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The Garden in the Darkness | Part 1: An Unscheduled Landing | Chapter 7



Nyx Yrital double-checks the set of straps holding them securely to the rear seat of Major Ioane’s darter. They’re not an anxious person by nature, but they’d heard enough about the Defense Fleet’s darter pilots and the crafts they fly while they were still working at Horizon Prime Station to be a touch apprehensive. Reba, too, has told them more than a few stories from her residency about the sort of wounds she’d had to treat among these pilots.

Still, somehow, despite everything they’d been told, Nyx has found themself agreeing to fly with the Major. They’re still not entirely sure why they said yes, but one way or another, it’s happened.

Major Ioane flips the switch to lower the polyglass canopy of her darter and seal it into place. The thick, translucent bubble of it completely encloses the two of them and marks its airtight sealing with a soft hiss and several clicks. She turns around to look back at the nervous Florivan sitting in the copilot’s seat behind her. “You got the seat restraints secured okay, Nyx?”

“I did, yes.” Nyx checks them again, just for good measure. Thankfully, they seem to still be secure. “Have I mentionedthat I’ve never flown in one of these contraptions before?”

The Major laughs in a way that makes her dark eyes sparkle and turns back around to double-check all of her flight preparation displays. “Twice now, I think! No worries, you’re safe as can be—Sarge is the one who forgets to account for gravity when he lands, not me, you know.”

“That’s… good to know.” Being sure that they’re fully strapped into the copilot’s seat gives Nyx only a small boost to their sense of security, but it does help. At least they know they won’t go floating up at an inopportune moment.

“Besides! We’ll be back in an hour or so—less, even, if we manage to find this jamming station or whatever it is soon.”

“Again, I’m not sure how much help I’ll be…” Nyx hesitantly begins to say. “Or why you invited me along…”

“Well! I have a Florivan friend or three, you know, and I’ve worked with them enough to know there’s a pretty good chance you can help—” Major Ioane pauses mid-sentence to clear a preflight checklist and send her code to open the hangar’s doors. Nyx can see the pilot’s face and part of her displays reflected in the polyglass of the canopy above her. She’s still all cheerful excitement, if her expression is any indication. “—Anyway, your eyes can pick out things mine can’t, for sure, and you’ve got that… oh, ‘sense of stuff in space’ whats-it. If my sensors can’t spot the thing through all of the interference out there, you might still be able to get an impression of where to look.”

“And here I thought I was just coming along to keep you company and give Reba a chance to be around someone who isn’t me for a change.” Nyx finds themself smiling as they absently readjust the folds of their empty right sleeves. They’re not sure why, but the Major is beginning to remind them of their parent’s Navigator. They decide it must be all the cheerful practicality—although there’s a notable difference in the distinct lack of horrible puns from this human so far.

“Well… I’d say it might be a small added bonus that neither of us has to sit around being awkward with the recently-reunited childhood sweethearts? They get to catch up, we get to sort out this jamming station… Two birds and all that.” Major Ioane chuckles softly, making a gesture towards their friends. “I figure Wyndi’s more than capable of keeping the two of them out of trouble for an hour.”

Nyx genuinely laughs at that. “Considering what Reba’s told me about your Sergeant, I’m not surprised you think a kittenis more likely to stay out of trouble.”

“Remind me when we get back to make him tell you the full story about how he found Wyndi—that’s Sarge’s trouble-magnet streak in a nutshell if anything is.” Major Ioane shakes her head, then pulls down the bar on her flight headset’s microphone. “All right, aside from my long-range radio and relay connections, everything’s checking clear. We’re ready for takeoff, ‘Mayview Control’. I’ll keep in touch.”

We’ll be standing by,” Nyx hears Potts call back over the short-range radio. He waves from the wing of his own damaged darter, where he and Reba are sitting. The small silver fluff of a Florivan kitten on his shoulder waves too.

“Good, Sarge—stay out of trouble.”

Don’t I always?

The Major laughs instead of answering and engages her darter’s anti-gravity takeoff gear. The little spacecraft rises up slowly through the shimmering atmosphere containment bubble and the open hangar doors. The doors slide neatly shut again almost as soon as the darter has cleared them.

“Launch successful, Mayview Control,” she says as she turns the darter towards the planetoid’s upper atmosphere and her maneuvering engines kick in with a roar. “I’ll check in like we scheduled.”

Confirmed, Major—to immortality!” The younger pilot’s voice is overlaid with static now.

“Forward to immortality!” Major Ioane echoes cheerfully, then flips up the microphone bar on her headset. “And now we get down to business.”

“Do you think your short-range radio is going to be enough for this?” Nyx asks. They’re distinctly concerned about the possibility of losing contact altogether.

“It worked well enough when we were landing earlier.” She shrugs lightly. “As long as I can get those hangar doors to open for me again when we’re ready to land, we’ll be fine. Besides, Sarge will be able to figure out how to open them manually if he needs to. He’s clever like that.”

“Ah.”

The darter continues to rise further and further from Mayview, gaining speed all the while. Soon, they’ve completely cleared the atmosphere and pulled into a low orbit. Nyx looks out at the planetoid below them and the expanse of black and stars all around. They lightly set their upper hand against the cool polyglass bubble of the darter’s canopy. It’s been so long since they were properly out in space that the sight of it all takes their breath away.

“It is nice seeing this from above again…” they say after a few moments, looking back towards the Major’s reflection in the canopy. “The view of the stars from Mayview is good, but with the haze layers from the atmosphere, it’s just not the same.”

“Glad you’re up in the sky again?”

Nyx finds themself smiling. “Glad I came with you.”

After making another round of checks to be sure all of the darter’s systems are functioning as expected, Major Ioanecracks her knuckles and glances back to Nyx. “So,” she asks, “did your ‘guests’ give you any clues as to where this jamming station is, or whether it’s more than one?”

“From what Reba heard when the one was ranting, all we really know is that there is one here. We’ve…” Nyx hesitates. “Well, I’m sure you can understand us not really wanting to run the risk of waking any of them to ask…”

“I can, yes.” Major Ioane nods, then chuckles softly to herself. “For what it’s worth? I doubt you would have learned much from them even if you did. In my experience, Novans don’t interrogate well to begin with.”

“I’d… imagine not.” Nyx isn’t quite sure they want to ask what her experience with that is at the moment. They gesture out towards the stars vaguely. “My guess is still that we’re looking for a satellite of some kind.”

“We’ll do a sweep of the surface too just to be sure, but I’d agree. If it was going to be on the surface, the best place I can think of to put something like that is up at the top of one of Mayview’s observation towers—and you said you and Reba checked there?”

“We’ve checked the whole complex twice.” Nyx nods, even though they know the Major isn’t looking at them now. “I’ve done my best to watch for satellites passing over the main dome over the years… I’m afraid I’m not as skilled with keeping track of such things as some, but I’m sure there’s at least four or five objects up here in orbit that aren’t natural.”

“Well, that’s a start.” Major Ioane flips a few analog switches on her control panels. “Plan is, we do our orbital sweep first. Keep an eye or two down on the surface as we go, though. If we’re lucky, anything that is down there is on the surface instead of underground so we’ll stand a chance of finding it.”

“Works for me.” Nyx is glad the Major knows what she’s doing. They’ve managed over the years with Reba to keep things running and stay reasonably safe, but they were never trained for things like this. It’s more of a relief than they could have imagined to have the two pilots now to help them.

“Oh! Do let me know if you start feeling spacesick or anything,” Major Ioane adds after a minute or two. “Darter flight takes a bit of adjusting to for most folks—not that I’m planning to do anything fancy or go at full speed at the moment, but still.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Nyx nods, turning their gaze out at the planetoid again. They’ve never been the sort to get spacesick at all—at least, not in the same way humans do—but they appreciate the warning. “I should be fine, Major. It’s been years since I was in microgravity at all, but I’m comfortable enough at the moment.”

The Major is silent for a while, and then chuckles. “You’re probably better suited to the way this bird handles than I am, now that I think of it. I’ve taken Celadon out on a jaunt or two before to show them what darters are like and such—if I remember right, they said it was ‘exhilarating, and about the closest thing a human could come up with to match the experience of being caught in a rough part of Quantum Space.’”

“I take it you were showing them the full capabilities?”

Major Ioane turns back to them with a grin. “I was.”

“I think I can see what they meant, then.” Nyx can see a touch of the exhilarating aspect already, with how swiftly the small craft is moving. Their tail waves curiously as they consider that they’re not the first Florivan she’s flown with. “This Celadon is a friend of yours, then? Your ship’s jumper or something?”

“No, that’s Indigo—also a friend, but far less willing to get into a darter with anyone. Celadon’s with Aegolius. Their Navigator is involved with my squadron’s mechanic, and they’ve been cross-training Sarge for Nav ever since Wynditook custody of him… so we’ve all gotten to be pretty good friends.” Major Ioane pauses, shaking her head with a self-deprecating chuckle. “I’m forgetting my manners, Nyx, aren’t I? It’s probably more proper I call them ‘Elder’ around you.”

“Ah! That Celadon.” Nyx can’t help laughing. In hindsight, they should probably have guessed who she was talking about more quickly. Who else but the Fleet’s Elder, Celadon Toreval? They’re the same person who’s notorious for persuading the rest of the Florivan Council of Elders to allow them and their followers to “defect” from their neutral and pacifist people so the Defense Fleet could have jumpers to run their ships’ Quantum Space Drives.

“I take it you know them?”

“We’ve only met once that I remember, but my Nida’s friends with them—and I certainly know their reputation. Elder Celadon being willing to get into a scary sort of flying machine like this with you more than once doesn’t surprise me at all.”

“I wouldn’t call the bird scary…” Ioane chuckles as she pauses to adjust her trajectory. “…Although you wouldn’t be the first who has. The girls and I were around back at the beginning of all of this to show them off for the Alliance diplomats—I’m sure you’ve heard how they thought humans were nuts as a species for even dreaming up a craft like this?”

“Vaguely? I think Reba mentioned it once when she was trying to explain what her residency was like.” Nyx shrugs. Most of the stories Reba has told them from when she was in medical school are inevitably about her best friend the aspiring darter pilot getting himself injured during training.

“It was a surprise to all of us, of course,” Major Ioane continues, “that neither of these two big ‘ancient galactic powers’ who were taking us on as a junior ally had ever considered using live-piloted craft to counter the Novan strikers in the first place.”

Nyx remembers now what Reba always says in her stories: humanity’s allies are advanced enough to have less personally dangerous ways of defending themselves like drones and functional ranged weaponry… and have more of a proper sense of self-preservation as a whole than any human darter pilot is born with. Having remembered that, Nyx also finds themself reminded of the sturdy but tenuous nature of the craft they’re strapped into and the delight their new acquaintance who is flying said craft seems to take in her work. It’s not an entirely comforting set of thoughts.

“Anyway! We had a few T’irsh-fel observers who were volunteered by their Admiralty to fly with each of our wings of test pilots for some of the demonstrations—since even a Prelvee male is a bit too big to comfortably fit into the seat you’re in, and the Alliance needed to know what we were capable of for strategic purposes.” The Major glances back at Nyx with that same grin again. “You should be happy to hear that I hold the distinction for being the only pilot who didn’t have their observer pass out from terror at some point during all of that.”

“Do I want to ask why yours didn’t?” Nyx finds themself raising all three eyebrows.

Major Ioane shrugs, still grinning as she turns back to her controls. “Jury’s still out on that, Nyx—best guess is that it worked out better because my observer was the closest thing the T’irsh-fel have to a thrill-seeker. Well, that and the fact that I was the only one of us ‘demonstrator hosts’ who wasn’t creeped out by having a telepathic copilot and consented to let her fully link up and experience the mock-combat maneuvers against her Admiralty’s drones from my perspective.”

“I can see how that would help…” Nyx is about to say something else, then pauses, their ears swiveling around as they try to focus on the tonal sensations of the planetoid and its moons and everything else between them and the familiar feelings of the distant stars. They close their eyes. “I think I’ve gotten my sense of the stars oriented now, Major. Do your sensors show any satellites around us?”

“Yeah, two so far. Closest’s off to starboard and planetary north—about 900 meters. We’ll circle around and check that one first.”

“Good.” Nyx nods. “That’s in line with what I thought was there.”

“Say, as long as you’re going to be my backup proximity scanner anyway,” Major Ioane begins while she’s readjusting her flight path, “if you happen to notice anything moving… well, fast and trying to line up with our tail, let me know before they’re lined up, will you?”

Nyx is immediately alarmed by the implication. “You have a concern about Novan craft appearing?”

“Nyx, I always have a concern about strikers appearing on my tail—that’s why I’m still alive! And since we ran into some in the neighborhood earlier and you’ve said they have a history of showing up around here…”

“…And you’re planning to destroy their signal jammer, wherever it is…”

“Yes, and that! But generally, it doesn’t hurt to be careful—and I know you’ll be able to feel them, unless you think Wyndionly can because they’re a kitten.”

“Kittens do have strong instincts for knowing when they’re in danger… but no, you’re right, I should be able to warn you.” Nyx grimaces lightly, staring back out towards the stars now. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Agreed.”

Several minutes pass in silence while Major Ioane slows and maneuvers her darter to bring its speed and trajectory to match the nearby satellite. Soon, she’s gliding right alongside it.

“Come in, Mayview Control,” she calls over the radio.

—trol here. —ahead, Major.” Potts’ voice is still overlaid with static enough to have words drop out of the signal.

“We’ve got our first satellite.” The Major taps through one of her keypads. “I’m sending you the orbit coordinates now to check against the outpost’s database.”

—coordinates confir—just a—to check.

“Standing by.” She flips up her microphone bar and turns around halfway to look between Nyx and the geometric array of antennas and computer modules making up the satellite. “What do you think?”

“It looks… standard? I guess?” Nyx shrugs, not knowing what else to say. “I’m a botanist, Major. This sort of thing is a bit beyond my training. It’s Thalassa you’d want for identifying a satellite just by looking at it, not me.”

“Thalassa?”

“My littermate—they’re the sort of engineer who’s keen on things like that.” Nyx gestures vaguely at the satellite. The thought occurs to them for the first time that they may actually be able to see their littermate again soon, and the rest of their family. Thinking about that brings back all sorts of kittenhood memories. They find themself smiling softly even as their eyes lightly mist over from the complex mix of emotions. “They had little scale models of all sorts of satellites and space stations hanging in our cabin when we were apprentices, even.”

“Let me guess,” asks Major Ioane, clearly stifling a giggle, “and you had plants?”

“Naturally!” Nyx can’t help grinning now. “Thalassa’s yet to let me live down the time one of their smaller models got ‘eaten’ when its hanging string broke, too.”

“Eaten?” Major Ioane turns her gaze to them again, raising an eyebrow.

“I had a particularly large pitcher plant growing in a pot underneath it at the time.”

Major Ioane shakes her head, holding back laughter. “Of course you did. Well, if you like carnivorous plants, then I can’t wait to introduce you to Penny—”

—come in.

The Major is still chuckling as she pulls her headset microphone back into sending position. “Go ahead, MayviewControl.”

Your satellite—firmed geosyn—cleared.

“You’re breaking up a bit; this one’s supposed to be here? Please confirm.”

It’s good—confirm. Don’t go and—ock out the—ing to fix.

“I get it, Sarge, thanks. Stand by while we find the next one.”

—Control stan—by.

Major Ioane goes back to her proximity readouts. “Looks like we’ve got a standard communications satellite of some kind here… so it shouldn’t be the thing we’re looking for. You have any thought where the next closest one is?”

“Hmm…” Nyx closes their eyes and falls silent for several minutes. “Possibly something above us and around… fifty kilometers or so to planetary south.”

“Let’s see… bearing 79 degrees?”

“About that, yes—forgive me, Major, it’s been a while since I had to coordinate locations like this…”

“You’re doing fine, Nyx. I’d probably be shaky trying to remember how to convert things into hex points if we were doing this the other way around.”

The cheerful sincerity in her tone sets Nyx at ease. It’s been a long time since they’ve been around humans aside from Reba, but they’re glad that the people who’ve accidentally come to rescue them are nice. They can see themself easily becoming friends with this one, too, if given the chance.

“Ah! Got it on the radar now, right where you said!” Major Ioane says, “Hang tight, Nyx, I’ll have us there in two shakes.”


 


 


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