Fighting Blind sample

Here are the first few chapters of Fighting Blind!


 

 

Prologue

Such a pity human bodies need so much sleep.

Derreste tossed a practiced scowl at the stiff legs she had just disentangled from the hammock, and willed the blood’s traffic jam to decongest before she threw the rest of the body’s weight on them. She had been able to slow down the body’s deterioration significantly since she’d meshed with it, nearly forty of the human woman’s years ago, but the thing had still found its way to middle age despite her attempts to drag its feet through the decades. So few decades, and she already needed a replacement.

She felt the muscles of the face pull into a tighter scowl… then slacken with a resigned sigh… then brighten with hope again. It was a rehearsed routine—both physical and emotional—practiced enough that Derreste only ever let it waste a few seconds of her time. Time… something she had never thought to cherish, until she’d stepped into a body with a truncated timescale.

Derreste forced the tingling legs into motion, carrying her the few steps away from the hammock to the shirt that she had left on the floor. She stooped to retrieve it, and shrugged it over the body’s thin shoulders, slipping the neck hole past a wry grin at the humans’ sense of modesty. She herself would never bother with it; bare skin made for easier communication. But the unmeshed and unevolved humans didn’t share that appreciation quite so much, and the boy was supposed to report in today, with the human video technology that always grabbed at least the top of the shoulders…

The boy was coming along nicely. Derreste felt the grin tug further at the muscles of the face, as she pulled the arms up to weave a vine through the head’s thick forest of curly black hair, tugging it back into submission again. The boy would be ready soon, ready for the evolution that necessarily preceded meshing, to transform the human body into something slightly more habitable. He was almost old enough already; the body nearing its physical peak with the brain’s development plodding along more sluggishly toward independence. Old enough to fight, young enough not to ask too many questions about it. He would be ready soon… just in time for the recapture of the base and the station.

Derreste craned the stiff neck backwards to catch a glimpse of the cooler patches of sky between the relative warmth of the rainforest’s leafy canopy. The humans’ space station waited above, somewhere tucked between those leaves, oblivious to the surface’s simmering coup d’etat. Derreste had already waited out the decades; she could let the station nurse its oblivion just a little longer… Until the boy was ready, and meshed with Mahren, taking his place at her side to drag the station—and its teeming population of gloriously mesh-able human bodies—down within reach.

Derreste deflated with a patient sigh, allowing the neck a couple of extra twists to work the kinks out as she pulled her gaze and her thoughts back to reality. Stiff, middle-aged reality. That replacement couldn’t come soon enough… and it wouldn’t hurt if it were a young one, maybe the boy’s age, with strength and capability to match… maybe one that wouldn’t need quite so much sleep… Derreste allowed the lips a twist of a grin, reining the rest of her thoughts back from that familiar track, and headed for the Tree.

Her wolves had another plane to catch.

 

Chapter 1

One more cursory glance at the control panel, and I’m free to wrap my fingers again through the grips on either side of the cockpit’s eject hatch above my head, and start hauling my body out of the seat. The panel’s readings are all normal, the same story they’ve been giving me for the last twenty minutes of the flight, through the first half of my exercise routine. We’ve got another twenty minutes yet before we’ll have to land, and I can get a couple more sets in, if I keep moving.

Cockpits don’t lend themselves easily to exercise routines. Cockpits don’t lend themselves to much of anything, really, save the obvious. But actually flying the plane isn’t an option, not today—Suhara will chew me out if I try, even if I just accidentally brush the controls. It’s our first surface mission in weeks, and Suhara’s got the remote helm. Her body is trapped back at the base, cocooned in one of the control tubes to keep her mind focused on the job of coaxing our tethered plane gently over the tops of the rainforest’s trees on the planet’s surface. My body is more free, I guess, to fly along over those trees, with my safety and stomach contents at Suhara’s mercy. I’m a sort of physical failsafe, eyes and ears—ha—inside the cockpit, in case anything goes wrong with Suhara’s remote control. At least, I’m in here for today, because she convinced me it’s her turn to fly.

But whatever—this Failsafe won’t waste a moment, not even the cockpit ones. Not when there’s a chance some of the other juniors might be doing their own cockpit pull-ups, in hopes of chewing into my lead in the fitness rankings. Lence posts the rankings every night, so as recently as last night my lead still held—far enough ahead of the other females, even nipping at the heels of some of the males. Male competition won’t matter, in the long run—the fitness rankings always keep the guys and girls separate—but I can’t help a bit of a devilish grin at the thought of out-lifting even a couple of the guys.

So I grip the eject hatch handles above my head with renewed enthusiasm, hauling my body upward out of the seat again. Cockpit pull-ups are hard to pull off; you have to bend your lower half just right to make sure you don’t hit any of the controls on the way up or down—

“Surface Control, this is KAT-56, over sector 21, I’ve got activity on the surface ahead, just east of our target.”

I let go of the handles as eagerly as I grabbed them, sliding back into my chair—and my failsafe duties—with an excited jolt, already bending forward to check the monitors in front of me. Suhara’s statement is right; the edge of the screen is twitching with activity. Movement on the surface, maybe a pack of wolves out hunting—

“KAT-56, we copy that, what is your target?”

I frown at the monitor; the blip on the corner of the screen is widening, blossoming into a swarm of smaller blips, probably a dozen or more. Maybe not a hunting pack, then… The keng wolves usually hunt only three or four to a pack, not nearly this many. I’m already fumbling to resecure the restraints I’d stripped off for my exercise routine, the restraints I shouldn’t have taken off in the first place—but seriously, nothing more exciting than cockpit pull-ups ever happens on maintenance missions anyway—

“Surface Control, we’re headed to sonic station 22-A, currently over sector 21. Looks like activity on the border between sectors 21 and 22, can you confirm?”

On the border… Suhara’s right. The pack is hugging the border, just east of the sonic station. I pull a grimace—the wolves’ presence is practically proof of the sonic station’s failure, the failure that our maintenance mission was supposed to forestall. So the sonic emitter is down, and we won’t be able to count on its help in chasing the wolves away, not for this trip, or any other future maintenance efforts. And this sector guards the small strip of cleared land that serves as one of our runways, along with a few bunkers of supplies and servicing gear—not a good sonic station to lose.

“Activity confirmed, KAT-56. Do not engage—repeat, do not engage at this time, stand by.”

I drag my eyes through an automatic roll. It took me most of combat training’s eight months to get pre-combat training’s “do not engage” litany to stop bludgeoning my brains. SurfCon—and BaseCon and StatCon, too, for that matter—tend a bit toward the over-cautious side. Ask questions first, shoot later… then ask a heap more questions all over again in the post-mission debriefing. Fight only if attacked. Try retreating first.

“Standing by, 56.”

I can’t help a grin at the unmistakable sound of Suhara’s rolling eyes. Suhara Salway would never step so out of line in front of her superiors, not with her father’s—and grandfather’s—reputations for exemplary service, but the cocoons and cockpits hide all sorts of mockery from superiors’ inspection. And I’ve got a bit of a backstage pass to Subordinate Suhara, having put up with a lot more of the side of my roommate and friend that the superiors will never see. I can feel her frustration—we’ve been part of Lieutenant Orwell’s combat training team for eight months already. We’re as eager as the rest of the team to see actual surface combat—as eager as the young lieutenant himself must be, after eight months of training juniors. One month left till graduation, and we’re all free.

And, if the rankings hold, Orwell’s team might just have itself another winner. It takes one to train one, after all.

I fold my lip in a practiced bite, holding all angles of that particular grin in check. Not even the inside of an empty cockpit can be trusted with the expression of that dream; I’ve buried it as far away as I can from the sort of jinxing—and certain humiliation—that might surface along with it. Station-wide highest rankings might be within my grasp, but I’ve got plenty of competition for the top, some of them friends… some of them close enough to share the cockpit with me, albeit virtually.

“Surface Control, KAT-56, we’ve got movement, looks like they’re heading south-southwest, vector 220, moving fast… 16, maybe 15 k.”

A glance at the monitor confirms Suhara’s warning. The pack is on the move, the cluster of blips shifting as one swarm away from the sector border, heading south by southwest… That sort of vector will put them right in our flight path.

“Looks like an interception trajectory, Surface Control, please confirm and advise.”

I can feel Suhara’s nervous energy twitching my own muscles; my fingers dance just above the controls. The cockpit’s human failsafe is only useful for landings, take-offs… and combat. My fingers are just waiting for SurfCon’s go-ahead, and I’ll be in the game—the fighting game, at least. Local takes fight, remote takes flight. We’ve practiced it so many times that the simulations have to be sick of it by now.

“KAT-56, we’ve got—” The radio’s response breaks off abruptly into silence. Charged silence… I can feel my pulse beat twice for every lengthened second, my head running through the calculations from the readings on the monitor… The pack is moving fast, the plane even faster—less than a minute till interception—

“KAT-56, get out of there, pull up and get out now.”

The plane is already tugging upward under Suhara’s immediate reaction, even before the words die on the flycom’s lips. The man is trained to talk into a radio all day, spooling out a measured response for each and every scenario, from weather to wolf attack. He’s not supposed to sound this scared.

I gulp a quick breath, my hands twitching away from the combat controls, closer to the flight systems. From the man’s tone, this is more than “do not engage,” this is “punch it out of there,” and the failsafe is probably more useful as flight control backup, in case Suhara’s ascent turns out too steep.

Oy. Too steep indeed… I can feel my stomach gritting its teeth against the change of direction, my head already swimming with sudden dizziness. And there goes my vision, crackling in warning… then flickering out, and flashing back again.

I fling one hand down to the controls to slow Suhara’s climb a bit, and fling the other hand to my visor. That black-out was the visor, not my accel-dizzy consciousness…

I squeeze a quickened breath past the sudden fear clawing at my throat. The visor. This is not the time for a visor failure… I can maybe bear the humiliation of passing out from the ascent, but I’d rather gouge out my useless eyes than crawl back to Torreson Base with a dead battery and a dead visor… But I was sure that I charged it last night; I don’t forget to charge it, not ever, not anymore…

The plane is pulling out of a sickening dip, Suhara’s attempt to recover from my instinctive intervention. I can’t help but wince—I’ll hear about that one later… But an angry Suhara I can handle, on my own two feet, rather than dragged limp from the cockpit.

And there my vision statics again, snapping in and out. This… this isn’t a dead battery, this is some other sort of failure, maybe a loose connection or something—

“Surface Control, I’m—” Suhara starts, breaking off for a split second as the plane jerks again back into line. “We’re having trouble, I’m… I’m losing connection somehow, Meia are you pulling manual?”

I scramble for the radio. “No, I’m not touching anything—” Blackness again; vision gone, then snapping back in a dizzying flash… Cockpit one moment, shifting dark the next… “I’m having trouble too—” My face scrunches with a quick cringe; I’ve only barely gotten my training peers to forget—or at least pretend to forget—my handicap, and I’m not eager to explain my vision’s quirks one by one over open radio to the puzzled flycom—

“KAT-56, get out of there now! You’re almost on top of them, you’re gonna need to pull out or start shooting; both, if you can handle it!”

The wolves… I’d almost forgotten them, but the flycom sounds scared again. The pack is just ahead, between the plane and the wide strip of cleared ground that buffers the small runway from the thick surrounding forest. The flycom’s right—we’re almost on top of the pack already. But if we’ve got SurfCon’s permission to start shooting…

I jerk my hands back to the combat controls—I’ll only have a few short seconds during the plane’s flyover, but our trajectory’s almost perfectly lined up, and I can hit them hard, just squeeze off enough rounds—

Another snap, another crackle…

And I’m totally blind.

 

Chapter 2

I’m not totally blind.

The cockpit’s blackness dances with the a few of the usual flickers, the ones that visit my unaided vision on a normal day… back home at base, or on the station… away from wolves and technical glitches and radio bedlam…

But the visor is out, dead, zapped or something, and without it I’m basically as good as blind.

I can still remember the grin on my dad’s face, the first thing I saw after he snapped the first prototype visor’s tiny battery into place, then connected the thing to the implant at the base of my skull. The visors were nothing new at that point—the base and station had been luxuriating in the coupled visor and implant technology for years, enjoying the immediacy of visual connection to communication and internet and computation via the old-fashioned transparent screens dangling from every brow. But mine was one of the first visors to add stereo cameras to all that, feeding visual information as well as communication into my implant, connecting my heretofore useless eyes to the rest of the world.

And with a simple switch, my world changed—the explosion of detail and color chasing away the darkness and flickers and shadows of my own eyes. That was over ten years ago now, just after my eighth birthday. I remember being thrilled with my new freedom; prancing around the station, challenging anyone and everyone to a fistfight, just to show off my new sight… Finally I’d been able to see, just like the rest of them.

Even better than the rest of them. The visor’s vision boost doesn’t erase my own vision’s weird flickers completely, it just layers on the stuff that the rest of everyone else can see. So the flickers stick around, and sometimes they help me out a bit, give me an edge over all the functional eyes around me. Like at night—I can see the flickers better at night. And somehow I can fly better than the others, at least when it’s my turn at remote. Maybe I’ve had a lot of practice turning off my own instincts, and letting the implant do the work. Everyone else had to learn to not fight their implant, before they could fight or fly or anything… Not me. I’ve always been tethered to the thing, like it’s some sort of high-tech seeing eye dog.

I don’t care what exactly makes it work; all I know is, it works. I’ve got the rankings to prove it.

Until it doesn’t work. Until suddenly I’m hurtling over the trees blind, with some sort of loose connection, about to get a whole lot looser…

“SurfCon, I’m… It’s all gone, I’m locked out! Flight’s gone, radar’s gone, I’m disconnected or something!” Suhara’s voice crashes through my cockpit. Scared, confused… the sort of scared and confused that turns my scared and confused into really, really scared and confused… Suhara’s losing remote?

“We copy, KAT-56, you’re going to have to go manual on this one, keep your nose up if you can, looks like you’re drifting. Cockpit, can you confirm?”

Drifting… cockpit, that’s me… I fumble for the radio again—at least the mic’s strapped to the side of my face—and try to squeeze the words past my spasming throat. “KAT-56 cockpit, confirm manual… but I’m blind, I lost my visor connection somehow, I can’t see anything.” I jerk my arm toward the controls, but pull back, afraid to touch anything. A flicker follows the motion, but not the sort of flicker that can show me where the elevators are… But I’ve trained in these cockpits for years, I’ve got to be able to find stuff and make it work, at least hold the plane steady till Suhara’s back again—

“Cockpit, say again? You’re going to have to pull manual, get out of there—”

“I can’t see anything,” I choke out, past the rising panic. “Visor’s out, I’m blind”—I shake my head in frustration—“not instrument blind, I’m really blind, like my eyes don’t work—”

The plane twitches violently sideways, throwing my left elbow into the controls. We just hit something. Of course we hit something; we weren’t all that high above the trees to start with, and we’re drifting…

SurfCon is yelling something, probably telling me I just hit a tree, telling me to pull up, running through all the desperate commands my brain is screaming in chorus… My brain is a lot less polite, but no less urgent…

A quick flash makes me gasp, and blink—another flash follows it; the cockpit is jumping back in and out of view, bright with dizzying sunlight all around me, spotted with the dark shapes of looming trees… I gulp and shake my head instinctively, as if the motion could bring the bright world back again—there. Another flash, longer this time, long enough to get my hand to the elevators and ailerons, banking left away from the closest tree—

“Wait I got something—” The plane jerks under Suhara’s sudden control, overcorrecting my move, skidding us even further out of the tree’s way, too close to the next one. We both pull back, but that’s too much too—and my vision’s gone again. Suhara echoes my frustrated growl; she must have lost remote at the same time…

But then I’m back again, just in time to skim the next tree. SurfCon is begging us to pull up—that’s a great idea; I yank on the elevators… But Suhara’s there too, pulling the same move, flattening me into the seat as the plane’s nose strains for the sky. Then the tail shakes with our slipstream… and we’re stalling.

Way too close to the ground.

It has to be some combination of instinct or training—instinct to back off the elevator and pitch the nose down again, training to punch the throttle until the plane slams forward, fighting to recover its lost lift. I know I’m not thinking anything through, not at this point; the thinking part of me is trying not to. Those trees are too close for thinking, thinking is only going to turn into panicking.

Someone up there is thinking, though. SurfCon is hollering something about the runway.

The runway. Last I saw it, the runway was just ahead, maybe south a bit off of our bearing—

It’s there. The trees are thinning through the cockpit windows, just ahead and to the right… The plane’s still fighting the turbulence and the trees, but we can make it… I’m about to yank the controls again, but I stop myself, remembering at the last minute Suhara’s overcorrection and its disastrous results… The plane eases right, headed for the lowest of the trees on the runway’s edge, just a little bit more and we’ll make it—

But then SurfCon’s instructions register with Suhara too, and she’s adding her little bit more to mine. I try to pull back, but we’re fighting each other again, and all I can do is punch it forward, through one last tree, one last sickening jerk and crunch as something scrapes our nose and underbelly… then we’re through.

And hurtling at an angle across the base of the runway, headed for the rest of the trees on the other side.

But we’re only at fifty feet, and falling fast—we should be able to land before the forest’s edge.

Land… oh dear.

My brain decides to amuse me with all of my training’s reminders, all of the steps I’ll need to pull off a safe and comfortable landing… Line up the runway. Slow down but don’t stall. Landing gear out. Okay, landing gear… if we still have it, let’s get it out there, as much out there as we can before it’s got to smash into the ground. The grinding noise the gear makes on its way out is not comforting, neither is the sudden torque pulling us sideways, hard right… That’s not good. A wheel mangled, or missing altogether—

Not good. Not good not good not good—

The ground finally rips at the fuselage, its rough embrace no gentler than the trees’ earlier caresses, dragging my twisted metal exoskeleton to a grinding stop, just short of the runway’s sidelines, beneath the silent, leafy spectators.

 

 

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