Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Flight - 4:02

One more cursory glance at the control panel, and I'm free to wrap my fingers again through the grips on either side of the cockpit's eject hatch above my head, and start hauling my body out of the seat. The panel's readings are all normal, the same story they've been giving me for the last twenty minutes of the flight, through the first half of my exercise routine. We've got another twenty minutes yet before we'll have to land, and I can get a couple more sets in, if I keep moving.

Cockpits don't lend themselves easily to exercise routines. Cockpits don't lend themselves to much of anything, really, save the obvious. But actually flying the plane isn't an option, not today---Suhara will chew me out if I try, even if I just accidentally brush the controls. It's our first surface mission in weeks, and Suhara's got the remote helm. Her body is trapped back at the base, cocooned in one of the control tubes to keep her mind focused on the job of coaxing our tethered plane gently over the tops of the rainforest's trees on the planet's surface. My body is more free, I guess, to fly along over those trees, with my safety and stomach contents at Suhara's mercy. I'm a sort of physical failsafe, eyes and ears---ha---inside the cockpit, in case anything goes wrong with Suhara's remote control. At least, I'm in here for today, because she convinced me it's her turn to fly.

But whatever---this Failsafe won't waste a moment, not even the cockpit ones. Not when there's a chance some of the other juniors might be doing their own cockpit pull-ups, in hopes of chewing into my lead in the fitness rankings. Lence posts the rankings every night, so as recently as last night my lead still held---far enough ahead of the other females, even nipping at the heels of some of the males. Male competition won't matter, in the long run---the fitness rankings always keep the guys and girls separate---but I can't help a bit of a devilish grin at the thought of out-lifting even a couple of the guys.

So I grip the eject hatch handles above my head with renewed enthusiasm, hauling my body upward out of the seat again. Cockpit pull-ups are hard to pull off; you have to bend your lower half just right to make sure you don't hit any of the controls on the way up or down---

“Surface Control, this is KAT-56, over sector 21, I've got activity on the surface ahead, just east of our target.”

I let go of the handles as eagerly as I grabbed them, sliding back into my chair---and my failsafe duties---with an excited jolt, already bending forward to check the monitors in front of me. Suhara's statement is right; the edge of the screen is twitching with activity. Movement on the surface, maybe a pack of wolves out hunting---

“KAT-56, we copy that, what is your target?”

I frown at the monitor; the blip on the corner of the screen is widening, blossoming into a swarm of smaller blips, probably a dozen or more. Maybe not a hunting pack, then... The keng wolves usually hunt only three or four to a pack, not nearly this many. I'm already fumbling to resecure the restraints I'd stripped off for my exercise routine, the restraints I shouldn't have taken off in the first place---but seriously, nothing more exciting than cockpit pull-ups ever happens on maintenance missions anyway---

“Surface Control, we're headed to sonic station 22-A, currently over sector 21. Looks like activity on the border between sectors 21 and 22, can you confirm?”

On the border... Suhara's right. The pack is hugging the border, just east of the sonic station. I pull a grimace---the wolves' presence is practically proof of the sonic station's failure, the failure that our maintenance mission was supposed to forestall. So the sonic emitter is down, and we won't be able to count on its help in chasing the wolves away, not for this trip, or any other future maintenance efforts. And this sector guards the small strip of cleared land that serves as one of our runways, along with a few bunkers of supplies and servicing gear---not a good sonic station to lose.

“Activity confirmed, KAT-56. Do not engage---repeat, do not engage at this time, stand by.”

I drag my eyes through an automatic roll. It took me most of combat training's eight months to get pre-combat training's “do not engage” litany to stop bludgeoning my brains. SurfCon---and BaseCon and StatCon, too, for that matter---tend a bit toward the over-cautious side. Ask questions first, shoot later... then ask a heap more questions all over again in the post-mission debriefing. Fight only if attacked. Try retreating first.

“Standing by, 56.”

I can't help a grin at the unmistakable sound of Suhara's rolling eyes. Suhara Salway would never step so out of line in front of her superiors, not with her father's---and grandfather's---reputations for exemplary service, but the cocoons and cockpits hide all sorts of mockery from superiors' inspection. And I've got a bit of a backstage pass to Subordinate Suhara, having put up with a lot more of the side of my roommate and friend that the superiors will never see. I can feel her frustration---we've been part of Lieutenant Orwell's combat training team for eight months already. We're as eager as the rest of the team to see actual surface combat---as eager as the young lieutenant himself must be, after eight months of training juniors. One month left till graduation, and we're all free.

And, if the rankings hold, Orwell’s team might just have itself another winner. It takes one to train one, after all.

I fold my lip in a practiced bite, holding all angles of that particular grin in check. Not even the inside of an empty cockpit can be trusted with the expression of that dream; I've buried it as far away as I can from the sort of jinxing---and certain humiliation---that might surface along with it. Station-wide highest rankings might be within my grasp, but I've got plenty of competition for the top, some of them friends... some of them close enough to share the cockpit with me, albeit virtually.

“Surface Control, KAT-56, we've got movement, looks like they're heading south-southwest, vector 220, moving fast... 16, maybe 15 k.”

A glance at the monitor confirms Suhara's warning. The pack is on the move, the cluster of blips shifting as one swarm away from the sector border, heading south by southwest... That sort of vector will put them right in our flight path.

“Looks like an interception trajectory, Surface Control, please confirm and advise.”

I can feel Suhara's nervous energy twitching my own muscles; my fingers dance just above the controls. The cockpit's human failsafe is only useful for landings, take-offs... and combat. My fingers are just waiting for SurfCon's go-ahead, and I'll be in the game---the fighting game, at least. Local takes fight, remote takes flight. We've practiced it so many times that the simulations have to be sick of it by now.

“KAT-56, we've got---” The radio’s response breaks off abruptly into silence. Charged silence... I can feel my pulse beat twice for every lengthened second, my head running through the calculations from the readings on the monitor... The pack is moving fast, the plane even faster---less than a minute till interception---

“KAT-56, get out of there, pull up and get out now.”

The plane is already tugging upward under Suhara's immediate reaction, even before the words die on the flycom's lips. The man is trained to talk into a radio all day, spooling out a measured response for each and every scenario, from weather to wolf attack. He's not supposed to sound this scared.

I gulp a quick breath, my hands twitching away from the combat controls, closer to the flight systems. From the man’s tone, this is more than “do not engage,” this is “punch it out of there,” and the failsafe is probably more useful as flight control backup, in case Suhara's ascent turns out too steep.

Oy. Too steep indeed... I can feel my stomach gritting its teeth against the change of direction, my head already swimming with sudden dizziness. And there goes my vision, crackling in warning... then flickering out, and flashing back again.

I fling one hand down to the controls to slow Suhara's climb a bit, and fling the other hand to my visor. That black-out was the visor, not my accel-dizzy consciousness...

I squeeze a quickened breath past the sudden fear clawing at my throat. The visor. This is not the time for a visor failure... I can maybe bear the humiliation of passing out from the ascent, but I'd rather gouge out my useless eyes than crawl back to Torreson Base with a dead battery and a dead visor... But I was sure that I charged it last night; I don't forget to charge it, not ever, not anymore...

The plane is pulling out of a sickening dip, Suhara's attempt to recover from my instinctive intervention. I can't help but wince---I'll hear about that one later... But an angry Suhara I can handle, on my own two feet, rather than dragged limp from the cockpit.

And there my vision statics again, snapping in and out. This... this isn't a dead battery, this is some other sort of failure, maybe a loose connection or something---

“Surface Control, I'm---” Suhara starts, breaking off for a split second as the plane jerks again back into line. “We're having trouble, I'm... I'm losing connection somehow, Meia are you pulling manual?”

I scramble for the radio. “No, I'm not touching anything---” Blackness again; vision gone, then snapping back in a dizzying flash... Cockpit one moment, shifting dark the next... “I'm having trouble too---” My face scrunches with a quick cringe; I've only barely gotten my training peers to forget---or at least pretend to forget---my handicap, and I'm not eager to explain my vision's quirks one by one over open radio to the puzzled flycom---

“KAT-56, get out of there now! You're almost on top of them, you're gonna need to pull out or start shooting; both, if you can handle it!”

The wolves... I'd almost forgotten them, but the flycom sounds scared again. The pack is just ahead, between the plane and the wide strip of cleared ground that buffers the small runway from the thick surrounding forest. The flycom's right---we're almost on top of the pack already. But if we've got SurfCon's permission to start shooting...

I jerk my hands back to the combat controls---I'll only have a few short seconds during the plane's flyover, but our trajectory's almost perfectly lined up, and I can hit them hard, just squeeze off enough rounds---

Another snap, another crackle...

And I'm totally blind.

Author's note: This is the actual beginning to my YA sci-fi novel, Fighting Blind.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Consequences Voice - 0:28

I could see it in his eyes.

Toddlers can just get that aggressive Look, the sort of Look that tells a mom everything she needs to know about the situation. That sort of I-have-a-bike-pump-and-my-baby-brother-is-in-range Look.

Yes, bike pump. Just don't ask. Or, if you have to ask, ask yourself what two-year-old wouldn't want to play with a bike pump, one of those standing kinds that's basically taller than a two-year-old when stretched to its full potential? And then ask yourself where would you hide a standing bike pump in a tiny two-bedroom basement floor condo?

This toddler didn't know his mother was watching from the kitchen sink. (Too many times have I been grateful for our “eat-in kitchen” and “open floor plan”; the space-saving architecture of our condo proves quite useful in mitigating toddler conflicts.)

Bike pump brandished high, he trotted across the floor toward his baby brother's bald and unsuspecting head, just to see what would happen if...

I wouldn't get there in time. I pulled out my best Voice, the sort of Voice that promises consequences. The sort of You-don't-really-want-to-find-out-what-happens Voice.

“MAAAAA-THEW...” I warned.

He stopped, looked up at me in surprise. Then started singing along. “Maaa-thew Mark Luke and John...”

Lessons learned:
1) my Consequences Voice sounds a lot like singing
2) a laughing Mom is not a threatening Mom
3) the Word of the Lord is powerful

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Escape - 2:02

Muffled shouts drifted through the cracks around the edges of the window, and awakened a tired smile. Familiar shouts, they were. But they were late this afternoon, it must be market day again.

Her hands found the edges of the window pane and forced the old latch aside. Bracing the muscles of her arms and back against her old nemesis, gravity, she managed to heave the rusted pane upward until the latch shifted back into place, and the window was open.
The rush of warmth and wind brought the voices to her ear.

“I get to be Alandra!”

“No, you were Alandra yesterday, you promised me I could have the bow and arrow this time! It’s your turn to be Soren today.”

“Fine, then I get the cape and the sword.”

The corner of her smile lifted slightly at the image of Soren in a cape. And what of Valgedra? No true master enchantress would stand to be de-caped in such rude fashion…

The echoed strains of her mental argument were now drifting through the window, and she listened with half an ear, tweaking the settings on the panel to adjust for the unusually high levels of background noise. The rain had come yesterday, and the insects were alive again, determined to add their confusion to the recording.

“But Soren needs the cape to fight the dragon. He found it before, like, in the forest near the old house, and Valgedra took it from him when she caught him and put him in the dungeon.”

“Where’s the dungeon?”

Where, indeed? It would have to be someplace dark, with no light and no air, unless it was cold air coming in through the cracks. It would have to be lonely, and mostly empty, with dry food barely scraped together, barely enough to sustain a human. It would have to be a place so depressing that one would forget the taste of real food, the light of the midday sun, the touch of a human hand.

But it would have to have a weakness. Because no true hero can be trapped forever by a dungeon. Not if the hero has friends. And all the forces of good on their side. And the will to live until life itself is used up, drained out of old bones.

It would have to have a window.

“I know! My memaw has a room upstairs, it’s full of boxes and it’s dirty, but I know where they put the ladder, and we can get up there!”

“Okay, we’ll go to your memaw’s room. Where is everybody? We’re going to set up the dungeon. Okay, you can carry Alandra’s stuff and be Alandra. Hurry up, though!”

She waited, listening, long after the voices had faded and the heroes had run off to doom the kingdom and save the day. She was always listening.

And so was the panel. A quiet chirp turned her head from the window, it was ready to record.

With a quiet sigh, she released the latch and helped gravity ease the window pane back into its lowered position, muffling the sharp hiss of the insects beyond. Were it not for the insects, she might leave it open for the recording today, the air and the sun's warmth transformed this small, dark space.

Her fingers shuffled along the panel until they found the well-worn controls. Her smile curved again at the memory of Dryan’s fingers on hers, guiding her clumsy efforts through the very first of her recordings. The smile froze and melted at the thought of those first dark, sightless days… She shook herself free of the memories and back to the freedom of the present.

Where to begin…? The afternoon’s drama had thrown the last two days’ worth of subplots in the blender, and the results weren’t quite up to the usual standards. But that part at the end, about Soren in the dungeon…

Click. Beep.

“It was gone. Paragraph. Soren felt its absence even before he felt the cold damp of the floor, the hard smoothness of the stones, the raw pain of the shackles around his wrists. Paragraph. The cape was gone…”


The sun was shining at last. It was the first day in a week that the rain had given them some reprieve. And even this morning the sogginess lingered, dripping from the metal scaffolding outside the apartment windows, the leftovers of a project the property management company had forgotten to finish.

His work didn’t stop, even if the rain did. After a moment’s breath of rain-washed air and a sigh from the depth of his soul, he grabbed the umbrella and closed the door behind him.

A small package sat on the top stair, just beyond his doorstep. It had no label, no name or address of any kind. It couldn’t be for #501, that one was empty. But it couldn’t be for #503 either, that one was practically empty; he’d been here four months already and had only once or twice caught a glimpse of the old blind woman who lived there.

He picked it up, and pulled a bit of the protective cover away. It was a book, of sorts. A stack of newly printed paper, tied together with a bit of old string. The cover page was just as frugal: “Soren’s Escape” by “Dryan Albright.”

There was a note on top, slipped under the string. The words were jumbled and the letters were shaky, and the message was simple.

“For the children.”

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Test - 5:54

“So you're Aylin Ragka.”

Aylin swallowed as she gazed up at the tall hulk of a man who stood above her, and nodded quickly. “Yes sir.”

“You may call me Major Cadranis, or 'Sir' will do as well.” His blue eyes drilled into her as he pulled a paper off a huge desk. “I have a notice here from the captain that you'll have a piloting placement test today. Is that correct, Aylin Ragka?”

“Yes sir,” she said quickly. She was realizing that Major Cadranis had not even paused long enough to sneer at her unusual name, he'd just said it. Nothing about this man left room for recreational sneering; his hair was a close-cropped, hard-iron gray, and his jaw was a sharp, chiseled line. Aylin only made it high enough off the ground to stare at his broad and muscled shoulders.

He walked fast, too, as she discovered when he told her to follow him and headed for the ship ports outside the main building. They were joined along the way by another student, a boy with dark hair and wide brown eyes. Aylin guessed that he needed to take the same evaluation of his piloting skills as she did, and it lessened her own tension over the test just a little...

The start-up procedures went well. Aylin had them memorized; her father had made her do just that since the first day. Then she too was circling the cluster of squat, gray buildings that made up the Pato Center, stopping on the instructor's command, climbing and descending again, finding her direction through the ship's delicate sensors, switching on the power to the shields and weapons, even firing as directed at the occasional isolated bush.

She couldn't really tell whether she was doing well or not, at least, she could only guess... until something happened that she had not been expecting.

“Fly low, and go as fast as you want to,” Major Cadranis instructed gruffly, “getting as close to the ground as you comfortably can.”

Aylin gave him a quick glance, hardly daring to hope. Now, at last, he was actually letting her show her real skill. He hadn't given any orders of this kind to the other student...

She obeyed -- or rather, she almost obeyed. She sped the ship up until the ground beneath was slipping by in a blur of brown and gray, slowly dropping her altitude until the rushing blur was as close as felt comfortable for that speed... and then she eased the ship down a little lower. Mistakes at this level would be hard to correct.

When she pulled up again to bring the ship back toward the Center, lying now on the distant horizon, she felt exhilarated at the chance to really show her abilities. Perhaps this man, out of all of the rest of the jeering Center students and staff, had finally recognized her skill --

“Take the ship in a slow, full spin, leaving plenty of space between us and the ground,” came the next order.

The break from routine had driven her nerves through the curved glass roof, but the spin was well practiced, and took care of itself perfectly.

Order followed order, and soon Aylin was pulling out every move she had so carefully practiced those cold mornings so long ago, over the tops of the Mardoc trees. The major seemed to be inventing new things for her to do as the ride went on, and quickly her ride reached twice the length of the previous pilot's.

After a while, her instructor leaned over and pushed some buttons on the radio, took up the headset, and listened for a long time to someone on the other end. His silence was broken by an occasional “yes,” or a grunt of agreement or approval. At last he said: “The usual signal will do,” into the speaker, and turned the radio off. He then leaned back in his seat and proceeded to watch as Aylin completed a series of complicated evasive moves.

Presently, a blip appeared on the ship's radar, indicating the presence of another craft leaving the Center and heading in their direction. Aylin saw it and moved further on ahead, out of its projected path, for Major Cadranis had instructed them at the beginning to avoid any and all other air traffic to and from the Center. She was not surprised at the ship's appearance, for several ships flew in and out of the Pato Center in the course of a normal day, and many of them flew off low, heading toward the nearby Pato towns and cities.

But she was surprised when this one remained low... and altered its course to follow them. When it was quite close, Aylin cast a glance at the major, to see if he had noticed. It appeared that he had not. “Sir,” she started to say, “somebody's approaching us from two-twenty.”

Major Cadranis did not even glance at the radar. He ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth and gave her a look. “Well, pilot... what are you going to do about it?”

Aylin was not exactly sure how to interpret that. She had been hoping for orders, or at least an explanation of sorts. Not knowing what else to do, she ran a quick scan of the other craft, which had now locked itself onto their position and was following them from a close distance behind. It was a Center ship, like theirs in many ways, but different. It was smaller, and looked as though it could hold only one man, the pilot, and no passengers.

If it was a Center ship, Aylin reasoned, then it would most likely be on their communication frequency. She had obtained the ship's number from the scan, and the most practical thing to do would be to attempt at communications.

She switched on the radio and took up the headset. “Pilot of Center ship C-357, this is, uh... C-180. We are conducting a training session; please state your business and your intended usage of this airspace.” She hoped that would sound professional enough. The major had donned a headset of his own as well, and he was listening.

There was no reply to her message, so Aylin repeated herself, adding “Pilot of Center ship C-357, please respond,” to the end of the repetition, because it seemed like she should.

The shots came totally unexpected -- to everyone except perhaps the major, who merely braced himself with a hand on the wall beside his chair. Aylin's hands flew in shock away from the radio and to the controls, and out of instinct she managed to pull the ship out of the way of the next barrage. The first assault had left the craft shuddering around them, and the monitors showed that the ship had taken a good battering.

In an instant, still acting out of instinct, Aylin had flipped on the shields, and with them, the ship's small weapons. Perhaps if she had stopped to consider it, the fact that the attack had come from a Center craft -- and the obvious lack of concern that the major showed for their dire predicament -- might have given her a hint that the whole situation would not do them any real harm. But at the moment, all her instincts were telling her was that this was real and this was dangerous, and the Zargons who had ruined her home had somehow gotten control of a Pato ship and were attacking... and there was no time for stopping and considering.

Suddenly the major's voice crackled in her headset. “Lower the shields.”

Aylin spun out of the way of another torrent of weapons fire. “Sir?” She couldn't have heard him right...

“Lower the shields,” came the repeated command.

This time Aylin couldn't respond -- the weapons were taking far too long to engage, and the shots glancing off the shields were pulling the ship into a spin. If she took the shields down, they'd be a pile of metal on the ground...

The weapons finally engaged, and the other ship was not fast enough. Aylin's first shots took out the guns on one wing, the ship spun out of control, and no more flak struck Center ship C‑180.

Suddenly, beside her, Major Cadranis was speaking into his headset. “All right, that's enough.”

Aylin was only just beginning to understand as the attacking ship abruptly stopped its onslaught and instantly began to retreat. Even then, something in her mind told her that it was not over, that the danger was still very real, that anything could happen. She could not keep her hands from trembling, so she gripped the controls more tightly, gulping deep breaths and hoping that her appearance would not betray the fact that she was melting inside. She should have kept her head about her, kept her wits cool and her hand steady... As it was, she had been forced to rely more on instincts throughout the whole, tense ride.

She was only too grateful to relinquish control of the ship to Major Cadranis for the flight back. When she glanced over her shoulder, and happened to glimpse the face of the younger student in the back, Aylin let up on herself a little. The boy's face had gone from pale to white, and his eyes were wide. She couldn't help but wonder what her own face looked like.

“You did well, Aylin Ragka,” the man said in his gruff voice, once the ship was headed home. “And I don't just say that to everyone.” There was silence in the cockpit, leaving Aylin wondering if she was supposed to say something. “You should, perhaps, have contacted traffic control when the ship didn't respond,” Major Cadranis mentioned after a moment's thought, “but given the circumstances, your response was good -- reflected solid training and good instinct.”

“Thank you, sir.”

That was pretty much the extent of the praise that she received from Major Cadranis -- and the extent of the conversation on the return trip. When they finally landed back in the outer hangars, Aylin climbed shakily down the ladder to the ground. The shock of the whole episode had not yet fully worn off, but slowly she was realizing that she had succeeded. She had held her own against an unexpected enemy, putting into practice all that she had worked so hard to learn. It was easily the best feeling she had had all day long... but that didn't mean much...

The major spoke suddenly, without turning around, and his words surprised her. “Your test isn't quite over, Ragka.”

She stared at the back of his head, uncomprehending, as the chime rang to move students from one class to the next. “Sir?”

“I'll write you a pass for your next class,” he said. He gratified the handheld screen with a few final scribbles, then turned to face her, his expression unreadable. “What sort of training have you had, flying what sorts of ships?” he asked suddenly.

Aylin opened her mouth, then shut it again and swallowed; these were the sorts of questions that could get her into trouble. She had a feeling that this man wouldn't take her refusal to offer details about her past life.

But before she could reply, he spoke again, clarifying his question. “You're obviously trained in flight techniques for a T-70. Have you flown other models? Do you have skills as a technician?”

Her mouth opened, and an undignified sound came out as she fished for words. Finally, she said, “Yes, I suppose, I can do most simple repairs for the common models --”

“Here's a scenario: You're flying the T-70, and you take a hit, and the port stabilizer goes, what do you do to hold your ship steady on course?”

Aylin blinked, caught off guard. Her brain tried to sort through the scenario, and come up with something reasonable... she had just flown a T-70, but somehow now she couldn't even picture the cockpit... “Cut power to the port stabilizers,” she said -- that was about as far as she could immediately recall; she hoped that would be right and sufficient.

His grunt seemed affirmative, and more pieces of information jogged loose in her mind. “Cut the power and take manual control, try to pull it through...” Ah. She remembered. “Once you have manual control, reroute power to both aft stabilizers so you can land safely.”

“What about the Tandem-50?”

“The T-50s don't have aft stabilizers, so you'll need to shut the stabilizers down entirely and try to land. Otherwise you'll be fighting whatever one wasn't taken out.”
Another grunt, and another scenario, this time involving one of the newest model spacecraft, a ship she had only once glanced into the cockpit of, never flown. She didn't do so well on that one, but that scenario was followed by another, and another, spanning the range of ship tactics and technicalities. Her brain whirled, but somehow the answers came, at least mostly.

Finally she finished a question and it was not immediately followed by another. Instead he looked her in the eyes, and said something she hadn't expected. “I understand that you'll be looking for employment at the Center, to cover the remaining costs of education.”

The statement implied a question, and she nodded crisply, but numbly, unable to speak.
“Very good, I will speak with the financial and education officers about placing you here, in the flight training division. We're always in need of student trainers for our first-year students. If you take a test, a more formal, and simple, version of the questions I just asked you, and if the officers are cooperative, you can even switch out your class time now for training time. There'll be paperwork to fill out, but you can usually start the job in the meantime.” He had been scribbling again as he spoke, this time on a small scrap of paper, but now he glanced up to see if she was following. “Is this something that interests you?”

Aylin felt numb from the overload of information, but the sensation in her head was giddiness, even excitement. She nodded again.

“Good,” he said again. The chime interrupted him... somewhere in the main building, her arenhol classroom had assembled without her. Aylin found herself wondering if Laurina was worried, thinking she was lost again. The major's head bent once more over the note he was writing, then he straightened and handed it to her. “This is for your next class. I'll talk with the necessary people, and send you notification of your first work date.”

Again she nodded, and took the note. She was in the process of turning to flee, when she remembered. “Sir?”

Cadranis raised his head again. “Yes?”

Aylin swallowed. “In the test, in the middle of the fight, you asked me to lower the shields.” She hadn't obeyed, she hadn't had time to, the other ship had been too quick and too much of a threat. “I, um... why did you do that, sir?” The question sounded churlish even to her own ears, but she had to know...

The major considered her for a moment, while Aylin tried not to squirm. “If you had lowered the shields, what would have happened?” he asked finally.

Aylin blinked. “The ship... would have acquired damage, sir.”

“Correct. It would have been better to keep the shields fully powered.”

Aylin nodded, but she was still confused. “Sir?”

The major's stare drilled into her. “I needed to know if you were the type of soldier who obeys, or improvises.”

Another test, then. Aylin swallowed hard... had she failed? She hadn't exactly had enough time to find out... Either way, she was sure the question of what she would have done would haunt her for a long time. “Yes sir,” she said faintly, and turned to scurry away.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Fight - 3:45

They were a good match. They hadn’t always been, but then, Aylin had never been eighteen before, and eighteen brought a certain level of confidence and agility that evened the match a little. At this point, Aylin Starr’s skills with the ring and blade would make her a good match for anyone.

Even the captain.

They were a good match, and so the match wore on. He pulled out all the tricks she knew he would, and one by one Aylin countered them. She had long ago decided that each of his tricks would only ever fool her once, and she had taken to practicing her blocks in secret before each fight, then surreptitiously watching the flickers of surprise across his face at each of his failures.

He stepped wide, then quickly back, and started to shift balance, feinting low and dodging high, just as he had tried three days ago... But she was there, and more than ready. Her counterattack caught him off guard, and she took another step of precious ground, her momentum carrying her into the latest of her memorized attacks...

It worked. His block was hasty, his defense was open... and with a final twist Aylin brought the captain’s ring and sword together to the ground.


She gave a silent yell of triumph to her empty bedroom.

She could see it now... His surprise would melt quickly into a grin of pride, as he realized he’d lost the tournament’s epic duel to his best student, who was finally better at the arenhol fighting than he was.

A quiet chirp turned her glance toward the bed; the handheld she’d tossed aside was warning her that it would shut down soon unless she favored it with some sort of interaction. Aylin grinned at it. The thing had a right to be sulky, it had taught her that last move she’d used to win so many imaginary fights recently. The arenhol simulation program Arnham had written for her was perfect; the captain would never expect her to pull out moves he’d never taught before. For all she knew, he’d never even learned them before...

That thought rode a wave of adrenaline and brought an almost-squeal, silenced out of habit, but only barely. Not that she would have minded waking them up; today of all days they shouldn’t be sleeping. But no, she had to keep her secret for one more morning. The afternoon would come soon enough, and with it the “tournament” in honor of her birthday, where she’d been promised one last duel against the best and only swordsman she had ever crossed blades with.

Her father.

She had never allowed herself to say -- or barely even think -- those words together in one breath before. It was too dangerous, her father said, there were too many people who would want to kill her if they knew that she was Aylin Starr. But now, today, she was finally old enough to submit her application to join the Mardoc Defense Forces. Today at last, Captain Draekel Starr, the best starfighter pilot in the Galaxy, would officially be her father.

She could see the look on Arnham’s face now, as he finally figured it out... Their four years of training together as Captain Starr’s students had ended too soon, when Arnham had left to join the forces three years ago. A much younger Aylin had secretly hoped his application would get turned down, and he would have to come back for another year... But Draekel Starr was as good at training students as he was at everything else, and Arnham had been placed instantly, with excellent promotion potential.

Aylin had long ago given up on the idea of Arnham returning, but there were other ways to end up working with him again... And the captain said she was an even better pilot than Arnham was, she would pass the flight test in his K-16 with such high marks they wouldn’t even look at her application.

The application. She grabbed the handheld from the bed, and flipped through till she found it, reading it over again to make sure everything was correct. Her age, eighteen years, finally eligible to join Mardoc’s team of elite starfighter pilots. And her real name, Aylin Starr, across the top, waiting to be read --

A small noise roused her from her concentration, only because she had been waiting for it for hours. In a quick leap, she was off the bed and across the room to the door, opening it carefully to make sure she hadn’t imagined the sound...

But no, there was a light near the table. They were finally awake. She stowed the sword and ring hastily in her closet, and hurried down the stairs. This was going to be the best day ever.

Shaelia Starr looked up with a smile at the familiar ruckus on the stairs. The table in front of her was covered in enough books and papers to give Aylin a headache just looking at them, but her mother’s gray eyes were alive with excitement, and her long brown hair was tied back in an orderly cascade of waves that mocked the tangled mess on Aylin’s head.

“You missed your Buuri lessons so much, you’re up early to get a little bit more studying in?” Shaelia asked with a glint in her eye.

Aylin pulled a well-practiced grimace. “No thank you!” She had happily learned Alak, the standard language of the worlds neighboring Mardoc in their sector, and even Elson, the sophisticated speech prevalent in the political sector of the Galaxy, but she had never made it through even the basics of the nearby sectors’ languages, Ta’nuran or Buuri. Her mother was fluent in both -- she was even writing a book on some of their more rare dialects -- but Aylin had never even met anyone besides her mother who could speak either. One did not need to know Buuri to fly a K-16... but that argument had worn grooves in both of their patiences.

She was happy to see her mother awake, but she was a little disappointed to see books instead of breakfast. “Can I get out some food?”

Shaelia laughed. “Food? Isn’t it a little early yet?”

Aylin sighed at the semi-darkness outside the kitchen window; she had thought it was getting light enough... “But I’m hungry already,” she protested.

“Too much arenhol practice?” Shaelia asked, raising an incriminating eyebrow.

Aylin blinked. “How did you...?”

“I’m your mother. It’s my job to know everything.”

“Please don’t tell!” Aylin begged. “I’ve never had the chance to beat him until now!”

The front door opened, cutting Aylin off mid-plea. Her father’s dark head appeared first, tousled by the wind that was always whipping around the cabin and the woods, then Draekel knocked the dirt off his boots and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. His black eyes flicked their way, and a quick smile chased the shadows from his face. “Hey little ragka.” He turned to hang his gun on a well-worn hook near the door.

“Hey captain,” Aylin grinned back at the nickname. “What’s going on?” Her brows furrowed with suspicion. “Why were you outside?” He'd better not be practicing too...

Draekel threw his coat onto a nearby chair. “Call from Aliok.” After a second glance at the coat, he picked it up again and hung it next to the gun. “Took it outside so I wouldn’t wake you up.” He grinned at Shaelia, who rolled her eyes.

“Aliok? What’s up? We’re still going there for lunch, right?” A trip to Mardoc’s capitol never took very long in her father’s K-16, and didn’t even require exit and re-entry. She had a lunch to eat and an application to submit...

Draekel pursed his lips, and a few shadows returned. “The general wants me to do something for him. So yes, we’ll head there as soon as possible this morning.”

“This morning?” Shaelia asked. The question echoed with an unspoken “already.”

“Yep, this morning.” Draekel was already heading to the kitchen. “The sooner the work’s done, the sooner we can get to that tournament this afternoon.” He tossed Aylin a grin over his shoulder. “I hope you’ve been practicing!”

Again Aylin stifled the thrill of anticipation. “I’ll get my stuff ready!” The stairs flew by, two at a time, on the way back to her bedroom. The handheld with its application, the radio her father made her carry everywhere, the boots and jacket under the bed, her passcards and ID... She left the sword and ring on the bed with a wink, and flew back down the stairs.

“Don’t forget breakfast,” her mother teased as Aylin threw lunch into a bag.

“Lunch will be early,” Aylin retorted. “And Dad’s already outside, ready to go.”

“Ready, is he?” Shaelia held up an identical lunch bag with a smile.

Aylin grinned and grabbed them both. “Thanks Mom! See you later!”

Her mother’s “happy birthday!” followed her out the door.

Draekel was indeed waiting. “Took you long enough,” he teased.

Aylin dangled the lunch bag in front of him. “Long enough to bring your lunch!”

Draekel turned to wave his familiar salute toward the kitchen window, walking backwards down the path. “I guess you can take your time, then.”

Aylin waved too, then turned to follow, falling in step beside him while the path was wide. “I brought my application,” she announced happily, finding it hard to think about anything else.

“Don’t I have to sign something on it?” Draekel asked.

“You have to write a one-page recommendation,” she reminded him.

“Right. I'll just use the one I sent with Arnham and change the name.”

“Dad,” she started to protest, until his teasing grin stopped her. “As long as you put in my last name, I don't care.”

The trail quickly became narrow again, as they reached the edge of the cliffs, so Aylin had to walk behind him. The early sunlight was reflecting on the most distant waves of the sea, and the crisp air made everything feel clean and bright. It was a perfect day for a birthday...

Author's note: This is the actual beginning to my young-adult sci-fi novel, Fugitive Star.