“Ready?” Chase cut power to his Interceptor. Turning backward in his seat he met Tanaka’s green eyes as she peeled off his helmet. The USF Shiva loomed in the outer reaches of Vilnia’s atmosphere. The two kilometer Centurion Class vessel had swallowed Chase’s fighter, and inside Tanaka found the bustle of temporary base operations. Experienced USF personnel had taken fighters to the surface of Vilnia to provide support, while cadets--like Chase--were meant to observe in their own fighters at an appropriate distance. Roughly meaning: don’t land on the planet.
“What should I be ready for?” Tanaka craned her neck upwards, staring through the top of the translucent cockpit to the intricate webbing of the Shiva’s hangar ceiling. A number of other vessels, fighters, sat in perfect rows around them; cadets, captains, commanders, and instructors, clumped like blood clots, puttered about them.
Chase thought about her question. “Be ready for anything,” he finally said. He popped the cockpit and with it, the seal of silence.
It was like breaking the surface of the sea as sound and smell and sight washed over Tanaka from every direction. The last of the fleet was completing their docking procedures, a smattering of vessels from the Vilnia skirmish still sailing through a blue-tinged field ensuring the Shiva stayed pressurized. The hangar was overrun with the sights and sounds of cadets, engineers, and various officers tapping on their tablets, wiping down windows, or muttering over one another while pointing to a variety of equipment and machinery, talking quickly and seemingly without drawing breath. The hangar felt like an enormous bubble; through large windows overhead Tanaka could see straight through to the stars above. She had never seen so many in her life. It was beautiful.
Chase climbed out of the Interceptor and Tanaka followed, landing lightly on the ground below.
“Mila!” Chase called out, waving to a group of cadets. “Hey!”
The one named Mila moved toward them, her creaseless cadet uniform of similar colors to Chase’s flight suit. Long hair swung behind her, tucked patiently behind her ears. “Welcome back, Chase,” she said, her voice soft but calm. “Are you alright?” she came to stand before him, eyes training on Tanaka before darting away.
“Were you monitoring my Interceptor?”
She nodded. “I triple-checked your coordinates before accepting you’d landed on the surface of Vilnia. You’re sure you’re alright?”
“We both are,” said Chase. “Mila, this is Tanaka.”
Mila raised her eyebrows. “Hello, Tanaka,” she said, swallowing.
Tanaka nodded to her.
“We should talk later,” said Mila, glancing behind her. “Anderson is on his way. Please don’t mention I was monitoring your Interceptor. I’ve been in engineering all morning,” she gave him a knowing look.
“Understood,” said Chase, grinning, and Mila turned on her heel to return to a group of cadets. “Mila’s a little shy,” he told Tanaka, “but she’s brilliant.”
Heavy footsteps announced Captain Anderson stomping toward the group. Students quieted and came immediately to attention, saluting as he passed. He uttered a short “at ease,” and they relaxed knowing there was only one person he wanted to talk to. The students shuffled back, content to watch Chase’s punishment from a distance. Every cadet knew Anderson; the piloting instructor was a force to be reckoned with, not a friend to be had. This would be a reckoning. His hat was clenched in his hand and his veins pulsed red over his knuckles. “Cadet Alexander Chase,” his voice boomed, “What in hell were you thinking?”
“Sir-” Chase began, back straight, shoulders tense, but Anderson raised his hand.
“You’re lucky Admiral Diaz isn’t beside me right now.” Chase swallowed. High Command Admiral Diaz rarely dealt with student affairs, unless of course, someone was in big trouble. “You’re training to be in command, maybe have your own fleet someday. Should we rethink that decision?”
“The mission,” Anderson continued, “was as follows. Cadets will circle Vilnia and observe the protocols followed by the Captains and Commanders of the USF in neutralizing the threat. Cadet, what does observe mean?”
Chase swallowed. “It means-”
“Does it mean engage?”
“Does it mean go down to the surface of the planet because you feel like it?”
“You put the USF at risk, you put yourself at risk.”
Anderson sighed, allowing his shoulders to slump a little. “You saw your scores from your last flying exam?”
Chase’s heart nearly skipped a beat. “Yes, sir.”
“Then you know you need to do better,” said Anderson.
“I will, sir. I was trying-”
“Enough!” The entire hangar went silent. “You want to command someday, you want to be a Pathfinder someday, and all you can say is you tried? There is no try. You can either do it or you can’t. Can you do it, cadet?”
“I can fly it.”
“Your flight plan.”
“No.” The veins in Anderson’s neck bulged blue, steadily creeping up the side of his face. “No, you look at my flight plan and you think you can do it better, faster, if you just make an adjustment here, or go off course there. Now we’re outside of class and you think you can just fly down to Vilnia because you can. Well that’s where you’re wrong, variant.” Anderson stepped closer to Chase, his face inches away. “You can’t.”
“I already have, sir,” said Chase, meeting Anderson’s gaze.
“Don’t come to class until you’re ready to fly the way I tell you to fly.” Without even looking at Tanaka, Anderson continued, “I see you there, strange girl. We’ll deal with you when we’re back on Mars.” He turned to leave, his piece finished, but then paused. Speaking over his shoulder to Chase, he said, “we’re still watching you.” Chase held his breath. “Keep this up, and you’ll kill any chance you ever had at being a Pathfinder.” And then he left, calling out “Prepare for warp!” as he exited the hangar.
Chase finally exhaled, and rolled his shoulders back. Tanaka looked at him, seeing the lines creep over his face as he frowned in thought, noise steadily returning to the hangar. “I want to do what you do,” she said.
He shook himself from his thoughts. “You want to be a cadet?”
“No. I want to be a pilot.”
“Even after what you just saw?”
“I’m not going to land on planets I’m not supposed to,” she said. It almost sounded like a joke, but her face remained serious, like the emotion behind the words hadn’t made it all the way to the features of her face.
“There are easier ways of joining the USF than setting off a distress beacon and attempting to steal a federation Interceptor.”
“Yes, well,” Tanaka paused for a moment, “my home was on fire.”
Chase didn’t know what it was like for a home to be on fire. He couldn’t imagine being forced from a place of safety. Did she have a family? Maybe not. She didn’t seem too concerned about leaving anyone behind, and Chase got the feeling she didn’t want to be asked about it. “I’m sorry,” he said instead.
“There is nothing for you to be sorry for,” said Tanaka.
A metallic voice, crisp and clear, echoed across the hangar. Initiating Long Range Warp. Destination: Sol System.
“We’ll talk in a moment,” said Chase, stepping back and crossing his arms like he was waiting for something.
Tanaka had never warped before. Was she supposed to cross her arms too? She stared out one of the windows and saw a flicker. The ball of energy she’d read about? It would build and build at the front of the Shiva before ripping open the fabric of space and pulling the ship inside. A rumbling echoed from what felt like far away. The flickering outside the Shiva became intense, like an erratic power surge, it lacerated the space at its edges, blurring the stars in the distance. The entire ship began to hum, starting deep, and heightening into a vicious buzzing that pulsed in her chest and expanded down her spine to the balls of her feet. Warp did certainly not feel instantaneous. She could see Chase, but he felt out of place. Like a memory flickering in a dream more than a real person standing next to her. His face shifted in and out of focus. And then, light. Bright blue-white light flooded every screen, every window. Tanaka almost felt it filled every piece of space itself. The buzzing escalated as she lurched forward into the final oscillation crashing over the ship, and then suddenly, all was quiet. Spots appeared in the back of her eyes. She pressed her hands to her mouth, overcome with nausea.
“Hey,” said Chase, standing perfectly still as though nothing had happened. “Hey are you alright?”
Tanaka slowly lowered herself to the ground where she sat, cross legged.
“It helps to lay on your back,” he said. “Lay back and close your eyes, let the ship’s artificial gravity ground you.” Tanaka did as she was told. “Was that your first time warping?” She nodded. “You didn’t have your eyes open, did you?”
“It was my first time warping,” she repeated, feeling the subtle acceleration of the Shiva transitioning to sublight speed.
“If it helps, you did manage to stay standing,” said Chase, stifling a laugh. “Some people end up on the floor halfway through if they aren’t ready.”
“It didn’t feel that way. It felt like I was falling.”
“That’s because you had your eyes open.”
“Warp didn’t feel instantaneous.”
“It takes some time to charge. But once it is charged, if you were on another ship watching this one warp-”
“It would look like it,” said Tanaka.
Footsteps approached, and Tanaka opened her eyes and tilted her head to see Mila again.
“Are you alright?”
Tanaka stood up. “Yes,” she said.
“It was her first time warping,” said Chase.
“No. I’m sorry.” Mila cleared her throat. “I meant, are you alright, Tanaka? With what happened to your home?”
“Yes,” she said, unwavering.
Mila tucked her hair behind her ears and took a deep breath. “I won’t pretend to know what it’s like for saplings,” she said, choosing her words with slow and careful kindness. “Please know I offer my condolences.”
Vilnia was a sapling colony. It was where Tanaka had lived her whole life, and now, at least by her definition, it was gone. She was a sapling: a human, artificially born - it was that distinction that made all the difference.
Something pulsed in the pit of Tanaka’s gut. Something she didn’t want to think about. It’s a big world out there, Saori, her mother had told her. Her mom wouldn’t want her to return to Vilnia, especially now that she had come this far. She was heading to Mars. To the USF base. She was so close. It’s a world that will never be ready for you. She thought of warm hands and the sound of a piano, of her mother laughing, teaching her to fly. You can do anything you want, Saori Tanaka.
“Tanaka wants to become a cadet,” said Chase. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Mila smiled, her eyes turned down. “I agree,” she said. “It’ll do us good to have more saplings around.”
“She isn’t a statistic,” said Chase.
“No,” said Mila, her cheeks flushing. “That’s not what I meant. Sorry.”
Someday it won’t be just you and me anymore.
Mila turned her head, watching a group of shell shocked Vilnians being herded to a medical wing. “Tanaka,” she said carefully, “did you leave anyone behind? Perhaps they were evacuated?” Mila looked at her. “Is there anyone we can help find for you?”
But you’ll be okay without me.
“No,” said Tanaka, and the pit in her gut slowly loosened its grip. “There’s no one.”
The windows were suddenly filled with stripes of orange and red as the Shiva passed a distant Jupiter. Tanaka had never seen it up close; it’s swirling red eye seemed trained on her, following her as she stared.
“When we get to Mars, they’ll want to talk to you about Vilnia,” said Chase. “Anderson and the like. Try to find a motive for what happened.”
“That’s fine,” said Tanaka, staring back at the eye until the Shiva left it behind. Even then she felt she could still see it, burned into the back of her eyes. Some things could not be put back. “I’m fine.” Some things could not be forgotten.
After nearly an hour of sublight travel, the metallic voice returned. Initiating landing. Mars USF Base.
Tanaka looked at Chase and said, quite seriously, “Do I have to close my eyes?”
“No,” he said.
“I think you’ll want them open for this,” said Mila.
Mars looked like a red marble, a glossy coating with stripes of green and white twisting through its center. Strips of cityscapes and blue water lined the surface, flickering lights emitted a dense haze, blurring the denser pieces of the planet that only became clearer the closer they flew. The Shiva’s descent was elegant. Sifting through the layers of atmosphere, it pushed lower and lower, towers of white and the shapes and colors of greenery beginning to dot Tanaka’s vision. It was as though she could feel the weight of the ship beneath her feet as some kind of propulsion levelled it, keeping it parallel as it floated down to Mars. The USF military base, the biggest in the galaxy, and the one containing the prestigious Shi Yang Academy, loomed into view. A gargantuan structure, a strip of lights glowed blue on the northmost end as the Shiva drew closer. Panels shifted on its surface, and a number of locking mechanisms that looked like hands lifted out and up, reaching skyward toward the ship. They stretched and opened, ready to receive the nearly two kilometer-long Centurion Class vessel. The landing felt soft, but sudden, like the moment just before you realize you’ve missed the bottom stair. Tanaka’s stomach floated in that brief moment, and then settled as she heard the mechanical hands clamp around the base of the Shiva. Engines whirred as the ship lowered down until a solid, hulking thunk shook the vessel ever so slightly, its base safely on the ground.
“Welcome to Mars,” said Chase, and the Shiva’s hangar door began to rise.