Alexander Chase pushed the throttle of his X2-Interceptor, soaring toward the surface of Vilnia cloaked in ash. He broke the planet’s atmosphere in a nosedive, jerking the stick he leveled himself. Beads of sweat rolled off his forehead as he barreled through the rising smoke. The ash began to clear and he could see the colony; despite the “ragtag militia” the assailants were reported to be, the surface of the planet looked like it had been set ablaze by a demon with arms of fire who had come crashing down. The screen of his radar blinked rapidly. Beacon Detected.
“Cadet Chase, this is Captain Anderson, what the hell are you doing-” Chase switched his radio to a different frequency. A moment later it crackled back to life. “This was a standard observational mission, you are interfering with the soldiers trying to do their goddamn jobs, fall back into orbit immediately, this is your final-” Chase disconnected entirely.
A shadow passed over him; an enemy fighter, its wings, painted black, almost looked alive against the swirling smoke. It blew overtop and then circled back where, darting toward Chase, it fired. Dodging the line of fire, Chase turned a barrel roll and arched upwards, counting the seconds between each inhale, and then exhale. Pulling into a split maneuver, he turned his Interceptor 180 degrees and arched down toward the enemy fighter below him and the pilot inside. He fired, and clipping its wings, it plummeted to the planet.
Chase looked to his screen and the blinking beacon painted there. He was close. Pulling closer to the planet’s surface, he spotted a decent enough landing location exactly 34 meters from the beacon. He hoped he would find something there.
“Come on, come on, come on.” Chase wrenched up on the stick, his controls blinking rapidly as the landing gear deployed and he shuttled to the surface. He could hear gunfire. He popped open the cockpit and could smell blood. It was everywhere. A sickening yellow haze coated the colony, smoke and dust hung heavy on the air. Attackers, victims, colonists, people, whoever, were fighting just a street or two away; an explosion rattled the wings of his vessel.
The beacon was coming from inside a house. The roof had been ripped off but the structure of its first floor remained intact. Chase pulled off his helmet and burst through the front door, snapping it off the frame and adding to the crackling of small arms fire echoing down the street.
“Hello!” He shielded his eyes in the gloom of the house. Pulling the collar of his flight suit over his nose, he tried to breathe. “Is anybody in here?”
He heard the trigger click before the gun even fired. Dropping to the floor, he landed on his knees with a thud and crawled behind what appeared to be an overturned metal table. Peering through the smoky air he could see two bodies, slumped and unmoving. Beyond that, three assailants exchanged fire with one woman; on her hip blinked the distress beacon.
Staying low to the ground, Chase crept over debris until he was close enough to a man standing and firing down a set of stairs. Chase kicked out his legs, sending the man crashing to the ground with a cry, the gun tumbling from his hands. Chase picked it up, planted two shots into his chest, and then dropped as a barrage of fire crossed where he’d been standing. He’d drawn all the attention to himself, but where was the woman? Downstairs? He crawled behind a counter in what used to look like a kitchen.
“I’m here to help you!” he called out, figuring she would know he was talking to her. “I received your distress beacon!” He heard a footstep on his left - heavy, armored. Leaning out from behind the counter, he spotted a tall assailant laden in body armor. He slid out from behind the counter on his knees and fired three quick shots. Each connected at the exact same spot at the center of the assailant’s chest, the first two deflected off, but weakened the armor enough for the third to cleanly pierce it. The assailant was flung backward and landed on the ground, motionless.
One left. Wasn’t there? The gunfire, at least in the house, had subsided. He waited a moment, listening for any sign of movement. Slowly peeking out from behind the counter, he counted the bodies he could see. There were five in total.
On the wall ahead, looming over a saggy printed couch, was the sketch of an X2-Interceptor with the insignia of the United Sol Federation emblazoned on the side. Chase squinted at the drawing. What the hell was something like that doing on a colony planet? Pop. He heard it even from inside the house; the undeniable sound of his Interceptor cockpit - popping wide open.
Chase set a new personal best for his 100 meter sprint. “Get out.” He climbed up the side of his fighter and stared down at its rogue pilot, now wearing his helmet. “You can’t start it,” he said, watching her push at the, surprisingly correct, but dead controls. “It’s locked to my biometrics.”
“Damn!” She grabbed the lifeless stick and slouched forward.
“I’m from the USF,” said Chase. “Please let me help you.”
She stared forward for a moment, unmoving as her grip on the stick tightened, knuckles white, her breathing even. Gunfire echoed. “Get in,” she said, slipping from the pilot seat to the passenger just behind. Chase climbed in, the Interceptor alighting at his touch. The cockpit sealed shut, and from behind, she offered him back his helmet.
“It’s alright,” he said, turning back to look at her. From beneath the helmet she’d unearthed a head of blue hair that fell in tangles around her shoulders.
“Fine,” she said, tying back her hair before replacing the helmet.
Gripping the stick, Chase took off.
They ripped through the smoke and ash, soaring higher and higher. Then, without warning, he turned them into a nosedive and they fell back toward the surface of Vilnia.
He wrenched against the stick, turning a barrel roll to narrowly avoid crashing and all that would come with it. The distinct ‘thunk, thunk, thunk’ of a rail gun sounded from behind them. No way. He thought to himself. He’d suspected a fighter had been behind him, and though his evasion had worked, he wished he hadn’t needed it. “We can barely see.”
“That is accurate,” she said from the back. Craning her neck to look behind, only two pins of light followed, barely a signal the fighter was gaining on them.
“We’re going to hit something, I need visibility-”
“Follow my lead,” she said. “The fighter’s still on our tail.”
“There’s a tall building ahead. We can’t see it so neither will they.” She was speaking quickly. “You need to stall the engine. Wait for my mark when our nose is up, then punch the throttle.”
Chase cut the engine and they felt weightless for a moment. The Interceptor, its balance back-heavy, began to fall, its nose pointed skyward. The woman was rapidly counting under her breath, “sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five degrees, now.” The engines roared to life and Chase punched the throttle, sending them soaring upward at an impossible angle. He heard a horrendous crash behind them; the killer sound of crunching metal and shattering glass. The smoke began to clear, revealing his fighter flying parallel to a skyscraper. One of few on the colony planet, and the only one still intact.
“Brilliant!” He nearly jumped out of his seat. “How did you know that building was in front of us?”
“You’re a variant,” said the woman, holding onto the harness that strapped her to the seat. “Couldn’t you sense our trajectory?”
“I could. But I don’t know this planet as well as you seem to,” said Chase, punching in the coordinates for the USF Shiva which was waiting in orbit, as they leveled out above the clouds.
“That did help,” she admitted. She was a variant too. What was she doing in the colony?
He flicked on the radio and an angry string of words crackled through the headpiece. Anderson was probably blue in the face. “This is Cadet Alexander Chase,” he said, ignoring the Captain. “I have,” he looked back at the woman, and she said her name, “Tanaka with me,” he finished. “Expect our arrival to the USF Shiva in thirty-nine minutes.”
The pair sat in silence. His hands, worn and strong, grasped the stick, keeping the Interceptor perfectly straight before further ascension. He knew Anderson was upset but he couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow Admiral Diaz, High Command Admiral Diaz, was going to find out about this and that he was going to kill him. Maybe Anderson wouldn’t tell him. Why bother the highest rank with a simple bending of the rules? Chase had wanted to rescue whoever sent that beacon and come home a hero, surely the outcome would outweigh the crime?
He pulled the Interceptor higher, the atmospheric pressure intensifying and causing a momentary deceleration. The friction against the fighter’s hull began to create an opaque bubble of heat around them. Chase shifted his focus to the fighter’s sensors to maintain their vertical orientation.
Gradually, the heat began to dissipate, and gravity’s hold over them softened. The ashen skies gave way to the dark backdrop of space, the stars coming into focus as their eyes adjusted. Debris from the battle drifted around. Chase wove the Interceptor through it without losing speed, his variant abilities anticipating the debris’ trajectory and guiding his movements.
The USF Shiva loomed high above them outside of Vilnia’s orbit, it’s centurion-class hull dwarfing the fighters around it. At nearly two kilometres in length, it was hard to miss. Chase banked his Interceptor and set a course for the Shiva’s main docking bay. The battle had remained planetside, leaving their path clear.
He could feel Tanaka stiffen behind him, and he realized this was likely her first time leaving the planet. Maybe she could help ease his situation. She was clearly a skilled variant, which Anderson would probably find useful, and it was Chase who found her. She looked like she could be about 18-years-old, the same as Chase, and a perfect age for a student at the Shi Yang Academy, not to mention she seemed to know a thing or two about flying already. She could even vouch for him a little, like how nice it was that he picked up her distress beacon. Especially if she thought of him as her friend in all this. Say something friendly, Chase. Go on.
“You… seem like you might be a good pilot,” said Chase. Tanaka turned a little to look at him, and she met his eyes in the rear-view mirror.
“Yes,” she said, and settled back into her seat.