As the group of recruits entered the large building they saw a row of five large boxes large enough to easily fit couple of people suspended by a complex array of hydraulic rams. Large conduits of cables ran into the bottom of them and there was a door in the side of them also. Suspended from the ceiling was an enormous screen above each box.
Jenkins came up short in front of the line of devices and turned to face the group, who hurried to form into the normal grid, standing up as straight as possible. Some of the recruits were breathing hard from the short run which only brought a sneer of disgust from Jenkins as his gaze passed over them.
"Aright babies, it's time to find out if you have got what it takes to be a pilot. These," he motioned to the boxes with his right hand, "are simulators. They will closely match the true feel of a ship. For your benefit I have had them all set to babysitter mode so that you don't fail too miserably."
He walked calmly once again from one side of the group to another, "They have been configured with an Aegis Dynamics Avenger cockpit. The controls have been dulled down by the babysitter mode to make them easier to handle. Your task will be simple. With the help of an instructor who will be riding with you, you will lift off from a simulated landing pad, hover as steadily as possible, fly a designated course and then land again. Do so without crashing and you will pass to the next stage, and your handle will be upgraded from maggot, to worm."
His eyes focused on the recruits who had thrown up, but not stepped out of line earlier, "You have all shown that you have what it takes to at least compose yourself on a space craft in a difficult situation, for the most part anyway. If you fail this test there still may be a place for you in the UEE, but it will not be as a pilot."
Turning abruptly to face away from the group and towards the simulators he called out sharply, "Maggot Aisling, Maggot Anderson, Maggot Bridges, Maggot Boston, Maggot Davis, you're up!"
The recruits who's names were called stepped forward and made their way to their respective simulators. The doors of the devices moved outwards and then swung smoothly to one side, ladders extending down and the instructors could be seen beckoning for the recruits to climb the ladders.
As they stepped inside the displays above each one came to life and the doors slid closed behind them. The image of a computer generated cockpit window appeared on each screen, with a bland landscape beyond. At the bottom of the image was the outline of a landing pad. In the bottom right hand corner of each screen was a live feed from within the cockpit shoting the pilot's faces.
"Oh yes," Jenkins added with a smirk, "I forgot to mention. Your failures will be on display for all to see."
After a few minutes of instruction inside the simulators the sound of digitised engines could be heard spinning up from each one. The images started to move. Some of them lifted smoothly off the ground and managed to hover somewhat smoothly, usually drifting a little to one side or another before the pilot corrected, sometimes too much to send the ship sailing a little too far the other way.
On the screen of the fifth simulator, the landscape tilted violently as Davis over corrected. The simulator tilted with equal vigor and alarms sounded. The image above the simulator showed the ship striking the ground at a sharp angle and the simulator gave a vigerous shudder, and the screen went blank. After automatically returning to a neutral position the door swung open and an obviously shaken teenage boy stepped out and started climbing back down the ladder.
"Davis, you're out! Don't worry though I'm sure we need more cooks to peel potatos. Maggot Grissom, you're up!"
A young woman made her way nervously forwards and started sliming the ladder into simulator five. Meanwhile in simulator four, the pilot had started the flight path but had nosed down too far into one of the diving moves. He tried to pull out but ended rolling to the right too far. The simulator tilted violently towards Grissom as she climbed the ladder causing her to scream, but it stopped well short of her and gave a shudder as recruit Boston also crashed out.
Meanwhile simulators one through three seemed to be doing well, making their way smoothly through the course. They were all making fairly good time and keeping up with each other. As they swung in for the final approach back to the landing pad, two and three came to a hover smoothly enough, but simulator one left the mode change too long, and send himself sailing nose first into the ground.
Anderson stepped out of simulator two with a look of obvious relief on his face and started to climb down. When Bridges, a woman in her late teens with short cut dark hair and a curvy build, stepped out of simulator three she paused at the top of the ladder and looked out across the group down her nose at them with a look of entitlement and superiority, as if this was all just an annoyance in her path that she expected to complete without issue. Eva instantly hated her.
Aisling, a woman who appeared in her mid twenties, stepped out of simulator one and started to climb down the stairs. She looked as though she were about to start crying. "Aisling, you're out!" Jenkins yelled at her unsympathetically. That caused the woman to actually burst into tears, running out of the building holding her face.
"Oh back off...." Eva spoke before even thinking bringing incredulous looks from those around her and, of course, an enraged glare from Jenkins and a grin from Manic. For the second time in one day, Jenkins was nose to nose with Eva, glaring at her.
"This isn't a country club, Hawkins! We do not have the luxury of backing off! Do you think that the Vanduul will take a break and let you get over your emotional issues when you come face to face with one?"
He raised his voice and shouted right into Eva's face, "Maggot Hawkins, Maggot Henderson, Maggot Justin, YOU'RE UP!"
Eva stepped back a step to get out of Jenkins' face and then walked around him to make her way to simulator one, where the instructor was peering out of the doorway waiting for her. Eva climbed up into the box and sat herself into the pilot seat. As the door slid shut the instructor leaned over and started to speak.
"First you'll need to fasten...." but Eva was already buckling her restraints and pulling them tight to fix herself snugly into the seat. Her eyes scanned the consoles quickly. It was far more complex than the Aurora she used to fly but the basic functions she would need were in obvious places.
"Okay," the instructor went on, a little affronted that Eva seemed to be getting ahead of herself, "to power up the ship....." but Eva didn't wait for him to finish, going through her start up sequence and easing up on the lift controls.
Her simulated ship lifted off smoothly, and with hovered in one place with precision. A message flashed on the screen in front of her as she hovered "REMAIN STEADY UNTIL INSTRUCTOR GIVES O.K." Eva yawned slightly with boredom.
"One moment..." the instructor muttered. Eva could hear the sound of a faint scratchy voice in the instructor's earpiece. It was too faint to hear what was saying but it was obviously Jenkins barking some order. "Are you sure?" the instructor said back, "on a first time recruit?" The tone of the response made it obvious that Jenkins was sure.
Suddenly the simulator became very twitchy. It took Eva by surprise for a moment and she started to drift, her counters appearing to take effect much more quickly than they had originally. "So, no more babysitting for me then?" she asked over her shoulder with a smirk.
"Follow the waypoints," the instructor barked back, "I'm sure you can figure it out without me."
"Indeed I can..." Eva thought to herself but said nothing. She increased lift thrust a little more and as the ship began to rise she pushed forwards on the main thruster controls sending the ship forwards with smooth acceleration. Once she had enough forward momentum she lowered the lift controls to keep the ship on a steady flight path and flew through the first waypoint. The next was slightly to the left and she performed a slow lazy turn towards it, lining it up and hitting it dead centre.
The third waypoint was to the right, elevated slightly. Eva turned towards it and lifted the nose of the ship, pushing forwards on the throttle to maintain speed. The fourth was a sharp downward dive further to the right. Eva dipped the nose and pulled back on the throttle, easing the ship into a steady descent towards the waypoint which was quite close to the ground. Just before getting to it she pulled the nose back up and pushed hard on the lift throttle to stop the descent and then pushed fowards on the main thruster once more, matching the lift to the speed as she regained speed.
The last waypoint took her back towards the landing pad and she had to gain altitude to get to it. With a look of utter complacecy on her face Eva made the last turn and lifted the nose, passing through it and heading back to the landing pad.
She caught the scratchy voice of Jenkins barking into the instructors ear once more and she rolled her eyes subconsciously, "What now....?" she wondered to herself as the instructor replied with a curt "Of course, Sir."
Alarms sounded across her consoles and the whole simulator shuddered, intense vibrations flowing through the controls into her hands. Glancing around quickly she found the system status readouts and saw that her main thruster was on fire and that the manuevering thrusters on her left side were now suddenly badly damaged.
"Fine...." she muttered to herself, making sure it was loud enough for the camera to hear her and concentrated on the task at hand, her lips thining into a line on her face as her jaw clenched. The ship was flying in a mostly straight line now, but she knew that as soon as she tried to hover all hell would break loose.
As she approached the landing pad she slowed her speed carefully, waiting for the moment. She had to bring the ship down as quickly but smoothly as possible. The longer she hovered the higher the chances of crashing, and she knew it. She brought the ship in low, and lifting the nose little by little as the speed dropped. A stall alert sounded in the ship as she pulled the speed back below recommended levels.
"Now." she said without even realising she'd spoken. She pulled the main thruster back to idle and pushed the lift power up, and at the same time shoved the flight stick hard to the right to compensate for the lack of thrust on the left side of the ship. The simulator box swayed sickeningly but she grabbed the controls with white knuckled hands and wrestled with the ship, setting it down hard, but in one piece.
As the doors slid open and Eva stepped out, cheers and whistling erupted from the group of recruits, all but a select few had been staring at her screen. Eva offered a shy smile to the group. Opinionated as she may be, she was not used to being the centre of attention. As she climbed down the ladder she caught the eye of Bridges, who glared at her with such ferocity that it was clear that the earlier feeling Eva had when looking at her come out of the simulator was mutual. Manic, on the other hand, was at the back of the group looking at her with an appreciative smirk on his face. He simply nodded at her, and then turned his attention to Jenkins as if preparing himself to enjoy some show.
"HAWKINS!" Eva started at her name being yelled with such ferocity, "What the hell do you call that?" Jenkins was red-faced and almost screaming at her one hand pointing at the screen. She looked up at the screen which still showed the cockpit view of the simulated ship she just landed, warning lights flashing across the consoles. The landscape outside was tilted to one side, suggesting that Eva had landed so hard that one side of the landing gear had collapsed.
"Um.." she replied, "A piece of shit starship that can't handle simplistic flight?"
Laughter erupted from the recruits but Jenkins did not look amused. He closed on her so fast she instinctively took a step back. He looked like he was about to hit her again until his MobiGlas beeped loudly at him. He paused mid-stride and glanced at it. His eyes went wide and he pressed a button on an earpiece inside his left ear, "Sir?" he said with surprising calmness.
After a moment's pause he said, "Sir? This one? But..... Yes Sir, I understand." He turned his attention back to Eva and glared at her with a look at count kill. "The Commander wants to speak with you Hawkins." He turned and gestured to a room elevated on the back wall, overlooking the simulators. The room had a single wide window spanning the front wall which was heavily tinted from the outside.
Eva made her way over to the stairs and climbed them feeling the eyes of the entire group on her until finally Jenkins regained his composure and started barking names again. She paused with her hand on the door handle, took a deep breath and opened the door.
Inside the room was all smooth dark surfaces and technology. Screens filled with starmaps, stats readouts and more than a few sensor screens scattered the back walls. At the front wall looking out the window at the simulators stood a man of impressive height and broadness of shoulders. His hair was dark with patches of grey at the temples, cut short and meticulously groomed. He stood motionless, hands clasped behind his back and for a moment Eva wondered if she should clear her throat or something to announce her presence.
Suddenly he spoke in a calm and not unpleasant tone, "People wonder why I spent time up here. They say I should be back at command where I can be 'more useful'. But I find this is the best place to see the raw potential of the next generation of pilots before idiots like Jenkins warp and twist them into identical robots incapable of independant thought."
He was silent for a moment, and Eva thought that maybe he was waiting for her to respond. She opened her mouth as if to say something but he turned to face her. He looked at her with dark and serious eyes, locking her gaze and looked at her thoughtfully, "Tell me Hawkins, how did you learn to fly like that?"
"Natural talent, I guess." Eva replied in the same tone that she normally reserved for people like Jenkins, assuming that this man will be no different.
The man raised one eyebrow but his voice did not waver, "Jenkins is an blunt instrument, Miss Hawkins. He only knows one way to speak to people and thinks that it earns him respect. All it gets him is obediance out of fear. I, on the other hand, will speak to you as a human being and I expect a similar tone in reply. Do not mistake this for weakness. If you continue that tone with me I will have you shipped back home faster than you can say UEE dropout, am I clear?"
Eva swallowed hard and lowered her gaze. She wondered silently to herself why she just felt like she had been scolded like a parent scolds a child who had just sworn in public. She raised her eyes back to his and noticed he was still looking at her expectantly.
"Sorry Sir. I....." she began and then sighed, "I used to fly my mother's Aurora on trading runs with her when I was growing up." she answered.
This earned a raising of both eyebrows from the man, "The Aurora is a fine vessel, Miss Hawkins, and very under-rated by many. From what age have you been flying it?"
She stiffened her posture and replied somewhat proudly, "Twelve, Sir."
The man whistled low at the answer, "You do realise that allowing a minor to pilot a starship in public space is a crime, and by telling me this you could be landing your mother in a lot of trouble?"
"By all means," Eva replied matter-of-factly, "If you can find her please do let me know. I would love to give her a proper goodbye."
The Commander looked as though he was going to scold her again for a moment, but then his brows furrowed as the true meaning of her response came to him. He nodded and offered a slight smile, "I am Commander Joseph Stranger. I'm in charge of this installation. Part of my job is to keep an eye out for people with potential to become something more than your run of the mill Navy pilot. I wont beat around the bush, Miss Hawkins. You are up here because you demonstrated skill beyond that of most your age."
Stranger glanced out the window just in time to see yet another recruit crash and burn and Eva followed his gaze, noticing also that Manic was stepping down from the ladder from a safely landed simulation. She couldn't stop the smile from forming on her lips.
"The moves you used out there couldn't be learned in something like an Aurora and I doubt you ever suffered catestrophic failure like Jenkins put you through. A lot of those moves were on instinct and reflex. That's what I'm interested in. If you accept my proposal you will be put through special training. You will be housed and trained with your fellow recruits down there, but you will get the best first choice in bunk, rations and equipment, you will be given aditional training and access to restricted hardware. You will answer directly to me, not Jenkins. In return I expect nothing short of excellence from you."
"If you survive training you will be called on at times to perform missions that never happened for departments of the military that don't exist and will be bound by a non-disclosure agreement that will last until the day you die, which incidently, based on the risk of such missions might be sooner than you think. Or," he motioned down onto the simulator floor where Jenkins was shouting yet another recruit down to the point of tears, "you can go back down there and deal with that. What do you say?"
NEXT ENTRY: The Forging
Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges