Farside Base: Part Four
We were Commander C’s outriders on a trip to a canyon just on the other side of the sunset. We had passed all the tests, had an unpleasant interview with the Demon, been trained on the simulators, and been taunted by the other pilots. Now all we had to do was finish this flight, our first, and we would be full members of Farside Patrol.
It was just the three of us, but the Commander said she didn’t want any distractions. For this reason, she wasn’t flying her own fighter, but one of the three unmarked basic ones stored in a separate hanger off to the side of the main one. So far, the trip was going well. The fighter was slightly unwieldy, being made to accommodate Neopians of all species (I thought it might even fit Freefall), but the Commander said that our own customized ones would handle better... once we got them.
“It’s only going to be a very basic trip,” she assured us with a smile. “Just to the canyon, give you a look at the sun for a change, then home in time for dinner.” As an afterthought, she said, “The kitchen staff told me there’s orange-stuffed turkey tonight.”
Being a non-eater of turkey, I made a retching noise, which made Geena laugh and the Commander remark that she had requested kelp and broccoli wraps for those who didn’t like turkey. “You call that a reward for flying?” I muttered under my breath, but didn’t disturb the hilarity the Commander’s comment evoked in Geena.
The flight went well, at least until we got in sight of the sunset. Just as the horizon started to glow, I heard a strange grating sound over the radio. “Are you ok, Geena?” I asked worriedly.
“I was about to ask you that,” Geena replied. After a moment, she said, “Commander?”
“Nice of you to notice me!” the Commander snapped from between us. “I’m fine, my fighter’s not. Both main engines have glitched out, backup’s sputtering, and my controls have locked up.” I felt horror creeping up my back as I heard the fear in her voice. “If it gets me to the day side and then I crash, I’ll melt if my heat shield is damaged... and if it doesn’t get me that far, I’ll smash up and burn on the cliffs here and really melt fast!” Full-blown panic was in her voice now. “Get back to Farside, you two, tell them what happened!”
“But this is our first...” Geena started to say, but the Commander’s panicked voice cut her off.
“Haven’t you learned anything on the sims?” she shouted. “Go!”
We had barely turned our fighters around when she called out again. “No need to hurry,” she said, very calmly. “I’m going down. If I hit the sharp rocks, my ship’ll burn and I’ll be melted in two seconds, but if I can actually ditch somewhere smooth, I’ll be waiting patiently. At any rate, you have to go back and explain what happened.”
Horrified, I turned my fighter back around, and saw that the Commander was already well below us. Geena’s strangled cry of “No!” seemed vary far away, but the Commander’s calm words were near at paw.
“If I don’t get back...” she said, and Geena cut her off, shouting “You will, you will!”
“...in time for tea,” the Commander went on, “could you please make sure Lolo doesn’t eat all the Chokato jam again? He can have the petit fours, but only the cherry ones; the orange ones are my favourite. Explorer, I specially requested the banana bread for you, to make up for dinner not being so nice. And Geena, don’t let your baby sister eat too many doughnuts, she’ll make herself si...” The radio cut out in mid-word, and a moment later, a blazing flower of flame shot up from the ground beneath.
Geena began to wail wordlessly, while I stared numbly down. I barely noticed when Geena’s wailing stopped, but I did notice when her fighter disappeared from beside mine. “What do you think you’re doing?” I yelled, as she plunged downwards.
“Going to help the Commander!” she screamed back.
“But she said to go back and tell the others!” I shouted.
“I don’t care!” Geena replied. “I’m not leaving her out here!”
“You can’t help her, Geena,” I said, trying to calm her and wondering if I should follow her down. “You heard what she said; you saw the flame.” No, better not to, it might encourage her to go too close to dangerous rocks. “She’s steam already, and you can’t land there anyway.”
“Going to blazing try!” Geena shouted back, and before I could react, a second flame bloomed from the ground below.
The rest seemed a blur and horribly sharp all at once. I screamed Geena’s name over and over, to no response, tears slowly soaking into my facial fur in the low gravity. I even dived my fighter down close enough to see the fires slowly dying in the wrecks. But I saw clearly enough through my tears that I knew I couldn’t land there. Telling myself that perhaps Geena might be saved if I hurried, I turned back, and made as much haste toward Farside Base as the clunky fighter, the darkness, and my tears would allow.
Geena stroked my hair, and I looked up into her deep golden eyes. “You remember that too, don’t you?” she whispered, the lollypop stick sticking out of the corner of her mouth. “Poor dear, it must have been so much worse for you...”
I sucked absently on my lollypop, letting memory take me back again.
The fur on my cheeks was soaked with tears as I navigated my way back to Farside Base, and my mouth was filled with the sour taste of helpless grief. A small glow showed from an opening in the mountainside, the door of the hanger we had left from. Thanking Fyora that it hadn’t been closed, I zoomed toward it.
My heart felt like it was being torn to pieces by the sight of the empty hanger, but I forced myself to shut down the fighter’s systems before unstrapping and popping the top open. I did a classic low-gravity cartwheel out of the cockpit and onto the hanger floor... and very nearly missed colliding with another fighter. I caught myself and landed on all fours, staring at the metal skin of the spacecraft two inches from my nose. But the hanger had been empty as I looked out of the cockpit windows...
Barely daring to breathe, I stood up and looked cautiously around. There stood two unmarked fighters, looking exactly like the ones we had flown in... except that a tangle of wires and machinery surrounded them. I turned slowly around, to see that my fighter was enmeshed in the same tangle, and that the hanger doors were closed. Total incomprehension battled with a feeling that something very sinister was going on, as I walked carefully toward the door... and saw Commander C standing there, sipping a mug of something that smelled like Purplum mocha. Geena crouched miserably on the floor beside her, drinking Ummagine tea.
I raced toward them, not caring what was going on, just glad to see them unhurt. The Commander twisted her frozen face into a smirk and tapped a button on the wall beside her. As I hugged her icy body, a small panel slid aside, and I was kneeling beside Geena to hug her when the Commander handed me a glass of Grenanna iced tea. “You look like you could use a cold drink,” she said as I slumped on the floor beside Geena.
I took off my helmet and demanded, “What happened? Are you ok? The crash...”
“Simulated.” Geena’s voice was flat. “The whole thing was one big simulation, one final test... and one of us failed.”
“Wha...” I took a moment to wrap my mind around what she had just said. “Simulated? We weren’t really outside? We weren’t really flying? You two didn’t...” I looked at the machinery-entangled fighters, understanding slowly seeping in.
“Well, we did crash in the simulation,” the Commander said. “Take a good look at all that gear,” she went on, gesturing at the fighters. “The windows on those fighters are the best three-dimensional displays around, the whole system never really powers down, no matter what it looks like you did, and the movement stuff’s totally concealed in the floor and ceiling. When you seal up, the arms all latch on, giving an entirely realistic flight experience... at least compared to those crude sims. My proudest creation, that one is... mind you, it’s nothing to real flight, but it’s the closest one of you is going to get. Stand up, Explorer Of Worlds.”
I tried to apologize for abandoning her and Geena, but I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Not only had I abandoned the Commander, I had abandoned Geena, my friend, my comrade... “I’m sorry,” was all I could get out of my mouth as I stood up, head bowed.
“Look at me!” the Commander said, and I was forced to look at her frozen face. With one hoof she held her coffee, and the other was in one of the many pockets of her flight suit. “There’s no reason to be sorry for obeying orders,” she said, sliding her free hoof out of her pocket, and slapped me on the chest with it. “You can sew that on later, but the Velcro will hold for now. Come on, I need to show you the command room. Geena, would you ask the kitchen to send up some coffee? Kabuggle Mocha would do nicely, I think...” She took my untasted glass of iced tea from me, and emptied it onto the floor. “Farside Patrol does not drink tea.”
“Where’d you get this coffee, Commander?” Karl’s voice drifted down the stairwell, and I felt Geena’s ripple of fear. “All I’ve seen for ages is a thousand varieties of iced tea.”
“I had my personal stash of exotic javas and mochas,” Commander C’s voice answered him. “Just for my best pilots, in case of any emergency... what in Sloth’s name are you two doing there?!?” From the Commander, those were strong words, especially in these circumstances.
I turned to face the stairs, and the last thing I saw before I slipped into memory again was the look on Karl’s face... one of extreme embarrassment and dislike.
“Oh, so this is your cubby-hole? Nice place.” Karmapa’s voice said that he thought it was anything but nice. “Your curtains are torn, you’re right next to the computer station, and that mutant’s directly across from you. Wow, the Commander must really like you!”
I stuck my tongue out at him and yanked shut the only slightly tattered curtains that separated my sleeping niche from the rest of the pilot’s quarters. The good side of being in Farside Patrol was having more space to relax in; the not-so-good side was that it was all communal. The pilot’s quarters consisted of one huge dormitory and a good-sized bathroom. The centre of the dormitory was a lounge, and the walls contained the eleven curtained sleeping niches. Each was only big enough for the bed, bedside table, chair and minuscule wardrobe it contained, but Commander C had tried to make me more comfortable by squeezing a mirror in and putting a painting of a Wocky on the wall behind the bed.
After waiting long enough for Karmapa to tire of pestering me, I grabbed my soap and bubble bath and headed for the bathroom. It was with a feeling of great relief that I locked myself in the bath cubicle, deciding not to be intimidated by the sign on the door reading “Don’t be a Snorkle. Showers are for scrubbing, the bath is for soaking!” Throwing my clothes onto a shelf, I turned on the taps, and was soon luxuriating in a sweet-smelling tub, redolent of soap and shampoo. Of course, just as I was utterly calm, the rap on the door came, along with the shout, “The Commander wants us all in the briefing room. Last one there’s a rotten Tigerbuggle!”
So it was that I was the only member of Farside Patrol to arrive in the briefing room with hair that was not only waist-length, but wet and in a mass of out-of-control curls. Needless to say, the other pilots were very impressed, and showed it in myriad derogatory ways, which only stopped when the Commander, who was sitting at a desk next to the computer screen at the front of the room, said, “Apparently Lolo’s the rotten Tigerbuggle. Shall we start without him?”
The first part of the meeting was very embarrassing, with the Commander trying to nicely introduce me to the squadron, and the other pilots making it very clear they weren’t impressed by me. The peak came when a fat blue Wocky, who had plopped on the bench next to me and was taking enough room for two, suggested that I should wear a pretty red dress and have a pink ribbon in my hair.
“Very funny, Mikey,” the Commander said, which only seemed to encourage him, for he quickly elaborated that I should also brush my teeth more often and wear pink blush.
“I think you are referring to Mr Devilaris, are you not?” the Commander asked, and there was an edge of danger in her voice. “I should personally enjoy seeing him in a red dress, although I think an orange ribbon would go better with his hair.” Karmapa looked mightily offended, and loudly remarked that he did not need any wardrobe advice, adding that he was far better groomed than me.
“Enough!” the Commander said loudly. “Farside Patrol, may I introduce to you: Farside Three, Explorer Of Worlds, please stand up!” I stood up, feeling my ears turn red as I was greeted by mixed cheers and snickers. “Farside Five, Karl Devilaris, please stand up!” Karmapa was greeted by outright laughter as he jumped up and began to dance in place.
We were then introduced to the rest of Farside Patrol: “Farside Two, Kent Odnurghovitch,” made me laugh and wonder where he’d gotten that name from. Others were nearly as odd, though... “Farside Four, Fere Autrei,” was a grinning Chia who looked like he was probably Halloween, although it was hard to tell in his Farside Patrol uniform. “Farside Six, Artemis,” was a green Kougra who grumbled that he’d rather be called Art. “Farside Seven, His Imperial Highness Fraggle of Happyland,” was a handsome, gloomy-looking blue Lupe, who actually gave me a glance of what looked like honest admiration. “Farside Eight, Jeff,” was a Christmas Shoyru who didn’t spare me a glance; he was looking enviously at the green ribbons that secured Karmapa’s hair in its coif. “Farside Nine, Shado A” was a remarkably ugly blue Zafara, who did look rather friendly, though.
It was in the middle of the Commander’s announcement of “Farside Ten, Precious Skeit,” that an uproar broke out. “I’m number ten!” the Wocky named Mikey shouted, jumping up and knocking aside a baby Hissi who had popped up from somewhere. “How dare you promote that hyper-intelligent child above me?”
“When did I ever say I was promoting anyone?” the Commander said, very dryly indeed. “He’s only taking his rightful place. I was meaning to tell you privately after the meeting, but I guess I’ll say it now. You’re fired!” Gasps greeted this announcement, but the Commander went on regardless, “So is Lolo, for what he’s worth... or not.” Ignoring the snorts of muffled laughter this provoked, she continued, “Why don’t you just turn in your flight suit and tell him to do the same?”
Looking furiously mutinous, Mikey stormed out, leaving the Commander free to announce “Farside Eleven, Zarug Ultrai,” an orange Ogrin who smelled strongly of coffee and stared at the ground between his hoofs. Then there was one more... The Commander cleared her throat. “Farside Twelve, Vile.” A large form unfolded itself from the far corner of the room, slowly revealing itself to be a Mutant Cybunny.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Karl shouted. “Just sitting there while we’re preparing for a heroically mismatched battle, and in the arms of a traitor! Tea-drinking traitors, that’s what you both are...”
“Farside Five, you’re out of order!” the Commander snapped. “Shouting at fellow pilots is counterproductive, and shouting at your older sister is just plain rude.” She shot a not-very-happy look at Geena and me. “Farside Three, there’s some banana cream coffee up in the command room, and drinking it is obligatory for all members of Farside Patrol. We need to stay alert tonight.” Glaring at Geena, she went on, “Bring the traitor up too, we need to question her. By the way, congratulations on capturing her.” Looking resigned, Geena tossed the stick of her lollypop into the trash and got up. She was already peeling the wrapper off another as the Commander and Karl escorted her up the stairs.
To be continued...