“The 499” is a short story by C.K. James that can be read in its entirety below. Enjoy!
This is a story about Fiero.
Fiero is a young Chama. Chama are beings of light created by a star. They resemble what Earthlings call “flames.” Fiero was created in a star called Sol in the Orion’s Arm sector of the Milky Way quadrant. This particular galactic quadrant is an important one, however small it is, because it has a unique quality. Life exists in this quadrant, which is a very rare thing.
Fiero is a Chama that burns bright, but not always in the best ways. You see, Fiero tends to run hot, both in temper and temperature. He’s all pride, no patience. Humility was a dish not often served to Fiero. He’s a living example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. His self-confidence knows no bounds.
Fiero first enrolled in the Academy because he has always had one dream. One goal. Well, the goal for many Chama. To reach L.U.Z. status (Legionary Ultraviolet Zealot). L.U.Z. is the highest honor a Chama can achieve from the Academy. To become a L.U.Z. on Sol, you have to first go through rigorous Trave vessel flight simulations and testing. There was just one final test standing between Fiero and becoming a L.U.Z.: The 499.
The journey to Earth is called “The 499.” It’s based on a measurement of time invented by Earthlings: seconds. It takes Chama 499 seconds to reach the surface of planet Earth. Measurement of time is one of the few things Chama have borrowed from Earthlings.
Earthlings are curious beings. They still believe light travels to their planet without an intermediary. They don’t understand… Chama are the lightbringers. The Chama that live on the star called Sol have been bringing light to Earth from the beginning of its existence. Life on Earth makes “The 499” the most important mission for the Chama of Sol. There are living beings who are unknowingly dependent upon on the delivery of light by the Chama. It’s a mission the Chama cannot fail. A mission only L.U.Z., or pilots testing to become L.U.Z., are honored to make. A mission Fiero was finally about to take.
“Big day today, huh?” said Calida.
“For me? Nah. I could make this flight with my eyes dimmed.” Fiero lied.
Fiero had reason to be confident. Years of preparation led up to this day. Piloting a Trave vessel was almost second nature to him now. He’s logged thousands of flight hours, but those were test flights or missions to uninhabited planets in the solar system.
This mission was different. It felt different. It felt… bigger. More meaningful. More terrifying.
“First solo flight to Earth… How are you feeling about it?” asksed Calida.
“The one who should be worried is you.” Fiero said.
“That’s harsh.” countered Calida.
“Keep your concerns to yourself, you half-lit.” Fiero snapped.
Calling someone a “half-lit” isn’t a very nice thing to say to a Chama.
“Hey!” shouted Calida.
“Running hot again today, Fiero?” asked Hito.
Fiero flickered at Hito and Calida.
“WHOA!” shouted Hito.
“What in Sol was that for?” shouted Calida.
Flickering is a gesture that is highly frowned upon in Chama culture. It’s a downright horrible thing to do.
“FIERO!” yelled Captain Eldi.
“Son of a…” Fiero thought to himself.
“MY OFFICE! NOW!” yelled Captain Eldi.
“I didn’t do anything” shouted Fiero.
“SAVE IT!” yelled Captain Eldi.
Fiero briefly looked back at Calida and Hito, who both shook their heads at him. He hung his head and proceeded toward an unpleasant conversation.
Captain Eldi’s office was exactly as you would expect a Captain’s office to be. Orderly and organized with strategic star charts and important astrological equations covering the walls.
Fiero was thoroughly unimpressed with it.
“Give me a reason why I shouldn’t ground you from the mission right now.” said Captain Eldi.
“I’m sorry… What? asked Fiero.
“I said give me a reason why I shouldn’t ground you from the mission to Earth today.” said Captain Eldi calmly.
“Guh…ground?” said Fiero, stumbling through his words in disbelief.
Captain Eldi waited while Fiero collected himself and found his voice again.
“Captain, I’ve been working for this flight my whole life!” shouted Fiero.
“So has every other recruit taking ‘The 499’ today. You’re not the only one with dreams, kid.” said Captain Eldi. “Why do you treat your peers so poorly, anyway?”
“Peers?” said Fiero. “Peers? They’re not peers! I’m the best pilot this Academy has ever seen!” Fiero shouted indignantly.
The truth was Fiero didn’t have the intelligence, natural flying ability, or work ethic as some of his peers. He knew this but ignored it. Anger was a defense mechanism he learned a long time ago. It seemed better to feel bigger with anger than admit weakness. Or so he believed.
“Far from the truth.” said Captain Eldi. “You clearly aren’t ready for the honor of this mission. You’re decommissioned from the flight today.”
“WHAT!” screamed Fiero, getting aggressively brighter by the second.
“Cool it or you’re grounded for the next 5 missions to Earth.” said Captain Eldi.
Fiero glared at Captain Eldi with a bright, fiery anger.
“You report to me, Fiero. Not the other way around. It’s high time you learned that. When it comes to L.U.Z. missions from Sol, I’m judge, jury, and extinguisher.”
Fiero breathed heavily, though his glare began to dim.
“Go cool off and think about your future here at the Academy. You worked too hard to throw it all away now.” said Captain Eldi.
Fiero, for once, held his tongue and left Captain Eldi’s office without another word.
“Why does he get to decide whether I fly today or not? Captain Eldi isn’t even that good of a pilot…” Fiero thought to himself.
Fiero often had bad ideas his self-confidence wouldn’t allow his mind to overturn. He was about to have another one.
“I know how to fly a Trave vessel better than any other Chama on this stupid star. I need to show everyone I’m the best.” Fiero said to himself.
Fiero walked with intentionality to the docking bay where Trave vessels were prepared to launch.
“All I have to do is steal… no, borrow, a Trave vessel, find an active energon crucible, and show everyone I’m the best. Easy.” Fiero thought to himself.
Trave vessels are launched from “energon crucibles” usually in squadrons of 1000 or more. An energon crucible look a lot like a giant satellite dish. There are hundreds of thousands of them all over Sol. If the squadron is large enough, Earthlings can sometimes see squadrons launch from energon crucibles – events they’ve dubbed “solar flares.” Where Earthlings get these fascinating names for things I’ll never know.
“How are you feeling” asked Hito.
“Almost ready. Charging my backup navigation system just to be safe. You?” asked Calida
“I’m good to go. Headed to a briefing session.” said Hito.
“See you starside,” said Calida.
Upon overhearing Hito’s ship was ready for launch, Fiero had another bad idea. Once Hito left the docking bay, Fiero abruptly moved toward Hito’s ship and climbed inside.
“Fiero? What are you…” mumbled Calida as her words died off.
Fiero gave Calida an upward nod as he closed the cockpit and put on Hito’s helmet.
“The energon crucible is active… Oh, no…” Calida said to herself.
Fiero gave Calida a salute as Hito’s ship began to rise.
“FIERO, NO!” shouted Calida.
Everyone turned to look at Calida and saw the moving ship next to her.
Fiero heard Captain Eldi’s voice over the intercom system. “Trave 45578, what are you doing?”
Fiero grinned and offered no response.
“Trave 45578, stop immediately and touch down.”
Fiero guided the ship towards the active energon crucible. Filled with ill-informed purpose and indignant rebellion, he had never felt exhilaration like this before.
“Inertial dampener, check. Guidance systems, check.” Fiero muttered to himself.
“TRAVE 45578. TOUCH DOWN IMMEDIATELY.” shouted Captain Eldi.
“What’s going on?” Hito inquired out of breath.
“Fiero stole your Trave vessel!” shouted Calida.
“WHAT!” shouted Hito.
“Let’s burn this candle!” shouted Fiero on the comms.
“Fiero?” shouted a shocked Captain Eldi.
Fiero guided the Trave vessel into place within the energon crucible. The energon crucible activated. “First solo mission to Earth. Here we go.” said Fiero.
“NOOOOOOOO!” shouted Captain Eldi.
The Trave vessel fired from the energon crucible at a velocity yet to be experienced by any Earthling. Fiero was ready for it. All his training had led to this moment. His final test. His 499 had begun.
Fiero was flying towards Earth at unfathomable speed. Every second felt like an eternity and a nanosecond at the same time. He had already traveled so very far from Sol, yet it was mere minutes from when his journey started. Earth was now in sight.
Honor, glory, and praise await any Chama that fulfills their duty as representative lightbringers of Sol. They pass through the atmosphere of this young planet that’s filled with life dependent on their success. The Trave vessels begin to burn, but that’s to be expected. Chama were born in fire. The atmospheric heat of entering Earth’s orbit did little to deter them. They were, in fact, made for this.
The ground was coming into view. Everything Fiero trained for throughout most of his existence was about to come to fruition. Fiero observed hundreds of Earthlings in a lush, green area below him. He had never seen so much life before. The Trave vessel felt like an unstoppable force, destined for a purpose fulfilled.
Fiero was mere feet from the ground now. “I’m so close,” Fiero muttered to himself.
Just then, a very tiny Earthling reached out with an appendage holding a reflective object. Fiero steered to avoid it, but his speed was too great. The object filled his entire view. At the last moment, Fiero glances at the object to read text native to some Earthlings: “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear.” Fiero hit the object at full speed.
Fiero began hurtling backwards. The stolen Trave vessel was spiraling through the air, damaged and broken, back through the atmosphere of the planet. “This can’t be happening!” Fiero screamed.
He always envisioned a triumphant return to Sol from his first mission to Earth. Being given a heroes welcome for such valor and bravery. His journey was not supposed to end like this.
Fiero still couldn’t believe what was happening. Anger coursed through his body. Then he realized how alone he was… Perhaps for the first time in his life, he began to feel a new sensation course through is flame. Fear. It occurred to him there’s a reason why Chama fly missions in squadrons. He was completely alone. “Did I not think this through?” Fiero wondered to himself. The darkness of deep space had never been this pronounced before. The stolen Trave vessel was still hurtling through deep space for what could have been a few seconds or an eon… Fiero didn’t know.
Through the endless darkness, Fiero saw a faint glow begin to envelop the Trave vessel. An orange hue pierced through the darkness at an ever-growing rate. For a moment, Fiero was grateful to experience something other than darkness. In an instant, that feeling of gratitude changed…
It was in that moment Fiero realized where he was.
The Trave vessel finally coasted to a halt in the very energon crucible on Sol that had launched him to Earth just minutes prior. A 93 million mile journey and he was stopped less than 2 feet away from his goal; now staring at the origin point where his journey began. Both Fiero’s face and the stolen Trave vessel wore the outcome of his egregious actions.
Fiero looked through the smoke coming from the mostly destroyed Trave vessel he currently occupied. Every single Chama in his class at the Academy was in the docking bay staring at him with a burning intensity he had never felt before.
“FIERO! MY OFFICE! NOW!” said Captain Eldi over the docking bay intercom.