Pilot Tide, Chapter 7

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

Chapter 7

Daily Proverb: “Do not let a world define you. Another one will tell a different story.”

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.104

A tall, reticent android served Suri her drink as she sat in The Nebula’s cafe. Hidden behind the sprawling dining hall, it appeared to be carved out as an afterthought. She blew on the steam rising from her chamomile tea, inhaling its warm herbal scent.

Round two began tomorrow. While the visit to Flight Academy made Suri’s newfound fame more real to her, she half-expected to wake up at any moment to the sound of Papa tinkering with tools. She closed her eyes and imagined the sunlight filtering through her dilapidated blinds, splashing across posters of antique ships tacked around her room. It seemed unbelievable that only days ago, she lived behind the veil of obscurity.

The thought of Nimrim provoked nostalgic melancholy, but the image of Mona, memorialized in the Academy’s museum, hardened her.

“Micanopy waits with bated breath to see what else a One-Wing can do tomorrow.”

Suri swung her head around to find Alai leaning against the door. He raised an eyebrow at her, and only broke the gaze when the android came to take his order.

“Black coffee.”

“You won’t be able to sleep.”

“I don’t even know what that is.” He grinned, but she saw the circles under his eyes. “Perpetual insomnia.”

She studied his profile while he turned away to the ordering counter. Ceet had pulled her aside on the ride back to The Nebula and warned her about the note they found on Alai. She dismissed it, insisting they had no basis to make such an accusation. True, she did not really know him, but he did not seem the type to play underhanded games.

When the android pushed a steaming mug across the counter, Alai hesitated, glancing around the cafe.

“Can I take this to go?”

Suri raised her brow. “More simulator runs?”

“No, I’m resigned to my fate.”

“Want to join me, then?” She felt surprised as the invitation came genuinely, not out of mere politeness. “You clearly aren’t going to sleep.”

He laughed, for the first time Suri could recall. “That’s what you’ve reduced my life to: simulator runs and sleep.” But he wrapped his fingers around the mug and took the seat across from her.

Despite long days slogging through media events together, she realized that she never shared a private conversation with Alai. Even now, facing him across the table felt strange, and almost unnerving. He had a nondescript face, though his coffee-colored eyes were probing. For the first time, they were not turned on a reporter or a dashboard, but on Suri.

Wary of lingering silence, she asked, “Have you talked to Jules?”

Alai shook his head. “I’ve hardly seen her since the first round.” No hesitation, no trace of guilt. He did not seem uncomfortable with their current setting either, leaning back casually. “She won’t try another gimmick tomorrow.”

“How do you know?”

“She wouldn’t dare. Besides, it backfired the first time.” He paused. “She’s desperate to win, but not if it might cost her career.”

“And what’s in it for you?” She watched him over their twin mugs and the steam rising from them. His forehead wrinkled in confusion. “Why do you want to win Pilot Tide?” she clarified.

“The money.”

She looked incredulous. “I don’t believe you.”

“That’s your right. But I came from nothing. I didn’t have the luxury of a path paved for me. I don’t have the luxury of waiting for an inheritance the way most my people do.”

“Alright.” She leaned back, but her gaze didn’t falter. “But I just think there’s more to it for you.”

He stared down into his coffee and then back up at Suri. She willed herself to hold his penetrating gaze.

“I want to prove I can do this,” he said finally. The words emerged bald and blunt.

“Why?”

He raised a brow this time. “I thought I finished my interviews.”

Suri flushed, but did not look away. “I’m just curious. Everyone has a motivation.” She heard an echo of Ceet’s cautionary words in her own.

Moments passed before he spoke. “Both my parents died in a mining facility when I was eight. My only living family was an uncle who, to put it delicately, hardly knew my name even when he wasn’t at the bottom of a bottle. I had to fend for myself, but hard work and competence are not qualities that get you far in Renova. There is a premium on family name and honor, which I had none of.” His voice grew rough.

Most offers of sympathy sounded shallow to her, so she remained silent, waiting for him to continue. It made sense now why Alai sounded so detached when he spoke of Renova at the opening banquet.

“I did all kinds of odd jobs to make ends meet,” he said. “The first time I climbed into a cockpit was an eye-opener. I didn’t have my head buried in muck and trash. I never really looked at the skies before. So, I forked almost all the credits I had to buy an old Z-Ray and began working as a cross-world transporter.”

“How long did that ship hold up?” Suri asked. She hardly noticed her elbows were propped on the table as she leaned in, engrossed in his story.

He grinned slightly, breaking the somber rhythm of the tale. “The Z-Ray? Guess. It was already going on eight years when I got it.”

“Two years?”

Alai’s grin widened. “Five. I learned some maintenance tricks and befriended a few mechanics in my travels.”

“Impressive.”

She leaned back and cocked her head, as if observing him at a different angle also allowed her to view him from a new perspective. He seemed an unlikely space chauffeur, but as he spoke, she could begin imagining it. Suri pictured Alai ferrying passengers in a beaten Z-Ray across Clusters, sharing stories and scrambling for impromptu repairs.

“Anyway, I learned something about the legalities of cross-world travel and immigration, made some good connections, and racked up some savings. I was good at what I did. But every step up I took, I wanted to prove I could do more.”

“Why?” she repeated, and bit back a grimace when realized what she did.

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I want to prove Renova is wrong to judge you by your family name. I want to prove an orphan can be someone of value.”

“You do have value. Even if you never got into a cockpit, you have the same value.” Suri stared at him, feeling hot indignation stir inside her.

“Sure, I know that deep down.” Alai stared back, perhaps sensing her shift in tone. “Did I hit a nerve?”

She blinked, unbalanced by the directness of his question.

“I just think,” she began slowly, “that everyone here is consumed with proving themselves. Renova values you for family name. Micanopy values you for flying excellence. These are all constructs people made up to judge others. Why do we subject ourselves to them?”

He nodded, and while his gaze appeared thoughtful, a smirk teased at the corner of his mouth.

“Fair point.” He crossed his arms. “So, why do you want to win the Tide?”

Suri knew the question was coming, and searched for a response. Ever since she filmed her audition tape, she felt herself grasping for an answer to this question, unable to articulate something concrete.

She played the words through her mind before she said them aloud. “For my mother’s memory, and for my father’s future.”

“That’s a heavy load for small shoulders.”

“It’s an aspiration. I honestly didn’t think I’d even make it this far. I don’t have to win…” she trailed off, recalling the euphoria of her first victory. “But now I might be disappointed if I don’t,” she admitted, surprised by her own honesty.

Alai smirked. “Now I’ll feel guilty when I leave you in the dust.”

“Well, I’m glad not everyone in this contest is heartless.”

He feigned dismay. “I gave myself away.”

Suri laughed, and they carried on in light banter for a while longer before the android server announced the cafe was closing. She felt a twinge of regret as she emptied her mug.

The corridors of The Nebula were quiet as they walked back to their respective rooms. She glanced at the clock; they were hours away from the next round. Oddly, Alai’s confident stride beside her chased away some of the anxiety, as she felt she would enter tomorrow a little less alone than before.

They reached her room first, and Alai paused by the door. “Watch your back out there, alright?”

She tilted her head up at him. “Can you do that for me? Since you’ll be behind, anyway.”

He grinned. “You want to owe me two?”

“I’ll pay you out of my winnings.”

“You keep dreaming.”

Suri extended her hand to him and Alai grasped it. The size of his palm dwarfed hers, and he had a strong grip.

“Good luck tomorrow, Alai.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 6

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

Chapter 6

Suri races to the top of the leaderboard with a spectacular come-from-behind flight. But the competition is far from over. Jules pulled in a close second, with Alai on her tail. With two more rounds over the next ten days, the star field remains wide open.

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.102

In the center of the Metropolis, the Flight Academy’s expansive facility spiraled from ground to sky. It housed a museum of old models and artifacts, a fleet of live ships, and hundreds of instructors and students.

The glass fogged up as Ceet pressed his face closer to the window. Their carrier was landing inside the Academy.

Mixed emotions churned within him. Essgees never saw the inside of the Academy, making Dwarf Squadron’s opportunity second to none. But guilt tempered his anticipation. While he never felt piloting was a betrayal of his people, stepping inside this elite human-only institution was another matter.

Neeta, Deeta and Veeta were pointing out the window and chattering excitedly. In front of them, Suri and Alai sat slightly apart, silent. Jules had skipped the outing, remaining aboard The Nebula. Ceet was not surprised. She taught at the Academy already, unlike her two rivals who had never seen it in person. Besides, Jules still seemed to be smarting from her loss.

They broke into two tour groups upon stepping outside. Ceet, Atta, Ardee and Suri joined a bright, petite instructor named Renee, while the rest of Dwarf Squadron and Alai followed another guide.

“Welcome! I was hoping I would get you all for my group.” Renee grinned, making eye contact with each of them, and Ceet liked her instantly.

As she led them through the first floor, she shared a brief background on herself. “I trained with Jules for years,” she told them. “My claim to fame.”

“But she’s much more pleasant,” Atta muttered beside him.

Ceet noticed Suri grimace at Renee’s comment. He had seen little of her after the Tide’s first round, but she seemed subdued the whole flight into the Metropolis. As they continued their trek towards one of the museums, he slowed down to match her pace.

“Hey Suri,” he murmured. “Getting used to the media frenzy?”

She gave him a small smile. “Never.”

“I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you yet. You were spectacular out there.”

In front of a yawning archway, two plasma screens were replaying highlights from the Tide. Ceet watched as Suri’s One-Wing folded into itself, blazing across the black expanse. Though the holovision was muted, he could still imagine Argent’s distinct voice reaching a fever pitch and Dwarf Squadron cheering wildly around him.

He glanced at Suri. Her gaze also fluttered to the screens.

“Thanks,” she said, though her voice lacked the exuberance she demonstrated after their Galileo simulator run.

“Are you alright?” he asked gently.

He winced, realizing he sounded almost fatherly. He was older than her, but it felt silly to appear protective. She was more than two feet taller than him, the most famed pilot in Micanopy right now, and more than capable of blasting him to smithereens from inside a cockpit.

Suri opened her mouth, but Renee stopped their group under the archway.

“This is the oldest museum on Micanopy Major, and its housed inside the Flight Academy. As you walk through, you will see the evolution of ships from the founding of the Cluster to today. We also highlight some of the most notable pilots in our history, many of whom I am sure you’re acquainted with.”

She led them inside. Ceet sucked in his breath and Atta exclaimed, “Oh!”

The archway they entered through slanted up into a high-vaulted ceiling twinkling with stars. Miniature ship models hung at varying lengths from above, appearing to hover in mid-air. The floor of the museum was designed like the interior of a large ship, with a bridge and control center stretching across it. The room was dimly lit, but fluorescent lights on the ground indicated the way forward.

“A standard museum wouldn’t do justice to our subjects,” Renee explained, grinning at their reactions. “We tried to recreate the sense of wonder that comes with space and flight.”

Ceet continued to walk with Suri, trailing behind Renee, Atta and Ardee. They passed a holographic recording of The Octagon pilots in their flight suits, waving at a large crowd.

“Neeta will love this. She’s a rabid fan of Stephan,” Ceet pointed him out, a small smile tugging at his mouth.

“I was too,” Suri said, “Until I read the actual history and discovered he’s the most overrated pilot in Micanopy.”

“Well, there’s the historical Stephan and the holoshow one,” he returned.

Suri laughed, and he felt heartened. They continued following the others along the fluorescent path as Renee pointed out various landmarks in flight history.

After a long silence, Suri said quietly, “It’s people like you and Dwarf Squadron who should get recognition in the pilot community.”

He looked up at her, startled. “Why?”

“You treat one another like family. Your team knows you have their back.” She hesitated. “And I’m sure it takes perseverance and courage to go against your culture’s norms, but you’re fighting for your dream. Aren’t those the values we should celebrate as pilots?”

Ceet digested her words, surprised yet moved. He also sensed an undercurrent of bitterness in her speech.

“You’re kind, Suri. I do wish we could join the Academy or compete in the Tide—”

“You don’t,” she interrupted.

“What?”

“You don’t want to compete in the Tide.” A grim smile etched across her face, making him wonder if he imagined the naïveté he saw in her previously. “Believe me, I would trade with you if I could.”

He recalled her bright-eyed enthusiasm the day before the first round, and the contrast hit him like a hammer.

“What happened out there?”

A few moments passed before she spoke. “Jules sent a false distress signal, and I fell for it.” She bit her lip and recounted what happened. “I beat her, but that’s not what I’m thinking about. I keep thinking how she must have planned it. Waiting until our comms were flaky, and I’d have no proof. Having the fake coordinates to send me.”

As he listened, Ceet felt disbelief, a wrench of sympathy, and then a burst of anger.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He clenched his fists. “She should be disqualified. Or worse.”

“Alai told me not to report her because I don’t have evidence.”

He remained quiet for a moment. “Do you trust Alai?”

“Well, yes,” she said, a note of bafflement in her voice, “I trust he means well at least. He helped me out there, and didn’t even begrudge coming in last. Why?”

Ceet shrugged. “I don’t mean to be cynical. But everyone has motives, and often those who don’t reveal theirs are more dangerous. We know Jules wants the glory and status of the Tide. But what does Alai want?”

“I don’t know. But I can’t distrust everyone,” she murmured.

They were interrupted as Renee brought the group to another halt. Ceet realized they had walked through a significant portion of the museum, though he missed most of the details because of their conversation.

Renee pointed at a life-size bronze plaque they stopped in front of. “You all should be familiar with this pilot.” She caught Suri’s eye especially and winked.

A holographic image flickered at the top of plaque. Ceet stared at it—a woman with the same dark eyes and high cheekbones as Suri smiled back at them.

“Mona is one of the most celebrated pilots of our day,” Renee said. “And now her daughter walks in her footsteps.”

“You really look like her,” Atta said. “She’s beautiful.”

“My advanced facial recognition software can hardly tell you apart.” Ardee whirred closer to the holograph. “My confidence in my programming is taking a dip.”

Ceet gave his shell a hard knock. “Your programming doesn’t include any sensitivity, apparently.”

He looked at Suri with concern, but she smiled at them. He thought her eyes glistened a bit, but no tears fell. Rather, a steely look of determination undergirded her gaze.

“I didn’t know this was here.” She stared at the holographic image. “I was too young to remember much. I wish I had known her.”

While other groups passed them, they stood in silence. Ceet knew the customary human gestures for comfort, but she was too far above the ground for him to reach. Instead, he touched her elbow with two fingers, a distinctly Essgee gesture of reassurance and friendship.

She smiled gratefully at him, and he knew she understood its meaning.

“Win the Tide for her,” Renee whispered, and Ceet could tell she meant it, despite her long-standing relationship with Jules. “You fly like an ewha.”

“No,” Atta returned, “She’s better than that. She flies like her mother.”

This time, a tear did slide down Suri’s face. She didn’t try to wipe it away, and Ceet admired her for it.

He touched her elbow again. “We have your back too.”

They ended the tour of the Academy mid-afternoon when everyone’s feet were sore from walking. Many of the instructors and students came up to meet them, and though their attention was mostly given to Suri, some wanted to hear Dwarf Squadron’s perspective on pilots in the Essgee culture. Ceet felt warmed by the words of many aspiring pilots, who said they were inspired by his story and encouraged the squadron to keep flying.

On the way back to the carrier ship, their two groups reconvened. After bidding farewell to Renee, Suri wandered ahead with Alai, but Deeta held the rest of them back, a tense look in her eye.

“What’s wrong?” Atta asked, alarmed.

Deeta handed them a crumpled note. “This fell out of Alai’s pocket.”

They crowded around to read it, and Ceet felt a strange sense of foreboding grip him.

Well played. Deal is still on. J

“J is…” Atta trailed off.

“For Jules!” Veeta exclaimed, a distressed gleam in her eye. “They’re conspiring against Suri, I know it.”

Deeta and Neeta nodded, but Heet rolled his eyes. “I keep telling them they’ve watched too many human holoshows.”

Atta also looked skeptical. “It is a pretty big stretch of imagination.” She glanced at Ceet questioningly, expecting him to see it from her side.

“It’s not a big stretch.” He felt his gut twist in a knot, and told them what Suri confided in him.

All of them expressed shock and outrage, and even Heet seemed indignant. Ceet was only half-listening to their responses, as his mind swirled with the implications that Alai might be involved. Was he really pretending to be Suri’s ally while he collaborated with Jules? A spike of anger shot through him, but cooled into sadness as he pictured Suri’s reaction to the news.

“We have to warn her,” Neeta said.

Ceet looked ahead to Suri and Alai’s figures, shrinking as they approached the docking bay.

“Yes, we do.”

Pilot Tide, Chapter 5

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

Chapter 5

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

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.100

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raised an eyebrow. “Spying?”

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

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

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

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

“Today’s the day!”

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

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

“What obstacles should we expect?” Jules asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jules?” she tried again.

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“She’s fine! I see her ahead of me.”

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

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

“Suri,” Alai’s voice crackled again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She flipped her comm unit back to Channel One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pass.”

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

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

“I haven’t thought about it…”

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

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

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

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

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

Pilot Tide, Chapter 4

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

Chapter 4

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

– The Micanopy Mirror, Galactic Date 2730.98

“Here’s the simulator room!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s do this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s run number three,” he said.

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

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

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

The text faded, and the planetary view returned.

“How inspiring,” Deeta laughed.

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

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

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

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

“Shoot back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah, let’s have some fun first.”

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

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

“Great shot!” Ceet exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Negative, I’m on the run.”

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

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

“Agreed.”

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

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

“Shields at eighty percent,” she muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Suri!” Neeta gasped.

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

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

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

“Wow,” he breathed.

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

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

Another red alert. Dwarf Six and Seven are out.

“We need more firepower,” Ceet said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter XI

The conclusion. I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for following along! I have more posts in the works, so I won’t go radio silent for months again. 😉

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII], [Chapter IX] and [Chapter X].

Chapter XI

The Sparrows said that the man who climbs the Adamaris once is a victor, and the man who climbs it twice a fool.

Kaede’s body ached, and the truth of that saying came to mind with sharp clarity. But a small, steady hope invigorated his worn limbs. While his last journey with Alethea filled him with dread over the outcome, he found a new core of strength this time. Now, they had a real, fighting chance at ending the curse. He clung to the fragment of faith Rafa inspired in him, unable to dwell on the possibility of failure.

With his thin, wiry frame, his traveling companion was adept at maneuvering the cliffs and making precarious leaps. Even though he underwent no formal training, Rafa demonstrated innate agility during their trek. Being fresh and well rested, he began pushing further ahead than Kaede, who felt challenged to keep up.

“Stars, I keep looking behind to see if Abi is following us.”

Kaede laughed. “I think Lord Demarion feared the same. He nearly placed her under lock and chain.”

“She will dare anything. That is who she is.” Rafa shook his head, but fondness warmed his words. He threw a sideways glance at Kaede. “All these years, and I never expected the same of Lethe.”

“It is not audacity. Not with her.” Kaede released a long breath. “She will sacrifice anything. That is who she is.”

“Mm. Perhaps they spring from the same foundation.”

Their conversation lapsed in and out of thoughtful silence. For the first time since they met, Rafa seemed open and genuine. Kaede bit back a smile—perhaps it had something to do with Abigail.

“I usually read the signs so well,” he muttered, half to himself, but he garnered Rafa’s attention. “I insisted to Alethea that you were in love with her.”

The expression Rafa wore made Kaede smirk.

“Well,” he returned after a moment, “we told Alethea that you were sweet on her.”

“Poor girl,” Kaede murmured, “everyone trying to tutor her, yet she knew best and hid it all in her heart.”

Rafa raised a brow. “But we were right.”

Kaede felt his face flush. Though Alethea’s state was horrific in every sense, the tragic shadow it cast made her family more than merciful towards his political manipulation. Abigail dismissed it without much misery, moved by the realization of Rafa’s longsuffering patience and steadfast love for her. Rafa, of course, could only be glad that Kaede did not ensnare Abigail’s heart. And the entire family hoped beyond hope that Kaede’s affection for Alethea would prove to be her deliverance.

Now, it is only Alethea. Will she be glad when she awakens? Will she despise me, let alone have any regard for me?

“Kaede, look!”

He swung his gaze in the same direction as Rafa. Among the dry, yellow shrubbery, small patches of green sprouted out of the soil.

“The famine!” he exclaimed. His breath caught in his throat. “Is it ending?”

A new thought came to him. Here they were, from three different clans, struggling together for one another’s survival. Could we be reversing that curse already?

When they arrived at the mouth of Sela’s cavern, they paused by silent consent and looked at each other. Kaede felt fear, hope and a hundred other unnamed emotions stir inside him. Only a few days prior, he stood in the same place and watched Alethea march to her fate, helpless to stop her, awash in his self-reproach and remorse.

In a surprising gesture, Rafa laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just think of her.”

Is that how he found his strength? Kaede suddenly imagined his companion alone in his room, poring over old Phoenix documents. In the swirl of chaos, he nearly forgot that Rafa’s life had just shifted dramatically in revealing the truth of his identity. What ramifications must he contend with at home after all this? But he followed through with all of his plans for Abigail’s sake.

“I do.” Kaede hesitated, but the memory of Rafa’s revelation encouraged him. “I fear your counter-curse will not work—because of me. My love is not as unfaltering as yours. I fear it’s weak and selfish, and I do not trust myself.” His thoughts turned to his mother suddenly. She was like that. Even with Kaede, she loved him as her son, but he was also a pawn in her political pursuits. I am too much like her.

“You are a man. Who among us can claim to truly love well?”

“But—”

Rafa stopped him with a hard look. “In knowing your own weakness, you give me confidence.” His face softened. “I love Abi, but not perfectly. And I believe you love Lethe.”

Kaede soaked up his words like a dry leaf, willing for Rafa’s conviction to sink into him too. He nodded.

“Ready if you are.”

They took only a few steps into the cavern before Sela met them.

“You are a glutton for punishment.” There was a note of amusement in her voice. Kaede assumed she addressed him.

“We are here for Alethea, not you.”

“Ah, I see you brought a Phoenix friend. And last time you were saying there were no more in the mountain…” Her gaze swept over Rafa, who stood rigid and unflinching beside Kaede. “Ironic. Demarion could never rid himself of the Phoenix disease, could he?”

“We are not here to waste words with you,” Rafa said. “Where is Alethea?”

She gestured towards the back of the dimly lit cavern. “If you think you can reverse the curse, I certainly will not stop you.”

Kaede felt his heart drop a little. He expected Sela to show more resistance, perhaps even violence, to keep them from Alethea. Her calm, flippant composure shook him. Did she simply not care if they lifted the curse? Or was she hiding something else? 

If the same thoughts crossed Rafa’s mind, he covered it well. He strode in the direction she pointed, and Kaede trailed behind him, grateful for his resilience.

Sela’s voice, soft yet haunting, followed them. “She has a golden heart. Better than her father’s. Certainly better than you deserve.”

The words echoed through him like a small bell in a cathedral. He shivered.

“She is trying to unbalance you,” Rafa murmured.

But she is also right.

They found Alethea swaddled in thick blankets, lying beneath a massive canvas of flying beasts—dragons, sparrows, and phoenixes. A spool of thread, unspun from a spindle, spilled out beside her.

She wore a peaceful expression, one Kaede had rarely seen since meeting her. He recalled, even in her gaiety, she bore an air of melancholy, burdened by the cares of her family and clan. Without her worries and guardedness reflected on her face, she looked regal.

Kaede knelt beside her. In his periphery, he caught Rafa closing his eyes and murmuring something unintelligible.

Returning his attention to Alethea, he clasped her cold hands to his gently. The rest of the world seemed to fade into the distance, and even Sela’s lingering words lost their impact. Please, come back from wherever she trapped you. Please do not hate me—stars, I would give up the chieftainship, anything, for you to come back to me.

Compelled by his fervor, he leaned in and kissed her forehead. Her face was also cold like marble. His chest ached.

He felt a slight pressure on his fingers. Alethea stirred.

Tears stung the back of his eyes.

“Kaede?” Her voice was quiet and wondering.

He only gripped her hands in response, not trusting his voice. Rafa came nearer, a smile breaking across his face, but he kept a tactful distance.

“How did this happen?”

“I will explain everything.” Kaede swallowed. “But tell me you do not despise me.”

She did not even hesitate. “How could I?” Alethea said softly, almost musically. And for the first time, he felt her dark eyes invite him in, revealing her heart.

Something inside him soared.

What followed passed by Kaede in a blur. Rafa came over to Alethea and they embraced. Kaede faintly heard him scolding her—lightly—for her brashness, and then offering a quick summary of the last few days’ events. Her post-slumber stupor quickly wore off, and she punctuated his retelling with exclamations of surprise and delight. Kaede merely listened, dazed and enshrouded in sweet relief.

Eventually, Rafa came and touched his arm. “We need to go.”

He nodded, and as he rose to his feet, Alethea said, “Sela simply allowed you both to come in?”

Kaede glanced at her. “It seemed… she did not think you deserved such a curse.”

She fell silent, pondering that. Then she looked at him again, almost shyly. “So, you did not love Abi, but—” she broke off, blushing.

“I set my sights high, milady.”

Rafa glared at him. “Watch your words.”

They laughed, and Kaede felt a genuine camaraderie snake around them. He and Rafa helped Alethea to her feet. There was no sign of Sela as they made their way to the cave entrance, and his spine tingled slightly, wondering where she hid in the shadows. He quickened his pace, but Alethea stopped them midway.

She turned around. “Sela,” she called.

Alarmed, Kaede grasped her arm. “What are you doing?” But Rafa shook his head briefly, and he reluctantly released her.

“My father offered this to you once. I ask again. Will you come with us?”

They waited, but nothing in the darkness flickered. Only the echo of her quiet, sure voice returned to her. Kaede reached for her arm again, this time in support.

But Alethea smiled at him, the same, slumbering peace he witnessed earlier spread across her face.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

The end

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter X

One more installment after this one. Enjoy!

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII] and [Chapter IX].

Chapter X

Sacrificial, unflinching love—what other counter-curse could there be?

He pushed the stack of crinkled parchments aside, burying his face in his hands. Could it be so simple? It seemed sensible. Only an effective counter-spell or curse transfer might save her, and a transfer demanded the same selfless love on the receiver’s part.

A desperate, almost frenzied euphoria set his blood humming. I will need the right words, and a true heart. 

Rafa reached for the top parchment sheet again, his eyes flying over the ink symbols.

Loud footsteps pounded down the hall. He opened the drawer beside him swiftly and threw the papers inside as Demarion surged through the door.

“What is it?” Rafa rose to his feet, alarmed at his countenance.

“It’s Abigail,” he said, and Rafa’s heart leaped into his throat, “she’s awake!”

What—?

“Ziva is with her now. Hurry!” Demarion was already turning away, gesturing for Rafa to follow him. His legs numbly complied, carrying him along. “I—I don’t know how long it will last, and how the curse could make such a provision.” He stopped abruptly, flinging an unguarded, fearful look at Rafa. “I am afraid it is a cruel trick of Sela’s.”

I have not cast a counter-curse yet! How could she awaken? Dread mixed with hope coursed through him. He remembered reading that poorly crafted curses could weaken over time until they lost all power.

He suppressed that strand of optimism. Phoenix lore was ancient and complex, particularly concerning the mechanisms of magic. While Rafa had gathered what surviving documents he could find, his knowledge remained pitifully limited.

She was sitting upright in her bed when they arrived. Ziva was coaxing hot broth into her mouth when her eyes found him and Demarion. She pushed the spoon from her lips.

“Rafa!” The familiar high pitch and brightness in her tone sent a thrill through him.

“Abigail,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. He felt paralyzed in place, uncertain if he should move nearer but unable to tear his gaze away, fearing that the curse would reclaim her again.

Her glance flitted across each of their faces, amusement coloring her expression. “You all look terrified I’ll faint away again.”

Ziva seized her hand. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, Mother,” she replied, half-reassuring and half-exasperated. “I feel as well as I did on my last day awake.”

“What happened? When you were unconscious?” Rafa asked, finding his voice.

“Nothing,” she murmured. “It was a dark, dreamless sleep. Sometimes I knew I was under a curse, but I was not afraid. It was like being in a cage, imprisoned but peaceful because there was nothing around to harm me.”

Demarion stepped over to her bedside and touched her arm. “You are home now. The cage is gone.”

“I know.” She beamed. “Where is Alethea?”

Her question jolted Rafa. He looked at Demarion—why did he fetch him, but not Alethea, when Abigail awoke? A troubled look crossed the Dragon Chief’s face and Rafa felt a tremor in his chest.

“I could not find her. I assumed she was out in the village with Kaede.”

But there was no sign of her yesterday either. Rafa grew accustomed to seeing less of Alethea, given her courtship with Kaede and the bourgeoning tension between them, but it was odd to go without a glimpse of her in so long. A strange, foreboding premonition began to breed in his mind.

“Kaede!” Abigail exclaimed. She flushed as their gazes all returned to her.

“The Sparrow Chief’s son,” Demarion explained quietly. “Much has happened while you were sleeping.”

Uncharacteristic concern fell over Abigail’s face like a shadow. “Tell me everything.”

“You need to rest first,” Ziva insisted.

“I have done nothing but rest for however long I slept!”

Rafa could not suppress a brief smile at her restless and impatient spirit. She spied his expression and turned an imploring look to him, as if she found a sympathetic opening.

“When the curse took you, a famine fell over the Adamaris too, like the Phoenix prophesied. Alethea posed as you and we went to negotiate with Sparrow clan for peace. They proposed a courtship followed by marriage between Kaede and Alethea.”

Abigail drew in a sharp, painful breath, her eyes fluttering shut. Demarion reached over and gripped her shoulder in distress.

“Abigail!”

She held up her hand. “No, I am fine. It’s simply—oh, Lethe, I am sorry,” she murmured.

Rafa shared an anxious look with Demarion and Ziva. “We can continue the story another time,” he decided. “We should find Alethea.”

As if in response, a servant appeared in the doorway, short of breath and flushed from running.

“Chief.” He bowed. “We tried to stop him, but Kaede insists on coming up.”

Demarion’s brow furrowed. “I will see him, but we cannot meet here with Abigail. Is Alethea with him?”

“No, Chief.”

Rafa felt the ominous portent grow in his mind. Was this another rudimentary Phoenix instinct, like the one he experienced when he sensed something awry with Abigail’s flowers? Demarion instructed the servant to hold Kaede in the guest room downstairs until he could meet the Sparrow chief’s son. The servant left in a flurry. Suddenly, Rafa noticed Abigail’s expression grow pale and frantic.

“Abi—” he began, but was interrupted by the growing sound of footsteps. He stood up in alarm, but Kaede was already in the doorway.

His garments were soiled and despite his broad stature and handsome face, the dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair considerably marred his features. He looked at each of them swiftly before his gaze settled on Abigail and visible horror entered his eyes.

Rafa moved to stand in front of Abigail, though he knew no physical shield could force Kaede to undo the sight he had seen. If he tells the truth to Meike… 

“Kaede,” Abigail choked, assaulted by tears.

Kaede leaned against the doorpost, his back bent as if the strength went out of him. “Stars, she did it.” His eyes closed.

Demarion was on his feet now too, and all of them looked from Abigail to Kaede. Rafa felt they stood on the cusp of some terrible realization and he reached for a nearby bookcase to steady himself.

“You know each other?” Demarion demanded.

“Father,” Abigail began, a pleading note in her voice, but stopped when Kaede dropped to his knees before them.

“I am to blame, Lord Demarion. I met Abigail before the curse fell and we began courting. Thus, I saw through Alethea’s masquerade as her sister—”

Ziva gasped, whitening. “Demarion!” Her husband moved to her side and drew a protective arm around her before fixing a stern, unforgiving look on Kaede.

To his credit, the Sparrow did not flinch. “Please,” he said quietly, holding up his hand. “I have more to say. I confronted Alethea immediately.” A distant look overtook him as an unwitting smile crawled up his face. He glanced at Demarion. “She is stronger than you think. She laid the whole truth before me, trusting in my loyalty to Abigail. I agreed to help her. My mother does not know any of this.”

Rafa’s initial agitation began to ease, but another slow, blade-like pain spread through him. So he was the suitor that enthralled Abigail. He could not deny the stir of envy in his heart. He never trusted Kaede, even if he won Alethea and the rest of the family’s faith. It was vain and selfish, but he could not help disliking the man even more now, in spite of his good deeds.

Demarion was kneeling down beside Kaede. “What is there to blame you for then? You have handled this more nobly than me.”

Kaede could not look at him. “I do not know how to say this.”

A tense silence fell over them until Kaede rose and stepped to Abigail’s side. He pulled a pendant out of the folds of his cloak and slipped it into her palm.

She stared at it. “My pearl!” Perplexed, she glanced at him. “Why do you have it?”

Sudden understanding crashed down on Rafa like merciless waves. He let out a strangled sound and moved towards Kaede, thrusting a trembling finger at him.

“You let her take the curse.”

His words dropped like a heavy hammer in the room.

What? What are you speaking of, Rafa?” Abigail exclaimed.

Kaede’s silence confirmed Rafa’s suspicion. “Phoenix curses cannot be undone.” Each word felt dry and dreadful on his tongue. “They can only be counter-cursed or transferred. You took Alethea to see that witch!”

“Is this true?” Ziva cried.

The Sparrow only bowed his head. “Yes. We scaled the Adamaris and found Sela. She said the same thing about curses. Alethea insisted on transferring it. I could not convince her otherwise because…I failed her earlier. She told me to respect her choice, to go home and return Abigail’s pendant.”

Crimson agony burned through Rafa, but it felt more like regret than anger. “Why did she not even confide in me?” he murmured to himself.

Demarion, Ziva and Abigail all appeared stricken by the revelation.

“Sela must know this cruel twist cuts even deeper,” Demarion said. “To have both my daughters suffer, and Alethea to go willingly…”

Rafa glared at Kaede. “How could you let her?” Helpless fury mounted within him. “Why did you not take the curse for Abigail, if you love her—”

“Rafa,” Demarion cut him off, admonition in his eyes. Even now, he was still a Chief.

“Her sacrifice was needless!” he exploded, ignoring the warning. “I found a counter-curse!”

All eyes turned to him. “What?” Demarion asked, registering disbelief.

He jerked his sleeve up to reveal his bare forearm and the red phoenix emblazoned there.

“You have been searching the Adamaris for Phoenix,” he said quietly, “not knowing you took one into your care many years ago.”

The silence grew thick enough for a knife to cut. Rafa could sense, keenly and painfully, the spectrum of emotions splattered across each face—disbelief, wonder, a hint of fear, and sadness.

Abigail found her voice first. “Did you always know?” she asked, and he felt a rush of gratitude for her gentle tone.

“No. I thought of myself as a full-bred Dragon since Demarion found me.” He met the Chieftain’s eyes briefly. “A few years later, I began to develop unusual instincts, having vague premonitions and heightened sensitivity to trouble. Then my clan mark formed, and I knew.” Rafa glanced at the phoenix tattoo, recalling his quiet terror. “I scoured for documents and stories to learn about my…abilities. It was hard to find things, but my motivation grew when Abigail was cursed.”

“Oh, Rafa.” Ziva’s eyes crinkled with compassion. “You should have told us.”

“How could I?” he murmured. “You were cursed by a Phoenix.”

Demarion’s hand came down hard on the table. “You think we would have judged you by her actions?”

“No. But someone in the clan would, once news spread. The Chieftain’s family, adopting a Phoenix by mistake?” Rafa looked at him levelly.

They became silent again, and he could imagine this startling revelation settling into their minds, becoming a part of the fabric of their lives. He felt a twinge of distress as he watched them wrestle with their new reality. Though he had prepared for this moment ever since Abigail fell unconscious, it came more suddenly than he expected.

Kaede, while similarly shocked by Rafa’s outburst, accepted it more easily. He did not need to consider years of secrecy, and he returned them to the matter at hand.

“You said you found a counter-curse. Can you use it for Alethea?”

Rafa closed his eyes and exhaled. “It will not work. I designed it for Abigail.”

“Why?” Abigail demanded. “What is it?”

It seems today is the day for laying all secrets bare. 

“Apart from transferring the curse to another, I think there is only one viable counter-curse.” He paused. “A love that binds two lives together, for better or worse. A love that will bear anything for another. In some ways, this demands more than taking on the curse in another’s place. It is that, and more. Such love is the only thing powerful enough to restore life.”

Their gazes burned into him, particularly Abigail’s, as understanding dawned over her.

“Oh,” she whispered quietly, and words seemed to elude her. A deep blush crawled over her face.

“And here I thought—” Kaede began, before breaking off, shaking his head with incredulity.

Rafa looked at him, girding himself for a verbal onslaught. He had done no less than confess his heart for Abigail in front of her and her suitor.

And yet, Kaede did not appear enraged or protective. He had expressed no affection, or even relief upon finding Abi awake. Rather, he had seemed almost horrified…

Then, in a final twist to the day’s events, Kaede looked at him with the first glimmer of hope and said, “Perhaps your counter-curse will work.”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter IX

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII] and [Chapter VIII].

Chapter IX

Alethea felt Kaede’s hand rest on her shoulder, warm and heavy. Subtle etches of pain cracked the otherwise stony guise he wore. His expression hearkened back to their first meeting, as he stood grim-faced beside his mother. Since their acquaintance was born, she could not recall seeing him with such a severe look, even in his somber moods. Like a war drum heralding battle, her heartbeat quickened, thrumming loudly in her ears.

“She cannot help us.” Kaede looked at her, but he seemed distant. His tone was strangely contradictory, half-commanding and half-beseeching. “Let’s go.”

The life of the girl you cheated. Was Sela intending to stir up strife between them and drive a blade between her and Kaede? Still, the Phoenix’s words rang with an uncomfortable degree of truth. And instead of outrage or dismissal, Kaede seemed suddenly withdrawn.

But she could not question him here. Alethea nodded dully, and he took her hand to lead her out of the cavern. She felt Sela’s gaze follow them, but she made no comment or motion to stop them.

When blue skies broke overhead, she drew in a deep breath. Kaede also paused, before beginning to pace on the ledge before her. With sunlight blazing at his back, he appeared to her a shadowy form, his shoulders bent and hands clasped behind his back.

Alethea watched him for a few moments, feeling the air escape her lungs more swiftly with each breath.

“Does she know something about you?” She asked quietly, but ached as the words fell out.

He saved my life today. Though her conscience accused her, she could not shake the nagging doubt formed from Sela’s words.

He stopped pacing and finally met her gaze. His stark expression burned away, replaced with sorrow.

“I have not been forthcoming about everything.” He sighed, casting his eyes to the ground. “I can tell you all, but I fear you will hate me.”

The words choked in her throat, but she spoke them calmly. “Tell me.”

He opened his mouth and closed it, as if testing his account mentally before speaking aloud. “I did not love Abigail,” he said finally, forcing his gaze up to hers. Though it felt like hot iron bars closing in around her, she could not look away. “When we met and I learned who she was, I thought to use it to my clan’s advantage. My mother encouraged our courtship. If I married the Dragon chief’s daughter, I would be in position to challenge your father and—” he broke off, before continuing, “It was not out of mere ambition, though I cannot deny that played a part. I wanted peace between our clans, and this was an opportunity to pursue to it.” A brief, defensive note entered his tone before it dissolved into contrition.

Alethea took his words in, waiting for the agony to break through her. In bracing herself for the inevitable wound, the shock of his revelation came and went, only grazing her fleetingly.

But she only felt numb and hollow, like someone reached inside and emptied her.

“Alethea.” His voice came to her through a fog, and an awful dose of reality struck her. “Please, say something.”

She lifted her eyes to his face but instantly turned aside. She faintly noticed the pain begin to bleed through her.

Kaede. My only friend outside of my family. I owe him my life. She thought of his friendly mockery and moments of unguarded honesty, his strong arms the only thing between her and a thousand foot death-plunge. How could he be untrue?

But all she said was, “So Meike will expose the curse to my clan and try to depose my father.”

He blinked in bewilderment before understanding dawned. “No—I was honest when I said she does not know the truth. She knows nothing of the curse or you.”

“How can I believe you?” The question sprung out coldly but softly as she felt her heart close towards him.

Kaede did not disguise his hurt. “I have no reason to lie to you now.”

“And what reason did you have to only betray us half-heartedly? There is neither kindness nor prudence in that.”

Alethea felt none of the hot anger she expected, but bitterness frosted over her feelings.

A passing struggle flashed across his face. “It was not out of kindness or prudence that I guarded your secret,” he murmured, “but I will only deepen the injury if I tell you.” He paused. “Alethea, I am sorry. I have no excuse or integrity to stand on before you. But for the little it is worth, I have been genuine in my dealing with you. Though I did not love Abigail, I admired her and sincerely wanted to remedy the curse. And I wanted your happiness.”

She absorbed his speech and felt a rock-hard resolve take shape in her mind. A knot began to form in her stomach, but she ignored it.

“Kaede, I cannot deny what you have done for me. If you mean those words, grant me a final favor.”

Wariness flickered in his eyes. “If I can do anything for you…”

Alethea unfastened the coal-colored pearl pendant around her neck. She held it out to him, and he opened his hand to receive it.

“Return this to Abigail. If you can spare her your admission, then spare her. And do not marry her.”

He reached out and clutched her shoulder in a vice-like grip. “You cannot go back there.”

“Do you know me so well, that you know my plan?” she murmured, half to herself, before fixing a soft, sad gaze on him. “Yet, I do not know you at all.”

Kaede did not release her. “Then, let me tell you what is in my heart and we can leave this cursed place.”

“No.” Alethea moved out of his grasp and closed his hand over the pearl, almost tenderly. “This is all I ask. Go home.”

“Alethea—” A dark storm brewed in his eyes.

“My life has been a tale cobbled together by the decisions of others. Do not take this choice away from me.”

His head bowed, and for a moment, she could envision the weight of the Adamaris pressed onto his shoulders. A blaze of empathy blew past her but it quickly faded as the dark cavern loomed in her mind. With a pang, Alethea knew Kaede could say nothing more to her, and such was her intent.

Perhaps she could not defeat the famine, or even save her family’s honor and position. Yet a small hope for Abigail’s fate still gleamed and called out to her.

She turned on her heel abruptly and strode into the cavern. Kaede made no move to stop her.

Sela remained by her makeshift fire when she reached the end of the dark corridor. The Phoenix glanced at her, a strange but knowing look in her face.

“Men are worthless, aren’t they?”

Alethea simply stared into the flickering flames, watching the orange light burst into swift and desperate dances before the shadows extinguished them.

“You stepped out of your shelter into a world of bloodshed and betrayal.” Sela rose to her feet slowly. “Perhaps you can understand why I seclude myself here.”

She met the older woman’s gaze. “There is bloodshed and betrayal, but there is also beauty. We see the world through the window of our heart,” Alethea echoed an old Dragon proverb. “If we are bitter, we will find bitterness everywhere. No cave or cabin can shield us from ourselves.”

“Have you come here to lecture me?” Sela merely raised her brow, but the mockery in her tone rang clear.

“You know why I’ve come.”

She seemed unsurprised, and beckoned Alethea to follow her. They went deeper into the cavern, where the fire provided only a faint light to guide them. Alethea felt her heartbeat quicken but the exhaustion from Kaede’s revelation and their arduous journey up the mountain dulled her fear.

When Sela came to a halt, she studied their surroundings. Alethea drew in a sharp breath.

Life-size paintings of flying creatures rose on the jagged rock wall before them—a dragon with its wings unfurled, a pack of sparrows soaring beneath it, and a red phoenix bathed in flames.

A lone spindle with a full wheel of thread stood under the vivid canvas of images.

“Every life, every clan, is a slowly-turning spindle,” Sela said quietly. “Unraveling in numbered days until the thread snaps. Life to death. Dust to dust.”

“Yet in between, we can fight so hard and bleed so greatly.”

Alethea felt their eyes meet in a passing moment of kinship. In some small measure, she knew the other woman’s pain of loneliness and rejection, and Sela knew that too.

“It is folly.”

The connection faded, and oddly enough, Alethea felt a small smile turn her mouth up. “That is the difference between us. I think it is glorious.”

They stood in silence before Alethea asked finally, “What do I need to do?”

Sela laid a hand on the spindle. “When the thread you spin runs out, you will take the curse, and your sister will return to life.”

Alethea knelt on the hard ground and touched the wooden axle. The thread felt rough and thick in her hands as she ran her fingers over it. A sudden memory charged through her—sitting in her cabin with Rafa days after they lost Abigail, confessing her anguish. The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.

But now I have tasted a little of life. Alethea felt a wrench in her chest as she thought of the village’s cobblestone paths at dusk, the wild plains of the Adamaris, and even her adventures with Kaede. These things tugged at her heart, as if bidding her to hold on to life, to walk away from this madness.

No. This is for Abigail. The image of her sister’s face, the mischievous glint in her eyes and laughter, rose to mind and hardened her conviction.

Alethea pulled the thread out of the spindle.