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?”