The Light Fantastic

The starfields and galaxies hurtle past behind her closed lids at the speed of thought. They move so fast that they paint a trail of shining white and blue and a dozen other colors across all that her mind can see. She spins bewildered in their wake, wondering how she will ever make sense of it.

But make sense of it she must if she is to pilot this ship, this clumsy hunk of metal and glass and plastic, through this streaming maze of mass and energy. The price of failure is too high to imagine. A fireball shoots across her inner vision, blinding her, and her heart stutters in shock.

Her brain runs through a list of the dangers they covered in her training: meteorites, solar flares, black holes, warships bigger than her own small ship. She must glide past them or through them, triumphant, invisible. Surviving to fly and fight another day.

She wonders how she got here, to this point. Except she already knows, knows that she’s never wanted anything more than this flight, this ship. That she would sacrifice almost anything or anyone in her life to get here, to stay here.

That she already has.

Her reflexes kick in and she thinks the ship into a quiet part of space, a lull in the outer limits of the system. A hologram of a navigational starmap pops up before her right eye and she studies it, locating where she is and where she needs to be in a timespan so brief it can be measured in blinks.

She can feel the ship around her, the engines pulsing under her fingertips, the electrical currents dancing first on, then under her skin. The ship’s computer purrs like a mechacat in her ear and she wants to reach out and take it all into her somehow, so that she is the ship and the ship is her. Forgetting that she already has, at least until she has to disconnect and reenter the frail meat shell that is her human body.

But for now, she has nothing but the power and speed at her command. She sends the ship spiraling through the system, dancing delicately through the greenish-gold rings that encircle the nearest planet. It is a moment of pure joy: this is what she wants to do. Always. If the ship didn’t need fuel, she would do this forever.

She forces herself to look at the ship’s gauges, to recognize how much longer she can stay this far from her planetary base. Then, joy fading, she bows to the inevitable. They spin past the ringed planet, she and the ship, and she uses the momentum to fling her ship free of the planet’s gravity and back toward the pulsing heart of the system.

And pulse it does. There are other ships flying around her now, visible as dark spots against the backdrop of the planets, the sun. Her communicator crackles to abrupt life, reminding her that she’s not out here alone. That this is someone else’s ship she’s piloting and that someone expects her to be doing her job.

“X273, come in. X273, move to the Gamma Quadrant, stat. Acknowledge.” The voice is precise, inhuman. The computer takes the starfields for granted, in a way that she never can.

With a grimace, she sends the signal code acknowledging her orders, then whips her ship through evasive maneuvers past the ongoing battle and toward the part of the system has been designated the “Gamma Quadrant.” The bright flashes of battle are all around her now and she tries to catch her breath, steady her thoughts.

A shot from a distant weapon comes too close and her ship twists beneath her, trying to avoid the fiery impact that still sears the edge of a wing. She thinks about her weapons firing, pulse cannon and lasers both blasting her enemy and an instant later, feels it happen. The other ship rocks back and forth, avoiding one shot, then another, only to fall prey to a third. It explodes into a million particles that vanish almost instantly and she instinctively tries to dance her ship away to dodge the biggest of them.

In the instant between the destruction of one ship and the attack of the next, she remembers that she is facing other medusa pilots, each one hoping to think faster than she does. She feels a split second of regret: there are so few of them, each a potential lover, friend, compatriot. Then her reflexes take over and she blasts her way through the battle, she and her ship functioning as a single organism.

She loses her body, her conscious thoughts, her fears. She is metal and glass and plastic against the stars and planets and the fire of other ships. Whatever she was before, whatever she will be, is lost in what the ship has become: one unit, one weapon.

The end, when it comes, is sudden, and feels as abrupt as piloting her ship into a port wall. Her ship steadies, evasion no longer required, and her comm bursts back into life. “X273, abort and return to base. Engagement is complete.” That cold voice cuts across everything, reflexes, thoughts, desires.

It’s enough to force her back into her aching body in her pilot’s chair and awareness of the headset that’s hooked into the brand new implants wired into her skull. She doesn’t want to think about the battle, about why there are no more fireballs. She doesn’t want to be back here, at least not until everything hurts less.

Instead, she opts to think about how she has just done what she has done. They call her implants “medusas,” after some Old Earth monster. The ones who aren’t wired say the wires emerging from the pilots’ skulls look like snakes, that those who chose to embrace them are freaks and a thousand other hurtful things besides.

They are wrong. They are right. But they will never know what it is like to pilot a starship with their minds. Faster than thought, almost as fast as light, she dreams of dancing her hunk of metal through the stars again.