The Flight of the Red-Tail

Recently, there’s been a lot of negative publicity surrounding video games and the video game community. A small but very vocal and very cruel subset has wildly tried to quash any criticism of their beloved AAA games, as the reaction to Anita Sarkeesian’s most recent video has proven. 1)To say nothing of the weeks of JonTron shoving thirty spiders’ worth of feet into his mouth.

I considered making this week’s piece a continuation of that very important discussion. Considering women actually dominate the gaming population, it’s critical to consider how women are portrayed in video games. 2)“BUT MOBILE GAMING DOESN’T COU”Quiet, you. But I decided to take a different approach. There are so many people more qualified than me that are already having that discussion. What I can do is prove that video games still have great potential to contribute great things to the world.

In the game FTL: Faster Than Light, you play as the crew of a small ship traversing the dangers of space in order to deliver an important data packet that swing an intergalactic war. It is a wildly difficult game that I have never beaten and the game ends with the destruction of your ship. You make many choices along the course of the game that affect your crew, your ship, and the overall story. No two games are the same.

I wrote a short story based on one playthrough of the game. The story, titled “The Flight of the Red-Tail,” is below. It clocks in at just over ten thousand words and it is an example of how video games, no matter how simple they may be or how small an audience they reach, can inspire. It’s important to criticize video games where we can but it’s just as important to celebrate them where we can as well. Enjoy.

“Okay. I’m gonna run this by you all just in case you didn’t read the release forms. Just wanna make sure you guys know the deep shit you’re about to dive into.”

He cleared his throat.

“By volunteering to go on and subsequently accepting this mission, you understand that failure is expected, and with that failure will come death. The odds of success are so low we did not bother to calculate them. There was a damn good reason we stressed the importance of saying goodbye to your family and all that good stuff. After today we will likely not see each other again.

“All that said, should you succeed in this mission you will become heroes of the highest order. I do not have enough time left in my life to rattle off the accolades you will win, the prestige you will earn, and the place in history you will hold. The fate of the entire Galactic Federation rests in the hands—” He paused to eye the mantis standing in front of him. “The appendages of you four brave souls. Stop at nothing to succeed, but know that in order to do so you will require incredible amounts of skill, luck, and possibly divine intervention. Are we all clear?”

Four nods.

He sighed. “Guess I’m just cynical. I still can’t believe we got four volunteers.” He sniffed. “Damned if it don’t make me a little bit emotional. Well, everything is prepared. That was your last chance to back out. Departure is in less than an hour. Good luck, Godspeed, and try your best not to die out there.” He saluted, and the four returned suit.

Thirty-nine minutes passed.

“Hey, Stick!” came a shout from the radio system. “Engines good to go?”

“They’re fine, Ariel,” came a reply. “I checked them last night, this morning, and just now. The engines are good to go.”

“Awesome! Mantis?”

“Human,” hissed the radio.

“Don’t get smart with me. GM Faux, right? How are the shields?”

“Impeccable. Have a little faith in those not as spongy as you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Nazia? Am I pronouncing that right?”

The reply seemed more distorted than the others. “You do remarkably well. The weapons systems, as you were going to ask, are set. We have four lasers at the ready when we need them.”

“You Zoltan are weird. Is that the plural of Zoltan? Is it like fish?”

“I believe we have more urgent matters to attend to.”

“Right, right! Well, let’s get to work! Hold on tight, I’ve never driven a Red-Tail before.”

The ship lurched out of the hangar and abruptly jolted forward, causing Stick to lose his footing and slam his spongy human face on the engine console. Either way, engines were at 100% and the ship vanished, reappearing seconds later far outside the orbit of the planet it had been docked on. Stick vomited.

“Hot damn! I don’t remember ever saying ‘engines at 100%.’ I guess Stick wanted to get this show on the road. Well, no turning back now! Let’s get out of here.”

Stick wiped his mouth clean and tossed the trash bag into the airlock. He rubbed his face and normalized the engine processes. He also wondered what drove him to this point. Ariel was dead set on going for some reason, and it was almost a reflex action for him to raise his hand and volunteer as well. The planet got smaller and smaller and larger and larger grew his regret for never having the courage to say no. No one would have blamed him—this was a suicide mission after all. The impassioned speech Gen. Woolworth reflected that.

“Stick! Hello? Stick!”

He snapped out of it. ”Ariel. Yes.”

“Are we going to make our first FTL jump now, tomorrow, or never?”

She said it as if they were the only two on board. “Now is best, I suppose.” Engines back to 100%, FTL drive activated.

“Okay, y’all. We got three options and two of ‘em are nebulas. No need for those now, right?”

“Bothering with nebulas would be unwise as no one is in pursuit of us yet. My vote is for the clear waypoint,” Nazia stated.

Without asking anyone else’s opinion, Ariel kicked it into high gear and a fraction of a second later, they had arrived at the new waypoint. Ariel peered out the viewfinder and noted the distinct marks of a pirate ship whizzing by. She slammed a hand down on the transmitter and declared, “Identify yourselves!” Meanwhile, Stick’s hand found his face and the mantis named Faux leaned forward involuntarily.

“None of your fuckin’ business!” The ship wheeled around to face them. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry. Stay out of this fight and we’ll make it worth your while.”

Ariel noted a ship accelerating away from the two of them. Again, without consulting any of her fellow crew members, she screamed.

“FIRE!”

Nazia calmly powered on all four lasers and directed them at the center of the ship—most pirate ships housed their shielding mechanisms in the center. GM Faux flicked a switch and powered on the Red-Tail’s own shields. Stick removed his hand from his face and worked to get the engines back to 100% in the event of a worst case scenario. His free hand grabbed the railing next to him as, in the back of the ship, he was most prone to the wild maneuvers being taken by his colleague at the front of the ship.

The first volley of laser strikes left each ship. The pirate ship took the worst of the blows and quickly radioed in their surrender, offering a better bribe. Ariel did not respond. Both ships had lost shielding and a missile fired by the pirate ship slammed into the left side of the hull.

“What’s hit?” Ariel shouted into the radio.

“Med bay,” hissed the reply.

“Get those shields back up, Faux!”

“Laser volley in three, two, one…”

A new round of lasers left the Red-Tail and destroyed the pirate ship, but not before it fired one last missile, hitting the tail end of the ship—the engine room.

“Fuck!” Stick shouted, leaping out of the way of falling debris and nearly falling into a fire. He rolled to his left and picked up the extinguisher that had fallen to the ground. Nazia ran in with an extinguisher of her own and aided in dousing the flames. By the time the flames in the engine room were gone, however, they had spread to the weapons room. Nazia dropped the extinguisher and calmly pressed a few buttons on the keypad next to the door she had just entered. A harsh sucking sound emitted from the room. Stick laid on the ground and nursed his arm.

“You are injured,” Nazia noted when the alarms stopped, indicating the fire had died. She pressed a few more buttons on the keypad, closing the airlock in the weapons room.

“Thanks for noticing,” Stick replied, leaning against the wall and clutching his right arm with his left hand. “Not much we can do about it until the med bay’s clear.”

“A few moments. Focus on making the engines operational once more. I will return.” She left, opening the doors to the shielding room and closing them behind her. Stick reluctantly rose back to his feet and limped towards the engine console. It was totally trashed.

“For fuck’s sake.” It had avoided heavy damage from debris but the fire had ruined one of the screens. Declaring it a lost cause, he smashed it with a wrench and detached it from the rest of the console. The system slowly hummed to life. It only took a few more twists of the wrench and some manual rebooting of the computer system to get things functional again. By this time, Nazia had reentered the room.

“The med bay is yours. Please, take your time.” Without waiting for a reply, she returned to the weapons room. Stick noted that there were marks indicating that she too had been burned and subsequently healed. Exhaling, Stick walked to the med bay.

Awaiting him was GM Faux. Arms folded, he simply hissed at Stick and returned to the shielding room. Stick shook his head. Why had this mantis even volunteered for this mission?

A few minutes in the med bay healed Stick’s wounds, but the ship was again jarred by sudden motion. Ariel’s voice chimed through the radio.

“That ship we saved agreed to fix our hull as long as they got a cut of the scrap we salvaged from that pirate ship! They had some other stuff available but we didn’t have enough scrap for any of it and I didn’t want them to take all the pirate scrap. We all still in one piece?”

“More or less,” Stick replied, rotating his right arm. “Engines are at 100%. We’re ready for the jump.”

Ariel noted that a distress signal was coming in from a nearby waypoint. Her crew neither agreed nor disagreed to her urging to check it out. One jump later, they had arrived.

The distress signal had been emitted by a Rock Scout that had run out of fuel. The request for fuel was met with a 2-2 vote to sacrifice some fuel. Ariel enjoyed the extra tiebreaker vote as, by her logic, the pilot deserved it. After Stick’s protests, however, she relented and said the tiebreaker vote would rotate amongst the four of them. Stick would enjoy the privilege next.

In exchange for the fuel, the Rock Scout offered some scans of the sector, revealing the locations of stores, distress signals, and possible ships in the area. Ariel thanked them for their help and charted a course that would avoid the ships wherever possible and get them to the sector exit as fast as they could—Nazia had noted that rebel ships were now in pursuit. The other distress signal would have to fix things on their own.

At the next waypoint, a civilian ship sped by, followed by a pirate. Another 2-2 vote ensued, with Stick casting his tiebreaker vote in favor of moving on. It didn’t win him any points with Ariel, who huffed and puffed through the next jump to the next waypoint. Nothing of note existed at that waypoint, and Ariel noted that the next jump would take them somewhere where something would exist. There were no alternatives, however, and the Red-Tail pressed on.

The thing that existed was a pirate scout ship, though it was not hostile. When Stick readied the engines for another jump, however, the pirates readied their guns and aimed them at the ship. It turns out they were expecting a toll. No tiebreaker was needed this time—Stick’s protests were outweighed three to one. The Red-Tail readied its lasers and fired a full volley, taking down the pirate scout’s shields and forcing another surrender transmission. Again, Ariel ignored it and ordered Nazia to fire another volley.

Shortly before the volley was ready, the scout fired a laser of its own. Ariel juked the ship to the right and the laser whizzed into the void harmlessly. Wheeling the ship back around to face the scout, the volley coincided perfectly with her exclamation of “FIRE!” This volley ripped the ship to shreds.

Though the amount of salvage obtained wasn’t remarkable, it was nothing to sneeze at, either. The amount of scrap they now had enabled them to upgrade the reactor as well as the engines and shields. Examining the upgrades, Ariel beamed at GM Faux and Stick before returning to the cockpit. Faux and Stick eyed each other before returning to their respective stations.

The next waypoint was a merchant that Ariel had neglected to mention. They barely had enough scrap to cover the small amount of repairs needed to the hull. The next waypoint was, thankfully, the sector exit.

At the exit, however, hovered an automated drone, as well as a rebel space-station. Markings indicated that the station housed ammunition and other military goods. The vote returned to a tie, but Nazia enjoyed tiebreaking privileges and ordered that the drone be attacked and the station be raided. No one questioned her and she was allowed to prepare a volley of lasers.

The drone deployed a smaller drone that quickly entered orbit around the Red-Tail, firing beams at the shield whenever it could. Nazia noted that she would concentrate fire on not only the shielding room but also the drone control unit. Out of the first volley, one laser missed, one took down the shields, and the other two were direct hits on the shielding room and the drone control unit. The drone’s lights powered off and it began to float indiscriminately around the ship. Ariel cheered and Nazia replied by counting down until the next volley.

In the meanwhile, a beam fired by the larger drone failed to penetrate the shields. All four lasers from the next volley hit and Ariel cheered again. Stick allowed himself a smile. GM Faux focused on keeping the shields intact. They withstood another beam and the third volley decimated the larger drone. The smaller one was long gone by this point.

After salvaging the drone, Ariel broke into the station. For the most part, it contained weapons useless to their current cause, but she was able to scrap a few things and, surprising her three fellow crew members, nab an intact Stun Bomb peripheral. Though they did not have room for it on the current weapons array, it would fetch a nice price at the next store.

Faced with a choice between an Engi-controlled sector and a rebel-controlled sector, the vote was 4-0 in favor of the former. Once the shields were charged, it was but a short matter of time until the next step in this journey would take place. Unfortunately, life in the new sector was nowhere near as welcoming as the crew of the Red-Tail had hoped.

Immediately after the first jump they encountered two ships—one was considerably more wrecked than the other. GM Faux identified the in-tact ship as a Mantis ship and the scrapped ship an Engi ship. Just as he warned the crew that things were likely going to turn hostile, they did. Without opening communications, the Mantis ship turned and opened fire.

The crew, on the bright side, was getting used to the rhythm of things in battle. It helped that Nazia was a whiz with the weaponry, knowing not only how to aim but where to aim at. Out of the four lasers, two were fired at the enemy ship’s shielding unit and the other two were fired at the weapons unit. All four hit, but no cheers came from the crew as they focused on dealing the finishing blow. Even Ariel was quiet. With its weapons disabled, all the other ship could do was float around and hope its shields would survive. They did not.

Salvaging both ships provided a windfall of scrap metal. Faux, familiar with the workings of Mantis ships, was able to easily upgrade the Red-Tail’s own ships. He seemingly had no qualms with neither killing his fellow Mantises nor salvaging their ships. As the ship waited to make the next jump, Stick poked his head into the shield room.

“You’re sure you’re okay?”

GM Faux scoffed. “Give me some credit, human. In case you were not aware, this mission is life or death. I do not have time to fret with issues of morality.” He paused. “After all, many of the pirates we killed in the last sector were human, after all.”

Stick had not thought of that. He closed the door silently and prepared for the next jump. The ship that greeted them at that next jump immediately radioed in a surrender—the new shielding of the Red-Tail likely reminded them of a Mantis ship. The four lasers didn’t quite say “we come in peace,” either. Before Stick could object, Ariel ordered GM Faux to radio back an acceptance of their surrender. Fuel, scrap, and drone parts were all shuttled over. Afterwards, the Engi ship disappeared completely. For android people, they weren’t too smart.

“But who can say no to free stuff!” Ariel said, beaming as she upgraded the ship’s reactor using the scrap. “With all this power, we can finally push those engines to their limit. Consider that your end of the deal, Stick.”

“Whatever. Thanks,” he radioed back. With the increased power, the ship was ready for the next jump in no time flat. Stick allowed his eyes to widen a bit before firing them up and sending them to their next destination. Though none of them realized it, a distress signal was coming from the jump they arrived at. A floating Slug Interceptor radioed in, asking for fuel. They needed enough for three jumps, and the Red-Tail had enough for nine.

The vote this time around was 3-1, with GM Faux the only dissent. In return, the ship offered a great deal of scrap, and Faux even admitted that it was a fair trade, considering they could buy back the fuel they lost for only a fifth of the scrap they got. The Slug ship also let them know that there was a store not too far from here. Ariel resisted asking why they couldn’t just go there for their fuel, but the pile of scrap sitting in the common area of the ship shut her up.

The merchant outpost bought the stun bomb acquired earlier, and sold an augmentation that would speed up weapon recharge rate by ten percent as well as some fuel. The Red-Tail had plenty of scrap left over, and with no time to dawdle they moved right along. With just one jump between them and the exit, Ariel hoped aloud that they wouldn’t encounter any trouble. The Mantis scout that met them at that jump, however, thought otherwise. Battle had reared its ugly head again.

This time, though, it wasn’t so ugly. The improved shielding, engines, and weaponry resulted in a perfect victory for the Red-Tail. One volley brought the Mantis scout’s shields down and the next brought their ship down. They didn’t even register a hit with the one missile they were able to fire. With the scrap they left behind, as well as the scrap leftover from the merchant outpost, Ariel was able to upgrade the reactor core even more so it would be able to handle future upgrades to the ship. Though he did not want to admit it, Stick admired her ability to work with the reactor. And if it resulted in improved shields or engines in the future, it was just icing on the cake.

The next jump—the jump that led to the exit from this sector—was mostly barren save for a moon with a ship orbiting around it. That ship resembled a pirate ship though it broadcasted a simple message advertising weapons for sale. The Red-Tail had three options: attack it, ignore it, or trade with it.

The three-way vote ended up in wildly in favor of attacking it. Ariel and GM Faux were obvious enough advocates of attack, but Nazia was a surprise vote in favor of that. Stick voted to ignore it, and when he asked Nazia why she had voted in favor of attack, she laughed. “Perhaps I’m getting a bit too cocky with my ability to handle the weaponry. But I do not believe we would lose, and we have much to gain.”

The first laser volley did not even take down the shields of the pirate ship, though it at least dented them. “Perhaps…I got a bit too cocky,” Nazia radioed.

“Don’t worry about that!” Ariel shouted back. “Get those lasers ready for another volley! Stick, engines at full power! They’re readying an attack of their own!”

They had fired before she could finish their sentence. The shop rocked at the impact of the missile that had just pierced the hull. “Shit! No damage to any of the facilities but the hull took a bad hit. Focus on the other ship, we’ll worry about us later!”

Nazia concentrated and fired—the second laser volley succeeded in taking down the pirate ship’s shields as well as their weapons systems. “OXYGEN LEVELS NINETY-THREE PERCENT AND FALLING,” blared the ship’s automated emergency system.

“Keep that ship’s damn weapons offline!” Ariel ordered. Nazia nodded, though no one could actually see it, and let loose another volley. There was no return, so it was safe to say mission accomplished, at least for now. “They’re falling apart. One more hit!” One more hit came, went, as did the pirate ship.

“That was not so bad,” Nazia radioed in once the scrap had been collected. “Before we leave this sector we should repair the hull.”

Ariel called a quick meeting in the common area and acknowledged in her own way that the hull did need repairing, even though the room that was damaged also lacked oxygen as a result of the damage. “Basically, what I’m saying, is we need to have a breath-holding contest. The two people who last the longest are the most fit to repair the damage. Agreed?”

Creative as it may have been, it was also risk-averse. The contest began and ended within a minute with Stick and GM Faux being declared the winners. Before Ariel returned to the pilot’s cabin, Stick called out at her. “Did it occur to you that after a breath-holding contest the two people who need to hold their breath again might be short of it?”

She smiled. “Just give it a minute or two. You’ll be fine! Plus, the med bay’s just one room over.” Without allowing him a chance to respond, she turned on her heel and walked away.

Thanks to their experience with repairing damage that had been gained earlier, the hull repairs took no time, though the two of them had to spend another minute or so in the med bay recuperating.

“Stick,” hissed GM Faux as he caught his breath. “That is not a human name, is it?”

Stick raised an eyebrow at this sudden personal interest but saw no reason to ignore the question. “It’s not. It’s a nickname. Ariel gave it to me.”

“A nickname, yes. Of course. What does it represent?”

“Have you ever heard the phrase ‘a stick in the mud’?”

“Human metaphors irritate me. We have no equivalent in the Mantis language. Everything is literal.”

“Right. Well, it means somebody who’s perceived as not fun.”

“I see. Somebody who is as fun as a stick, in the mud?”

“Yeah. That’s it. Ariel gave it to me when we were training to be Federation soldiers and it…well, it stuck. For lack of a better term.”

The unintentional pun was lost on Faux. “Everyone is calling you Stick, yes?”

“Yes. You and Nazia included. I have no problem with it.”

Before their chat could continue, Ariel’s voice boomed over the speakers. “Cut the chitchat if you’re healed up! In case you forgot, we’ve got about fifty fuckin’ thousand ships tailing us so we need to get our asses in gear!”

“She is an interesting human,” Faux thought aloud, returning to the shielding room. Stick nodded to himself and returned to his engine room. The FTL drive had long been ready, and their two options were an abandoned sector and the Mantis homeworlds. GM Faux surprised everyone again by not voting in favor of his home sector—the results were a 4-0 sweep in favor of the abandoned sector. With that decided, they were off; no one wondered why the sector was abandoned.

The debris of hundreds of ships waited for them as they finished their jump. Oh. This was the sector that got decimated by war. As the four crew members silently stared out the viewports at the carnage that surrounded them, a klaxon broke the silence. A distress beacon was coming from just one jump away. There were two other options, but the jump the beacon was coming from was closest to the exit. There was no telling how long the signal had been broadcast, so the crew agreed to follow it.

Indeed, as soon as they reached it the signal blinked out. A few scavenger ships were going through the debris at this jump and one of the junked ships was the distress call. Ariel looked through the viewport and saw a crack in the hull. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that was the reason for the distress signal and the reason no one was still there. That could have been us, she found herself thinking.

For once, Stick was the one to remind everyone of their mission. Ariel jolted out of her lull and initiated the next jump. This one had some action—another rebel auto-scout. With no shields, however, it was no problem to dispatch of. It had likely been patrolling the area for several decades. Its sentry had finally come to an end. Stick was able to reverse-engineer the propulsions systems to improve the Red-Tail’s engines.

The next pair of jumps yielded a couple of sparsely populated merchant outposts, both of whom were preparing to exit the sector. With the leftover scrap from the scout, Ariel managed to trade for some repairs to the cosmetic damage the Red-Tail had sustained as well as some more fuel. Moving on from there, the ship was hailed by another merchant—offering a slave. The merchant was actually Quall Fer, a well-known slave-trader. The slave who had been offered was far outside the price range of the Red-Tail; the past two merchants had bled them dry. Ariel politely declined and resisted the bartering advances of Fer.

Suddenly, though, the weapons systems blinked. The lasers had been readied and were charging. “Oh, so you’re one of them moralistic scumbags, eh?” Quall shouted. Ariel had not ordered an attack, however. Nazia had readied the weapons silently, and without permission. Another klaxon sounded and Ariel whipped her head around. Someone had infiltrated the ship via teleporter and they were attacking the oxygen systems. She ordered Stick and GM Faux to “solve the fucking problem” and gripped the manual steering controls with both hands in an attempt to avoid the weapons the slave ship had begun to fire.

Stick and Faux readied their weapons and sprinted to the oxygen systems room, which was being ransacked by a large golem-like figure—a Rock. He slowly turned and raised his fists on Stick, who dodged and fired his laser pistol. GM Faux fired as well, and the Rock’s sluggish movements could not keep up with the swift human and Mantis. Eventually he vanished and the engines on the slave ship lit up, signaling their escape. Nazia expertly altered the laser volley at the last minute to take out those very same engines in one fell swoop.

“We get it! We get it! We surrender! Take one of our slaves as tribute; if you destroy us they’ll all die anyway!”

Ariel grabbed the radio mic. “Nazia. Stand. The fuck. Down.” The weapons remained enabled. “This is an order.” Still up. “So help me god, Nazia, I will jettison you if you do not stand down.” The lasers powered down. The slave ship quickly teleported over an Engi named Elizabeth and jumped away as soon as their engines were repaired. Before the Red-Tail followed suit, another crew meeting occurred in the comments, both to introduce Elizabeth and find out what in the world had just happened.

“I apologize. I lost my composure and disobeyed direct orders,” Nazia explained calmly to a furious Ariel. Stick and GM Faux had just exited the med bay and Elizabeth had just been freed of her shackles.

“You’re…you’re going to have to a bit more explaining, Nazia,” Ariel replied.

“My father and mother have been slaves since birth. The Zoltan’s existence as energy-based beings and the resulting ability to provide energy to their immediate surroundings is both a blessing and a curse. Rebels use us to power their ships with little to no regard for life or safety. We remain chained while everyone escapes an exploding ship. We are worked very nearly to death. Rebel slavers own my parents. I was only able to escape due to fortunate circumstance. I have not heard from them in several years.”

A few seconds of silence passed. “I guess that’s why you joined the fight against the rebels,” Stick noted.

Nazia nodded in response. “You are correct. Quall Fer is not a rebel himself but he sells indiscriminately to both rebels and the Federation. I should not have fired in the first place, but I suppose he has been taught a valuable lesson.” She turned to Elizabeth. “And we freed this Engi. Seeing as we suffered no damage in that battle, I rate it a success.”

Ariel’s fury had evaporated. In a sudden attempt to change the subject, she asked Elizabeth to introduce herself. “NAME: ELIZABETH. STATUS: GRATEFUL FOR FREEDOM. MY PRIMARY ABILITY IS WEAPONRY BUT I AM ALSO ADEQUATE IN SENSORS.”

“Very nice to meet you, Elizabeth,” Nazia said, with a smile.

“ANY ZOLTAN, FRIEND OF ENGI. THANK YOU, NAZIA.”

“Well, Nazia has proven herself to be quite the weapons-handler. We need someone in the sensor, room. Can you do that, Elizabeth?”

“PLEASURE, ALL MINE.”

“Great. Let’s get out of here.”

One jump stood between them and the exit and before they could leave it, Elizabeth radioed in to note that there was a considerable amount of scrap surrounding them. “BATTLE HERE, RECENT. SCRAP, USABLE AND PLENTIFUL.”

After collecting it, they moved on to the only sector reachable from where they were: one in control by the rebels.

“We’re low on fuel, so I charted the shortest possible series of jumps,” Ariel calmly spoke into the radio. “There’s a distress signal at the first jump and some nebulae after that. We’ll have to deal with it.”

Stick noticed how much Ariel had calmed down. The encounter with the slaver seemed to have had a big effect on her. He obediently fired up the engines for the jump and it took them to, of all things, another Federation ship. They, like the Slug ship from earlier, needed fuel. Unlike earlier, the Red-Tail did not have fuel to spare. Once Ariel radioed in their mission, however, their fellow Federation members understood completely. They wished each other luck and the Red-Tail moved on.

Hidden in the nebula they approached was an automated rebel scout. As soon as it noticed the Red-Tail, it fired up both its FTL drive and its cloaking mechanism. If the ship escaped, the rebels would know exactly where they were. Destroying it was the only option but that was impossible task due both to the nebula and the ship’s cloaking device.

“Nazia.” Ariel’s voice was again calm. “Their cloaking sequence can only last so long. As soon as you can get a lock, let loose on them.”

Nazia replied just as calmly. “Understood.”

When the ship appeared, Nazia knew to aim for the engines. Taking those down would reduce the probability of the scout escaping. Before she could get the laser volley off, however, two missiles rocked the ship. One hit the side and another registered a direct hit on the weapons room.

“Nazia!” Ariel’s voice was panicked through the radio. “Are you okay!?”

“Perfectly fine. I have some minor repairs to take care of.” One of the lasers had been taken down but the other three fired without fail, with two of them hitting the engine. “I am changing my target from their engines to their weapons. I hope you understand.”

“Yes! Yes! Just get them!”

More missiles came. The sensor room and the med bay were both hit hard. “STATUS: DAMAGED BUT FUNCTIONAL.”

Nazia got the fourth laser working again and within a few minutes the scout had been scrapped and its remains salvaged. Thankfully, they were able to save some of the fuel, giving them enough to at the very least make it out of the hostile sector. Hostile may have been an understatement; waiting for them at the very next jump, before they could repair the med bay, was another automated rebel scout. Nazia wasted no time in disposing of it, but no fuel could be salvaged from the wreckage.

Elizabeth let the crew know that sensors had picked up a merchant signal being emitted from a jump a bit out of the way. With so much scrap and so little fuel, the detour needed to be made. The merchant happily ignored the fact that this was a Federation ship and repaired the damage to the hull in exchange for some scrap. With the leftovers, they bought all the fuel the outpost had to offer and still had some scrap to spare. Wanting to waste no more time, they took advantage of the calm to repair the med bay, heal up, and head out.

Doubling back around to head to the sector exit jump, the crew came upon a distress signal. Heeding it, they found a meek ship complaining about a malfunctioning FTL drive. They requested to be led to their destination, which was only one jump away. Suspicious as it was, the jump was on the way to the exit. Elizabeth, Nazia, and Ariel outvoted Stick and Faux in favor of helping them, but the friendly merchant had lulled them into a state of calm—they had forgotten they were, after all, in a rebel sector.

They had waltzed right into a trap.

The trap did not know what it had coming. Nazia made short work of their shields, weaponry, and engines, all without allowing them a chance to so much as register a single hit on the Red-Tail. They radioed in a surrender but all five Red-Tail crew members knew that their mission was easier with one less rebel ship to deal with. One more laser tore the ship in two, killing the crew but leaving the ship’s considerable fuel and scrap reserves intact, as well as a fire bomb weapon that they could sell at the next merchant outpost.

The next jump—the only one between them and the exit from this hostile sector—held more hostility. Another rebel ship immediately targeted the Red-Tail and opened fire. Nazia returned fire, but a scream broke the radio silence.

“He’s in the cockpit!” Ariel screamed. One of the rebels had teleported over and had tried to sabotage the cockpit. With Ariel in his way, he had no hesitation pulling out his laser pistol and firing upon her. Ariel dodged and fired back with her own pistol but she was out of practice and not even that skilled to begin with. Another shot from the rebel hit her in the left shoulder and she dropped her gun. Wounded, Ariel became a sitting duck. Everyone else was too focused on their own jobs to do anything. One shot to the head would do it.

Before that one shot could come, GM Faux burst through the door and stabbed the rebel through with one of his pincers. With his other, he knocked the pistol from the rebel’s hand. He was dead before he could teleport back. Terrified, Ariel could not respond to thank Faux, especially considering he was out the door as quickly as he had entered—leaving the dead body behind. Ariel leaned forward and examined him. He was human, just like she and Stick. His nametag identified him as “Stelly.”

Meanwhile, Nazia was still using the lasers she had mastered over the course of this journey to tear Stelly’s crewmates to pieces. Ariel’s terrified silence was broken with an offer of surrender. No response came and no response was necessary. Nazia continued firing until the ship was in pieces, leaving behind more fuel and more scrap.

The crew gathered in the med bay so Ariel could heal and so they could dispose of Stelly’s body. They unceremoniously tossed it out the airlock after searching him for anything they could use to gain an upper hand on the rebels. Nothing. Once Ariel had healed up, the crew silently dismissed themselves but she called GM Faux back.

“Why were you the one to save me?”

He did not turn around to address her. “You are our captain.” After those four words, he was gone. For the first time since taking off, the responsibility that came with the word “captain” fully dawned on Ariel. If she had been killed by that rebel, who would take over after her? No one else knew how to pilot the ship and it was far too late in the mission to start learning something so complicated. She liked to think of herself and her crewmates on equal footing, because they all had something to offer.

But what Ariel had to offer was most important. Captain. Captain Ariel. Captain Ariel, with leadership, that she had shown when ordering Nazia to stand down against the slaver. With talent that she had shown after dodging attack after attack to decrease the damage the ship took. With determination that was necessary to even accept the captaincy for a mission with such a low chance of success.

She shook her head. No. She was just the pilot. Everyone had those qualities. Nazia was a true leader, after what happened to her parents. Elizabeth brought talents no one else had. And every single one of them had to be just as determined as she was to accept this mission or, in Elizabeth’s case, survive slavery. Hell, GM Faux killed someone to save his crewmate. Crewmate.

She barged through the door to the shielding room, shocking the normally stoic Faux. “No. I am just a pilot. I am just your crewmate.”

This wasn’t something Faux had expected to argue about. “But the pilot is normally the captain.”

Ariel shook her head again. “Not in this case. We have no captain. What we have is you, me, Stick, Nazia, and Elizabeth. None of us stand any higher or lower than the other. I would have done the same thing for you, Faux. Any of us would. Don’t save me because you feel like you have to. Save me because you want to. I know that’s really why you did it.” He didn’t respond. Ariel smiled and continued, “Now keep those shields up! Let’s get the hell out of this sector.” Just like that, she was gone. What a weird human.

The exit jump provided a godsend; another stockpile of military surplus guarded by an ineffectual automated scout. Within no time it was gone and the crew had more salvage than they knew how to handle. With the Engi home sector next on track, they were sure to find a merchant who could use all of it, as well as some upgrades the ship could desperately use.

As soon as they were safely in the new sector, Ariel authorized an upgrade of the ship’s shields, giving the Red-Tail three layers of shields out of four possible. There was still a great deal of scrap leftover but it was best to save it for the next merchant. The first jump revealed a weapon just floating in space. The crew took it on board and found it to be a hull missile, something they could use. But Nazia refused to bulge from her beloved laser volleys. It was hard to blame her—they had proven lethal against all enemies.

A distress signal came through the radios but Ariel chose to ignore it, though there was a ship at the next jump beaming a short-range distress signal. It was an Engi, and there was apparently a “DEBUGGING” issue they needed assistance with. Ariel put Elizabeth on and they found out the problem was much more literal than they had thought; there was a Mantis on the other ship that believed it was human. “WILL RECEIVE INPUT ONLY FROM HUMAN. DANGER EVALUATION: EXTREMELY HIGH.”

There was no delay. “I’ll go,” Ariel declared. The other ship teleported her over and the Mantis was immediately relieved to see another human. He introduced himself as Robert Smith, the son of a family of FTL engineers on another colony.

“I tried to join the Federation, but for some reason they just wouldn’t let me.”

“Well, we’re a Federation ship on a very important mission. We would be thrilled to have you join us.”

He gasped. “It would be an honor! Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

“Ariel.” She extended her hand for a handshake out of habit, but the Mantis took it delicately with a pincer and shook it just as a human would.

Ariel beamed back with Smith (who preferred to be addressed by his last name) and introduced him to the crew. He was thrilled to meet Stick, extremely wary of GM Faux, and more or less ambivalent to the rest of the crew. Though he was naturally skilled in weaponry and engines, both of those slots were already filled and he was forced to work the only station could use a worker that did not have one: the doors. He didn’t mind it, simply being thrilled to be a member of a Federation crew.

The next jump had that much-needed merchant outpost. The crew traded their surplus weaponry for drone control systems so that they could finally use the drone they had found so long ago. They also refueled and set up for another jump.

Another short-range Engi distress signal met them at the next jump. It seemed innocuous enough, but Faux realized something was off about the other ship they approached. Before he could fully realize it, it was too late—the signal was a trap, emitted by a Mantis ship in disguise. There were intruders on the ship before the Red-Tail could escape, and battle had begun.

They had beamed over to the weaponry room, and Nazia immediately escaped as she could not hold her own in a battle. Faux and Smith were dispatched to dispose of the intruders, and Stick arrived to help out with a laser pistol. Though Smith was wary of fighting like a Mantis, he was still effective in dispatching one of the enemies. Faux, aided by Stick, disposed of the other and both bodies were out of the airlock within seconds.

The shields were holding up well without Faux to work them but a stray shot made it through every now and then and the med bay needed repairing. With four crewmembers working on it, though, the repairs were done in no time and the healing could commence. Nazia, once healed, returned to her station to man the weapons that had been on autopilot since she had left. The other three, without sharing a word between each other, returned to their own stations. The battle resembled the trench warfare of a war Stick had read about in a history book long ago. It was taking forever and no significant losses were taken on either side. It took so long that the FTL drive was ready to go before the battle had ended.

Ariel noticed.

“Stick, fire up the engines. Let’s go.”

He almost spoke up to note that the battle wasn’t over, and then he realized just how backwards that would have been. Without replying, he powered up the engines and Ariel directed them to the exit jump.

Like most exits so far, this one had a military stockpile guarded by an automated rebel ship. Though this one had newfangled hacker drones that disabled the ship’s sensors and rendered Elizabeth useless, it was still easy enough to dispatch of. Unlike previous exits so far, this stockpile had long been empty. The only option from here was a path that would take them through two friendly sectors to the endgame. Before jumping, Ariel asked the crew if they were ready. Though they weren’t ready to be asked, they were more than ready to go. She took a deep breath and, faster than light, they were gone.

Several klaxons sounded as they entered the new, supposedly friendly, sector. One signaled something made obvious by the malfunctioning sensors—they had jumped right into a nebula. Another signaled something that had been remarkably less obvious—they had only enough fuel for one jump. In the fight against the undercover Mantis ship, one of the stray shots had hit the fuel reserves. Though it did not register as major damage, almost all of their fuel supply had leaked out.

The breach was easy enough to repair but with no merchant outposts within the nebula they were one jump away from being stranded. Though everyone was unsure of what to do, the decision was easy enough to make for Ariel. “Jump. We’ll find some fuel. What we have less of is time.”

No one questioned her. They took the jump that would take them closest to the exit, both from the nebula and from the sector. There were a ton of ships that had been wrecked at the next jump, and the cause immediately made itself evident—another automated rebel scout. Ariel immediately ordered the attack, knowing that they could possibly salvage some fuel after defeating it, which did not take long. The journey, though short, had made each of the crew members who had been present since the beginning experts at their respective jobs. The ship had enough fuel for just two jumps, which still wasn’t enough to get out of the nebula. Regardless, Ariel ordered another jump.

The ship that they encountered at this jump tried to get away; it was a pirate scavenger ship trying to avoid conflict. Ariel, without hesitation, ordered an all-out attack. Their shields withstood the first few laser volleys but eventually they got through and disabled the shields. The ship then made an attempt to escape but Nazia destroyed their engines. The ship offered their surrender, and Ariel ordered that they must forfeit all of their surplus fuel. When they hesitated, Nazia rocked their ship with another laser volley and they were convinced. With that, the Red-Tail was safe for the foreseeable future and they made another jump.

The edge of the nebula housed a dangerous plasma storm. The multitude of ships that had fallen victim to the storm would no doubt provide even more fuel, perhaps enough to make it all the way to the destination. The scrap and weapons they could potentially acquire was also too much to turn down for Ariel, who voted in favor of running a quick scavenging operation. Nazia, Faux, and Elizabeth also voted in favor of it, with Stick and Smith being the only naysayers.

The condition was that those who voted for it would have to be the ones who gathered the scrap and fuel. Stick and Smith stayed back in the ship, with the other four crewmembers putting on spacesuits and tethering themselves to the Red-Tail. The amount of scrap was remarkable, as was the amount of fuel. Nazia gathered the most fuel and Elizabeth gathered the most scrap, perhaps because she was so attuned as to what was salvageable and what wasn’t. On the way back to the ship, things were looking up after what had been a brief fuel scare.

“Hulls!” shrieked Ariel.

The brief joy shared by the four scavengers returning to the ship was crushed between two floating and prone hulls colliding. Everyone managed to avoid them, but one of the tethers had been caught between the hulls and snapped. The three remaining tethers were able to hold back everyone from the inertia of jumping out of the way of the hulls, but Nazia kept floating on.

Ariel shrieked Nazia’s name; it was the last thing she heard. Though she was still within distance of the ship’s radio system, the oxygen supplied by the tether was gone and she was unable to speak. Instead, as she floated away, she formed a thumbs up as best as she could. The rest of the crew remained speechless, watching as her body floated into the plasma storm, the first casualty on the Red-Tail.

The silence followed the three remaining scavengers back to the ship, broken only by Ariel’s sobs as she collapsed in the commons. Though everyone aboard the ship knew they could die at any time, and though they knew they could still die at any time, actually losing someone hurt more than any of them could imagined. Even the stoic GM Faux had to excuse himself to the shielding room. Smith and Elizabeth also returned silently to their respective stations. Alone in the commons with Ariel, Stick wrapped her in a hug on the floor of the commons, halting her sobs out of shock more than anything.

“Stop crying,” he said sternly after that brief silence. “I’m sad too but we have more important emotions to feel.”

“W-what?” Ariel replied, wiping her nose.

Stick only now realized that what he had said made little sense. “I mean we don’t have time to feel sad. Every moment you cry is a moment where the rebels catch up with us.”

“Stick?”

“Jesus, Ariel, pull it together. What the fuck did you think this mission was going to be? Fun? Games? How many people have we killed already? I lost count several sectors ago. Unless you want us to die too, you need to pull it together.”

Ariel remained silent for a bit. Stick’s words were harsh but true. “You’re right. We can’t let her sacrifice go to waste.”

“That’s just about the most clichéd thing you can say but it’s better than nothing.” He rose to his feet and pulled her up. “Now get back in that cockpit and get us out of this godforsaken nebula.”

She wiped her tears. “Thanks, Stick. You’re a good friend.”

They both returned to their own stations and jumped out of the nebula. A refueling depot near the sector exit was being hassled by another automated scout and Ariel ordered Smith to take over the weapons and take it down. Though not as skilled as Nazia had been, he still knew his stuff and within minutes the scout had been scrapped and the depot offered its thanks and some more fuel and scrap.

Hearts were heavy as the only sector standing between the where they were and their destination were the Zoltan homeworlds. Time was not a luxury and, without shedding a tear, Ariel ordered them through.

The first jump of the Zoltan sector took them right into a nebula. Without wasting any time, the crew and the ship moved forward, right into a battle with yet another automated rebel scout. Though it was Smith’s first battle, he handled the lasers well and, after a bit of a protracted fight, he dispatched the automated scout. After the battle, however, he was uneasy.

“Something I have, uh, taken into consideration is this: these lasers can weaken but not penetrate shields,” he radioed to the crew. “Ships with four layers of shields will be invincible against us.”

He had a good point. Nazia was a whiz with the lasers but she had either not thought to address this or not believed it to be important. Either way, Smith’s request for a shield-breaching weapon was out in the open now. The question now was whether the Red-Tail could find one.

At the next jump, Lady Luck seemed to smile down on the crew. A moon of a nearby planet looked ravaged by war and Smith volunteered to take a shuttle down and scavenge. Ariel gave him a limit of five minutes, and after six minutes he returned with not only a fair amount of scrap but a weapon that could teleport a breaching bomb through the other ship’s shields and directly to their system. He beamed the only way a Mantis who thought he was human could as he carried it into the ship. It was the first time anyone had smiled since Nazia’s passing.

“Talk about luck!”

One of the lasers was replaced with the bomb and the Red-Tail moved on. After moving on, the crew noticed a refugee ship laying low. The crew unanimously chose to leave the refugees be, as they were obviously trying not to attract attention. What was trying to attract attention was a distress signal, though it was coming from the direction opposite from the sector exit. As much as the crew would have liked to lend a helping hand (if it was even a legit signal), time was not something they had much of.

The exit was just two jumps away and so far this sector had not been too difficult to deal with. However, a fully-equipped rebel ship was there to intercept them at the next jump and yet another battle had begun. Smith seemed excited, though; he was dying to test out the new breach bomb. Its first launch missed but the second was a rousing success, as the rebel ship’s shields went down immediately.

With the shields down, Smith was free to paint the ship with lasers which had the added benefit of disabling their weapons system. Elizabeth relayed that, using her scanning capabilities, most of the crew was injured, most of the ship was on fire, and both the weapons systems and shielding systems were disabled. As if in response to this, the rebels radioed in their offer of surrender, but Ariel denied it and ordered Smith to finish them off.

“Gladly.”

Smith was coming out of his exoskeleton, it seemed. One last volley tore the rebels apart and the Red-Tail was free to move on. At the exit sector, however, one last thing stood in their way: another pirate ship. However, this one was not openly hostile; in fact, it offered a sizable bribe to the Red-Tail if they turned the other cheek and moved on. As it turned out, the pirates were attacking a hapless, unidentified ship.

“Guys,” Ariel radioed to the crew. “We need some good karma. Open fire on the pirates.”

”With pleasure,” Smith declared. Immediately, he opened up his assault, though the first few breach bombs missed their mark. Though his frustration mounted, he also noted that the lasers were weakening the shields, which was a success in and of itself. Eventually, the shields took an even bigger hit when one of the breach bombs finally made it, and after that it was just a matter of time until the battle was over. Though the pirates offered a surrender of their own, Ariel ordered that the assault continue and everyone agreed, especially considering Elizabeth had been damaged when a breach bomb from the other ship hit the sensor room. She ran to the med bay to get patched up as the other ship broke into several pieces, signaling the end of the battle.

After the battle, Ariel radioed at the crew of the ship the pirates had been attacking and they offered their deepest thanks. They had no spare scrap or parts but the ship’s engineer was happy to patch up the hull damage the Red-Tail had sustained since its last repair—as it turned out, a fair bit. Ariel thanked him and the two ships went their separate ways. The last sector was next.

The last stand was now.

The Red-Tail jumped into the new sector fairly close to the Federation Base. Ariel checked the sticky note that had survived the trip thus far for the access codes and used them to get through initial security, setting up a direct feed with Admiral Tully of the Federation.

“What is the meaning of this!? Who are you?” he shouted as soon as the feed went live.

“This is Crew Member Ariel of the F.S. Red-Tail. This is the ship General Woolworth should have told you about.”

There was a bit of silence from the other line. “By God, you made it this far? Then transfer over that data packet, damn it!”

Though she was ticked off at the rude welcoming, Ariel dutifully transmitted the short-range packet over. Once it had been received, she heard murmurs coming from the other end of the line—there were other people present with Admiral Tully.

“IDENTITY, GENERAL TURZIL, ENGI BRIGADE. INTEL SUGGESTS POSSIBLE COUNTER TO REBEL TECHNOLOGY. RISK ALL OR SAVE NONE.”

“Yes. And once the flagship goes down, the Rebels will be severely weakened,” Ariel replied.

“The flagship, you say?” Tully again. “Then, fine. The Rebels will be here in a matter of moments. We will do what we can to hold off their warships, but you must succeed in destroying this flagship. Your current location can refuel you and give you repairs if you need them. The other repair stations can provide aid as well. Good luck.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” Ariel replied, saluting even though no one could see. Without acknowledging this, she closed that line and opened up one with the crew. “You heard all that, right? We have a job to do. We must destroy the Rebel Flagship at all costs before it reaches the Federation Base. Understood?”

Everyone radioed in their consent.

“Excellent. For Nazia and the Federation!” she exclaimed, ordering Stick to jump to the closest beacon, which was one of the repair stations Tully had mentioned. It offered them a fair amount of fuel, drone parts, and missiles (for use with the breach bomb) as well. However, the next jump was currently in danger of being taken over by the Rebels. It was also the only feasible option. Reluctantly, Ariel ordered the jump and also ordered Smith to open fire immediately upon arrival.

The Rebels returned suit, aided by an Anti-Ship Battery that could easily destroy the Red-Tail in one hit were it not for the four layers of shields. That said, it could still do some damage—one of the volleys tore right through the engine room, and it would have torn Stick to shreds had he not realized it was about to hit and dove out of the way at the last minute. One of the drones, a system repair drone, automatically rolled into the room and began to repair the engines. Stick, meanwhile, crawled through the shielding room to the med bay, helped along the latter half of the way by GM Faux.

Another ASB shot tore through the oxygen room and breached the hull, which had been hit hard by several shots from the other ship already. As soon as Stick could walk again and as soon as the engines were repaired, Ariel ordered an escape. Stick happily obliged, making for the Federation Base.

The drone and Elizabeth both fixed the oxygen room and got air flowing through the Red-Tail again but the ship’s hull was only at 50%, and there were no ways to repair it in the skirmishes around the Federation Base. What was worse was that the flagship was inching closer and closer to the base. There were no repair outposts immediately next to the base but Ariel ordered a visit there anyway to see if there was something, anything they could find to patch up the ship before the final battle.

They only found another automated rebel ship. They destroyed it, as had become routine, but found nothing that could repair their damaged hull. The next jump brought one last automated ship, but they couldn’t even fight this one—the Flagship was one jump away from the Federation base. Ariel immediately ordered a return to the Base jump.

“This is it.”

They jumped in.

“Holy shit.”

It was much larger and more monstrous than any of them could ever have believed. It dwarfed their Red-Tail and it had four separate weapons systems. Without flinching (although just a little bit), Ariel ordered an all-out assault on their shielding. Only through taking their shields down could they have any hope, especially with a finite amount of bombs they could breach them with.

Smith dutifully opened fire and, for the first time since boarding the ship, he felt truly in danger. This might be it.

Stick had recovered from his earlier scare but was focused only on trying to power the engines just enough to avoid the incoming weapon fire. He thought of nothing else.

GM Faux could think of nothing else as weapon strike after weapon strike took down shield layer after shield layer.

Elizabeth could think of nothing else, singularly focusing on helping repair any damaged systems and keeping the sensors up.

The sensors were a moot point for the moment as the Flagship enabled its cloaking mechanisms. As soon as it reappeared, it fired off a stream of weapons. Some missed, some took down some shields, and some hit. The crew and systems made it out unscathed save for smith, whose weapons room had taken a bad hit. He couldn’t heal, as the med bay had also taken a hit from a hacker drone—it was down for the duration. He could only fix the weapons and move on.

More weapons came before the Red-Tail could even dent the Flagship.

“Shields down!”

“Med bay still hacked!”

“Oxygen room down!”

“Hull critical!”

Eventually the automated voices merged with Ariel’s personal alerts to become one continuous beacon of shit that was going wrong. Goliath was winning. David had only one rock left in his slingshot.

Miraculously, it hit.

The last breach bomb hurt the Flagship’s shields pretty bad, though there was still one layer left. If it had not hit, there would have been three layers of shields and three lasers to hit them with—in other words, checkmate for the Rebels. That one last breach bomb gave some hope, even as the oxygen drained from the ship and Stick coughed up blood.

Elizabeth ran to the oxygen room with the drone and tried to fix the breaches and the oxygen leaks. Smith fired off a laser volley and—

“Their shields are down! Keep firing! Give those bastards all we got!”

The Red-Tail shook as more missiles hit it and threatened to tear it apart but Smith’s laser volleys, like Nazia’s, were on target. Their shield room had taken the worst of the blows and Ariel said to keep firing even if they were all the way down. The last thing the Red-Tail could do is let their shields come back up.

“NEWS, BAD,” Elizabeth suddenly said. “HULL DAMAGE, IRREPERABLE. HITS WE CAN TAKE BEFORE DESTRUCTION, TWO.”

Ariel immediately fired back, “Then don’t let them hit us two more times! Keep firing and keep avoiding!”

Another laser volley was dispatched and registered hits. The Flagship was, against all odds, wavering. The shields kept energy weapons out and Stick’s masterful evasion kept most missiles from hitting the ship. But one misstep was all it took for the Red-Tail, as well as the Federation, to be destroyed.

After a bit of radio silence, Ariel suddenly said, “On the off chance we don’t make it, this journey has been amazing. Thank you all for your time, regardless of whether we win or lose.”

Immediately after she said that, the Flagship fired three more missiles. Two of them missed but one of them hit the med bay, which had been a moot point anyway. But the hull could barely take the blow. That was it—only one hit and that was it.

“Now don’t get soft on me, y’all! Keep fucking firing!”

Smith pushed the lasers to their limit and registered some more hits. David was turning the tide.

“One more volley should do it!” he proudly declared.

“Then do it!”

“Oxygen levels at fifty percent,” the ship’s automated system calmly chimed in.

“We’ve got enough oxygen, you stupid ship!”

During Ariel’s brief argument with the ship, three more missiles came. The ship rocked.

“I did all I could, Ariel,” he radioed in as the hull cracked in two. “I’m sorry. It was fun.”

No, that was…that couldn’t be it. They had just one more laser volley to go. David is supposed to win.

Had the ship’s computer still been functional, it would have reported that oxygen levels were at zero.

David asphyxiated as Goliath turned its weapons towards the Federation base. Goliath’s shields went back up as David tore first into two then into five and after that into much smaller pieces. Goliath destroyed the Federation Base as David went to meet his old friend Nazia, floating through space. David had no time for final goodbyes in the harsh reality of war.

David had died. Goliath had won.

Notes   [ + ]

1. To say nothing of the weeks of JonTron shoving thirty spiders’ worth of feet into his mouth.
2. “BUT MOBILE GAMING DOESN’T COU”Quiet, you.

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