A Quiet, Creative Journey: Part II

Over two years, I wrote one of my more transparent posts about my writing journey. Forgive me for momentarily quoting myself:

I also finished my first-ever novel-length story, a fantasy, at 98,000 words. (I was curious how that stacked up against typical novel lengths, so as a point of comparison, I found the first and shortest Harry Potter book was 77,000 words and Order of the Phoenix was the longest at 257,000 words. Maybe that one could’ve used more editing). I vacillate between thinking I wrote something half-decent and thinking it’s total rubbish. Regardless, I’ve started the process of querying agents, which is like an alien world I’m learning about.

Well, I didn’t end up with an agent for my novel, but I did sign a contract with a publisher! Thanks to the wonderful team at Mount Zion Ridge Press, my novel, The Vermilion Riddle, will be releasing in February 2022.

I’m amazed and grateful. It’s every writer’s dream come true, to imagine holding a copy of my book in my hands – and having it available for anyone to order. I also feel the weight of responsibility, thinking of putting my words into print. It really is Providence that I came across Mount Zion Ridge Press, a Christian publisher with a biblical worldview. I’m thrilled I get to work with them in editing my novel and making it ready for the world.

I was a reader before I was ever a writer, and stories can have a profound impact on our psyche. I think of what the best stories have been for me: a cocoon on cold nights, a companion on lonely days, an iron that sharpened my mind, a battle cry that gave me courage. I don’t aspire to bestseller status or movie contracts. I like my quiet, small life. But I do hope my story, though fiction and fantasy, honors the Lord and is a flicker of light in a dark world. If it’s a candle in the night for one person out there, that’ll be more than worth it.

So, what’s next? Probably to the horror of many introverted writers, publishing involves a lot of marketing. I’m looking into starting a newsletter, setting up a Facebook page, and yes, writing more on Pen and Fire. I’ll be working on manuscript revisions over the next few months with my editor too. She’s been a real gift to me already, and I can’t wait to learn more from working with an industry professional.

Also, if you like what you’ve seen of my writing, if you enjoy classical character-driven fantasy, if you’re my friend, or if you want to help out a stranger on the Internet – I have an opportunity for you to get involved! I’ll be looking to build a “street team” of early readers who can commit to reading and reviewing my book before release. You can also help me promote and spread the word to your social circles. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

Watch this space for more updates soon on my publishing journey and The Vermilion Riddle!


Bullet Train to London

I originally wrote this speculative flash fiction piece for Havok, though you can’t access it without membership. My 6-month exclusive contract was up ages ago, so I can publish it here now. And if you’re still keeping up with my terribly sporadic updates, you deserve a fun little shot of adrenaline. Enjoy the read!

“Last mission before you retire, eh? Ready to go home?”

Home. Kiera immediately pictured red double-decker buses, Big Ben, and intimate theaters. Her small studio, overlooking the Thames, would still be unfurnished after her months away. And Justin—was his corner cafe still in business?

“I’ll miss this. But it will feel good to go out with a win,” she muttered into her transmitter.

Pip laughed. “Well, the clock is ticking on us.”

Kiera glanced at the digital stream on the rim of the train: 43 MINUTES to LONDON. The clock was indeed ticking on them.

She picked up her pace as she moved into the next compartment, her gaze sweeping across rows of passengers. Their faces were masked in shadows thrown by the dim lighting and covered windows. Kiera felt a pang of envy at the thick, wool blankets draped around their seats. A shiver went down her spine as she straightened her thin cocktail dress.

“Are you in position?” Jotham’s voice came across the line.


Kiera paused in front of the final cabin, Black Rail Bullet: First Class. The doors slid open with a hiss.

She handed the uniformed guard her ticket and scanned the cabin. A circular bar sat in the middle of the compartment, chandelier lights glancing off long-necked glasses. A familiar classical tune filled the room—Fur Elise.

“Beethoven!” Pip exclaimed. “What a sound for sore ears. After months of that screeching the Valiums call music.”

“Focus, Pip,” Jotham returned.

“Sorry, boss. This new comm system is remarkably clear.”

Kiera blocked out the chatter in her earpiece as she examined the two dozen or so figures scattered around the room. A green light blinked in her left pupil. Facial match.

“Got him,” she whispered.

She walked further into the cabin and slipped onto a vacant stool beside him, signaling the bartender. “One Negroni, please.”

The man beside Kiera cocked his head towards her. “Haven’t seen someone order that in a while.” His own Old Fashioned appeared untouched on the counter.

“Is that a surprise?” She gestured at the other guests.

“Fair point.” He swiveled to look her fully in the face. His raven hair and square jaw lent him a handsome look. “Is London home?”

Kiera shrugged. “It was. We’ll see.”

“Long time away, then.”

“Yes.” She locked gazes with him. “And I’d like to have something to go back to.” She pushed the fold of her dress up to her knee, revealing a holstered gun. “This hurts more than a normal bullet, Wren. I suggest you tell me where you’ve hidden the weapons.”

Wren appeared unfazed, amusement rippling over his features instead. “They’ve got pretty girls working for them now, is that right?”

Kiera’s hand went to the gun, gripping its handle. “We know there are illegal weapons on board. They’re not getting through our borders.”

“How did you get that onto the train?” He motioned at her holster. “Security’s tight.”

“We have an arrangement with Black Rail.” Her expression hardened. “You’re not the only one with people everywhere.”

He laughed. “I’m afraid you’re still one step behind. I bought Black Rail two days ago.”

Pip cursed in her ear, and Jotham drew a sharp breath. Kiera felt her stomach hollow out.

“And you conveniently told us you were coming,” Wren continued. “There are no weapons aboard.” His eyes flickered to the digital stream and she followed his gaze.


She flinched as he leaned in to whisper, “The train is the weapon.”


“No harm in telling you now… You have thirty minutes to live. It’s rigged to explode when it detects Earth’s atmosphere.”

London was not the primary target. Jotham voiced the same awful realization that hit Kiera. “Pip, get down into the crawl space! There’s nuclear fuel running this train!”

“Are you doing this for the Valiums?” she demanded. “What did they offer you for a suicide mission?”

Wren smirked. “It’s not suicide, darling.”

His hologram flickered, just once, and he vanished.

Kiera stared at the empty space, berating herself for falling prey to his gimmick. She swallowed a large mouthful of her Negroni and looked around. A diverse cast of alien species surrounded her, communicating through incomprehensible dialects. All of them blissfully ignorant of their impending doom.

“Pip, Jotham, did you hear everything?”

“Impeccably. What happened to Wren?”

“The old holo trick. Sorry I was slow on the uptake. What are our options?” Kiera willed herself to stay calm. Justin. I will see you again.

“Not many.” Pip’s somber voice mixed with the sound of clanking metal. “We can force an explosion before it hits the atmosphere. Trade the lives of the passengers aboard for, well, Earth.”

“No,” Kiera breathed.

“Unacceptable,” Jotham intoned simultaneously. “Can you disarm it?”

An intercom announcement interrupted them before Pip could give a verdict.

Attention, Black Rail passengers. We will be arriving in London shortly. Please have your documents ready, and thank you for traveling with us.”

The window blinds lifted. Black space sprawled out on both sides of the train, while a palette of stars coiled through the darkness. Earth loomed large, a brilliant blue orb suspended before them.

Kiera’s throat tightened. “You have to stop this, Pip.”

“Okay, this might be crazy”—he broke off, a cackle of static on the line—“I’m going to rewire the sensors, so hopefully it won’t recognize the planet as we enter the atmosphere: the instrument readings won’t match.”

“Wren said the train was rigged to explode only when it detects Earth’s atmosphere,” Jotham mused. “All right, do it.”

Silence overtook the line. Kiera watched the clock.


Her heart leaped when their comms crackled to life.

“Done. But don’t celebrate too early,” Pip warned.

Kiera could not tear her eyes from the window as they sliced into the mesosphere. Clouds fogged around them. She held her breath, fists clenched, painfully aware of every rattle and vibration.

Then, a glorious, midnight cityscape blazed into view below.

“Welcome home, team.”

A Hundred Denarii

My heart holds a hundred denarii
like a magnet for money
brokering in the currency of bitterness
as a noose of silver coins around your neck
but really, it’s a slow suicide

My heart holds a hundred denarii
because I forgot the 10,000 talents
like red on my ledger
and His mercy wasn’t mere whiteout
but justice settled the account
with a criminal’s cross and crown

My heart holds a hundred denarii
but the debt was already paid
both yours and mine
shouldered by a sinless Savior
who stepped under the righteous guillotine
and made us His blood-brought bride

Matthew 18:21-35

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,
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]


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—”



“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.”



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.


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?”


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.


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.”


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.”