Graf had survived more battles than any living pilot, which made his time on Earth all the more precious. However, the comm unit call he received from his commanding officer confirmed his suspicions: his short vacation was over.
Naked, as his pre-battle ritual dictated, he crossed to his room’s wall speaker. “On… Channel Eight.”
A flamboyant male voice spoke, “…and what a battle it’s going to be with our hero, Graf Strydor, fighting on the front lines again. In honour of his many victories, we want you to call in and tell us your favourite Graf stories.”
Graf grinned. A little ego-stroking always raised his spirits. He twisted the knob to max volume and entered his en-suite. Pulling the shower lever, he stepped into the powerful spray.
“Our first caller is the wife of a Talmari mechanic and a vocal supporter of our military. Please tell us your favourite Graf story, ma’am.”
“Well, I heard from my husband… that… after he shot down several Rattler ships, his own ship was so damaged it could barely fly, yet he returned to the front line the next day.”
“That’s right. No close call will frighten our champion.” The announcer’s tone was dismissive, as though wanting to proceed to a more exciting rumour. “Thank you for your story, ma’am. Next, we have a young boy from Western Sector C. Young man, tell us your exciting story.”
When the shower windows were completely fogged, the timer clicked and the water became sudsy with body wash. Bubbles quickly filled the shower, and Graf used a sponge to scrub himself.
“Ah…ah, am I—?”
“Yes, you’re live, young man. Tell us a story about your hero.”
“Is it true that he was forced to crash his Tamari, got eaten alive by a Rattler and then shot his way out from its belly with his laser ring?”
“Ha-ha, so I’ve heard. One of his best stories yet, I think.”
“I think so, too.”
As Graf squirted shampoo onto his dark hair, he had to admit that he didn’t fully recall the event. As always, he remembered the ship going down. Battle after battle, he would eliminate a few Rattler ships, get hit by a beam and crash. After he woke up in a hospital bed, his teammates would relay how he had somehow managed to return, change the tide, and save the day.
“Our next caller is a man from… well, it doesn’t say. Oh well, what is your heroic story about Sir Strydor?”
“Heroic story…” The man’s voice sounded solemn but suddenly sped up. “I wouldn’t call it that, but a ship crashed on our street a year ago. There was blood everywhere, and when we saw the body, it was—”
“Hello? Hello? I’m sorry, his call just disconnected. Probably a bad signal. Moving on then. We have a man who claims he saw Graf destroy two Rattler ships with a single laser!”
Having heard enough of his exploits, Graf pushed down the lever and grabbed the nearest towel. He dried himself quickly as a guffawing proletarian told an obviously exaggerated account of how he had destroyed a dozen Rattler ships with half as many lasers.
“Off,” he commanded.
In the ensuing silence, his comm unit finally rang loud enough to be heard. “Oh, shit! Connect call.”
His commander’s voice boomed from the speakers at the same loud volume as the Talkback. “Graf, what’s your ETA? And turn down your speakers. Don’t need my ugly-ass voice screaming back at me.”
Graf couldn’t help but smile at the irony. “Volume, twenty percent. Sorry, sir. I was listening to a Talkback podcast.”
“I hope that garbage doesn’t leave you feeble-minded when you arrive at 0800. You only had this vacation because the Orbiter didn’t have enough resources to repair your Talmari.” Disgust laced Commander Arden’s voice. “You’ll be on time.”
The line disconnected, and, although he wasn’t really running late, Graf rushed to don his underwear and skin suit. Not the most flattering attire but at least the special underwear didn’t allow too much of a bulge for cameras to capture. He swung his arms and kicked to see if everything was in order and moved to a metallic pad in the centre of his room. A red light blinked on his wall.
The pad lowered him into the garage. Graf found that no matter how well-lit, he always found garages too dark. That said, his and the Talmari hangars were the only garages he had entered in years.
A feminine robotic voice asked, “Which number?”
The back of the room rotated like the barrel of a revolver and ejected a transpod. Adorned with colourful advertisements, the translucent orb rolled toward him, opening with a hiss. He jumped in and sat down. The door closed and the transpod rotated out onto the second level of the city’s plate, tunnels restricted for those with high authority. This would have allowed for privacy if it weren’t for the glass ceiling that allowed pedestrians to admire the militant class and their privileges.
Rolling through the tunnel, he regarded those above him. The banners they waved revealed that a few had been waiting for him to pass. Among the waving and stomping, he could read some of the boards pressed against the glass, which read: “WE LOVE YOU GRAF” “KILL THE RATTLERS” and “GO NUMBER 21!”
The last startled him. It was the number of his transpod.
How the hell do those Freezoners know that? Has someone hacked my security system again?
“You will arrive at the hangar in ten minutes. Would you like a notification?”
“No, I think I’ll be able to stay awake for ten minutes.”
He was dozing until the door’s hiss startled him. He exited the transpod into an immense, dimly lit parking lot. Muscle memory brought him to the lift. He pressed the red key and it opened to show two large men in suits ready to escort him to the strategy room. The lift climbed the several floors that comprised the open hangar where the Talmari awaited.
“Am I the last pilot to arrive?”
“Second to last.”
“Ah, good. I’m early then.”
The elevator arrived and they followed a white corridor past four sliding doors to the strategy room. These didn’t open automatically, hiding what transpired inside. The strategy room opened automatically, though, admitting them to find their commander facing an interactive wall-sized screen.
“You may leave,” Arden said to the guards.
Graf shrugged and turned with the guards. “All right, but don’t complain to me when the Rattlers take over,” he joked.
Arden flashed Graf a stern look under thick grey eyebrows. “Snark instead of a salute? I told you Talkback makes you feeble-minded.”
Graf gave a sarcastic salute. “You’re right. Forgive my misconduct.”
Arden waved him at ease. “It’s a big one today.”
Graf spun a metallic chair and sat. “Well, I’ll try to bring a little of my magic to the table. I would say my A-game but you might think I wasn’t serious if I said game.”
Arden’s nostrils flared. “Yes… well, your team will have to pull their own weight in this one. Not that they—”
“Speaking of…” Graf looked around the empty room. “Where is everyone?”
“This is a briefing, not a strategy conference. This attack will be a three-pronged assault with little interaction between the fronts. Therefore, no strategy is required besides your own objective.”
“Like a raptor attack?”
“We’re calling it a trident, but yes.” He nodded. “To use your analogy, we will release our larger raptors to contest the different prongs.”
Something in this plan knocked at the back of Graf’s mind. “So the real question is which prong of the trident will be the most powerful. Undoubtedly the levels of power will deviate between the three points. Will our own counter fire be enough to fight the strongest of these points?”
“With your track record,” Arden said, clearing his throat, “we are confident you’ll handle it.”
“Who knows? This could be my final battle, sir.”
“It won’t be.” Arden gave a rare smile. “Hah! Who taught you probability, really, Graf?”
“I guess Earth is still under our control and if it were going to fall, it would have happened by now, right?” Graf rotated his shoulders, trying to amp himself up. “All right, when is the attack?”
“Approximately eleven hundred hours. We assume they’re hoping the sun is directly in our eyes during battle. The Rattlers must have studied our biology enough to think it will blind us, disregarding our centuries-old invention of lenses.”
“Eleven? But that barely gives me enough time to assemble and do practice runs.”
“No practice runs, no time. Get organized and do your meditation or whatever stupid rituals you like to do. You will need to be ready before then.”
Graf stood sharply. “I can see why you wanted me to be here on time today.”
“You should assume that every time you are given an order!” Arden shook his head. “But what’s the point in telling you that? It’s like the fame went to your head and you can’t remember anymore.”
“Yeah. Ever since I started fighting for the Corp, I keep waking up with barely a scratch and over a dozen kills under my belt. It doesn’t seem real.”
“You fight like the devil.” Arden coughed. “Maybe you have a dual personality. Knights of old had the same thing; they called them berserkers.”
Graf spread his arms and glanced down at himself, his reflection in the blackened screen looking skinnier than usual in the skin-tight uniform. “Must be a mental thing because I definitely don’t have the body of a great warrior.”
Arden faced the wall screen, clearly disinclined to waste time speculating on his luck. “Here’s the information we received from the cognate computers. These are the three points of attack.” A picture of the orbital base, the key weapon against the Rattlers, appeared on the screen, its entrances marked by three clusters of lights. “This is why you won’t have time to practice.”
“Oh, shit, they’re attacking the main cannon?”
Arden nodded and tapped one of the three clusters. “Here is where you’ll be stationed.”
“The closest point to the planet, eh? It’s almost flattering if it weren’t for the fact that it has the highest likelihood of getting the biggest cluster of ships.”
“Or that’s what they think we’d think, assuming they know what we know. In which case, we should just give up right now.”
“Good point,” Graf murmured.
“Your only job is to guard this entrance and make sure no Rattlers get through.”
“I assume my Talmari has been equipped with a self-destruct mechanism?” Or as we pilots call it, ‘the coward’s way out’.
“If I’m to believe the stories, it won’t be the first time I’ve survived one.”
“That’s more like it! Now get to your Talmari. You must be at this point.” He tapped the screen again. “Before eleven hundred, understand?”
“Okay, okay, you don’t have to tell me twice.”
“You could’ve fooled me. I thought we had this talk three days ago.”
“Ha-ha.” Graf’s laugh was sarcastic as he departed.
He knew Arden was joking, even though his gruff voice eternally lacked the jovial nature that generally accompanied jokes. Before Graf reached the end of the corridor, he rushed back to give his commander a quick salute before he was off again. He retraced his steps to the elevator, and the doors opened to reveal the two suits from before.
“You waited for me! Oh, you shouldn’t have.”
One of them pressed the key for the fifth floor and Graf strutted out onto the platform when it arrived. The hangar contained three Talmari: colossal, W-shaped space fighters that could be as adjustable as the human body during combat.
“Graf, you bloody hero! Heck, I’m going to become a hero as well after fighting with you!” screamed a tall redhead on the platform across from him.
Another, darker-skinned pilot down the platform from him shook his head in amusement. “Don’t mind Jerry. The guy’s fresh out of the academy. He may be a genius who graduated first in his class but he still geeks out over the prospect of fighting alongside you.”
The black man’s voice was low and smooth, making Barry White sound like a gravel mixer, and with the slightest hint of a southern accent to top it off.
“And who are you?”
“Cole, Dark as Cole they call me back home.” He pulled down the latch to his Talmari cockpit. “I would come down and shake your hand, but, as you’ve been told, time is a commodity we don’t have in excess at the moment. After so many battles, you must get used to the world being at risk.”
“You’d be surprised,” Graf replied, trying to calm his own racing heart. “I try to ignore it and pretend like it’s another day at the office.”
Cole stuck out his bottom lip and nodded. He pulled an oxygen helmet from the wall-hook and pushed himself into the gelatine-like substance of the cockpit’s connector fluid, or ‘jelly’ as the pilots called it.
Each Talmari faced the centre of the hangar, the cockpits facing the bridge. Graf walked to his own fighter and pulled the pressurized latch to open the cockpit.
Jerry yelled, “Hey, hey, wish me luck. If not as something to tell my kids, then at least to share some of your fame and fortune with me.”
“I wish you fortune,” Graf said as he donned his own helmet on and sank into the warm jelly.
“Oh, come on, that’s not—”
The jelly muffled the rest. Videos of his first mission caught him telling the other pilots that he wished them luck. It became his catchphrase. Since then, people had begged him to either wish them luck or write it along with his signature during fan signings. Now he wished people fortune instead just to annoy them.
He heard the electricity being channelled through the fluid, linking up with his skin suit and helmet to give him a full view of what transpired outside. With a rumble, the whole hangar began to move. The bridge pulled back and the bay door opened. With the meeting room above the hangar, the Talmari couldn’t be launched through the ceiling. Instead, the hangar walls parted to reveal four fuelling docks and launch pads.
He was rolled across a track toward them.
“Shields check. Shields: active,” said the guidance computer. “Back-up power check. Back-up power: active. Field Nets check. Field Nets: active.”
Then the guidance computer started the countdown.
Around him, a few of the comm screens refused to turn on. “Arden, why can’t I speak to the other pilots?”
“They would only be a distraction. If the Rattlers start clustering around one entrance, we’ll dispatch you to another point and link you to their feed.”
“This is crazy. I don’t remember cross-chatter ever being a problem before.”
Then again… I don’t remember any of the other battles from before. I wonder what I sound like to my comrades during a battle rage.
“Five, four, three, two…” He didn’t hear the one under the sound of the rocket engines. He sank into the jelly as the Talmari rocketed into the stratosphere orbit. Like the dark garages, space always chilled him, despite his suit’s temperature regulation.
When the Talmari reached space and granted him freedom of movement, he flexed one arm, the jelly providing enough resistance to align with its speed. Then he moved his fingers, feeling the electricity connecting him to the Talmari. There in the jelly, floating over the earth, he really did feel like he was inside a brain, the ghost in the machine.
“How long until I’m under the base?”
“One hour,” the guidance computer replied.
“You will be inside the duct on time, don’t worry,” Arden confirmed.
Graf had no doubt that the coordinates were accurate, but just watching the scenery pass made him feel skittish. The titanic orbital base loomed over him. The closer he came to the duct the more impressive it became, details of its ports and indents becoming clearer by the second.
Tapping an air thruster, he entered the duct, which was significantly larger than his ship. Inside the duct, he used a repulsing thruster to face the entrance and the Earth far below.
“Alright, in position. How’s everyone else looking?”
“Cole just needs to set up his Field Net.”
“Oh right,” he said, having almost completely forgotten to set up his own nets. “How do I live without you, Arden?”
He flicked his fingers and parts of the Talmari’s shoulders disconnected to make the Field Net: laser grids useful for both protection and distraction.
He stretched his limbs, each one a cannon, each digit a mini-laser that could cut steel as well as a nuclear weapon inside the Talmari’s five fusion cores. In the end, the nets were always the most useful device, and he didn’t understand why the military didn’t manufacture more.
Maybe they cost a lot.
It took less than the promised half-hour before the warning alarms blared. Arden’s voice came over the comm unit. “We’ve glimpsed a small cluster heading toward Jerry’s position. He’ll be able to handle it on his own.”
“A small cluster? So if your theory is true, either Cole or I will be getting the larger one.”
“Seems you’re the lucky one, Graf.” Graf almost sighed at the good news, but Arden continued, “The larger cluster is heading your way.”
“Fucking predictable. Murphy’s Law, I guess.”
“We’ll send you the data.”
The cluster of yellow lights appeared on the cockpit’s screen, descending slowly toward the orbiter’s base, where Graf was represented by a red dot. “And I thought I was lucky.”
Arden’s voice had gained a hint of urgency. “There are no ships inbound for Cole’s position. We’re connecting you two and sending him to assist.”
“Wait! What if they’re just using this cluster as a diversion?”
“Don’t worry. We have several nets set up to cover for him. It should clear the way long enough for you to clean up the rest when you’ve finished.”
“Graf, am I coming through?”
“Loud and clear, buddy.”
“Okay, try and entice as many as you can into the duct. I’ll come up the rear and we’ll work this cluster like the cream in an interracial Oreo. You copy?”
Graf couldn’t help but laugh. “Sounds good. I’ll pull my nets back and lure them in by putting myself in front of them.”
“You da man. Hold tight. It’s great to have the chance to fight with…” There was a sudden intake a breath over the line. “Wait, what the hell is tha—”
The comm unit hissed, and Graf saw two things that made his blood run cold. The first was the massive cluster of yellow lights directly below him in the visuals. The second was Cole’s comm screen shutting off.
“What the hell happened?”
“Cole’s been taken out by a stealth unit. They hacked his shields somehow. His nets are still working so we’ll send them to assist you, but you’ll be on your own.”
The Rattler ships rushed into the duct. They were smoother than the Talmari; sleeker, like archaic pens. Beams were fired at him, and without the nets in front of him, he had nothing to catch them with. He flew further up the duct while recalling the nets. Before he could get behind one, a laser melted one of the Talmari’s arms. Parts of the main core were in each of the limbs. He pointed to it with one hand, firing lasers around the net with the other.
Shit, I’ve really managed to corner myself. At least there’ll be no recoil when I blow that one.
The clusters were drilling the net now. He launched the arm, igniting its core to destroy one flank, and sending the net off together with the other. Explosions ripped the space inside the duct. They tore through either side of the cluster, and with a spin, he had a nice line of Rattler ships that he could fire at. The lasers shot out from the Talmari’s fingers, while seeker rockets launched from its limb joints. The full power of the Talmari caused enough damage to blind the Rattlers, and ignoring raining beams, he charged through the lasers and smoke, firing wantonly as the overwhelming counter-fire pounded his Talmari’s shields.
“Graf, what are you doing?” Arden screamed.
He recalled the Field Net to cover some of the attacks, and Cole’s own nets appeared to shield him as well, but Graf wasn’t fooling himself. He knew his fighter was going to be scrap-metal in a matter of minutes. His only chance was to get into the middle of the cluster and trigger the self-destruct mechanism. It might do some damage to the orbiter’s duct, but it was better than the Rattlers destroying the base entirely.
“I’m going to self-destruct and use an escape pod.”
To do this and survive he needed to make sure the cockpit was facing away from the duct so he shot toward the earth with enough distance to avoid the blast.
“So it’s come to that again. God forgive me. I’m sorry, Graf.”
“Sorry?” Graf spun to the back of the pit to lift the pad with the lever linked to the fusion core. “If I do this right, you won’t have to be.”
“No, Graf. What I mean is that… I’m sorry that—”
Like Cole’s voice, Arden’ comm unit suddenly broke off. Graf’s brow furrowed in confusion but he knew what he had to do and how to do it. He pulled the lever and the thirty seconds to fission meltdown appeared in red numbers in his visuals. He returned to the visual options in the jelly to select cockpit ejection. As he pressed it, a message appeared: “Error – Option to eject removed.”
Graf’s heart felt like it just had stopped beating. “What the hell? Arden, my cockpit ejection isn’t engaging! Arden!”
Arden didn’t reply or he couldn’t. Graf could only assume that it had something to do with the main power supply being cut off. He couldn’t eject, had less than two minutes before core meltdown, and beams were still blasting away at his Talmari; he wondered if he should be making his peace with God.
Come on! You’ve been in tighter situations than this. You can get out of this. No problem! Where’s my inner devil when I need him, huh?
Graf tried to move the robot body, feeling like a snail in its shell, but with the core collapsing, it responded as if it’d just had a stroke. He was dead in the water and had no time to escape. Even his visuals were darkening to the point that he only had a narrow slit of light to look down at. He could only watch as the Field Net fell. It was in that moment, when the glow of the lasers was no more, that he saw a streak of light.
“Graf! Can you hear me?” Somehow Jerry’s voice had managed to get through to his Talmari’s dying comm.
“Yes! Jerry, I have less than ten seconds to disconnect with this hunk of junk, but the ejection isn’t working!”
“I know. I’ve been listening in the whole time. Seems it isn’t your lucky day. But don’t fear. Hah! I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to be able to brag to my kids that I saved the great Graf Strydor!”
Jerry’s Talmari shot into his vision. With the Talmari’s prying fingers, Jerry gripped Graf’s cockpit, tearing him free and sending the cockpit hurtling down toward the earth.
“There you go! Now wish me luck as I… oh, shit!”
The speed Graf had already been going at doubled with his Talmari’s explosion. He was sucked through the jelly, hitting the back wall. Although the emergency power engaged with the detachment, Graf could still feel the heat of re-entry through the wall at his back. He reached for the manual parachute lever that all Talmari cockpits had, but he couldn’t pull it until he was inside the atmosphere or else it would burn up.
The G-force made his guts squirm. He threw the lever, as much as he could within the jelly, and the cockpit jerked, then slowed. The whiplash shot him forward but the goo prevented him from hitting his window. The tension in his gut began to relax, if only until the cityscape started rushing up to meet him. The slow falling became a rocking as the tops of buildings streaked by close enough to touch, and then he did touch, the cockpit jolting against a tower corner. He smashed through a window after his chute caught on the skyscraper’s rooftop and whipped him into a top floor corridor.
There were screams and the sound of running, but whether it was toward or away from him, he couldn’t tell. He crawled through the jelly to the hatch, pulled the lever and hauled himself out. The wind rushed in from the shattered window, cooling his face as he pulled off his helmet.
He looked from an expanding puddle of jelly to see several Asian tenants staring at him. Shaking his head, he reached out a hand and one of them rushed forward to help him.
“Strydor-sama?” the man asked. “Anata wa Strydor, Ni Jyuu Ichi?”
“That’s me. Tell me, where’s the lift in this place? And would you mind if I borrowed a jacket?”
The man ran off to retrieve what Graf hoped was a jacket. An old woman pointed down the hall toward a ragged cage lift.
The man returned to the corridor, throwing him not a jacket but a towel.
“Ah, thank you very much.” Graf stepped into the lift, pushed the button to the ground floor and wiped himself down.
As the lift descended, he leaned against a wall, feeling beyond exhausted. This, above everything else, was why he told the taxi driver he hailed to take him home rather than the hangar. He seemed to be running on autopilot.
In the backseat, he finally had time to think. When the cockpit ejection hadn’t worked, his first assumption was that there had been a flaw in the Talmari’s programming, but the error message said the function had been removed. Did that mean the mechanics had sabotaged it to kill him? Did that also mean Jerry had defied a direct command in order to save him?
Is Jerry still alive?
He knew that, in the end, this would just be another story of him surviving against impossible odds.
But unlike the others, I can actually remember this one. I guess I finally have my own Graf story that I can ring up Talkback about.
The taxi came to a stop outside his apartment building. “That’ll be eighty… Holy crap, are you Graf Strydor?”
He squinted into the balding taxi driver’s wide eyes. “That’s me… ah, I don’t have my wallet on me… but—”
“Don’t worry about it; you can ride for free. You’re my hero! Hah, I can’t believe I was driving around Graf Strydor and I didn’t even know it.”
Graf nodded, relieved to get out of such a bind, even after nearly dying in battle. “Thank you and I wish you luck.”
“He said it! Hah, I can’t believe he said it to someone like me.” the cab driver squealed as Graf got out and slowly entered his apartment tower.
People stopped and gawked as he passed. He covered his head with the towel to avoid being mobbed, hearing their cameras going off in his wake.
He staggered into the lobby, and the receptionist’s eyes bulged. An attendant in a pressed suit rushed to his side. “Welcome back, sir. I’m surprised you’re already healthy enough to go for a walk.”
Graf was too tired to waste time with the man. “Yeah, sorry, but…” What the attendant said then hit him. “I’m sorry?”
“Well, you came back from the hospital only an hour ago, so we thought that—”
“What was that?” He whirled on him. “What did you just say?”
“You got back from the hospital only an hour ago. We were surprised—”
Graf didn’t listen to the rest. He ran to the elevator, slamming the button repetitively until it reached the lobby. Once inside, he did the same until it started to ascend. Thankfully, no one entered the lift on his way up, but in his exhaustion and panic, he wanted to collapse by the time it arrived.
The lift opened and he stumbled down the corridor to his apartment. He didn’t have his key card but had pretended to lose one once so he would have a spare under the corner of his door just in case he got locked out. He scratched the carpet until the plastic card came free and swiped the door.
The first thing he heard as he entered was the sound of the shower running. Baffled, he moved into the bathroom.
And came face to face with himself.