They say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Well, I managed against all odds to survive but at the moment, I don't feel particularly strong. Instead, I feel exhaustingly weak, as something cold and wet nudges me awake. I stir groggily from my comatose slumber, confused.
I expect to find my dog, Snowflake—a Chiweenie—sitting on my pillow and licking my face. But then I remember that Snowflake died a long time ago, several years before I left the orphanage to begin my spacefighter training. His death was the saddest day of my life. I cried for an entire week and whenever I wasn't crying, I was asleep, too tired from balling my eyes out until they were constantly bloodshot.
Disoriented, I open my eyes and then quickly squeeze them shut again. My eyes burn suddenly with an intense fire I didn't know that water could possess, as impurities and invisible microbes temporarily disrupt my enhanced ocular receptors. I swallow involuntarily and liquid seeps into my airway. I cough and sputter, struggling to breathe while my eyes continue to sting. I flail in a shallow pool, panic rising inside of me like a sudden rush of anger. My elbows scrape the metal floor and my blood stains the water red. I howl in pain and roll over slowly to a sitting position, splashing water all over my torn jumpsuit. My thick, curly brown hair is sopping wet, sticking to my face like a fuzzy adhesive.
I sit there for a while, allowing my eyes to cease burning and my lungs to reject the tainted air I inhaled. When the stinging and hacking finally subside, my eyes flutter open and I look around.
Darkness greets my return to consciousness. Even in the obscurity, I know my location—the fighter ship hangar. I wonder why I'm here, perplexed beyond measure. Then, I remember the attack.
Like all ambushes, it happened so suddenly and without warning. One moment, I was having a good time with my two closest friends and the next moment, I was running to the hangar with several other stationed pilots as emergency sirens blared all around us. I remember arriving at the hangar. I remember selecting a spacefighter ship. I remember an explosion. And that's where my memory ends.
I only just notice the throbbing inside my head, pulsing like a metronome. I'm also bleeding from the side of my forehead. Fresh blood dribbles from the wound, painting my black jumpsuit with tiny crimson splatters. I reach up slowly to dab at the spot. It hurts like hell—a nasty cut—and more than likely it's infected now that I've touched it.
I extend my left arm to pull myself up to a standing position but a searing pain shoots across my shoulder. I wince and drop my arm immediately, my shoulder dislocated. I wait a moment for the pain to decrease before I use my other arm for support, my right shoulder performing better than its twin. I climb to my feet and stand in calf-high water. The hangar is flooded and I can't figure out why. I peer into the darkness, searching for another soul to help me shed light on this situation. But the hangar stands eerily quiet. I attempt to call out for someone . . . anyone . . . but I've lost my voice. The sound I produce is somewhere between actual speech and a raspy grunt. I try again but my throat is so dry that my voice remains trapped there, unable to escape.
Tempted to stoop down and gulp another swallow of salty, germ-infested water, I take a couple of steps forward and shuffle right into something solid. I look down and if my voice hadn't abandoned me momentarily, I would have screamed.
An unmoving body lies face down in the water, as still as a day without wind. I drop to my knees and prod the man—a fellow pilot. He doesn't respond.
"Sir?" I call weakly, my voice slowly coming back to me. I sound hoarse, as though I have a terrible head cold.
No response and I immediately fear the worse. I retrieve my flashlight from my utility belt and click the power button for a closer inspection of the pilot. No response from my flashlight either. The watery bed I woke up in has killed it. I drop the damaged flashlight and I hear a muffled clank as the water slows its descent before it collides with the metal beneath my feet.
Sighing because I'm without light, I jam two fingers into the guy's neck, right beneath his prominent jawbone. I don't feel a pulse, confirming my suspicions.
Unable to do anything for him, I carefully step around his body and continue into the dark, holding my arms out to feel around. I'm trying not to panic but it's becoming increasingly difficult. A row of overturned fighter ships hover in the shallow water to my left. I can barely make out their silver silhouettes, dancing in the dark like specters.
All around me float bodies that only bob around the surface of the water as I draw nearer to them. This can't be real. Everyone can't be dead. I don't want to believe that I'm the only survivor in the hangar. There has to be others. But the more I explore the area, the more I realize that I'm alone.
I'm lucky to be alive. I should have died like everyone else. The explosion was a whirlwind of fire and propulsive force. No one should have survived it. But somehow, I did, even though there's nothing special about me. Before the attack, I was just an orphan who rose quickly through the space force ranks because I was determined to become the best spacefighter pilot ever. Most of these brave men and women shared my work ethic. Now, they're all gone and I'm still here. Whether by chance or divine intervention, I was meant to survive.
Without warning, I start to freak out, my breathing coming in short spurts—the initial signs of a panic attack. I've suffered from chronic anxiety ever since I was trapped in a collapsed building for three days when I was five years old. The memories of that traumatic event play out from time to time in my dreams, leaving me not wanting to sleep for days on end. But for the most part, my anxiety disorder serves as the only reminder of being trapped in the dark with no way to escape. Naturally, I fear dark, enclosed spaces now and whenever I find myself in a dire situation that's extremely beyond my control—like waking up to find all of my comrades dead in wake of a devastating explosion—I panic.
A sudden rushing noise. I attempt in vain to calm myself, craving the meds I hate taking to quell my anxiety. I strain to listen to the sounds of a flowing tide spilling into the hangar. The water level steadily rises all around me. Somewhere, there's a hull breach in the lowest level of the cityship I've called home for nearly two years now. I put two and two together at once. Nicknamed the Sapphire Dream, the cityship has crash-landed in an aquatic setting on an unknown planet.
Before the attack, the ship traveled through the Azure Galaxy, a cluster of planets, asteroids, and stars that will always hold a special place in my heart. My homeworld of Aquaria is located there. All seventeen planets and twelve moons that comprise the Azure Galaxy are famous for their oceanic environments. I don't expect the Sapphire Dream to have crashed on Aquaria, but yet a hopeful yearning introduces itself suddenly. I haven't returned home since I joined the space force three years ago as a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old who romanticized flying among the heavens and participating in blazing galactic battles. I always long to revisit all of my old haunts but my duties serving in the United Galaxies Space Force prevent me from doing so until the civil war ends or I retire, whichever comes first. Currently, it seems like I will retire long before the war is over.
I try to suppress my hopes of seeing Aquaria again and observing the bleak setting around me helps. Unfortunately, the scene also adds to my panic. I'm hyperventilating as the darkness presses in on me, smothering me like a blanket of death. I feel helpless, unsure of what to do next. I'm that little girl again, the one who's trapped beneath unmovable wreckage. I'm unable to tell the difference between the past and the present as the two merge together suddenly. I'm scratching my nails against the termite-infested wood above me until I draw blood from my fingertips. I'm terrified, screaming for help until my voice abandons me. I can see slivers of daylight between the cracks in the wood. The sight of sun rejuvenates my desires to stay alive long enough for someone to find me. At night, I'm cold, so terribly cold, and I wish for death to come and claim me. The hunger devastates me. I feel faint, the world spinning around me as though I'm on an insanely fast carousel. But then, right as I'm about to collapse, something unexpected happens. The dim emergency lights snap on and I return only to the present.
The pale yellow-orange lights cast parts of the hangar in a matching glow. This strikes me as odd and I wonder how the emergency lights suddenly turned on when they were dead moments before. The crash destroyed all primary power but at least the emergency generators are back online.
Thankful for light, my breathing begins to regulate. Able to see slightly better, I navigate the gloomy hangar at a faster pace, shaking away my spells of vertigo. I pause whenever I spot another unconscious form. Everyone I encounter is dead of course, with the deaths of some far worse than others. Some of the people appear to only be sleeping, while others look as though the explosion or the subsequent crash ripped him or her to shreds. Horrifying sights reach my eyes every now again, some so gruesome that I instantly turn away, my stomach performing cartwheels as I gag. Again, I wonder why I was spared. I should have met the same fate but instead I emerged from the wrecked landing with nothing but stinging eyes, a few cuts and bruises, a dislocated shoulder, and a bad headache.
Some of the bodies I notice almost prompt me to cry. I knew some of these people well. I trained with most of them and went to battle with others. None were my closest friend but they were my peers, wingmen, and fellow patriots. I served under a couple of them and commanded a few of them. We all shared a love of flying and now none of them would ever fly again.
The water level has risen up to my knees now. I need to find a way out of the hangar. A fighter ship blocks the path before me, having crashed into the walkway and creating a gap too wide for me to jump across. I stand on the second level of the hangar on a narrow catwalk. The only way around this mess is down. I have to drop into the water and traverse the lower level to reach the other side of the ship garage. I might fear the dark or tight spaces but I'm not afraid of water because I'm a pretty good swimmer. Growing up on a world with vast oceans has prepared me well.
I take a few, drawn out practice breaths. Then, I climb over the railing, inhale deeply, and slide into the cold water, cradling my injured arm as much as possible.
The moment I hit the surface, my exposed cuts ignite as water seeps in through the tears in my jumpsuit. I grit my teeth to prevent from screaming. Knowing that I have to keep my eyes open so I can see where I'm going, I dive, submerging myself completely. I ignore the annoying pain clouding my sight and push myself through the water with my uninjured arm, diving deeper and deeper. I swim around shattered pieces of metal, glass, and unknown fragments. The water is dark and murky, far from the glow of the backup lights overhead. My eyes sting passionately, my military-grade receptors threatening to give out. I force myself to swim faster, my cupped hand tossing water behind me and my legs guiding me along like a propeller.
I remain underwater for several minutes, my lungs urging me to surface soon. I haven't found a reason to hold my breath for a long time since I was younger and my lack of practice shows. My lungs burn like my eyes and coerce me through agony to ascend.
I break the surface beneath the canopy of two kissing fighter ships. There, I tread water for a moment, allowing my lungs to refill with much needed oxygen. After inhaling multiple gulps, I dive back into the water.
I squeeze between a narrow opening in the middle of the two ships. On the other side, I surface and glide over to a section of the hangar below the second level and mostly out of water. I climb up gingerly, my left shoulder crying out in agony every time I move it even a millimeter. I can walk now, although the top of the water lingers somewhere around the middle of my thighs.
Then, I hear a voice mixed in with the sounds of trickling water. I start and without hesitation, I withdraw my pistol from the holster around my waist, intensely on edge. I clutch it firmly and peer about for the source. The pistol handle feels wet and slimy in my grasp. I glance at it and my heart drops, although I should have known this next revelation all along. The water damaged my pistol as well. The electro clip is fried beyond repair.
I discard the useless pistol and I calm myself for the second time. The last thing I need right now is a full-blown panic attack. I search for whoever else is alive down here, moving as silently as I can through the water. Wading through the pool is definitely not a quiet feat. I make so many splashing noises that even someone hard of hearing could hear me coming.
Fear grips me and refuses to let go. I don't know why I'm so afraid when I should be thrilled. Someone else is alive in the hangar! Hope overpowers my apprehension suddenly.
"Hello?" I call tentatively, afraid of what I might find though. The voice I heard was faint and feeble. The person it belongs to could be horribly injured. I force away terrible images of finding someone partially crushed by a spacefighter from my mind.
Then, the voice speaks again, accompanied by static. The new sounds have me taken aback, the crackling static baffling me.
"Is anyone alive down there?" The voice calls—a male voice that sounds close but muffled.
My burning eyes locate the nearest fighter ship. The voice came from there.
I climb up higher and onto the second level catwalk on the opposite side of the crashed fighter. I dangle from the railing and shimmy my way over towards the ship, my left shoulder screaming with searing pain. When my legs finally hang above my destination, I release my hold on the railing and fall.
I drop roughly onto the rear of fighter ship harder than I intended, knocking the wind out of myself. Adding more bruises and more pain, particularly to my dislocated shoulder, I stretch out my right arm to grab onto the sleek surface. Huge mistake. I slide forward and down the side of the ship, scraping the mess out of my back. The cockpit hatch is open and I reach out for it with my good arm, managing to close my fingers around the edge just in time. I cling to the cockpit entrance for dear life, spit flying out of my mouth as I clench my teeth. I reach around with my other arm and grab on with both hands, setting my shoulder ablaze for the umpteenth time. Breathing a sigh of relief though, I glance down. I would have fallen into the water had I not luckily prevented that mishap. The rate of surviving a plunge from this height was very low, considering all of the sharp and solid debris floating in the water.
Using all of my remaining might, I pull myself up into the cockpit. I tumble inside and find a communicator on the floor beneath the seat. Someone switched it on remotely, which means that there is a survivor somewhere outside of the hangar. I wonder how many of the citizens of Sapphire Dream remain alive. I think about Jack then. She was tough . . . or she is tough . . . I refuse to think about my best friend in the past tense. I know she's still alive. Jack's the bravest soldier I know and I believe with all of my heart that she's okay. I also think suddenly about little Jill, the girl I looked after because I know what it's like to grow up without a family. I sent Jill with Jack before I raced down to the hangar earlier. She should be fine as well. I try not to consider the alternative.
I jam the communicator into my ear and press a button on the side. With a click, a microphone extends from the earpiece, curving around my cheek and stopping close to the front of my mouth.
"First Lieutenant Jane Smith here," I speak, my voice still raspy but growing stronger with each use. "I repeat: First Lieutenant Jane Smith here. Do you copy?"
Static buzzes in my right ear for a couple of seconds and then I receive a response in the form of a chilling surprise.
"Lieutenant, I'm so glad you're okay. My name is John Williams. I am an engineer and I have holed myself up inside of one of the control rooms on an upper level. We have been attacked by terrorists who have boarded the cityship. If you are going to make it out of here alive, then you are going to have to trust me and listen to everything that I tell you."