The USF Chronicles are the official lore of Infinite Fleet, documenting the important historical events and character journeys dating up to the start of the main game.
Tanaka pressed her helmet beneath her armpit, slowly edging it harder and harder against her ribs as Anderson barked orders to her squadmates.
“Frances, you’re too slow and it extends your loop. A kulbit is tight. You’re not traveling at Godspeed but you’re not rocking yourself to sleep either.”
“Yes, sir,” said Frances. He climbed out of the training Interceptor, a swath of sweaty hair falling around his face as he pulled off his helmet; Water droplets dribbled to the surface of the flight training deck.
“The loop slows you down. Don’t slow down the loop. That’s the last time I’ll tell you that.”
“Yes, sir,” said Frances. “Thank you, sir.”
“Alright,” Anderson scribbled something along his tablet, and Frances joined his four other squad members to sit and watch the remainder of the training. “Last of the day,” he said. “Tanaka. Give me a kulbit.”
A kulbit. An aerial maneuver for the ages, where the pilot turns an extraordinarily tight loop only as wide as the aircraft in flight.
Tanaka climbed into the Interceptor, her helmet crushing her braid against her neck. She gripped the throttle, tested the stick that would control her flaps, and reviewed the readouts on her HUD. Thruster power, check. Fusion reactor, check. Weapons dry, hull integrity nominal, life support, check. Fuel, check. Control surfaces all green, altimeter, pitch control, positioning system all nominal...
The process was already second nature, and flowed over her as her mind wandered. She’d grown up doing things like this with her mother. Well, not exactly like this; a kulbit was an antiquated technique; it used an engine stall and atmospheric drag to achieve a turning radius that had been impressive on earth in the 20th century. The modern Interceptor wouldn’t stall unless its engines or fuel systems were damaged. It was also equipped with control thrusters that could flip it 180 degrees in a third of a second in a flip-and-burn maneuver that was almost always tactically superior to what a kulbit had once offered. But, the kulbit was more difficult, and Anderson was giving them a history lesson.
A loop was projected into the skies outside the flight deck of Shi Yang. It glittered in the sun, its pixels shifting in the waves of heat. Tanaka would turn the kulbit inside the holographic loop. Its radius had been measured to the exact length of an Interceptor, and if Tanaka didn’t want to hear from Anderson, she’d need to turn the perfect circle.
She punched the throttle and jetted toward the guiding circle, readying herself on the thrusters. She leveled herself with the base of the loop, and then angled up.
“Come on,” she gritted her teeth, entering the loop with terrifying speed. But it was the angle that mattered. She wrenched the control stick down, sending the nose of her Interceptor up to ninety degrees. As she rounded the loop, she manually cut thrust completely, like someone had pushed pause in mid-air. In a post-stall, loss of lift was not the problem. Control was. She gripped the control stick, jaw tight, her eyes following the glowing lines of the projected circle as she followed it, perfectly. She allowed her angle of attack to decrease at the base of the loop, feeling lift beneath her wings, she levelled out and punched the throttle, returning to the speed with which she had entered the loop.
Tanaka peered down to the mouth of the runway to see Anderson waving her back. Did he not want her to perform her second and third loops?
“How many times did your Interceptor leave the guiding circle?” Tanaka stood before Anderson, her forehead entirely dry.
“Zero times, sir.”
Tanaka forced her shoulders back. “It didn’t leave the circle.”
Anderson turned around the tablet in his hands, showing Tanaka the blinking screen as it replayed her loop, over and over again, the tail of the Intercepter ducking out of the marked circle a total of four times.
“Your circle is off,” said Tanaka through gritted teeth.
Anderson almost laughed. Almost. “Do it again,” he said.
Tanaka refitted her helmet. She wanted to do it again anyway. She’d only gotten to try one loop in the air, while the rest of her squad had gotten three or even four before landing for feedback.
“Cadet Tanaka?” Anderson’s voice rose in the middle of the question. It was the tone he took when he was pretending not to be pissed.
“I’m trying again, sir.” She climbed back into the Interceptor.
“I’ll let you know when you can land.”
She met his eyes before takeoff, his dark irises lodged beneath a deep set brow and boring straight through her and her Interceptor. Yes. He was pissed.
Mila opened her cabin door, one side of her hair tucked safely behind her ear. “Please come in Captain Tania,” she said.
“Tania is fine,” she said, and entered Mila’s quarters. The two women sat at a small table toward the end of the bed. Two cups of tea steamed atop the ceramic surface.
Tania straightened the crisply pressed jacket of her uniform, a medal, the Black Star, glinted over her chest. “Thank you for having me in your quarters,” she said. “A few of the captains wanted to see you, but personally, I’m not much for crowds.”
Mila smiled, holding her tea between her hands. “Me too,” she said. She knew Tania didn’t mind crowds. Tania didn’t mind anything. What Mila appreciated was the captain’s relentless attention to the feelings of others.
“Let’s get into it,” said Tania. “Your project. You designed it for a class?”
Mila nodded. “For engineering with Dr. Milne. I intended to improve our aretium detection systems.”
“An ambitious idea.”
“One that wasn’t working,” admitted Mila. “I was trying everything, increasing and decreasing the range of detection, adjusting every tuning and frequency I could think of to find aretium.”
“And then you found something else.”
Mila swallowed. “Yes. I found a gravitational wave signature that looked like a binary star system, but our star charts show only a single yellow dwarf in that region.”
“In Ascent Citadel territory.”
Tania nodded, leaning forward in her chair. “We’re sending a squad.”
“Even if they don’t find anything, we’ll be certain CS-79 is just another star, the way we always thought it was. What I want to know is if you’d like to be a part of the team?”
“I’d go to CS-79?”
“You’d stay on the ship. But yes.”
Mila thought for a moment, gently sipping her tea.
“We’d send you with Captain Einar.”
“He’s been looking forward to meeting you,” she said. “I’m also sending two of my senior cadets. They’ll make up your core team. You’ll have a ship, and the necessary crew with a variant navigator and all that. The whole nine yards.”
Mila chewed her bottom lip in deliberation.
“I think you should go,” said Tania. “Own your research, your work. You’re talented, Mila. Don’t hide it away.”
“Okay,” said Mila. “I want to be there. To be the first to see it.”
“So you think something is there?”
Mila smiled into her cup. “Well I detected it, didn’t I?”
Tania grinned and let out a laugh, lighting the room in warmth. A knock sounded at the door.
“I’ll get it,” said Tania. “Seems we’ve reached an understanding for today.” The women rose from their seats.
The door swung ajar.
“Tanaka-” Tania immediately stepped toward her. She was a mess. Sweat dripped from her brow. Her hair lay in soaking waves around her face, bangs plastered to her forehead. She held her jacket in her hands, angry blisters bubbling along the inside of her thumb and index finger.
Tania inspected her hands. “Why weren’t you wearing gloves while flying?”
From her back pocket, Tanaka removed her pair: the fabric around the thumb and index finger had worn away, revealing a gaping hole.
Mila rushed to her, inspecting Tanaka’s hands. She could already see a thin film of gray metal mending the blisters, the nanites working diligently.
The Captain took Tanaka’s ruined gloves. “How long were you flying for?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Who was your instructor?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“So you were out flying alone? Unsanctioned?”
“Then I ask you again. Who was your instructor?”
Tanaka looked away, her eyes drifting to the far corner of Mila’s room. She felt outside of herself for a moment. Like another Saori Tanaka was sitting in the corner, staring back at the bloodshot eyes and blood red fingers of a person very far away. “I turned the perfect kulbit,” said the Tanaka in the corner. Or maybe it was the one by the door.
“Now is not-”
“Am I on the team going to CS-79?”
Tania exchanged a glance with Mila.
“Rick was overjoyed to tell me about his involvement in the hallway.”
Tania swore under her breath. “I’ll deal with Rick-”
Tania sighed. “No, cadet. Not this time.”
“Right,” said Tanaka, nodding slowly, lips pursed together. “See you around.”
“Tanaka wait!” Mila rushed forward.
“Good luck on the mission,” said Tanaka, hardly bothering to turn around as she stalked off down the hall, blood running hot beneath layers of nanites, another scar fading beneath skin.
Mila sat with a straight back and a lifted chin on the bridge of the USF Pelias, the troopcarrier awarded to the mission to travel to CS-79. They’d warped far from Mars and the Citadel she knew to be home. They now flew through the CS-79 system at sunlight speeds, quickly approaching their destination. The star charts were correct. This was no binary star system. Something was off. Rick and Savannah sat around her, Rick was busying himself with one of Mila’s puzzle cubes--she’d neglected to tell him it was an old favorite of Chase’s, one he’d solved in no less than four seconds upon his first try. The fact it took him that long was a testament to Mila’s puzzle-building ability. Savannah was drawing, putting ink to paper rather than pen to screen. She said it calmed her.
“So,” said Rick, setting down the unsolved puzzle cube, “think we’ll run into the Atrox?”
Savannah nearly dropped her sketchpad. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“You’re into aliens, right Mila?”
Mila untucked her hair, hiding her flush. “I enjoy xenolinguistics,” she clarified.
“Yeah. Aliens,” said Rick.
“Alien language,” said Savannah, smacking him with her paper.
“What do you think?” asked Rick. “You guys think it's true? The Atrox are out there?”
“First contact was decades ago-”
“Charlemagne Lee got his ass kicked, right,” said Rick. “Isn’t it strange we haven’t heard from them since?”
“Can’t hear anyone in space,” said Savannah.
“Ha-ha,” drolled Rick.
“I think Commander Lee was adamant in his testimony,” said Mila. “I believe what he saw. I know the academy doesn’t talk about the Atrox much, as it’s difficult to talk about something based on belief alone.”
“I guess-” Rick and Savannah suddenly stood at attention. Mila looked behind her, and upon seeing Captain Einar approaching, matched their quick stance.
“At ease,” said the Synthetic, and the cadets relaxed. Synthetics were humanoid beings, each with artificial eyes and pupils that swirled into different shapes like ink dripping on a page. Einar himself had dark hair tied back with a string, and skin so pale it appeared nearly translucent, rendering him almost ethereal under the artificial lights. “I’d like to sit with you for the duration of the journey, if that’s alright.”
“Yes, sir,” said Savannah.
“Einar, please,” said Einar. “Formalities serve a useful function. Now that we have performed them, they may be left behind.” The quad sat in silence for a moment, Rick and Savannah exchanging glances, wondering what to say. Mila shared their apprehension. She rarely spoke with Synthetics.
“Oh!” Rick sat up a little straighter. “Einar, what’s your ID?” Every Synthetic had a unique identification number. It indicated the system and factory they were created within, followed by a production number. Typically, Synthetics asked each other about their IDs as a way of greeting; it contained a great deal of meaning for them, something like asking someone’s age, birthplace, and blood type simultaneously. Mila understood Rick was probably just doing his best not to say something stupid.
“Eight,” said Einar.
Despite her best efforts, Mila’s eyes went wide as she stared at the Synthetic before her.
“Wait,” said Savannah. “You were created in the AI War?”
“By Alma,” Mila breathed.
Einar returned her stare, betraying neither pride, nor embarrassment at the revelation. “Indeed,” he said. “But I’m more interested in your previous conversation. About the existence of the Atrox. You believe they exist?”
“I do,” said Mila. “What about yourself?”
Einar pondered this. “I do not think of it that way. The USF serves a function for humanity, to protect it. My role in the USF is to ensure this protection whether the Atrox exist or not.”
“What about The Great Filter?” asked Rick. “We can’t be the only intelligent life, right? Something is wiping the others out. We found that ship on Mars and it matched the ships Charlemagne described. These Atrox could be our filter.”
“A terrifying possibility is finding the ruins of a civilization even more advanced than ours,” said Einar. “Everything is a filter, in a way. Even the USF has acted as this Great Filter.”
“We destroyed Omega,” said Mila, “an advanced network full of life.”
“Yeah but we had to,” said Rick. “Omega would have wiped us out.”
“It is likely there is not merely one ‘Great Filter,’ but many,” said Einar. “We don’t know enough to confirm our suspicions. Whatever comes, if anything comes, I serve to protect.”
“You think we’ll be ready for these Atrox?” Savannah asked. “Whether or not they’re The Great Filter?”
“Our purpose is to be ready for anything.”
“So you don’t think they’re out there,” said Rick. “Even with all of these filter theories, and alien ships being found.”
“It is not relevant to the performance of my duties. Thus, it is not necessary for me to make any determination,” said Einar.
“What about Alma?” Mila shifted in her seat. “You believe you maintain a connection to Alma.”
“I saw Alma. That feeling has never left me.”
“Charlemagne Lee saw the Atrox.”
“It changes nothing,” said Einar. “If the Atrox exist, I will protect humanity. If they do not, I will continue as prescribed.”
“And if we don’t need to protect ourselves from the Atrox?”
“Then the question of their existence matters even less,” said Einar. “Do you think I’m strange for thinking this way?”
Mila shook her head. “I don’t think anyone is strange.”
A Lieutenant Captain approached Einar, saluting. “Captain Einar, we are approaching the anomaly orbiting CS-79. It’s as we predicted. It’s a planet, CS-79C, that has a gravitational wave signature far greater than what is warranted for its mass, and focused at a single point on the surface.”
Einar stood. “Shall we?”
Mila, Rick, and Savannah followed him to the massive window of the bridge, and looked out to the surface of the planet below.
The system's sun, a yellow dwarf a third again as far from the planet as Sol from Mars, crested the planet's horizon in a blaze. Mila watched the terminator line pass beneath the ship as they dropped into lower orbit, greeting the daylight side of CS-79C. The planet was mottled red and gray, with what looked like breaks, and cracks, and soil bubbling to the surface in a nearly-decipherable pattern; to be visible at this altitude, each of those cracks had to be nearly the size of Valles Marineris. The atmosphere, thin and cloudless, appeared as a narrow silver band across the horizon. Mila was reminded of Mars prior to terraforming. But with less iron, given the mostly gray coloration, she thought.
“Initial report,” requested Einar.
The Lieutenant flicked through his screen, holding up a note for Einar to examine. He read it, then gently took the screen and handed it to Mila.
“There’s something embedded in the surface,” she said, holding up the initial scans and images of the planet from their current distance. Zooming in, she could see the pattern now. Two shapes, to be exact. Perfect circles, scratched across CS-79C.
“Prepare the away party,” said Einar, then turned to Mila. “I believe,” he smiled a little, “we may have found your Atrox.”