...vastness of space. Compared to that infinite dark blackness, both planets and starships alike seemed equally insignificant. Meaningless. Except, of course, for the fact that those insignificant starships were doing their best to kill me.
I dodged, spinning my ship and cutting my boosters mid-turn. Once I'd flipped around, I immediately slammed on the booster again, swerving in the other direction in an attempt to lose the three ships tailing me. Fighting in space is way different from fighting in atmosphere. For one thing, your wings are useless. No air means no airflow. No lift, no drag. In space, you don't really fly. You just don't fall.
I executed another spinning boost, heading back toward the main firefight. Unfortunately, maneuvers that had been impressive down in atmosphere were commonplace up here. Fighting in a vacuum these past six months provided a whole new set of skills to master.
"Spensa," a lively masculine voice said from my console. "You remember how you told me to warn you if you were being extra irrational?"
"No," I said with a grunt, dodging to the right. <A destructor> blast from behind swept right over the dome of my cockpit. "I don't believe I said anything of the sort."
"Can we talk about this later?" I dodged again. Scud, those drones were getting better at dogfighting. Or was I losing my touch?
"Technically, it was later right after you spoke," continued the talkative voice. My ship's AI, M-Bot. "But human beings don't actually use that word to mean 'any time chronologically after this moment.' They use it to mean 'some time after now that is more convenient to me.'"
The Krell drones swarmed around us, trying to cut off my escape back toward the main body of the battlefield. "And you think this is a more convenient time?" I demanded.
"Well, why wouldn't it be?"
"Because we're in combat."
"Well, I would think that a life-and-death situation is exactly when you'd like to know if you're being extra irrational."
I could remember with some measure of fondness the days when my starship hadn't talked back to me. That'd been before I'd BLANK, BLANK, BLANK, BLANK, BLANK.
"Spensa," M-Bot said, "You're supposed to be leading these drones back toward the others, remember?" It had been "BLANK, BLANK, BLANK, BLANK, BLANK.
The Krell knew what I was and hated me. The drones tended to target me specifically, and we could use that. We should use that. In today's pre-battle briefing, I'd swayed the rest of the pilots to reluctantly go with my bold plan. I was to get a little out of formation, tempt the enemy drones to swarm me, then lead them back to the rest of the team. My friends could eliminate the drones while they were distracted, focused on me. It was a good plan, and I'd make use of it... eventually. Now, though, I wanted to test something.
I hit my overburn, accelerating away from the enemy ships. M-Bot was faster and more maneuverable than they were, though part of his big advantage had always been his ability to maneuver at high speed in air without ripping himself apart. Out here in vacuum, that wasn't a factor, and the enemy drones did a better job of keeping up. They swarmed after me as I dove toward the planet Detritus. My homeworld was protected by layers of ancient metal platforms, like shells, with gun placements all along them. We were beyond the farthest shell, out in space. After BLANK BLANK BLANK IN THE LAST BOOK, we had started gaining control of those platforms and their guns. Eventually, that shelled gun emplacement should protect our planet from incursions. For now, though, most of those defensive platforms were still autonomous, and could be as dangerous for us as they were for the enemy. The Krell ships swarmed behind me, eager to cut me off from the rest of the battlefield, where my friends were engaging the rest of the drones in a massive brawl. As usual, the Krell ships would seek to isolate me, overwhelm me. That tactic made one fatal assumption. That if I were alone, I'd be less dangerous.
"We're not gonna turn back around and follow the plan, are we?" M-Bot asked. "You're gonna try and fight them on your own?" I didn't respond. "Jorgen is gonna be angry," M-Bot said. "By the way, those drones are trying to chase you along a specific heading, which I'm outlining on your monitor. My analysis projects that they plan an ambush.
"Thanks," I said.
"Just trying to keep you from getting me blown up," M-Bot said. "By the way, if you do get us killed, be forewarned that I intend to haunt you."
"Haunt me? You're a robot. And besides, I'd be dead, too, right?"
"Uh, my robotic ghost would haunt your fleshy one."
"How would that even work?"
"Spensa, ghosts aren't real," he said in an exasperated tone. "Why are you worrying about things like that instead of flying? Honestly, humans get distracted so easily."
I spotted the ambush. A small group of Krell drones had placed themselves by a large chunk of metal floating just out of range of the gun emplacements. As I drew close, the ambushing drones emerged and rocketed toward me. I was ready, though. I let my arms relax, let my subconscious mind take over. I sank into myself, entering a kind of trance where I listened, just not with my ears. <Remote drones weren't flying for the Krell> in most situations. They were an expendable way to suppress the humans of Detritus. However, the enormous distances involved in the space battle forced the Krell to rely on instantaneous faster-than-light communication to control their drones. I suspected the pilots were far away. But even if they were on the Krell station, hung out in space near Detritus, the lag rate in communications from here to there would make drones too slow to react in battle, so FTL was necessary. That exposed one major flaw. I could hear their orders.
For some reason I didn't understand, I could listen to the place where FTL communication happened. I called it "Nowhere," another dimension where our rules of physics didn't apply. I could hear into the place, occasionally see into it. Then, <THAT HAPPENED LAST BOOK>. I let my instincts take over, and set my ship in a complex sequence of dodges. My battle-trained reflexes melded with my innate ability to hear the drones' orders. They maneuvered my ship without specific conscious instructions on my part. This ability had been passed down my family line. My ancestor used it to move ancient starfleets around the galaxy. Now, I used to to stay alive.
I reacted before the Krell did, responding to their orders. Somehow, I processed them even faster than the drones could. By the time they attacked, I was already weaving through the destructor blast. I darted among them, then activated my IMP, bringing down the shields of everyone nearby. In my state of focused concentration, I didn't care that the IMP took down my shield, too. It didn't matter.
I launched my light lance, and the rope of energy speared one of the enemy ships, connecting it to my own. I used the difference in our momentums to spin us both around, which put me in position behind the pack of defenseless ships. Blossoms of light and sparks broke the void as I destroyed two of the drones. The remaining Krell scattered like... like villagers before a wolf in one of Gran Gran's stories. The ambush turned chaotic as I picked a pair of ships and gunned for them with destructors, blasting one away as part of my mind tracked the orders being given to the others.
"I never fail to be amazed when you do that," M-Bot said quietly. "You're interpreting data faster than my projections. You seem almost... inhuman."
I gritted my teeth, bracing, and spun my ship, boosting after a straggling Krell drone.
"I mean that as a compliment, by the way," M-Bot said. "Not that there's anything wrong with humans. I find their frail, emotionally unstable, irrational natures quite endearing."
I destroyed that drone and bathed my hull in the light of his fiery demise. I dodged right between the shots of two others. Those Krell drones didn't have pilots on board. A part of me felt sorry for them as they tried to fight back against me. An unstoppable, unknowable force that did not play by the rules that *inaudible* everything else they knew.
"Likely," M-Bot continued, "I regard humans as I do only because I'm programmed to do so. But hey, that's no different from the instinct programming a mother bird to love the twisted, featherless abomination she spawned, right?"
Inhuman. I wove and dodged, firing and destroying. I wasn't perfect. I had overcompensated, and many of my shots missed. But I had a distinct edge. The Krell obviously needed to watch for people like me. Their ships were always on the hunt for humans who flew too well, or responded too quickly. They had tried THAT'S IT FOR A MINUTE, PREVIOUS BOOK.
All this raised a singular, daunting question. What was I?
"I would feel a lot more comfortable," M-Bot said, "if you find a chance to reignite our shield."
"No time," I said. "We need a good thirty seconds without flight control for that."
I had another chance to break toward the main battle, to follow through with the plan we'd outlined. Instead, I spun and hit the overburn, blasting back toward the enemy ships. My grav caps absorbed a large percentage of the g-forces and kept me from suffering too much whiplash. But I still felt pressure flatten me against my sheet, make my skin pull back and my body feel heavy. Under extreme g-forces, I felt like I'd aged a hundred years in a second.
I pushed through and fired at the remaining Krell drones. I strained my strange skills to their limits. The Krell destructor shot grazed the dome of my canopy, so bright it left an afterimage in my eyes.
"Spensa," M-Bot said. "*inaudible* I know you said to keep them distracted, but-"
"Keep them distracted."
I looped us after an enemy ship. "Did you just say the words 'resigned sigh'?"
"I find human non-linguistic communication to be too easily misinterpreted," he said, "so I'm experimenting with ways to make them more explicit."
"Doesn't that defeat the purpose?"
"Definitely not. Dismissive eye roll."
Destructors flared around me, but I blasted two more drones. As I did, I saw something appear, reflected in the canopy of my cockpit. A handfull of piercing white lights, like eyes, watching me. When I used my abilities too much, something looked at me from Nowhere and saw me. I didn't know what they were. I just called them the Eyes. But I could feel a burning hatred from them, and anger. Somehow, this was all connected. My ability to see into the Nowhere. The Eyes that watched me from that place.
I HAVE TO DO A BIG EDIT HERE, FOR STUFF FROM LAST BOOK.
The Eyes continued to appear, reflected in the canopy, as if it were revealing something that watched me from behind my seat. White lights, but stars, but somehow more aware. Dozens of malevolent glowing dots. And entering their realm, even slightly, they became visible to me. Those Eyes unnerved me. How could I both be fascinated by these powers I had, yet be terrified of them at the same time? It felt like the call of the void you got when standing at the edge of a large cliff in the caverns, knowing you could just throw yourself off into the darkness. One step further...
"Spensa!" M-Bot said. "New ship arriving."
I pulled out of my trance, and the Eyes vanished. M-Bot used the console to highlight what he'd spotted. A new starfighter, almost invisible against the black sky, emerged from where the others had been hiding. Sleek, it was shaped like a disk, and painted the same black as space. It was smaller than normal Krell ships, but it had a larger canopy. These new black ships had only started appearing in the last eight months, in the days leading up to EVENTS AT THE END OF THE LAST BOOK. I couldn't hear the commands the new ship received, because none were being sent to it. Black ships like this one were not remote control. Instead, they carried real alien pilots, usually an enemy ace, the best of their force.
The battle had just gotten more interesting.