Authors: John Zakour
Tags: #YA, #SF
I tilted the control stick to the left and pushed down just a nudge. The shuttle dipped. A huge, spiked asteroid that looked like a metallic porcupine passed overhead. I had to time this right.
I squeezed the thrust button, just a pinch.
The shuttle’s engine gave a quick extra burst. The shuttle jumped forward. I dipped the head just so slightly. I could see there was a huge, triangular rock jetting toward us. I needed to make sure the porcupine rock had completely passed over, before I dodged the triangle. Pulling this off it was going to take a lot of skill and even more luck.
Suddenly, the ship started to spin. Red warning lights started to flash. It’s never a good sign when red lights flash.
“Uh oh,” Elvin said, looking at a control panel. “That last one nipped our tail. Control will be reduced 55.55 percent.”
“Great! Just what we need when we are trying to navigate through an asteroid field!” GiS said, arms and legs crossed. “You should have listened to me!”
“Not helping here, GiS,” I shouted as I struggled to keep the shuttle steady.
The triangular space rock was barreling straight at us. I didn’t have the controls to maneuver around it. I had to go to plan B and fast. The only problem was I didn’t have a plan B.
The killer rock was growing bigger and bigger on our view screen. This called for a desperate measure. I popped the safety cover off the control stick’s red fire trigger. “I’m opening up fire now!” I shouted, squeezing the trigger, not once but three times. When in doubt go for the overkill.
“No,” GiS shouted.
It was too late. The energy bursts from the nose of our shuttle hit the approaching rock dead on. The laser blasts shattered the one big, deadly rock coming toward us at breakneck speed, into a lot more than one, not-quite-so-big-but-still-quite-deadly-rocks zooming toward us at break-pretty-much-everything speed.
I knew this would happen, but I was sure the shields could take it.
“The shields can take this barrage. Right?” I asked.
“I wish you’d asked me that before you fired,” Elvin said, concentrating on the numbers flashing across his control panel. “The shields were built to handle a few asteroids hitting us. I estimate we are about to be hit by over three thousand asteroids. The sheer numbers will cause the shields to overload…”
you tell me,” I said. The shuttle rocked with the collisions. I fought to maintain control. Smoke started pouring out of both GiS’s and Elvin’s control panels.
“Navigation, shields and drive are down!” Elvin shouted. “This is only the beginning — of the end!” A warning siren started to blare all around us. I guess that was just in case we didn’t notice the smoke and the flashing lights.
Elvin looked at his panel and shook his head. “We’ve taken hull damage,” he looked at his screen, “everywhere!” he said.
“Could you be a bit more specific?” I asked. He shook his head. “I could, but it won’t matter.” He pointed to the main window, which was unfortunately still quite functional.
There was a monstrous, mother of all asteroids bearing down on us. It had
written all over it. Even though it had to be a few hundred kilometers away, it still dominated the window and all the view screens. Without navigation there was no way I could avoid it.
“Not good. Not good at all,” I said.
“I still have faith in you, Baxter,” Zenna said.
I was glad somebody did. I had maybe five tics to think of something. The first thing that popped into my mind was, “Mega-bloop, I’m dumb!” While that may have been true, it wasn’t especially helpful. Another thought jumped into my brain. It was a desperate thought. But it was all I had.
“The tractor beam!” I said. “It’s still functional. Right?” Elvin glanced down at one of the gauges on his panel. “Yes, tractor beam is still functional.”
“Great! We’re not space dust yet!” I said.
“Baxter, I know physics isn’t your strong point,” Elvin said slowly, “but tractor beams bring things
us.” He pointed to the screen. “That thing is already barreling toward us!”
“Yes, but if we reverse the polarization of the beam, I’m betting we can use it as a pool stick, to bump the asteroid over us,” I said.
“That could work,” Elvin said.
I looked over at Zenna, who was already bent down under the control panel working away.
“How long will it take you to reverse the beam, Zenna?”
Zenna studied the panel. “At least thirty seconds.”
“How long before impact?” I asked.
“Exactly twenty-nine seconds,” Elvin said.
“Oh, that’s just not going to work,” I sighed.
GiS shook his head. “Well, at least you still have your amazing math skills,” GiS said, not even trying to hide the sarcasm in his voice.
I looked up at the view screen, still totally filled by the image of rocks. I wanted to take my eyes off the screen, but I couldn’t. It was like a bad hover-car wreck — you don’t want to look at it, but you can’t help yourself. We were as good as squashed. I braced for impact. Not that it was really going to make much of a difference.
“Simulation off!” a voice yelled.
The red lights stopped flashing. The smoke cleared. The blaring stopped. Everything around us, except for our chairs, faded away. The next thing I knew, my crew and I were sitting in the simulation room. Without all the holograms active, it was just a small boring room with yellow reflective lines crisscrossing its walls.
Commander Jasmine’s voice boomed in over the loud-speaker. “Scout Baxter Moon, please report to my office immediately.” You didn’t have to be nearly as bright as Elvin to tell she was angry — extremely angry.
I fought back a gulp as I stood up from my chair.
I nodded to my crew and made my way to the door. As I left I heard the others talking.
“I’m actually impressed. He lasted 12.4 tics longer than I calculated he would,” Elvin said, missing the point that we still failed.
“He should have listened to me and we’d all still be alive,” GiS said, seemingly missing the point that it was a simulation and we were alive.
“I still have faith in him,” Zenna said, seemingly missing the point that if it wasn’t a simulation we wouldn’t be alive.
The walk through the station’s transparent corridors from simulator room 7S to the commander’s office wasn’t far, but it was still one of the longest in my life. Of course I was walking slowly, taking in the sights. I was in no hurry to get there.
I knew I’d messed up, mega time. I also knew I’d done some pretty dumb things during my stay here. I once convinced Beta Squad that they didn’t have to report to duty on any day of the week that has a vowel in its name. I once super-duper glued Kappa-III Squad’s door shut making them late for roll call. Then there was that time I programmed the Station’s old computer system to burp every five minutes. But cutting through an asteroid field, killing my crew, and losing my shuttle, even in a simulation, that was going to be frowned on.
I just wanted to get lost. But on a computerized space station that was pretty much next to impossible.
“Scout Moon, at your current rate of speed you won’t reach the commander’s office for another four minutes and seven seconds,” said SC-711, the station’s all-knowing, ever-present computer system.
“I’m getting there. I’m getting there.”
“The commander is angry enough at what you did. I would not compound her anger by dilly-dallying.”
“Dilly-dallying? You’re one of the most advanced computers known to man or alien and you use the phrase,
“There are eight other words I could have used, but with analysis of your posture along with computation of your ETA, dilly-dallying seemed to be the most appropriate for the occasion,” SC-711 said.
“I’m a pilot. I don’t dilly-dally,” I said. I continued to walk slowly down the long hallway. The commander’s office door was now in sight.
“Oh please,” SC-711 said. “You are dilly-dallying while talking about dilly-dallying. The commander’s anger will not be inversely proportional to the time it takes you to get there. The longer you take, the more she steams. The more she steams the hotter she gets. It’s pretty much basic human biopsychology.”
I had to admit, just not out loud, SC had a point. Letting the commander simmer in her own steam wouldn’t help my case. I picked up the pace. I figured I was in for a mental spanking at the very least. I might as well get it out of the way.
Finally reaching the door, I took a deep breath. I took another deep breath. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what in the universe I was doing here. Everybody else here was either the best of the best, or genetically improved to be special at something.
Except, of course, for Betas who were the worst of the worst. But even they had their place here. Some team of government social scientists somewhere decided that mixing the worst students in with the best would be “mutually beneficial to all.” I guess if you’re a scientist it’s acceptable to be redundant. It makes things sound more proven if you repeat yourself only with different words.
Anyway, their theory is that the bright students’ brightness will rub off on the dim students. The dim students will then become more useful members of society. These scientists (who obviously don’t get out of the lab much) also figure that the rubbing off goes both ways. They surmise that some of the Betas’ worst traits will rub off on the others around them, creating more humble people. This doesn’t make much sense to me, but what the bloop do I know? I’m just a kid. An average kid.
I lifted my hand to knock on the door.
“Come in, Mr. Moon,” Commander Jasmine called from behind the door, before I had a chance to knock.
The door popped open.
There she stood. Well, actually sat, before me, Commander Gloria Jasmine. Now, those who know me know I’m not prone to exaggeration, but I have to say that Commander Gloria Jasmine is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Okay, I’m only sixteen and haven’t been paying attention to women for a lot of time. But even so, I think I can safely say that Commander Jasmine will be the most beautiful woman I will ever see, even if I live to be four hundred. She makes me wish I was older.
good looking. I would say she’s
hot, only that would be disrespectful to a superior officer. Plus, the commander is also a powerful MB, a mind bender. The last scout that let his mind wander to where teenage boys’ minds wander, ended up quacking like a duck for the better part of a week. I had to compose myself and be careful with my thoughts. It wasn’t easy. She might not have been perfect, but if there was a flaw you’d need a subelectronic microscope to find it. Her creamy golden skin, golden hair that flowed and curled just over her shoulders, her hypnotic green eyes, her smile, her legs, her…well, her everything. On those rare occasions when she smiled at me, I swore I could hear music playing.
“Come in, Mr. Moon,” she said, more sharply than before.
I took a deep breath and walked in. The commander’s office was very military. The walls and floors were spotless; she must have the cleaning bots whitewash them hourly. Her desk sat at the far end of the room near the wall in front of the world flag. The desk didn’t have so much as a paper clip on top of its built-in information screen. Around the desk there were a few old-fashioned chairs, so straight they looked like they were standing at attention. The walls were dotted with perfectly aligned holo-pictures: the commander graduating from the academy, the commander graduating from medical school, the commander meeting the world president, the commander at the helm of a shuttle. It was pretty easy to see the theme. She pointed to a wooden chair in front of her desk. “Sit,” she ordered.
I did as I was told.
She looked at me. She shook her head. “Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon,” she said.
My first instinct was to say,
what, what, what
, but I fought it back. I just dropped my head and lowered my eyes. I figured the less I looked at her, the less trouble I’d get into.
“Look at me, Scout Moon,” she ordered.
So much for that theory. I looked up at her. I had never noticed what perfect lips she had before. They were like… Man, I had to get my mind back to business before the commander gave my mind the business.
“I know I blooped up,” I said meekly.
“Do you know why?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “And watch your language in front of an officer.”
“If that wasn’t a simulation, I would have killed myself and my crew,” I said.
“Plus you would have destroyed a multi-million dollar shuttle,” the commander added, as only a commander could.
I suppressed a gulp. I had to do something to defend myself fast or I’d be on the next shuttle back to Earth. If I ever left this place I wanted it to be on my terms.
“I did what I had thought I had to do,” I said, quickly. “The mission specs said the crew we were sent to save only had four hours of air left. I thought cutting through the asteroid field would give us much needed time.”
I paused, waiting for her reply. None came. So I went on.
“It was meant to be a learning experience. I did learn a valuable lesson. I’m sorry that I would have killed my crew and destroyed the shuttle but we can’t be certain I would have done that in a real situation. I knew it was a simulation. I’m betting if it had been a live exercise, my crew and ship would be just as alive as they are now.”
Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best argument, but it was the best I could come up with on the spot. I usually think fast on my feet. The problem was around the commander my mind would fill with all sorts of thoughts that weren’t at all helpful to the situation. They were thoughts about her eyes, her lips…her other parts…thoughts that could get me in trouble.
The commander just looked at me for a tic or two, though it seemed like an hour. She smiled, ever so slightly. It was a beautiful smile, it excited me some, but it scared me more.
“Crews die and ships get destroyed,” she said softly. “I might not like it, but I accept it. It’s a fact of scout and military life.”