Vilnia was not a small planet. Nearly six-thousand kilometers in diameter, it was only a little smaller than Mars itself. But as Tanaka was escorted through the USF base, everything suddenly felt very large around her, like she was a housefly remiss to its presence in an incomprehensible world. The base must have been a hundred kilometers long, with hangars harboring dozens of ships just as big as the Shiva, thousands of USF officers and cadets constantly moving and occupied with their work, and dozens upon dozens of Fighter Class ships like Chase’s Interceptor begging to be pushed to their limit. It was nothing like she had ever seen on Vilnia. The planet she used to think wasn’t small.
But Vilnia was also light years away now.
Tanaka’s debriefing was longer than the other Vilnian refugees’, but her involvement in the battle had also been more unusual. Chase was waiting for her outside of the debriefing room.
“I’ll escort you to guest quarters,” said Chase.
“They gave me directions, I’ll be fine,” said Tanaka.
“Not an offer.”
Tanaka shrugged and pushed past him, walking swiftly toward the guest quarters. With a few quick steps Chase caught up and matched her pace. She ignored him, refusing to pay him the satisfaction of even a glance.
They wove through the base’s corridors and foyers, maintaining a speed normally reserved for jogging. Tanaka estimated she had been awake for nearly twenty-six hours, although the orange hues from the Martian sunset told her internal clock it was only early evening. She glanced at Chase’s eyes and couldn’t tell if he was as fatigued as she was. He seemed fine, not a blonde hair out of place, no bags under his eyes. Variants were always good at hiding the frailness of their human body, but everyone weakens. Chase was no exception, and neither was she.
“How did the debrief go?”
“As expected,” said Tanaka. “I told them Fort Stratis was behind the attack on Vilnia, but I could tell they already knew that.”
Chase nodded. “And what they didn’t know?”
“How you handled yourself?” she said. “I told them you wouldn’t have escaped the planet without my help.”
“At least Anderson knows I can fly my own bloody flight plan now,” Chase muttered.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Tanaka’s room in the guest quarters was small, but functional. “Sit,” Chase instructed, gesturing to the single bed folded out from the wall. Tanaka’s defiant nature recused itself for a moment, as she felt the bed calling to her exhausted body. She sat.
Chase pulled three small tablets from his jacket, and handed two of them to her. “Face up on each knee,” he instructed. He held the third tablet in front of her face. A handful of numbers appeared on it, each encased in a circle. The other two tablets each pulled up their own array of numbers.
“I know you’re a variant,” said Chase. “But I want to see the scope of your abilities. Press the numbers in sequential order as fast as you can.” Tanaka raised an eyebrow. “Just blink to make selections on this one,” Chase amended, tapping the screen he was holding.
Tanaka closed her eyes for a moment and gathered herself. After a flurry of blinks and taps, she completed the test in less than a second. “Not bad,” said Chase as he recalibrated the test. The numbers scrambled into a randomized order across the three tablets.
“That’s unfa-” Tanaka stopped herself. She closed her eyes one more time. Her eyes were barely half open before she completed the test again. Chase recalibrated. The test substituted basic math equations for the numbers. Tanaka’s peripheral vision strained to evaluate the content on all three tablets simultaneously. She completed it again, but lost a step. Chase smirked. Tanaka’s brow furrowed. Each test was more complex, the math equations became algebraic, then became historical events. Though Tanaka had little interest in history, she was able to access USF archives through her Seed as she tapped in her answers. Tanaka maintained her pace despite the tests’ escalating unfairness.
Fifteen tests later, Tanaka had consistently executed each test in less than a second. Chase raised an eyebrow and recalibrated it again. The three tablets all changed to chess boards.
“Don't access strategy circuits. Complete this one on intuition alone. ”
Tanaka frowned. “I don’t know how to play chess.”
The computer held no punches, which worked to Tanaka’s advantage. She moved her pieces randomly, observing the computer’s strategy in order to determine the rules and objective of the game. First rule: each player controlled one color of pieces, second rule: different pieces move in different ways, third rule: the game ends if a certain piece is attacked correctly. The rules were simple enough to piece together, and soon winning became the challenge.
Playing a game on each tablet simultaneously, she tested and abandoned strategies rapidly. Each game lasted a little less than three seconds. Eventually she settled on the strategy of an early all out attack (often even attacking with her king) which the computer struggled to rebuff. While a few of these attacks did fail, eventually, she rendered a victory on all three screens.
“Twenty-four seconds,” said Chase.
Tanaka exhaled disappointedly. “Not good enough?”
“A century ago you might have been the best player in the world.”
Chase smiled as he stood to leave. “I’ve registered you for the provisional piloting aptitude test tomorrow morning. You’ll be up against people, including other variants, who have been training for months.”
“Ego won’t get you anywhere here, Tanaka,” he said, standing in the doorframe.
You’re one to talk, Tanaka thought.
“I think you have potential,” he said calmly, though he knew that was the easy part. “Get some sleep.”
“I put her in the race tomorrow,” Chase told Mila, leaning back in his chair, whimsically solving the latest puzzle cube she had engineered for him.
“The aptitude test?” said Mila, not looking up from her book. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“She’s a variant.”
“They’re all variants. She’s never even been in an Interceptor before.”
“That’s not technically true.” Chase finished solving the cube and held it up to her. “Made any others lately?”
Mila tossed him another one, neon strips interlocking across an intricate, moving grid along the cube’s surface. Chase began toggling the cube in every way he could, breaking down the puzzle’s walls. The mess hall was empty this time of night, and it finally gave Chase the peace to ruminate on his day. Or maybe it had been two days. It was difficult to tell after extended interstellar travel.
“I’m worried about her,” said Mila.
“She isn’t,” said Chase. “She thinks she’s going to win.”
Chase pondered this. “I think she knows her limits, so I’ll defer to her judgement. If she thinks she can win, then I agree.”
Mila closed her book, then picked up another. “You variants are weird.”
The puzzle cube was yielding none of its secrets to Chase. He flipped it over in the hopes that a new perspective might come with new insights. It didn’t.
“What are you reading?” He remained focused on the puzzle.
“Theories on xeno-pidgins.”
“Communication between two species that don’t share a language. If and when we encounter alien life-” said Mila.
“They probably aren’t going to speak English,” Chase finished.
“Strange bedside reading for an engineer.”
Mila turned her head to hide behind her long, purple hair. “Engineering was my second choice. Still is.”
Chase put down the cube. “You’d rather be what? An alien diplomat?” He chuckled.
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Mila felt her cheeks grow warm. “There are jobs in USF Logistics like that, but…”
“They’re hard to get into?”
“Engineering was safer for me.”
“Screw safety. You should be an alien diplomat if that’s what you want.”
“It’s not that simple for me,” said Mila. “We’re not all amazing variants like you who can be whoever they want.”
Silence. Chase’s face grew pensive.
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy engineering,” continued Mila. “It’s just…”
Another silence. Chase composed himself, speaking gently, “I can’t be whoever I want to be,” he said. “People think I’m special because Diaz took a special interest in me, or because of my variant abilities. I’m not. Diaz hasn’t spoken to me in months, and there are talented variants everywhere. I won’t even make it to the Pathfinders at the rate I’m going.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Mila. “You’re amazing, I can’t believe…” she trailed off.
“Thanks, Mila. Really. Look...” Chase adjusted his posture. “I’m not one of those delusional people who thinks anyone can be anything. People fail all the time. Some never stop. I guess I just don’t want to be one of those people.”
“I think anyone can be amazing,” she said. “Even if they fail all the time.”
Chase shrugged. “I hope Tanaka sees it that way,” he said, then lost himself in her puzzle cube once again.
The provisional piloting aptitude test was a simulation available to civilians and cadets who wanted to pursue careers as pilots with the USF. The test was administered and adjudicated by Captain Anderson, whose brow furrowed as he saw Tanaka enter the testing area, followed by Chase and Mila a few moments later.
“I take it this is your doing, Cadet Chase,” he said.
“We can always find a place for talented variants,” Chase said.
“I would have thought your little stunt on Vilnia was enough insubordination for the week.”
“I didn’t realize saving civilians and recruiting variants was insubordination.”
“That’s not up to you.”
Chase straightened his back. At eighteen he was already over six feet and able to match Anderson’s gaze evenly. Tension mounted between them. Chase felt himself subconsciously sizing up his opponent, and assumed Anderson was doing the same.
“Captain Anderson,” Mila interjected carefully. “The test is available to civilians anyway, and a spot opened up for today.”
Anderson’s eyes flickered from Mila to Chase and back again. “This isn’t a game. These tests affect the future of the Combined Fleet,” he said coarsely. “We need the most capable pilots, not sapling refugees. When she fails, she’s going to a sapling colony along with the other Vilnian refugees.”
“If she fails,” Chase corrected. “And I’d expect nothing less, Captain. We are the final defense.” Anderson waved them through. Chase paused. “You know I’m not the sentimental type. She’s here on merit, nothing else,” he said to Anderson. The two men exchanged nods. Chase took a seat in the viewing area.
Mila helped Tanaka settle into her simulation pod. Harness, headset, nervous system conduit, and cerebral link. “Think you’ll be alright?”
Tanaka scanned the other candidates in the room. There were nearly eighty of them, most in USF uniforms. “Yes,” she said. A large screen flickered to light at the front of the room, Anderson’s rigid silhouette dark against it. The screen showed the course they would be running: a field of ship debris near a solar flare. Their Interceptors hovered adjacent to the field, angled towards a Centurion Class ship like the Shiva on the farside of the debris.
“The test is simple,” said Anderson. “Your Centurion is warping out of system in the next five minutes. Reach it by any means necessary. Score at least in the ninetieth percentile, and you’ll be strongly considered for the piloting track at the Shi Yang Academy.”
The screen faded to a leaderboard. Tanaka was unsurprised to see the top time of 22.91 seconds belong to one A. Chase. “We will begin in five,” announced Anderson. “Four, three-” A blue light washed over Tanaka, then she suddenly found herself in the cockpit of an Interceptor, her hands already primed on the controls. She looked around: solar flare, space debris, other Interceptors. The simulation was remarkably real. She heard Anderson’s voice in her headset. “Two, one.”
Dozens of Interceptors shot past her and began weaving through the debris, their engines flaring as they picked up velocity. Tanaka scanned the controls in front of her. They were intuitive enough, and she quickly deactivated the two kill switches keeping her in place. It cost her two valuable seconds. She grit her teeth and pushed the throttle to its maximum capacity.
The Interceptors were nimble fighters, built for maneuverability over raw speed and endurance. The test was designed with that in mind, as she saw the other Interceptors elegantly cutting in and out of top speed to agilely slip through and between debris.
Tanaka approached the test differently. She maxed out her throttle and didn’t touch it again. Her Interceptor zipped through the debris, accelerating rapidly, avoiding what she could, and shooting what she couldn’t.
However, this presented a new issue. The problem with shooting debris is that it creates more debris. Fast-moving debris. Every piece she destroyed sent ripples throughout the area, and two nearby Interceptors were clipped by chunks of metal and sent into uncontrolled spirals.
The debris was moving too fast for her to track now. Tanaka jerked her Interceptor into a dive to avoid a large ship hull, only to find herself heading straight for a dismembered Destroyer Class engine, its exposed warp chamber still glowing blue from its Excellium crystals.
“Twenty-two seconds,” she said under her breath.
Tanaka did the only thing she could - she shot the engine. Enough to detonate it but not risk fracturing the warp core, as an explosion of that magnitude would vaporize everything in a two-hundred kilometer radius, which Tanaka inferred would likely result in a failing assessment of her performance. She darted through the blast, feeling its simulated energy and heat building on her fighter for just a moment, before being slingshot forward at twice the speed, riding the edge of the shockwave. Forced against the back of her seat, her Interceptor’s inertia damper struggled to calibrate against the sudden shifts in g-force. As she cleared the explosion the Centurion was less than a kilometer away, she could see the last smattering of debris being forced outwards as the shockwave reached it. Only two Interceptors ahead of her now. Tanaka pulled her fighter into an anti-clockwise barrel roll, spiralling between smaller pieces of debris, and then reversing the motion to pull between the leading Interceptors as she passed them.
She could only imagine what it looked like from their perspective. A barrel-rolling Interceptor whipping by at nearly twice its maximum designed velocity, its rear still red hot from the explosion.
At last she was clear of the field, and the Centurion’s hangar lay directly in front of her, a straight shot to the finish. Nineteen seconds had passed since the test had begun. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile as she imagined the look on Chase’s face when he found out a rookie pilot beat his time.
Everything went silent around her, then her fighter’s controls went dark, before moaning back to life in emergency power mode. She checked her fuel reserves: both her primary and backup were drained. Whether it was from overexertion or damage from the explosion was unclear, but either way she was flying deadstick.
Then, a sudden shock of deceleration jolted her. The Centurion's gravitational shields must have recognized her as a projectile due to her speed, and activated to prevent her from colliding with the ship. Her fighter continued its barrel roll toward the hangar, but was quickly passed by two, then three, then five other Interceptors as she lost acceleration. Eighteen long seconds later, Tanaka’s Interceptor finally limped into the hangar, where it promptly careened into a wall and exploded.
Tanaka felt herself sweating as she came back to reality. Mila was helping her out of her harness and cerebral link. Ambient conversations with the occasional triumphant cheer or disappointed moan echoed throughout the room.
“That was brilliant,” said Mila.
Tanaka looked up at the leaderboard. She had finished sixth with a time of 37.88. “It’s not enough, is it?” Tanaka said.
“For a first try-” Mila began.
“Tanaka,” barked Anderson, marching over to her chamber. “That was reckless, dangerous, and frankly downright stupid. Interceptor engines are meant to have a ten-year lifespan, and you found a way to exhaust it in thirty seconds.”
Tanaka stood up to face him, spotting Chase leaning against a nearby wall as she turned. His expression was somewhere between admiration and concern. She met his eyes. He nodded at her. His attention quickly flickered elsewhere like someone had called his name, then quietly slipped out of the room.
“I failed?” she said, turning to Anderson.
The Captain seemed to be chewing on his tongue. “I didn’t say that,” he shrugged. “You have some bad habits is all.” Tanaka looked back to Mila, who gave her a thumbs up. Anderson offered her his hand. “I’ll see you in training, Cadet.” The last word rang in her ears. Cadet. Cadet Tanaka. It had a nice ring to it.