Crash Course

A science fiction story in Alpha Station by Gary Bloom

Characters: Daxtan Chandler, Derek Maguin

"Captain," Derek Maguin said as Dax Chandler entered the office, "I'm glad you could make time for me on such short notice. Hope I didn't pull you away from anything too important?"

"No sir," Dax answered with a sharp salute. "Nothing too important that I don't have time for the Minister, sir."

"Ah come on Dax," he sighed, "how many times are we going to have this conversation? I'm not military. Drop the salute and sit down."

Dax sheepishly dropped his salute and dropped carefully into the chair. He'd had a tough time getting used to the Alpha Station Minister's more casual manner. So many of the other Ministers had always been so adamant about procedure, ceremony and respect. Maguin, the pilot reminded himself, just wanted things to work. He didn't have time for trivial nature unless it made a real difference.

"What can I do for you sir?"

"Well, you know that we've been really pushing folks into the pilot training program. Building up a strong military from scratch hasn't been easy, and anyone who shows any real skill has been taken off all other duty to practice constantly."

"Understood sir," Dax nodded. "I'm told they're doing the same thing with pilot candidates over on Ganymede Station. Over on Gamma Station, Minister Sosa turned a large portion of it into marksman drilling ranges. I hear they're shipping people over there from across the Jovian System."

"That's what I've been told," Derek nodded. "Braxton Hask is serving as the drill instructor. He's got them firing at moving targets while stationary, firing at stationary targets while moving, hitting moving targets while running. There was also something about an obstacle course. I'm actually of a mind to go and check that one out."

"I'd fly you over there personally to see that sir," Chandler said with a smile. "Ah, if that's alright with you."

"Perfectly fine," Derek nodded with a grin. He was happy to see the pilot let his guard down for a moment. "In fact, I'll trade you. Do what I'm asking of you, and you can have a front row seat."

"That sounds fair sir. What'd you have in mind?"

"We've got four pilots with extensive simulator time based here on Alpha. Their scores are incredibly high in every facet. Rumor has it that the programmers put together a new test just for a half dozen people, and this quartet really shined."

"Have they been in an actual cockpit yet?"

"Well," Maguin shrugged, "that's the issue. They've each had some time on delivery runs, but what I understand is they've only had the opportunity to take the yoke on dead straight away flights. One of them might have gotten a chance to land, but that's about the extent of it."

"Shame," Dax shook his head slowly. "No one learns by simulator alone."

"Exactly! That's why I'd like you to take them out and teach them a few maneuvers. Nothing too crazy, but get their hands on the yoke. Maybe consider a couple of different trips, so that everyone gets enough confidence to go out and at least handle delivery runs with a supervisor on deck."

"I'm just curious, sir. You've got a couple of people on hand, and they're all pretty strong. Why not have one of them do this?"

"Later, as the ranks swell, I might. Those boys have a lot going on with their own patrols right now. I want them focused, and then out of a cockpit. You're the right man for this job Captain. That's the dirty, hidden secret of command. You get asked to do a lot of extra, pro bono work."

Dax laughed. He accepted the list of men from the Minister. Aylen Baynes, Samir Berdugo, Recep Bahar and Koko Aminu. They'd be instructed to meet the Captain in the main launch bay, and should be waiting there when he arrived. Bidding the Minister good bye, he took off at a quick walk.

Outside in the vacuum, Dax eased the shuttle away from Alpha Station. He'd commit to at least four more sessions so that each man would have a turn lifting off and flying out the air screen. There was a small amount of turbulence passing through the magnetic field. Most pilots were perfectly used to it, but it took a few trips before the shudder was commonplace.

Moving a little way from the station, he taught them a few simple drills. More than anything else, he was weaving them through similar patterns from the basic levels of the simulator. What he'd wanted them to do is experience live motion. All four men had aced those tasks. Now, they felt the difference between the simulator and a real ship.

One by one, he allowed them to take the helm. After everyone had properly handled the initial maneuvers, he took control again. This time, Dax flew much closer to the station. Rolling up and over, making some much closer moves, he established a pattern. Once again, the four pilot trainees took the yoke and gave it a try. For the most part, they erred on the side of caution, drifting farther from Alpha Station's surface than the Captain had.

At last, he allowed Recep Bahar to take control for the final run of the day. Easing the shuttle back towards the station, he angled up into the pattern. Having watched Captain Chandler, and then all three of his fellows, the routine was etched in his mind. He'd planned to emulate the Captain over the other three.

As they flew, Recep received a notice that another shuttle was leaving the launch bay. He ignored it, concentrating on the run. The indicator kept pulsing, but Recep kept on pushing through.

"You've got a warning," Dax mentioned, softly but firmly.

"We're still good," Bahar answered. His hands tightly gripped the yoke.

"Those warnings come through for a reason," the Captain shot back.

"Don't worry," Samir soothed, "he does this all the time on the simulators. They won't hit us."

"That's not what I'm worried about. Call your position in before it's too late."

It was already too late. The other pilot had come up and over the station on its way out. Most delivery pilots had taken to using the gravity of the spaces stations to help sling them out into deeper space with less fuel expended. With no notion of another ship on his trajectory, the shuttle came up and across. Nearly clipping Chandler's team, the other pilot bucked and dragged his craft up and away.

"Damn it, Dax," the communicator buzzed, "what the hell are you doing? Trying to get me killed?"

Dax didn't have the opportunity to answer. Recep Bahar had flown many missions in the simulator. This was the first time he'd experienced the fear of a near collision with another craft of his size. Instinctively, he jerked the controls. It was the wrong instinct.

"Everyone one hold on!"

The shuttle made contact with the station's skin. All five men felt their teeth rattle as the ship bounced. Trying to recover, Bahar made things worse. Too rough with the engines in his attempts, Recep found them cutting in and out. As they began to die, the ship went into a spin. The other pilots braced themselves.

"Recep," Samir bellowed, "What the hell are you doing?"

"I've got this! I've got this!"

"No," Dax shouted, unbuckling himself, "you don't."

Pushing against the ship's momentum, Chandler pushed himself forward. Unbuckling the trainee, he dragged him off the pilot's seat. Tossing the man behind him, he buckled in and grasped the yoke. Behind him, Recep Bahar tumbled through the cockpit. The other man might be hurt, but that was a concern for later.

Wrestling against momentum and fighting the laws of physics, Dax tries to keep the engines from dying entirely. When they bounced, something must have clipped a line, or crushed an important component. He'd never seen a reaction like this before. Analysis would be for the technicians. Right now he needed to keep them from whipping off into the vacuum.

"Captain," the comm buzzed again, "are you alright over there? Looks like you've stopped spinning. Need any help?"

Dax checked his instruments. Content with what he found, he took a moment to answer.

"Looks like I've got a blown engine. Not sure how that happened, but it did. Looks like I've got enough let to limp home. Thanks for checking in, but you can go on with your delivery."

"You sure?"

"Yeah," Dax nodded, aware the trainees were clinging to his every word. "This wasn't definitely wasn't your fault."

"Be safe Dax. I already called the situation in. They're ready for you, just in case."

Dragging the ship back into some semblance of proper trajectory, he made for the launch bay. At no point had he looked behind him at the other pilots. Recep must have found another seat; no one occupied the chair next to him. So be it, then.

Goosing the attitude thrusters, he tried to line back up. One engine down, it wouldn't be pretty. Trying to avoid the side wall, Dax hit the attitudes one more time. They rotated through the screen and hit the deck at a spin.

Doing what he could with what he had left, Chandler brought the momentum to a minimum. Crash crews scrambled as he did, taking the ship to a full stop. Dizzily, the crew disembarked. Bahar had jumped out first and was heading quickly for the exit.

"Hey," Dax yelled as he jumped from the hatch, "where'd you think you were going?"

"Uh," Recep stopped, uncomfortable. "Well, I figured I really needed some more simulator time."

"Simulator time? Are you kidding me? What you need is some common sense!"

Daxtan Chandler had a reputation for being level headed. He'd never been this angry, especially not in public. By the time he'd reached the trainee, the Captain had reigned in a bit, but he was still furious.

"If I ever find out that you've ignored a warning again, I'll make sure you don't even get to ride in a shuttle, let alone fly a Nyx. When I tell you to call your position in, damn it, you do it. Do you get me?"

"Yes, sir, I got you." Recep was sheepish. "Absolutely, I got you sir."

"Good. Show up at oh eight hundred tomorrow morning. We're going out for another run, just the two of us, and then you'll buy me breakfast."

"Thank you sir, I appreciate that. I'll see you then."

"Not so fast," he put his arm around the other man's shoulder. "After that, you owe me a drink."