I was never a test pilot, but when I climbed into that alien cockpit, I sure felt like one. As I powered the thing on, I knew that David had a point; the controls were gibberish to me, the layout completely foreign.
Not even a test pilot would be so reckless.
But I wasn’t exactly flush with choices. And as the ship powered on… it might sound crazy, but that same zip of electricity I felt when I first saw the ship? I felt it again. Like love at second sight.
And now that I was in the cockpit… again, I know how it sounds, but now that I was in the cockpit, I felt like the electricity meant something real. Like a connection.
Like more than my imagination.
If it sounds crazy, consider this: the bay doors were still shut. Mila and I hadn’t gotten as far as figuring out how to open them, or even whether they still opened at all. But as I skimmed over the fighter’s controls, heart pounding a ticking time bomb in my ears—those Hub ships would be here any second—the symbols on the dash started to blur. And change.
I still didn’t quite recognize them, but I almost recognized them. And after a second, I knew which button to push.
I hesitated, afraid it was wishful thinking. Afraid I was fooling myself. Or—I know how it sounds—that the ship was fooling me.
But like I said, my choices were limited. I shook my head, muttered a curse, and pushed the button.
Like a dream, the bay doors parted.
I don’t know how I knew, if it wasn’t the ship telling me. A psychic connection to a ship? A machine? I wouldn’t have believed it was possible.
But I can’t ignore the fact that the controls suddenly made a kind of sense to me. And that, if I’m honest with myself about it, my hands were moving too fast, too confidently, to be all my own movements. Without a doubt, the ship was helping me fly it.
Maybe that was the reason for the jamming bots and all their burrowing. Maybe they were meant to block that psychic connection.
All topics to explore later. After I defended the station.
I pushed the fighter out of the bay and braced myself to leave the station’s gravity field, ready for the release of weightlessness.
It didn’t come. No idea why, or how, but the fighter was equipped with its own gravity field, or it was siphoning from the station’s.
I wasn’t even sure I knew how to pilot in deep space under gravity. It felt strange. But then, I’d spent the last few years of my life shuttling suborbital buses around in Mandel’s natural gravity.
That had to count for something.
The Hub ships were already here, circling the station with their spider legs extended, as if they wanted to take the place apart bolt by bolt. They just look mean, you know?
They might not’ve been involved in the attack on Mandel, not directly. But they were on the same side, and the sight of them warmed my cheeks with rage. I could almost hear Captain Ross shouting orders in the background, his voice clear and strong, up until that last moment.
I felt, and the fighter responded. I don’t know how else to describe it. My feeling, and my rage, and the ship blinked.
Our position changed.
I mean, it jumped. Shifted, really, skipping a healthy swath of space to appear in front of the closest fighter. Even though I couldn’t see inside the other ship, I imagined I could almost see the pilot’s reaction in the body language of the ship. Even though it might well have been a drone.
They had time to know I was there. And then I fired.
Fired what, you ask? I’m not sure. A volley of missiles, I guess it was; they left the ship too fast for me to see.
But when the weapons hit the Hub spider, it exploded in a ball of insect fire.
Fingers on the controls, I zoomed away, avoiding the spitting shrapnel as the other two ships trundled over to investigate the first fighter’s demise.
They saw me, and they fired on me, but my fighter was too fast. I zipped away, hoping to stretch some distance between the station and the fight. The first fighter’s explosion looked to have peppered the station with holes.
Hopefully not dangerous ones.
As it had before, the fighter read my thoughts and blinked. A frame of darkness clicked in my mind, and then there was space. Distance, between the fighter and the station.
It teleported, Colonel. The ship teleported.
Okay, maybe it folded time, or warped away. Maybe that’s the science. But teleportation gets the gist across.
It teleported too far this time, though, and I was afraid my enemies might not follow. I couldn’t see them on the screens, couldn’t quite understand the scanners as the controls re-blurred. Might’ve been a problem with my brain understanding the jump, or just getting overloaded.
Maybe the fighter was still recovering from its period of disuse.
We blinked again, and we were back at the station, my ship reappearing right between the two spiders.
And then, as tends to happen in a fly flight, several things happened at once.
As I commanded the ship to fire on both Hub enemies, a dark cloud swarmed out of the station through the holes in the side. My ship immediately registered hundreds of assailants. Thousands.
The bots. Alliance-stamped bots, I’ll remind you.
And that detail? It’s important. Because Alliance though they might be, the bots didn’t join me. They didn’t leap to my side, and they didn’t attack the Hub ships.
Instead, they dove for my fighter, clouding the view ports, clicking against the windows and sending the sensors into a spiral of alarms. One last message filtered into my consciousness—weapons down—and that was all I could understand before the controls blurred back to unreadable symbols, leaving me alone.