In a shuttle cockpit, far from home, your rapid breathing is almost deafening. You've pushed the throttle as far as it can go, and still it doesn't feel fast enough. But it has to be. If you can't outrun them, you'll die out here, on the edge of the Altan system.
But maybe, if you can reach the shadow of Omega, the planet in your sights, you can hide from them long enough to lose them.
It's days like this you wish you were still an ordinary taxi driver, shuttling passengers from one place to another. Never having to worry where your next breath of air was coming from, instead of out here, where your next breath might be your last.
If you'd realised you'd be fighting a war you never signed up for out here, you might never have left at all. Not that you'd really had a choice then, either. Live or die, then and now.
You squint at your display, but the fighter following you is nowhere to be seen. Did you actually lose him? Squirming around in your seat, you scan the surrounding darkness, looking for some other sign of life out here. Enemy life, but life, nonetheless.
Something flickers in the corner of your eye, so you face forward again. Light blooms in the darkness, a blinding ball of white fire burned into your vision, burned so brightly into the back of your retina that you can barely see it speeding away from you, hurtling toward the frozen rock that is Omega, the outermost planet of this system.
A fitting name for what will be its final resting place. It had to be the other fighter, the one that was chasing you. Except…you didn't hit it, causing that fiery explosion. So who did?
Your display is as dark as space outside.
Is this the last thing you'll see, before becoming a flaming comet headed toward the planet's barren surface?
No one could have survived that. You're not military. You haven't been trained for this. And you don't want to die today. Especially not alone, out here in the far reaches of the system that is even further from the home you'll never see again.
Your heart stops as a garbled voice says something, so close they could be shouting in your ear. It takes a moment for you to start breathing again as you remember there's a comm in your helmet – voices on the comm are shouting in your ear. You fumble for the comm controls, desperate to hear what they're saying.
Right now, you'll happily surrender if it means not dying today. Not becoming a debris field like the other shuttle scattered across the planet surface. You peer out at it, wondering if there will be any pieces big enough to see out here in space, or whether the crash completely obliterated it. Or hasn't it hit yet? How long does it take to reach the bottom of a gravity well on a planet this small?
You shake your head. If you ever knew the answer, you definitely don't remember it now.
That's when you see it. A city, like one of the domed cities back home, all high tech and shining, down there on Omega's surface.
As if by magic, the comm signal comes clear. "Unidentified fighter, are you Human or Titan?"
You blink, and it's gone, as if it never was. No city, just a barren planet.
Did you imagine it? Wished it into being, as if a wish could make a city appear. Here, on the edge of known space.
The comm interrupts your daydream. "Unidentified fighter, are you Human or Titan?"
Is the comm coming from the city? No, it must be a ship, somewhere, cloaked or hidden on the other side of the planet.
You can't see who's hailing you, but ignoring them is not an option when they're your only hope of surviving out here. Your shuttle won't have enough fuel or air to make it back to the inner planets, where the atmosphere is breathable.
"Unidentified fighter, if you do not identify yourself, we will be forced to blow you up like we did your friend."
You want to laugh hysterically. The other fighter wasn't your friend. So if they'd blown up your enemy, as the enemy of your enemy, the person on the other end of the comm must be your friend. You hope.
You open your mouth to answer.
What do you say?