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The Garden in the Darkness | Part 1: An Unscheduled Landing | Chapter 8

More than half an hour and three more innocuous satellites later, Nyx and Major Ioane are still circling the planetoid in search of the Novan jamming station. They fill the space in between the satellites with genial conversation about Mayview itself and the acquaintances the two of them have in common from living there before the War. They’re both quite amused to find that they had come within weeks of meeting no less than twice.

Then, as they’re making their thirty-first orbit, Nyx’s keen eyes catch a glimmer of light on the planetoid’s surface through the layers of atmospheric haze.

“Say, Major? I think we might have something.” They lean forward in their seat restraints to tap on her shoulder and gesture out the window in an appropriate direction. “Does the map you got from Mayview’s database show anything down there near those craters? Oh… something like two or three hundred kilometers to the west of the landing lines.”

“Nothing I remember, for sure…” Major Ioane takes a few moments to swing around and slow down to take a closer look and pulls up the approximate coordinates on her darter’s guidance control system. “Ah! No, not unless it’s something that was built after this map was compiled—which isn’t likely if it was official. According to the map, that area’s nothing but craters and emptiness.”

“Well…” Nyx taps one of the four digits of their upper hand on the polyglass of the darter’s canopy for emphasis. “To myeyes, there’s some sort of odd shine at the center of that group of smaller craters. I know we were looking for a satellite… but could this be it?”

“I can’t see it myself from this distance, but it might be!” Major Ioane switches over to her radio while she’s changing course. “Mayview Control, come in if you can hear me! I think we may have found something.”

—Say again?” they hear over the radio, “—static’s—lot worse—barely—

“I said I think we found it, Sarge.” The Major laughs. “And if you’re getting more short-range interference, that might be a clue we’re heading the right direction. Stand by.”

Major Ioane takes her darter back down towards the planetoid’s surface, flying in slow circles above the group of craters Nyx had indicated. “Scanner’s clouded with interference too,” she tells them, “It’s not showing up on my radar at all, whatever it is.”

“There!” Nyx points ahead of them towards the ground. “That’s the shine I saw, at the center of those three boulders. Can you see it now?”

Ioane squints and circles around again, descending and slowing until the darter is hovering barely fifty meters above the planetoid’s dusty gray soils. “It’s… Ah! There’s a glimmer or something, I think, if I stare at it long enough. Right between the boulders, like a heat-shimmer?”

“That’s it.” The silver tuft at the end of Nyx’s tail dances excitedly. “To my eyes, that shimmer you’re seeing is a large pointy object with something of an oil-slick glow to it.”

“How pointy?”

“From this distance…” It takes Nyx a moment to come up with an appropriate analogy. “You know how Head Botanist Falstaff always insisted on growing kiwano melon vines somewhere in the outpost’s gardens, even though the fruits have a tendency to burst when they’re overripe?”

“Yeah—I got into so much trouble as a kid for leaving one of those little spike-balls under the pilot’s seat in my Dad’s shuttle long enough that it did that.” Major Ioane stifles a laugh, then turns her tone of voice to something more serious. “So, that’s what it looks like?”

“Yes, but about three times the size of this ‘bird’ of yours, if not a bit more.”

“That’s got to be it, then.” Major Ioane takes the darter down within ten meters of the planetoid’s surface and slowly circles the trio of boulders from a distance. “Okay, Nyx, I can see the edge of the shimmer a bit clearer now if I squint, but it looks like the sensors are still convinced we’re looking at an empty patch of dirt. I’d say this is as close as I’m willing to take us in just yet. We’re just outside pulse laser range, at the moment.”

“It is there, Major.” Nyx pauses, twitching an ear concernedly. “You think it might have weapons?”

“If the Novans put it here? I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.” Major Ioane chuckles. “I know us darter pilots have a reputation… but it’s the voice of healthy caution that keeps us alive.”

“Ah. And your ‘healthy caution voice’ is telling you… what exactly?”

The Major gestures out in the general direction of the object she can’t see. “That it’s more a matter of how well the melon is armed than whether it is or not.”


“Now,” she continues, “If it’s just pulse lasers like they put on their strikers? I can deal with that! I dance through those all the time—but if it’s set up to take a big chunk out of the planet when it’s destroyed? That’s a bit more of an issue.”

“…I can see how it would be.” Nyx begins absently straightening the silver tuft at the tip of their tail with their lower hand to keep it from twitching and showing how much of their earlier nervousness that thought has brought back. They know Major Ioane can’t see the twitching, but they still feel a need to keep it contained. “What do we do about it, then?”

“Well, even if they say they can’t see it, I’ve got all of my scanners and cameras focused that direction… and I have youhere to describe what it actually looks like. I figure we compile as much information as we can, and then head back to Mayview to sort out a melon-removal plan.”

“Nothing is ever simple in your work, is it?” Nyx does their best to hold back a nervous sigh.

“Not usually. To tell you the truth, Nyx, I get wary when things seem that way—it’s usually the lead-in to an ambush.”

“Ah…” Nyx can’t decide what they think about how calm she seems about all of this. “What are the chances of you running into two of those in one day?”

Major Ioane laughs in that same bright, carefree way that seems to be her trademark and looks back to Nyx briefly with a knowing wink. “Trust me when I say you don’t want to run the odds on that. Just focus on telling me about our friend the melon and let me do the strategic worrying, okay?”

“I see…” Nyx hesitates, then nods. Something in this human’s voice makes them feel like they’re safe with her, regardless of what’s going on. They’re not sure quite why, but it does. “Well, like I said, it looks a bit like a massive kiwano. The conical spikes are about the same size, proportionally, and randomly distributed across the surface. Each spike has what looks like a set of antennas poking out of it.”

“Check. And it’s at the center of those three boulders?”

“It is.” Nyx shifts their position in the seat’s straps to get a better view through the darter’s polyglass canopy. “It looks like it might be suspended from the boulders, somehow? There’s a gap underneath it, at least, and I can’t be entirely sure from this distance, but I think I can see some sort of pillars or rods connecting the base to the boulders.”

“Hm… well, that’ll make targeting easier, at least.”

“Aside from the spikes, the surface is smooth, and—” Suddenly, Nyx breaks off mid-sentence, swiveling their ears and turning in their seat to look out from the other side of the darter towards its tail. Something in their sense of the stars and space around them has changed, and they don’t like it.

“What is it, Nyx?”

Nyx closes their lower two eyes and grows still, although their ears and tail are still twitching with nervous agitation and their third eye is fixed on the pilot’s reflection in the darter canopy. “Major, you said to warn you if I felt anything small and fast-moving heading towards us?”

“Which direction? My proximity scanner is still jammed from the melon.”

“Behind and above—just came out of orbit and turned our way.”

Major Ioane nods and subtly changes her flight path to begin climbing from the surface while still making the same circles. “Thanks. Any idea how many?”

“More than one… I’d almost say from different directions—” Nyx opens their eyes long enough to twist around in their seat and look out in the appropriate direction again. “—But at least one that’s diving towards your tail!”

“You can see it?”


“It’s yellow?”

“How did you know?”

“Just a guess!” Major Ioane forces a laugh as she pulls the darter up higher and increases its speed. “Hang on, Nyx, this is going to get a bit rough!”

Both of Nyx’s hands tightly grip the armrest of the seat they’re strapped into. Their tail curls around one of the support bars underneath it for good measure. They’re not entirely sure if holding on will do much good if something happens, but it does allow them to ground themself and keep their rising panic inside.

Almost as soon as she’s clear of the concealed object’s vicinity, Major Ioane dives back down towards a wide crater in the planetoid’s surface. She deftly twists her darter around in the process so that at the last possible moment, instead of crashing into the powdery grey rock of the crater’s base, the darter glides effortlessly upside-down along it. With barely two meters of clearance from the surface, she skims along the contour of the crater at increasing speed all the way back up in a loop.

The pursuing Novan striker is in front of her when she reaches the top of the loop, just coming into the darter’s range of attack. Two quick bursts from her main laser cannons, and the striker is spiraling down into the crater, a debris trail following it made of the fragments of one of its side engines. In the base of the crater a few moments later, a plume of debris and dust flashes up into the planetoid’s thin atmosphere with a brief jet of fire.

Major Ioane continues her trajectory out of the layers of haze towards a high orbit and away from the suspected jamming station. “They come in packs, Nyx!” she calls behind her without turning to look. “Where are the other two?”

“Ah! Above us, bearing around… 145 degrees by fourteen?” Nyx returns to keeping their lower two eyes closed and the tufted tip of their tail securely gripped within the fingers of their lower hand. Their upper hand’s fingers rest against their left temple to help them focus on absorbing all of the information their sense of space around them can possibly provide.

Major Ioane swiftly changes course, spinning the darter back so its canopy is facing out into space. “Aha! There they are!”

One of the strikers ahead of her breaks off just before the bursts of her laser canons hit their mark. The second one takes the brunt of the attack, crippled in a brief flash of fire and fast-moving debris spreading along its previous course and falling towards the planetoid’s surface.

With the skillful motion of a dolphin swimming through a school of fish, the Major zips around the debris trail and out further from the planetoid. Her darter’s external energy shield shimmers with auroras as the smaller bits of fast-moving particulate debris strike it and the shock wave from the brief explosion makes contact.

Having evaded Major Ioane’s initial attack, the second Novan striker now goes on the offensive. It fires its pulse lasers, only to have her twist her wings at the last moment and avoid being hit. The two small craft continue to dance back and forth in acrobatic spirals and bursts of light as they trade shots, all the while staying high above the orbits of the scattered satellites.

In the back of their mind, frightened as they are, Nyx can’t help but be amazed at Major Ioane’s skills. To them, it seems almost as if the darter is an extension of her body—and her highly-tuned reflexes, they realize, are the only thing preventing the two of them from meeting the same fate as the striker whose debris she’s still dodging periodically. This is not a pleasant realization in the slightest, but they force themself to focus on her deft hand with the small craft’s controls rather than the danger they’re in.

Just as it seems the Novan is gaining the upper hand and Major Ioane’s status display is beginning to flash a “nearing low charge” warning light, Nyx feels something change in the area of space they’re flying through.

“Major!” they call, “There’s something else—”

Before Nyx can even finish their sentence, two powerful bursts of laser canon fire from different directions hit the Novan striker at precisely the right spots to destroy it outright. Major Ioane pulls up from the resulting explosion and billowing sphere of debris just in time to avoid being struck, save for one large fragment which clips the tip of her darter’s left wing.

The Major laughs and twists her darter back into a steady posture and more leisurely speed as soon as she’s clear of all of the debris. She taps a button on one of her console displays and pulls down the microphone bar on her headset. “About time y’all showed up!”

—Don’t we—ow up?” says one brightly accented voice over her short-range radio underneath the static.

—ought you’d—an assist—Abigail!” calls a second voice, laughing.

Two more darters pull into formation on either side of Major Ioane’s, matching her perfectly for course and speed.

Nyx is equal parts relieved and puzzled by this development, but more than anything they’re still trying to keep all of their panic inside. They close all three of their eyes and slowly run the tuft of their tail through their fingers to straighten out the fluff of it and try to let the rhythm of the motion be a focus for calming themself. They tune their ear to the Major’s voice, letting the pleasant tones of that overpower the memories of the last time they were in such immediate danger and wash away the sounds of flames.

“I’m grateful you weren’t any later,” they hear Major Ioane say to the voices on her radio, her tone of voice suggesting that all is well now. “Listen, girls, signal’s not the best here and my radio’s worse. Follow me down to Mayview and Sarge and I will explain everything.”

—clear!” calls the first voice.

—ith you—the way!” the second chimes in.

“Now that’s what I like to hear!” Major Ioane changes her course to head back down towards the outpost.

“…Friends of yours, I take it?” Nyx asks at last, finally able to relax a bit, although still with their eyes closed.

“The best of them!” The Major graces them with one of her signature ‘all’s well with the world’ sort of laughs. “I knew they’d come looking for us eventually. They always do.”

“That’s a good kind of friends to have, Major.” Nyx opens their third eye now and glances out the canopy at the two darters that have come into formation on either side of Major Ioane’s. They can’t see either pilot through the reflective coating on the outside of the canopy bubbles, but they’re reassured somehow to know that each contains a friend of the Major’s who will be able to help resolve the situation they’ve all found themselves in.

“They really are.” Ioane’s tone is soft, clearly denoting a deep fondness for the pilots in question. After a moment, she glances back over her shoulder. “You holding up okay back there?”

Nyx hesitates, still absently straightening the tuft of their tail and keeping most of their mind focused on making sure nothing else drops out of the black to attack them without notice. “I… will be able to re-center myself properly once we’re on the ground again.”

“Fair enough.” Major Ioane smiles at them, but as she turns back to her displays she betrays a note of concern underneath her characteristic cheerfulness. “For what it’s worth, Nyx, you’re a good copilot. I owe you one for spotting those strikers early—and another for bringing you up into the mess in the first place.”

“As long as we land in one piece and we will all be leaving together?” Nyx forces a chuckle. “I’d say we’re even, Major.”

“Okay, then. We’re even.” Her giggles at that are genuine and warm in a surprisingly comforting way. “Oh, Nyx?”

“Yes, Major?”

“I’ve been meaning to say,” Major Ioane tells them in that warm, cheerful tone that reminds them so much of their parent’s Navigator, “you can call me Abigail. You survived flying with me. That makes us friends!”

“Thank you.” Nyx finds themself smiling back at her reflection in the darter’s canopy. “Well, then, Abigail, my friend… do you think you can get us back on the ground gently? I’m not spacesick yet, but this is the closest I’ve ever come to it.”

Abigail’s reflection gives them a giggling salute. “One gossamer landing, coming right up!”



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