the pilots

Many of the pilots and deck crew paused for a quick double take, registering Apama’s presence with speculative looks that made her feel even more conspicuous than usual. Her hands were sweating, but she locked the nerves away into the puzzle grid and set it aside. A more experienced pilot had been transferred out in order to make way for her. She had no idea why, but the pressure was on to perform well enough to justify her place here. So she would perform.

A dreadnought had eight launch tubes. The deck crew was so efficient she found herself suited and sealed up into a life support membrane and dropped into a lancer before she had time to get her bearings on the flight deck. Each lancer was a rhombus, an octahedral diamond able to shift direction quickly. Its nerve center was a back-to-back set of flight chairs surrounded by a flexible telemetry lattice that gave its two pilots a 360-degree orientation. Factoring in their eight hands and exceptional hand-eye coordination and spatial dexterity meant Phene lancers could turn, adjust, and maneuver with a delicacy and speed that enemies of the Phene respected and feared.

The previous pilot had stuck an icon on the control panel representing Saint Laranthir, staring right at Apama with his smugly handsome face and perfect leafy-green goatee. The words I’ve seen more of the world than most had been neatly written at the base of the control panel. How annoying.

The internal comm crackled, and Delfina said, “You got a smoke?”

“What is a smoke? Some kind of animal?”

“No one knows, but my bet is it has something to do with artillery. My aunt’s an archivist on Anchor, so I got a taste for deep diving into the vaults that contain fragments from the Celestial Empire.”

So Delfina was a Triple A, a privileged heritage seed grown up among the well-connected people in the capitol systems. Nothing like Apama and her mom struggling at the dregs end of shattered Tranquility Harbor.

Set it aside.

A burst of bell tones alerted them to launch.

“Here we go,” said Delfina.

It was just an exercise, Apama reminded herself. Nothing riding on this except her reputation within this possibly resentful squadron and, of course, the respect of her rack-mates. No big deal. She allowed herself an ironic smile.

“Mace sixteen, you are fourth in line to launch.”

A holographic display bloomed in the transparent lattice that wrapped the pilots’ chairs. The lancer clunked as the launch tube rolled it a quarter turn. She lay on her side in the gentle gravity of the cruiser.

“Mace thirteen, you are go. Mace fourteen, you are go. Mace fifteen, you are go. Mace sixteen—”

Her screens went blue, and the lancer was kicked free as a weight like a juggernaut slammed into her chest. A twist dropped them into space. The weight on her chest eased. She clicked back her controls to let Delfina pilot in the wake of the stream of lancers. That was easy enough.

What surprised her as they raced around the Strong Bull’s hull was the sudden, spectacular view of the dead beacon and its radiant halo in high orbit. The beacon’s aura had a weird murky texture that reminded her of a poisonous algal bloom that had choked Tranquility’s sea harbor in her youth.

“You ready?” Delfina said through their internal comm. “We each need to paint at least two kills to claim bragging rights over Steadfast Lion.”

Dots marked the position of lancers diving past the outermost coil, laser bursts painting “kills” on shifting ovoid targets that, in their turn, tried to paint hits on the lancers with soft laser fire.

As their pod altered trajectory, falling into line to make their pass, four of the targets made evasive maneuvers to avoid fire and, in the process, passed through a coil of the aura. Lights flared starkly on their bulbous command nodes. The targets swung around, turning from passive pigeons into aggressive bogies as they began firing on the incoming lancers in erratic bursts of full-strength laser cannons.

Chatter flared out on the main comms line.

“It’s shooting back, it’s shooting back!”

Tower said, “Fail-safes are down. I say again, fail-safes are offline.”

A flare of light. An explosion. A lancer spun off at a sharp angle, spewing debris.

“We have lost contact with Targets 13, 14, 26, and 28,” said the tower in the tight voice of a person struggling to stay calm. “Trying to reestablish control.”

A slab of debris careened through the nearest string of aura, lost to sight in the murky shimmer. Just as she let out a relieved exhale, the slab reemerged at a different and unexpected trajectory. She flinched.

“Dyusme!” Delfina rolled the lancer out of the way, but a glancing blow from the debris sent them tumbling through the outermost finger of the aura.

An uncanny shudder ripped through the lancer.

“Shit, shit, my membrane detached. What in the hells—” Delfina coughed, probably grabbing for an emergency oxygen supply.

“I’ve got it,” said Apama, all hands steady on her controls.

She swung around to get a wider view, manipulating her four controls. As the forward lancers scattered, the rogue targets darted after them, hauling some of the other targets in their wake as if they were linked together, and probably they were. That meant the chained targets were likely going to remain passive.

“Pakshet! My membrane won’t reseal! Got to hook up emergency oxygen.” More coughing, and a wheeze.

“I’ve got it,” said Apama as the calm of imminent action descended.

The targets were still shooting, spinning with a kind of energetic glee as deadly fire laid out strings like traps. Apama tumbled hard, spinning to get new angle, then thrust toward the rogue targets. Two lancers had been hit, forcing them to roll away. Another pod from the Mace flight was retreating at a hard burn to get out of range.

Her sight narrowed in. She flashed through the telemetry and sorted out the best order. Her first burst took out Target 13. Then 14, flowering into splinters as her laser cannon cut across it in three fierce lines.

“Watch your back, watch your back,” said Delfina in a hoarse voice between sucks of oxygen. The ride was too rugged for her to get a clean seal.

Apama tipped into a tight loop. Space was silent so she couldn’t hear the shot that almost punctured her lancer, but she could have sworn her lips tasted its heat a breath away.

“Missed us!” hissed Delfina.

Renay and Ana darted past, targeting 28. As it blew up Apama came all the way around in back of 26 and nailed it.

The debris rattled her shields, knocking their trajectory two degrees sideways. The lancer was flung straight into one of the outermost wraithlike spiral strings of the dead beacon’s aura.

The air inside her helmet got suddenly thick like she were breathing sludge. Her vision turned cloudy with speckled spheres and writhing, glowing rods. A scalding spike of pain jammed into the back of her head. Whispers bled into her mind as if the pain were the transmitter.

“The uprising at Sena has been put down and order restored. Unfortunately we have credible reports that one rebel cell vanished without a trace. The threat from the Chaonians looms larger than ever…”

“Operation Styraconyx commences…”

“The council does not agree with your selfish quest…”

A net of stinging prickles flashed across her face, and she shook herself back into focus. Her lips were dry, and it hurt to swallow, like she had caught a cold. Saint Laranthir’s handsome face had melted into a smear of green goo, but otherwise the cockpit looked unchanged and undamaged.

“Got my seal!” The comms crackled into life with Delfina’s welcome voice. “Holy fire! You were ice, so calm!”

“All lancers return to base. All lancers return to base.”

Three repair shuttles raced past her, headed for the crippled lancers. She followed her pod back to the heavy cruiser. Felt an instant’s red-hot panic as she targeted her assigned landing slot on the cruiser, but her brain flattened back to its chill as she said, “Can you take us in?”

“Got it,” said Delfina.

Apama was glad to give the other pilot this face-saving measure, not that it had been Delfina’s fault her membrane detached.

They slid in, were jerked to a halt, and rolled over. The lancer’s hatch popped as the membrane unsealed. Hands hauled her out, people speaking to her as she nodded as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The pain in back of her head had vanished as thoroughly as the rebel cell in Sena … and what was that even? A fuzzy memory of a teledrama half recalled from her childhood?

She found herself ringed by her grinning pod, standing in front of a woman wearing a commander’s wings and triple bars augmented by an impressive number of combat stars. Colonel Wulandari Ir Charpentier was expostulating at a dour-looking engineering officer. The engineer was a true exoskeleton-enhanced individual, whose Tadeian-infused and age-hardened caul encased his body in what resembled a skin-hugging but still flexible sheath of armor.

“And how in the hells did that fail-safe cascade collapse happen?” the commander demanded of the engineer.

“Those targets have never malfunctioned before. Not on my watch. I can’t vouch for the civilian contractors. They’re a local hire. Besides them the only anomaly in this exercise that I know of was the presence of the dead beacon’s aura.”

“It’s just particulate debris.”

“I’m as baffled as you are. We won’t rest until we figure it out.” The engineer saw Apama and gave her a long, searching look followed by a curt nod of recognition.

“Get it done,” said the colonel. As the engineer hustled away, Ir Charpentier turned to frown heavily at her. “Lieutenant At Sabao, I presume.”

“Ma’am.”

“Seems you have ice in your veins. Well handled, Lieutenant, especially given the way your double got disconnected. Three lancers were damaged, but we suffered no casualties because of your quick action.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Welcome aboard, Ice. Get cleaned up. I’ll debrief you and your pod in an hour.”

Apama looked down, surprised to find her flight suit spattered with green speckles of drying ooze.

“Hey hey,” said Renay, leading them through the postexercise bustle of the flight deck. “The last becomes the best. Don’t you all forget it.”

Pilots slapped her on the shoulder. Deck crew clapped. One cluster of pilots gave her a long, nasty once-over complete with matching sneers. They’d be trouble. But right now she let it go and said to her companions, “We’ve got a long voyage ahead of us. Please tell me the mess hall has sorbet.”

“Ice for sure,” said Ana with a laugh. “You’ve got your call sign.”

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