Fly By Wire (Anon & DronePone)

Oct 19th, 2015
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  1. *Updated 12/25/2015*
  5. >Be a pilot in the Equestrian Air Corps
  6. >Finally get your required flight time to be in a real Squadron.
  7. >No more simulations or trainer planes for you!
  8. >Except it wasn't meant to be.
  9. >Just as you finished your last checkride, you were reassigned to the drone command.
  10. >It was like a bully in an air force uniform kicked your inner child in the shin and took his lunch money.
  11. >It was your dream to fly!
  12. >Get a stupid nickname, quote Iron Eagle, and best of all go to bars and tell everyone you're a pilot!
  13. >Not sit in an office and be a glorified mechanic!
  14. >Or whatever the heck a drone 'pilot' does!
  15. >Even the name was a mockery of your dream...
  16. >With a heavy heart and a bitter cup of coffee, you were at your new post at 0600 the next day.
  17. >There were a few others with you, some excited cadets and a few other pilots you knew from training.
  18. >They shared your disdain for the assignment, it was written all over their faces.
  19. >The captain entered and everyone straightened up.
  20. >He had a short but pointless speech about the new direction the airforce was going in, and how you all would be seen as pioneers.
  21. >Whatever, nobody remembered the name of the guy who refueled Chuck Yeager's plane.
  22. >As the Captain finished, the drones entered the hanger
  23. >They were small things, little plones with propellers on their tails and odd looking domes over their eyes.
  24. >Your new partner approached you and kept a stoic face as she did.
  25. >"Human."
  26. >She said, and bowed her head slightly
  27. >"I requested you personally."
  28. >Oh really?
  29. "Why?"
  30. >"I believed you would be the best operator. As I intend to be the best drone in the squadron, I required nothing less."
  31. >You blinked.
  32. >She stood there.
  33. >"Am I wrong in that assumption?"
  34. "No. Of course not. I'm going to be the best desk jockey in the air force."
  35. >"Desk Jockey?"
  36. "Nevermind. Yea. I'm good enough for you."
  37. >"Good, we start our training at 0930. First we should have a meal together so we may become better acquainted.
  38. >She turned to leave and you followed.
  39. "Do you have a name?"
  40. >"MQ-1"
  41. "No, I mean, do you have a name other than your model number."
  42. >"No."
  43. "We should give you a name."
  44. >"Why? I will only be speaking to you from here on out."
  45. "So? It's dumb not to have a name. I'm Anon."
  46. >"Anon."
  47. >She repeated.
  48. >"The engineers sometimes called me Sparky."
  49. >You cocked an eyebrow.
  50. "Why'd they call you that?"
  51. >"My FMC overheated."
  52. >You chuckled.
  53. >She made no sign she understood the nickname.
  54. "Sparky it is then. I hope they fixed the bad part."
  55. >"They replaced it. I have not had a malfunction since."
  56. "Good to know, Sparky. Don't want you to get lost on a mission or worse."
  57. >You could have sworn you saw her lips curl to a very tiny smile.
  58. >It could have been the light though.
  59. >"I would not get lost. I am equipped with GPS and INS. Even if both would fail, I can use the radio communication in conjunction with my emergency ADF."
  60. "Not bad."
  61. >"I told you, I will not be anything but the best drone."
  62. >She said something else, far too quiet for you to hear.
  63. >You didn't ask what though, this was strange enough as it is.
  64. >You made it to the mess hall.
  65. >Sparky was given a nutrient substance and some kind of grey liquid to drink.
  66. >Quite the contrast to your omelet.
  67. "What do drones eat, anyway?"
  68. >You asked, mid-bite.
  69. >"A heavy metal concoction mixed with lubricants for my internal systems. The glass is full of jet-a and oil, before you inquire."
  70. >She sipped it through a straw.
  71. >It was a little weird that she didn't have eyes, you never could tell if she was looking at you or simply facing your direction.
  72. "Can you see me normally?"
  73. >"I can see a full 360 degree field of vision, and have more than twenty different combination of lenses and filters.. I see everything, Anon."
  74. >Creepy.
  75. >You resumed eating in silence.
  76. >Watching her cut perfectly square pieces of her 'food', chew it the same number of times, swallow, then sip her fuel.
  77. >"Do you have a significant other?"
  78. >She asked out of seemingly nowhere.
  79. >When you didn't answer right away, she continued.
  80. >"Your file has you listed as single. However, that does not mean you are without a mate, so I am curious if I will be meeting any other humans when we go home."
  81. >We go home?
  82. ", I'm between girlfriends right now. What do you mean go home?"
  83. >"We are paired in all aspects, Anon. We shall eat, sleep, and fly together. Our goal is to be of one mind. To have no pause between our thoughts so we can be the most effective fighting unit."
  84. >Whoa...
  85. "That's a bit excessive, don't you think?"
  86. >She swallowed three chews early.
  87. >Did that bother her?
  88. >"I am merely following what I feel will be the most efficient route for us. The quicker we become best at our tasks, the quicker we can perform actual missions. I am told you just finished training. Do you really wish to spend months training more?"
  89. "When you put it that way, no."
  90. >"Good. Neither do I. If you cannot keep up, I will find a new pilot."
  91. "Good luck with that, you only got someone as good as me because you snagged me right out of flight school!"
  92. >"Overconfidence and arrogance are often confused, Anon. Be careful not to mistake one for the other."
  93. >Did she just knock you down a peg?
  94. >Did you enjoy it?
  95. "Whatever, don't go convincing yourself all your shiny gadgets makes you a good pilot either. It takes skill and instinct to be the best, and you'll need both in spades."
  96. >"I intend to meet and exceed all your expectations. So long as you provide an equal effort, we shall succeed in what is expected of us."
  97. >You pffted a lock of hair out of your face.
  98. >She swallowed early again.
  99. >Odd how you kept noticing that.
  100. "What's our first lesson?"
  101. >"Basic flight maneuvers. Should be simple enough for both of us. It is more to test our response time together."
  102. >You nodded, nothing to really argue with there.
  103. >Anytime you're in a new plane it was good to give it a once over before doing anything crazy.
  104. >She got up to bus her tray, but you still had some food left so you stayed.
  105. >She was surprisingly graceful for someone otherwise so robotic.
  106. >Sleek airframe, very sharp curves
  107. >Kind of surprising she was propeller driven though, and her engine looked a little small even for her size.
  108. >That would be a bit of a change, you were used to jets.
  109. >Nice legs too...
  110. >...for a plone.
  111. >When she returned she gestured to your tray.
  112. >"When you finish, you will go to the command center. I will be on the flight line waiting for our uplink."
  113. >You nodded and as she turned to leave, she leaned her head back to you.
  114. >"My engine provides me of over 14 hours of flight time, it will be sufficient."
  115. >Oh right, she can look behind her...
  116. >Awkward.
  117. >You finished eating and made your way to the command center, as she said.
  118. >You were surprised to find none of the other drone pilots there.
  119. >Guess joint missions came later.
  120. >The technicians checked your ID and waved you through.
  121. >There was a level D simulator set up, and you were escorted to yours.
  122. >When you got inside, there was a single seat inside an otherwise dark cockpit mock up.
  123. >"Sit down and get comfortable. We're firing up the uplink software. You'll be able to control her directly in a moment."
  124. >You nodded and did as you were told.
  125. >The cockpit was entirely glass, and even before the systems began to turn on, it felt uncomfortable and alien to you.
  126. >Months and months in a beat up T-38 certainly made you biased toward all this digital stuff.
  127. >Even the chair felt a little too high tech for your tastes.
  128. >With a sigh, you strapped yourself in, and you hear the sound of switches being flipped and the hum of computers beginning to boot.
  129. >First the avionics screens came on, then a honeycomb viewpanel began to light up.
  130. >Before long, the entire cockpit was alive, and the same 360 degree view she boasted of surrounded you.
  131. >You could see everything on the flightline, without a single obstruction from glass or bars or anything.
  132. >It was a little overwhelming, even for you.
  133. >Moreso the instrumentation, everything was digital and glass.
  134. >Only the flight stick was analog, and you can only imagine how rarely you'd actually use it.
  135. >"Anon. Can you hear me?"
  136. >Her voice filled the cockpit, you didn't even need a headset.
  137. "I hear ya, Sparky."
  138. >One of the engineers looked at you funny and you shrugged.
  139. >"I will handle the radios. You may take my controls."
  140. >Sexy.
  141. >Resting your feet on the rudder pedals, you began to taxi her to the run way when the tower gave you your instructions.
  142. >The program had no lag whatsoever, the moment you applied even the slightest bit of pressure to the pedals she turned.
  143. "Weird not doing a preflight."
  144. >"I am fully functional, Anon. It would have been unnecessary."
  145. "Even so, it feels like I skipped foreplay or something."
  146. >An amber light blinked briefly.
  147. >Her oil temperature spiked slightly.
  148. >But before you could pull the checklist, the temperature stabilized.
  149. "Will that be a problem?"
  150. >"No. Perhaps a faulty reading."
  151. >She reached the runway.
  152. >Tower cleared you for takeoff.
  153. >You ran through the checklist quickly as she taxied on the runway.
  154. >As soon as you lined her up with the center line, you gave her full throttle.
  155. >She was right, her engine was far from underpowered.
  156. >Complete with her lightweight airframe, she was off the ground in less than a thousand feet.
  157. >The simulator matched the pitch, giving you the feeling of ascent.
  158. >It was close but it would never be the same as the real thing.
  159. >"Is there a problem, Anon?"
  160. >You rubbed your head.
  161. "No, just getting used to this."
  162. >"You are quite nimble with your fingers, Anon. You show great finesse with the controls."
  163. >If you didn't know better, you'd swear she was flirting with you...
  164. "Well its really comfortable inside you."
  165. >There was a sudden loss of about 300 feet and the simulator pitched down slightly.
  166. >You quickly stabilized her and returned to your assigned altitude.
  167. "Turbulence?"
  168. >She didn't answer.
  169. >You looked back to the engineer.
  170. >He shrugged, equally baffled.
  171. >"Yes. Slight chop. I adjusted the trim too quickly."
  172. >You nodded.
  173. "Don't forget your call outs next time. It will save us all time."
  174. >"Sorry. I am learning as well."
  175. "No worries. So what do you want to try first? We're in the practice area."
  176. >It was a very basic flight, even as far as first flights went.
  177. >Like a day from private pilot school
  178. >Lazy eights, chandelles, turns around a point, etc
  179. >You were in dirty slow flight now, barely above 30 knots, perfectly keeping her from stalling with trim only.
  180. >Flying her was a dream, none of the quirks the old birds seemed to have
  181. >Come to think of it, you never flew a new plane in your life
  182. >You were almost at the end of your flight time, amazing how fast an hour can go by.
  183. >One last maneuver.
  184. "Ready for a stall?"
  185. >No answer.
  186. >Weird, considering she took your call out scolding quite seriously earlier, and have been making every single one since.
  187. >You began to gradually ease off the throttle, keeping her pitch
  188. >The stall horn began to whine slightly, and even int he simulator, you could feel the slight buffeting begin.
  189. "We're going to aim for less than 50 feet loss of altitude, ok? Let skip right to commercial tolerances."
  190. >Still no answer from her.
  191. >The controls were responding normally though, so you began to go through the procedure.
  192. >Power back, pitch for altitude, wait for it.
  193. "Stall"
  194. >You called out, but you approached this as a single pilot, and the moment the horn blared and she nosed down, you went through the recovery procedure.
  195. >Power, level off, flaps, trim.
  196. >She had fixed gear so that step was skipped.
  197. >As quick as she nosed down, she was level again.
  198. >Only 30 feet lost, not bad even for you.
  199. >Cruising speed was reached and you re trimmed
  200. >You started to get some odd buffeting though.
  201. >Nothing major the controls felt like they were trembling though.
  202. "Experiencing some light chop. You feeling the same up there?"
  203. >"I-I-I am OK."
  204. >Weird, she sounded almost...
  205. >No way, it couldn't be.
  206. >"Shall we RTB?"
  207. "Sure, Sparky."
  208. >You began the checklist, and she took the radios for clearance back into the Charlie.
  209. >As you turned toward the airport, you peeked behind you, then leaned to the receiver.
  210. "I got a little spooked my first stall too."
  211. >She didn't acknowledge you if she did hear you.
  212. >You landed her without any trouble and taxied back to the hangar.
  213. >As the system powered down, you had a quick Q&A with the engineers about the response time and general feel of the cockpit itself.
  214. >You had to admit, it was perfect.
  215. >The only thing missing was a window to open, and they seemed pleased with themselves.
  216. >Before you left, they scheduled you for another flight in two days and dropped a binder about as big as a phonebook in your arms.
  217. >While the first flight had been given to you in a folder, it looks like the program directors had a lot more planned.
  218. >That business over, you were to meet up with Sparky for a post flight debrief.
  219. >Strange as that sounds, usually these were with an instructor or a check pilot.
  220. >Not with the literal plane.
  221. >When you arrived at one of the debrief rooms, she was already in there.
  222. >All the paperwork neatly laid out along with two logbooks.
  223. >You recognized yours, a beat up leather bound book filled about halfway through.
  224. >Hers sitting next to yours on its very first page.
  225. >Not a single entry, today was her first flight.
  226. >It made you smile, thinking of your first entry.
  227. >You were so timid back then, not nearly the confident pilot you were now.
  228. >"Anon? Are you ready to debrief?"
  229. >She asked, turning her head to you.
  230. >Her expression was still one of stone, but her propeller was windmilling slightly.
  231. >Good to see there was a little excitement under all that engineering.
  232. "Lets do it."
  233. >Then you asked the most cliched question an instructor could ever ask.
  234. "So, Sparky, how do you think you did?"
  235. >She tilted her head and clicked her forehooves together once.
  236. >She must not have been expecting that.
  237. >There was a pause, then she did exactly what you didn't want her to do.
  238. >She picked up the flight overview paper and read it line by line.
  239. >"Flight program uplink began at 0932, taxi for takeoff at 0936, takeoff at 0938. At 0943 clearance altitude of 3-5 thousand reached. At 0947 we reached the north practice area. First maneuver, standard rate turns, performed within tolerance of plus or minus 2-0 feet at 0948..."
  240. >This continued for about ten solid minutes, and while it was nice to know she was so thorough, it was borderline painful.
  241. >You wanted to interrupt but at the same time she seemed like she would request a full debriefing if you didn't let her go through it all, so you let it happen.
  242. >Finally, she reached the final line.
  243. >"Uplink program terminated at 1034."
  244. >She looked up from the paper and gave the smallest smile.
  245. >"One hour and two minutes of total flight time, 54 minutes of actual. Which shall we log?"
  246. "How bout we call it an even hour."
  247. >"That is fair."
  248. "That isn't what I asked you though."
  249. >If she could blink, you imagined she would have right there.
  250. "That was your first flight, how did you feel?"
  251. >"All my instrumentation functioned within usual tolerances. My flight surfaces and controls responded as expected. Did you experience any control lag?"
  252. "Nope. That simulator was the most responsive I've ever been in."
  253. >She smiled a little more.
  254. >You found yourself forgetting how much you were supposed to be angry about this assignment.
  255. >Sure it wasn't exactly flying but..
  256. >"It was very nice to fly with you. I am impressed by your professional attitude, despite you not wanting this assignment. Your skill with the controls are exceptional. All of our maneuvers were performed well within maximum tolerances."
  257. > had its perks.
  258. "You were a dream to fly, even if I wasn't actually flying inside you. I never had controls respond so smoothly and precisely. I'm almost sad we're not going up again for another two days."
  259. >"I am pleased to hear that."
  260. >She kept her stoic tone as always but you could tell she was happy.
  261. >Whatever ire she might have had toward you and vice versa was gone, replaced by your mutual love of flying.
  262. >You asked questions, she answered, and followed up with her own ones.
  263. >One in particular was the downtime, two days seemed a lot consider she was a new plone and you were a seasoned pilot.
  264. >She explained it was more the software than anything, that it's so new that it requires a lot of data collection between flights.
  265. >Kind of crazy to think about how many software engineers would be reviewing your flights with her.
  266. >Somehow it felt almost like they were intruding on something private, as silly as that might be.
  267. >"Has this debrief been to your satisfaction?"
  268. >She asked after a sufficient lull in the conversation.
  269. "Yea, I think we can end it here. Just one thing I'd like to add. If a maneuver makes you nervous you can tell me beforehand."
  270. >Her smile faded and her flat expression returned.
  271. >"I was not nervous."
  272. "Well nervous, scared, whatever. We're in this together. We can always skip a planned exercise if you're not feeling it."
  273. >"I will not deviate from our sortie. It is important we complete each assignment as they are given to us."
  274. >She gestured to the monster of a binder you were handed when you left the sim-building.
  275. >"Our training regiment is very carefully outlined."
  276. "I'm sure, but my point still stands, your call outs stopped abruptly when I went into the stall, and your controls were shaking. It's not a big deal if you were worried, I'd just like to know that's all."
  277. >You expected a lengthy retort but she surprised you and bowed her head slightly and only said
  278. >"I will try harder to convey my status to you more regularly."
  279. "That's all I ask."
  280. >You smiled and took a pen from the side of your flight bag.
  281. "Wanna fill out our logbooks together?"
  282. >That tiny smile returned.
  283. >"I would like that, yes."
  284. >You filled yours out first, it was second nature to you.
  285. >She watched silently as you put the information in the correct boxes, then signed the last one.
  286. >When you finished, she slid hers to you.
  287. >"Please fill mine out as well. Until I am rated for solo flight, I consider myself a student."
  288. >D'aww
  289. >With a smile you complied, except in her 'description' box, instead of writing 'Drone program sortie #1', you scribbled in what you did and a little extra about her performance.
  290. >You signed the instructor box and slid the book back to her.
  291. >With her eyes covered you had no idea if she was even reading it till she smiled very gently.
  292. >"Th-thank you for your kind words, Anon."
  293. >She said as she zapped a barcode into her signature box.
  294. "Anytime Sparky."
  295. >The two of you sorted out the rest of the paperwork, cleaned up your effects, and dropped your debriefing packet off at the front desk.
  296. >Once all that was finished, it was almost noon.
  297. "Lunch time?"
  298. >"I cannot. I must go to the maintenance hangar for system checks."
  299. "Oh, alright."
  300. >"Will you accompany me?"
  301. >You nodded and she lead the way.
  302. >Come to think of it, had she not asked, you would have.
  303. >You had never felt the need to be around when they serviced your plane after a flight, but for some reason with Sparky it was different.
  304. >It coincided with your orders, of course, to eat, sleep, and breath drones till you were told otherwise.
  305. >But you don't think that would have mattered either way.
  306. >After that first flight, you felt an odd attachment to Sparky, like how those old pilots talk about their old F-14s like they were another person.
  307. >Sparky even had the advantage of actually being...whatever the heck she was.
  308. >She stopped, and rummaged through her flight bag.
  309. >After a moment she handed you a fresh ID badge with your picture, name and credentials on it.
  310. >"Apologies, we are entering a restricted area and I neglected to give you your new clearance."
  311. >You nodded and clipped the new badge on your lanyard.
  312. >She lead you outside, then to a hangar that has been closed and under high security for the past year
  313. >You always had wondered what they were up to in there, it was often a heated conversation among your fellow pilots when you went out.
  314. >There was a point in time you were all convinced it was the SR-72, because why not?
  315. >You would never say so to Sparky but it was a slight disappointment when it turned out to be a drone ponies rather than something crazy from Skunkworks.
  316. >She stopped at one of the entrances and looked up toward a camera.
  317. >You followed suit and lifted your new badge.
  318. >The door unlocked and opened, and you followed her inside.
  319. >Probably one of the cleanest hangars you ever saw for a military base.
  320. >Sparky was immediately approached by a technician, and he pointed to an empty area toward the back.
  321. >There were a few mechanics milling around, but to call them that was a bit of a stretch.
  322. >These were more like engineers with toolbelts, you could tell by how neat and organized they were.
  323. >It was a little relieving, some of the guys who worked on your old T-38 you would be terrified to let near Sparky.
  324. >One in particular, a gaunt looking fellow with streaks of grey in his hair and a clipboard, emerged from an office.
  325. >Sparky, for the first time since you met her, actually galloped toward him.
  326. >It happened so fast you didn't even think to keep pace.
  327. >She covered half the hangar in that little dash of hers, so you couldn't hear what she was saying to the man.
  328. >But wow, her mouth was moving fast.
  329. >And she almost looked happy?
  330. >A little nervous even?
  331. >The man patted her on the head and said something and she smiled wider than you had ever seen before.
  332. >You bit the inside of your mouth
  333. >Were you actually feeling jealousy?
  334. >Who was this guy anyhow touching your drone?
  335. >She was all smiles when the two of them approached you.
  336. >He shook your hand and introduced himself as the director of the project.
  337. >You shook back, and in an instant it all made sense.
  338. >This was her Dad, for lack of a better term, and she was introducing you as her pilot.
  339. >She must have told him everything about your first flight together before you reached them.
  340. >So when the two of you shared a quick laugh, she looked to the ground and kicked her hoof, quite pleased with herself.
  341. >Sheesh, you've barely been working with her for 6 hours and you're already meeting her parents?
  342. >Drones work awful fast.
  343. >As you'd imagine, that little ping of jealousy was short lived, now with a better grasp of the situation.
  344. >Sparky was lead to a maintenance bay and you and her 'Dad' talked a bunch.
  345. >Lots of technical questions about her performance, then more informal ones about the project in general.
  346. >You weren't a jerk, and kept your 'pilots belong in planes' feelings to yourself, and sung nothing but praise for the day's work
  347. >Truthfully, after this morning, you weren't sure how much you believed that anymore anyhow.
  348. >Then came a question you weren't expecting.
  349. >The same one you fielded her earlier.
  350. >"How did you feel about flying with her?"
  351. >But unlike Sparky, you understood what he meant.
  352. "It was different. I'll have to fly more to give you a better answer. But there's something about actually talking to the plane that's a little...what's the word..."
  353. >"Surreal?"
  354. "Yea, that's it. Sometimes you forget and you think you're talking to a copilot, and other times its like she already knows what I want to do."
  355. >"Impressive, so far you and her were the only ones to report a mutually positive experience."
  356. "Really?"
  357. >"Well, we had two uplink failures and one motion sick cadet, so that was 3 grounded flights. The two other flights that did happen, both the drone and the pilot were a bit argumentative. I am hoping it passes. It might be early to say, but the selection process may be flawed."
  358. "Howso?"
  359. >"Of all of the test pilots, you were the only one selected by the drone personally. The others we used an algorithm to match them up, but she was allowed to observe the upcoming graduates and select her operator strictly based on her own opinion. She watched you and your colleagues fly for a week straight, reviewed your logs and your files, and ultimately she chose you."
  360. >She did say when you first met that she requested you, it never occurred to you that it was more than her picking a file.
  361. >You couldn't help but grin, a bit of pride showing in your eyes when you replied.
  362. "She's a wonderful plane. I won't let any of you down."
  363. >"I'm as confident as she is. She had nothing but good things to say."
  364. >A junior engineer popped his head out from the bay and flagged her father over.
  365. >He nodded and excused himself.
  366. >You wondered what was going on but knew better than to follow.
  367. >One thing pilots were best at was getting in the way when their planes were down for repairs.
  368. >Lacking anything better to read, you pulled the massive binder from your flight bag and started reviewing the next flight plan.
  369. >It was a bit surprising what it called for, much more complicated maneuvers on the second flight, especially considering how basic her first flight way.
  370. >But you had to remember it wasn't like she was training, if anything these were designed to get your feet wet.
  371. >By the third flight you were already doing spins.
  372. >You chuckled, if stalls got her nervous that would be something else.
  373. >Already bored with the rubric, you grabbed the tab on her schematics section and flipped to it.
  374. >Seemed more fitting considering where you were.
  375. >You became more familiar with her components and her construction, an odd blend of synthetics, composites, and even a little organics.
  376. >All that told you was your dream of off-base housing was pretty much over if they expected you to house her during down time.
  377. >They'd never let you leave the property with something this advanced.
  378. >Just as you reached the diagrams of her avionics dome, the maintenance bay opened and she emerged with her Dad.
  379. >You closed the binder and put it away before joining them.
  380. >"Everything is OK, Sparky wanted to talk to me about something."
  381. >She turned her head away slightly, still kicking at the ground with embarrassment when you or your Dad mentioned her.
  382. >"We talked about pushing your next flight up, so expect to be flying Wednesday rather than Thursday. If you have performances like today, you'll find yourselves getting priority more and more."
  383. "We're ready for anything, right?"
  384. >Sparky nodded.
  385. >"I'm glad to hear it. Report to the training facility tomorrow at 0930, we're going to have to torture you with some safety videos first."
  386. >With an exchange of handshakes and good days, you and Sparky left the hangar.
  387. >It was close to 1500 now, incredible how much time passed.
  388. >Your stomach rumbled before you could even pop the question.
  389. >"Lunch would be appropriate at this time."
  390. >Seems like she's back to her normal self.
  391. >"Afterwards, I would like to review our flight plan for Wednesday, now that we have only a days time to become familiar with it."
  392. "Worried we'll mess up?"
  393. >"No. But I will not be unprepared for any assignment."
  394. "Any excuse to get me alone with you, got it."
  395. >You snickered when her propeller windmilled at your comment.
  396. >By about 1800 or so, you realized you had never spent this much one on one time with a single person before.
  397. >Save for bathroom breaks, Sparky hadn't been kidding when she said everything you two would do together.
  398. >Briefing items, flight technique analysis, reviewing her systems and components, you named it you covered it.
  399. >This was only day one, at that.
  400. >What the heck would you guys be doing weeks or months from now?
  401. >It was close to dinner time when you dared to ask her to clarify something.
  402. "'re really coming home with me?"
  403. >"Yes."
  404. "Do drones even sleep?"
  405. >"We require a rest period to categorize our internal memory. Our synthetic organics also benefits from a period of little metabolic activity."
  406. "Alright."
  407. >The walk to the base housing was about a mile and then some.
  408. >You had run out of things to talk about hours ago.
  409. >If she sensed the awkward silence, she made no sign it was bothering her.
  410. "You don't have to walk, you know."
  411. >You said after about 10 minutes of quiet.
  412. >"Pardon?"
  413. "If its more comfortable for you to fly next to me, we're outside, it's OK."
  414. >"Fly? But I am not authorized to fly without the uplink."
  415. "Not really fly like high in the air, but you can match my speed and go a little bit in the air if your legs get tired. We spent all day going over your V speeds, I know you can practically hover before stalling."
  416. >"I...see no harm in that."
  417. >Her little propeller began to spool up as you continued to walk.
  418. >After about ten feet or so, she was gaining a little altitude
  419. >When she got to about your shoulder height, she was out of ground effect and dropped a little.
  420. >You heard her RPM increase and she rose back up to where she was a second ago.
  421. "Better?"
  422. >She was definitely over-controlling, her ailerons popping up and down out as she tried to level herself off.
  423. >So unsure of herself, even a few feet off the ground.
  424. >It was adorable.
  425. >She must be chasing the attitude indicator, overcompensating, then having to correct again, never quite relaxing enough to get the altitude and speed she wanted.
  426. >Her legs dangled, tensing anytime her pitch dipped slightly down.
  427. >At her speed and height, she would sooner get damaged by a falling leaf then a sudden landing.
  428. >But never the less you reached underneath her and tilted her head forward.
  429. "Use the horizon. Forget about your instruments."
  430. >She did her best to listen, but when your hand made contact with her body, she nearly pitched into a stall.
  431. >You hand must have been cold or something.
  432. "Pick a point in the distance and keep it that, yea. Now relax."
  433. >Before long she was steady in the air, going slightly faster than you.
  434. >"This is nice."
  435. "I thought you'd like it. You were meant to fly, afterall."
  436. >"Yes. Thank you."
  437. "Don't mention it."
  438. >You let her drift ahead slightly, admiring how she looked in the air.
  439. >Still a wobble here and there, but she was keeping herself straight and level for the most part.
  440. >"Anon, don't fall too far behind."
  441. >She said without turning around.
  442. "Just checking out your airframe, don't mind me."
  443. >She kicked one of her front legs ever so slightly.
  444. >"Roger."
  445. >Eventually you speed back up and show her where your housing block is.
  446. >Well, more like strip of single room units.
  447. >Least you didn't have a roommate to deal with.
  448. >When you reach the stairs, she opts to touch down and resume on foot--er--hoof.
  449. >The railings and the narrow passages weren't very conductive to her limited flight skill.
  450. >You didn't blame her, even you'd feel a little weird steering her through some of this.
  451. >So up the stairs you went, to your third floor hole in the wall.
  452. >It wasn't much to look at when you got the door open.
  453. >One of those wood and cushion couches every dorm/base has, a bed, a dresser, and a tv mounted opposite the couch.
  454. >Walls were bare, you never were a posters and random shit type.
  455. >Only exception was a chart against the wall with the airspace map pressed and covered in notes.
  456. >You sat down on the couch, and Sparky wandered about your spartan quarters.
  457. >"There is sufficient room for myself."
  458. >She said after doing a full circuit from bathroom to closet.
  459. "I didn't think it would be a problem. I'll see about getting another bed. In the meantime I'll crash on the couch."
  460. >She climbed on your toughbox and stared at your bed for a few moments.
  461. >"Unnecessary. There is sufficient surface area on the current mattress for both of us."
  462. >You cocked an eyebrow and leaned forward.
  463. >Much as you don't want to sleep on the couch, you never expected to be crawling in bed with military hardware.
  464. "You sure? Don't you have sensitive equipment or something? Not worried I'll break it?"
  465. >"My more valuable instrumentation is contained in my visor. Anything mission specific is attached to me for flight only. I would never leave the airfield with it."
  466. "Oh. Well I mean...."
  467. >"It is the most efficient use of space. Your flying skills would be affected if you slept poorly. It would be negligent to interrupt your routine."
  468. "I...guess you're correct then."
  469. >She nodded and hopped down, joining you on the couch.
  470. >"Jeopardy is on. Would it be acceptable to view it at this time?"
  471. >Along with evening television, you shared with her the wonders of microwaved leftovers and youtube.
  472. >She didn't eat, not that you were expecting her to, but she did become addicted to the Red Bull airrace videos.
  473. >You had to cut her off when it got close to 2300, you were tired and you both had to be at the hangar early in the morning the next day.
  474. >After a quick shower, you left the bathroom expecting to find her already in the bed, but instead she was in the process of removing her wings and propeller.
  475. >She blushed slightly when you saw her wingless, and you apologized and looked away, as if she was a woman changing or something.
  476. >"It is alright. They design us this way for easier transportation and storage."
  477. "Oh. Makes sense. Like F-18s?"
  478. >"Yes."
  479. >Before you climbed into bed, she placed her leg on yours.
  480. >"Please close the shades and extinguish all the light sources, please. I need to remove my visor and my eyes alone are very sensitive to bright light."
  481. >You complied, drawing the blackout curtains from when you flew at night and killing all the lights.
  482. >Thankfully your place was small, so feeling our way back to the bed was easy.'
  483. >You laid down on your back, pulling your body as far to the wall as you could.
  484. >Small as she was, it was an extra long twin bed, not a queen or a king.
  485. >"Anon."
  486. >She said, and despite the darkness you could make out her silhouette from the light of your alarm clock.
  487. >"Please face away."
  488. "Huh? What's wrong?"
  489. >"I am about to remove my visor."
  490. "So?"
  491. >She turned her head away and her front leg pushed at the carpet a little.
  492. >"I am not ready for you to see me without it."
  493. >Oh.
  494. >You didn't protest anymore, but rolled on your stomach and turned your head to the wall.
  495. >"Thank you, Anon."
  496. >There was the sounds of clicking and something metal being set down on your desk.
  497. >Your imagination was going a little wild.
  498. >Was she like all circuits and wires under there?
  499. >Despite you dying to turn your head and peek, you respected her privacy.
  500. >There was too much you and her had to do together for you to deny her such a simply request.
  501. >The mattress creaked as she got into the bed.
  502. >She was right, there was enough room for her without you doing anything significant.
  503. >Without her wings and other attachments she was quite tiny.
  504. >She said as you felt her rest her head down on the pillow.
  505. >She laid down on her side, facing away from you.
  506. >You felt her back press very slightly into you before moving away.
  507. >She felt surprisingly warm.
  508. >""I am deactivating now. I will awaken ten minutes before your alarm is scheduled to sound."
  509. >You shifted your body slightly, trying your best to get used to the idea of Sparky being in bed with you.
  510. >Leave enough room for the holy ghost, Anon!
  511. >You pulled yourself a little closer to the wall and nodded.
  512. >"Sleep well, Anon."
  513. "You too, Sparky."
  514. >There was a slight humming noise, then she went silent.
  515. >Like a computer shutting down.
  516. >Still tempted to lean over and look at what was under her visor, you forced yourself to be good.
  517. >She'll show you when she's ready.
  518. >Whatever the heck it might be.
  519. >Closing your eyes and letting the days worth of fatigue wash over your body, you drifted off to sleep in short order.
  521. >After four weeks of training, briefings, being occasionally poked by flight surgeons, and learning to sleep in the corner of your bed, you and Sparky were on your first true sortie.
  522. >Granted, it wasn't a true mission, Sparky was a little too valuable to put over unfriendly skies.
  523. >But this was the first flight that lasted as long as a typical mission would be for her.
  524. >Observing a 'bunker at high altitude in the middle of nowhere.
  525. >Flying around in a circle at FL200
  526. >For ten straight hours.
  527. >The only saving grace of this was the simulator had a restroom.
  528. >It was hour five about now.
  529. >"1800Z, Altitude Two-Zero thousand, Rate of Turn 5 degrees,..."
  530. >Oh and there was Sparky's call outs every 10 minutes.
  531. >Never missed it.
  532. >Always finishing with...
  533. >" change in status."
  534. "Did they tell you what we're looking for?"
  535. >"Negative. Our briefing was the same."
  536. "Just checking..."
  537. >You leaned your head on your hand and sighed.
  538. >"This reconnaissance mission was described as medium length. If I was equipped with fuel pods I could remain airborne for close to eighteen hours."
  539. "You're not bored?"
  540. >"I am incapable of feeling bored."
  541. "Right."
  542. >"But I will admit this mission lacks the usual...structure our previous flights have had."
  543. >No kidding...
  544. >You looked over her instrumentation again.
  545. >Everything normal.
  546. >You checked her cameras.
  547. >Focused on the bunker.
  548. >Look out the windows.
  549. >Blue skies and clouds.
  550. >Horizon tilted slightly.
  551. >Your trainers warned you about days like this.
  552. "Wanna watch how it's made tonight?"
  553. >You asked after another long pause and a status update.
  554. >She really liked that show, and science channel ran marathons.
  555. >It put you to sleep but she never seemed to mind.
  556. >"Unfortunately, I will be in maintenance for at least four hours after a flight of this length."
  557. >So much for that plan.
  558. "Maybe tomorrow then. We get twenty four hours of downtime, right?"
  559. >"Correct."
  560. "Well, I don't know about you but I--"
  561. >The master warning started to blare.
  562. >The fuck?
  563. >The simulator started to shimmy and buck slightly.
  564. >You depressed the alarm and quickly scanned the instruments.
  565. >Oil temp warning?
  566. "Sparky? You alright?"
  567. >"My engine appears to have stopped."
  568. "Level off, pitch for best glide, trimming."
  569. >"Roger. I will turn toward the base first."
  570. "Good thinking."
  571. >You pulled the checklist after she leveled off at best glide.
  572. >The turn toward the base cost you guys 1000 feet but she was doing a great job holding the speed.
  573. "Just fly, Sparky, look for a place to land."
  574. >"Terrain appears...mountainous. Not suitable for touchdown."
  575. "We have time, relax and fly."
  576. >You learned about two weeks ago that she used apparently a lot when she was nervous.
  577. >Ok, line by line, no problem.
  578. >Barely below 18,000 feet when you start running through the restart procedure.
  579. >By now two of the technicians joined you in the simulated cockpit.
  580. >Each had a different checklist after the initial one failed to get her spinning again.
  581. >"I...there appears to be black smoke, Anon."
  582. "Don't worry about that. Call out every thousand feet, keep speed steady, OK buddy?"
  583. >"Yes. I can do that."
  584. >You overheard one of the technicians say it was probably an oil pump failure.
  585. >Weird, those things rarely broke.
  586. >Plus oil would be white smoke, right?
  587. >"One-Four thousand."
  588. >It didn't matter now.
  589. >"There...Anon?"
  590. >You were midway through the feathering procedure when she called out to you.
  591. >Peeking up from the checklist you saw what she saw.
  592. >A patch of green off her two o'clock.
  593. >It was small but she was tiny, she could land there.
  594. "I see it. You think we have enough altitude.
  595. >"I...I don't know. It is quite far and we are below One-Zero thousand."
  596. >Still was better than nothing, you wagered.
  597. >The engine wasn't starting, and the technicians were all looking at you and nodding.
  598. "Aim for it. You can make it, Sparky."
  599. >"I will try. We will lose significant altitude in the turn."
  600. >No kidding...
  601. >You took a deep breath and called out your controls.
  602. >Hands on the yoke, you started the turn, trying your best to be as careful as possible.
  603. >Lose speed and she'll stall, but nose down too much and you're wasting precious altitude.
  604. >Christ, she handled terribly without her engine, even when it was feathered.
  605. >All that dead weight in the rear, you had to keep pushing down.
  606. >When you finally completed the turn, that patch of green was suddenly a lot lower and farther than before.
  607. >Your heart sank.
  608. >All around that landing sight were trees and mean looking rocks.
  609. >Sparky must know too.
  610. >You weren't going to make it.
  611. "Hey...Sparky?"
  612. >"Y-yes, Anon?"
  613. "When this is over, you're going on a diet."
  614. >" CG does appear to be further aft than desirable."
  615. >The technicians looked at you funny but the two of you shared a quiet chuckle together.
  616. >She definitely knew.
  617. >"Five thousand."
  618. >Despite everything, she kept up her call outs.
  619. >The field was tauntingly close, but just far enough away.
  620. >The technicians were still trying to restart her engine, hoping for maybe a couple of minutes of power.
  621. >That's all she needed.
  622. >"Four thousand...Anon?"
  623. "Yea?"
  624. >"Release the controls to me, please."
  625. >That was strange.
  626. "Why?"
  627. >"I will tell you back at base."
  628. >She was positive at least.
  629. >You complied, calling her controls and flipping the switch.
  630. >"Thank you...Three thousand."
  631. >The field was gone and nasty looking trees took their place.
  632. >One of the engineers rushed in, scribbled down her coordinates off the master display, then got on the horn to call for her retrieval.
  633. >You kept your hands on the yoke despite her controlling it.
  634. >"Two thousand."
  635. "It'll be ok."
  636. >You said, touching her panel, not even caring that she couldn't feel it.
  637. "Try to slow down when you get below 500 feet."
  638. >"I will, Anon."
  639. "If you get slow enough, the impact won't be so bad."
  640. >"I...I will try, Anon."
  641. >As the trees got larger your heart began to beat hard in your chest.
  642. >One of the techs touched your shoulder and asked if you wanted to leave.
  643. >You refused.
  644. >If she had to crash land, you'd be with her till you knew she was OK.
  645. >"Five hundred...pitching up."
  646. "Flaps, Sparky, Slow yourself down more."
  647. >"Roger. Flaps 10."
  648. >One of her wings dipped suddenly.
  649. >You grabbed the yoke and tried to right her.
  650. >No luck.
  651. "Sparky? What happened!?"
  652. >The stall horn was your only answer as the ground came tumbling toward the screen.
  653. >Shit.
  654. >About two hours had passed since the crash.
  655. >You were in the maintenance hangar, sitting atop a crate waiting for someone to tell you she was alright.
  656. >After impact, the uplink was severed so you couldn't get any kind of report from Sparky.
  657. >Her crew took over and while they were buzzing with activity and their own procedures, you were left in the pilot's chair mulling over what happened.
  658. >Every minute detail of that otherwise routine flight went through your head.
  659. >Even the engine out, you two handled it as best as you possibly could have.
  660. >Right up until you told her to put flaps in and she nosed over.
  661. >You had a suspicion only one of them deployed, and she didn't correct quickly enough and went into a spin.
  662. >Why did she insist on having the controls?
  663. >You might have been able to stabilize her if she had just let you fly.
  664. >The heck was she thinking?!
  665. >With a grunt, you pushed yourself back to your feet and started to pace around.
  666. >This was all you could really do, you knew better to try and weasel your way inside.
  667. >Besides, she's tough, she'll be OK.
  668. >Why the heck did you feel so nervous though?
  669. >She's just a piece of equipment, hardware, software, and some kind of organic pony bottom part you never quite understood.
  670. >They could put her back together, right?
  671. >You cursed under your breath.
  672. >Pilots were responsible for their planes, even if they were intelligent...whatever Sparky is.
  673. >You should have noticed something was wrong sooner and did something about it.
  674. >Maybe if you weren't so pre-occupied with what to watch on TV tonight you might have noticed the oil temperature spiking or the pump RPM beginning to drop or whatever else might have given away her engine was about to quit.
  675. >These things don't just happen, there's always a chain.
  676. >What if all that extra flying she was doing outside of the simulator was what did it?
  677. >This could be entirely your fault.
  678. >Dammit, you should have insisted you kept the controls...
  679. >The emotional rollercoaster you were putting yourself through wasn't helping anyone right now.
  680. >One thought bled to the next, and you kept looping around in circles, always arriving back at the same point.
  681. >You wanted to know if she was alright, even if half the time you kept telling yourself she was equipment and you had no reason to be worried.
  682. >That only made you feel worse, she was a long way from that.
  683. >The two of you had been inseparable.
  684. >Even if it had originally been her insisting so, after a month of sharing practically every moment together, you couldn't imagine it any other way.
  685. >What if they put an end to that?
  686. >What if they cut you from the program?
  687. >Two of the other drones were already re-assigned to different pilots when the results were sub-par.
  688. >They could just as easily decide you and Sparky were too close and--
  689. >The door to the bay opened, and her Dad stepped out.
  690. >He looked like he always did, professional but warm.
  691. >When he saw you he nodded you over and you tried your best not to sprint to the door like a five year old.
  692. >"Heck of a morning you two had. You made your statement I assume?"
  693. "Yea, they practically ambushed me when I left the sim building."
  694. >"Sorry about that, they want the information as soon as they can before you start imagining the scenario differently. We have most of the data back from the flight. The oil pump was faulty and it shattered, which caused her to seize up. Still no idea why the flaps on her left wing failed. It was damaged pretty severely in the crash so that might take a few weeks to find out the root cause."
  695. "I should have checked her wing before deploying them, there might have been damage from the--"
  696. >He put his hand on your shoulder and shook his head, silencing you.
  697. >"She's been blaming herself for this for the past two hours. Son, I like you, but for the love of god don't you start."
  698. >He smiled softly and your nerves caused you to chuckle a little.
  699. >He gave you a pat on the back before returning to his clipboard.
  700. " she ok?"
  701. >"She's plugged into the computer right now, we're getting the last of the data from the flight. She'll be up in about twenty minutes or so."
  702. "Can I go in?"
  703. >He rubbed his chin and looked back toward the door.
  704. >"She's not in the best shape, you sure you want to?"
  705. "I think she'd want me to be."
  706. >"Alright, this way."
  707. >He lead you back to the maintenance bay.
  708. >Come to think of it, you'd never been inside here before.
  709. >On the outside it was one of those double wide temporary trailers.
  710. >So you weren't sure what to expect on the inside, but you always figured it was better you waited for her outside.
  711. >It was surprising to see the inside, considering how plain the outside looked.
  712. >Very high tech, there was equipment and computers lining the wall.
  713. >You recognized a few of the techs from the simulator, they gave you quick hellos or nods before returning to their work.
  714. >There was another room you were lead into, it was very dim and had more large server-looking computers in the back.
  715. >In the middle on what looked like a cross between a metal stretcher and one of those futuristic beds from star trek was Sparky.
  716. >There was a long chord connected to the back of her head and...
  717. >You had to look away.
  718. >'Not in the best shape' was a bit of an understatement...
  719. >When you turned away, you saw where the majority of her plane parts had ended up.
  720. >On small steel tables with extinguish lamps, there were wings, propeller blades, anything they removed from her, covered with numbered tabs and files stacked in the corner.
  721. >Her wings were especially damaged, the left was covered with the tabs due to them trying to figure out the flap failure, and was warped slightly.
  722. >The right was in worse shape, it looked more like a boomerang then a wing now.
  723. >Her engine was in pieces, the faulty oil pump sitting by itself among some other parts.
  724. >It was hard to tell with the lamps off.
  725. >You considered flipping one on but at the end of the row of tables was the reason they were off in the first place.
  726. >Her visor was broken into three pieces, laying neatly on the final table on the right.
  727. >Like the rest of the equipment, it was tagged in various places but seeing it in such disarray really drove home how serious this was.
  728. >You lifted one of the pieces up, the HUD underneath was shattered.
  729. >You wanted to somehow fix it before she woke up, some silly notion that all you'd have to do is connect the three pieces together and it would magically be back together.
  730. >Stupid to think of but you knew how careful she was with it normally.
  731. >There was a special spot in your room that she would keep it when it wasn't in use, even if you never saw her without it.
  732. >You set the piece down carefully, as if you were worried it could be broken anymore than it already was.
  733. >One of the machines connected to her began to beep, breaking the almost unnerving quiet in the bay.
  734. >With a deep breath you turned back around, forcing yourself to get used to her condition before she woke up.
  735. >With most of her plane and machine parts stripped, she was even smaller than you were used to.
  736. >Maneuvering carefully around the cord, you pulled up a stool and sat next to the table.
  737. >She was laying on her side, facing away, curled up slightly.
  738. >One of her legs was wrapped in a cast, it must have been broken in the fall.
  739. >The rest of her was covered in bruises, missing fur, cuts, and bandages.
  740. >Of the parts of her that were still mechanical, just her skullcap and a little bit of metal down her back.
  741. >The rest was gone, and from what you could tell even what the left had little dents and scratches.
  742. >You felt your breath catch in your throat as you reached forward softly, running you hand slowly on the side of her body.
  743. >Despite her condition, her fur was surprisingly fine and soft.
  744. >You never were physical with her before.
  745. >She sat next to you on the couch, you ate together, she slept on the other side of your bed, but there was always a certain distance between you two.
  746. >Respectable distance to maintain professionalism, that would be the best way to describe it.
  747. >In case something happened or the program changed and you were separated.
  748. >It wasn't a bad approach, both of you had a sort of silent agreement together to keep things at a certain level and never go beyond it.
  749. >Not that it helped, sitting here, looking at her in such a vulnerable state.
  750. >You ran your fingers along her fur, careful to avoid places that looked injured.
  751. >Your thumb slid tenderly where her wing would normally connect to her back.
  752. >There were odd plugs in her flesh, under the fur, where her components connected.
  753. >All the time you were working together, you never really took a moment to admire how incredible she really was.
  754. >Not was, is.
  755. >She'll heal, they'll fix her parts, and she'll fly again.
  756. >She had would be such a waste if they let this one crash end her flight time.
  757. >Your eyes drifted to her leg and you tried to keep positive.
  758. >You slid your hand to her ear, where what was left of her skullcap meshed into her fur, and scratched lightly.
  759. >The computer connected to her memory cable beeped again, a little louder then before.
  760. >How long has it been since you came in here?
  761. >Was the upload done?
  762. >You sat up, moving away from the table and folding your hands in your lap.
  763. >You had a feeling Sparky wouldn't want to wake up to you petting her, so better to be supportive from your usual distance.
  764. >So you sat and waited, every so often glancing to the tables full of her parts.
  765. >Did she know how extensive the damage was?
  766. >It would be like waking up from a coma and not having any legs.
  767. >She is really going to need you.
  768. >Another quick beeping and a light where the cable met her head flickered on.
  769. >She started to stir and mumble softly.
  770. >What should you do now?
  771. >Should you say something to her?
  772. >It was so dark in here, you didn't want to startle her.
  773. >But what are you going to say?
  774. >Ask her how she's doing like a callous asshole?
  775. >No, no, just be quiet, let her be OK with being awake first.
  776. >She groaned and you heard a very quiet gasp when she looked down at her leg.
  777. >When she tried to move you could see her tense up in pain.
  778. >She reached with one of her forelegs around her back and you heard her sniffle when she reached the empty port where her wing would be.
  779. >As her head turned, a soft amber light seemed fill the area in front of her.
  780. >With a struggle she turned herself to the left, toward the tables filled with her parts.
  781. >That's when the gravity of what happened seemed to hit her.
  782. >She lifted a hoof to her mouth and sucked in a sudden breath.
  783. >Dammit, Anon, say something!
  784. "Sparky?"
  785. >Her body tensed up again and she turned to face you.
  786. >This was the first time you saw her without her visor.
  787. >The amber light was emanating from her soft, gentle eyes.
  788. >In the dark they found you, and you tried to smile.
  789. >For a brief moment, it looked as if she was doing the same.
  790. >Her lips curled ever so slightly, even int he dark you could tell.
  791. >But in a flash, she turned away and her gaze became focused on the floor.
  792. "Don't worry, Sparky. Your Dad said that-"
  793. >"Anon"
  794. >Her tone was cold as ice.
  795. >"I need you to leave."
  796. >That certainly took the air out of your lungs in a hurry.
  797. >Your throat dried up in an instant, any clue what you were going to say forgotten.
  798. >She looked to the tables with her parts, then back to you quickly.
  799. >Despite her abrupt and almost commanding statement, her face was full of panic.
  800. "Sparky? I only wanted to--"
  801. >"I understand."
  802. >Her shoulders were trembling ever so slightly.
  803. >Whatever she was feeling she was trying so hard to keep it all inside.
  804. >"I need to be alone. I do not wish you to be here."
  805. >You stood from the stool, adjusting your shirt slightly before turning for the door.
  806. >There was nothing left to say, as much as her words stung you had to respect her wishes.
  807. >Respectable distance, right?
  808. >Then why did you suddenly feel like you were going to cry?
  809. >You bit the inside of your lip to try and force the feeling away.
  810. >Don't think about it, just do as she asks.
  811. >Deep down you knew why she wanted to be left alone.
  812. >You wondered if you wouldn't do the same if you were in her position.
  813. >When your hand touched the doorknob, you turned it a little slower than you would normally have.
  814. >One last chance for Sparky to say something.
  815. >Or maybe a last chance for you to tell her to screw off and that you didn't care what condition she was in.
  816. >That she was the most important thing in the world to you and she didn't have to suffer alone.
  817. >...and in the process risk your friendship for not respecting her wishes.
  818. >The door clicked open.
  819. >As you stepped through, you turned back one last time.
  820. >She was still looking at the floor, you only knew from the amber glow cast on the ground.
  821. "Hey Sparky?"
  822. >She didn't budge but you knew she was listening.
  823. "See you home, OK?"
  824. >Her head turned ever so slightly, just enough that you could see the very corner of her eye.
  825. >"OK."
  826. >For the second time, you barely made out the faintest of smiles from your little partner.
  828. * * *
  831. "Uncontrolled flight into terrain occurred at 1817Z. The primary factor was a faulty servo in her left wing that caused her flap to engage improperly. The result was a stall followed by a spin, and due to the proximity to the ground, there was no chance of recovery. While HQ hasn't published their official report, they assured me for the purpose of this class that this would be the primary reason."
  832. >It had been two week since the crash.
  833. >After extensive investigations and constant paperwork, you were given a new assignment.
  834. >You were in a small briefing room with 6 other occupants.
  835. >Three drones, the only three of the six still flying, and three pilots.
  836. >Not counting Sparky, one drone had never flew and the other lost a pilot before they had begun any real training.
  837. >You clicked to the next slide on the powerpoint.
  838. >A big "QUESTIONS?" slide came up.
  839. >Two hooves and one hand flew up.
  840. >You were dreading this part, because you knew what all three of them wanted to ask.
  841. >You gestured to one of the drones.
  842. >"Why did you transfer controls to MQ-1 at a critical point in flight?"
  843. >The other two lowered their arms.
  844. >With a deep breath, you spoke the same answer you've been giving everyone who's asked that.
  845. >From HQ to the NTSB, to Larry the electrical engineer who lacked a sense of tact.
  846. "Sparky, err, MQ-1, requested control. I don't know why she did and from what I've been told she hasn't given her crew a satisfactory answer."
  847. >With a scratch to your five o'clock shadow, you looked toward a window.
  848. >Outside, you could see the flightline, and it helped to focus on that rather than a drone who looked identical to your friend.
  849. >Someone you haven't seen since that moment in the maintenance bay.
  850. >You chalked her lack of communication to her under repairs but you wished you could have gotten an email or a phonecall or something about her status.
  851. "I know protocol states in an emergency you shouldn't transfer controls. That the pilot with the most experience flies and the junior one handles radios, checklists, and callouts. But, she requested the controls, and in a split second I had to decide to trust her or follow protocol. I decided to trust her. It wouldn't have changed the outcome, from what the investigators have told me."
  852. >You turned back to the class, expecting a followup, but there weren't any.
  853. >"I would have done the same, don't beat yourself up, Anon."
  854. >One of the pilots said as he patted the top of his drone's head.
  855. >She looked embarrassed but didn't stop him.
  856. >MQ-3 and her pilot you liked the most, they seemed even closer than you and Sparky.
  857. >The other two pairs less so.
  858. >MQ-5 watched MQ-3 get her head patted and you could see the jealousy and sadness on her face.
  859. >Her pilot had been taking notes most of the session and asked tons of technical questions.
  860. >But he didn't seem very close to MQ-5, and he kept referring to Sparky as 'it' to your increasing annoyance.
  861. >MQ-2 on the other hand...
  862. >"Perhaps the operator's skills were deemed insufficient. She felt there was a better probability for a safe landing without extra input."
  863. >Yea...she was one of those.
  864. >Her pilot looked at you apologetically.
  865. >You shrugged.
  866. "That would have been an acceptable reason, and Sparky's report would have said so. So, while I understand everyone's frustration as to why it happened, I can't comment beyond what I know."
  867. >MQ-2 frowned and flipped her information packet to another page.
  868. >Before she could ask another loaded question, MQ-3 raised her hoof.
  869. >You nodded toward her.
  870. >"Is MQ-1 OK? Have you heard from her?"
  871. >You shook your head.
  872. "All I know from her technicians is her organic stuff is OK but her mechanical parts are a mess. I'm hoping she comes home soon."
  873. >A few sympathy nods came in reply, and you decided this might be a good time to break for the day.
  874. >The drones and their pilots filed out one by one.
  875. >MQ-2 thanked you for your time with feigned politeness, but was already complaining about losing a day of flying before she was out of earshot.
  876. >MQ-3 promised to talk to Sparky for you, and to get her to stop being a hermit in the maintenance bay.
  877. >Her pilot agreed and he gave you a hearty handshake before leaving with his drone.
  878. >MQ-5's pilot asked you a few more questions before leaving, and a full copy of the incident report.
  879. >The second you got the paperwork out of your briefcase he left without a word of thanks.
  880. >That left you in the briefing room with MQ-5.
  881. >She sighed again and as much as you didn't want to listen to an airworthy drone complain...
  882. "What's wrong?"
  883. >She turned toward you, her visor the only thing keeping the sadness in her eyes contained.
  884. >"You care for Sparky a lot."
  885. "I didn't expect it but she insisted we work together and next thing I knew we were really close."
  886. >"That must be really nice. My pilot is a bit of a--"
  887. "Douche."
  888. >You finished for her and she seemed surprised but didn't correct you.
  889. "You could always request a new pilot."
  890. >"That would be a problem..."
  891. >She sighed again and pushed a pencil around with her hoof.
  892. >"He is incredible. His knowledge, his ability, the way he uses the controls. I could not have a good reason to ask for a replacement pilot. I would not want one, they would not be as good as...oh my I apologize I did not mean to suggest--"
  893. >You chuckled and shook your head.
  894. "I've had crushes before too, it's ok. Sorry he's a dink but you wanted an Iceman, you're stuck with him."
  895. >"I suppose you are right.....Iceman?"
  896. "Nevermind, it was a terrible movie."
  897. >She tilted her head slightly at you. then giggled.
  898. >"Humans are so strange."
  899. "Maybe drones attract strange humans."
  900. >She was gathering her things but your comment made her propeller spin.
  901. >Here you thought you could only make Sparky do that.
  902. >As she packed her things into her flight bag, you asked the obvious.
  903. "Have you told him how you feel?"
  904. >"No, and I will not."
  905. >You raised an eyebrow and, despite facing away, she continued as if she saw it.
  906. >Those visors are a little too good sometimes...
  907. >"I would not wish to distract him. He might react poorly. Or worse, he may become attached and fly me too cautiously."
  908. >You nodded.
  909. >You didn't actually agree with it but MQ-5 knew her pilot better than you did.
  910. >"I cannot let him lose his edge. Then I would need a new pilot."
  911. >She was quick to say her goodbye and exit after that.
  912. >It was nice to feel bad for someone else for a change, as terrible as that might have sounded.
  913. >Was a sort of comforting feeling more than anything, that you weren't the only drone pilot going home alone every night.
  914. >Speaking of which, it was time for that little ritual.
  915. >While you were kept busy most of the day, the walk home was never fun.
  916. >No matter how hard you tried, you could only think about Sparky flying beside you.
  917. >How nervous she had been at first, how confident she became right before the accident.
  918. >With a sigh of your own, you began the trek home.
  919. >'Try not to think about Sparky', you told yourself as the late afternoon sky greeted you.
  920. >Along with MQ-2 taking off.
  921. >So much for that plan.
  922. >With a defeated groan, you started home.
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