Note: I dug into the archives for this one because I felt that since Parallax’s release that this story series needed completing. I’ll leave it up to you when this takes place. 😉
The TF-65 was universally hated by the cadets. One of the old lifter type aircraft, it was old, slow and prone to be grounded due to a complicated four-way gearbox system that often broke down for one reason or another. The bright blue aircraft skimmed over a field of white snow covered ground that extended below them in all directions, stopping only at the base of a tall group of snow peaked mountains in the distance.
“Ponderous piece of crap.” Cadet Fourth Class John Winslow Pratt grumbled to himself as he fought to keep the aircraft level as he, his fellow student co-pilot seated next to him waged her own battle with the secondary systems, and a flight instructor sat behind them taking notes. “We should be using newer equipment.”
“We don’t always have the luxury of the latest and greatest equipment when we are out in Space, Mr. Pratt.” Flight Instructor Marsh, a dour officer with an order of magnitude of experience on his blue jump-suited chest, admonished him. “You have to learn how to get the most out of what you are given.” He made a few notes on a clipboard as a gust of wind turbulence shook the quadcopter. “Which you are certainly not attaining at this point.” He turned to the co-pilot, an intense young woman with dark hair and darker eyes. “Ms. Pendrake, would you like to take the controls?”
Pendrake raised a hand. “Not just yet, Sir. I’m still working out how to bypass a short circuit I detected in the Number Four Rotor Array that’s throwing engine coordination out of sync. Clearing that up should make for a smoother ride.”
“I could have told you that,” Pratt muttered. “Teacher’s Pet.”
“We don’t get points for could have.” Pendrake shot back angrily. “Shut up and drive while I keep us in the air.”
“Teamwork, please,” Marsh said, his tone belying the potential for a laugh at their expense. “Always remember that your communications may be monitored in flight. Keep it as professional as possible.”
Pratt held the stick tight with his left hand while reaching upwards with his right to turn off the system’s auto-leveling system. “Xia, wait two seconds and then give me a manual reset of all flight surfaces.”
“Jack, we could stall at this altitude and we don’t have enough speed to recover from that,” Pendrake warned. “I don’t like the idea of becoming a pancake this close to Finals.”
“Who wants to live forever?” Pratt gave her a reassuring wink. “Trust me.”
Pratt watched Marsh from the corner of his eye. Marsh had put his clipboard down and was following his movement with great interest. A red light appeared on his console. “That short circuit has now become a system warning. We’re about to lose both Starboard engines. Xia, do it. Now.”
“This goes against everything the manual says to do.” Pendrake’s slender hands danced across her control panel. Outside the forward windows, the drum-shaped engine nacelles stopped their movements and for the briefest of moments, the aircraft traveled downward at an angle that made every stomach in the cockpit a few ounces lighter. “System restart in four point two seconds.”
The altimeter displays counted down the distance to crash while the airspeed indicators spooled upward. An automatic altitude warning indicator began to blare.
Pratt looked over at Pendrake. “How about having dinner with me later?”
“You’re asking me now?”
“Why not? It may be my last chance.”
“You pull us out of this.” She said. “And I’ll pick up the check.”
“Very well.” Pratt reached down and turned a small yellow T-Handle clockwise until they heard a click and the nacelles swiveled to vertical, slowing their descent to a halt.
“You bastard,” Pendrake said, her expression mixed. “You knew how to fix this problem all the time.”
“I took a chance.” He replied. “The manual said there was a manual bypass in case a system reset took too long.” He grinned as the automatic systems came back online. “I’ll tell you what, you can pay your own way if you want.”
“No, no, a bet is a bet.” She said, stifling a smile of her own. “I’ll meet you after class. Do you think you can get us on the ground without killing us?”
“Okay, Cadets, that’s enough for today,” Marsh said, raising his console into operating position and taking control. “Mr. Pratt, I don’t approve of how you work, but you and Ms. Pendrake make an adequate team. You both get an A for this session. Ms. Pendrake, please notify Anchorage Spaceport that we’re on our way back.”
“I think we should have sex.”
Pratt almost choked on the salmon bite he was chewing. After a coughing spell into his napkin and several sips from his water glass, he managed to regain his composure. Thankfully, the restaurant they were in was in full Romantic Evening Mode with dim lighting, soft music, and candles adorning the tables. “Excuse me?” His collar felt a size too small and he loosened his tie.
The edges of Pendrake’s well-defined mouth crept upward for the briefest of moments before she adopted a mask of self-assured confidence to the point of being almost predatory. The small black dress she wore did little to dilute the effect. “Let me lay it out for you, Jack. You and I were paired because we were considered compatible personality types. Now, given that we’re going to be in close quarters during training, it stands to reason that sexual tension is going to rear its ugly head at some point.” She casually reached over and stabbed a piece of his fish with her fork. “It would be to our best interests to get that out of the way so we can focus on more important matters.” She pulled her catch from the fork and popped it in her mouth. “I think it makes perfect logical sense.”
“I realize that growing up on a space station meant adopting some alternative moral codes,” Pratt replied, fighting to regain some mental comfort. “But us Darkfallers usually like to observe some old fashioned etiquette beforehand.”
She reached across the table and took his right hand in hers. “You do like me, don’t you? In spite of my lack of subtlety?”
He smiled and gave her hand a squeeze. “Of course, I do, but you could let me take the lead once in a while.”
“If I did that, you’d wait until Graduation Day.” She gently took her hand back. “I hate wasting time.”
Before Pratt could respond, a group of male and female cadets burst across the room and surrounded the table. Heads turned to watch the spectacle until he raised a hand to quiet them. He wiped his mouth and set the napkin aside. “One at a time, please. What’s going on?”
A short, barrel-chested, cadet with close-cropped brown hair and sly piggish eyes elbowed his way to the front of the group. “Jack, the base just issued a General Recall. Something’s happened and all Liberties have been cancelled.”
“And the entire squad felt the need to come out and get us, Jenkins?”
“All the Squad Leaders are supposed to meet in the Company Commander’s Office upon return.” Jenkins said. “Since you’re ours….you know.”
Pratt turned to Pendrake while flagging down a robotic waiter. “I guess we’ll have to table what we were talking about.” Without waiting for her, he slipped his credit chit into the robot’s payment slot. “This had better be another surprise drill.” He took one final bite from his meal before standing. A small hand gesture later and he followed Pendrake and the rest of the squad out the door and into the night.
The Company Commander’s Office was a circular room enclosed by transparent glass walls and nested with similar offices on a balcony level that overlooked a large indoor parade ground.
At First, Pratt thought he was late because when he knocked twice on the office door and walked in, he noticed that he and the gray-bearded Company Commander were the only ones.
“Cadet Squad Leader Pratt, reporting as ordered, Sir.”
Senior Chief Carl Polson studied the younger man standing at attention in front of him. Pratt was older than the average cadet at 26; that maturity giving him an air of authority that was hard to cultivate out of the gate. It also made it difficult to rein in Pratt since he had a tendency to agree to one’s face…and then do whatever he felt necessary. A trait that caused the issuing of more than a few demerits over the past four years. Still, the kid got results and was able to rein in Cadet Pendrake and keep her from being summarily booted out for conduct-related infractions. I must remember to ask him how he does it, Polson thought.
“At ease, Cadet.” Polson noted Pratt’s suit. “You’re out of uniform.”
“I was informed that my being being here was important.” Pratt replied, his arms relaxing into a Parade Rest position. “I didn’t want to waste any more time getting here than necessary.”
“Very well.” Polson picked up a remote from his desk and darkened the walls around the office. “Pratt, I have been tasked with providing an escort detail for a courier ship coming to Earth from Asteroid 2001AB. I can’t divulge the details, but Command feels that although piracy in The Asteroid Belt is on the rise, the mission is safe enough to be used as a training exercise.”
“May I ask what the courier is transporting?”
“No, you may not.” Polson barked. He cleared his throat. “I’ve selected your squad to rendezvous with the courier and escort them back to Earth. Your squad rated the highest test scores during the last flight simulation round and it’s an honor so don’t give me any of your grief.”
“With all due respect, Sir, no one in the Company has logged any significant flight time off-world.” Pratt said. “Wouldn’t an experienced team produce better results?”
Polson waved away the question. “Of course, but orders are orders and I doubt your parents would enjoy hearing that you’ve refused a job that would look good on your record.”
“Apparently, they had a hand in this assignment. Commodore Pratt himself contacted me to urge your selection.”
“Damn it.” Pratt muttered to himself.
“What was that?”
“Uh, nothing, Sir.” Pratt said. “My team and I will do our best.”
Polson pressed another button on his remote. When he was satisfied with the result, he came over and leaned in close. “Jack, I understand that having parents like yours is a pain in the butt, but they’re still part of the Chain of Command. If I thought you couldn’t handle it, I would have selected someone else. Just follow your procedures and you’ll be just fine.”
“I understand, Sir.”
Polson clicked the remote again.
“Dismissed, Cadet, and Good Luck.”