Monday, November 23, 2015

The Test - 5:54

“So you're Aylin Ragka.”

Aylin swallowed as she gazed up at the tall hulk of a man who stood above her, and nodded quickly. “Yes sir.”

“You may call me Major Cadranis, or 'Sir' will do as well.” His blue eyes drilled into her as he pulled a paper off a huge desk. “I have a notice here from the captain that you'll have a piloting placement test today. Is that correct, Aylin Ragka?”

“Yes sir,” she said quickly. She was realizing that Major Cadranis had not even paused long enough to sneer at her unusual name, he'd just said it. Nothing about this man left room for recreational sneering; his hair was a close-cropped, hard-iron gray, and his jaw was a sharp, chiseled line. Aylin only made it high enough off the ground to stare at his broad and muscled shoulders.

He walked fast, too, as she discovered when he told her to follow him and headed for the ship ports outside the main building. They were joined along the way by another student, a boy with dark hair and wide brown eyes. Aylin guessed that he needed to take the same evaluation of his piloting skills as she did, and it lessened her own tension over the test just a little...

The start-up procedures went well. Aylin had them memorized; her father had made her do just that since the first day. Then she too was circling the cluster of squat, gray buildings that made up the Pato Center, stopping on the instructor's command, climbing and descending again, finding her direction through the ship's delicate sensors, switching on the power to the shields and weapons, even firing as directed at the occasional isolated bush.

She couldn't really tell whether she was doing well or not, at least, she could only guess... until something happened that she had not been expecting.

“Fly low, and go as fast as you want to,” Major Cadranis instructed gruffly, “getting as close to the ground as you comfortably can.”

Aylin gave him a quick glance, hardly daring to hope. Now, at last, he was actually letting her show her real skill. He hadn't given any orders of this kind to the other student...

She obeyed -- or rather, she almost obeyed. She sped the ship up until the ground beneath was slipping by in a blur of brown and gray, slowly dropping her altitude until the rushing blur was as close as felt comfortable for that speed... and then she eased the ship down a little lower. Mistakes at this level would be hard to correct.

When she pulled up again to bring the ship back toward the Center, lying now on the distant horizon, she felt exhilarated at the chance to really show her abilities. Perhaps this man, out of all of the rest of the jeering Center students and staff, had finally recognized her skill --

“Take the ship in a slow, full spin, leaving plenty of space between us and the ground,” came the next order.

The break from routine had driven her nerves through the curved glass roof, but the spin was well practiced, and took care of itself perfectly.

Order followed order, and soon Aylin was pulling out every move she had so carefully practiced those cold mornings so long ago, over the tops of the Mardoc trees. The major seemed to be inventing new things for her to do as the ride went on, and quickly her ride reached twice the length of the previous pilot's.

After a while, her instructor leaned over and pushed some buttons on the radio, took up the headset, and listened for a long time to someone on the other end. His silence was broken by an occasional “yes,” or a grunt of agreement or approval. At last he said: “The usual signal will do,” into the speaker, and turned the radio off. He then leaned back in his seat and proceeded to watch as Aylin completed a series of complicated evasive moves.

Presently, a blip appeared on the ship's radar, indicating the presence of another craft leaving the Center and heading in their direction. Aylin saw it and moved further on ahead, out of its projected path, for Major Cadranis had instructed them at the beginning to avoid any and all other air traffic to and from the Center. She was not surprised at the ship's appearance, for several ships flew in and out of the Pato Center in the course of a normal day, and many of them flew off low, heading toward the nearby Pato towns and cities.

But she was surprised when this one remained low... and altered its course to follow them. When it was quite close, Aylin cast a glance at the major, to see if he had noticed. It appeared that he had not. “Sir,” she started to say, “somebody's approaching us from two-twenty.”

Major Cadranis did not even glance at the radar. He ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth and gave her a look. “Well, pilot... what are you going to do about it?”

Aylin was not exactly sure how to interpret that. She had been hoping for orders, or at least an explanation of sorts. Not knowing what else to do, she ran a quick scan of the other craft, which had now locked itself onto their position and was following them from a close distance behind. It was a Center ship, like theirs in many ways, but different. It was smaller, and looked as though it could hold only one man, the pilot, and no passengers.

If it was a Center ship, Aylin reasoned, then it would most likely be on their communication frequency. She had obtained the ship's number from the scan, and the most practical thing to do would be to attempt at communications.

She switched on the radio and took up the headset. “Pilot of Center ship C-357, this is, uh... C-180. We are conducting a training session; please state your business and your intended usage of this airspace.” She hoped that would sound professional enough. The major had donned a headset of his own as well, and he was listening.

There was no reply to her message, so Aylin repeated herself, adding “Pilot of Center ship C-357, please respond,” to the end of the repetition, because it seemed like she should.

The shots came totally unexpected -- to everyone except perhaps the major, who merely braced himself with a hand on the wall beside his chair. Aylin's hands flew in shock away from the radio and to the controls, and out of instinct she managed to pull the ship out of the way of the next barrage. The first assault had left the craft shuddering around them, and the monitors showed that the ship had taken a good battering.

In an instant, still acting out of instinct, Aylin had flipped on the shields, and with them, the ship's small weapons. Perhaps if she had stopped to consider it, the fact that the attack had come from a Center craft -- and the obvious lack of concern that the major showed for their dire predicament -- might have given her a hint that the whole situation would not do them any real harm. But at the moment, all her instincts were telling her was that this was real and this was dangerous, and the Zargons who had ruined her home had somehow gotten control of a Pato ship and were attacking... and there was no time for stopping and considering.

Suddenly the major's voice crackled in her headset. “Lower the shields.”

Aylin spun out of the way of another torrent of weapons fire. “Sir?” She couldn't have heard him right...

“Lower the shields,” came the repeated command.

This time Aylin couldn't respond -- the weapons were taking far too long to engage, and the shots glancing off the shields were pulling the ship into a spin. If she took the shields down, they'd be a pile of metal on the ground...

The weapons finally engaged, and the other ship was not fast enough. Aylin's first shots took out the guns on one wing, the ship spun out of control, and no more flak struck Center ship C‑180.

Suddenly, beside her, Major Cadranis was speaking into his headset. “All right, that's enough.”

Aylin was only just beginning to understand as the attacking ship abruptly stopped its onslaught and instantly began to retreat. Even then, something in her mind told her that it was not over, that the danger was still very real, that anything could happen. She could not keep her hands from trembling, so she gripped the controls more tightly, gulping deep breaths and hoping that her appearance would not betray the fact that she was melting inside. She should have kept her head about her, kept her wits cool and her hand steady... As it was, she had been forced to rely more on instincts throughout the whole, tense ride.

She was only too grateful to relinquish control of the ship to Major Cadranis for the flight back. When she glanced over her shoulder, and happened to glimpse the face of the younger student in the back, Aylin let up on herself a little. The boy's face had gone from pale to white, and his eyes were wide. She couldn't help but wonder what her own face looked like.

“You did well, Aylin Ragka,” the man said in his gruff voice, once the ship was headed home. “And I don't just say that to everyone.” There was silence in the cockpit, leaving Aylin wondering if she was supposed to say something. “You should, perhaps, have contacted traffic control when the ship didn't respond,” Major Cadranis mentioned after a moment's thought, “but given the circumstances, your response was good -- reflected solid training and good instinct.”

“Thank you, sir.”

That was pretty much the extent of the praise that she received from Major Cadranis -- and the extent of the conversation on the return trip. When they finally landed back in the outer hangars, Aylin climbed shakily down the ladder to the ground. The shock of the whole episode had not yet fully worn off, but slowly she was realizing that she had succeeded. She had held her own against an unexpected enemy, putting into practice all that she had worked so hard to learn. It was easily the best feeling she had had all day long... but that didn't mean much...

The major spoke suddenly, without turning around, and his words surprised her. “Your test isn't quite over, Ragka.”

She stared at the back of his head, uncomprehending, as the chime rang to move students from one class to the next. “Sir?”

“I'll write you a pass for your next class,” he said. He gratified the handheld screen with a few final scribbles, then turned to face her, his expression unreadable. “What sort of training have you had, flying what sorts of ships?” he asked suddenly.

Aylin opened her mouth, then shut it again and swallowed; these were the sorts of questions that could get her into trouble. She had a feeling that this man wouldn't take her refusal to offer details about her past life.

But before she could reply, he spoke again, clarifying his question. “You're obviously trained in flight techniques for a T-70. Have you flown other models? Do you have skills as a technician?”

Her mouth opened, and an undignified sound came out as she fished for words. Finally, she said, “Yes, I suppose, I can do most simple repairs for the common models --”

“Here's a scenario: You're flying the T-70, and you take a hit, and the port stabilizer goes, what do you do to hold your ship steady on course?”

Aylin blinked, caught off guard. Her brain tried to sort through the scenario, and come up with something reasonable... she had just flown a T-70, but somehow now she couldn't even picture the cockpit... “Cut power to the port stabilizers,” she said -- that was about as far as she could immediately recall; she hoped that would be right and sufficient.

His grunt seemed affirmative, and more pieces of information jogged loose in her mind. “Cut the power and take manual control, try to pull it through...” Ah. She remembered. “Once you have manual control, reroute power to both aft stabilizers so you can land safely.”

“What about the Tandem-50?”

“The T-50s don't have aft stabilizers, so you'll need to shut the stabilizers down entirely and try to land. Otherwise you'll be fighting whatever one wasn't taken out.”
Another grunt, and another scenario, this time involving one of the newest model spacecraft, a ship she had only once glanced into the cockpit of, never flown. She didn't do so well on that one, but that scenario was followed by another, and another, spanning the range of ship tactics and technicalities. Her brain whirled, but somehow the answers came, at least mostly.

Finally she finished a question and it was not immediately followed by another. Instead he looked her in the eyes, and said something she hadn't expected. “I understand that you'll be looking for employment at the Center, to cover the remaining costs of education.”

The statement implied a question, and she nodded crisply, but numbly, unable to speak.
“Very good, I will speak with the financial and education officers about placing you here, in the flight training division. We're always in need of student trainers for our first-year students. If you take a test, a more formal, and simple, version of the questions I just asked you, and if the officers are cooperative, you can even switch out your class time now for training time. There'll be paperwork to fill out, but you can usually start the job in the meantime.” He had been scribbling again as he spoke, this time on a small scrap of paper, but now he glanced up to see if she was following. “Is this something that interests you?”

Aylin felt numb from the overload of information, but the sensation in her head was giddiness, even excitement. She nodded again.

“Good,” he said again. The chime interrupted him... somewhere in the main building, her arenhol classroom had assembled without her. Aylin found herself wondering if Laurina was worried, thinking she was lost again. The major's head bent once more over the note he was writing, then he straightened and handed it to her. “This is for your next class. I'll talk with the necessary people, and send you notification of your first work date.”

Again she nodded, and took the note. She was in the process of turning to flee, when she remembered. “Sir?”

Cadranis raised his head again. “Yes?”

Aylin swallowed. “In the test, in the middle of the fight, you asked me to lower the shields.” She hadn't obeyed, she hadn't had time to, the other ship had been too quick and too much of a threat. “I, um... why did you do that, sir?” The question sounded churlish even to her own ears, but she had to know...

The major considered her for a moment, while Aylin tried not to squirm. “If you had lowered the shields, what would have happened?” he asked finally.

Aylin blinked. “The ship... would have acquired damage, sir.”

“Correct. It would have been better to keep the shields fully powered.”

Aylin nodded, but she was still confused. “Sir?”

The major's stare drilled into her. “I needed to know if you were the type of soldier who obeys, or improvises.”

Another test, then. Aylin swallowed hard... had she failed? She hadn't exactly had enough time to find out... Either way, she was sure the question of what she would have done would haunt her for a long time. “Yes sir,” she said faintly, and turned to scurry away.

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