Fighter Pilots 2: Dissention (Full Sample Chapter)
Those interested in representing this project may contact Matt Sveum.
This is book 2 in a planned trilogy. Full manuscripts for both are available upon request.
Act 2 Chapter 5
Operation: Mist Walker
“Descent engaged. Touchdown,” Destiny's fighter AI did what AI's did best—state the obvious. The landing sequence went through the motions, and the turbines' whine diminished to uneasy silence. Without taking a single moment for respite, the pilot tossed off her helmet. She decked and clicked all her atmospheric gear, unclipped her shotgun from storage, and finally got boots on the ground.
Stems and vines snapped beneath footfall, but the lush, interwoven jungle wasn't going to fool a former resident of Tanaxin. Destiny was all too aware that the vivid canopy and vibrant undergrowth had become merely a cosmetic cover up for the vast manufacturing network of biotechnology and communications that lay beneath. Nature was no more valuable to these people than quaint wallpaper. As such, Destiny's first task was to uproot the broad fronds around the small clearing, and appropriate them as improvised cover. An above-ground landing, or at least under the canopy would have been preferred, but the landing gear had more than its share of flaws. That worthless sloth couldn't even bother to replace a simple repulsor. He's in for a truly eye-opening experience the next time I see him sleeping on the job.
Positioning herself to pull up the desired foliage, Destiny realized that at face distance, the environmental condition was worse than she remembered. It's all biomechanical now. Unfortunately, the best she could do right now is shake her head, and hope her large shroud came off as a large shrub from a distance.
Blue-gray sky, jungle mist, and exhaust vents tried their best to swallow her whole, but they were no match. Destiny fought back, and pressed several klicks deep into the wilds on foot, until she arrived at what she was looking for, thoroughly drenched from humidity. Looming over her, and the rest of the vast greens and oranges, was a colossal tree—a real one. Memories came flooding back to her: late afternoons after academy training, talking to him for hours in its shade, racing through the topiary. But as she wiped the mist and sweat from in front of her eyes, she saw it was no more than a husk of a trunk now. The real question still remained; Destiny plunged headlong into the wall of growth surrounding it, not resting until her newly brandished blade uncovered the answer.
Through the last layer of brush, and an obsolete steel maintenance door which, admittedly, was harder to slice and ram through than she gave credit, the intruder found her old home away from home, just the way she—they—had left it. Or she'd thought, until her eyes adjusted to the unlit hole. The dust settled on decrepit scraps, and the smell of stagnant air punched her in the lungs. She was the first to give these walls a gasp of outside air in a generation. It began to occur to her, all at once, that seasons could die the same way people could. Dad...Mom...Misery.
But not him. He's still alive. He has to be. He promised me. Destiny clenched her fists. She was strong enough. A new season would be born by her hands, with the help of her friend.
Hours passed lazily, the time change reflected only by the drifting smog in the sky. Being in-atmosphere on Tanaxin was almost torture after being subjected to arbitrary space hours for so long; the only difference being the sky was a murky blue instead of empty black. Doubt was starting to fester in Destiny's mind as she scanned the hazy horizon from the topmost yardarm of the tree. The entire planet was one big communications array, and the hub rooted in the tree should have been able to carry great weight in the signal output. It's an obsolete station, but it can still route in with the right power source. That much hasn't changed. Why is it that people do? Is there no one I can trust anymore!? She punctuated her frustration with a single hammer of her fist. Leaves rustled and the wood shook down to the core of the trunk. Wild, winged inhabitants fluttered away, squawking in protest.
“That's it up ahead! Contact 30 meters!” A voice sounded in the distance, echoed by others.
There was a moment of panic; it seared the back of her neck. Had she given away her position? With agile limbs flexing, Destiny descended and branched out to get a better vantage point. Was it he whom she sought? To her elation, surprise, and dismay, she spotted an entire company of infantry advancing and securing the clearing—at the helm was a kind face and bright eyes that been further chiseled into stone over the years. Looks like someone got a promotion, she smiled inside.
“Commander Jacobson, we've confirmed this is this site is the source of the distress signal. But it looks like this place's been out of commission for a long time.”
Christian Jacobson heard what his lieutenant was saying, but he wasn't listening. His drenched, white service uniform clung to his skin and was nearly see-through in the humidity of the mechanical jungle, the many decorations and blue, striped accents on the arms and legs not doing much to accent his uncomfortable appearance. If, however, one only looked at his defined jaw, green eyes, and combed-back coffee hair, one would see the picture of poised perfection. The commander brushed the one strand of hair that always hung down in front of his right eye to the side, and ruefully gazed at the imposing colossus of a tree rising from the mist. Had it really been that long? A loud hiss interrupted his reminiscent daydreams—like a dozen hydra heads surrounding them all.
“The irrigation vents! We're losing visual! Orders, sir!”
“Hold!” Jacobson ordered fiercely, but calmly. It was about that time of day anyway. With the vast energy and information currents passing through the roots, they would overheat and fry without the irrigation vents spitting thick clouds of water on them every half-cycle, sometimes more depending on the temperament of nature. What he saw as the streams of fog dissipated was anything but ordinary—though from the events prior to now, he could tell that this cycle would not be like the many routine ones he'd had for the past seven kronos.
“Hello, Christian,” the velvet words flowed from a beautiful, vaporous silhouette.
“Krystina? Please, tell me it's really you,” Jacobson begged the foggy form.
Destiny didn't respond with words. Instead, she stirred the veil by walking in a straight line toward Christian, her porcelain cheekbones and frostbiting eyes coming clearly into focus. As she got within 2 meters, the unit followed security protocol, and she was immediately encircled by armed guards in tactical suits matching the commander's colors.
“I said hold!” Christian's voice reached a peak of fierceness and authority that none present had witnessed before. His brow remained tense and furrowed, but by this point it was because he was trying to grasp the figure he saw in front of him—trying to determine whether it was tangible or a figment.
Destiny merely stood stone cold in upright posture, a hand on her hip. The thick stock of the gun on her back, along with the collar of her flight vest broke the contour of her face and partially obscured the expression on her lips. Form fitting leggings flowed down into high-top ranger boots, reinforcing the sturdy appearance of her hourglass stance. Dirt and grime made the red bodysuit underneath the undone top look like her heart was bleeding.
“What are you doing here, Krystie?”
“You should already know why I'm here.” Destiny said sternly.
“Yes, of course I'm aware that you cast the signal. But for you to come all the way back here and do that, after what we agreed upon when we were teenagers...” Memories swam through Christian's mind. “It has to be something dire. I'm here now. Tell me, what do you need from me?"
“It's...kind of a long story,” Destiny began. “But, the bottom line is, I was on a mission and I got separated from my superior.”
Christian tried to hide his strain to comprehend, but he knew Destiny could read his face.
“I have criminals pursuing me; My wingmate left me; I have no way of contacting my officer, and I have no one else to turn to. I've never felt so alone. Is that 'dire' enough for you, Christian? Do you know what it's like to have a purpose, and a dream, and desires, and companionship, and then just have them all ripped from your beating heart?”
“Hey, hey. Shhhh. It's okay. Slow down,” Christian calmed. Seeing her perfect poise break down in front of him was too tragic to bear for him; he stepped closer and placed his hands on her shoulders as supports. “Just tell me who it is that you need to find. I have a thousand soldiers at my disposal. We'll get it done.”
Destiny raised her eyes to his from beneath sodden, blonde ringlets. Any tears that may have escaped her control would be hopelessly lost upon the already drenched face of steam and sweat. “I need to find Admiral Noble of SAF Gamma Branch.”
“'Admiral Noble?' Do you know his specification or class number?”
“No. I don't.”
“He was your commanding officer and you don't know his stats? What kind of detail did he put you on?”
Destiny sighed, and shook her head at the ground. “I met him during Special Ops trials. He immediately threw me into elite training. A few cycles after I graduated, he sent me and my wingmate on a private recon mission to investigate a missing Imperial vessel. But when we got onboard, we found out it was commandeered by pirates, and they were running some experimental operation. We were captured and interrogated, but we managed to escape—barely. That's why I need to get in contact with Noble. He may think I'm dead by now!” Her emotions tightened their grip on her.
“I can see how you'd be upset. Being presumed dead while still among the living is a travesty. I'd have to say, though, it's not nearly as painful as presuming someone to be alive, when in reality they're dead.”
Who's dead? Is he talking about Noble? How would he know if—It was too late to reverse the damage. Destiny's emotions had now fully betrayed her.
Commander Jacobson lifted all five fingers high over his shoulder, then with a flick, bent them flat against the palm—as he had been instructed on Tanaxin by His Royal Hand of the Imperial Throne Military Academy. That was the silent, unmistakable order to seize a prisoner. “Krystina Donna Madison, you are hereby placed under arrest on charges of pirating, evading arrest, and high treason against the Empire.”
“I'm what!?” Finally, the eager guns turned on her, safeties clicking off and rounds growling in their chambers. Three men groped her arms and neck from behind, shoving her wrists into shackles and her knees into the earth. “How can you do this to me? I'm an operative in the Imperial Military! I'm a servant of the Grand Minister and my nation! I'm your friend, Christian!”
Jacobson's face, unlike the expressionless helmets around him, showed a shred of remorse. “I know. I loved you, Krystina. And I know I promised I would always be there for you if you needed me. But I have orders to follow. If everyone just shrugged off their responsibilities in favor of personal attachment, the things that make this nation great would fall all to pieces in a heartbeat. I'm doing my job, nothing more. I'm sorry.”
His words wrecked Destiny's soul, running her through like a tristeel battering ram. Her sternum felt like it had shattered. He's gonna tell me about following orders? I live for my duty! All I did was follow orders. I'm a patriot; how could this have happened to me?
The immeasurable span of time that followed was locked away Destiny's mind; she spent it staring at the dirt, metal, and interwoven wires of roots, an angry fire growing in the pit of her chest. Whether she walked on her own two feet, or was dragged, she had no idea. And when she'd stopped, she only continued staring down, the flames feasting and growing ever gluttonous for revenge, even as the ground beneath her began to churn and writhe. Hair whipped across her face and in her eyes. Every sound that reached her ears was slowed and distant at first, drowned out by a roaring wind—the voice of rage personified. Nonetheless, it was impossible for her to mistake a turbine engine of a Imperial craft.
Touching down just a few short metrics outside the south wing of the Rautwall Imperial Prison complex in the Loyal City of Vaye, a transport's engines cut out, and its loading hatch opened, slamming like a rusty castiron door and crushing innocent faux plants beneath it. Down the gangway walked the mastermind behind the Throne's entire prison network, his personal guard unit close in step. Crossing the yard, Jacobson's convoy converged on the LZ.
“Mister Executive Warden, sir, I wasn't expecting the honor of meeting with you personally.” Christian hustled to greet him.
“'Mister Executive Warden?' What do they teach in Academy on this dimwitted, godforsaken outerworld? You will address me by my military rank, Commander,” the Warden spat back, making a broad and blatant gesture toward the Wings of Order, among other decorations, proudly perched on the left breast of his uniform.
“Y-yes, sir, General sir.”
“Where is the traitor? I need to see her with my own eyes, and for your sorry sakes I hope this uncharted stop was worth my while, because if you have the wrong person, the wrath of the Throne will be the least of your—rest my soul, is that her?”
“Yes, sir. This is Krystina Madison, the female mentioned in arrest order A2015. She matches the description, and she confirmed she was fleeing an imperial vessel. She also mentioned being under orders from one Admiral Noble.” Christian motioned for his lieutenant, and the strong-armed professional moved to straighten the suspect's posture, raising her reluctant eyes to meet her accuser. Destiny recognized the Executive Warden, but not as a General. To her, he was better known as The Minster of Justice, the one who oversaw all of the Empire's investigation, prosecution, and sentencing procedures. If he was here, that meant he was taking personal interest in her case, which was not a good omen at all.
“How disappointing.” The Minister pressed himself up to within foul breath distance from the prisoner—within sweat dripping off his brow distance, within purple skin flakes falling out of his multi-horned scalp distance. “After all the tales I've heard of the cunning and elusive mystery woman, who crippled our cruiser and brought our finest units to their knees, I was expecting a sight that was much less...pathetic.” With this, he turned his back. “Get her onboard. We must make haste if we're to make it to Iconoclast by 18.”
“Yes, sir!” All but two of the Minister's guards overwhelmed and dominated Jacobson's group, latching a cuff around Destiny's neck, and heaving so hard forward that she lost her footing. She bounced off the black-clad guard in front of her, only so she didn't fall. Immediately he turned. “Stop resisting, outlander scum!” His verbal command came secondary to the backhand strike across her right eyebrow.
Gritting her teeth, she shot back a feral glare that would have made the pulse of any normal man stop cold. “I'll show you resisting, fleshwipe!” Destiny barked, throwing a hurricane of round kicks to the legs, then slamming into the offender's helmet with a flying knee. As the others stepped in to subdue her, she ducked and weaved the plasma chain around a hapless guard's collar, ending with him as a strangling shield on her back, free to pour out more fury on the next unlucky soldier from the bottomless abyss in her heart.
Panicked, her leash bearer freed his comrade, then reeled the cord taught, down to the last centimeter, making Destiny gag and stumble again. This time, the remaining guards made sure to keep her in check with bone-crushing grips on her waist and upper arms. The pain subsided after the triple set of magnetic shackles cut off the circulation to her legs.
Christian nearly burst into tears, but he swallowed it and swelled his shoulders. “General, you can't treat her this way. She's not a Colonial! She's a full citizen, a servant of the Throne! Division 7 of the SAF, Spec 7, Class 99!”
“Ah...You would have her charged with impersonating a soldier as well?” A mere glance over to the Minister's right hand guard triggered an adjustment to Destiny's arrest order on a holocomp. “Many would agree that crime is the same as treason. It's not every day I get to snag a double traitor.”
Christian growled. “I am not the one charging her! You know that abuse of a citizen before trial is against the law!”
“Stand down! That's an order. You know nothing of the law, nor what this one has done to trample all over it. Do you value this foolish girl enough to risk your own status? To risk the life you've manage to scrape together from between the toes of giants?” The Minister's eyes turned from a fiery red to black. “What would happen if you were wrong about her, Commander?”
Commander. Such an impressive-sounding title. At any moment Christian could give orders to a thousand people, and it would be done without a word from any of them. Yet he could say nothing; he could do nothing—nothing but watch as the one who meant the most to him was dragged away like fine jewelry ransacked in the night. If they could keep her in the underground, root-lined cells of Rautwall, she'd be so much better off. Even as the wild wails from the prisoners below could be heard from his very footing, anything was better than Iconoclast.
Finally starting to water, Christian's eyes followed the fired-up transport vertically, along the skyline of Vaye, with its many ancient trunks infused into man-made buildings, the tops of which could never be seen on any day through the gray atmosphere. He strained to track the vehicle for as long as he could, and even tried to grasp it back from out of the sky with his hand, but soon it too vanished in the haze.
Dumbfounded at where the question came from, Shock set down his arc buffer and stood up from beneath the hull of his fighter. Turning around and lifting the visor confirmed that it was Angel who had asked—the same question he had asked her during the overnight hours after their first mission together. Blankly she stood in custom, form-fitted white flightgear, processing vest on top, awaiting a response.
“I—Yeah,” he stuttered. “I mean, yeah I'm good. Why do you ask?"
Angel took a step closer. “You were inactive for 23 seconds. I can help if you would like. Carbon buffing is imperative before atmospheric flight, and I am very capable.”
“No, no. I know you are. I was just...thinking.”
“Thinking? Like memory? Or 'emotions?'”
An anemic smile formed beneath Shock's helmet. Angel may have caught a glimpse as Shock removed it and ruffled his hair—the black fringes mingled with the blonde center. He shook his head. “I guess you could say it's both. Hey, Angel, I—”
“All agents to your posts. Pilots to your fighters. Let's get this show on the road!” Boomed the buzz-kill voice Shock had grown to hate. It bounced around the hangar a few times before grinding to a halt inside his eardrum.
“We should get going.” Their brief exchange was brought to a close as Shock's helmet returned to its original resting place, visor down, hopelessly boarding up any window Angel may have had into his emotional state. He would be locked inside of his own mind on this one, claustrophobic and alone, just like the skull in his helmet. He would be the only one to feel the blade of guilt beneath his ribs, gnawing at him. He would be forever cursed to know that if anything happened to Destiny, he would be to blame. And then there was Angel.
After they entered the cockpit, she started the takeoff protocol from the back seat. Her well-being was bonded to his like an unborn child to its mother. One mistake—that's all it would take. As every engine in the squadron groaned to life, Shock realized that whatever horrible trap he was walking into, one way or the other, he deserved it.
Red haze infested itself in front of Destiny's eyes. Pain, rage, blood—She wasn't sure. She didn't care. All she wanted was to see clearly the faces of those she would crush between her fingers as soon as they released her. But it was not meant to be. The cowards hid behind their visors and the single, stark floodlight drenching her body from behind them. One of them drove an axle rod into her left flank, splitting and prying apart her tenth and eleventh rib.
“You like that, pajji slime?” He pressed and twisted the thin, carbonized bludgeon in every direction, from one extreme to another.
“I'm actually kinda...ticklish there,” Destiny hoarsed out.
“Oh you want some more then!? Is that it?”
“Why don't you untie me and I'll show you what I want, you pandering clutz!”
“You are nothing! You belong beneath the sludge on the bottom of our boots!” The ringleader of the six stepped forward and steel-toe kicked Destiny in the mouth, slamming the back of her head into the deck, followed by the chair she was strapped to.
“Are you holding back?” Destiny challenged. “Or are you just that pathetic?”
“Let me teach you something about disrespect! This is what happens when an outlander traitor messes with Sovereign elite!” Blunt metal caught her square on the left temple. “And this! And this!” The guard was a club-baller gone mad, teeing off on her jaw, cheekbones, brows, while others' boots joined in on the parade, not discriminating which part of her head or torso they trampled.
“Is that the best you wimps can do?” Destiny spat out between swallowing soles. “Come on, I want to feel something!”
The ringleader lifted her by her throat, and wrung her out to dry for a second, before spiking her chair back down on its legs, digging the shard of his kneecap into the flesh of her thigh. “Don't worry, sweetheart. We have plenty of ways of breaking you.”
“That is enough!”
Each of them shot up to attention and saluted.
The Executive Warden continued, “Do you want to end up where she's headed? I will sign your execution orders myself without so much as a blink! Get her back to the holding barge on the double. And actually do your infernal jobs for once, would you?”
Lest they suffer the same humiliation as before, the guards were swift and precise in the way they broke the chains to Destiny's chair, but still held her tightly. Though in her condition, slumped in their grips, dragging her was essential to relocate her.
“Hold,” The Minister ordered as the escorts where about to pass by him. They lurched to a stiff stop, standing stalk still. Silence hung like a dead man. Then the Minister plowed five scaley, violet-gray knuckles deep into Destiny's abdomen; the uppercut penetrated her intestines and smashed her stomach against the back wall of her thoracic cavity.
Destiny vomited bile and blood.
“That is how you strike an enemy.” The Minister adjusted his gold cuff links. “Now get out of my sight, all of you.”