by Max Barry

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Region: New Coalition of Nations

It was too early in the morning, and Celia hadn’t yet finished her first cup of coffee. She looked the man over and then asked him his name again.

“Somta. Dr. Lt. Kirel Somta. I’m a professor of Ancient Solterran and Doec Comparitive Studies at the University of Mitera. I’m joining ...”

“Joining Dr. Major “Pain in My Ass” Jagk Tirogo, Director of the Ars Scientia University Tribal Linguist Research Project and the rest of his team in Diskothek to study the origins of the Rei’Tro and other Northsavage languages.” Celia interrupted him, her face carrying a disingenuous but professional smile.

“Why’d ask if you already knew?” Somta said.

Celia heard a tone of annoyance in his voice. She hoped he hadn’t finished his coffee either. They boarded the small craft sitting alone on the tarmac. She gave the professor a helmet. “Here, put this on.”

Somta gazed at the dark spheroid, “What’s this for? Isn’t this thing sound-shielded?” He waved the helmet around, accidentally hitting a touch-control panel on the bulkhead.

Suddenly the lights and sound-shielding failed. The roar of the craft’s engines filled the cabin.

Celia started shouting, “It’s for emergencies! And this ‘thing’ is a upgraded AthTec Hubaci AG-1000(u) Skyhammer with a state-of-the-art AI-core, advanced avionics, communications suite, and sensor arrays, a top-of-the-line quantum-remote propulsion system, and kick-ass dual 330 terawatt air-plasma canons! Not to mention me and Latch,” she pointed to the co-pilot who was mumbling something into his helmet and stroking the Skyhammer’s flight controls. Suddenly the engines failed and the whole craft went silent.

“This ‘thing!’ as you so casually... No! So ungraciously called it” Celia continued, shouting louder at the professor, “will keep your ass and ours safe as it flys us across thousands of klicks of stormwrecked ocean teeming with giant piranhawhales, sweltering jungles crawling with blood-thirsty Hrakni bug-monsters and flesh-eating thornvine mushrooms, and a shallow sea of sharkeel-infested swamps. And then, then there are the savages...”

“OK! OK. I’m sorry for insulting you and Latch.” Somta waved to the co-pilot who waved back.

“And Bitty.” Celia said pulling her helmet on.

“And Bitty?”

“The Skyhammer!” Latch shouted from the cockpit.

“Bitty,” Celia’s voiced crackled from her helmet as she stroked the ‘injured’ touch-control on the Skyhammer’s port bulkhead.

“Sorry, Bitty.” Somta said. Celia and Latch both motioned for Somta to say it louder. “Sorry, Bitty!” he shouted. Suddenly the lights flickered back on and the engines roared back to life.

Celia motioned for Somta to put the helmet on. A tiny version of her voice pierced his ear as soon as the helmet clicked into placed, “Don’t insult Bitty!”

“Sorry, Bitty,” Somta whispered again. He took a seat behind Latch, buckled in, and watched as the two pilots finished prepping the Skyhammer for their flight to Diskothek. It was best they believed the reason he’d already given for needing their services. He hadn’t thought up another alternative to the truth.

Most of the trip was uneventful. They had setoff from Exerevno just after dawn and headed North over the sea and then over the deep jungle of the northern Savagelands. Somta had dozed off at some point and woke to a violent shake and Latch’s voice frantically shouting into his helmet, “Mayday! Mayday! Skyhammer ENO-393 requesting immediate assistance! We’ve been struck by anti-air artillery. Coordinates 27.14—”

Bitty was hit by another violent barage of AA fire. Somta felt a rush of warm humid air against the side of his leg. He looked down to see a baseball-sized hole in the craft’s deck next to his foot. Smoke started to fill the cabin. “Athla! What is happening?!”

“Hold on!” Celia shouted, “We’re going down!”