My HUD beeps, reminding me how little life support I have left. The cold I tried so hard to ignore before becomes a physical thing, a living being, clawing up from my numb chest, scratching along my head. A harsh buzzing crescendoes and the stars flicker.
So much for glory.
–What are YOU doing with the rest of your life?–
My bunk in the Stable has a broken holodisplay above it. It has been useless for months, stuck on the default advertisement. I’ve spent so many sleepless nights staring at it, the words have become almost comforting, like a litany, repeating in my head. Never mind the stupidity of a Naval recruitment ad in a bunk on the Navy barracks.
I’m dying out here. To pass the time, maybe distract myself, I go over it line-by-line.
–Picocyvira plaguing your planet? Solar strikes skimming your salary? Loquoppa louts looting your livelihood?–
The stars swell back into being, burning far brighter than they should, and any pain recedes, leaving behind the gray nothing of numbness and oblivion. I relive the last few minutes.
If this is my life flashing before my eyes, I’m getting ripped off.
–Join the Galactic Navy as a Sauronaut!–
The pressure seal on the saddle’s support bubble had been leaking the whole flight, sucking some of the joy out of just flying. Sarge kept telling me I wasn’t checking it closely enough before launch, but I knew better. Problem is, those poor saps in maintenance have been the principal target in the budget slashes so often it’s a wonder they can even afford the chewing gum they use as sealant now.
I leaned over the pommel, my head still meters away from Maggie’s, way out there on the end of that trunk of a neck. The Loquoppa ship—Davorkta designation, according to my readout—used a classic under/over maneuver, trying to put itself between my cosmosaur’s body and me. It wanted to stay out of my line of sight long enough to recharge its batteries and get off another shot. I hugged my lancer to my armpit, craning for visual contact. But Maggie, so spooked from the near collision with the Davorkta as it de-cloaked, had lost trust in me. It made her unpredictable. She’d become a liability to us both, if I wasn’t able to calm her.
The Loquoppa raids back on my homeworld, Titan, had been nothing compared to this shit. If I’d known how much time I’d spend chasing down quops—or, at least, their robodrone raiders—for a living, I’d have told my recruiter to shove it.
–Earn an Intergalactic Banktrust wage—guaranteed! We pay top koin and the advancement and earnings potentials are virtually unlimited!–
The Navy doesn’t pay well enough for what we deal with. I coaxed Maggie into a roll, like Sarge taught me. I pinpointed the quop’s triangular Davorkta; from my vantage, little more than a thin line. Its AI must have calculated the location for optimal visibility impairment, but at the cost of getting its solar panels on a reflect angle. The frost crusted up on the inside of my bubble played nicely with that gambit, keeping me from tracking it as I tumbled over and Maggie’s body blocked my line of sight again. The one point in my favor: it took twice as long to charge those cannons.
I spurred Maggie on, letting her vent from the left flipper more so than the right. We came in a deliberate, circular pattern. A tremor rippled through Maggie’s pebbled hide as she released the propulsive gas. It rattled the loose seal on my bubble. In my HUD I got a few more chimes and red blinkenlights. I blew a puff of air out the side of my mouth, wishing I could afford another containment suit.
But promos to first class (and the accompanying pay bump) are granted based on politics, not skill. I might not have been the top Sauronaut in the fleet, but I had more confirmed kills, more successful salvages, and more saddle time than ‘nauts twice my age. Sarge says it’s because I never want to come in. Maggie is still my first cosmosaur, something I’d wager no other seasoned ‘naut can claim. Sarge says her and I were both born to fly.
Sad fact, though: if you don’t come from Luna Base or Colony One you can just settle in at second class until your hair turns gray.
Anyway, rank and position and occupational destiny are irrelevant if a quop fries you.
–Paid training and certification in cosmosaur handling, including medchamber subscription, generous life insurance package, and many other competitive benefits!–
The Stable is on the dark side of Calypso, probably half an hour’s flight from the battle scene. I shivered, maybe ten minutes from hypothermia even with my lifesuit before either the Davortka or I got a shot off. But I couldn’t worry about the leak until I dealt with the quop. Since its ship resembled a pyramid erecting itself, I figured it was done charging those cannons.
I tucked the lancer tighter under my arm and leaned in close to Maggie’s tough hide. The quop wouldn’t bother firing directly at her. But cosmos need calories and, in particular, they need stachy for propulsion. I had plenty of what she needed in the saddlebags, and those are a favorite target.
Although the first thing any raider will aim for is the pilot.
I jerked the reins with uncommon insistence, the kind of demand I don’t like to inflict on my cosmosaur. Maggie, already half-spooked, ratcheted our loose barrel roll into a tight one as she cut the right vent and went hard on the left. The spin proved too fast for me to get a decent shot off. The edges of the quop’s ship flashed brilliant orange before the beam blinded me.
–Get acquainted with our astounding, top-of-the-line cosmosauropterygia mounts. These majestic, calorie-efficient creatures are the wonders of the Intergalactic Council’s bio-transport program!–
I guess the abrupt spiral made us unpredictable enough to disrupt the quop’s targeting routines. It missed, and I traced my hand along Maggie’s flank, smiling. In that second I remembered why, as deadly dangerous as being a Sauronaut is, as ridiculous as the politics and recruitment lies may be, there’s nothing I’d rather do than glide through the vacuum on Maggie’s back.
She arched her neck, easing off the vents altogether and slipped back into the trust we’d built over half a dozen solars. I drove my heels in a little and Maggie began the graceful arc of a dip turn. I let the HUD run the calculations for me and aimed the lancer.
My smile faded. Targeting routines were redundant. If I wanted to hit the bogey ship, all I had to do was point at the orange flare.
–Classic Sauronauts were the heroes of the Universe War, and now you can join their storied ranks!–
The quop’s vessel erupted in a silent burst of shimmering shrapnel and dust. No sense in celebrating though. The quop’s last shot was either true or lucky. I watched Maggie soar off, the gentle fluking motion more beautiful than I ever realized. I guess it’s something you never see from the support bubble.
The shorn end of my saddle’s severed harness floated around and banged off the faceplate of my lifesuit, then cartwheeled away.
It didn’t matter. Maggie faded into the backdrop of stars, much faster than I expected. Distance is impossible to gague out here.
Time less so.
–Contact your local Galactic Naval recruiter today!–
An ignominious end, freezing in a vacuum after a routine victory. The stars dim, leaving behind a blanket of black and the oblong gray blob of the moon, blocking out my view of home and all the complexity the word implies. In moments, even that big stain in my vision fades.
The advertisement is over. My prayer is offered.
There’s one tiny speck, growing. Approaching. Might be the light people recounting near-death experiences always mention. Or, it could be the void of oblivion.
I feel nothing, so I assume nothing. I stare at the dot.
Nearer, until proximity is incidental. Nothing near about this death experience.
The stars surge again, briefly, illuminating something familiar.
And I realize. The speck is not the void.
It’s sweet Maggie. My space dinosaur. She found me. She came back. And she knows the way home.
Paul A. Hamilton is a writer and technology worker living in Northern California with his wife and two daughters. His stories feature broken people, reassembled worlds, beautiful monsters, and hideous love. He gets his inspiration by impersonating an old-timey bartender, listening to stories told by lonely strangers. When not writing, he can be found reading, drawing, taking photographs, or riding roller coasters. More from him can be found at http://ironsoap.com, and on Twitter as @ironsoap.