The Garden in the Darkness | Part 1: An Unscheduled Landing | Chapter 1
In the outermost asteroid belt of the star system known as Kapteyn, a dwarf planet in a wide orbit quietly circles its faraway host star, lonely save for a small collection of minor moons. The tiny red-toned dot of Kapteyn’s Star itself is barely a faint glimmer from this distance, set among a multitude of other celestial lights.
Officially, this planetoid is registered as KOBP-8, although none of its inhabitants have ever bothered to call it that except when filing paperwork. The locals—when there are locals—know the place as Mayview, after the small but thriving outpost of the same name which had been built there to house them. As the most remote of the system’s colonized worlds, it’s long been the center of mining operations throughout the region and the last stop available to many a starship on its way out into deep space. In its heyday, Mayview had been home to almost five hundred long-term residents.
Now, the outpost is entering its seventh year of total abandonment.
With Kapteyn being the closest of the Sol Coalition’s inhabited systems to the battlefronts of the ongoing conflict between the Novan Imperium and the Alliance of other Galactic Powers, all of the Outer Belt’s residents evacuated to the system’s inner planets almost immediately after humanity was drawn into the War.
At present, this near-forgotten outpost is the destination of a pair of darter pilots from the Sol Coalition Defense Fleet’s starship SCV Surnia. Their mission for the day, officially, is to perform a general reconnaissance sweep of the area and then return to their rendezvous point to be picked up. Landing at Mayview itself wasn’t part of their original flight plan, but has become a matter of rather urgent necessity.
As the two darters come into orbit of the planetoid, one of the pilots is trying desperately to persuade his radio to work—although whether pounding the radio control panel with his fist in an attempt to shake the relay crystals connected to it back into alignment is an effective means of persuasion is up for debate. The trail of leaking fuel and debris behind his darter is also a matter of some concern, but at the moment, keeping in contact with his comrade is of a higher priority.
“Say that again, Major?”
“Looks like—lucky day—my old codes for—work! Give me five—clear us—”
“I think I read you. Waggle your wings when you want me to follow you down.”
“Who knows,” the young pilot mutters to himself, flipping the microphone bar of his radio headset back up into the standby position, “maybe one thing will go right today.”
He taps through one of his status panels and double-checks that his aft fire suppression system is still online. This is hardly the first time Pilot-Sergeant Julian Potts has found himself needing to land a crippled darter, after all—although usually there’s a team on hand standing ready to put out the flames.
While Potts is waiting to hear back from the Major, a little alien roughly the size of a small squirrel climbs out of one of the inner pockets of his short ivory flight jacket and up onto his shoulder.
“Oh, hello, Mirawynd,” Potts says, turning to look at them. “You done sulking now?”
The Florivan kitten in question makes a pointed bell-like squeak and pats Potts’ pale, sandy-bearded cheek reassuringly with one of their four tiny hands. One of the others is busy scratching the itchy place between their upper shoulders where their soft coating of silver fur has begun shedding off to reveal bright blue skin with silver stripes, just as their large catlike ears have. Their long prehensile tail joins their feet and lower pair of hands in holding tight to Potts’ collar so they don’t go flying in the cockpit’s microgravity. Their three golden eyes stare curiously out the polyglass canopy.
“Home?” they ask, looking back to their guardian with a small tilt of their head and flicking gesture of their ears. This is one of about twelve words the kitten knows how to say aside from their names for people—although Potts knows they understand a great many more than that.
“No, Wyndi, we’re making a bit of a stop-over here, then we’ll go back to Surnia. No hitchhiking for us today, though, I promise.”
Wyndi squeaks at him in a tone which suggests they don’t entirely believe that second part, and then goes back to staring out at the planetoid.
This is far from the first time Potts has gotten separated from his ship and squadron by some unexpected emergency. There are times he wonders if the galaxy has it out for him—not that he minds the adventures too much, if he’s honest. He’s always had a problem with getting bored when things were going too smoothly. Ever since he became little Mirawynd’s guardian, though, he’s seldom been bored for long.
Granted, he’d not intended to bring his ward along today. When he launched this morning, Potts thought they were safe in the care of the 2nd Squadron’s beloved grouch of a darter maintenance technician.
He’d been wrong.
Wyndi had somehow escaped, tucked themself into the small storage compartment under the vacant copilot’s seat in the rear of his darter, and fallen asleep—only to wake up from their nap and cheerfully announce their presence to Potts once he was already hours away from Surnia. The fact that the Florivan kitten’s instinct for approaching danger and sense of objects in space around them had saved Potts and Major Ioane from an ambush by Novan scout-strikers at a nearby asteroid had not dissuaded him from giving them a proper scolding for stowing away in the first place, though.
For their part, now that majority of the action is over, Wyndi seems to have forgotten about being in trouble altogether. They’re clearly more interested in looking out at the stars and the grey-green cratered orb of the planetoid.
“What’s shiny, Wyndi?” Potts looks up from his check of the readouts on the darter’s damaged propulsion system.
“Shiny!” Wyndi points out at an area between several craters a few hundred kilometers away from the glowing green lines of the Mayview outpost’s landing zones with both of their left hands. The tuft at the end of their fluffy prehensile tail tickles Potts’ ear as it waves in time with the kitten’s excited little non-word squeaks.
Potts’ eyes follow the line of the kitten’s pointing, but it takes a moment for him even to spot the landing zone lights through the layers of haze in the planet’s atmosphere.
“Ah, I see it now.” Potts chuckles and reaches up to bat Wyndi’s tail away from his face. “That’s our trail to line up with the hangar. Looks like they left the lights on for us.”
Wyndi looks between him and the green lines, then makes an appreciative trilling sound. As Potts knows all too well, the kitten has an instinctive attraction towards lights and anything else that catches their eyes as “shiny”. More often than not, Wyndi’s curiosity about the things they find interesting is impossible for them to resist—and gets him into even more trouble than he’d wind up in on his own.
The radio crackles back to life.
“All right, Sarge, I’ve—hangar—open—land these birds.”
“Confirmed, Major. Lead the way!” Potts gives the kitten’s fuzzy little head a gentle pat. “Back in the pocket with you, Wyndi.”
“Pocket. We’re landing.”
Wyndi squeaks reluctantly as they turn away from the view, but obeys and slips back into their usual place inside his jacket.
Potts is, once again, glad that he’s been able to train Wyndi to stay safely tucked in their “pocket nest” and out of his way during intense maneuvers and landings. The last thing he needs today is to have his fuzzy little copilot thrown around and injured.
As soon as both darters have descended through the shimmering soap-bubble-like atmosphere containment field, a pair of thick steel-and-polyglass blast doors close over the rooftop entrance of Mayview’s main cargo hangar. The hangar sits in a converted crater just outside one of the outpost’s larger above-ground domes and has space to hold multiple cargo shuttles, but stands empty now save for stacks of dust-covered crates along the walls.
By the time Potts has finished his shut-down checks, the other pilot is already out of her darter and waiting for him. She climbs up onto the wing of his darter to meet him as his canopy opens.
“Welcome to Mayview, Sarge! Lucky for us I was right about the automatic systems still working. I was half afraid we’d land and not find any air.” A relatively short, tawny-pale woman with straight black hair cut just below her chin, Major Ioane is the youngest of the three inseparable Pilot-Majors who make up the rest of Potts’ unit. She’s also—in Potts’ eyes, at least—the one out of the three with the strangest sense of humor.
“You could have mentioned that, Major.”
“I did!” Major Ioane grins at him. “I take it your radio cut out on that one? I could barely hear you at the end there.”
“Must have.” Potts chuckles reflexively.
“Short-range signal’s never been the best out here,” the Major continues, “but I swear it’s usually not that bad.”
“Did you get word to Surnia where we were heading, in the end?”
“No, I never did get my Relay connection or long-range transmitter back either after that hit I took.” Major Ioane crosses her arms, sighing lightly. “If I’m remembering the flight plans right from the briefing this morning, the message I tried to send over my short-range after we dealt with the strikers should have reached them or one of the other wings by now… but who knows if the signal was strong enough to be heard—or if anyone was listening on the right frequency to pick it up.”
“What does that mean for the two of us, Major?” Potts unconcernedly climbs up out of his cockpit to join her on the darter’s wing. This is hardly the first time he and the Major have been off-course and out of contact, after all. The fact that they have most of two darters between them and somewhere with gravity and breathable air to hang out while they come up with a plan is something of a luxury, in his mind.
Major Ioane shrugs. “We might have to wait a few extra hours for them to realize we’re not dead.”
“Ah.” Potts groans. “So it’s that sort of a day.”
“It would have been nice to have the rest of the Musketeers with us earlier and not off training the 18th’s fledgelings…”
“Would have—pretty glad we didn’t draw any of the fledges today ourselves, considering what happened—but there’s no point sitting around talking about what might have been! Save that for when we’re giving Colonel Bell our report.” Major Ioane gestures down at the rear of Potts’ darter. “Your tail’s scorched worse than I thought, by the way. I’m surprised you made it down here in one piece.”
“I’ll take my miracles where I can, then.” Potts slides down from the wing to assess the damage himself.
Major Ioane follows.
Wyndi slips back up out of Potts’ jacket and onto their usual perch on his shoulder almost as soon as he’s reached the ground. They look around curiously and then make an excited leap to the Major’s shoulder when they see her, hugging her neck with all four arms. “Abi!”
“Well, now, if it isn’t my favorite little good luck charm!” Major Ioane laughs and gives the kitten an affectionate scratch behind their ears. “Thank you for your help earlier, sweetheart.”
Wyndi purrs happily in response and nuzzles into her hand. Their third eye turns back to Potts expectantly, as if they’re waiting for him to chime in on the subject of what a good and helpful kitten they’ve been today. Wyndi might not talk all that much yet, but he’s been flying with them long enough to know the meaning of most of their body language.
“Don’t praise them too much, Major.” Potts rolls his eyes in amusement. “Wyndi’s still in trouble for stowing away in the first place and they know it.”
The Florivan kitten pointedly looks up away from him to the Major with a small, sheepish squeak and takes their tail up in their lower pair of hands.
“Oh, don’t worry, sweetheart!” Major Ioane gives Wyndi with some more ear scratches as she starts walking towards her own darter. “You’re not in trouble with me. Come on, Sarge will forget all about it by the time we get back with my repair kit.”
Wyndi squeaks charmingly in reply. The kitten’s long, fluffy tail swishes contentedly against the back of the Major’s ivory flight jacket, obscuring the letters of her name where they’re embroidered above the green fleur-de-lis and crossed swords of the 2nd Squadron.
“I wouldn’t count on that!” Potts chuckles and turns his attention back to inspecting the damage the striker’s attack did to his darter. It isn’t pretty. Judging by what’s left of his maneuvering engines and the missing section of the tail, he and Wyndi are fortunate to be alive.
“Y’know,” Major Ioane calls to him from across the hangar a few minutes later, “if we do manage to get that bird of yours back in the air, Rudy’s going to have a fit when he sees what you’ve done to her this time.”
Potts can’t help laughing. “Oh, naturally!” he calls back, “but if Rudy’s cussing me out again, it means I got back alive. I’d call that a net win, wouldn’t you?”
“I would! Point to the Musketeers indeed!” The Major is grinning as she returns and sets the small toolkit down on his darter’s wing to unroll it. “Better you stay alive and flying, kid—after all this time, it’d be an awful pain to have to go and break in a new d’Artagnan again. And where’d I ever find one who can crash through solar sails as gracefully as you do?”
Potts shakes his head, trying to hold back a grin of his own. “You ever going to retire that joke, Major?”
“Now why would I go and do a thing like that?”
“Shiny?” Wyndi interrupts to ask, reaching down from Ioane’s shoulder towards one of the tools in the unrolled case she’s spread out on the wing.
“No, sweetheart, these aren’t for you.” Major Ioane gently nudges the kitten’s four curious hands away. “But say! Do you have any of Rudy’s tools stashed somewhere that you can bring me?”
Wyndi seems to consider the request for a few moments and then squeaks excitedly and leaps up into the open cockpit.
“I’m trying to train Wyndi not to be a fuzzy little magpie, Major,” Potts protests, although not without a hint of a smile. “Try not to encourage them too much, will you?”
“Fair enough.” Major Ioane chuckles and tucks a stray lock of hair back behind her ear. “At least hunting through their stash will keep Wyndi distracted for a bit—assuming we can fix this mess ourselves, I’d rather they’re not in the middle of it all while we’re working.”
A large chunk of the hull paneling over damaged maneuvering engines chooses this moment to fall off of the darter entirely. The loud clang of it hitting the floor reverberates through the hangar.
Potts grimaces. “Well.”
“Well…” Major Ioane echoes.
“…So much for this being an easy fix.” Potts sheepishly rubs at the back of his head.
“We’ll have to scavenge parts from somewhere to patch it up—if you think we can patch it. I somehow doubt Wyndi’sgone and stashed me any spare engines under the back seat with the rest of their ‘treasures’… yet.”
Potts has it on good authority that Florivan kittens do eventually grow out of the magpie stage, although no one’s been clear on how long it takes for that to happen. The largest thing he’s ever found in one of his little counterpart’s hiding places and had to return thus far has been the gold-embroidered hat that Surnia’s Captain Brentwood wears as part of her dress uniform. Considering that he’s had to return that multiple times, Potts is fortunate that the Captain thinks Wyndi’santics are endearing. The hat is an exception, though; usually the kitten’s favorite things to borrow and stash away are tools and small component parts.
The two pilots stand there in silence for a minute or two longer, staring at the engine on the floor as if expecting it to magically return to its place in the darter’s body. Somewhere from within the cockpit, Potts can hear the distinctive rustling and soft squeaking of Wyndi rearranging things again—they seem to have decided that the sound of the engine falling wasn’t worth their interest.
“Well,” Major Ioane says at last, “at the very least we need to make sure none of it is going to catch fire again.” She gives Potts a teasing nudge. “You know how Rudy feels about you bringing him back cinders.”
“I don’t particularly enjoy trying to fly cinders, myself.” Potts shakes his head, then nods in the direction of the Major’s own darter. “How bad did that first striker get you, in the end?”
“Not as bad as I thought it had.” Major Ioane shrugs. “A few scorch-marks here and there, and like I said, it shorted out my Relay connection and long-range transmitter—nothing too serious, really. I lost a third of my fuel charge with all the dancing I did to get the other fellow off your tail, though.”
“Thanks for that, by the way. Do you have enough charge left to get home?”
Major Ioane folds her arms back over her chest again. “Not with as much of a safety margin as I’d like—especially if those weren’t the only Novans lurking in this part of the belt.”
“I see your point.” Potts stares at the section of his darter’s engines that are sitting on the ground for a few moments again. He’s not fond of the idea of there being more Novans lurking in the area at all. “I suppose we can drain what’s left of my reserves to top you up if we need to.”
“If we need to.” Major Ioane brightens and gives him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Looked like the recharge setup here’s still intact, though! I’ll get my bird hooked up while you take stock of your mess. If we can’t pull off the repairs, the two of you will have to fly home with me anyway, charge or none.” She takes a few steps away, then turns back with a thoughtful gesture to the door leading out of the hangar. “Might be worth us checking the rest of Mayview out too, as long as we’re here and we’re technically still on recon duty. I’m sure the Admiral would want word on whether this is in any shape to be a possible field base for the Fleet.”
“I’m surprised it isn’t one already.”
“Oh, who knows, Sarge? Not really our department, all of that.”
Just as Major Ioane is returning from connecting her darter to the outpost’s recharging and refueling system, Wyndireappears. They emerge from Potts’ cockpit dragging a gold-handled laser saw as long as their entire body behind them.
“Abi!” the kitten calls to her, waving their tail excitedly. “Shiny?”
“Very shiny, sweetheart! We don’t even carry one of these in the toolkits.” The Major reaches up to accept the laser saw and allow Wyndi to scamper unencumbered and triumphant along her arm.
“They’re getting bolder,” says Potts. “I think that’s the biggest tool they’ve squirreled away yet—Not that we’re going to need it.”
“You never know.” Major Ioane clips the laser saw onto her belt. “We might run into a jammed door or something.”
Potts shakes his head and then smiles at the Florivan kitten who’s so expectantly staring at him from the Major’s shoulder. “Fine, fine. Wyndi, thank you. We’re going to go exploring now, though, so we don’t need you to bring out any more tools. Okay?”
Wyndi jumps to his shoulder and sets about neatening up their fur, all four of their tiny blue hands carefully combing through the soft silver fluff. Their tail continues waving interestedly and their eyes stay mostly focused on his face.
“Now, you know the drill, Mirawynd.” Potts takes on a firm tone, looking straight into the kitten’s three curious golden eyes. “This is a new place, but we don’t know if it’s safe or not—so no running off, got it? You stay with me.”
“Wyndi stay?” The kitten pauses their grooming routine long enough to twitch an ear at him.
“Yes.” Potts affectionately pats them on the head. He has to admit, if only to himself, that the face Wyndi makes whenever they agree to try to behave is particularly cute. “Stay close.”
Major Ioane chuckles. “Stars, Sarge—You say that like all they ever do is scamper off and get lost.”
“You’ve never been the one having to track Wyndi through a ship’s air ducts, Major.”