THE GOOD FIGHT
I want to feel everything, the light, the noise, the dark, even the cold and fear. I could die—but I'm fighting back. The little missile in my hands feels heavier than it looks, a metal pipe with a warhead like a flower bud ready to blossom into an explosion. The icy sea around us heaves, the rusted-out barge creaks, and clouds cover the night sky.
A headlamp on my helmet shines on my work. I check every missile with a sensor that shows numbers and colors. My bare hands ache in the Arctic wind, my breath fogs the sensor screen, and I work as fast as I can anyway. This missile's fuel numbers are within tolerance. The guidance system flashes green. Go! I flip a switch to prime the payload, slide the missile into a launcher, and step back.
With a rasping hiss, a jet of white flame, a thrust that trembles the deck, it takes off toward a ship, a drone, or an incoming missile. The sky flashes with flowers of fire, and the air rumbles, and it's perfect. When the raiders killed people I loved, I couldn't stop them, and now I'm defending a little isle I know almost nothing about, but it means everything.
I've launched thirty-four missiles, and twenty-two remain to be checked and primed, stacked in the center of the barge. Counting makes it feel more real. Any minute, our barge will be a target.
It's hours before sunrise. The air smells acrid with evaporating fuel, but from which missile? The fuel level on the next one checks out, and I slide it into the launcher. A computer somewhere sets the target. My muscles burn, but I keep hustling.
"Fight fast. Fight hard. Fight first." Captain Soliana drilled that into me as we traveled from the shore to the barge. Her hands moved expertly over the controls, her face was dark and calm, and her eyes saw everything and looked at me with approval.
An hour ago, I volunteered to fight with the mercenaries to protect this isle. I could tell the operation was badly planned, a last-minute improvisation, not enough time to get me a suit against the freezing sea, just a helmet. I didn't care. If I fight well, the Bronzewing mercenaries might let me join, and I can keep fighting. Please, please take me.
Missile twenty-two measures low on fuel, so I drop it and move on. Twenty-one, twenty, nineteen—now I'm not helpless.
Soliana is slinging missiles, too, her hand steady, dark suit and skin blending into the night. "Incoming!" she calls. "Let's go!"
This won't be the end. Soliana holds the hatch open on the tiny submarine that brought us there. I leap in and lunge for a seat. She's right behind me, seals the hatch, and dives for the controls at the front, scanning alerts I can't read and desperately wish I knew how.
I strap myself in and fit a breathing mask over my nose and mouth. The air smells metallic. Something beeps, and the main lights go out. Soliana, her face lit by the green control panels, flips a few switches, and the sub lurches away, engine yawling, throwing me against the seat, whacking out my breath. A no-drag hull means this sub can move fast.
"We're headed back to Thule," Soliana calls. Famous Thule, the isle we're defending. After we dock, I can launch more missiles or do something, anything. Every flash I saw on the barge glows in my mind.
The sub slams sideways, too fast. Something crashes against my shoulder and ribs, too hard, with shattering pain. I'm hurt. How bad?
My feet are icy cold—water is rushing in. Soliana's hands fly over the controls, her face stony as jade. I need to stay calm. We'll make it through this, and Thule doctors can help me. But my left arm hurts too much to move.
The engine whines louder. The sub jerks again. Water swirls, water cold enough to kill, now waist high, sloshing over Soliana's hands. Her suit will protect her from the cold. My clothes won't. The sea salt burns on my arm, so I must have an open wound.
She shouts something, and water is up to her chin. The control panel lights go out. The engines moan to silence, and the sub slows. Are we sinking? I don't feel it. Air still flows inside my face mask, my last breaths, maybe. I close my eyes, and the air smells of burning missile fuel, and lights explode in the sky.