Rick Spagni, nineteen, fast. Pain in his left knee after taking a kick from a sparring partner four hours earlier. Tender. Bruised. Weight shifting to his right side to compensate. He’s overcompensating. He’s off balance. Strike at the knee, the weak one. Step back, recover. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Pause.
A simulation of a battlefield. A grid of lines in space. Don’t imagine it. See it. You can’t see it. Try anyway. The stars, the field. Six fighters under your control, ready and waiting to take down six enemy fighters drifting across a limitless grid. Savannah Stanley, eighteen, aggressive. Behind a screen somewhere in the real world. Sitting. Thinking. Surveying the field. The one you can’t see. The one that she can. She controls the enemy fighters. She moves first.
Rick is back on his feet. Fist closed. He’s found his balance. He strikes, you block. Push back, not too hard. Don’t stagger yourself. Move now. Get behind him. Don’t touch the legs, he’s expecting it. His fist. The closed one. Grab it. Move.
Savannah reigns down enemy fire. Don’t return it. Wait. Move to your own position. Take five of your fighters, and circle the last one. Your own. Protect it. Hold as close as possible to formation and evade the fire. Savannah is fast. You’re faster. Patience. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Rick’s fist is bony, his fingers damp. Use two hands. Pull his fist down. He’s off balance. Again. Grab the gun strapped to his back. He’s fast. Grab it now. No. He was waiting for you. He was ready. His knee--the good one--strikes your gut. Don’t flinch. Protect your own gun. Roll to your feet.
Savannah needs to reposition. She’s sick of your evasion. Good. Her six fighters begin to circle. Even better. Send in your squad. Five in echelon. Leave one behind. Dive and fire. Formation. Alignment. Focus.
Rick runs. Run faster. Meet him in the middle. He falters. Jump. Jump higher. Muscles tense, body free, pulse controlled. Steady. You’re on his shoulders now. Not for long. He topples. Now. Your fingers grasp at his back. Pull off the gun. Aim. Breathe. Breathe.
Give the order to hit the throttle. Every fighter. The lead Interceptor is aligned. Now. Two-for-one. Maximum speed. Blow through the enemy, every single one. Literally. Explosions. Fireworks. Fighters expand and ignite in a fury of color. Each in pieces. Except one. The one you protected. The one you left behind.
Pull the trigger. Paint splatters. Blue streaks between gray eyes. Rick sighs. Wipes at the paint. Chest expands, skin tightens. Gun feels cool against your back. Drop it. Over. Win. Physicality? Triumph. Mentality? Triumph.
“Alexander Chase,” Captain Tania, combat instructor, stepped forward making notes on the screen in her hands. “That’s your best time yet.”
Chase smiled, running his hands through his damp hair then wiping them on his pants. “Thank you, sir,” he said. He reached out to shake Rick’s hand, but the defeated cadet did not return the gesture. Instead, he glared at it, teeth biting into his cheek.
“Good fight,” said Chase retracting his hand, noting Rick’s expression. Chase would never lose dignity in the face of a loss, but at the same time, he understood Rick. He was a talented variant too. His strategy was strong, his movements quick and polished, except, as it happened, when his opponent was Chase. Chase made him nervous, stimulating an anger within Rick that was all fire and brimstone, fiercely burning, but uncontrolled.
Rick straightened up. “You only won because I blew out my knee right before this.” His eyes drifted to the droplets of blue paint drying against the training mat.
Actually, it had been four hours earlier when Rick had received the blow. It had been an accident on his sparring partner’s part, but Rick came away with a badly swollen knee all the same. Four hours was enough time for the swelling to be treated and the pain to subside. However, Chase knew Rick didn’t need to hear that, especially from him. “I’d welcome a rematch whenever you’re ready,” said Chase instead.
Savannah stumbled out from behind a screen, a headset to see the simulation dangling between her fingers. “Nice one,” she said, and shook Chase’s hand, feigning punching him in the gut. He knew she was joking--she was grinning as she did it--but he felt a part of her had really wanted to win.
Chase saw a shadow move beneath the door of the training gym, shifting, it paused for a moment and then backed away.
“Sir,” Rick turned to Tania, “I’d like a rematch.”
Savannah rolled her eyes. “Now? Come on, at least rest first.”
Rick looked at Chase. “You said whenever I’m ready,” he crossed his arms. “I’m ready.”
“Enough,” said Tania, dismissing the request. “Settle.”
Tania was a well-respected instructor. She taught combat training to variant cadets in their final years before graduation, mainly in-the-field stuff, like fighting hand-to-hand combat while simultaneously giving orders to your squad to win a bigger battle. Her favorite exercise, the one Chase and two others from his unit had just completed, involved that very scenario.
Three variants were always involved, sometimes more, but never less. One served as the mental side of things: Savannah. Sitting behind a screen, she donned a headset to enter the simulation of a gridded battlefield where she controlled a squad of six fighters. She could also see Chase’s fighters. To win was to destroy the entirety of the opposing squadron. Then there was the physical side: Rick. Standing on the training mat with Chase, the cadets would spar in close quarter hand-to-hand combat. To win meant obtaining the opponent’s weapon--attached to their back--and firing it at them. Lastly, there was the most difficult position in a trio, known as ‘Commander’: Chase. Winning meant managing the physical and mental challenges simultaneously. While sparring against Rick, he needed to engage Savannah with only the audio on his headset. The exercise was often run with all six variants in Chase’s unit, each balancing two tasks simultaneously. However, every once in a while Tania would run the exercise with one variant at a disadvantage, splitting only their attention as their opponents honed in on one task alone. The challenge was just that: a challenge, even for variants, even for Chase.
“Chase,” said Tania. “What am I going to tell you?”
“That my new record came with a cost,” said Chase. “My squad had one surviving fighter.” Tania raised her chin. “However, in today’s simulation our directive was to win no matter the cost.”
“Was your win worth the loss of life?”
“Yes, sir,” said Chase.
“I’d hate to be under your command,” Rick muttered.
“You don’t have to be,” said Chase.
“Maybe I’ll go join the Nexus military,” said Rick. “See if they value the lives of their soldiers.”
“I’m sure they’d happily take a cadet of the USF,” said Tania.
“Then why haven’t they joined the USF?”
Tania scribbled something on the screen, checked a clock, and sighed. “My time is almost up. Are you finished, cadet?”
Rick stayed silent. The Nexus Citadel was a strange circumstance. They possessed a military, but refused to unite under the USF. The reasoning was unclear, except that they’d pulled away following the events of the AI War; it was tough to blame them for that. The USF spoke of them like an ally and treated them fairly, despite the imminent lack of discourse on the part of Nexus for any return of the favor.
“Chase,” said Tania. “Finish what you were saying.”
“I won the simulation,” said Chase. “Next time, give me the directive to keep everyone alive and I’ll win that way too.”
“Then you’d be cheating,” said Rick, stepping toward him. “The whole point of these exercises is to get used to losing people. It’s inevitable. Lose to win. You just don’t have to like it so much.”
“There’s nothing to cheat at,” said Chase. “I’m not playing a game, I’m winning a war.” Rick smirked at Chase. “Whatever,” he said, moving to lean against the wall. “Not that it means anything. It’s all just an exercise, right?”
Chase said nothing because he knew Rick was right. It was just an exercise. Out in the field, the real field, there were no best times. There were no instructors asking their students to pull punches, or offering advice on strategy or coordination. There were no leaderboards. Chase held Rick’s gaze. There were only real people. Real pilots operating fighters that Chase would give orders to. And he’d win with everyone alive. Every time.
“That’s enough for today,” said Tania. “Uma, Adira, and Blake you’re up next time. Rick, Savannah, and Chase,” she paused for a moment, “good work today,” she said, and left the training gym. The cadets scattered.
Good work. Chase changed back into his regular uniform. How much more ‘good work’ could he do until Diaz would speak to him? Did Pathfinders do ‘good’ work? Great work. Exceptional work. Essential work. A shadow moved by the door and Chase practically snapped his neck turning to look at it. Mila stood in the doorway, waving.
“How was class?” Mila held a book tucked beneath her arm, the spine revealing something of puzzles and theory. Mila loved physical books.
“I keep seeing Diaz,” said Chase.
“He came to your class?”
“No. I keep,” he paused a moment, “I keep thinking I’m seeing Diaz. It started a few months ago when Tanaka took that flying test. I thought I saw him watching, maybe even talking to Anderson before disappearing. Sometimes I see him outside of my classes. Today it felt like he was just outside the door.” Chase glanced at Mila sideways. “Unless that was you.”
“I arrived as your class ended,” she said. “So it could have been Diaz, but I didn’t see him. Maybe you should talk to him?”
“I’ve tried,” said Chase. “It’s the only impossible task I’ve ever encountered. If I show up to his office or try to schedule a meeting with him-”
“He is the Fleet Admiral of the entire United Sol Federation-”
“He’s just never around.” Chase and Mila began to walk through the halls of the Academy, their peers puttering around between classes. “It’s been almost a year since I last spoke to him.” A group of cadets passed by, huddled around a digital map and chirping directions over one another. Fresh blood. Excited and thin. “I don’t think I’m being considered for a Pathfinder position anymore. I was, and now I’m not.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I can feel it.”
“You can feel you won’t be a Pathfinder?”
“No,” said Chase. “I just have a bad feeling.”
“What about all those offers?”
Chase sighed. Mila was talking about the positions he’d begun to receive from USF bases across the galaxy. They each proffered him a position of Command to lead their Fleets in the years following his impending graduation. “You know I want to be posted on Mars,” he said.
“Yes,” said Mila, “but it must feel nice to be wanted. USF senior commands across the galaxy are offering to transfer you to a fleet of your choice. Not everyone has that opportunity. Especially a year out from their graduation.”
Chase said nothing, merely continuing forward. Silence fell without strain, and it held a great deal of comfort.
“I need to speak to Tanaka,” said Mila eventually.
“We’re heading to her now.”
“Where is she?”
Chase smiled a little. “Where do you think?”
In the Southern Hangar Tanaka sat at the head of the runway. Its mouth agape, she could watch the take off and arrival of fighters, specifically Interceptors, as they dipped and swirled through the dimming orange light. She had removed the jacket of her uniform, opting to tie it around her waist instead. Her hair was roped tightly down her back. Upon seeing Mila and Chase, she stood to meet them.
Chase jogged toward her. “How close are you to flying one of these?”
“Closer than Anderson gives me credit for,” she said. Her face didn’t show it, but Chase knew she was frustrated. “I’m tired of the training fighters. It’s been three months of drills in the field, lessons out of the field, drills during lessons, lessons during drills. I’m ready for an Interceptor.” Mila stood beside Chase, her hands clasped behind her back. She seemed nervous.
“Mila wanted to talk to you,” said Chase. “Maybe it’ll help take your mind off things.”
Mila grew pale then swallowed. “Oh,” she said. “Well,” she shifted her weight between her feet. “Yes. Right. Tanaka, I found something.” She took a breath. “I was looking through the archives for my research when I searched your name, or rather, your family name,” she began, “and I found a sapling listed under Tanaka. She fought in the AI War, as a pilot, a Captain. She had quite the commendations and the last entry about her was that she left the USF after having a daughter named Saori-” Mila stopped at Tanaka’s expression. Her mouth had opened, her eyes fixed forward. She was thinking. Processing.
Mila swallowed. “You’ve never told us your first name. Is it Saori?”
“Akari Tanaka,” began Tanaka, “was my mother. She named me Saori.”
“But you prefer Tanaka?”
“I do now, yes.”
Chase crossed his arms. “Did you know Akari was a pilot?”
“She was the one that taught me to fly, but I never questioned where she learned. She was my mother, I assumed she just,” Tanaka took a breath, “she just knew everything.”
Tanaka stepped back, her eyes training on an Interceptor. Had Akari flown one? An older model maybe? The AI War was far before Tanaka’s time, and a part of her wanted it to remain a mystery, so the image of her mother turning barrel roll after barrel roll in the seat of a fighter through nothing but clear skies could linger a while longer. Akari, smiling from the pilot seat, a concerto blasting through her headset. Saori, would you like to learn to fly?
“Let’s move on,” said Tanaka, clearing her throat. Silence fell over the trio, until Chase said, “do you want to sit in my Interceptor?”
The latches popped and Tanaka slid into the piloting seat, running her hands over the controls. Mila sat behind her, and Chase stood on the ladder leaning over the edge of the cockpit.
“What is this?” Tanaka felt grooves etched beneath the controls, close to her left knee. She peered down to see a name, beautifully carved to read Victory.
“I thought you weren’t supposed to name fighters,” said Mila.
Chase grinned. “This Interceptor has been with me since my first year,” he said. “No one knows but me and Victory.”
“It’s silly to feel attached to an object,” said Tanaka. “Especially one so easily wrecked.”
“Maybe,” said Chase. “But I’ll never wreck it.”
Suddenly, a long drone began to sound, followed by four chirps. Chase counted them, swore, and climbed down from the ladder. “That’s for my senior unit,” said Chase. “They’re calling a drill.”
“Now?” Mila began climbing from the fighter, following Tanaka down the ladder.
“I’ll need my Interceptor,” said Chase, turning away. “Don’t wait up for me!” He ran to receive orders, leaving his friends behind.
Mila looked down the line of fighters, and tugged at Tanaka’s shirt sleeve.
“Want to sit in that one?” she pointed to another nearby fighter, dangling her engineering access card.
Chase ran to the designated briefing room, entering just before Rick. The rest of the unit was already in place, including Savannah, Blake, Adira, and Uma. Tania was positioned at the front of the room, Anderson beside her. It was a warp mission. Chase could already tell. They’d warp away from the Sol system, and Godspeed travel to a neutral training zone. The cadets would fire up their Interceptors, hit designated drone targets set around the territory, and return to the Cruiser to warp back to Sol. The key was to be fast, accurate, and focused. Tania was all business, her laid back manner replaced with a pressing urgency. Take it seriously. They were working as a unit.
The cadets docked their Interceptors on a Cruiser Class vessel in orbit, the Triton. With Mars far below them, they warped, and in an instant appeared seventy light years away in the outskirts of the Ascent Cluster, looking over an area appropriately dubbed “Neutral Training,” as it was a section of space dedicated to military exercises, where a mess could be made and no one would have to clean it up. There were a number of these neutral zones across the territory of the systems for use by any base. The one thing space had plenty of was, of course, space. Through long range warp, the Cruiser had been fortunate enough to land less than 1 AU from the designated training area; only 8 minutes away. As they arrived at their destination, dropping out of sublight, Chase saw the familiar pieces of debris and even spotted a drone, its chest splattered with an array of dried paint from training bullets. He zipped his flight suit to his neck and waited for Tania to give the order to begin the drill. She didn’t. It was quiet. He looked to his unit across from him, readying their Interceptors for take off. Savannah was peering out one of the windows, frowning.
Outside, a hulking Centurion Class vessel nearly three times the size of their Cruiser drifted into view. Painted a deep charcoal, it was like a canvas blocking out the stars. Chase could just make out the edges of a Citadel insignia emblazoned against its side. Where was it from?
He ran from Victory and spotted Tania speaking quickly to Anderson at the end of the hangar.
“Is everything alright?” he yelled down to the two Captains. Tania’s face was hard, concerned. Anderson seemed unbothered.
Chase felt something pit itself inside his gut. A feeling. A bad one. He called out again. “Sir?”
In the silence of space, gunfire flashed.