I decided that since it’s nanowrimo, I’m going to try to finish the first book this month. Don’t hold me to that, though you all should know better by now. If not, I’ll still have made significant progress to that point.
Chapter Twelve: So Others May Live
Six-thirty in the morning, not many were awake. She left his room in a hurry to get into hers before being noticed. She didn’t know if anyone would pay attention, and it wasn’t against any rule officially, but the thought made her uncomfortable anyway. It helped that they were neighbours. There was only one person in the hall, a maintenance worker. Quickly, she rushed over to her door and went inside hoping he either didn’t notice or didn’t care. She had his smell and needed to get clean. As the hot water sprayed down at her, she thought back to what happened.
They wandered around the ship until finding a dark room with a window along the wall. They assumed it was an unused lobby in an unoccupied part of the ship. A conversation for maybe an hour happened between them about their lives on Kharak, their hobbies, generally trying to know each other more. She was still under the effects of the ritualistic herbs smoked at the ceremony, her people’s custom. The conversation became intimate, which was her doing.
They sat on the floor staring out the window. “See, thing is, I know I’m attractive. I’m the adorable girl who’s also willing to get dirty with the boys. It would he hard if I couldn’t keep up, but I can, and I’m usually better than them. Fixing machines, setting up the temp mud huts, hunting, you name it.”
“And I’m sure you’ve abused that fact, right?” he said.
“Oh, plenty. Once years ago, I got this kid from another convoy we met with to follow me around to do my chores for an entire week. Then his convoy left. Yeah, I was a bit of a manipulative kid.”
“And that’s changed?”
“I think so,” she said. “Leaving my clan was hard for me, I was twelve. Manaani tend to be mature for their age because of the lifestyle, but even then it wasn’t easy.”
“I don’t think adorable is the word I’d use.”
“Nah, you’ve been an annoying pain since I met you, literally four days ago.”
“It’ll grow on you, you’ll see. I’m still pretty though, won’t you admit?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re not wrong about that. Keep in mind, I was in a relationship until, well, you know.”
She knew. They became silent, and she decided to give him a hug, leaning her head on his shoulder. It took him a few seconds, then he put his arm around her too.
“You don’t need to comfort me about my dead girlfriend, you know.”
“No, but I still want to,” she leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Cute girl gives you a kiss, what’re you gonna do about it?” she joked poking his sides.
“See? Annoying!” he laughed. They held each other’s gaze, and she then couldn’t tell if she was still high or if it was her emotions. They kissed, finally, and it went on from there.
“Wait, did he kiss me, or did I kiss him?” she asked herself washing the soap from her hair.
They went back to his room and continued on his bed. It was very late and she was tired. “You can stay if you want,” he said. She wanted to, and so she did. Nothing more happened between them than they’d already done. He said it was hard to be alone. She knew what he meant, and it’s mostly why she stayed, despite thinking it wasn’t the best idea.
“In my defence, forehead kisses are my weakness. Well, it’s too late now,” she said turning off the water. She’d made it no secret about being attracted to him, but his reasons for sleeping with her were possibly mixed up with him missing his Valerie. She shook that thought, thinking it needless jealousy. She felt guilty not being more sensitive to his loss and decided to give him space if he needed it. He’d felt the most loss in this; that didn’t mean she’d go too easy on him but it did mean she’d be considerate and not an ■■■■■■. Not too often, anyway.
After getting dressed, her thoughts centred on more important matters, like how she would be helping with the first training session. Were it a week ago, she would have felt unworthy of the responsibility. Now, she felt she did qualify, almost dying does that to a person. But she was also a lot younger than most pilots, and it would be difficult getting them to listen to her. She decided that was Mark’s job to help with.
Mark and her left the group in the mess hall after lunch to meet their trainees. Neither mentioned the night before and Mark didn’t look uncomfortable during the elevator ride. She decided she was overthinking it. It was time to be professional anyway, it was sure to come up when appropriate.
There were a couple dozen in the hangar, the same one that only last night was crowded for the funeral service. “Maintenance sure works quick,” she said. They stopped in front of them. There were many in attendance they hadn’t seen yet. Then again they hadn’t met very many of the others, as they’ve arrived at the hangar late each time.
“Sorry if we’re a bit behind, lunch was more important,” Mark joked. Some laughed but most kept serious. “Those of you laughing failed my first test, but it’s mostly to see if this group as a whole feels up to the challenge. Now, we don’t have time to go through all of basic training unless most of you’ve never been in a fighter before.” Apparently most have flown before but none have been in combat. As Mark spoke she looked at each of them taking mental notes. None much older than twenty, still to her annoyance all older than she was. Then to her surprise, she spotted the same maintenance worker from the morning hiding in the back row. “I’d like to have my partner speak about how she felt during her first battle.” All eyes shifted to her. She didn’t know what to say.
“Like, how it felt, or how I’d describe it?” She wasn’t shy but she didn’t expect him to put her on the spot like that.
“Anything, just tell 'em about it. It’s still fresh in your mind is why I’m asking,” he said. It made sense.
“It started as a nervous confusion. Then there were enemies, aliens. They came at us in clusters. I was afraid. It’s not like me to admit fear but it was terrifying. There were several times I only lived because of a chance maneuver to the side, or turning at the exact right time. You can’t plan for that. You guess at it and predict when they’re gonna fire, timing it. Those were just pirates, unorganized, clumsy pirates.”
He continued: “Being out there is a rush of anxiety and fear if you’re not used to it. My job is to make sure you stay alive by giving you some advice over the next few days on how to deal with that rush so you can focus in battle. I want you all to get into groups by rank. Six over to my right and unranked over to my left, and those ranks in between can sort yourselves out. you have twenty seconds.” They both set timers.
“So, what’s the point of this?” she whispered to him.
“Response time and communication,” he said. It made sense. When the timer ran out, he told everyone to stop moving. He pointed to one person standing alone. “What rank are you?” he asked.
“F-four,” he said nervous.
“Rank fours, where are you?” he asked. They raised their hands, he was in between threes and unranked. “You’re dead, by the way. In fact, any of you who didn’t get into position in under ten to fifteen seconds are dead. Communication is vital. Listen to the chatter, pick out what you need to hear, and help out by saying stuff. If you’re quietly talking to only whoever’s closest to you, nobody will hear from the other side of the room to know, or more so, if you don’t talk to your squad mates, one of you might have someone being tailed. You’re far more likely to survive if teammates notice and help out. Might not even know they’re being tailed. We’ll try this again. Twenty seconds, sort yourselves by age, youngest to my right and oldest to my left.”
They set timers, and watched what looked like a mess of running and shouting numbers. Once their timers beeped, he again told them to stop moving. This time, there were no other lone pilots. Actually there was one. “Age?” she asked.
“Fourteen,” he said.
“Any other fourteens here?” he asked. Silence. “Well, looks like you’re not the youngest pilot after all,” he said.
“Ha, ha. I bet you those three beside him are sixteen, how about it, guys?”
“Second youngest isn’t much better,” she said.
“Now then, all rank sixes take three steps forward,” he said. People from a variety of age groups marched to a stop, which surprised her. “How old are you?” he asked the oldest of them.
“Twenty three,” he said.
“Seventeen,” he answered.
“Now, rank fours do the same.”
“Twenty four,” one said.
“Sixteen,” said the other.
“The point of what he’s gettin’ at, is that age isn’t a criteria for skill,” she said. “You see people older with less skill than you and you see people younger with more skill than you. I would know. Fifteen and rank six, possibly up for promotion, or so I’ve been told. So get that out of your minds as it’s useless when it comes down to how likely you are to survive outside the ship.”
“Well put,” Mark said. “Now, we’re gonna put you all in a cockpit and see how you do. I requested ten interceptors, they gave us all fifteen. Find a ship, get in. Isabella and I will come by to assess how you’re doing.”
“Skipping all the theory, sir?” one asked.
“Duh, how’s knowing theoretical info gonna save you against aliens trying to kill you?” she answered. “This isn’t a classroom. If we decide you’re not cut out, you’re out and won’t be flying until you pass. We’d also be a lot more comfortable relying on you guys if you know how to make your ship work the way it was designed to.”
He nodded, and went along with the rest to find a ship. Mark started on the far left of the group and she started on the opposite end.
The first she came to was an older woman, maybe mid-twenties, who was pushing a few buttons, then in frustration hit the dash and palmed her eyes. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“I can’t get it to start,” she threw back. It’s been a rough time for everyone, it wasn’t taken personally.
“Safety breakers. You won’t get ignition if they’re closed.”
Understanding her error, she managed to get it working, and exhaled the pent up emotions.
“Have you been in fighters before?” she asked. “Helps to know your background.”
“Yeah, I’ve flown before. The systems look similar, but some I’m not sure what they’re for.”
“Extra engine controls given it’s fusion torch technology, not exactly what you’re used to. Don’t worry about 'em right now. The sensory inputs are straightforward enough.”
Tara Bendal, was her name. Her house was a vassal of the Manaan. Rank five, age twenty three. There’s that Manaani ageing that’s familiar to her. The desert hadn’t been kind to this one, as her mother would say.
One by one, she talked to them, showed them how things worked if they didn’t know and marked off those she thought needed proper training, and those who she felt could be pushed into their quick three day program to get them battle-ready. Tara made the cut, as did three of the next ones. Then, she was caught off guard by having to assess the maintenance worker.
“Eric Ga—Manaan,” he stuttered. She sized him up, curious. Dark skin, and the pale brown eyes she’d seen on them throughout her childhood.
“Gaalsien or not, I am Manaan. I hold no aggression for the old clan. Now, let’s see what you’re able to do with this thing.”
He nodded, and turned on the engine. “The basic layout is the same as the latest generation superiority fighters, and there’s the added inertial dampening controls and engine systems. Those look like current redirects like on the drill dowsers used where I grew up.” He knew his stuff, at least.
“Can you fly?”
“I’ve only flown in atmosphere, and it was only once. I mostly drove the jets to the hangar and refuelled them, then brought them back out for launch,” he said.
“No flight experience, huh? Ever been in a simulator?” she asked. “I assume you’re unranked?”
“Never even seen a simulator, as you can imagine given my heritage. I did manage to take off, maneuver through, and land in a sandstorm, though.”
“I’ve heard of the Gaalsien moving their crafts when visibility was low to hide their numbers, quite smart. Reckless, but ingenious,” Mark said walking over with his arms crossed. “What brings you here?”
“To the ship or the training?” he asked, it was clear Mark made him uneasy.
“Why you’re on the ship doesn’t matter now, cause the ship’s all there is. I’m more interested in why you want to risk your life to defend people who would otherwise judge you, and tread you like crap.”
“Honestly, I feel I need to do whatever it takes to ensure our people’s survival. I’m one man, but I’ve been around fighters my entire life. I know how they work, I know how they feel when they’re getting too banged up, or when they’re at their limits. If I can help out, I will. I don’t really give a damn what they think of my kiith.” Mark was wide eyed at this answer.
“Well, Isel, I think you’ve found your fellow wingman,” he said.
“Seriously?” she said. “I didn’t think you could choose.”
Eric stepped out of the ship. He was a half-foot taller than Mark was, but had no substance to him, quite lanky. “I’m honoured you think so,” he said. “But why?”
“I have a feeling about it,” he said. The knowing look the two shared reassured her that this Gaalsien was up to the challenge.
“Welcome to the Red Squad,” she said punching his shoulder. “Hope you’re up for it. Cause if you screw up and we all die, I’ll kill you.”
The three of them shared a giggle at her joke, but they still had more pilots to assess. She overheard them talk as she walked off.
“I grew up in Saju-ka,” Eric said.
“Yeah. Listen, I heard your speech last night. Whatever grudges I may hold towards your father don’t extend to you. Just don’t try to get me to sympathize for him.”
Saju-ka… It meant many things to many people. When spoken, the air becomes heavy and somber. The single greatest travesty against the Gaalsien people. An estimated five thousand buried alive, and thousands of years of history erased. What remains of the Gaalsi traditions and texts slithered their way into Manaan convoys and various Sjet databases over time. Some scholars grew mad with wonder at what was lost in its libraries after the attack. Even though many of the Gaalsien joined her caravan, she had never met anyone from the great temple.
They continued assessing the pilots, the next rotation of fifteen was all they could get through. After gathered again on the deck, Mark said some things about it, and asked thirteen of them to step forward. These would be the first to get the fast training they had planned. The rest would have their chance, he promised them of that.
He had a way of getting the full attention of everyone in the room. Maybe they respected him, maybe it was his status. She couldn’t tell. Either way, it made him a leader to them. She saw it in their gaze as he continued through the lesson, and wrapped it up.
Afterwards in the elevator, she mentioned it to him. “You think so?”
“They listen to you, they respect you, they even like you; unlike Leo.” They exchanged a laugh.
“For the record, I don’t regret last night,” he said. She nodded. “It’s nice to finally be accepting that this is real and not some nightmare I can’t wake from.” She gave him a kiss before the door opened and left to finish reading a bundle of pages she’d found that morning in the lobby. She had no idea who it was, it was simply signed E.G. but much of what she had read sounded very familiar to her.
As for Mark, she was uncertain what to think about it at that point. She decided to go with whatever happens, and worry about it when there was time to worry. Live life day by day, the Manaan way.