"Hey, PKer! What's with the glum mood?" You glare at Spitkill as he again enters your office unannounced. Last time he looked at you this way, he talked you into sneaking out of work in favor of test-driving a new military vehicle. You almost killed yourself during the test, and even worse, Pilot, the prototype Wren-type android you work with, has given you a truly ridiculous nickname from the whole ordeal that, despite your best efforts, has been adopted by all the flight staff you work with.
After you are done venting on the young man standing in your doorway, he simply shrugs. "Y'know, military pilots like me have a way of settling disputes, and playing along could get you a full pilot's license, too...." You tell him you're not interested, close your office door in his face, and look back at the pile of paperwork that's accumulated on your desk. You can't help but wonder if they crossbred standard paper forms with rabbits in the Bio Plant, since the pile always seems to grow larger regardless of how hard you work in between flights...
Just as you get back to putting your signature on every line you can see, you hear the sound of wood splintering as your door is forced open by a large android. It just seems like one of those days...
"PK! Where did all that paper come from?" Most of it's from his desk, since Pilot seems to be completely incapable of doing anything that requires following any sort of rules or regulations. You consider holding a lecture on how paperwork is tied to any government position, but since he will probably run out of battery life any second now, you instead ask him to get to the point.
"Point? No point. I just heard you were in a bad mood today." No kidding. "I just thought a little fun would do you good."
You point out the paperwork on your desk and proceed into the rant you've been working on all day. Fun is definitely not on your mind at the moment, with your commanding officer breathing down your neck over late forms. "How's this, you win, and I'll do your paperwork. I win, and you do mine." You mention that you already do his paperwork, and he somehow looks at you with earnest astonishment. "Really? I didn't know I had paperwork. How about your nickname, then? Winner picks your next one."
Before you can answer, the low battery light flashes on his chest, and he shuts down. You can't help but wonder if he intentionally times himself to maximize your inconvenience. Since a 300 pound android is nearly impossible to move by yourself, you head to the pilot's lounge to find a couple people to help you and Spitkill move Pilot to the maintenance hangar to plug him into a DC power outlet. What you would give to have sixty seconds alone with the guy who designed Wren-P's personality....
"Trainer 1, standby for flight clearance on HTOL runway 2." You gently roll onto the start of a runway, and open the maintenance ports on your ship so that the mechanics can inspect your systems one more time as they fill your fuel tanks.
"This'll be a fun ride, let's see if you can kill that tin can one more time. You ready?" You nod at Spitkill in the mirror beside you, and watch as the man handling the fueling hose uncouples it from the port on your left wing, giving you a thumbs-up as he steps back. "Now, what is the last step you do to make sure your launch window is still clear?"
After a second's thought, you radio the ATC tower to check for orbit space restrictions. "Trainer 1, Tower. There is gonna be a restricted zone close to your requested orbit. Avoid ascending node 45 degrees West, inclination 42 degrees through 47 west, inclination 44, Lower Mota Orbit. There is an interplanetary shuttle in position to witness the first deep space exploration ship perform its ejection burn."
"Correct, PKer." You glare into the mirror- he knows you hate that nickname. "Hey, don't get like that! Our launch is in about 60 seconds, so turn on the APU." You activate the hydraulic systems on the ship, and with the press of a button, the ship's canopy closes, sealing out the fresh springtime air as the life support systems begin to replace it with an air-conditioned oxygen-nitrogen mix.
"Trainer 1, Tower. Unidentified vessel detected in Lower Mota Orbit, launch azimuth zero-four-three. Scramble, scramble, scramble!" Feeling the adrenaline rush of the emergency call reaching your ears, you slam the engine throttle fully open as the space fighter lurches down the runway. You turn a knob to activate airfoil control, adjust the trim flaps slightly downward, and listen to the onboard computer call out to you...
"100 knots." Your palms begin to sweat as you grip the control stick ever tighter.
"V1." It's your last chance to abort the launch, and you press onward anyway.
"Rotate." You pull the stick backward, and the nose of your ship arcs into the air.
"Wheels up... Gear up." The ground falls away as you soar upward, your heart racing like you've never known, even as Pilot's copilot. You point your nose towards the horizon line, and roll sideways to turn towards freedom as the landing gear fold into the SAFA-Trainer's hull. Once you reach a heading of about Northeast, you guide the ship almost vertical, building altitude where the thinner air will let the ship's engines burn more efficiently.
"Trainer 1, unidentified vessel has an active XPDR, frequency 103.50. Intercept at target apogee and engage." You set a NAV transceiver to the frequency, and your MFD screens update to show the orbital characteristics of your target alongside your own, as it lazily floats several thousand kilometers away.
"Alright, PK, we are actually ahead of your mark right now, so we need extra speed to get above him. Go for about 400 kilometers of apogee altitude." You level off in the upper atmosphere and trigger the afterburners, feeling the force throw you into your seat as your speed approaches twenty times that of sound.
Alarms go off in your cockpit as a docking screen reports that you are within a kilometer of the ship you're chasing, and you activate the radio on a frequency you were given to isolate your chatter from real emergency communications. Before you speak, Spitkill reaches over his instruments to tap your shoulder. "Hey, here's a tip. Set your hover and retro doors to open instead of auto. It takes a few seconds for them to open when you activate the throttle otherwise- I don't like the feeling of training missiles hitting me." You follow his advice, and after you double-check that your ejection seat is armed, you demand the other vessel to supply its identification under the threat of destruction.
In response, you hear a laugh, "Does anyone ever believe that line?"
"They do in real life, Pilot!" You notice that the young soldier behind you is getting excited, and you take a deep breath to calm yourself- there isn't a chance in hell you want to find out what nickname the crazy machine has in mind for you next. You arm your ship's weapons, and slave the missile tracker to the NAV stack. The moment "TGT LOCK" appears on your windscreen's HUD, you spot a bright flash of light underneath you, and a SAFA jet suddenly blasts out from under you.
Cursing the fact you didn't notice him sneak under you, you open the throttle in pursuit. Only a few seconds in, Spitkill grabs your attention, "Hey, MECO, MECO. You don't constantly run the throttle in space- the lack of friction means you're wasting fuel. Check your MFDs."
You look at the screen showing the orbital characteristics of you and Pilot, and notice that the Wren-type's trajectory is cutting extremely close to the atmosphere. You ask Spitkill what Wren-P's doing. "Shit, I dunno. Either he's trying to trick you into triggering an emergency reentry to make you easy pickings, or he's attempting to get in front of us."
After a moment's thought, you point your ship prograde, the opposite direction Pilot went, and you fire your main rockets, the force pushing you into your seat as you add more velocity to your orbit. With your maximum altitude now exceeding 500 Km, you sit back and wait, your eyes watching the various screens tracking your target's movements.
"That isn't right...." You hear Pilot over the radio when he realizes that you aren't where he wanted you, and you watch your MFDs track his hasty change of course. You manipulate the RCS to guide your training fighter into approaching the enemy, and you arm your onboard Gatling gun, a short burst automatically firing to confirm that space-capable rounds are loaded into the system.
"Missile lock! Warning! Missile lock!" Your view of the planet below is suddenly obscured by thick red text and the flight computer starts screaming at you. You glance in the mirror at Spitkill to see him shaking his head... hey, there's a bright light just off your left wing! Unsure of what to do, you slam the hover throttle on full, and yaw the ship to face the unknown object.
"Hey, dodge that, PK!" You glance at the targeting screen as a blur moves through it. That must be the missile... you pull at the trigger to fire your weapons and shake the control stick about, trying to zero in on the immediate threat. You see a bright flash as the projectile's control computer engages full thrust, and it crosses the 200 kilometers to you in mere seconds. You close your eyes as your ship calls out that you've nearly exhausted all of your cannon's ammunition....
"Holy shit, PK, you killed a freaking missile with a Gatling gun!" You open your eyes after your flight computer reports depleted ammo to see a bright flash just below the nose of the training craft- that missile must've been scant meters away when it detonated! Shaking off your fear, you glance at your instruments and realize that Pilot had closed the gap considerably while you were distracted. You don't even bother to orient towards his SAFA before you hit the throttle.
You fly as erratically as you can, and you even hear Spitkill asking if you were okay. Instead of responding, you watch Pilot move closer to you, clearly curious of what you're doing. You even start flicking the external lights on and off like a kid with no self control to complete the gambit.
"Hey, PK, you need a tow to a service dock?" You let your nose cross by Pilot, and fire all 36 of your onboard missiles at point-blank range. The combined flashes of all the simultaneous strikes are so bright that you find yourself almost completely blinded....
"You gotta be fucking kidding me, PK!"
"PK is no fluke! I'm dead!"
"Hey, don't feel bad, Pilot! You just can't beat the best, right?"
"Bullshit! I should be saying that!"
"Attention Trainer 1 and SAFA Tango 98. You have entered restricted space. Please engage a course correction immediately." You call out into the radio that you can't see what's happening, and Spitkill tells you to wait. You hear the flight computer call out that your instructor has activated his controls, and a gentle roar fills your ears as he rolls the throttle on to steer away from the zone you'd gotten into.
THUMP! You feel something heavy impact the ship, and you shout out at Spitkill to tell what's going on. "Shit, Pilot, was that really necessary?"
"Control, Pilot. My flight control is damaged. I'm gonna try bypassing it...."
As your sight begins to return, you manage to make out several large burns on the SAFA in front of you. You decide to ask Spitkill on why they're there. "Well, you're only supposed to use one missile at a time. Even with training dummies loaded with space-compatible flash powder, 36 missiles pack a lot of punch."
You glance off towards Mota's horizon where the sun is beginning to creep from hiding and see a massive shuttle in the distance. It's massive- just judging by size, it likely has over 30,000 people aboard.
"Pilot, reporting an emergency!" Pilot's SAFA smashes into the canopy of your training ship, and it veers off towards the transport off in the distance. You fumble at your radio and warn the transport to the incoming ship, and within seconds, its massive engines flare to life.
The silent behemoth moves to avoid Pilot's ship, when you catch an errant glint on the Mota horizon moving at an incredible speed. You point it out at Spitkill, and you can hear him choke. "Oh, shit, I've never seen anything like that before...." You make out the shape as several round shapes of various colors connected together, and ask if it could be that space exploration ship that's supposed to pass by.
Before the military pilot behind you can respond, the ship passes by you at what seems like twice the speed of light, and slams into the transport with more force than the most powerful nuclear missile could generate.
Even as the two ships crumble into a massive cloud of debris, your eyes pick out something strange. In the oxygen-free environment of orbit, there's no way for a fire to break out. Even with the residual air inside the cabin, the vacuum outside would draw it away from any flames before they can grow visible from where you're situated. And yet, you spot a blue flash in the twisted alloys and splintered composites. It is only there for a few milliseconds, like a bolt of lightning where there isn't enough voltage, but you can't deny that something beyond your understanding just happened.
The sounds of sheer panic in the seat behind you bring you to the present, and as Spitkill babbles on about losing his wings, you call Control to send an orbital response team, and proceed to guide the training ship into the chaos to search for any possible survivors.
You stand at attention at the desk of the head of the test flight department, and your commander finally puts down the stack of reports that he had been reading for the past hour. With you present. "It seems to me that we have a freaking shitstorm of trouble about to rain down on us. Nearly 3 billion meseta of trashed equipment. Our best test pilot, about to be dismantled. Approximately 1,500 lives lost, not a single survivor. Did you know that some important people had decided last-minute to hop on that transport before it launched?" You shake your head. "According to this passenger list, the last of the Landale family was on it. All but one of the bodies have already been found, we're just looking for the kid."
You can't help but feel like human trash as your commander continues to detail every single issue that's come up because of what's already being called the worst orbital incident in the past century. Instead of melting down and kicking you out of his office, he suddenly droops his shoulders and looks down at the palm wood desk. "You won't believe this last part. Without a ruling family, the guys on Palm enacted the Continuity-Of-Government plan. You know Mother Brain, right? The bitch has just been promoted to supreme leader of the Algol System. Her first course of action? No more spaceflight. Period."
It takes a few minutes for this to sink in. All those years you spent studying communication and navigation and flight control, even putting up with the shit assignment as Wren-P's copilot, and you'll never get to taste the freedom of taking the helm by yourself on a trip to anywhere on any planet here.... Hang on, Pilot's getting dismantled?
You ask the commander, and he shakes his head. "The idiot doesn't know when to drop the bad boy act. The transport safety officers decided it'll be easier to just dismantle him and manually access his onboard memory."
You prepare to excuse yourself, but the old man silently signals you to stop. He reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a black box, then gets up, and walks over to you. "I was gonna have you take me up as a reward for putting up with Pilot for so long, but the village idiots beat me to the punch. Here, you earned this."
You take the box and open it. Inside, you find a Velcro patch of a pair of wings over an arc representing a planet's horizon. The insignia of a pilot certified for both atmospheric and orbital operations.... "You don't belong in anything that has a weapon installed, but you managed a complete flight without much intervention. Your first and final assignment as a full-fledged Mota pilot will be tomorrow at 0600, you're gonna run an interplanetary transport. Pack everything you can, because you're going to Palm before anyone implicates you for this disaster. At least you'll get to fly on your own wings before everybody is caged."