Fixing up the fighter has been posing some challenges.
When Mila shimmied after me through the tunnel to meet the fighter, she patted it on the side and told the thing it was a good ship, a brave ship, and that we’d fix it up in no time. I knew I liked her for a reason.
For the last week, she and I have been returning through the crumpled passage every single day, crawling through what I’ve been calling the ‘access tunnel’ to visit the beauty. The first order of business was to pound the floor into some semblance of flatness—I’d be remiss not to mention that David helped us with that, too. We were too afraid to do more than brush the ship with the occasional loving caress, not until we got it on even footing.
We’re going to need to figure out how those bay doors operate, too, if we hope to fly the ship out of here.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because once we got inside the cockpit, we could see that fixing the thing would be a lot harder than hammering a floor into submission.
First off, all the ship’s controls are written in that same weird language. We’ve discussed, at length and in circles, whether it could be an ancient language of some kind. But if it is, why is the tech so incredibly advanced?
The word ‘alien’ has crossed our lips a couple of times, Colonel.
You know by now that I’m nothing if not tenacious. If it takes a month—or three—to work out the details? Then it takes a month.
That attitude’s gotten me into trouble in the past, as I’m guessing you know. This time? It just might save us.
Today, Mila had me systematically opening control panels and taking notes on all the symbols I found so we can cross reference them in the bookshop later if we need to. A good idea, and maybe a first step to figuring out how to translate this stuff. These people, or aliens, have copies of our ancient books, with text we can read.
There’s got to be a relationship between the languages. Unfortunately, we don’t have a linguist with us. So we’ll have to stumble through making guesses.
Mila had her full body wedged under the fighter, her feet sticking out, while David sat in the corner with his guitar propped on his lap. Not because he didn’t want to work, but because he’d been banished—by Mila—after he touched the ship in a way she didn’t like.
I wasn’t there, so I’m not clear on the details.
So he was playing some awkward chords on his guitar, apparently feeling comfortable enough with us to practice the thing in our presence. Which I was happy for, because the guy spends all his time helping other people. The least we can do is to be there for him, even if we’re absorbed in other things.
Today, though, he waited just long enough for us to settle in and get used to his strumming. And then he said, “So what about the bookshop?”
I was busy copying weird symbols into a notebook I’d found in the shop. “What about it?”
The strings squeaked as David positioned his fingertips carefully on the frets before strumming another chord. Didn’t sound half bad. “You’re just going to abandon it?”
“There’s a war,” I replied, still copying carefully and wondering whether tracing would be easier. Or if there was a way to do rubbings. But no, copying the symbols would get them into my head. Better this way.
“We shouldn’t assume that,” Mila said, her voice muffled under the body of the ship. She was clanging away at something down there. I didn’t want to ask what. “Maybe the Alliance just has its hands full, and that’s why they haven’t come for us.”
“Says the one who’s been salvaging metal for the war effort,” I pointed out.
“Preparing isn’t the same as assuming.” Her voice sounded strained. “There’s something jammed in here. I can’t quite get it… ugh.”
I glanced at David, who met my gaze with a ticked-up eyebrow. I just shook my head. I wasn’t going to tell her what I knew. Not happening.
Hope, Colonel. We need hope, not despair.
I was still working on a response when Mila hit something—or dislodged whatever was stuck—hard enough to send a series of echoing clangs reverberating through the space.
David stopped playing to look over in concern, and I bent over from my spot on the floor to peer under the ship. “You OK?”
“Holy [expletive],” Mila said. “Holy [expletive] [expletive].”
“What is it?” David asked.
Mila slid out from under the ship, holding her hand out flat in front of her. “This was jamming up the starters.”
I don’t think I could’ve predicted what I’d see resting there in her palm; it was one of the attack bots. A tiny one. Only this one wasn’t rusted or pockmarked. It was shiny, like it’d been planted yesterday. It didn’t jerk around in her hand, or try to fly at us. It didn’t move at all.
“I assume it didn’t belong there?” I asked.
As if in answer, the ship’s engines began to purr.
Nope. Didn’t belong there.
I jumped up, taking a step back toward the exit tunnel. In case the ship attacked, I guess, though what good I thought the exit tunnel would do in that case, I’m not sure.
But the ship didn’t attack. It’s a good ship; it’d never.
No, the ship purred to life. Then, like the cube in the bookshop, it kicked up off the ground. And it started to hover.
I’ve never wanted anything more in my life than I wanted to climb into that cockpit and start pressing buttons. Carefully, of course. We’re still inside the station. I do know that.
“I’ll be damned,” Mila breathed.
Of the three of us, David was the only one who hadn’t fallen in love with the fighter. So it made sense that it was David who was still examining the bot, which was still lying forgotten in Mila’s palm.
“It’s marked,” he said.
I wrenched my eyes away from the beauty of the fighter as David reached down to pluck the bot out of Mila’s hand. He held it up, and I squinted at it, my ears and heart still full of the music of those engines. It felt like it was calling to me, and it took more than a little effort to focus my attention on the bot.
When I saw what he was pointing to, though, the warmth in my stomach turned cold.
Etched into the side of the bot, as clear as day, was the symbol I’ve worn on my sleeve every day since I turned eighteen. The inverted V with the triple bars, the triple planets. I could draw it in my sleep.
“That’s the Alliance symbol,” I said.
That got Mila’s attention, too. She turned to frown at the bot. “Could this be a Hub station?” she asked. “Is… is this a Hub ship?”
A fair guess. The Alliance fights the Hub, right? It’s what we do. It is, in a way, what we are.
David looked at the fighter, maybe for the first time. “I think if the Hub had ships like these, we’d all be dead.”
I didn’t have to fly this ship to know he was right. If the Hub had brought fighters like this to Mandel, they’d have outflown our hulking transport. They’d have outflown the Alliance ship.
He had to be right.
“Maybe it’s a prototype,” I said, but I was reaching. Because really, the answer was the same. If the Hub had these ships, we wouldn’t be here.
But why would an Alliance bot be sabotaging a non-Hub ship? It doesn’t make sense.
David handed me the bot, his gaze locked on mine. He knows I can ask you for the answer, Colonel.
For a second, I thought he’d reveal everything right there. Our correspondence. My intel on the Alliance, what little there is. All of it.
“I think we need to do some investigating before we fly that ship,” he said.
Mila sighed. “Agreed.”
I said nothing. I don’t like to break promises, so I avoid making them when I know I might not keep them.
You haven’t cleared me to return to the base yet, but now that we’ve got the ship working again, I expect you will. And when I get there? I’ll be needing some answers.