"Holy shit," I screamed in what I thought was an entirely warranted and reasonable reaction as I stared out the viewport of what I realized now was a spaceship, "we're in space!"
"Yes," Scarlet said blankly from what I now realize was actually a pilot's seat, not understanding my reaction. "Yes, we are."
Which meant the vessel I was on was not actually a yacht, but a spaceship. Or a space yacht. Whatever. And that the "arkology" I had spent so much time on was a frigging space station.
I think, deep down, I had always known that we were actually in space. The signs were everywhere. It had been easier to pretend otherwise when it was just me, alone, in a weird, gigantic building that was - as far as I knew - quite possibly underground in some Nevadan desert. It became harder when I had seen the Fortune's Wings, the fact that the pier had resembled some kind of science fiction spaceship hangar, the starry sky outside, the foxgirl I had gotten myself paired with who increasingly seemed like she wasn't actually from Earth - to whom I had deliberately avoided asking questions that would prove or disprove this theory because I really hadn't wanted to know the answer. Individually, they were all easy to justify away. But once I viewed them as an entire set of evidence...well, like I said, I've watched movies before. Really, the only thing that had been left to me was a desperate, inner denial, a mental clinging to that tiny bit of hope, that attempt to maintain the last bit of calm and sanity I could muster under the circumstances. That maybe, maybe if I was just really patient about it, my perseverance would be rewarded and that on the spectrum of outcomes from "batshit insane" to "actually, you're currently zipped in a straitjacket, drooling on yourself in a padded room", I'd be somewhere closer to the former.
Humans are really good at self-rationalization.
It was impossible to deny it now, though: I had spent weeks on a space station, had run into people who clearly weren't human and were probably aliens, and was now engaged in a spaceship-to-spaceship duel.
No, wait, maybe I was the alien, given the circumstances. And speaking of spaceships...
"Um," I gulped, pointing out the window - the viewport - of our little avian-like spaceship, at that rusted shape far off in the distance that was the Fortune's Wings, from which what seemed like dozens of streaks of light suddenly erupted. They were almost like bursts of magma spurting out from the mouth of an active volcano, at least if those bursts of magma were glowing blue instead of hot burning orange, and at least if those bursts of magma had homing capabilities, because it didn't take all that long for those dozen missiles to turn and rocket towards us. "They're firing at us!"
"I know!" hissed Scarlet, her hands tightening on the controls as she fumbled with switches in a way that convinced me pretty quickly that she was still pretty new at this piloting business. The missiles looked like they were getting dangerously close when she yelled, "Hold on!"
I launched myself onto the back of Scarlet's seat, expecting to possibly be thrown off my feet if my pilot was going to hit the throttle or do a barrel roll. It barely registered in my head at this point that I was, in fact, standing upright in space as opposed to floating. Regardless, my worst fears were realized when Scarlet twisted what I assumed to be a yoke in a manner that I assumed to be a barrel roll, and I hugged onto the seat for my dear life, expecting to be thrown into the equivalent of a roller coaster ride with no seat belts.
The Fortune's Wings vanished from my field of view out the viewport in the blink of an eye, and the stars began to spin in and out of view as our spaceship tumbled and rolled with all the speed of a fighter jet.
What wasn't spinning was me.
It wasn't just the fact that I was clinging desperately onto Scarlet's pilot seat. It was that I felt no sense of vertigo, no force throwing the rest of my body this way and that, nothing but the feeling of standing upright as I always did. At most, there was just the barest of sensations associated with our roll and acceleration, the kind of movement you feel when a bus is crawling along at one mile an hour. The minimal shift of my center of gravity told me that we were, in theory, going into a spinning dive, although the degree to which I actually felt that shift seemed almost insulting relative to our actual speed of approximately a kajillion miles per hour. Somehow, the fact that I didn't feel vertigo despite the outside world spinning round and round me made me feel even more nauseous. You just can't beat human biology.
Scarlet, however, seemed to be having the time of her life. At least, as far as I could tell; her usually blank face had turned into what could be generously described as a look of mild surprise. Not that I was sure what she was surprised by, but there was almost an excited air about her as she continued to work the controls and pedals of the ship like an overexcited eighteen-year-old who just found out the first car her parents got her was a Lamborghini. "Wow," she murmured, looking at her controls in slight awe. "This thing handles like a dream."
Oh, it's on the upper tiers of spaceships, that's good to know, I thought, moments before my world rattled with multiple deafening blasts.
What I could only imagine were the missiles I had forgotten in my pseudo-vertigo exploded uncomfortably close to us, slamming into our hull repeatedly within seconds. It was almost enough to throw me off my feet had my panic instincts kicked in and my arms clung onto the back of the seat before me. Scarlet herself twisted the yoke as our ship snapped sharply into a new evasive trajectory, evading the remainder of the missiles. Those projectiles I once saw as blue lines far in the distance materialized into large pointed gray cylinders spewing azure fire from its rear, shrieking past us in a lattice of contrails across our viewport in what seemed like a dozen near-misses.
Judging by the lack of flickering lights, bursting panels, fires, or general death, I assumed that we hadn't actually suffered a direct hit. There were only two or three different shrill alarms going off, joining the chorus of insistent beeps and screaming klaxons, which was still sufficient to drive my anxiety and panic skywards despite us not being very much dead. And despite there being no sky here.
As grateful as I was to Scarlet about everything thus far, her arrival has led to a consistent pattern of me being shot at, and in the face of almost-certain death and a fox-eared girl who was otherwise distracted with flying, I was a little less terrified the possibility that she might kill me herself. I was mostly tired of being shot at at this point. With all the force of my millennial sarcasm - watered down somewhat by pants-wetting fear - I screamed, "Shouldn't we, I don't know, shoot back!?"
"Working on it!" Scarlet called back distractedly, one hand on the yoke and the other hesitantly flipping switches and tapping on computer consoles and holograms again with - despite otherwise swift movements - all the confidence of a great-grandmother trying to use a new smartphone. One of the buttons or switches or whatever managed to cause a hologram the size of a small sedan to pop up to the right, located a bit too far to the back to be particularly useful to the pilot, but which I almost instantly recognized as some kind of three-dimensional radar display, a roughly spherical representation of our surroundings with fuzzy borders. At its center was the icon of our very own spaceship, its avian-like shape with outstretched, sweeping metallic wings colored in white. To the icon's rear was a strange, large object, shaped not unlike a sword with wings sprouting from its guard and down towards the blade, surrounding by a series of large rings. It occurred to me belatedly - for no reason other than its size and the lack of any similar such objects around - that this was the arkology that we just fled from, the giant space station that we had taken off from mere minutes ago, where I had spent more than two weeks of my time.
I thought it was nice to be able to see the ship's surroundings beyond what was directly in front of us out the viewport...until I noticed another object on the holographic display: The bulky, blocky shape of the Fortune's Wings...and the dozens of pulsing dots trailing lines across the holographic display and jetting with alarming speeds towards us with deadly, explosive intent.
Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
I was in the middle of thinking about whether or not to inform Scarlet that we were still being tracked by a kajillion missiles when she spoke first with a slightly hesitant tone: "Um...Artemis?"
"Yeah?" I asked, wondering how things could possibly get any worse.
"I don't think this ship has weapons."
Things had gotten worse. "What!?" I shrieked.
"I don't think this ship has weapons," Scarlet repeated with almost aggravating cool. Pointing at one of the suspiciously blank holographic panels in front of her, she explained, "I think this is the weapons console...but there's nothing in it."
Oh. Wonderful. We were so going to die.
"Wait," Scarlet murmured as she began swiping through the holograms a bit more, which was a bit concerning because I'd much rather she pay more attention to the seemingly endless stream of missiles headed our way, even as our ship trembled with every explosion blasting us from not-far-enough. "There's...an Empyrean Guard down in the hold."
"...A what?" I blinked.
"An Empyrean Guard," repeated Scarlet, as if saying this term a second time would clarify things. "It's down in the hold. I need you to get down to it, now."
I had no idea what she meant by an "Empyrean Guard". More importantly, "I...have no idea what an Empyrean Guard looks like."
"It's down in the hold. You can't miss it."
That really didn't answer my question, but an attempt on my part to express this was interrupted by our ship suddenly rocking more violently than it had before. Not enough to knock me off my feet, but certainly enough that I had to grab onto the back of Scarlet's pilot seat for balance. Whatever the Fortune's Wings was shooting at us, they were getting closer.
Twisting the yoke this way and that to avoid further incoming fire, Scarlet spared me the shortest of sidelong glances, her tone curt in a dry, almost exasperated way. "Downstairs. Empyrean. Now, please."
Explosions and an annoyed girl with a handgun tended to be very good motivators. It didn't really matter that the space Roomba continued to chase me down the halls as I ran circles around a ship that wasn't even that large. Nor did it matter that I had no idea where the hold was and spent about two minutes before I found a ladder within a semi-cylindrical glass-like half-tube leading down to what I presumed would be the hold. It certainly didn't matter that the ladder wasn't actually even a ladder at all, because I had just grabbed onto it and prepared to descend down the hole in the floor when an unseen force suddenly enveloped me in a near-zero-gravity environment, sending me floating down to the floor below in slow motion.
I stood at the bottom of the "ladder" for a long moment as I tried to process what had happened, tried not to move my legs as I attempted to ascertain whether or not I had just wet my panties.
"Artemis!" came Scarlet's voice over what I could only assume was the intercom across the ship. "Have you found the Empyrean yet?"
Scarlet was right: I couldn't have missed it. The hold was largely empty, a single room just a little larger than a basketball court that I imagined was used for storing cargo, roughly the size of a basketball court, if not a bit larger. It was mostly devoid of any cargo, however, except for one very conspicuous fixture at the very end of the hold. Within a large semi-cylindrical glass-like half-tube - illuminated by a series of lights that suddenly flickered on as I approached and held aloft by something that looked suspiciously like a high-tech garage rig - was a sleek, futuristic set of armor unlike anything I had ever seen, angular in some places and grooved in others. It wasn't even a complete set of armor, but rather a set of gauntlets, boots, and backpiece that looked very much like a pieces of a fighter jet's wings disassembled and then reassembled into something that resembled an angel's wings, at least if Jesus had decided that it wasn't enough that angels had future fighter jet wings, so he smashed a jet engine within each of the angel's metallic feathers. Everything from the forearms to the thighs were exposed. Had the arms and legs of the whole thing not looked so thin - at least thin enough to reasonably fit human hands - the length of the whole thing looked like it was meant for a giant angel nine or ten feet tall. Unlike the white-and-gold color scheme that I had gotten used to over the past few days, the armor was black in color, polished to a mirror sheen not unlike a Porsche, albeit with a few golden highlights here and there. To the side was what very much looked like a black sword, similarly with streaks of gold, its blade shaped like a giant boxcutter's blade, one foot wide and something like seven, eight feet long.
Scarlet's voice rang out over the PA; there was a strain in her voice as she struggled against the ship's controls, weaving the ship through an increasingly narrow window of space that was not exploding. "Have you found it?" she asked.
"Is it the...armor-looking thing?" I asked hesitantly, taking a half-step away from something that I heavily suspected was going to spell my doom.
"Yes. Hurry and get in the Empyrean."
I'm not a nerd, but I've seen enough commercials and trailers and promotional materials for sci-fi movies and shows through the window of an electronics store. Or whenever I stepped into a Best Buy for their air conditioning. I could see where this was going. "Um...Scarlet?" I asked hesitantly, knowing in my heart of hearts that I was not nearly that lucky, but feeling desperate enough to hope anyways.
"What?" she asks, jarringly calm. Or maybe her voice was just under too much strain bobbing our ship this way and that to sound particularly panicked.
"Are you asking me to go out into space?" Because space is bad and will kill you. With no oxygen, no air pressure, and temperatures simultaneously hotter and colder than anywhere on Planet Earth. Which was feeling so far away now.
"Because I don't really, really want to go out into space."
Scarlet's reaction was decidedly unsympathetic as she hollered at me for the first time: "Get in the Empyrean, Artemis!"
I got into that incomplete suit of armor so fast. It's honestly kind of embarrassing, like I was a whipped dog. Fun fact: Lots of war veterans fear death less than letting their war buddies down. Or so I've heard. Apparently, I feared letting down this girl who treated me well enough to look past the fact that maybe I was being super pliant because she had a gun. It's funny what Stockholm syndrome does to the human brain.
But the whole thing was almost an automated process. I stepped awkwardly backwards into the metallic boots at my heels, and its mouth revealed itself to be comprised of small metallic plates that slid upon each other and apart to admit both my feet as soon as my toes were near them. The same was true for the gauntlet, the plates sliding apart into two halves to allow my arms to pass through before they slid back shut again, tightening around my limbs. The backpiece latched around my shoulders and waist like a camper's backpack, and it was at this moment as I looked around that I realized the wings of smooth metallic plates on my back weren't actually so much on my back so much as they were floating at my back, not actually connected to the backpiece at all. Space in front of me shimmered for a second, enough to alarm me as I reached for my face...and watched what looked like a bubble around my hand merge with a bubble around my face in a prismatic shimmer, almost like there was suddenly a transparent forcefield or energy shield that was surrounding my body.
I was beginning to suspect that technology here was indistinguishable from magic.
Computer-like graphics began materializing in front of me in a series of graphs and readouts that I couldn't possibly hope to understand before flashing what I thought was a logo of some sort, A voice in my head - that telepathic voice that I've been hearing ever since I was shot at and given control of the arkology's defenses - announced not at all long after: <Neural handshake protocols established. Startup sequence complete, all systems nominal. Glory to...> and then, for no reason I could explain, there was a slight change in the quality of that voice in my head for the next two words, <...Lost Horizon.> It wasn't so much a change in voice or in tone, but just this strange feeling that those two words in particular were being said by someone or something else other than the original voice for what I assumed was a series of prerecorded bootup messages. But then that original voice came back: <The registry for Empyrean Guard Arca-7024 has expired five thousand six hundred twenty-seven years, two months, and eighteen days ago.>
...Wow. That was a long time.
<Would you like to claim this Empyrean Guard?>
It's probably just a hair too late to say no at this point. "Yes," I announced clearly. I didn't even sound too panicked this time, unlike when I claimed our spiffy ship. Go me.
<Biometric scan complete. Please state your name for identification and voice recognition.>
I was feeling a lot more confident when I declared, "Artemis Chan."
<Empyrean Guard Arca-7024 registered to Artemis Chan. Pilot profile established. Lowering Empyrean Guard into linear catapult.>
And there went my confidence. "Linear what!?" I demanded, even as the glass tube the Empyrean Guard and I and the space garage rig I was in began to lowered into the floor and tilt forward, almost as if I was slowly falling face-first onto the ground like a plank. Metallic panels to the side began to slide apart as I was lowered into a small, metallic, windowless chamber that barely admitted the Empyrean Guard I was it. The floor above me sealed as metallic plates swept back into place, sealing me in this small metallic chamber.
And suddenly orange rotating lights lit up and spun while a small, shrill alarm began to ring, and there was a hissing sound of air being sucked away by an impossibly powerful vacuum, and I realized to my horror that this was a deathtrap, that this was an airlock, and oxygen was literally being sucked away around me.
"No, no, no, no, no!" I screamed, futilely shrugging against the garage rig that held my Empyrean Guard in place, and thus me inside it. I tried to free myself from what were now restraints around my arms and legs. No luck, I might as well have been struggling against a boulder. "Scarlet!"
"What is it?" asked Scarlet, alarm in her voice at my dying screams.
"I'm being ejected into space!" I continued to shriek as the floor below me - not the one above me that admitted me into this airlock to begin with - parted, two halves of metallic panels flowing apart until I could see space in all its glory, still coated in that green-ish glowing aurora borealis that was so helpfully described as voidwaves.
Scarlet mostly just sounded puzzled as me and my Empyrean were slowly lowered out of even that lower hatch and out into space, until I was literally sticking out of the ship - I could see the bottom of its hull, in fact - facing towards the fore of our ship. "That's the point."
Oh, god, she's actually trying to kill me. "I don't know about you, but I need to be able to breathe, this Empyrean doesn't actually cover my entire body, and I don't have a spacesuit!"
There is a slight pause on the other end of the radio, as if Scarlet was confused. Then: "Oh, you don't need one. Your shields are keeping breathable air produced by your Empyrean inside."
"Okay." That's relieving to know. I began to calm down, helped by the fact that I was somehow still managed to scream despite being exposed to the vacuum of space. I've seen enough sci-fi horror poster taglines to know that no one can hear you scream in space. After a moment, I suddenly realized the logical issue with this: "Um, doesn't that mean I'll die if my shields are gone?"
"Yes. You'll probably die from being turned into pink mist by a railgun round penetrating your shields before you have a chance to die from not being able to breathe."
That's very comforting to hear. I am so relieved by this explanation. Why, no, I'm not being sarcastic at all.
The machinery that was my space garage rig began to whine with increasing intensity like a jet engine spinning up. Holographic lights began to light up in front of me, rectangular rims of blue line-lights forming something like a short tunnel in front of me. I had a sinking suspicion that this was going to be the trajectory through which I was going to be launched through the "linear catapult". "Scarlet," I asked in a plaintive voice, "can we stop for a second and talk about the whole 'going into space' thi...?"
And then I was rudely interrupted as explosions detonated all around our ship, and I screamed as my world was filled with light and fire and concussive force, which was even worse than when I was in the cockpit because now I was outside, directly in the way of those blasts.
Scarlet seemed to take this as further encouragement to make me piss my panties. "Right, activating linear catapult!" she announced.
<Synchronized with linear catapult,> the voice in my head announced as the golden outlines on my black armor began to glow. <Bridge has launch authorization. Launching in three. Two. One...>
And then I was screaming incoherently as I was hurtled forward, accelerating like a stone from a slingshot, except faster. I half-expected myself to accelerate in some respectable fashion, like a suped-up Porsche going from zero to sixty in four seconds. Instead, one moment I was completely still, the next moment I was going a kajillion miles an hour. It didn't matter that I was in an incomplete robot suit with giant wings and jet engines held together by a forcefield; I was too busy tumbling through space, screaming and flailing and wondering if I had just wet my panties. If anyone thought I was darting forwards like a skydiver, I was instead stuck in a forward spin.
It was several moments of this before Scarlet deigned to unhelpfully call over the radio: "Artemis, you're going the wrong way!"
Have you ever noticed how millennials revert to sarcasm during moments of stress? "Oh, I'm sorry," I screamed back in the most insincere voice possible. "You didn't exactly ask, I didn't have a chance to tell you that I don't know how to fly this goddamn thing!"
"...Oh." Scarlet replied blankly after a moment, as if only remembering this rather vital fact. "Well, alright, listen, you're tumbling out of control at a forward spin. I want you to curl forward a bit with your waist, while at the same time bending your knees a little before kicking downwards with your feet pointing down, alright? Hopefully that will get your spin under control."
That "hopefully" part wasn't putting an optimistic spin on things. Nor the confusing instructions that seemed to be better suited for a ballerina than some poor, innocent girl thrown into space. That I wanted to hurl from all the spinning was just the cherry on a shit sundae. I was seriously wondering why Scarlet wasn't in this stupid Empyrean before remembering that, right, I don't know how to fly a spaceship. That said, I don't know how to fly an Empyrean either. But whatever, everything had gone to shit, so maybe, maybe I'd be a bit happier if I just stopped spinning. Alright, I told myself, trying to remember Scarlet's body contortionist instructions. I'm spinning forward. I want to stop spinning. Now to curl...
Which was about as far as I got, because before I even got to move, the wings on my back suddenly unfurled to its full wingspan, and the thrusters in the middle of them didn't so much spew fire as it simply flared a little once, letting off a cyan burst of light that looked less like flame from a jet engine and more like a ripple on the surface of the water, giving off a sound that resembles less a fighter jet and more high-speed wind streaking through a tunnel...
And then suddenly I stopped spinning.
I blinked. No longer was I tumbling in space, having come to a full stop, floating in the glowing vacuum. The stars around me were no longer spinning as I tried to regain my bearings and look around. The most obvious thing in my field of vision was, of course, was that giant white sword with a pair of wings running from its guard down to the tip of the blade, surrounded by several giant rings, all of them larger than anything I've ever seen. I couldn't even begin to make a guess at how large this thing was supposed to be, separated as I was from it in outer space distances. Almost certainly dozens of miles. I had absolutely no doubt that this was the arkology, if only because there were two other infinitesimally smaller but still significant objects in my general area.
Approaching towards me at high speeds as it started turning away was our little avian ship. I could spot Scarlet through the canopy of the cockpit as the ship hurtled past, her hands gripped on the yoke, her features twisted into tight concentration.
Immediately in her wake were angry blue lines that twisted this way and that in their pursuit of Scarlet, like a small swarm of hornets, at least if hornets were missiles and could explode in the general vicinity of their victims. I actually physically flinched and recoiled backwards...and instantly my Empyrean's jet engines pulsed again, and I was suddenly hurtling backwards - with much better balance this time, with no credit to myself - instantly traveling backwards by something like fifty yards, throwing me well out of the path of the missiles as they shrieked past me and chased after Scarlet.
Explosions detonated all around our ship, but I was at least a little relieved that despite all the explosions, I couldn't see any direct hits, and there were no obvious signs of serious damage across its hull.
Which brought me to that last major object in space.
The Fortune's Wings chugged along slowly, its mass inconsequential next to the arkology, but still a large hulk as expected of a bullshit sci-fi spaceship. Thin blue lines still arced from its rusty hull, a steady line streaking towards Scarlet, who continued to twist and turn as explosions trailed behind her. The whole thing was pissing me off. Yes, this was a stupid idea. The enemy was the size of a naval tanker; I was maybe a very tall NBA star. The enemy was powered by crazy technology I completely did not understand; I trained to fix water boilers and swap brakes on a Honda Civic. The enemy could fire a kajillion missiles; I had a sword.
So yeah. This was completely stupid. But you know what? I had been doing nothing except running away like a little bitch over the last five chapters. And since I wasriding around in this bad boy - this Empyrean Guard that's probably made of bullshit tech, versus what was ultimately still a spaceship albeit one that looked rusty and built from junkyard parts as far back as the goddamned Civil War - I could probably take on a stupid giant bucket of bolts.
And so I charged towards the Fortune's Wings with exhilarating speed. One moment I was floating in space, the next moment my Empyrean's wings flared with energy, propelling me through space. It was hard to tell just how fast I was traveling through the vastness of space - something was dampening the inertia of accelerations that would've killed me by now - at least until I saw how fast the Fortune's Wings was growing within my vision.
My first warning was when the blue lines launching from the enemy ship began to change their trajectory, cutting space at another acute angle. In a panic, I thought about dodging, about fleeing from those missiles well before they were even anywhere close to me, and just as fast as that thought passed through my mind, just as I thought about banking sharply to the side, the wings of my Empyrean shifted, and I spun sharply to my left without losing any forward momentum, twirling gracefully from where I once was like a professional ballet dancer. The missiles - now close enough for me to see them as the metallic cylinders spewing blue flame - tried to track me, tried to follow my move, but they couldn't turn fast enough; I spun to the side again, and those projectiles hurtled right past where I was seconds ago, well beyond any distance within which they might've been a threat to me. Some even exploded impotently, too far to even scratch me, as if those great balls of energy could make up for how widely they were missing.
I laughed, almost absurdly. I was faster than anything they could throw at me. The missiles had no moves. I was a F-22 and they were Fokkers. Sure, they were still super-fast missiles screeching past me at speeds I could barely comprehend, but all I had to do was keep accelerating, keep throttling towards the Fortune's Wings at an angle, and the missiles would just shoot past where I was seconds ago.
I was maybe within three miles of the Fortune's Wings when red hot lines erupted from different points of its hull, different hails of machine gun fire blasting towards me at what was maybe a million rounds a second. The shooting was extremely inaccurate, but my surroundings were nonetheless filled with bullets - a depressingly frequent phenomenon at this point - and it was all I could do to accelerate through the gunfire. I could hear a few electrical snaps as the energy shields around me rippled with two or three hits, but the fact that I wasn't dead was at least an indication that my shields were holding despite my foolhardy charge.
I was maybe just two or three football fields away from the Fortune's Wings - ready to hit a giant spaceship with my large-but-significantly-smaller sword in a desperate swing - when Scarlet suddenly remarked over the radio: "Wow, you're fast. Be careful, don't get too close. Watch out for her melee system."
Her melee system? I thought to myself, looking at the rusty, bulky, unwieldy ship now just a football field away, certain that I had misheard. What the hell is a melee system?
Which was about as far as I got before the top of the Fortune's Wings suddenly sprouted a large robotic arm like that ones you see at a car factory or a construction truck, a beam erupted from its end before swinging at me, and my vision was suddenly full of light as I was hit across the face with a giant lightsaber.