Home > Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1)(8)

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files #1)(8)
Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff

My fighter Group was running dogfight drills 600 klicks off the Alexander’s portside, skirting the edge of Kerenza VII’s atmosphere. Present during “the incident” were myself and three other members of Alexander Flight Group Echo: our CO, Major Eli “Prophet” Hawking, First Lieutenant Zhenya “Dreadnought” Alvaranga and another rook, Second Lieutenant Mikael Carlin.

I’d only been cleared for flight status two weeks earlier, and I was still a bunny at the stick. I’d logged near a hundred hours in VR, but all the sims in the ’verse won’t prep you for the real black. Two minutes out there is about all it takes to teach you how little you know about everything. You’re a speck of animated carbon and water with about seven inches of ballistics-grade ceramic between you and absolutely nothing. Ninety-three billion light-years of fucking nothing. No up. No down. No sky. No ground. Just endless dark shot through with tiny spears of sunlight older than you and your entire species stacked end to end. You want to feel small? Spend sixty seconds in a Cyclone’s cockpit, chum. Look out at the nothing and feel it looking back. Then you know exactly how much you add up to.

We were off the Alexander’s portside, like I said. Even 600 klicks away, you wouldn’t believe how huge a United Terran Authority battlecarrier looks. It’s a megacity-sized fist of matte grey, tail end lit blue-white by thruster arrays big as sky-scrapers.

I saw in VR somewhere that old Terran sailors used to refer to their ships like they were ladies. It was all “She’s the fastest ship in the isles, guv’nor,” or “She went down with all hands on board” or whatever. And it’s funny—my Cyclone feels like a girl. Looks and moves like a girl. She’s all sleek lines and sharp curves and edges that can bleed you white. Sometimes, I swear she flies me.

But Alexander is a “he,” no doubt in my mind. There’s no grace to him. No real symmetry. He looks exactly like what he is—a brawler who picked a fight with someone just a little better. He’s got a broken-jaw face and a bucktoothed smile, wide as an ocean. He doesn’t fly through space, he punches through. Rips holes in it and drags himself and everything around along with him. A hundred thousand kilometers of cable beneath gunmetal skin. Open black scars torn down his flanks from the retreat at Kerenza IV. Brain the size of a city burning inside him. He’s no lady, sure and certain. No gentleman, either. You do not fuck the Alexander. The Alexander fucks you.

The science vessel Hypatia was situated about 4,000 klicks aft of the Alexander. Now she’s a she. Beautiful ship, chum. Lines like poetry. She doesn’t move in space, she dances in it. Asks you to take her hand and close your eyes and fly with her.

The heavy freighter Copernicus was on Alexander’s portside, about 6k klicks aft. If I had to pick, I’m not sure if I would’ve called that ship a boy or a girl. I’ve seen pictures of turtles on the VR. Copernicus almost reminded me of those. The city-sized shell on its back filled with enough fuel to juice it, the Alexander and the Hypatia combined. All the eggs in one basket.

I think there’s a saying about that.

Second Lieutenant Carlin and I had just been tagged by Dreadnought for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Regular as analog. Her targeting computer would light us up, the words “Vessel Destroyed Vessel Destroyed” would flash on our heads-up displays and she’d laugh down comms at us like we were the funniest clowns she’d ever seen fly a stick.

She’d started referring to Carlin as “Chatter” because he talked too much between engagements. I felt bad for the guy—when a superior officer slaps a nick on you, chances are it’s gonna stick. “Chatter” doesn’t rank up there with the chillest callsigns in the fleet.

Dreadnought was still tossing ideas around for me, and every time she dropped a firebomb like “Prettyboy” I’d shit myself just a little. They engrave those callsigns on your coffin when you get X-ed out. Last thing you wanna picture when you imagine your send-off is a bunch of fellow Cyclone drones standing around toasting the death of “Lieutenant Sugarpants.”

We were forming up for another round of tag when the red alert sounded. At first I thought it was a drill, but then AIDAN spoke to us direct on comms. See, AIDAN doesn’t do drills. The Alexander’s Artificial Intelligence isn’t capable of lying. Sure, it can think for itself, but no neurogrammer is stupid enough to make a computer capable of conceptualizing deceit. These things are so smart now, the ability to spin bullshit is all that separates us from them.

“Major Hawking. Please order your flight group to arm ballistics and pulse missiles. Safety disengaged. This is a code red.”

AIDAN’s voice is sexless. It has perfect tone and inflection and pronunciation, but it doesn’t sound old, or young, or have even a hint of an accent. It even refuses to refer to pilots by their callsigns. I mean, sometimes it sounds cranky with you if you carve up the flight deck when you land or whatever, but aside from those occasional twitches, it’s like a beautiful painting of a totally empty room. Gives me the crawls.

Prophet repeated the order, and Dreadnought, Carlin and me all went hot. Didn’t even think about it. Thinking gets you killed, that’s what they tell you.

The three of us formed up on Prophet’s wing as he opened channel to Alexander, asking for confirmation from General Torrence. Except Prophet got no meat response on the other end. Just AIDAN giving us coordinates and telling us to scramble at redline speed. We flipped 270º, jammed stick and burned it toward the target. One look at my spatials told me where we were headed. Right at the Copernicus.

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