Charlotte Allard gawked as she stumbled through the engine room of the Alliance. Engineers hurried about trying to keep the pulse radiators from exploding and radiation from the engines contained, but still found time to salute as they passed Captain Garman.
Garman stepped a little further into the room, but held up an arm giving Charlotte a little pause.
“Wait here until I find Hank,” Garman said. “He should have some idea on how we can help you out and get you off my ship.”
“Aye,” Charlotte said automatically, her eyes focusing on a bank of monitors.
The Alliance really was amazing compared to the clunkers back in her flotilla. Water regulation, air purification, waste management, and plasma recycling all took place from here all in one station that she stood beside. Back home they had a team of people for each task.
Charlotte hand balled into a fist, partly out of frustration and partly out of jealously that the reserve fleet lived in such idyllic conditions. They left home later, so their technology was better. They had all the advantages.
Captain Garman grabbed her shoulder and turned her around.
“Charlotte, Hank. Hank, Charlotte. Get on with it. I’m needed on the bridge.”
Hank and Charlotte saluted and watched as the captain left the engineering bay at a limp.
“Well,” Hank said cleaning his hands with a small red handkerchief. He brushed a hand through his dirty blonde hair and thrust the grubby cloth into a pocket. “Yeah,” Hank said noticing Charlotte’s stare. “Lost three fingers my first day on the job a few years ago.” He twiddled his fingers, “Luckily haven’t lost any since. Captain gave me a little briefing on your problem.”
“So what are the chances of repairing my ship?” Charlotte asked, hopes high.
“Pretty low,” Hank said.
“Oh,” Charlotte replied somewhat crestfallen. “I’m guessing taking one of your ships is out of the question.”
“Very out of the question, but you’d have to ask the captain about that.”
“Already have, but thought I’d give you a try you just in case,” Charlotte said with a wink. “I’ll just have to make do and try to repair my ship.”
“And lucky for you, the captain’s asked that I give your ship a once over and make some recommendations on how we can retrofit some of the newer technology into your older model, but I gotta ask—”
“Ask away,” Charlotte said with a sigh.
“Is it true you saved him out there?”
“Painfully true. I don’t see what the big deal is! He sent out a distress call and I rammed the Synthian ship that was chasing him. I bet it’s because I’m from a garage barge. If I was just a fighter, I bet this wouldn’t even be an issue. I’d probably get a medal.”
“No, no, it’s not because you’re from a trash barge. It’s more of an issue of your… flotilla.”
“What that I come from a waste barge from the advance fleet?”
“Pretty much, I think the nickname that’s going around for you is the—”
“I don’t want to know,” Charlotte said holding up her hand.
“It’s a good one,” Hank said with a wry smile. “Anyway, let’s get over to the fighter bay.”
Through several long corridors, up two series of vacuum tubes, and a series of biometrically sealed doors, they finally arrived at the hanger.
Hank whistled as he brushed a hand over the hull of Charlotte’s ship, but stopped just before grazing the jagged hole where a Synthian shell had lodged itself.
“I’ll start taking inventory,” he said.
There was a low hum in the Alliance’s deck plates. Charlotte could feel it through the soles of her boots every time they touched the floor. It was a constant reminder of the sheer power that coursed through the ship’s body.
She paced around the hanger looking to the other more advanced star fighters, but very aware of her feet. Her ship, much like her home, was a clunker compared to the tech here.
She’d spent years scrounging the parts to make her own ship. A little Synthian had even made its way into the ship’s chassis, although the mechanical thugs’ tech was hard to work with.
There was just something about having one to truly call your own that kept her tinkering through the nights and the ion storms.
One fighter tagged “The Beast” was piloted by Eve Winters, the captain of the ship’s guard The Knives. Charlotte had met her earlier and immediately knew what kind of person she was. Short hair slicked back and tight at the temples, make up immaculate and cold, eyes a pale blue. She was an ace, but one who had been bested and she made it clear where Charlotte stood in her fighter bay. And her fighters looked like they could slice through space.
Its single pulse engine burst from the back of the chassis, but the body tapered into a thin point at the front. By the look of it, the ship shouldn’t have been able to fly at sub-light speeds.
Where were all the components held? Where did the fusion cores go? Where were all the weapons?
Charlotte’s ship was a boxy and misshaped mess having been built upon itself every time she remembered a component she needed to add. Even if it wasn’t the prettiest ship, it worked apparently better than The Beast.
“You’re screwed,” Hank said reappearing and wiping his hands.
“Thanks for the confidence booster,” Charlotte said.
“There are multiple hull fractures, the engines are shot, the wiring is somehow made out of copper, and you seem to be missing a floor.”
“It never had a floor, I didn’t have a chance to install it before heading out.”
“You flew out into space without a floor on your fighter?”
“It takes one to know one.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Charlotte said. “Don’t you have any broken down or junked crafts laying around? I can work with anything and find a way to get my ship working again.”
“Sorry it doesn’t work like that here. Every single component in this ship is recycled to ensure we get the most out of it. We send out parts to anywhere they need to go to ensure our flotilla is as optimized as possible.”
“You guys are making this way harder than it needs to be.”
“Well,” Hank mused somewhat weary of arguing. “I think there are some people who honestly would rather you just stay.”
“Well in that last attack we lost three of our best pilots, so there are some try outs for the defensive fleet are going to be taking place soon.”
“What kind of batshit crazy flotilla has tryouts for their fighter pilots?”
“One where there isn’t a heck of a lot going on,” Hank said. “And I think everyone could use a little new blood around here. It’s been a bit boring since the inter-ship transport vessels lockdown a year ago.”
“You guys don’t have huge orgies or something weird like that, do you?”
“No,” Hank said scratching the back of his head. He smiled. “Smallish orgies.”
Charlotte punched him in the arm.
“I need to get back home,” Charlotte said looking to her ship.
“Under captain’s orders, I’ll help you out with that,” Hank said. “I’ll give a shout out across the fleet and see if anyone has the parts that we need to get your ship up and running again. That said, you get started fixing up some of those fractures.”
Charlotte worked through the night and by morning the ship was back to being airtight, save the missing floor. Her piloting suit had escaped the battle unscathed and was stashed in the back of the fighter. It was enough to protect her from the vacuum of space, but Hank had grimaced at the thought of her continuing to use it.
The door to the hanger opened and Eve Winters walked into the room with two cups of coffee. She looked at the boots sticking out from underneath the fighter and caught herself frowning in the cockpit’s reflection. She sighed.
She kicked the chassis sending a nice vibration down the core of the ship. Charlotte banged her head as she slid out from underneath.
“What happened to the floor?” Eve asked.
“It doesn’t have a floor,” Charlotte said somewhat defensively and rubbing her head.
Eve thrust a cup of coffee into Charlotte’s hand and looked into the cockpit.
“Thanks for the coffee,” Charlotte said smiling weakly.
“I guessed you would have worked through the night. How are the repairs going?”
“The hull’s fixed, but the main drive and most of the components are shot. All that’s left are the thrusters, but much good they’ll do if we get into another fight.”
“A fluke at best that the Synthians got past our defensive net, but next time we’ll be ready for them.”
“What happened this time?”
“They weren’t ready,” Eve said. “Simulations are a lot different than the real thing and the pilots we lost couldn’t keep it together.”
“I’ve seen a bit of action,” Charlotte said. “I don’t think anyone is really ever prepared for a fight.”
“Paz, Li, and Elle certainly weren’t.”
“So, what do you think of the Alliance?” Eve asked.
Charlotte sipped the coffee and closed her eyes. “It’s amazing,” she said. “I pressed a button earlier and said ‘Grilled cheese sandwich’ and a little robot came out with a plate and handed it right to me.” She took another sip of the coffee, but went silent. “Great as it is, I think things here are a little—”
“Artificial,” Eve said completing the thought. She sipped the coffee and grimaced somewhat. “A long time ago, I was in one of the smaller flotillas up in the advance fleet. It was a farming vessel and my family grew coffee beans. I was about sixteen when I completed my final exams at the academy and I was chosen for the defensive forces of the reserve fleet. My parents gave me a little bag of ground coffee as a parting gift, but it was confiscated when I arrived here. They said it had biological contaminants.” She took a sip.
“Did you ever get the bag back?”
Eve tugged on her necklace and a little canvas pouch was lifted out from her shirt. “The guy who took it still has a limp. It’s enough for two cups of coffee.”
A wave of guilt surged through Charlotte as she looked down at her mug. “I didn’t mean to say it tasted artificial.”
“Oh, no this is just the replicated stuff. I wouldn’t give you any of my real coffee.”
Eve stared into space for a second. “Wow, this is awkward,” she said.
“Yeah, just a bit,” Charlotte said with a laugh. “Oh well.”
Eve put down her mug and grabbed up one of the sliding repair benches. She disappeared underneath the vessel, and shot out a few seconds later.
“I’ll give you a hand,” she said.
“Ok,” Charlotte said with a smile.
As a fighter pilot, Eve had received extensive training on field repairs for vessels of all different kinds, but Charlotte’s clunker was still a real challenge.
They were sitting at a tool bench going over some schematics when Hank walked in. His hands were full, but he looked a little empty.
“How much work did you do on it?” he asked desperately. “Every time I get a project in the fighter bay, Eve finds a way to butt in and steal away all the work.”
“There’s more than enough for you to do,” Eve said.
“Yeah,” Charlotte said shoveling a spoonful of poutine into her mouth. “Get to work, monkey boy.”
“You owe me one,” Hank said dropping a small box onto the bench. Eve’s eyes widened as she looked at it.
“Ooooo,” Charlotte said picking up the box, but she frowned. “What is it?”
“It’s a microcore fragment,” Eve said. “I don’t think that will be compatible with Charlotte’s ship, but you never know. Also be careful with that.”
“Because there’s a miniaturized sun in here that will destroy the entire ship should the container breach,” Hank said. He saw the expression on Charlotte’s face and waved his hands dismissively. “There’s no way that will happen though. It would take a dark matter explosion or a jump engine split for the container to break.”
“Jump engine split?” Charlotte asked.
“Basically when both of your jump engines end up in the same space after you blink back into existence. The particles don’t like being in the same spot,” Hank said.
“I don’t think giving her that is a good idea,” Eve said. “None of Alliance’s materials are supposed to leave the ship.”
“So it’s a good thing that this didn’t come from Alliance,” Hank said with a wink. “I received a message from someone in B Fleet, a junker who had picked up some tech from an advance freighter a few years ago.”
“The Columbia, I think.”
Charlotte’s hand tightened around the core and she held it to her chest. Eve looked over to her.
“I’d be happy to use this,” Charlotte said with a smile as she blinked away the tears.
“Good,” Hank said cautiously. “I’ll just install this. Give me about an hour or so.”
Eve leaned in and looked to Charlotte. “Are you going to keep us in suspense?”
“Oh,” Charlotte said. “The Columbia was my mom’s ship. It was attacked and destroyed when I was really young, but my dad kept around a few pieces of her hull. He told me a lot of stories about her. This is like having a little piece of her now that the core is part of my fighter.”
“I’m sorry,” Eve said.
“Do you try to keep in touch with your parents?” Charlotte asked.
“It’s a little tough,” Eve said with a sigh. “There’s the time dilation problem with them being moved into the back of the fleet on top of the cost of making calls, but I try to stay in contact.”
“Cherish them,” Charlotte said taking another bite of the poutine.
Hank returned to the bench a little worse for wear and smelling of burnt hair. “The core’s been installed and the new slash junked engines I ordered are humming nicely.”
Charlotte and Eve walked over to the fighter and looked inside.
“I think we did a pretty good job,” Hank said. “And you’ll notice that you’ve got a floor now.”
Charlotte looked puzzled as she sat down in the pilot’s seat. “Oh it’s Perspex,” she said tapping the clear surface with her foot.
“Beam and impact resistant, of course,” Hank said. “It’s enough of a patch job to get you back to your flotilla, but don’t expect the engines to hold out in another fight. Put them under too much pressure and they’ll blow.”
“I’ll just have to be a little more cautious,’ Charlotte said.
The communication system in the hanger flared into life.
“Eve and Charlotte report to the bridge at once,” Naz’ran, the ship’s first mate, said.
The lights inside the hanger bay dimmed and an alarm flooded through the ship. The ship was going on high alert. The Synthians were back. Hank ran with them, but turned toward engineering.
He looked back for a moment and cursed.
On the bridge, Naz’ran was barking orders to his staff, but nodded as Eve and Charlotte walked in. The captain was sitting in his chair, fingers steepled in front of his wearied face.
The view screen at the head of the bridge displayed a debris field larger than any Charlotte had ever seen.
“Charlotte,” Naz’ran said.
“Can you identify the markings on this hull fragment?”
The view screen zoomed into a piece of the debris that was hurtling toward them.
“It’s the Kyoto,” Charlotte said.
“We’ve sent a message ahead to the advanced fleet, but have received no communications back. We fear them destroyed,” Naz’ran said.
“Wouldn’t we have seen the battle?” Eve asked. “The time dilation would have given us plenty of time to see what was happening and deploy backup.”
“We didn’t see anything,” Garman said.
Naz’ran gulped and wiped his brow. “We’ve deployed high-speed scouts to the area, but they’ve gone silent. Charlotte, did your flotilla encounter any hostiles ahead of us that could have done something like this?”
“No,” Charlotte said in a hushed tone. “No, nothing like this. Permission to leave and scout ahead.”
“You stay here,” Garman said. “We might be needing you. Dismissed.”
Eve and Charlotte went down to the fighter bay and put on their gear. The rest of the team had assembled and were hurrying to their fighters.
“If we make it back from whatever is coming our way, I’ll make you some of that coffee,” Eve said. She put on her helmet and ran off to her ship.
Charlotte smiled, but the pain within her chest was growing. The Kyoto was one of the largest ships in the advance fleet. If it was gone, what chance did a waste skipper have?
She jumped into her fighter and fired up the engines. They hummed instead of spluttered like the old ones.
As she exited the bay, she regained her bearings. Her ship rocketed forward joining The Knives in formation.
“We’re doing a short jump,” Eve said over the com. “Follow us at sub light, Charlotte. Don’t push your engines.”
The Knives disappeared, but Charlotte had a few tricks up her sleeve. She flipped a few switches and engaged her jump engines, but it was a bumpy side.
The stars blurred for a moment as she blinked in and out of existence. An alarm went off inside the cockpit, but she silenced it.
All hell had broken loose on the other side. The reserve fleet’s fighters were being cut down and Charlotte’s targeting sensors were bugging out. She looked out of her cockpit. Above her was a dark mass. It had no real shape. It didn’t really seem to exist. It made her eyes sting to look at.
A Synthian fighter sliced past her. Charlotte rounded on the ship and fired. The metallic vessel exploded, but the debris caught her fighter’s underside knocking out the glass floor. The cockpit depressurized.
Charlotte spun her ship around and watched as the reserve fleet’s frigates were being pounded on by the massless void. The shadow ripped through the hulls and absorbed the heat and light from the resulting explosions.
The Synthian battle cruisers were jumping into the fray now, but the mass took their ships into its non-existent arms and crushed them. The enemies were starting to turn on the void.
“Charlotte,” Eve said over the com. “We have to rejoin the fleet! The Alliance is jumping in—”
The com went dead as the bulk of the reserve fleet appeared. Lights from them sliced through space and into the starless mass. It shuddered a moment against the light, but its darkness spread in veins across the immense distances.
Charlotte was a speck in the battle, but she had powered up her jump drives.
“Charlotte!” Eve yelled over the com. “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know,” Charlotte replied.
“Whatever you’re doing, stop! Return to formation and to the fleet!”
Her voice cut off replaced by the deep bass of Captain Garman.
“Pilot return to the Alliance, we have to regrou—”
Charlotte breathed in and shut off her com. He was going to hate that. The void was growing closer to the fleet by the second and the blasts of energy only seemed to invigorate it. Whatever it was the Synthians couldn’t even control it anymore, but it stood to reason that whoever was controlling it was doing so from within.
The jump drives hummed. They phased you out of normal matter and let you coast on the movement of the universe. There was a chance she could end up on the inside of the dark vessel and take it down from the inside. There was a much higher chance that she would be obliterated the second she hit the darkness.
Charlotte flicked a few switches and looked down at her console. The Beast was closing in fast, so she had to do it quick.
A few vectors off were all it took for the jump drive to split. It would be enough to ignite the core and burn the ship from the inside out.
“I must be insane,” Charlotte whispered.
Charlotte jumped into the void. The stars disappeared. Sound ebbed away. The darkness closed in.
Eve broke off pursuit and reined in her ship. As she rejoined the other fighters, her view screen picked up a small light growing in the centre of the darkness.
The core fragment had exploded.
The exposed miniature sun was burning the darkness away, and the Synthians were going into retreat. Whatever it was they had sent against the fleet had backfired completely now.
Eve retracted the blast shield from her cockpit and looked out onto the battlefield. Debris from the both fleets intermingled in the murky soup of space, but at the center of the explosion the light was beginning to fade. Her ship cut through the night, but found only the empty husk of Charlotte’s fighter.
The Alliance and the rest of the large cruisers closed in on the field. Collectors were being deployed to salvage anything that could be saved.
“Charlotte!” Eve yelled over the com. “Where are you?”
“Floating through space, I’ll put on my homing beacon and hurry up I’m start to feel a little sick spinning like this.”
The Beast closed the distance to the beacon and synced up with Charlotte’s rotation. Eve opened up her cockpit and dragged Charlotte inside.
Back in the fighter bay, Charlotte had to bat away the other pilots to get some breathing room. They were trying to lift her up on their shoulders, but Charlotte wasn’t having any of it. Eve pulled her through the crowd.
“They all want to know how you did it,” Eve said with a smile. “I get to find that out first. Let’s talk over that coffee.”
The com hummed into life in the hall and the first mate’s voice rang out.
“Eve and Charlotte to the bridge.”
Up on the bridge, the view screen was directed toward a few limping vessels that were part of the advance fleet. Captain Garman was speaking with the acting captain of the largest ship that was left. The fleet was going to be integrated into the flotilla and the reserve fleet was now on the frontlines.
“There’s a skipper waiting to contact us,” Naz’ran said. “The captain said something urgent about wanting to speak his ‘Goddam Charlotte. Before that, the captain wanted to debrief you.”
Eve and Charlotte stood at attention beside the captain.
“Good piloting out there, Eve. Charlotte, I’m giving you an official reprimand for your actions. You will return to your ship and never set foot on the Alliance again.”
Naz’ran and Garman looked to Charlotte who had pursed her lips. Charlotte looked over to the offending speaker, Eve.
“She saved the fleet!” Eve said. “You remove her from the Alliance and I go too.”
Garman eyed her and frowned. He sighed and put his face into his hands.
Charlotte raised her hand and both of them looked her way.
“The advance fleet is going to be part of the new flotilla, I’m ok with just going home,” Charlotte said.
Eve grimaced and backed down.
Garman stood and the rest of the bridge crew stood to attention. He brushed past Eve and Charlotte, but left something in the newly banished pilot’s hand. It was a small set of keycards.
“Get off my ship,” Garman said.
Eve took up the keys and narrowed her eyes. “I could give him another limp if you’d like me to,” she said.
In the fighter bay, Hank was setting up a new fighter. He walked over and brushed a hand through his hair leaving a greasy black streak.
“I should really stop doing that,” Hank said looking at his hand. “Captain’s orders came as a surprise, but I guess you’re now officially part of the reserve fleet, so we don’t have to worry about intermingling technologies.” He looked over to the fighter. “It’s not exactly top of the line, but I’ve added a few surprises to it.”
Charlotte looked at her keys. “I could stay,” she said. “My dad’s fine and the fleet is being rebuilt, but—”
“The orgies are coming up soon too,” Hank said with a laugh.
“Ok, you should go,” Eve said giving Hank a smack. “I’ll be your escort out.”
Outside of the Alliance, Eve and Charlotte did a few rounds.
“This thing has a real kick to it,” Charlotte said as she watched Eve zip past her. She pushed down the accelerator and caught up, but her ship chugged.
“I think once you tinker with it you should be able to get it up to speed,” Eve said. “Let’s go find the Chariot.”
Traversing the bulk of the flotilla, they found the Chariot docked into one of the larger battle cruisers. It was dwarfed by comparison.
As Charlotte went into dock, Eve spoke over the com.
“I’ve got to get back to the Alliance,” she said. “I know the captain has said you’re not allowed onboard, but I can always sneak you in.”
“I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble,” Charlotte said. “Besides, I think we’re not part of the larger habitation ring, so you can come by too.”
“I do have a few weeks of time off to claim,” Eve said.
“Then it’s a date,” Charlotte said. “You owe me a cup of that coffee after all.”
“I do,” Eve said. “Check you email later. Take care.”
Eve’s com cut off and Charlotte docked.
Inside the small bay of the Chariot, her father stood tapping his foot. He ran to Charlotte’s ship after it docked and wrenched her out of the cockpit.
“My girl!” he wailed. “I was so scared you were gone for good!”
Charlotte eased him off. “I’m back,” she said, her eyes watering slightly. “So, we’re part of the fleet now. What’s our job, Mac?”
Mac wiped away the tears from his eyes and blew his nose into a handkerchief. “Well,” he began. “Captain Sulo explained that we’d be in charge of the habitations ring’s waste management.”
Charlotte paused. “Shit, so we’re doing the same thing…”
“Someone has to do it,” Mac said a little more cheerfully. “And now we’re helping out millions of people instead of just thousands. These pipes will be working hard from now on.”
“Shit rolls down hill,” Charlotte said.
“And in space it floats,” Mac said.
On the bridge of the Chariot, Charlotte was greeted by her friends and family. One of her cousins pleaded with her to take him on a fly about in her new fighter.
The large cruisers were rejoining the fleet and the Aqua was on the view screen. Charlotte watched as it docked with the furthest habitation ring, perched upon it like a hawk.
Some of the fleet was jumping ahead to scout for danger. The Alliance was the last line of defense between space and what was left of humanity.
Charlotte fidgeted as she went about her duties on the bridge of the Chariot. She stole glances at the view screen whenever she could and tapped her foot.
She belonged aboard the Alliance, she could feel it in her soles.
Mac sat down beside her at another console. The orders were coming in and the waste was starting to flow. He smiled at her as he opened up the regulator valves, but noticed the look in her eye.
“Char,” he said. “I know that look.”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“Your mother had that look too when she saw the Columbia for the first time,” Mac said wistfully.
The name of the vessel sent a little pang of melancholy in Charlotte’s stomach.
“Being captain isn’t an easy job,” Mac said. “You’re responsible for more than you can ever imagine and there’s no way to be fully prepared for what’s to come. That said, I think you could be captain of the Alliance.”
Charlotte turned to look at her father. “I don’t want to be captain of it,” she said.
“Then what do you want?”
“Maybe admiral of the fleet,” Charlotte said dismissively. “But the Alliance might be a good place to start.”
Mac smiled. Charlotte released a few more valves and set off to engineering. There was a lot of work to do and shit to get done.