by John Johnson
A sci-fi space opera about a pilot trying to find his way in the galaxy.
Karo looked through the tempered windows down at the lush, green planetscape below. White clouds floated and swirled all across the oceans and rainforests below. The planet was surrounded with shining white spots of starlight, and off in the distance the system’s own star shone a great white beam of illumination onto the planet’s surface. Karo felt a sense of longing, to feel a solid planet beneath his feet.
Karo had never known the feeling. He had been born in the dark void of space, and it was here among the stars and galaxies that he lived. Karo lived in a migrant fleet that drifted throughout the stars, eager to trade and coexist with other nations whose influence spanned the stars. Large habitat farms, factories, and residential ships made up the largest of the armada. Next in size were the military vessels, with the largest battleship often acting as the military centre of the fleet. Smaller ships were mixtures of civilian ships and military ships, all working towards different tasks, but all with one purpose in mind: the fleet’s prosperity.
Karo’s outfit marked him for a pilot of his fleet: the Truari Nomads. Numerous fleets had express purposes in agreement with the Star Collective that they must fulfill as well. The bigger the fleet, the bigger the responsibility. Some of the largest and most powerful military fleets are essentially just that, but with their very own infrastructure attached. In response to the economic crashes due to the distance between nations, war fatigue, and resource shortages, these mobile economies were formed. His classification allowed him to military frigates: a promotion he had only just recently acquired.
A door opening to his right broke the young pilot from his reverie. A large form stepped through the automated opening. The sound of metal boots clacking off the ship’s floor and the dull grey of powered armor almost gave the identity of the intruder away. It was most likely his friend, Alaria.
“Still staring at that green circle?” Alaria asked brashly. Ding ding ding! Karo has the correct answer!
“It’s a planet. Say it with me now, PLA-NET.” Karo responded. “Remember? That amazing thing with thousands of ships worth of people on it? I mean, I know it’s hard, wearing that tin hat all the time. I should use smaller words.” Karo referred to the hardened steel helmet Alaria held under her arm. It was a running joke on the ship that any marines on the ship hard their brains cooked medium-well from wearing fully covering power armor suits, and thus were all incredibly stupid. It also didn’t help that some marines lived up to this reputation.
“Fuck off.” Alaria laughed, giving Karo a shove. A playful shove from a woman as large Alaria was enough to knock anyone off their balance. Alaria was of the Gaarion species. Born of an incredibly harsh environment with incredibly robust genetics, the Gaarion were some of the most physically capable species around. The TF Angelos’ marines were an easy fit for Alaria, even if some of the members had an IQ in the lower forties and the manners of a hornet in a beehive.
“Sorry though, little guy.” Alaria said. “It’s gotta suck being denied the planet ticket again.”
“Yeah…” Karo said morosely, “It does suck. Third time is not the charm, ladies and gentlemen. Maybe the fourth time is.”
“There ya go!” Alaria said, bobbing her head with approval. “You still got a lotta time to see a planet’s surface. Maybe then you can figure out what you were looking for.”
“Sheesh, so cynical.” Karo said with a grin. He paused- then changed his tone. “Why are you so bleak when it comes to this stuff anyway? There’s so much we could see out there!”
“I dunno.” Alaria replied. “Most planets are full of the same type of folk we have around here. There are lazy ones, honest ones, and dangerous ones. It’s not really that much different.”
“There’s gotta be more to it than that…” Karo mumbled. “Ah well, I won’t know for sure until I see it with my own eyes. I think you missed something, ya idiot.” He taunted, his carefree smile returning.
“I don’t even know why I try anymore.” Alaria said under her breath, “It’s like talking to a senior AI while it’s buffering.”. She let out a frustrated sigh.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Karo asked, eyes inspecting the marine.
“Yeah actually, we do.” Alaria said, a grin tugging at the corners of her lips. “We have a briefing in twenty minutes in the bow half of the ship, fifth deck.”
Friends in high places. A fifth deck meeting is usually for captains and even admirals. “What are you talking about?” Karo blurted.
“We’re being briefed on the mission details? Didn’t you hear? Araion got hurt and can’t do any missions. Something about a misfire in an ammo dump.” Alaria said, a cocky smile floating to her lips. Karo’s confusion was always a funny sight to see.
“They want me to join the escort?” Karo whispered, breathless. Alaria could barely hear him over the dull hum of the ship’s systems.
“Hurry up, little buddy! Captains don’t like to be kept waiting!” Alaria said, turning on her heel and breaking into a run. Alaria’s alien physique made her incredibly quick. In fact Karo knew that a human pilot, on average, would not be able to catch a marine like that. It made it sting a little more when Alaria would allow him to pass, just to bound past him once again.
Breathlessly, Karo reached the elevator that would bring him and his irritatingly relaxed companion to the fifth deck.
The thick steel doors snapped open with a clang. Inside, it looked empty. Great, we’re early. Karo’s relief quickly shifted to anxiety as he stepped inside to see two captains inside poring over some data tablets. A Stahlhaut’s dull, metallic skin seemed to flow seamlessly to the steel shine of the thick, battleworn armor that the large construct was wearing. Commander Xiv’s large form dominated the back of the table, his yellow eyes shining brightly as he assessed the two soldiers entering the room. His hand servos flexed as he saw that they were the two absentees.
“Nice of you to join us.” His metallic voice boomed from across the room. Commander Xiv was the Marine commander aboard the Angelos and he held his position with a figurative, and literal, iron grip. Standing next to him, it sounded like there was a subwoofer in his chest, but Alaria had told Karo that was practically a whisper compared to what she’d heard him do on the battlefield. His machined frame had several weapons attached that looked like they could level a building. Karo didn’t doubt his marine friend.
“Sorry we’re late!” Karo apologized, cheeks flushing red.
“Sir.” Alaria responded firmly. The second, smaller form hiding under the mountain of matte gray armor turned to look back at the entrants. The woman was wearing the indicators of rank befitting a Captain. Her grey jacket had gold and red trim, and several badges adorned her left lappelle.
“Ah, there’s the pilot we’ve been looking for.” Captain Crawford said, perfect regal tone cutting through the air. The captain’s calm demeanour always put Karo at ease. It didn’t do much this time though. Something was different.
“Ma’am.” Karo addressed his superior with a smart salute. The Captain commanded his division, and so Karo had to take orders from her in the absence of his wing leader. The woman’s dark blue uniform was punctuated with polished buttons and pins. Even though she didn’t wear armor, the edges of her form were sharp enough to make her seem right at home amongst her power-armoured comrades. The woman’s angular face, lit by the table from below and from holographic displays all around her, added to the machine-like effect.
“Operative, it seems it’s your lucky day.” Cromwell said, tone remaining professional. “Your name has come up for Surface duty.”
Karo stared blankly for a moment, incredulous. Then he snapped to his senses, “Ma’am! I’m going on the escort mission?”
“Yes, I trust that’s not too big a surprise?” Cromwell said with an elegant smirk, “It seems your patience has paid off, young man. Eventually, the wheels of bureaucracy do turn. I know you’ve been waiting for this awhile.”
“Yes Ma’am!” Karo said, readdressing his superior.
“Pilot. You must take every precaution for this mission. Come back alive.” The captain ordered.
“Of course, ma’am.” Karo affirmed.
“Anything for me, Commander?” Alaria asked.
“Nothing new, sergeant. Your status on the mission remains unchanged. You’ll be on guard rotation with the rest of your squad.”
“Sir.” Alaria saluted.
The commander nodded before averting her eyes back to the numerous data tablets on the table and holowindows in the air. “We leave at 0400 on the 23rd. Dismissed.”
Karo stabbed his plastic spork into a bowl of pasta, shovelling food into his mouth hungrily. Alaria watched her friend devour the egg noodles with a sort of fascination. A small light flashed on the surface of the cafeteria table the two soldiers were sharing, and burst into a more stable form.
“Hey guys, how’s it hangin’?” A small blue man sleepily asked.
“Great. Truari’s finest over here got on the surface escort mission.” Alaria quipped, indicating the man feasting on a bowl of shrimp noodles, sauce running down his chin. “How ‘bout you, Leoss?”
“Oh, not too bad.” Leoss answered. “Just finished getting the protocols ready for this mission. Turns out the Falcon needed a couple software updates to make it ready to touchdown on a planet. Especially one like Phonos.”
The little blue construct faded from view, just to reappear at eye level with his larger friends, lounging in thin air. Rings of gentle blue light rotated around him as he lazily drifted towards the ceiling, perpetually bobbing up and down in an eternal nap. “Congratulations on the mission, man. I know you’ve been looking forward to it.” Leoss flashed Karo a smile as the pilot gave a thumbs up while stuffing his face.
Leoss was the assigned artificial intelligence that aided Karo with his duties as a pilot. They had known each other since Karo was a teenager, and began his education at the Fleet Learning Deck. They’d been working together since day one. The blue light of the construct’s avatar was almost permanently fixed to Karo during his time “on deck”.
“Yeah, you shoulda seen his face when Cromwell told him.” Alaria chuckled.
“Yeah man, where were ya?” Karo breathed, wiping sauce from his chin with a napkin.
“I was looking for you guys! I might be a god of interstellar travel, but I can’t look through the whole ship at once y’know.” Leoss responded with a shrug.
“Well, you tried. And you failed.” Karo joked, “Anyway man, do you know what this means?”
“Come on, you think I’m not excited?” Leoss said, opening his eyes to look at Karo. “We’re going to the surface! Finally, we can spend some time off-duty that has a natural atmosphere. I’m pretty excited for you to see it.”
“Doesn’t have the stank of industry yet either. Well, most of it.” Alaria added.
“Guys, this is my dream!” Karo exclaimed. “Almost everything in the ships feels second-hand. Like it was made somewhere else, and they’ve been making it for generations there before it got out here. There’s so little originality out here.”
“Are you kidding?” Leoss challenged. “The melting pot of everything is what makes the fleet so original! Locari warrior-priests and Ahvul cyber-magi walk the bridges shoulder to shoulder with Human pilots and Gaarion marines.” He said, indicating his two friends. “Diversity like this never happens in the systems. The Council’s choice to create the fleets changed the universe.”
“I don’t think you’re really missing all that much.” Alaria chimed in. “People across the universe seem to have a fair bit in common, even if it is just tiny bits of likeness for some of the weird asses. Usually, it’s the shitty parts.”
“Thanks, sunshine.” Karo sassed.
“What? I’m bein’ honest.” Alaria replied, shrugging.
“Your honesty is gonna make me take a jaunt out an airlock without a void suit. Damn.” Karo shook his head. “Well, even if it’s as great as you think,” Karo said, nodding his head at the blue wispy man. “And as less shit as the rest of the universe as you think,” Karo indicated the large marine, “I still wanna go. You’ve seen the seven galaxies. And can’t you experience things through the galanet, Leoss?”
“It’s not really the same, man.” Leoss denied with a shake of his head, his form still floating through the air. “Creating new data with my experience is different from just looking through the eyes of someone else.”
“But still, you have something.” Karo said, “I can’t really afford implants that would let me do that yet. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch. Becoming an agent is gonna take years, so this is my best shot at touching the ground.”
“It might even fast forward your acceptance into the Academy, man. They always look at people who “go above and beyond the call of duty” or whatever.” Leoss offered.
“Might as well get it done sooner rather than later.” Alaria admitted. “And plus, I’ll be there with ya to make sure you don’t fuck it up too badly.” She assailed with sass.
“I don’t really see how, but I guess it’s the effort that counts.” Karo riposted.
“Seriously. The surface is a different place from this one made of steel, glass, and concrete.” Alaria warned, tone growing more serious as her eyes hardened. “Threats are a lot more… immediate down there. In space, our sensors can see almost anything coming a mile away so we have time to prepare. Scrambling the jets is probably the most intense thing you’ve seen. We should probably head down to the gym later.”
“I have about a week to prepare. I don’t think there’s gonna be enough time between getting through this intel and prepping my ship.” Karo protested. He quickly finished off his noodles, preferring not to taste them now that they were cold. The sauce would always begin to solidify if it got cold, much to Karo’s revulsion. He stomached the food anyway, and downed a bottle of water to wash the taste from his mouth.
“Shit....” Alaria cursed, then thought for a moment. Karo gulped his juice down in the silence. Leoss drifted through the air for a few moments, before Alaria had an idea. “Maybe you could get Regi to do it?”
“He’s on a contract.” Leoss stated. Several nations would recruit pilots from migrant fleets to help deal with pirates, fortify nations under attack from outside the Galactic Council, or and even humanitarian aid. Truari military are trained for several different roles; A Truari Pilot could fly strike craft one day, and then pilot emergency evacuation shuttles the next. Truari expertise is coveted far and wide, but their rates and number made them difficult to hire at times.
“The same. I think the only one whose name I saw still signed in was Ressan.”
“Well, not quite D-list, but not far from it. Ask him.”
“I guess. I’d owe him a favour though. Augh, he’s so fuckin’ creepy.” Karo groaned. The large Bosillan was an old friend of theirs from the Learning Deck. He’d studied to become a shipwright, and was responsible for the maintenance of several ships. Bosillans were, of course, not humans. They didn’t hail from Sol like Karo did. They made their way into the intergalactic community from a planet with large amounts of jungle covering its land, mostly due to the high water and oxygen content in its atmosphere. Their reptilian appearance and predatory features can be offputting to those from isolated communities, but in the fleet they were just one oddity among many: they were right at home.
“Warning: Danger! Warning: Danger!” Leoss’ light changed from blue to red and several flashing warning signs appeared in the air surrounding the three of them. His eyes opened in mock alarm as he mechanically repeated his alarm. “Owing Ressan a favour isn’t that great of an idea. Dude sometimes gets into some shady shit. He’s set up a lot of accounts, and I don’t think they’re all legit.”
“Your call, man.” Alaria said as she grabbed Karo’s bowl and added it to the pile she had on her own tray. She lifted the load as if it were a pillow and went to return her tray.
“Hmmm.” Karo considered his options. “Screw it, I wanna walk on a planet.”