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.

Pilot Tide, Chapter 3

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

Chapter 3

Jules has been the darling of the Flight Academy since her graduation, lighting the fuse for a long, decorated career. She joined the Cluster Defense Coalition for a brief stint before claiming her first Pilot Tide crown. Last year, she returned to the Academy as an instructor.

But Micanopy citizens are already putting credits on Suri to emerge victorious. She may be untested, but if she is even half the pilot Mona was, admirers predict she will steal the show.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Purple and crimson curtains draped from the arched ceiling, though only five tables spread across the tiled floor. Each one boasted a spray of wildflowers and china cutlery. A single chandelier hung overhead, the crystal chiseled into the form of an ewha.

Micanopy Major loomed large outside The Nebula’s viewport, its crimson haze set in stark contrast with the black space around it. The three moons of the Cluster floated distantly in the background.

When Suri stepped inside, there were nearly a dozen people mingling in the banquet hall. A server expertly moved from group to group, offering tasters and long-necked wine glasses.

“Suri, welcome!” A silver-haired man abandoned his conversation and strode towards her. His brassy voice drew the attention of others, and she flushed as she became a magnet for all the eyes in the room.

She shook his hand. “Argent, right?”

“Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen me on holovision. Everyone is dying to meet you.” He motioned for her to follow him. “You, Jules, and Alai are at my table, of course.” As he led her further inside, he waved down a server. “We can start with dinner.”

Argent was a media giant, and his showmanship was apparent. He dressed the part, his stylish black leather outfit juxtaposed with his glossy hair. He gestured fluidly with his hands as he spoke, and Suri noticed how he enunciated each word with practiced precision. Did he ever conduct himself as if the holocams weren’t watching?

She felt mildly star-struck, but if The Mirror was right these days, Suri was becoming more of a legend than Argent. It was difficult to believe that being Mona’s daughter alone would thrust her renown to the edge of the Cluster. Was the inheritance of a name so powerful in Micanopy?

The other two Tide competitors were already seated when they arrived, making polite conversation. Suri recognized Jules from endless holovision reports and digital billboards. She wore a silk gown, her jet-black hair swept up in an elegant bun. The man beside her looked like he just stepped out of the cockpit after a long flight.

“Jules, Alai,” Argent interrupted, grinning broadly. “Allow me to introduce our third, infamous contender.”

She shook hands with both of them. Jules smiled, though something in her eye flinched at Argent’s description. Alai exuded an air of indifference, which Suri almost appreciated, as she felt gazes from other tables still following her furtively.

“I watched countless tapes of your mother flying,” Jules said. “You have a high, high standard to live up to.” Her soft voice did not disguise all the condescension in her tone.

Suri felt a flash of irritation, but she simply said, “I’m not my mother. But I hope to make her proud.”

“That’s the spirit,” Argent exclaimed. “I’m sure Jules is looking forward to a tough battle this time.” He winked at the other woman.

That was doubtful. Suri met Jules’ gaze over the table, and saw an icy hardness beneath her genteel features. Even from her holovision interviews, Suri sensed the celebrated pilot’s haughtiness. It did not surprise her that Jules would see Suri as a threat, if not as a better flyer, than as a more adored public figure. But she had always admired Jules’ career, and though they were rivals, she had hoped they could be friendly. She felt a pang of loss followed by solitude. Papa, Shell and Chip were far away in Nimrim, and The Nebula was like an alien world to her.

She turned to Alai, trying to shake off her melancholy. “I heard you fly a Stingray.”

“Yeah. It’s the only kind of ship worth flying.”

Suri cocked her head, surprised at his pithy bluntness. But then she detected the smirk playing at the corner of his mouth.

“My guess is you’ve never tried a One-Wing.”

A full grin broke over his face. “I know I’m the foreigner here, but I’d say the media’s got it wrong. All the buzz is about your famous mother, when it should be about your lunacy, entering this in a One-Wing.”

She laughed, feeling a weight lift, and wondered if she had gone mad. After all the scrutiny and blind adoration, it was strangely refreshing to hear someone—other than Papa—call her a lunatic.

“It’s almost half the cost of a Stingray. What I can’t afford in credits, I’ll make up for in skill,” she shot back.

Alai shrugged, unruffled. “Talk’s cheap. Prove it to me out there.” He gestured towards the viewport.

“Alright, alright, let’s not burn the station down before the Tide even begins,” Argent interjected lightly. “There’s some real fire here, isn’t there?” He threw a meaningful glance at Suri, and she saw the surprise in his expression.

The servers began bringing out the main course on large platters. A sizzling skillet of meat and side of leafy greens appeared before Suri. Her stomach growled. She realized, in the chaos of the day, she had not eaten a single meal yet.

“This,” Argent pointed at the dishes, “is a Micanopy delicacy. Boar liver and lungs.”

Suri hid a smirk when she noticed Alai wrinkle his nose. Citizens of other worlds viewed some Micanopy delicacies as vile, or barbarism veiled in the snobbery of the elite. Jules and Argent showed no hesitation slicing into their food.

She used the momentary silence to take in the environment. They sat at the best table in the hall, a few feet away from the wide-paned viewport. A brief thrill rushed through Suri. Inside the tight One-Wing, her view of space—from the naked eye, not counting digital enhancements—was limited to the strip of transparent steel bending around the cockpit. On The Nebula, the viewport extended almost from floor to ceiling.

The table beside them hosted a curious set of diners who seemed even more awestruck than Suri, and did a poor job hiding it. They gestured animatedly at the viewport, at Suri’s table, and their general surroundings.

“Were they the lottery winners?” she asked, looking to Argent.

“Oh, yes. I met them earlier—very nice, if a bit overzealous. But it’s understandable, with this being their first brush with real fame.” He spoke kindly, but gentle condescension also colored his voice.

“It’s mine, too,” Suri said.

Argent blinked, uncomprehending for a moment, before he broke into a smile. “I forget that, after all the chatter from The Mirror! Well, there’s no way you could escape it with your heritage.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Jules grimace. If only I could, I would return this unsolicited fame in a heartbeat. Alai wore a similarly unhappy expression, but she surmised it came from the hunk of liver he just swallowed.

Suri returned to the original topic. “I thought Essgees despised flying.”

“Most do. It’s low on their rung of career choices. But I believe they are pilots also.” Argent nodded towards the other table. “Made a bit of a name for themselves on Micanopy Minor, at least among their people.”

“But your Flight Academy is for humans only.”

They all looked in surprise at Alai, who rejoined the conversation.

“It’s because we only take the best,” Jules said frankly. “Some call it discriminatory, but Essgees don’t have the physical build for flying as well as humans. And we send most graduates into military and defense. There’s no room for error there. It can cost your life.”

They were controversial words, but Suri recognized they came from a place of bald honesty. Even if she disagreed, her estimation of Jules inched up. It was the first authentic impression she sensed from the other woman.

It can cost your life. Surely, Jules knew that from experience. Sometime in her training and career, she must have lost someone. The words reverberated in Suri’s mind. They sounded almost like something Papa would say—and he knew from experience too.

“You’re saying it’s a mercy to ban them, then,” Alai said. His tone and expression did little to betray his own opinion.

“It sounds cruel, but yes.” Jules did not waver.

“What do you do in Renova?” Suri asked.

He shrugged. “They have training programs for pilots, but it’s strictly utilitarian. There’s no celebrity or glory attached. Humans are the minority too, so they don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing.”

“They?” Suri echoed, wondering if he used the term consciously. “You don’t consider Renova home?”

He met her gaze, but if her perceptiveness surprised him, he masked it well. “The application asked for a home world. I left when I was young. Bounced from Cluster to Cluster, doing odd jobs. Flying was the one thing I was really good at.”

“Pity you didn’t come to Micanopy sooner. There’s no better place for a good pilot,” Jules said.

“Yes, and we’re not all about the flash and the show,” Argent put in. “Like Jules said, most of our top pilots go to the military.” He winked. “Put in a good performance, and they might try recruiting you.”

The corner of Suri’s mouth threatened to turn up. It was amusing to hear Argent, the long-standing host of Pilot Tide, defend piloting as more than an entertaining spectacle.

“I’m not the patriotic type,” Alai returned dryly.

Jules turned to Suri. “Why didn’t you consider coming to Flight Academy?” She added, half-grudgingly, “We would have snapped you up.”

“I did. But my father didn’t want me to go. Actually, he didn’t want me to fly at all.” She flushed, but held her chin up. “He knows the cost can be high.”

A somber moment of silence overtook their table. They knew she did not speak of money and credits. Suri thought she saw a flicker of understanding in Jules’ eyes, and felt a passing kinship with her.

The remainder of dinner was uneventful. Dessert consisted of colorful cinnacoa cakes, and afterward, they began to circulate around the room again. Suri met the six Essgees and their android. From their quick interaction, she wished she had been at their table, even though she couldn’t keep their names straight. The event concluded with a brief speech from Argent. Suri noticed he directed his gaze beyond the guests to the far wall of the banquet hall—she felt a jolt when she followed his eyes to an unobtrusive pair of holocams installed in the crevasses of the ceiling. Was the entire station under surveillance?

When she asked him, he waved her trepidation away. “Oh, it’s mostly for security, but they’ll repurpose a few good shots for the holovision.”

“Are they recording our conversations?” she pressed.

He laughed, giving her an incredulous look. “Again, I forget you’re new to this. Stars, no. They’ll have some of my speech since I had a mic in, but not our dinner table talk. I think Micanopy can do without all your political opinions flooding the wavelengths too, don’t you?”

She heartily agreed.

Pilot Tide, Chapter 2

Happy Friday! Even if you’re in quarantine, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the weekend. How about a fun read?

If you’re just joining in, the previous installment is here: Chapter 1

Chapter 2

The Tide is not without its controversies. Citizens of other Clusters are welcome to audition for the contest, provided they are human. Micanopy natives, such as Essgees, have traditionally been prohibited from competing or joining the prestigious Flight Academy. While organizers cite safety reasons—Essgees are smaller in build with slower reaction times—protestors have long railed against these policies.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.96

Marble and bronze statues encircled Rhiannon Square like silent watchmen. The eight most prominent figures stood at the forefront, well-polished and bathed in golden sunlight. While most Metropolis residents took the landmark for granted, Ceet and his squadron gawked and fumbled for their holorecorders.

“Stephan was The Octagon’s pilot.” Neeta pointed at one of the men in the center.

She wore a faintly dreamy expression, her round eyes focused on the colossal sculpture. Stephan was handsome even in effigy, carved with strong cheekbones and a chiseled jaw.

“He was named most eligible bachelor of the galaxy after they discovered Micanopy,” Veeta noted.

Deeta snorted. “Or most inaccessible? Micanopy was at the edge of Unknown Space back then.”

“Every girl wants what she can’t have.” Neeta grinned.

“Humans are strange,” Deeta mused, her gaze straying to the people milling around them. She was not the only one looking. Their group of seven drew more than a few furtive glances and whispers. They were almost two feet shorter than the average human, and they had already been mistaken for children two times that day. While Essgees were native to both of Micanopy’s worlds, they were more unusual in the Metropolis. Only Pilot Tide brought an influx of them into the city. “Frankly, I think Stephan was a terrible pilot.”

“Blasphemy.” Veeta feigned a look of horror.

“He veered off course by more than ten star systems! He probably mistyped a coordinate and ended up here.”

“Sounds like something Heet would do.”

Heet was digging through his pack for an energy bar, but paused to scowl at them. “Read human history. That’s how all their discoveries are made. Accidents and idiots.”

Ceet tuned out their bickering and trailed behind Atta, who was angling her holorecorder painstakingly to capture a panorama of Rhiannon. While they were all close in age, Ceet often felt the two of them shouldered parental responsibility for the squadron. Though they began as professional colleagues, choosing the pilot’s life—the rugged, less-traveled path—knit them together as family.

While flying was the most glorified occupation for humans in Micanopy, it was one of the lowliest among Essgees. Though many expressed outrage over the Flight Academy’s discriminatory practices, Ceet knew Essgees quietly acknowledged their small stature was a limitation. Humans were not entirely wrong in the their diagnosis that physical constraints turned Essgee culture inward, away from planetary exploration.

But their culture was rich in other ways, perhaps more than most, due to their earthbound nature. Essgees were known for pursuing advanced education and research in diverse fields. Ceet’s squadron was a microcosmic representation of that. He had pursued a career in medicine. Atta was a linguist, fluent in the Essgee tongue and three human languages. They met in university, and a chance experience with a flight simulator called them both to the stars.

Ceet winced as he remembered the scorn he received when they tried to start an Essgee pilot school. His family’s words left deeper wounds than his roughest flights.

Only five others arrived to their grand opening. Heet was an overworked, cynical doctor who saw too many patients extorted by his employers. Neeta, Deeta, and Veeta were childhood friends and brilliant technologists. They sold their own line of gadgets, and built one of the most high-functioning—and cheeky—androids Ceet had ever encountered. Ardee rounded out their small band of misfits, and Dwarf Squadron was born.

“My hands won’t hold steady,” Atta murmured from behind the lens, bringing him back to the present.

Ardee whirred up beside Ceet. “You know, I have a high-definition recording of Rhiannon Square. I can print a photo of any frame you want.”

“It’s not the same. Photography is an art form.”

“But art has no utility.”

“Can we cut his philosophical wires?” Heet glared at Ardee, though with no real malice.

“Let’s move along,” Ceet cut in, waving the rest of their group towards him. “Atta, are you ready?”

She peeled the holorecorder from her face. Ceet glanced around them. It was late afternoon and the Square was growing crowded. Workers were installing floating plasma screens above the statues for broadcasting Pilot Tide. Until the screens were activated, they camouflaged with their surroundings, so Ceet could still see through them to the sky’s pale pink hue.

They wove through the maze of people. Some set up small camps around the Square, reserving a viewing spot days before the Tide’s commencement.

“Let’s get some cocoa pods,” Veeta called from behind.

Ceet felt his stomach groan in protest. He and Atta had left their home world to attend university on Micanopy Major, but this was the rest of Dwarf Squadron’s first time on the planet. Of all the novelties in the Metropolis, they were most excited about the edible ones. After two days of tasting human, Essgee, and more alien cuisines, he feared for the already-tight safety buckles in his cockpit.

Ardee located a premier sweet shop near Rhiannon, and they followed the android’s lead as he routed them.

The Metropolis was the apex of a high-tech, human city. Skyscrapers were angular and sleek, sporting wide glass panes. The variations in height seemed symmetrical down any given street. In contrast to most Micanopy Minor cities, which often featured dilapidated buildings next to new construction sites, the Metropolis demonstrated consistent architecture and aesthetics from end to end. Even with the massive population, ground and air traffic crisscrossed the city in orderly fashion.

“Look at these,” Neeta breathed.

They had arrived at their destination, and she was admiring the elaborate dessert displays in the window. Each pastry demonstrated meticulous detail: the ridges in the One-Wing, the razor-sharp tip of the Needle, and the smoothness of the Stingray.

“The ships of each Tide competitor this year.” Atta ran a critical eye over the designs. “I wonder which one is selling best.”

“My bet is on the Stingray,” Ceet commented dryly. “It’s got the largest surface area.”

Inside, the heady scent of cinnacoa clung to the furnishings. They snatched a table and ordered a large serving of cocoa pods to share.

Chatter from groups around them muted the holovision, but the plasma screen overhead drew Ceet’s eye. It was showing a full-orbed view of the large, oblong space station hovering just above Micanopy Major.

He was not the only one who noticed. Deeta turned everyone’s attention to the holovision. “They just christened it The Nebula. It’s crazy. Competitors have always stayed in the Metropolis before.”

“That whole station for three of them?” Heet looked dubious.

“And Argent, Pilot Tide’s host,” Deeta said. “I’m sure they have mad security up there too, so guards on every corridor.”

“And a handful of lucky guests,” Veeta added. “They ran a lottery, remember?”

Ceet felt Atta’s eyes skim over him, but he avoided meeting her gaze. She was the only one in the squadron who knew, other than Ardee.

The cost of the lottery tickets was not trivial, but they had racked up a decent sum of credits from their last few engagements: flying bootcamps for young Essgees and air shows for private celebrations. With a squadron to look after and tight finances, Ceet did not have the luxury of making impulsive investments.

But the Tide was every pilot’s pipe dream. Essgees could not audition for it, but he could not pass up the possibility, however slim, of staying aboard The Nebula during the event.

Their server returned with a large bowl, crackling with hot cocoa pods, dusted with cinnacoa spice. As the others eagerly dug their spoons in, Ceet finally met Atta’s gaze, and she nodded.

“I have something to share,” he began, wincing at how abrupt the words sounded.

“Uh oh,” Heet mumbled, mid-crunch. It was his favorite human colloquialism.

Ceet glared at him. “Trust me, this will be the best news you’ve heard in years.” He paused. “Have you all swallowed? Are you ready?”

Veeta forced a large mouthful down. “Ay, Captain.”

“We’re staying on The Nebula.”

Silence struck them like a sudden bolt of lightning, and Ceet felt the heat from each pair of round eyes trained on him. The world continued to move in slow motion beyond them, but Dwarf Squadron was frozen around the table, spoons in mid-air. He almost laughed; if only their holorecorder could capture and enshrine this moment. It was more priceless than a hundred panoramas of Rhiannon Square.

Ardee interrupted with a mechanical beep, and seven holographic tickets appeared above him. As they stared at the images, reality broke over them like cold water.

“You entered the lottery?”

Neeta’s spoon clattered to the table, and she gripped Ceet’s shoulder, a frenzied look in her eyes.

The rest of the squadron unfroze, rounding on Ceet with partially coherent exclamations of shock and indignation that he kept the matter quiet. They shouted over each other for a few minutes before angry looks from other diners began to subdue them.

Ceet glanced around the table, exasperated but amused. “So, aren’t any of you happy?”

“I don’t have the capacity for that level of happiness,” Heet grumbled. “But I guess now would be the time I’d feel it, if I did.”

They all laughed, their faces flushed red and feverish as the implications dawned on them more fully.

Deeta looked pointedly across the table at Ceet. “You still owe us an explanation.”

“Alright.” Ceet grew quiet, meeting each of their eyes. Silence fell over the table again, until he began. “When I first heard about the lottery, I felt this…nudge. It was almost like the first time Atta and I went through a flight simulator—the pull was so strong, I left my career behind in pursuit of the skies.

“I know it cost all of us to take up flying. There is a ceiling we can never bypass, no matter how good we get. We can never go to the Academy or compete in a Tide. You work hard and I don’t blame you if you wonder whether we will ever be more than a stunt show or traveling circus.” Ceet’s voice became low and rough with passion. “But you all are born to fly. That’s why you don’t quit. And I wanted to give you something memorable.”

A tear slipped down Deeta’s face, and she did not bother to hide it. She reached over and gripped Ceet’s hand wordlessly.

“You’re too good for us, Captain,” Veeta tried to joke, though her words sounded strangled in her throat.

“Nobler than Captain Stephan,” Neeta piped.

“Oh, he did it for himself too,” Atta returned, and that drew a chuckle from all of them, including Ceet.

Heet, who sat beside Ceet, clapped him on the back. “Best boss I’ve had. Though the old ones ranged from vile to dreadful.”

“So, when do we go?” Veeta looked expectant.

A wide smile spread over Ceet’s face. “Finish your cocoa pods. We can dock at The Nebula tonight.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 1

Hello friends and wayfaring readers – I know I’ve been absent for a long while. (I won’t take offense if you didn’t notice). The busyness of life has kept me from writing, and I keep meaning to return to somewhat-regular blogging, i.e. at least once a month for me. To ease into it, I pulled up this novella I wrote over a year ago for a fairytale retelling contest – realistically, it would just gather dust on my hard drive, so I may as well share it here. If you’ve been reading too much of the news and it’s getting to you, perhaps a good dose of fiction will be a reprieve. 

I will update with a new chapter regularly  since the whole thing exists already. And I won’t give too much of a preface, since you already know it’s a fairytale retelling. I did write a query letter for this at one point (back when I was feeling more ambitious), so here’s my one-line summary (that probably oversells this story): “Pilot Tide” is “Snow White” dressed up in “Star Wars” attire, in a competition reminiscent of “The Hunger Games.” 

Now lower your expectations. Obviously, this isn’t Shakespeare or Dostoyevksy. Please read for fun. Feedback is welcome, of course!

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Chapter 1

The Octagon crew discovered the Micanopy Cluster in Galactic Year 2420. The skill and audacity of the explorers formed the foundational values of our culture: strength, honor, and sheer nerve. Every five years, the Flight Academy of Micanopy celebrates the embodiment of these ideals in Pilot Tide.

Three competitors round out the roster for the twenty-sixth Tide. Returning champion Jules will face two wild card challengers: Suri, the daughter of renowned pilot Mona, and Alai, an unknown from the Renova Cluster. Experts claim this will be the most unpredictable Tide in years, deviating from the usual pattern of well-known, high profile pilots.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.94

Suri punched the thrusters and banked hard to starboard. The One-Wing was a fickle beast when it came to sharp maneuvers during acceleration, but she felt it was a worthwhile bargain given the price and otherwise decent design. The new model generated contentious debate in the pilot community when it was released. The asymmetry of the ship caused it to fly at a slight angle—a quality that some considered inventive, and others decried as a fatal flaw.

She did not mind the imbalance. Rather, since Papa always said she had a tilted view of the world, she had remarked that the designers custom-built the One-Wing for her. He did not appreciate the humor of it, however, and questioned the sanity of purchasing a ship that could not even fly parallel to the ground.

She patted the dashboard and keyed in her home coordinates. Dusk was fast fading, and a swath of stars swept across her viewport. Out to her left, Micanopy Minor glowed with a crimson and burgundy haze around it. The Cluster’s trio of moons hung more distantly in the sky.

Though Micanopy Major, Suri’s home world, was the nexus of innovation, politics, and galactic events, she felt as far from the bustle of life as if she lived on the fringe of the Cluster.

But that was going to change. She had trained and plotted and planned for this to be the year she reversed her and Papa’s fortunes.

Suri felt a sharp tug in her chest as their old farmhouse came into sight. Both fond and bitter emotions swelled up like a brief, violent storm inside her, swirling, then subsiding into a dull ache.

“Papa, I’m home.” She braced herself as she stepped inside.

Silence greeted her, but she heard the pitter patter of footsteps in the kitchen. As she rounded into the dining area, Papa came to meet her, a large mixing bowl and spatula in hand. Her eyes immediately went to his face, which already bore lines from age, hard labor, and grief. Today, they appeared deepened by anguish.

His gaze slid over her, and for the first time, Suri felt ashamed standing in her flight suit. Given the circumstances, would he interpret it as calculated defiance?

“You were flying.” His tone was calm but brittle.

“Yes.”

“Are you good?”

Suri raised her shoulders. ” If you came to watch,” she hesitated, working to keep her voice neutral, “you could decide for yourself. But Shell and Chip think I am.”

“So does the Flight Academy, apparently.”

“Papa…”

He slammed the bowl onto the table, some of the golden batter spilling over the edge. Suri flinched, but did not drop her gaze.

“I found out from The Mirror, Suri.” He spoke quietly, though his dark eyes, the same as hers, burned.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you. I was afraid you would react…” Like this. She trailed off, leaving the final words unspoken.

He sighed. “I know what it’s like when you’re young. I don’t want you to be led by passions that will come and go.”

“I promise it’s not a phase. I love to fly. And I want to use it to help us.” The words tumbled out like a rapid stream of laser fire, rehearsed but earnest.

Suri did not know if Papa also became conscious of his clothes in that moment, but she felt a heightened awareness of each oil stain, each black smudge. He had not changed after work, and she could still smell the metal ore and factory fumes on him.

His expression softened slightly. “We don’t need help. I can put you through university, and you can work in the Metropolis. Follow any career.”

“This is the career I want.”

“We agreed, no Flight Academy.”

“And I didn’t go. I learned and trained on my own here.” Suri’s voice took on a pleading note. “I kept up my marks in school. I’m no longer a child, Papa. I decided to apply for this long ago.”

“Pilot Tide is suicide.”

“Only if you’re bad at flying.” She grimaced, hearing the brashness Papa always rebuked. Shell and Chip might appreciate her flippant assessment, but her father would not.

She imagined a fleeting twinkle in Papa’s eye, but his somber countenance quickly buried it.

“Sit.” He motioned to their old, cherry-wood dining table.

Suri shuffled to a chair. She watched him pick up the mixing bowl and return to the kitchen, pulling the oven open. When he came out, he sat across from her, folding his hands neatly on the table.

“I was one of the best mechanics in the Metropolis. You love to fly ships, I loved to fix them. I could fix anything.”

He wore a faraway look, caught in the vortex of some long-gone memory. Suri’s gut tightened. Papa never spoke of this past, of the time before they moved to Nimrim.

“That’s how I met Mona. She brought her ship in for fixing. An old Stingray model.”

“The best ship there is,” Suri murmured. She loved watching the sleek, thin ships in flight, though she knew her budget would have to triple before she could ever call a Stingray her own.

“It suited her.” Admiration bled into his voice.

Suri bit her lip. “I know you’re worried…”

He seemed to resurface in the present, his gaze lucid and hard.

“Your mother was the famous one in the pair of us, but I could easily have kept us in the Metropolis after—” he broke off. “We didn’t move out here because we couldn’t afford the city anymore.”

“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “I know you’re excellent.” Papa tinkered with all kinds of unusual machinery. He earned a reputation in the community as the one to call for everything from broken appliances to faulty software.

He gave her a sad smile. “It’s not my ego that hurts. I took up an old factory job because my skills are not in demand here. How many top-level ships even pass through our town?” He gestured at the window. The flat, rocky earth stretched to the dark horizon, unobstructed by spires or city lights. “What I meant was, I moved us to Nimrim because I was afraid of this. I was afraid for you.”

His words sunk into her like claws, slowly digging deeper and drawing blood. She felt his pain morph into her pain, his fear become her fear.

“I was afraid you would be your mother’s daughter.”

Tears stung her eyes and she quashed a sob mercilessly in the bottom of her throat.

“But,” he continued slowly, “I was surprised. When I saw The Mirror’s report, I also felt…proud.”

Her head jerked up and she met his gaze, jarred out of her sorrow.

“You have her resilience. Her talent. I hid myself from this reality, so I never went to watch you fly. But I’m from the Metropolis, and I’ve seen enough Pilot Tides to know. You must fly like an ewha to get accepted.”

An ewha—the eagle-like king of the skies—was native to Micanopy, and Suri remembered seeing one in her childhood. Their feathered wings unfurled like tapestry in the air. They flew with an uncommon grace given their size, and pilots learned to study them, mimicking their flight behavior with mechanical controls. It was the highest compliment to liken a pilot to one of their kind.

A timer in the kitchen beeped, breaking into the surreal moment. Papa rose from his seat, leaving Suri in shock. She felt as if her heart just went through ten cartwheels in a One-Wing.

He returned with a golden cake, fashioned in the shape of a Stingray. A warm, nutty aroma filled the room.

“Oh!” Suri exclaimed. It was a planet-wide tradition to celebrate each Pilot Tide with cinnacoa cake, made from Micanopy’s signature sweet-peppery spice.

Papa smiled ruefully at her. “Mona would be proud. We are both proud of you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said quietly. “Shell and Chip filmed my audition tape.”

He nodded. “I want to watch you fly before you go.”

“Of course.”

He produced a knife and cut into the cake. A sense of regret flitted through Suri as she watched the impeccably designed Stingray split in two. She scooped a piece onto a small plate for herself, and offered the rest to Papa.

“Happy Tide.” He lifted his slice as a toast. “Fly straight.”

Suri grinned, unable to resist, as profound happiness welled up inside her. “I can’t. I have a One-Wing, remember?”

Twenty-Seven

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When another year peels away,
like a husk of corn,
I break and bleed:
shedding youth is shedding dreams
some die quietly, but others go out with
a knife fight.
I revel and rejoice:
age wrinkles the heart first,
in a slow suicide of naivete,
pressing in the sorrow and sweetness,
like a double-edged sword
carving into me more longing and life
forming in me the image of Christ.

I have never felt the invincibility
of the young
but fragility is a familiar friend:
a sailboat spinning in the storm,
a bruised reed beaten by the winds,
an unspoken fear of dead ends.
Sometimes, the hammer has to fall
on my castles in the sand
these flimsy fortresses
that I might know, in every season,
the only Rock that stands.

Mark my days with delight and desire
for the one true God
If all else fades
fails
forsakes
and the darkness does not lift
make my smoldering wick
a brilliant flame
that testifies to His goodness
and the glory of His Name.

 

Photo by Mehmet Kürşat Değer on Unsplash

Pilgrim’s Perils: Musings on Deconstruction

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Deconstruction is a loaded, yet deceptively calm, word for the shattering spiritual reality it equates to. I’ve seen this topic exhausted in recent weeks, but I have been reflecting and ruminating on this, even before Josh Harris’ news broke across the Christian sphere. It’s sad and disheartening to see, but his story is no more shocking or less heartbreaking than any other Christian I know who has walked away. His faith may have seemed more sure, because of his stature or his wisdom or his conviction in speaking gospel truth, so his abandonment shakes us more. But in the end, he is a man and a sinner. The church today is (rightfully) shocked and hurt when another pastor falls to adultery or scandal. But remember that the great men of God did not have squeaky clean records, even after they had demonstrated genuine faith: David was an adulterer and murderer, and Solomon had a harem of women along with their idols. Still, David was called a “man after God’s own heart” and Solomon wrote books of Spirit-inspired wisdom. This isn’t to soften anyone’s sin, but to remind us that we cannot stake our faith in any man, and God can use any wretched sinner.

I know no one’s heart but my own, and even then, I know how easy it is to self-deceive. But I dare say the line between faith and apostasy is perilously thin – some of us, perhaps more introspective or sensitive, feel it more keenly. Slip, slide, party a few weeks away, and we feel far off the beaten path. It is the sheer grace of God that keeps any of us. Here is another one of the great tensions in the Christian life: to take care and examine ourselves & to rest in the assurance that Christ loses none of His own.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13)

&

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)

Then, why do some walk away? I have seen 1 John 2:19 deployed, sometimes coldly, in the face of deconversion. It is a true verse, first because it’s God’s Word, and it’s reality is evidenced in the world. There are plenty of wolves in sheep’s clothing. But I trust there are also many who, as sincerely as they can tell, believed in Christ at one point and stopped at another. Were they self-deceived? Will they come back one day? All I know is that there is hope while life endures. God knows the truth of every heart and judges righteously. Solomon did his share of wandering and returned in old age to write Ecclesiastes.

These are just some personal musings on the perils of the pilgrim’s journey. 

Is it the warmth of friendship with the world? Not the cruel, bullet-ridden and bloody face of it, but the sound of social justice marching down our streets and knocking on church doors. How we crave the praise of man, and no people-pleaser ever wanted to live on the wrong side of history. John Lennon’s words in Imagine sound like a balm for today’s divisive rhetoric: no heaven, no hell, and a brotherhood of man.

Or a knife in the back from a Christian who treated you far worse than any of your so-called pagan friends? At least they have never worn the mask of holiness over a heart of hypocrisy.

Or a man who won you over with his love, though he loved not Christ? Surely, you could still press onward to the prize. Surely, you will change him, and not the other way around.

Did suffering slash into your life without warning, and your old theology felt like the house on sand, washed away in agony? Everyone quotes Job, but words don’t stop the pain. You would rather have relief than answers, but God is silent in both.

Did Scripture seem foolish in science class or rudimentary in philosophy? Supposedly, they are blinded by sin and unable to believe, but they seem like the enlightened ones. You don’t want to be the butt of their jokes, or the lone defender of Scripture every time.

Or the mindless cycle of work, parties, gym, rinse and repeat, simply (and devilishly smoothly) made you forget? An empty life can feel good when it forgets about the emptiness.

Maybe the endless immersion in Christian activities and service ballooned in your life, and the cost was quietly sitting at the foot of the cross. How frightening to be close to Christian things and far from Christ.

I’m not enumerating an exhaustive list, or suggesting any singular reason causes someone to walk away. These are just some of the things I’ve observed, and most I have felt the alluring tug of to some degree, in my own life.

We are a people always and desperately seeking to answer the Why? When an awful shooting happens, we need to understand the motives. We always assume there is one. There is some confluence of psychological and circumstantial reasons as to why people do what they do.

In the end, we are limited in what we can determine. I believe there is validity in some analyses of people who abandon their faith in patterns, attitudes, or influences in their life. But we cannot see into another person’s heart of hearts. There are telltale signs in the fruit they bear and the conduct of their life, but that is the extent of human measure we have. We coin words like “deconstruction” and “deconversion,” because on a horizontal level, that is how we’re able to describe the phenomenon we see. We don’t know the authenticity of every apparent conversion, or the true end of anyone’s story.

The watching world may use stories of deconversion to scoff at Christianity, that Christians who are “in deep” can “wake up” and free themselves from bondage to religion. The reality is, testimonies are powerful both ways – those who come to faith, and those who walk out of it. But we do not stake our faith in any person’s story, but the finished work of Christ. There is no true freedom outside of it. We all adhere to some authority, we all worship something, we all construct a worldview to live by after deconstructing another one. Let us not fall for the arrogance of our culture: it crowns the Self as the supreme authority on morality and truth, and cloaks that in a guise of humility and tolerance.

For Christians, I hope the shockwave of public deconstructions is the impetus for critically examining our own hearts. As the Psalmist cried, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24) That is a scary prayer for any sinner to pray.

But thanks be to God, that even as we see the wickedness and wandering of our own hearts, Jesus promises that He does not lose any of His own. We must be steadfast in our faith, but He is the one who holds us fast.

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 20-25)

 

As I said, I’ve seen this topic exhausted in recent weeks by many writers. If you happen to be here reading, I should point you to a few others who wrote insightfully on this, from a couple of different angles.

Faith Without Sight is the Only Kind There Is at Sayable
An Open Letter to Someone Considering Renouncing Their Faith by Brad Hambrick
How Not to Fall Away at Reformation21
On Caution and Keeping: Friends Reflect on Joshua Harris’ Deconversion at The Gospel Coalition

 

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Ratljóst

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I keep imagining the raw truths I’ll tell you
as our Suzuki burns through sunlit mountain roads
where the gravel path snakes to the horizon,
and ours is the only engine humming
in the wild world that spills out around us.
I think I’ll unbury my soul
with a shovel or words or pickax—whatever works
—and make sense of life in 2019
inside our dusty silver SUV, crammed
with suitcases and instant ramen and
people who share my blood and genes.
Maybe I’ll tell you about the trials:
how I’ve cried and rejoiced and felt
the brokenness, the beauty of life
and quietly hoped this escape would harden me,
like the bold hills of Vestrahorn, against my fragility.
Or about Christ:
my Savior God who keeps me
and in my weakness, I know His faithfulness
and all these days will melt away
along with the glacier pillars of Jökulsárlón
but His Kingdom alone will endure
so repent, believe, stop chasing wind.

In the end, I said much less than all of that
but found there’s more than one kind of intimacy,
like the ways we make peace with silence
and loud snores,
pass around a dwindling bag of apples and chips,
pee in a freezing, forsaken snow field,
and push / pull each other up the mountains.
I know there are stories hidden inside all of us,
scars that carved deep caves, like lava chambers,
some still burning,
some covered with bitter ash.
God, we are so human—
and it’s here I find softness and strength:
that the shadows have not won,
that we are marveling at creation, gulping arctic air,
far from home but home with each other,
chasing away our unspoken ghosts with laughter,
in this land of ice and myths and fire.

Then I know
—when I’m stuck down on all fours,
my foot on the edge of a cliff,
but I’m cackling at your jokes—
that some of the scars
are sealing up inside.

 

Ratljóst (n.) – an old Icelandic word that means ‘enough light to find your way by’

Made for Fans: A Reflection on Endgame and The Last Jedi

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If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame, stop reading. Spoilers will follow!

*

I don’t read the comics, but I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They built something magical over the last ten years, with a cast of oddball characters and films that crossed genres from space opera to spy thriller to high school dramas. The stories may continue indefinitely, but the curtains are closing on what (I predict) is the best run the MCU will have. I believe there’s plenty of potential to take existing and new characters in exciting directions, but the original cast of Avengers, helmed by Iron Man and Captain America, will be a tough one to top.

I went to see Endgame opening weekend, excited and somewhat surprised by how gushing the early reviews were. The expectations on this film were unbelievably high, and it had the difficult job of picking up after Infinity War’s mic drop and wrapping up the arcs of core characters. The opening sequence [spoilers are legitimately ahead so abort now], where Thor kills Thanos and there’s a five year time jump, reminded me of The Last Jedi in the subversion of expectations. (I could hear Luke’s voice: “This isn’t going to go the way you think.”) It felt like a concerted effort to make viewers realize this isn’t the movie they thought it would be. So, why was Endgame incredibly well-received, while The Last Jedi garnered so much backlash from fans (though critics applauded it as a brilliant film)?

Fan service? Pandering to the masses?

I don’t mean it as a negative thing. I loved Endgame. (But then, I’m a huge fan, and maybe it’s because I was pandered to…) While Endgame kicked off with an unlikely opening and came with its share of surprises, it undeniably was packed with throwbacks to fan favorites and easter eggs. They may or may not have really served the plot, but they certainly got cheers. There was a lot of speculation that they would employ time travel, which they did, and the time heist was a really fun romp, if you don’t think too hard about the logic. It did its job for the story (get the stones, reverse Thanos’ snap), but it definitely felt like a highlight reel of MCU’s Best Moments. Maybe minus Thor: Dark World. My favorite was Cap’s “hail hydra” in the elevator scene, reminiscent of Winter Soldier. Classic.

Endgame had it’s truly spectacular moments: when Cap gets Thor’s hammer, when the portals opened (Sam’s “on your left” was perfect) and everyone and their mother reappeared, and when Iron Man re-delivered his classic line before the snap. As apprehensive as I was about how they would close Tony and Steve’s stories, I thought the film did them both justice. In many ways, the two leading characters have had opposite arcs. Tony began as an egotistical, genius, playboy billionaire, and he ends with the greatest act of self-sacrifice. His off-script reveal of “I am Iron Man” at a press conference becomes a hero’s anthem. Steve began as a selfless soldier, a mascot of American ideal, and ran the serious risk of being a boring goody-two-shoes. His character arc has been one of my favorite parts of the Avengers’ stories. The core of who he is, selfless and noble, remains steadfast (and I love how they highlight that through his ability to wield Mjolnir). But he grows to be more than the face of a country or system that created him. When his convictions ran against the grain, he didn’t back down. His grand finale was a deeply personal choice, for himself rather than for the world. Just as “I am Iron Man” hearkened back to Iron Man 1, Steve’s ending closed the circle on Captain America 1. He’s a man of his word – and he made it back for his dance with Peggy.

However, Endgame was not the strongest Marvel movie in terms of story. It took a hit from having to close out many loose ends. In comparison, Infinity War pulled an even more massive cast together with a tighter plot. Endgame felt like it had multiple “starts” and multiple “endings.” Perhaps that was necessary and unavoidable, but it lacked the relentless forward drive of Infinity War and the narrative strength some of the best MCU films have brought, like Winter Soldier or Civil War. The core threading of the story was the time heist, which was more revisiting old turf than breaking new ground.

Unlike Endgame, The Last Jedi did no fan service. Or, if they tried to, it failed terribly. Star Wars fan were turned off, and a petition to remake and discount this as canon gathered steam (some people, like Steve and Nat, need to get a life). But I would argue, with general critical backing, that Last Jedi was a well-done story. The backlash wasn’t against a weak plot, but unmet expectations – Luke Skywalker wasn’t the hero we all wanted; Rey wasn’t a Skywalker, Solo, Kenobi, et al.; and Snoke was suddenly killed in the middle act of a trilogy. Personally, I loved the subverting of expectations: it’s a clever turn when you’re making a film that has every wild variation of Internet theories. People thought The Force Awakens was too similar to the original, but now they complain Last Jedi is not true to the spirit of Star Wars. You can’t have it both ways. Why not takes Star Wars down a new path?

Maybe it’s just me, but if you tell a solid story, I won’t complain because the characters didn’t become what I wanted. Luke is one of my favorite characters, and while I would’ve loved to see him bust off his island and take down the First Order, I believed in the direction they took his character. The nephew he trained turned into a monster, bringing back the shadow of Darth Vader. While The Force Awakens introduces Kylo Ren as the scion of the Skywalker-Solo bloodline, Last Jedi really explores the darkness that perpetually haunts the family, including Luke. In the originals, he was a hero, but he was also a whiny, impulsive farmboy. Now, he’s a legend to the next generation, but Last Jedi shows Rey and us that he’s human, and legends do not always match reality. This is a strange (maybe a stretch) comparison, but it reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. People hated what Harper Lee did to Atticus. While Mockingbird made Atticus a nigh untouchable hero, this second book’s protagonist was Scout, and she has to mature and learn that her heroes are fallible. Same goes for Rey in Last Jedi. It’s on her to pick up the mantel now.

The Last Jedi was an impressive follow-on to the first film. It pulls the mask back and digs hard into the characters. The backdrop of the film, like every Star Wars story, is still this fight between the good guys and bad guys. But this one begins to explore those shades of grey. The old Jedi Order is gone, and Luke has no interest in reviving it. Whether or not Kylo will ultimately have a redemption arc, the exploration of the light tempting someone in the dark is more nuanced in his character than it was in Vader’s. And the connection between him and Rey was one of the highlights of the film. Do you really care that they took some liberties with “the Force” to add this to the story? Last Jedi made some audacious moves in how it handled Star Wars. I’m ready to sacrifice some technicalities of Force powers to indulge a better plot and characters.

There’s not much of a thesis to all this – it’s just a reflection on some big films, a minor (major?) geek-fest, and an informal exploration of the intriguing parallels between and vastly different reactions to Endgame and Last Jedi.  Endgame is smart on its formula. It makes a decided effort to be unpredictable while giving fans what they want. The great thing about most Marvel movies is they have a keen sense of self-awareness – while the heist plot has its holes, they make fun of time travel movies enough that you cut them some slack. It’s like saying, “Don’t take this too seriously. Just laugh with us and accept it.” So we do.

Thanks for the great ride, Disney. Let’s hope you close out Star War IX strong too.

 

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

“Bullet Train to London” – Available Today Only!

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Popping in with a quick announcement: my flash fiction story, “Bullet Train to London,” is live on Havok! It’s available and free for all today only (you can become a paid member, and access all the stories from this year so far).

If you want a quick (and hopefully fun) read, take a peek! And leave me a comment / rating if you’re able to. Thanks friends!