“For the universe was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”
Sol, circa 20th century
Pilot’s Federation Training
Eravate System, 3287
"McKenna!" That grating, never wavering voice crackled over the comms channel blasting a hole through every thought process, "Stop fuckin’ daydreaming, trim out, and get on course!"
Flight Instructor, Jakkob Stajan. What can one say about the man whose job it is to ensure every fledgling pilot knows what they are doing in all situations, while simultaneously making their lives and the learning experience itself a living nightmare? Well, he was good at it. In fact, he was excellent at what he did...both the instructing and the nightmare portions.
Auggie reoriented himself and his Sidewinder onto the objective marker illuminated in his HUD. The sparkling pinpoint of light was a small moon sitting just outside the ring boundary of a Class II gas giant. The body became slowly larger as his supercruise approach continued.
"Three quarter impulse," the trainee said calmly.
"Three quarter impulse, aye sir," came the reply from ASTRA, the AI flight assistant.
The Sidewinder nosed over slightly at the drop in forward momentum. Auggie watched the HUD's range to target readout intently as the numbers flitted away. About 15 seconds, give or take, he thought to himself.
“Easy, McKenna…no such thing as routine,” Stajan’s voice crackled over the channel.
The distance closed steadily, "Prepare for orbit,” Auggie stated calmly.
"Aye, sir, preparing for orbit," the AI replied, then continued, "reducing speed, power to shields." There was a slight pause and the AI concluded the orbital protocol, "Hull temperature nominal, approach vector is good, we are go for low orbit."
Less than a minute later, the planetary body now loomed large, nearly filling the front canopy. Auggie gazed at the view out the right side of the Sidey as the host planet’s ring system became more defined with each passing second. The planet was a deep azure blue with swirling cloud bands. The rings were icy in composition, making them snow white at this angle. Nature’s wonder on display never ceased to amaze the young pilot.
He caught his attention waning and snapped back, making the quick calculation of altitude to distance for final approach. Speed was a little high, but he was satisfied he had the Sidewinder in a good descent attitude. "Patience and details," he muttered to himself.
"Disengaging orbital cruise," ASTRA announced, "Glide initiated." The small ship rumbled and bucked slightly at the transition to sublight speed. Bulkheads creaked and small wisps of smoke rose from the instrument cluster as the hull temperature rose almost instantly. The Sidey continued mostly on course, needing only slight manual corrections to stay its path to the proposed landing area.
The moon's reddish surface rushed up to meet the speeding craft in its final descent. All seemed normal as ASTRA announced, "Glide completed, intelligent thrusters restored."
Auggie checked his instruments, his descent speed now seemed quite high.
"Deploy landing gear." The order was intended to do more than just prepare the Sidey for a landing, the pilot was hoping for a 'drag chute' effect, scrubbing off some of the tiny ship's speed. However, as a couple of precious seconds ticked by it was clear it was all for naught. The pilot and his craft continued to hurtle toward the moon's surface at a harrowing pace.
The young pilot's eyes darted from one side of the display to the other, “What the hell did I miss?” He asked himself. Watching the altitude reading rapidly disappear he knew he better figure it out quickly.
Auggie checked and rechecked instrument readouts and ship control positions for what seemed like way too long, until his gaze fixed on a single figure at the lower right of the HUD. *3.7*
"Ahhh FRRAAK, 3.7G!"
"ASTRA wake up! Power to engines!" McKenna shouted, not giving the AI a chance to confirm his commands.
"Retract landing gear...BOOST ENGINES!", panic striking his tone while he pulled back mercilessly on the flight stick bringing the Sidewinders nose up.
Auggie spiked his thumb down on the vertical thrusters’ actuator, "Boost engines!" He shouted a second time as soon as the engines’ capacitor refilled.
"C'mon ya little bitch, come on!" He grunted through clenched teeth.
The details of the moon's rocky, cratered terrain were now plainly visible zipping by below. At full burn on the vertical thrusters most of the Sidey's falling momentum had been converted to forward motion nearly parallel to the moon’s surface.
The pilot's estimate was at touch down he and the craft would still be descending at near 50 meters per second. Auggie wondered aloud, “Could this crate survive an impact like that?” He exhaled heavily, “I guess we'll see…power to shields.”
The tip of Auggie’s thumb had turned a piqued shade of white from the constant pressure, holding the vertical thrusters’ actuator.
Dust swirled as the Sidewinder passed nearer the moon’s surface. First, only tiny traces stirred, but soon a full length trail was being kicked up getting heavier the closer the small craft came to touch down. Of course, ‘touch down’ might not be the correct term for what was about to happen. McKenna hoped the event would be similar to skipping a bit of stone across the still waters of an aquaponics pond. A fine concept, unless you’re riding that stone.
There was no real prelude. One moment the stillness in the cockpit of the ship was broken only by an occasional hull creak or electronic beep from the instrumentation. Then, all at once the space was filled with the deafening sound of hard impact.
The sudden heavy G load forced Auggie down and forward in the seat. The synthetic fabric of the seat restraints bit hard into his flight suit and the flesh below. His ribs cracked, his sternum was pressed deep into his chest cavity. His head was thrown forward, straining his neck and forcing his eyes to press hard against his closed eyelids. Warning lights flashed wildly and a thin haze of smoke filled the bridge. A small trail of blood ran down each cheek from the ruptured blood vessels in McKenna’s sinuses and tear ducts.
Claxons sounded and the ships AI made several announcements in quick succession, “Shields offline…” Scratching, scraping, buckling noises of the Sidewinder’s outer skin being ripped open and laid bare, frame members giving up and bending to the will of forces they were never meant to withstand. “Hull integrity compromised…key systems taking damage.”
The fact that all of these were happenings he could see or hear and sensations he could feel was a signal of painful success. The tiny craft ‘bounced’ off the moon’s surface, leaving behind a sizeable divot in the powdery sand along with a rising plume of dust and debris. It took the pilot a few seconds to realize he was indeed alive and loosen his death grip on the controls.
“ASTRA, fire suppression…enable AFMU modules…run diagnostic.” The status display showed roughly eighty-five percent damage across the board, no ship’s system was spared. Fortunately, the Sidewinder’s hull had held up admirably, 14% remaining. Auggie tiptoed through a wide banking turn, circling back to the proposed landing zone. “Deploy landing gear.” With gentle corrections he set the craft down and called for the engines to be shut down.
“STOP!” Flight instructor Stajan’s voice boomed. “Shut it down, Control!”
The Sidewinder bridge around Auggie shimmered slightly and then was gone. All that remained was the thin, spherical, cage-like framework of the holo-sim apparatus.
The trainee pilot was still catching his breath when he reached down, tapped the restraint release, and then stood from the pilot’s seat. “I think we can call that a successful landing,” he announced triumphantly with a touch of self-deprecating sarcasm.
His classmates stood just inside a circle of light that shown down from above the apparatus. Some slowly clapped their hands while others laughed or whispered quietly to those around them.
“Get back in that fuckin’ chair, mister.” Obviously, Stajan was not impressed or amused.
“Control, bring up frame 12763, head cam,” the instructor growled. The holovid display flickered into view as Auggie re-took his place in the pilot’s seat. There was his view from inside the Sidewinder being played back using an eye-track camera recording. The ring system was still beautiful, but lost a bit of its luster with the current setting.
“Mister McKenna, would you mind telling me what in the name of the void you are looking at here…” Now it was Stajan’s turn to pour on the sarcasm. “I mean, is there a piece of debris or other hazard to navigation you’ve spotted? Perhaps, the Sidewinder’s right wing is on fire?” The grizzled man leaned in close placing his arm around the headrest, “Please enlighten me.”
Auggie chose silence, not wanting to further provoke the man’s ire.
“No? Nothing to say?” Stajan spat. “Control, bring up frame 17890, Lat 82.5 Long 112.7, synchronous orbital camera.”
There was the moon, viewed from a synchronous orbit at a range of about 30,000 meters. “Magnify times 5,” the instructor ordered.
“What is this?” Stajan demanded.
McKenna leaned forward in his seat, squinting to see what the flight officer was referring to.
“Magnify once more, times 5,” Stajan said.
Now the surface was plainly visible and a darkened, 15-meter-long, v-shaped trough was plain to see.
“You dented my fuckin’ moon, boy! This is a procedural, persistent simulation…that, right there is never going away!” Stajan growled as he pointed at the area on the simulated moon’s surface.
“Aggh, what’s the use?! Get the hell outta my simulator, trainee! Next pilot…get the fuck over here and strap in!
Auggie rose from the seat, crestfallen, and started to walk toward the outer circle as the next trainee rushed past him to the simulator.
“Mister McKenna,” the trainee turned and Instructor Stajan stepped in close. The man spoke in very quiet tones, never taking his eyes off his databoard. “Off the record…that was quick thinking and damned good flying…making a meal outta shit salad, we used to say. You have the instinct and the reflexes, but if you want to see the galaxy buy a fuckin’ ticket and go sightseeing. If you want to become a Commander, always keep your head in the game and never forget it is life or death every second, every decision, every action.”
Auggie felt a lump rise in his throat at the fatherly reinforcement coming from that unlikely source. From that moment on, he seriously applied himself to the task at hand. Every assignment, every simulator session, every test, he felt the need to exceed what was expected.
On Graduation day, newly licensed pilots stood for holopics with their families. Auggie had no one.
As he wandered away from the crowd with his certificate in his hand Flight Instructor Jakkob Stajan approached. “Top of your class, what is next for Commander August McKenna?”
Auggie stopped and extended his hand to the man he had come to respect. Stajan took it in a firm grip.
McKenna thought about the question and all at once stated, “I’m gonna do it all, Commander…and live to tell about it.”
Stajan smiled, in point of fact, the first smile McKenna had ever seen from the man, “Of that, I have no doubt, Auggie. No doubt at all.”