maneuvered her ship back into the docking bay and then allowed her limbs to go slack. Before she climbed out and met the fanfare, she imagined Papa watching from home, his heart racing through corkscrew loops. She imagined Shell and Chip shouting at the holovision. She thought of Dwarf Squadron cheering her on from above.

The other two pilots had also made it by the time she left the ship. Jules was walking ahead to meet Argent and the media ambassadors descending upon them. Suri felt a hot surge of anger.

Alai came from behind and tapped her shoulder. “Nice flying. Made up for the missing wing with a neat bag of tricks.”

She grinned in spite of herself. “Thanks. I’m happy to trade for your Stingray.”

“I’ll pass.”

Suri hesitated a moment. “Thanks for what you did. You didn’t need to help me.”

To her surprise, his expression became somber. “Don’t report her.”

“I haven’t thought about it…”

“No, don’t. There were no holocams following us on the far side of the planet, and our comms weren’t functioning right. You’ll be painted as a villain for accusing someone of her standing. You have no proof.”

She studied him, her dark eyes locked on his. “That’s what she intended,” she said at last, her words tinged with a ring of bitterness.

“Of course.” He cocked his head. “But you still beat her.”

Suri nodded and managed a small smile. A melancholy sensation swept over her and she suddenly wished she were home with Papa. As Argent’s silver hair gleamed and the holocam flashes grew bright in the docking bay, the reality of Pilot Tide began to settle like a hard rock inside her.

She stared at the back of Jules’ head. The Mirror might sing her praises, but its warm words stretched thinly over the ruthless world of fame and glory.

Pilot Tide, Chapter 4

Previously on Pen and Fire: [Chapter 1], [Chapter 2] and [Chapter 3]

Chapter 4

Daily Proverb: “The flight, the fury, the ecstasy—give me the stars.”

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.98

“Here’s the simulator room!”

Deeta disappeared through the sliding doors and the rest of the squadron followed. Ceet drew in his breath as they stepped inside.

The walls were covered with plasma screens displaying data dashboards and artificial landscapes. A few holographic images of three-dimensional ships hovered in the air, rotating slowly on an axis. Ceet blinked a few times to adjust to the dim lighting. As his gaze swept the room, he noticed a single guard stationed in the corner, silently watching them.

He jerked. “Oh, are we allowed in here?”

The guard nodded. “You’re welcome to try the simulator.” He motioned to a series of closed hatches against the wall.

“Wow,” Veeta breathed. “Must be state-of-the-art equipment.”

“Doesn’t anyone monitor the controls in here?” Heet asked.

“The technology is self-sustaining,” the guard replied. “The computers have sufficient intelligence to perform maintenance without assistance.”

Heet flicked a gaze at Ardee. “Yeah, their kind killed a lot of careers.”

“Androids are forcing organic life forms to constantly improve themselves and aspire to higher intellectual activities.” Ardee swiveled his head to look from Heet to the guard. “We cannot be responsible for those who fall behind.”

“Alright, let’s not accidentally offend anyone here,” Ceet muttered under his breath, coming up behind the android.

“What about intentionally?” Ardee also lowered his volume dial.

Ceet ignored him, his gaze drifting to the hatch doors. Atta, Veeta, Deeta and Neeta were also eyeing them from the other side of the room. Excitement swelled up inside him. They had received a guided tour of The Nebula the day after arriving, and formal activities filled the next. As much as he enjoyed the pampered lifestyle aboard the station, he was itching for the inside of a ship, his hand around a control yoke.

“Let’s do this.”

The rest of the team whooped as the hatch doors slid open with a loud hiss, and they each climbed inside one.

Ceet found himself in a small cockpit that hummed to life. The black screen in front lit up with a selection of simulator runs, and a control panel glowed beneath it. He fastened himself into the pilot seat, pushing it as far forward as he could. The height and reach was clearly designed for humans, but it was flexible enough that he could manage. Running a critical eye over the available switches, he flipped the communication link on.

“Testing. Dwarf One here, all systems ready.”

“Dwarf Two on board. I’m your wing.” Neeta’s voice came back, high and clear.

“Dwarf Three,” Atta called. “Which simulator run are we doing?”

As the rest of the squadron chimed in, Ceet scanned the available options. Volcano run, asteroid belt, combat mission… The last one caught his eye. They had never flown into a live-fire situation. He was privately grateful for that—he felt a significant burden for his squadron’s safety, and that was without being in the crosshairs of enemy guns. What better time to try a combat mission than when they were flying inside a simulation?

“Let’s run number three,” he said.

The panel in front of him went dark before it returned with a new view. The black overlay rolled away to both sides like a curtain, and he found himself staring at a giant blue planet, a shimmering shield wrapped around the globe. A combat space station hung above the shield on the far side of the world, and his side computer indicated his companions were formed up behind him in their ships.

A few gasps cut across the comm unit, and Ceet guessed they were all seeing the same thing. The screen dimmed for a moment, and text scrolled across:

The water planet Galileo is in the grip of a cruel imperial regime. You are among the brave forces Micanopy is sending to break through the planet’s defenses so ground military can capture the capitol. The space station above Galileo controls the planetary shield, and enemy fighters are also docked there. Your mission is to dismantle the shield with as little loss of life as possible.

The text faded, and the planetary view returned.

“How inspiring,” Deeta laughed.

“What’s the strategy, Captain?” Neeta asked.

Ceet looked over the mission field. The space station seemed quiet, but he figured the enemy fighters would activate and release once they began to move.

“We need to take down the station. Dwarf Two, you and I get as close as we can. Three, Four, Five, and Six, you are our diversions. Engage the other side. Shoot them down if you can, or at least lead them on a wild ewha chase. Seven, you run scans on that station and call out the weak points.”

“What if they shoot at me?” Ardee almost sounded whiny.

“Shoot back.”

Ceet shut down his comm line and fired up his engines. The controls were slightly different from his Claw, a round ship with four pincer-shaped extensions, but he quickly identified the crucial ones.

Seconds later, at least a dozen enemy fighters appeared from behind the space station.

When they came within firing range, he dropped altitude, diving beneath the row of oncoming pilots. Neeta followed him smoothly. His visual indicated that the two other pairs of Dwarf Squadron broke off to port and starboard respectively, and Ardee hung back from the clash.

It was a testament to their years together that they could operate with limited verbal communication, even in unfamiliar situations.

As Ceet expected, the enemy pilots scattered to follow each wing pair. He noted two fighters match their altitude drop ahead of them, directly in their path to the space station.

He flipped his private comm with Neeta on. “Two, not sure how intelligent this sim is, but let’s not make ourselves obvious.”

“As in, don’t blast straight to the station?” she returned dryly.

“Nah, let’s have some fun first.”

Ceet accelerated into a reckless head-on collision course towards one of the fighters before pulling up into a last minute roll. Blood rushed to his head, and he briefly marveled at the gravity simulation.

In the same span of time, Neeta had fired on the other fighter. An orange blaze lit up in front of her.

“Great shot!” Ceet exclaimed.

He glanced at his dashboard. Dwarf Three had scored two kills and Dwarf Four had scored one. Five and Six were fending off four enemy ships at once. Ceet caught a glimpse of them weaving through the opposing fighters and the bright streams of laser fire.

Ardee’s voice filled the cockpit. “One and Two, go for station. Path is clear.”

“Any weaknesses we can target?” Ceet was already flying towards it, with Neeta tailing him closely.

“Structurally, the bridge seems most vulnerable. I will transmit my analysis to you.”

A digital mapping of the space station filled his visual. Ardee highlighted the points of greatest exposure on the bridge, which jutted out towards the planet. While his analysis seemed sound, Ceet knew they would first need to dismantle the shields.

A red alert flashed on his screen. Dwarf Five is out. Dwarf Six is critically hit.

He bit back a curse, reminding himself this was merely a simulator run.

“Six here,” Deeta said, her voice shaky. “Five’s comms are cut since she’s out. One more shot and I’m down too.”

“Alright, hang in there.” Ceet switched his visual to a view of the field. “Seven, can you enter the fray as Six’s wing?”

“Negative, I’m on the run.”

Ardee’s relatively stationary ship was no longer being ignored. Two fighters were angling towards him, and he had made a sharp nosedive to avoid their fire.

Neeta came on their private channel. “One, I think our best shot is to take out the bridge quickly.”

“Agreed.”

Again, he felt grateful he did not fly for the military. Ceet could not imagine maintaining course and focusing on the mission at hand while his friends blinked out of existence with each blip on the dashboard. In a real battle, he felt certain he would turn around and fight the enemy off his squadron. The simulation felt so authentic, he was almost tempted to do just that.

The space station grew large on his view screen, and his visuals indicated the bridge was within range. On his port side, Neeta was already unleashing a torpedo stream.

“Shields at eighty percent,” she muttered.

He followed suit and turned a barrage of fire on the bridge.

“One and Two, they’ve noticed you,” Heet said tersely.

Enemy fighters were circling back towards the station. Ceet estimated they had just seconds more before they would need to divide their attention between the bridge and the sim pilots.

A new, female voice came over the line. “Hello, Dwarf Squadron. Need a hand?”

He frowned at the comm line. She was not one of them, but her voice sounded vaguely familiar…

“Suri!” Neeta gasped.

“Good ear,” she replied. “I just swung by the simulator. The nice guard let me into the extra hatch. Can I join the fun?”

“Yes,” Ardee said. “Please, just start shooting.”

Ceet grimaced, but heard her laugh over the line. She hardly needed the encouragement. Before he could say anything, she was flying straight into the chaos, lasers flaring from her ship. Two orange blossoms lit up behind him as she tore through the battle.

“Wow,” he breathed.

“Boss, no time for admiring the light show now!” Neeta exclaimed.

He came to himself and rejoined Neeta in battering the station shields. They were down to thirty percent, and Suri’s heroic entry had confused the fighters angling towards them, as some turned around to engage her.

Another red alert. Dwarf Six and Seven are out.

“We need more firepower,” Ceet said.

“Three here, we’re on it,” Atta returned. “Suri can take care of these fighters singlehandedly.”

Atta and Heet flew in behind them, adding their torpedoes to the mix. Ceet watched Suri fly from his side viewport, wheeling through the half-dozen fighters trying to shoot her down. Her ship sailed effortlessly through the crosshairs of laser fire. She added two more kills to her tally.

He was not the only one watching. “That girl is going to win the Tide,” Neeta said.

“Five percent,” Atta interrupted. “Almost there.”

The shields collapsed. Without hesitation, Ceet fired two torpedoes straight towards the bridge, and the station erupted in a blaze of crimson and gold.

The screen went black and the comm line shut down. Congratulations! Galileo Simulation: Success. Ceet read the words that scrolled across the computer, along with a dozen statistics of their performance.

The hatch behind him opened with a hiss, jarring him back into reality.

As he climbed out, the rest of his squadron was already gathered around Suri, wrapped up in animated conversation. She was grinning down at them, her dark eyes crinkled with mirth.

They had met her briefly at the opening banquet, where Ceet sensed her discomfort with the spotlight. Still, she seemed spirited and strong-willed, though her youthfulness gave her an air of naïveté too.

He shook her hand. “You were amazing. Thanks for the help.”

“Of course.” She studied him for a moment. “Ceet, right?”

“Yes,” he replied, surprised and flattered that she remembered. “I think you just made our day.”

“It was fun for me. I don’t get to fly with too many people.” She looked around at them. “You all were great. I was watching for awhile before I climbed in.”

Her tone conveyed sincerity, not mere courtesy. As the rest of the squadron flushed with pride, Ceet felt a deep rush of gratitude towards her.

“You’re too kind,” Veeta said. “We were dead in space without you.”

After a few more minutes of chatter, Suri was forced to leave for an exclusive pre-Tide event. She seemed reluctant to go, as they were in the middle of speculating what the newest model of ships, set to release in the next few days, would resemble.

“Can I fly with your squadron again sometime?” She turned to Ceet as she reached the door.

He almost choked on his incredulity. She was asking permission?

“If you win Pilot Tide,” Ardee deadpanned. “We only fly with the best.”

The entire squadron turned death glares on him, but Suri only laughed, undeterred. “I’ll do my best. Thanks for the motivation.”

She waved and disappeared, leaving Dwarf Squadron to stare at each other and pinch themselves, wondering if they had really left the simulator and reentered reality.