The Hub pilots must’ve been damn well confused about what was going on. First, my fighter had teleported around like magic, zapping one of their spiders like it was nothing—yet now the ship that’d so easily taken them out was fighting off a swarm of infesting mini-bots. And losing. With me inside.
It must have looked to them like the ship was being devoured.
It very probably was being devoured. I tried not to think about that too deeply.
But the Hub pilots must’ve been taught not to look a gift horse in the mouth, or at least to keep to their training, because their weapons burned hot. Bots or not, they were going to fire on me. And soon.
With my psychic connection to the fighter severed, I scanned the controls, frantically trying to remember what I knew about them. I made my best guess, and the fighter responded with a lurch and a sudden stop—not exactly the escape I’d been hoping for. Though I couldn’t tell whether it was because I’d screwed up the command or because the bots were wreaking havoc on the circuits.
One of the Hub missiles clipped my starboard and exploded, a white-hot blast that should’ve taken us down, bots and all. But I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, either. I just patted the dashboard, thankful to the stars for whatever magically strong hull this thing’s got protecting it.
The fighter’s engines rumbled under my feet as the ship tried to stabilize itself, but it was moving as jerkily as the bots now, fancy shields notwithstanding.
I didn’t need a psychic connection to know that the next hit would take us out. That’s the pilot’s instinct there.
I’ve never been one to make my peace in a moment like this. I always figured that it’s better to go out assuming you can take one more hit, that you’ll be back to fight one more day. For a second, though? I considered it.
What would happen to David and the others, if I didn’t make it through this? The Hub pilots would have checked out the station, surely, even had I not made our presence known. They’d have tagged its location and moved on with their lives. With a war going on, they might never have sent anyone to check it out more thoroughly.
David and the others might have been able to hide. And me along with them.
But I attacked the ships, recklessly, revealing our presence here. And the worst part of it was that I was about to die and leave my friends to deal with the inevitable invasion all on their own.
For a second, I wished Ford all the best in talking his way out of this one. I really did.
The fighter’s screens were toast, the data coming across in fuzzy patches. I could only read half of the stuff that did make it through. The window view wasn’t much better, with bots climbing around like they wanted to get at my skull next. But something drew my gaze out there, anyway; a flicker of motion, a reflection of light.
Out from around the back of the station, trundling around with all the grace of an overloaded freighter, came another ship. Not a fighter; no, it was a big, hulking bus of a vessel.
And then David’s voice, staticky, through some radio I didn’t know I had. “Need an assist?”
The strangest mix of emotions hit my chest when I heard his voice. Relief, because I had backup, but also frustration. And fear. Not for myself, though I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a part of it, but for David.
I came out here to save him. Not to watch him die.
“What’s the transport going to do?” I asked, my voice coming out shakier than I’d have liked. “Offer them a ride?”
David didn’t answer.
Instead, he opened the side doors and vented the passenger area.
I gasped as the transport exhaled a thick cloud of mist into the vacuum. Too thick to be merely the transport’s atmosphere, the cloud reached out across the empty space to grab for my ship, a finger of smoke piercing through the black. If mist can be gripped by intention, that bit of it certainly was.
It didn’t dissipate in the vacuum. It didn’t even seem to notice it.
Even the Hub ships backed off, putting a slice more distance between my fighter—and the mist, by extension. The cloud enveloped my ship, obscuring the last inch of my window. I might’ve been steering a submarine through a vat of milk, for all I could see.
The cacophony that followed was enough to make me cover my ears. Like metallic mice scrabbling through the guts of my fighter, trying to escape. I couldn’t see what was happening, but I imagined those finger-like tendrils of fog crawling into every crevice to dislodge, to deactivate the bots.
And then the mist was retreating, flecked now with the bodies of those infectious bots.
The mist didn’t head for the station, Colonel. It spiraled out into the black, taking the bots with it.
I was so busy watching with jaw-dropped amazement that it took a second for me to realize that my screens were back, and that electric understanding in the back of my mind had returned, again allowing me to understand the ship’s controls.
Luckily, I realized it just as the Hub spider ship started toward the transport. The mist might’ve given them pause for a second, but now they were on the attack. And this time they were headed for my backup.
A thought, a flicker, and my ship appeared between the transport and the Hub attacker.
I couldn’t help it. I grinned as I pulled the trigger.
The second ship went up in a ball of fire. Fast and hot; pure destruction. The debris scattered around my ship, and the transport as well, as if my fighter and its magical shields knew we were there to protect David.
I guess the ship understood my thoughts, too. Or maybe it was just protocol. Who could tell?
“I hope those ships are remote piloted,” David said, sounding regretful.
“It was you or them. I chose them.” I scanned the area for the third ship, but it wasn’t in my visual range. Or on the sensors. “You seeing ship number three anywhere?”
A pause. “No. Maybe it retreated.”
Bad news, if so. That’d only bring the Hub down on us that much quicker.
“You’d better go back to the station,” I said. “I’ll do a circle around the station. They might be hiding on the other side.”
“I know you said alone is what you do best,” he said, “but I don’t want to leave you.”
“Did I say that?”
“Pretty forcefully, yeah.”
I guess I should’ve expected him to remember that.
And it’s true, I’ve been alone for a long time. But a fighter pilot? More often than not, she doesn’t work alone. She works in formation. She works with a team.
I’m not saying I think the chain of command is the end-all, be-all, or that I regret sneaking through those closed doors back in my Alliance days. There was something going on back then, just like there’s something going on now, and I think people deserve to know what that is.
I’m just saying… I guess I’m saying that the last few years’ve been lonely. But maybe the next few don’t have to be.
David seemed to be waiting for a response, so I said, “I’m grateful for the assist. Really. But you don’t have any weapons, and we need to keep the transport intact. I’ll find that last plane and be home for dinner.”
David sighed. But in the end, he knew I was right. “Copy that,” he said. “On my way in.”
For a second, I’d forgotten he’d also flown Alliance planes, at least for a short while. “Good soldier,” I said.
“Never really was.”
“Neither was I.”
He laughed. “See you back there.”
I dipped my fighter down below the station, keeping an eye on the sensors. Find the last ship, go back home. It was home now, or would be for a time. Plenty to read, anyway, and that’s always a bonus.
It was hard not to enjoy the easy way the ship responded to my commands, to my thoughts, like it was an extension of my body. A psychic connection to a ship. Wonders never cease.
Maybe I was distracted by the feeling. Maybe I was distracted by thoughts of the station, and my friends—the reason to make it through this mission.
Or maybe the Hub ship just picked a good hiding spot.
I was halfway across the length of the station—flying directly underneath it—when the spider ship crawled out from its hidey hole and took a shot.
The missile struck my fighter hard enough to send me spinning, though it didn’t cut any holes in the hull, for which I was more than grateful. But my ship was in a spiral, and my stomach was spinning just as hard.
When it stopped, the station was below my ship, the stars stretched out above my head. And the Hub spider was lining up to take its kill shot.
It’s awkward to make your peace twice in one day, but I had a feeling I should do it.
The laws of physics scattered, and a second fighter materialized between me and the Hub spider—flat as a disc, smooth as Gatsby, and my fighter’s twin—and without hesitation, it fired.
The Hub ship exploded in a ball of gas and metal.
Through the radio: “I just had to try one of these girls for myself.”
Mila. It was Mila on my radio now, and I could hear the grin in her voice. “Once you refurbish one ship, well. Easy enough to get the jamming bots out of a second.”
Alone really isn’t what I do best. Not anymore.
I do have a question though, Colonel. Well, I have many. I think you know the answer, or some of them—and if you don’t, someone in the Alliance must.
The mist is—was; it seems to be gone now—working against the infiltrating bots. Treating them like some kind of infestation. And if we agree to believe the engravings on their murderous little butts, the bots belong to the Alliance.
Yes, that’s butts in the plural; Dr. Sandy was able to clean up the bot that possessed Ford, and they found the same markings carved into the metal on that one. With no more samples available to me, at least until we find some more jammed-up fighters, I’ll go ahead and assume it’s on all of them.
My question? It’s the same one it’s always been. If the bots fight against the station tech, and the station fights back with this mist… what does that mean about this place? Who does it belong to? Were the bots defending their home against some invading mist… or—and I admit this half of it seems more plausible—were they the invaders?
Why would the Alliance invade a station that the Hub didn’t even seem to know about?
I’m not kidding myself that you’re going to tell me the answers, Colonel. If you know them, you’re not sharing.
But if you respond to any of my requests, ever, please respond to this one: we’re going to need backup here. Those Hub ships might’ve stumbled on this place by accident, or they might’ve known what they were looking for—but either way, the Hub will come looking for them. They’re probably already on the way.
Please, Colonel. Don’t abandon us out here.
We’re going to need your help.