From #1 bestselling author Brandon Sanderson and Janci Patterson comes the first of three Skyward series novellas, each told from the perspective of a different member of the team back on Detritus. Discover FM’s story between Starsight and Cytonic in the first novella Sunreach, available now in ebook and audiobook!
Read and listen to chapter one of Sunreach now…
by Brandon Sanderson and Janci Patterson
The day the delver came, I stood staring up at the stars.
Even after all these months, I wasn’t accustomed to living in the sky. I’d grown up underground, in a cavern so deep it could take hours to reach the surface. I’d felt safe there, buried beneath kilometers of rock, other caverns forming a buffer above the one where I lived—down where nothing could reach us.
Now everyone called me FM, but my parents named me Freyja, after the warrior goddess of my ancient heritage. I was never much of a warrior. Everyone expected I’d take the pilot’s test and hoped that I’d graduate, but after that I surprised them by continuing to fly. As a full pilot, I could have had any job I wanted in the safety of the caverns. Yet I’d chosen to move from the surface of the planet—open and foreign and exposed—up to one of the enormous platforms that orbited above it, sheltering the surface from the sky. My father had taken to saying I was skysick, but it was the opposite—the sky terrified me. It was so big and wide I could fall into it and be swallowed up.
Above me, the other platforms that dominated the skies crossed over each other again, blocking my view of the eternal blackness dotted with the strange white stars I’d only heard of before I joined the Defiant Defence Force. My alarm went off—the beeping alert from my radio that my flight was scheduled for immediate takeoff. It was normal for flights to be called up at random—I’d been responding to sirens at a moment’s notice since my first day as a cadet.
But today, half of my flight was missing. The rest of us had assumed this would afford us some unofficial R&R; while our flightleader, Jorgen, was planetside, surely we’d be called up last.
Apparently we’d guessed wrong. When I reached the landing bay, I immediately understood why. It wasn’t only our flight that had been called up. Every fighter was readied, the maintenance crew working their way through preflight checks at double speed while pilots ran for their ships and jumped into their cockpits.
I looked for the rest of my flight. Without a flightleader, we couldn’t take off until we knew who was in command. There were four other members of my flight currently in residence on Platform Prime: Kimmalyn, who was part of my original flight, and our three newer members: Sadie, T-Stall, and Catnip. Nedd and Arturo were planetside with Jorgen, so Kimmalyn and I were the most likely to be given command, but I didn’t want it, and I knew Kimmalyn didn’t either.
I didn’t see any of my flightmates at the moment, but my friend Lizard from Nightmare Flight waved at me from the open hatch of her cockpit. Lizard had bright blue eyes and waist-length black hair. I didn’t know how she kept it so long—mine started to bother me if I let it grow to shoulder length. Lizard’s real name was Leiko, but like me she went by her callsign almost all of the time.
“FM!” Lizard called. “They’re combining your flight with ours. Nose said to wave you all down as you came in and tell you to set your radios to our channel.”
Thank the stars. I would have followed any flightleader, of course, but I’d flown under Nose before, and a lot of the members of Nightmare Flight were my friends. Lizard was close to my age—she’d been in cadet training right before me. The sophomore class tended to be hard on the newest pilots, but Skyward Flight was something of a legend thanks to our flightmate, Spin, which earned us respect most newly minted pilots could only dream of.
“Any idea what’s happening?” I asked Lizard.
“No clue,” she said. “But Nose is already in the air. We’d better get up there.”
“Thanks, Lizard,” I said. I ran for my fighter and found Kimmalyn already in her cockpit across the way. As soon as I climbed into mine, I saw the light blinking and switched my radio to her private channel.
“FM,” Kimmalyn said as I readied my fighter. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“No idea,” I said. “An attack of some kind?” We often dealt with small groups of Krell fighters, though only a really massive attack would justify calling us all up at once.
“I don’t know either,” Kimmalyn said. “But I just saw Spin. She’s back.”
I blinked, my hands pausing on the controls. Spensa had managed to use her strange psychic powers to leave our doomed little planet and run some crazy spy mission, trying to steal hyperdrive technology from the enemy. Until we had that technology we were marooned here, fish in a growth vat waiting to be speared. Spin had been gone for weeks, and I knew Jorgen and Admiral Cobb were worried she’d never return.
“Did she bring us a hyperdrive?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Kimmalyn said. “But I doubt it’s a coincidence we’re being called up now. I’m guessing she brought trouble with her. Like the Saint always says, ‘Trouble follows its own.’ ”
Kimmalyn was probably right. As glad as I was to hear Spensa was back, I didn’t think it was a good sign for any of us. If disaster struck, generally Spin was right there in the middle of it. Not that she caused it necessarily, but it did seem to follow her around.
I engaged my acclivity ring, then boosted out of the landing bay to join the mass of other ships in the air. The platform itself was high above the planet, part of the massive layers of platforms and debris that shut out almost all view of the sky from the surface below.
Scud, there were a lot of ships up here. Whatever trouble had followed Spin home, Admiral Cobb was sparing no one to stop it. If this was the day the Superiority had chosen to destroy us, we were going to have to show them exactly how dangerous we were.
I tuned in to Nightmare Flight’s channel, and Kimmalyn and I flew to the coordinates Nose gave us, a pocket between some of the nearby platforms. Most of the rest of Skyward Flight was already there, including T-Stall and Catnip—cool guys who were a blast to hang out with, but a little lacking in the common sense department—and Sadie, who had been flying as my wingmate in the weeks since Spin had left.
“Welcome to Nightmare Flight,” Nose said to the five of us. “Quirk, you’ll be Sushi’s wingmate today.”
“Understood,” Kimmalyn said.
“We’re all here,” Nose said. “We’re going to follow our nav path out of the platforms and cut across to the right flank of the battlefield. Sound off.”
One by one the members of Nightmare Flight called in, giving their ship numbers and callsigns. We’d switched numbers in Skyward Flight several times. I was Skyward Five currently, and the members of my flight kept our Skyward numbers, sounding off in order after Nightmare Flight finished.
We flew at Mag-3 in a line astern formation, weaving between the layers of platforms, and then Nose gave us a heading on the far side of the battlefield. We loosened our formation, flying in a wide V away from Detritus’s autonomous gun platforms and then cutting across the curvature of the planet to approach the incoming ships.
As we did, I could see the two battleships that had been watching us for the past several weeks out in the blackness of space—monstrous, looming shapes totally unlike our sleek fighters, clearly not made to deal with atmosphere and air resistance. We didn’t have anything like that on Detritus. Our biggest transport ships didn’t carry more than a few dozen passengers.
Beyond them I could now see another long, boxy ship—newly arrived. It was hard to make out against the black, but there were smaller ships out there as well, congregated in a cluster. Probably approaching us at high speeds, though it was difficult to tell at this distance, even on my monitors.
“Our orders are to come up the right flank and engage the enemy,” Nose said. “They’re fielding a lot of drones, but also fifty piloted spacecraft.”
Fifty? We were used to fighting large contingents of drones with a few enemy aces, but not fifty piloted ships.
“Flight Command says they have intel that the piloted craft aren’t enemy aces.” Nose said. “But we also don’t know what they are, so we’re to engage, drawing as many as possible away from Platform Prime.”
Some of the other flights congregated just outside the reach of the gun platforms, waiting for orders. This first approach would be an experiment then. If Command didn’t know what these craft were, they’d need to study their behavior before they could commit their entire force. It made sense from a strategic point of view.
But it was a lot less comforting being the subject of the experiment. The cavern where I’d grown up was home to a research facility that tested everything from new toothpaste recipes to the effects of toxic chemicals. Some of my Disputer friends talked about raiding the place someday and releasing all the lab rats, whose lives were sad and often short. I saw one once that had escaped. It had chewed off most of the fur from its hind legs, which were covered in boils from some chemical reaction. Not, I hoped, from the toothpaste.
Sometimes I identified with those rats.
As we made our sweep above the platforms, my wingmate, Sadie, called on a private channel. “What does Nose mean, they don’t know what these things are?” she asked. “How do they know they’re not aces then?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I think we’re going to be among the first to find out.”
Sadie’s channel went quiet, and then a moment later the comm light for her channel brightened again. “I wish the others were here.”
“By the others, you mean Spin,” I said. I tried not to tease her about her obvious adoration of Spensa. The others, especially Nedd, tried less.
“I mean, she’s an incredible fighter! Don’t you think our chances would be better if she were here?”
“Quirk said she saw Spin right before we were called up. So she probably is here.”
But not flying with us. What did that mean?
“Really?” Sadie said. “That has to increase our chances, right?”
Sadie had done some fighting with us, but we’d seen fewer and fewer Krell attacks lately, especially since the battleships arrived. “Probably,” I said. “But our chances increase a lot more if we don’t think about them and instead focus on what’s in front of us.”
“Right,” Sadie said. “Focus. That’s what Spin would do.”
“Also shout graphic and violent things at the enemies. So I suppose you could try that.”
“That’s right! Down with you, vile . . . space-dwelling . . . ships of . . . vileness! May you all die painful, fiery deaths! How was that?”
“That was definitely something,” I said. “Did it make you feel better?”
“A little. I think I need to practice. May you all explode in big fiery explosions, approaching not-ace ships of whateverness!”
“Uh, Sentry? Maybe practice on your own and just share the highlights, okay?”
“Oh, right,” Sadie said. “Sure thing.”
The radio went quiet, leaving me alone with my thoughts. What I said to Sadie about focusing was true, but I’d always been better at dispensing advice than following it.
“Ready, flight?” Nose said.
“Skyward Five, ready,” I responded. I listened to other voices over the radio doing the same. There were more of us than usual, but it still felt strange to be missing Jorgen, Nedd, and Arturo.
I didn’t think any of us—aside from maybe T-Stall—were stupid enough to believe the official excuse for their absence. You didn’t send the flightleader and his two assistants for R&R at the same time unless there was a very good reason.
As we approached the right side of the enemy formations, several ships broke off and headed straight for us.
“Sentry, FM,” Nose said on the general channel, “take point and engage the enemy, then move to evasive maneuvers. T-Stall, Catnip, follow up. See if you can draw them into a bait and switch.”
Sadie and I broke out of formation, launching toward the enemy on overburn. Immediately four ships chased after us as we led them along the outside of the platforms surrounding the planet.
Sadie and I began evasive maneuvers, weaving about so the ships behind us couldn’t get a clean shot with their destructors. I checked my proximity sensors. Of the four ships following us, two were drones and two were piloted ships, the ones we usually assumed were enemy aces.
“FM and Sentry, hold course.” Nose said. “Quirk, pick them off.”
“Yes, sir!” Kimmalyn said, and a few seconds later the ship following me the closest took a hit and veered off to avoid Kimmalyn’s fire.
“We’re about to pass a gun platform,” I said on a channel to Sadie. “Let’s see if we can get Quirk a little auto support.”
“I’ll cover you,” Sadie said. She moved into position, with me closest to the planet, soaring above the many platforms and hunks of debris that covered Detritus like a loose fragmented shell. I continued my erratic course, dodging bursts of destructor fire. With each bank toward the planet I moved a little farther in, using the readings on my dash to gauge exactly how close I was edging to the gun platform. Most of those platforms were autonomous and would target us the same as the enemy. Engineering Corps hadn’t yet been able to break into the systems to bring them under our control. The enemy ships—drone and pilot alike—knew enough to avoid the gun platforms, but sometimes when we engaged them in enough of a chase we could get them to—
One of the ships tailing me banked too far to the right, and the gun emplacement on the nearby platform fired, the ship disappearing from my sensors in a silent explosion. Kimmalyn fired on the other drone, while Sadie engaged the final ship in a smart series of maneuvers to shift it out in front of me. I shot it with my light-lance, then catapulted myself around it, using my momentum to send it sailing into range of the auto turrets. The platform fired, and the ship burst into fragments, air tanks igniting in a fiery blaze.
“Nice work,” Sadie said.
I was pretty sure it was passable work, but I wasn’t going to say that to her, not in the middle of a battle. She might take it as an insult, and she needed to keep her morale up.
“Thanks,” I said. “You too.”
“You did most of it.”
Sadie was a better pilot than she gave herself credit for, but I wasn’t going to have that conversation in the middle of a battle either.
We made a sharp turn and accelerated back toward our flight and the right flank of the battle. Other flights were now engaging the enemy ships, and from the look of things the battle was going well.
If this was the best the Superiority had to send against us, maybe we stood a chance after all.
Sadie and I flew toward Nose and her wingmate, assisting them in shaking a couple of tails. Sadie soared in close to one of the enemy ships and used her IMP to take out their shield, then cut away toward the edge of the battle while I pressed forward, firing my destructors at the now-defenseless ship.
“Quirk, can you cover Sentry?” I asked Kimmalyn over the general channel.
“Quirk’s busy,” Lizard said. “I’m on it.”
The ship in front of me lit up with an explosion above its acclivity ring, and with no air resistance to slow it down, the wreckage continued sailing in the direction it had been going. I cut away, flying out to join Sadie and Lizard, reaching them just as Sadie reignited her shield.
“Nice work,” Nose said over the general channel. “Skyward Flight, it’s always a pleasure.”
I smiled. We worked well as a group, though we didn’t fly together regularly. Before I joined the DDF, I hadn’t understood the mentality that pushed people to fight as one, to keep doing so even as their friends died around them. I’d never felt that violence was the best way to solve problems, though I understood that violence was the only solution that kept us alive when the Krell kept trying to bomb us out of existence. Still, I’d found the rhetoric about glory disturbing, the way the National Assembly seemed to justify anything they wanted by saying it would help us fight the Krell. I had thought pilots were sheep. Skilled, determined, well-respected sheep who did what they were driven to do because they didn’t know any better.
Now though, I understood the glue that held us together, and it wasn’t stupidity. It was the bond shared by people who faced death together. It was a sense of belonging, of being a piece of something bigger, something important, though I still wasn’t convinced everything about it was good. I’d never felt that I needed a military to tell me my place in the world before, and I still didn’t.
But there was something about knowing that without me my friends would be worse off that kept me flying even when it terrified me.
“New orders,” Nose said over the general channel. “We’re to move to evasive maneuvers only and then turn off our comms.”
Excuse me? “Nose, did you say turn off our comms?”
“Those are the orders, FM,” Nose said. “All comms off. Do not turn them on under any circumstances.”
That couldn’t be right. Without the ability to communicate, we couldn’t work together as a flight. We’d end up scattered across the battlefield. Good pilots are good communicators. I learned that from Cobb. Without the ability to talk to each other—
Well, it wasn’t exactly like flying blind, but it was a hell of a lot closer than I liked.
“Are we going to retreat?” Lizard asked.
That would be more manageable. If we could head back beyond the gun platforms we could at least hide, or make our way to Platform Prime under the shelter of the rubble belt.
“Negative,” Nose said. “Comms off. Maintain evasive maneuvers. Try to keep the ships busy and await further instructions.”
“Instructions?” I said. “How are you going to give us instructions if our comms are off?”
“Pilots, we need to go dark,” Nose said. “The order comes straight from Admiral Cobb. Stick with your wingmate. If you get stranded, find another member of the flight and stay together. We’ll reassemble on the flip side. Nose out.”
Scud. “Sentry,” I said over a private channel. “You heard Nose. We’ll have to stay close together.” I had no idea what Command was up to, but Cobb wouldn’t give an order like that without a good reason. “Follow my lead.” I was the senior pilot. It was my job to keep her alive.
“Oh—okay,” Sadie said. She sounded close to panicking, and I couldn’t blame her. Terror crawled its way up my throat as I put my hand over the comm button.
And then I turned it off.