CHAPTER 3. IN THE GRID

3. GRID

My Krait speeds into the asteroid field—a crazy move that only some would attempt, but I know I can handle it. And I’m not letting the Python craft out of my sight. I’ve been on his trail for two months, since I tagged him in the Beckali System. It started when I got a tip on the planet Danon, but the trail went cold until I picked it up again on the forest moon of Issla (I will admit that was a stroke of luck—thank goodness for the foresters who took me in), which eventually led me to Beckali, where I first actually saw the starglider. I’ve been following him jump to jump since. He thinks he can lose me—Python ships are small, highly maneuverable, fast, and this guy can fly—but I’ve never failed the Alliance yet. So if he’s going into the asteroid field, so am I.

I am Asha Rai, SlipStream Level 4—and I will fulfill my mission.

I was told that this particular Python is smuggling a datacard with research important to Alliance Central. Research that Alliance scientists could use to give us a major advantage in this Second Endless War. I don’t know what the research is exactly—only that it’s vital to advancing our cause… And I’ll admit that I resent not knowing what my own side is up to, even though I understand that secrets and security can be important protective measures. But analyzing the data and using the research isn’t my mission.

My mission was very clear—obtain that datacard, by whatever means necessary, and get it back to Alliance Central. If I need to destroy the Python and get rid of the pilot, so be it. It’s harsh, but so is war. And if I want to advance—if I ever want to learn the secrets on that datacard—I’ll need to follow mission parameters.

The Python craft is favored by mercenaries—so I wonder, if he’s a merc, maybe I could buy him out, pay him more than whoever is offering him whatever for the datacard. Maybe even figure out who he’s working for. This is the first time I’ve been close enough to open a com channel with him, so I try.

Icy silence. I guess he’s not interested in talking. And honestly? That’s fine with me. I don’t enter SlipStream for the conversation.

He swerves behind the largest asteroid, and I follow, coming around slowly… to discover that he’s gone.

Jumped?

No. No one can jump in the middle of an asteroid field, no matter how good they (and their nav comp) are. He’s hiding.

Cheeky bastard, hiding in an asteroid field.

It’s moments like this that I’m glad I bought advanced scanning tech with the credits I earned by selling my ice cargo on the desert world of Aburhan. I’ve only used the scanner twice, but every time it led me right to my prey. I don’t care how low the Python’s electromagnetic visibility is, my scanner will find him. I fire it up, plug in the Python’s signature, wait just a moment—and ping! There he is…

Inside a nearby asteroid? How is that possible? I re-boot the tech and try again. Same result. Inside an asteroid. It’s crazy, I know. But I go in for a closer look.

I slowly, slowly head towards the asteroid—one of the bigger ones in the belt—being careful to avoid the debris mistcloud surrounding it. As I get almost too close to the rock for comfort, I finally see it.

6. asha Space

A small opening in the rock face. It looks like a cave entry, but as I get even closer, I can tell that it’s man-made. The edges are too smooth, too symmetrical to be created within the geological volatility of an asteroid field.

There must be a hidden base inside this asteroid. And that’s where my Python went.

He probably thinks he’s lost me. His mistake.

I’m good, and even for me getting through the base opening is tough. I’m lucky a Krait isn’t much bigger than a Python. It’s clear this base was really built for Pythons and similar class merc ships, designed for fast-in, fast-out operations. But I’m in, and I find myself cruising deep into the asteroid, going down a long tunnel, like a tube. The tube walls are made of metal, confirming what I already knew—that this place is man or machine-made. I have to stay very very steady, so as not to crash into the walls. It’s a narrow fit, but eventually it opens into a wider clearing—and I find myself in a 3-craft landing bay.

The Python I’ve been trailing is docked nearby, and a quick scan shows the merc has already tapped out, so he must have left his craft in human form—and I’ll bet my Krait that the datacard is with him.

I pull up and dock in the second bay next to the Python, and do a quick atmo-scan. I’m surprised to find that the atmosphere is breathable. Even more surprising, there is gravity here. I don’t even need to get into an atmosuit when tapping out of the Krait. That doesn’t make much sense. Did the base entrance seal up behind me? It wouldn’t be the first time mission elements didn’t make total sense, though—or the laws of physics were bent a bit out of shape in SlipStream—so I try not to think about it too much and proceed directly to tap out, slowly opening my eyes as I leave the craft.

I suppose I should explain tapping out, since it’s a process mostly used by gamers, and even Cari still doesn’t fully understand it. But in SlipStream, you actually become your starglider rather than “piloting” it in the old-school sense. You “tap in” and all of a sudden you’re no longer in human body form, but you are the starglider. Kinda like a simulation within the simulation. Makes flying much more of a rush when you can literally feel the space under your wings, in the same way you’d feel a summer breeze across your face in the real world. And on recon-only missions, you can even choose to become a small drone with no onboard body capsule—in other words, you can leave your avatar elsewhere while you become a passenger-less craft.

The point is, my Krait isn’t a drone. Good thing, because on missions like this one, it’s necessary to be close to a body option. It’s clear this is a mission I’ll have to finish on foot. And I sense that I’m close.

Mind on the mission.

Upon tapping out, opening the Krait’s body capsule and exiting the craft, I see a small arched doorway leading to a long corridor at the very far end of dock. It’s far enough away that I only barely notice a figure standing under the arch, their back to me. The Python pilot. It must be. Not wanting to lose him, I pick up my pace and run down the length of the landing strip towards the corridor. But as I get closer, I notice that he’s not moving. He’s just—standing there. Under the arch. His back to me. As if he’s waiting for something. Waiting for me?

As I get even closer and his outline fades into view, I see the Python pilot’s figure is elegant and curved—he is actually a she.

And for a moment I regret my mission, because I’m excited to see another girl. I’m not the only female SlipStreamer I know—but before today, I was the only girl I knew who could navigate an asteroid field. It’s too bad I need to take her down. Mind on the mission. I pull my blaster out of its holster, and keep running.

As I get within a few paces of firing range, and even though I’m looking at her from behind (she still hasn’t turned around), I can tell that she’s beautiful. And not a girl at all, but a woman.

I’ve seen some strange things in SlipStream, but this is the first time I’ve seen anything that causes me to think something is truly wrong with this world. This just can’t be. As she turns around, things get really weird. My life changes forever in this single moment as I realize I recognize this beautiful woman standing in the corridor.

And that, Hal Haven, is how I met your mother.

 

You’ve been reading CHAPTER 3 from the new young adult illustrated novel ASHA ASCENDING, ­­­­written by Vivek J. Tiwary with art by Sara Richard. Please FOLLOW this blog to read previous and future chapters, serialized here for free.

Please also LEAVE A REPLY below and let us know what you think– we take our fan feedback seriously! Thanks! – Vivek + Sara

 

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