22 Oct

Short: Headlong

Here’s the next short in the series! This one is about a character we haven’t met directly yet, as requested by you, my lovely readers: Danika.

Hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

++++

“This isn’t like your previous assignments. You’re not testing a solo-seat dogfighter this time.” The voice and its owner chased after her, hurrying to catch up. The little admin couldn’t match her long-legged stride and Danika smiled as he jogged to come abreast of her. She didn’t slow down for him, walking with purpose down the docking tube towards the waiting ship.

“You’ve told me all this before,” she pointed out mildly. “Contract’s all signed. Little late to be worried about it now, isn’t it?”

A sharp edge bit into his tone. “You’re not on board and cleared for departure yet.”

Danika spared the man a sideways glance, then sighed and slowed. She stopped at the mouth of the ship’s airlock and turned to face him. He was only a few centimetres shorter than her but the fashionable cut of his suit wasn’t made for movement, whereas her pilot’s shipsuit was designed for comfort and freedom. The effort of straining to keep up with her had ruffled the perfect lines of his hair: a single curl drooped over his forehead. She hefted her go-bag onto her shoulder and lifted her eyebrows at him.

“What do you think I’m gonna do? Just because I wrecked the last three prototypes you put me in – which you asked me to test to destruction, by the way – doesn’t mean I’m gonna do the same here.”

“You weren’t supposed to be able to destroy all of those.”

Danika grinned, unrepentant. “Kinda the point of the testing, wasn’t it? Never underestimate a pilot’s creativity. But yes, I know there’s a whole crew to think of this time and it’s not just my ass on the line. Yes, I know it’s a bazillion-dollar project. I’ve had the speeches and warnings and fine print explained in painful detail. I get it. Now, you gonna get outa my way or do you want to go find another crazy pilot willing to bend reality?”

“That’s not actually what you’ll be–”

She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”

The admin – she couldn’t remember his name, even though she’d shook his hand when he introduced himself – sighed heavily, clearly giving up hope of getting any more earnest promises from her. Danika felt a little sorry for him, but what more could she say? They wanted someone willing to take on a risky job and give assurances that she’ll keep their investment safe. Surely they could see the oxymoron in that? Safe pilots flew shuttles and freight, not experimental ships that set out to defy the laws of physics.

“Tell them I’ll do my best to behave with their new toy,” she said in a kinder tone, which seemed to release some of the tension from his shoulders. It was hard to tell with that stiff suit of his.

“All right, then. Fly safe, Pilot Devon.”

Danika grinned, unable to restrain her enthusiasm, and touched a fingertip to her temple. “Always.”

Before the admin had the chance to say anything else, she took that as her farewell and stepped inside the airlock. The doors whispered closed behind her and she let out a breath, glad to be free of him. She waited for the ship to verify her identity before it opened the inner doors; standard practice on one of these secret-squirrel projects, even if she had been delivered by a company admin.

“Identity confirmed. Welcome aboard, Pilot Danika Devon,” a cool, non-commital female voice said. The inner doors breezed open.

“Thanks, Starwalker.”

Adjusting the strap of the heavy bag on her shoulder, Danika stepped inside the ship and glanced around. The place had the bland anti-smell of new ship, with scrubbers so new that the air didn’t even smell like air. After the bustle of Feras’s corridors and streets, it was blessedly quiet, as if they were already out in the depths of space and far from everyone else. Danika could feel herself relaxing already.

The ship was still being stocked for its maiden voyage, so the airlock had led her into a cargo bay. Heavy drones were stacking crates with precise patience in the corner and took no notice of her as she swept through to the inner corridor. Once there, she hesitated, looking down each branch curiously. It was pristine here, bright and new and clean. The deck was barely scuffed from the passing of boots.

“Your quarters are to your right and up a level, Pilot,” the ship said helpfully.

“I know.” Danika had memorised the layout when she got the ship’s specs – it was important to know the shape and size of the craft she was going to have to fly – and the decks were pretty standard for a scout-class. “There’s something I want to do first.”

She turned and headed down the corridor to her left. Up a level and all the way into the forward section, she made a beeline for the Bridge. There was no-one around, though there were distant sounds of movement in the ship, around corners and out of sight. There was no sign of anyone on the Bridge either and she wondered briefly if she should announce herself. The ship knew she was there; the captain had probably been told.

It had been a while since she had had to work under a captain. Test piloting solo-seaters meant she was her own boss, at least within the skin of the ship; now she’d have to get used to taking orders again. She smiled to herself – this could prove to be an interesting mission – and turned to the alcove at the rear of the Bridge.

Her bag slithered down to rest on the floor and slumped against her ankle, and she reached out to touch the edge of the couch that dominated the alcove. It was soft, black, and built to her exact measurements, its curves and hollows designed to accommodate her body. Where her head would rest, small silver glimmers showed the jacks that would hook up to her implants, and her heart beat a little faster at the sight of them. Already, she couldn’t wait to slide inside and find out how this ship felt to fly.

****

“This is going to feel a little weird when I slide it in.”

The voice came from above and behind the young woman’s head as she leaned back in the chair. Her hands curled around the armrests; the implant was so new that it was still tender and she was bracing for the tech to fiddle with it. She’d got the implant as soon as she could legally put pilot-specific tech in her head, and her eighteenth birthday had been two days ago.

“That’s what my first boyfriend said,” Danika said, joking to hide her nerves. “I’m told this should be even more fun than that.”

The tech snorted softly. “You can use it for that if you want, but that’s not what we’re hooking you up for today. Just a standard calibration and tutorial. Are you ready?”

Danika rolled her eyes, careful not to move her head. Mustn’t make him miss the port. “Yeah, yeah. Get on with it already, would you?”

The calibration and tutorial were part of the implant package. Parabola Cybernetics provided them free of charge; they reduced demands for refunds and the chance of someone’s brain imploding when hooked up to a badly-configured system, which was just bad publicity for everyone. Easy, safe, and totally immersive: that was the advertising spiel, and for once, Danika had faith that it was close to the truth.

Though she had come to Dyne, the cybernetic colony, to get her implant, they were light-minutes away from the planet now, hovering in the patient vacuum. These kinds of tests were better conducted out in space where there was less chance of her flying into something. Another safety measure that she wondered about: who was it really for?

She felt metal touch metal and gasped. Her eyes flew wide open and her body went rigid in the chair, but the jack had already snicked into place. The pain she was bracing for didn’t happen; just the mild discomfort of the implant port tugging against the healing flesh around it. But there was something else as well. A connection. A whisper at the base of her skull that beckoned her.

“Now, like we practised,” the tech was saying behind her. “Imagine your mind is a flower, and you’re peeling open the petals, one at a time. Count upwards to ten, slowly…”

Danika ignored him, searching for that whisper. It felt like it was coming from behind a door; it took her a moment to realise that the barrier was the safety shield between her and the ship, the one they put in place so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed when she hooked up with it. Impatient, she did what they had warned her not to: she threw away the flower metaphor and imagined a door, lifted a booted foot, and kicked it open.

It was like someone had peeled off her skull. She was wide open, exposed. She could feel the cool breath of the vacuum. She could see everything: the inside of the Bridge, the open space outside of the ship, even the distant gleam of Dyne where she had got the implant. She could feel her body sitting stiffly in the chair, and hanging patiently in space. Inputs overlaid each other and she closed her eyes to focus on the new information.

It didn’t hurt. It took her a moment to realise this, and when she did, she grinned. The tech was still droning away behind her but she was busy exploring her new senses/ors. She could see all around the ship-self, not just in front, and the sensors extended well beyond the spectrum of human sight. She could see magnetic patterns in the vacuum, the halo around Dyne, the trails of ships’ passings. The void was not as empty as she had known. It was full of colours so rich that it murmured at her and brought space alive with sound.

Breathlessly, she turned her attention to her ship-body. It was a small, aged shuttle, sublight engines only, no FTL drive (no-one calibrated a pilot implant in an FTL-ready ship, not since a new pilot panicked and destroyed half a moon by trying to jump through it). Little stubby wings, a shape that nodded to aerodynamics, and a powerhouse of sublights in a fat ass, built to punch the ship out of atmosphere over and over again.

On the Bridge, Danika opened her eyes. The tech was standing in front of her, leaning in to peer at her face, and he blinked with surprise when she met his gaze.

“Are you counting?” he asked.

A laugh burbled in her throat. “I’m ready to start flying this thing now.”

He looked perturbed and straightened up. “You might want to take a moment to get used to the sensory input. It can be disorienting at first.”

“Disorienting? It’s wonderful. I want to see more.”

The tech nudged at his handunit with a thumb and frowned at the readouts. “Everything seems to be normal so far. Spikes are nominal…”

Trying not to look too smug – she was too excited to pull off ‘smug’ – Danika closed her eyes and settled back in the chair more comfortably. “Where are the flight controls? I don’t need to worry about the inertial dampeners, right? The automatic systems will handle that?”

“Yes, that’s correct. The ship will balance your manoeuvres. Now, this isn’t like walking or running; ship propulsion feels quite different.”

“I’ve been flying since I was six. Just tell me how to find the flight controls.”

“This is quite different. There’s no stick or pedals for this; you’ll have to learn how to fly all over again. You need to find the main sublight engines in the aft section, and the thrusters at all the major points of the ship: nose, wings, tail. Just feel your way through the sensor feeds until you locate them all…”

The tech’s voice faded again as she got lost in the inputs from the ship. The cool weight of space outside the hull caressed her. The colours of magnetic ripples. The whispered song of gravity fluctations from Dyne’s sun.

There were warm spots too, within her ship-self. The hot core of the sublights was the easiest to find, and after that, the perforation of the thrusters along the lines of the ship were no trouble to locate. But there was something in the way, a sheet of fabric between her and the propulsion systems, stopping her from touching them. A gossamer-thin safety protocol, so that she didn’t spark the engines too soon. She tore the threads down with happy hands, swept aside the spider-silk and felt the bright, hard presence of the ship’s power. She laughed low in her throat and fluttered a wing-thruster, sending her ship-self into a barrel-roll.

The tech was right: it wasn’t like the flying she’d done before. She had to learn what effect each thruster had, how to balance and manoeuvre using her whole body, not just her hands and feet on controls. It was like those flights when she would turn down the inertial dampeners so that she could feel the drag of inertia on her, feel the bump and rock and spin of the ship, and the delicious way that speed pushed her back into her chair. But this was so much better. She got all that feedback without fiddling with the inertial dampeners, and more.

She had imagined what it was like to fly as a ship since she first put her hands on the controls of her father’s ship. Even under his strict guidance, it was fun to fly the old freighter. It was better when he got her her first junked shuttle to play with. As a child, she used to run around with her arms flung out like wings. Now her arms were wings and she had put her ship-self into a nauseating spin. She back-thrust against it too hard and spun the other way. Countering with a nose-thruster burst only added another dimension to the tumbling.

“You’re going too fast!” The tech was exasperated with her but not panicking; he meant that she was pushing the connection too fast, not the ship.

Danika opted to ignore his concern. “No, I got it. Just need to get a-hold of this…”

“I’m putting the ship back on autopilot–”

“No!” Danika lifted a hand to stop him and flipped the ship over again. Spinning, so much spinning. The stars were blurring in her senses/ors. She couldn’t tell where the sun was, or Dyne. ‘Up’ had no meaning in space but orientation was still useful. Necessary. Losing it made her want to puke on the tech’s shoes. She swallowed it back.

“I’ve almost got it. Hold on, just hold on.”

She wrestled with the ship-self. She tried to feel the spin, its rhythm and pattern. Breathe. Push through the disorientation, find the control that will bring it all back into focus. Think about what her hands would do on the controls to fix this and follow it through to the effect on the ship. Mirror it now on this ship-self. Push back against the flipping, one little thruster-flutter at a time. Small motions, flicks of her fingers rather than flaps of her arms. Straighten it out.

Coming out of a spin was the only time anyone could accuse Danika of flying straight, and she did it well when she concentrated.

Dimly, she was aware of the sweat trickling between her shoulder blades and the soft cursing of the tech in the background. Stars settled into their proper alignments, Dyne and its sun resolved into bright balls in the dark, and she grinned. She was surprised to note that she was out of breath. But she’d got it. When the wings waggled this time, it was on purpose.

Got it.

“I’ve never seen anyone pick it up so fast,” the tech was saying.

Danika laughed and reached down into the pit of her belly, where the sublight engines were. They growled and boiled, ready under their leash for her slightest touch. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said without opening her eyes.

She whooped out loud when she kicked the power of the sublights and her little shuttle-self shot off across the system.

****

Seven years and three upgrades later, and she still felt like whooping when she activated a ship’s full sublight speed. Despite the rote tests and the wrecks and the occasional near-fatality, she still couldn’t wait to climb into the couch and lose herself in the flying. She still came out of the couch keyed-up, enervated but tingling, and usually a little turned on.

“You must be Devon,” a new voice said. Male, low, grim.

Danika looked up and knew instantly it was the captain. He wore his shipsuit like a uniform, all neat lines, unstained and uncrumpled, with a pristine white undershirt showing at the neck. The bands of his rank confirmed her guess as they marched across his shoulders. His restrained appearance was spoiled by the sleek fall of his hair, blacker, longer, and neater than hers ever was. Oddly enough, it suited him, unlike the tight-lipped, unhappy expression he wore. He stood straight under an internal weight, a man of contradictions and curious darkness.

She didn’t let him dent her mood. After a couple of months of debriefing and waiting for a new commission, she was going to fly again soon. She held her hand out over the couch towards him and grinned in greeting.

“Danika. Pleased to meet you, Captain Warwick. So, how long until we blow outa here?”

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4 Responses to “Short: Headlong”

  1. Kunama Says:

    “straining to keep up with her hand ruffled”
    hand -> had

    Oh wow. I want to fly now. Good writing!

  2. Melanie Says:

    Thanks, Kunama! Glad you liked it. :D

    (Typo fixed, too!)

  3. Marcus Says:

    Well done, makes flying seem like so much more fun.

  4. eduardo Says:

    So, in the end, in some sense Danika got a desire fulfilled.
    Or, at least, we can say that Starwalker couldn´t come from a better source.
    I wonder if this ability to easily merge with the ship is what allowed a part of Danika`s mind to survive in the end.