18 Free Flight

Breakfast was served in a simple room downstairs. They sat along the wall by a window, at a sturdy wooden table that gave the impression of being built by a craftsman generations ago. Graene, an older woman in charge of the kitchen, served them warm bread and a spiced meat pie with a light, juice-like drink. She had two robotic helpers, both of which were standing inactive in the corner. She used them, she told them, for cleaning and when the palace hosted more guests than she could manage.

The window looked out on a large garden. The palace was in a temperate climate and vegetables and flowers were grown for all but a few months of the year. An older man inspected the rows of vegetables while small machines tilled the ground between the rows. A low growl could be heard as the machine's tines sliced into the ground. The morning was cool and the windows were open. Zeke could smell the tilled Earth and the faint scent of a newly-mown lawn.

Enne and Ereine soon joined them. They looked at Zeke and a faint giggle escaped from Ereine. They had evidently exchanged some information during the night. They all sat together while they finished their meal.

Danil took them out to meet Nillen, the gardener and groundskeeper. He seemed a dour man but turned out to be pleasant enough when showing them around the gardens. Zeke watched Enne to see if she was bored at such a mundane activity.

The vegetables were similar to the ones Zeke had helped his grandparents plant and harvest. He didn't see any corn or tomatoes, but he saw beans, squash, leafy plants resembling lettuce, and potatoes.

Zeke commented privately to Danil about the informality and homeyness of the palace and how it was different from what he'd expected.

"It is the way these grounds have been maintained for generations.Having attractive landscaping and flower gardens is common. Some have all the work done by robotic workers, but the skills of a human gardener are still valued and anyone interested in such work would have no trouble finding an opportunity to learn and practice the craft."

They were heading back to the Academy later in the morning. The palace had its own large landing pad and the shuttle reserved for the king's use would take them back. Danil's father would fly them back himself, and then travel on to inspect agricultural facilities on the southern continent. He spent a lot of time visiting installations and, perhaps as important, being seen.

Zeke asked Danil if they could go look at the shuttle. On their trip from Earth most of his time had been spent inside the large Redun, or inside Danil's smaller shuttle, the Rilun.

The landing pad was large and five or six of the shuttles could easily have been parked on it. Zeke poked his head in the engine exhaust ports, looked at the landing skids and up into the bays where they were retracted for flight.

The shuttle was much smaller than the one they had taken to Kanetel. It was roughly the size of a greyhound bus, though it was shorter, wider, and had sleek curves since it was mostly for atmospheric use. Zeke looked into the large clear ports on the side. Most of the craft Zeke had seen since arriving on Anyar had a lot of viewing ports, unlike the Rilun on which Zeke had flown with Danil.

"Your father is flying us back?" he asked Danil.

"We call it flying, though the MI's do most of it and can, of course, do everything. But what is the fun in that?"

"And when you do fly, they're looking over your shoulder?"

"I never thought of it that way, but we rely on them for our safety in so many ways. I'd rather die of old age than in a needless accident."

"You might be surprised to know that it isn't uncommon for people on Earth to do dangerous things for the thrill of it."

Daniel shook his head, "Well, from what you told me I'm not, but it's not very common here. Our society has its weaknesses, but I'm not sure that is one of them."

They headed back to Danil's room to dress in their uniforms. When they returned to the landing pad, Rolenil was inspecting the shuttle.

"You manually preflight your craft?" he asked Danil in a whisper.

"Tradition. Sometimes we 'find' things, too. Most of the checks are computer diagnostics. The robotic ground crew checks the mechanical systems. You know how reliable everything is, but if we let the robots and MI's do everything, will they be scrubbing our backs in the shower someday?"

"Isn't it hard to do it when you know you won't find anything wrong?"

"The MI's randomly insert faults or the appearance of a fault. Missing one of these in your preflight is very embarrassing. If it happens a couple of times, you have to go to training. With my father, and with me, that will NOT happen, ever," he declared.

Rolenil was dressed in a military uniform identical to Zeke's and the rest of the group, except his had no rank insignia. He looked up at Zeke and Danil. "Well Zeke, how would you like to take her out?"

"Me?" he said, feeling a surge of excitement. "I've only flown simulations!"

"There is only one first time, and it is a pleasure to see young people experience it. Danil has flown it in the past, and you know you can't cause an accident."

Dev, Sephen, and Ereine, followed by Egrenne and Enne were coming out as they walked up the ramp. General Yalt was just getting out of a vehicle that had pulled onto the pad.

"I trust you all had an enjoyable time?" he said to the group.

"I didn't think it could get any better," Zeke replied, unable to keep a huge grin off his face, "but the king assures me it can."

Egrenne and Enne had been hugging everyone farewell. Enne came up to Zeke last. He reached out to put his arms around her. She stood on tiptoe and quickly put her lips to his before he knew what was happening.

Everyone laughed as Zeke's face reddened. "Well, that wasn't what I meant.... uhhh exactly, I mean."

As they entered the shuttle, the king, already sitting in the right pilot's seat, indicated Zeke should take the other.

"I'm going to set the MI authority to minimum," he said.

"Isn't that a little low for a first flight?" Zeke asked.

"Not for someone who succeeded on the Berhlende mission," he replied.

Zeke's first thought was that he was being mocked, but he looked over at the king and saw a huge smile.

"The worst that can happen is that it might get a bit bumpy."

The instrument console indicated all the seats were occupied and harnesses fastened, but Zeke looked around to make sure. The ramp had folded up.

"Pad clear?" he asked. The instrument console gave him views all around the shuttle. He could see that Enne and Egrenne had stopped at the door of the palace to watch.

"Pad clear," the king confirmed.

Zeke took hold of the joystick with his right hand and the throttle with his left. He eased up the power and the shuttle began to lift smoothly. The palace and horizon dropped away. When the shuttle reached two hundred meters, Zeke used another lever by the throttle to begin to vector the thrust from vertical towards horizontal. Since the MI was not assisting in the controls, he increased power to compensate for the loss of vertical thrust caused by the changing angle.

As the shuttle transitioned to forward flight, he increased power, pulled the nose up slightly, and the shuttle accelerated forward and up. The thrust pushed everyone back in their seats as the shuttle gained altitude. In a few minutes, the shuttle was one hundred kilometers up moving at five thousand kilometers per hour. The MI indicated the direction and trajectory to their first destination, the Eastern Academy, where they would drop off Danil.

Zeke switched the flight mode to "auto" and the MI took over as an autopilot. Zeke looked over at Rolenil who had his hands on his lap and was looking out the window.

The king told him of his own first flight and of Danil's. Soon it was time to begin descending.

"Do you want to take her in the same way?" Rolenil asked him.

"Why not?" Zeke responded.

Landing was always harder; without the computer to guide him, Zeke had to coordinate his descent rate, speed, and altitude to end up near the destination. In this mode, the MI only gave him readouts of his altitude, speed, vertical velocity, and distance to the destination. His objective was to bring the shuttle to a smooth stop above the Academy, then land.

He reduced the throttle slightly and pitched the nose down. As the shuttle descended, Zeke could hear the whistling as the atmosphere thickened. The simulator time paid off and after receiving clearance, he brought the shuttle down to a few hundred kilometers per hour. He maneuvered in the approach pattern until he was above his assigned slot on the landing pad. He lowered the shuttle down and it touched gently.

The group in back quickly expressed their relief. It took a moment for Zeke to realize that they were teasing him. Danil shook his hand, wished him luck and stepped out as the ramp lowered. He watched Danil walk around to the front of the shuttle, kneel down and kiss the ground. He rose, laughing, and waved goodbye as he walked towards the breezeway entrance, followed by his luggage.

"We need to drop off General Yalt near his home, so he can take a few days of leave. Do you think we should give your flight mates a chance?" the king asked.

Zeke was thrilled that Sephen and Dev would get their chance and he quickly vacated his seat to be replaced by an equally excited Dev.

Dev was as skilled as Zeke and soon had the general delivered to a small terminal near his home. Sephen replaced him for the last leg back to the Academy. Soon they were back at the familiar large tarmac at Southern Academy.

The king shook their hands and congratulated each of them as they prepared to walk down the ramp. They stood at the entrance to the breezeway and watched the engines power up and the shuttle depart, then they turned and headed down the long hall that had been so intimidating a few months ago.

Checking their comms they found that the rest of the flight was due to finish class and head to lunch in a few minutes. They had just enough time to stow their clothes and wait outside the classroom for the rest of the flight to finish.

They were greeted by surprised smiles and laughs as the flight emptied the classroom. Handshakes and congratulations were quickly exchanged before Zeke formed up the flight to march them to the noon meal. Yipt had assigned Rilt that duty while they'd been gone, but he saw no resentment in him now that he had returned.

At lunch they shared the story of their trip. Zeke could not hear the conversations at the tables where Dev and Sephen were sharing the experience with their flight mates, but he was sure he heard the name 'Enne' and chuckles. He had little doubt which part of their adventure had just been related.

After lunch, it was time for the weekly ground combat competition. In the locker room, they dressed in their combat uniforms and equipment and rode the transport out to one of the forested engagement areas. The ground was muddy beneath their feet, and Zeke called a quick conference, telling everyone not to hesitate to stay low and get muddy.

Sure enough, the opposing team was from a green flight. Zeta flight mopped up, "tagging" all the opposing combatants in less than thirty minutes.

They gathered around the instructor who held the joint debrief. In contrast to the usual Anyari reserve, he used a few choice Anyari expletives to describe the performance of the green flight and their clean uniforms. If this had been a real battle, they would have all been killed. They were to take all their training as seriously as if it were real. Zeke expected that, after today, they would.

Afterward, the two groups had a few minutes to meet each other. Zeke was proud of how respectful his flight was and the admiration in the eyes of the junior flight. He could see the reputation that Zeta flight had acquired in their eyes. The other flight seemed so much younger to Zeke, though they were all the same age.

By the time they'd showered and were back in their duty uniforms they still had more than an hour before the evening meal. Zeke marched the flight back to the barracks and headed up to the dayroom. The rest of the flight soon joined him.

He gave a concise but complete description of the meeting and the reception they'd received. The flight had seen recordings of the meeting, so Zeke only needed to fill in his personal impressions of the Council and their reception.

"As far as I know, we're still scheduled to head out on the Redun when we graduate. I don't know how much involvement we'll have with the drone deployment, but my guess is that we'll stay in the loop."

He looked at Dev and Sephen, and they nodded agreement.

After that they talked about the last few days of training. The flight had started training on atmospheric craft, in the simulators. They would start in the real thing while Dev, Sephen, and Zeke hurried to make up the training they had missed while in the capital.

The next morning, they were directed to a smaller room while the rest of the flight was in a standard classroom. On their consoles, they learned about the different classes of craft.

In the afternoon, they performed simulated maintenance, directing virtual robots in the performance of various repairs to the life support and engine modules. They then went downstairs to a repair bay where actual craft were maintained.

Guided by a human technician and with the help of various specialty robots, they did everything from removing thrusters and replacing fusion modules, to reconfiguring cargo bays by removing or adding passenger seating.

Zeke was struck by how clean all the mechanical systems were. No grease or dirt was visible anywhere. When a panel was opened, robots cleaned anything that wasn't spotless. Nothing was left behind when panels were replaced after maintenance.

At the end of the day, they joined up with an excited bunch of their comrades and proceeded to the evening meal. By unspoken agreement, none of the three had told the rest about their first flights. They found, though, that everyone else's first flights had all been solo. Not even an instructor was needed when an MI could do anything necessary, including taking control on the craft.

The next morning after breakfast, the three went directly to the flight line as the remainder of the flight moved on the first class.

At last, they would finally get to do what they had come to the Academy for. According to the schedule, they would do a lot of it in the next few days. No ground combat simulations, no class lectures; they would fly in the atmosphere, and then expand their training to orbital maneuvers. Eventually, they'd been told, they'd fly training missions as far as Anyar's two moons.

An instructor was waiting for them at the flight line. They would each take a Sparrow out on a set of training flights and maneuvers, directed by their MI.

Ran spoke to him through an earpiece as he approached "his" Sparrow. She recited the checklist of items; some of which he would check visually, some were diagnostics that she would run; some, such as the vectoring of the thrusters, consisted of both a diagnostic and visual inspection.

The preflight was soon complete and Zeke climbed into the left-hand seat, buckled in, and lowered the canopy.

"All the missions you will fly today will be minimum MI authority," Ran told him, though it was something he knew from the morning's review. "Your first task is to proceed to the waypoint indicated on your navigation screen."

"OK," Zeke replied. "Clearance?" This instructed her to request takeoff clearance.

"We are third for departure," she said as Zeke saw Sephen in the Sparrow next to him take off. Dev soon followed.

"Clearance granted," Ran informed him.

Zeke deployed the thrusters in takeoff configuration, which extended their arms up and out so the heat from the thrusters would not damage the tarmac. He pushed the throttle forwards until the craft gently lifted off. Gradually increasing the throttle, he vectored the thrusters from downward to aft thrust.

The waypoint was two hundred kilometers away to the south and ten thousand meters in altitude. He watched the navigation display and adjusted course to intercept the waypoint. The waypoint was just a point in the air that he needed to fly to and hold position.

As he closed, he reduced thrust and started to vector the thrust downward. At this altitude, he was in the jetstream. Holding the position was difficult and he bounced around.

After he had held position for a length of time, Ran added five waypoints to his navigation screen and said, "You will start with five landings for practice. At my mark, I will start a countdown clock which gives you the proficiency qualification time. Each landing is in a different location with different terrain to navigate around. A distance and direction display will be your only navigation aid. Ready?"


The first landing point was fifty kilometers distant and he had six minutes to land. This time, he increased the throttle rapidly and could feel the G's build up. All the simulator time in atmospheric craft had been in the low-def simulators without gravity and acceleration simulators, unlike the hi-def fighter simulators. The acceleration was exhilarating and he was quickly traveling at several thousand kilometers per hour. He wondered if the sonic boom would bother anyone or anything out here. At that rate, he'd be at the landing point in less than a minute, giving him plenty of time to land.

As he got to within five klicks, he reversed the thrusters and decelerated rapidly. As he slowed and descended, he felt a tap on the hull of the Sparrow.

"What was that?" he asked Ran.

"The shockwave from your approach," she answered.

"Oh," he replied. Then he asked, "Will that disturb anyone out here?"

"No," Ran told him. "This is a remote area, very sparsely populated, and it is frequently used for training, so any inhabitants have heard it many times before."

He sighted a bare spot in a large open field, moved the thrusters to the landing configuration, and was soon hovering over the spot. He landed with two minutes to spare.

As soon as he touched down, the clock reset to three minutes and another landing waypoint was displayed, this one was twenty kilometers away.

He reached that with over a minute to spare. The next landing point was several thousand kilometers distant. He followed the standard procedure and flew most of the distance at an altitude of twenty thousand meters. The terrain changed abruptly from flat forests and grasslands to a mountain range rivaling the Rockies. The scenery was stunning and he had to force himself to watch the distance and direction readout and try to find his landing spot.

It was nestled against a tall cliff face and he approached with care, despite knowing that Ran would override him if things went wrong. He was able to land on the indicated rock outcrop without difficulty and proceeded to another landing spot within the mountain range.

After that, the last waypoint was at an altitude of five hundred kilometers and the distance was increasing as he sat on the ground. He saw that he had twenty minutes to reach it.

"What is that?" he asked Ran.

"You'll see," she said cryptically.

He lifted off and started to accelerate. Even at ten thousand kilometers per hour, he was not gaining on his destination, so he left the acceleration where it was and continued to gain speed and altitude.

Finally, he realized that the last destination must be in orbit around the planet.

"Will I dock with it?" he asked Ran, looking for confirmation of his assumption.

"Oh yes, absolutely," she replied. "You'll have a chance to get out and take a tour of the station."

"I don't need any orbital calculations to guide me?" he asked.

"If fuel consumption was an important factor, you would," she answered, "or if time was critical, which in this case you can see that it is not. The goal is for you to get the 'feel' of how to navigate to an orbiting station."

"How am I doing, by the way?" he asked.

"You are in the top thirty percent of those who have taken this test. Most of those who did better had previous experience."

The sky had grown dark, and the curve of the horizon had gone from noticeable to obvious. All was quiet in the cockpit, the sound of air rushing past had stopped. The distance to the station had started to decrease a few minutes previously and, as he continued to gain speed, the closing rate increased. A estimated he would be at the station with time to spare.

"The clock will stop when you are within five hundred meters of the station. Even with MI override, rushing a docking maneuver is not advisable," Ran cautioned.

When he was within a few hundred clicks of the station, he eased the throttle back. He panicked for a moment when he felt as if he were falling out of the sky. He realized that he was in orbit in a craft too small to have artificial gravity. He'd experienced zero-G before, but this was unexpected. It took a few moments before he adjusted and returned to monitoring his approach to the station.

He first saw slowly flashing lights. As he got closer, the form of the station became visible. Still twenty-five kilometers away he could see that it was an oblate sphere. He remembered the term from Mrs. Galagher's geometry class.

With the cabin of the small craft so quiet, the image of the station seemed unreal, as if in a video game. It grew larger before him.

He reversed the thrusters and throttled up to slow his closing rate. He didn't have an indicator for the closing velocity, but he could see the distance beginning to decrease more slowly.

"How big is it?" Zeke asked.

"The station is approximately nine hundred meters in diameter. It revolves at precisely one revolution per minute giving a simulated gravity of one G at the outer ring."

"Clearance?" asked Ran. It was more a command than a question.

"Confirmed, we are the only craft on approach," she replied.

They were approaching at an angle inclined to the equatorial plane. Zeke could see that the structure was not as smooth as it had first appeared; gaps and unfinished areas were visible where space-suited figures and robots were working.

After he'd reduced speed to a few meters per second he used small pulses of the auxiliary thrusters to navigate to a point above the central core. He rotated the craft to face towards the large airlock at the core and pulsed opposite thrusters to give the craft a spin to match the station. For a moment, Zeke flashed back to an old movie he'd seen, "2001, A Space Odyssey" where a spaceliner performed the same maneuver.

When he was fifty meters from the lock, the huge doors began to open and he could see the interior, brilliantly lit with vessels much larger than his tiny craft.

"Your slip is number 1A, to the left. Once you leave the center of rotation, even by a few feet, control will become somewhat more complex."

Zeke recalled from the navigation lecture that large ships were given the center slips to simplify their docking maneuvers. For his small ship, he would simply have a magnetic field to clamp him to the deck. The A deck was down from his perspective and to the left of the large ships. A trail of flashing lights along the deck indicated the path to his slip.

It took a bit of jockeying and required some complex vectoring of his auxiliary thrusters to move to the off center slip in the rotating landing bay, but he had practiced that in the simulators. He carefully applied thrusters and managed to maneuver the Sparrow to within less than a meter of his assigned spot.

"Engage the magnetic clamp," he told Ran. With the thrusters still gently holding the craft's relative position, the magnetic field pulled him down slowly to the deck and a light clank told him they were down.

"All secure," Ran reported, "the lock doors have closed and the lock is being re-pressurized."

"It seems kind of wasteful to pump air in and out of such a large space for a small craft like this," Zeke commented.

"That may be," Ran replied, "but one large lock is simpler and more versatile than many smaller ones. It only takes about five minutes to evacuate, or re-pressurize the lock. By the time you've completed the post-flight checklist you will be able to disembark."

The hull creaked and groaned occasionally as the pressure outside increased. Within a few minutes Zeke was able to open the canopy.

He floated out and looked back at the little craft. It seemed small to have come so far, so fast, and so high.

A young officer, who introduced himself as Lieutenant Hris, was waiting at the hatch.

"I'm to give you a tour and guide you to your space suit certification."

Zeke followed him out of the large bay through a hatch and an airlock, which wasn't necessary with the hangar fully pressurized.

"Why the airlock?" Zeke asked.

"For safety and for when access is needed to the station exterior," he said, pointing to an adjoining compartment with a number of spacesuits.

"Feet first," the Lieutenant instructed, indicating one of the two tubes. He maneuvered himself feet first into the other, and added, "Give yourself a push down, the station spin will do the rest. Go all the way to the bottom."

With that, he grabbed a bar near the entrance to the tube and launched himself down.

Zeke did likewise, but with a little less force. Light patches along one side of the tube flashed by, allowing him to gauge his speed. He was able to guide himself so that he faced them as he dropped. He was only moving a meter or so each second, but in a short time he started to feel the wall of the tube behind him. As he traveled further, he was pushed harder against the tube behind him as he started to speed up. Several times he saw the light strips get closer together as he passed openings that evidently were an exit to a level.

Just as he started to speed up to a rate that concerned him, the strips turned green and became narrower. The tube wasn't wide enough to easily look down, but he could see a brighter circle at the bottom, just before he dropped onto a large padded floor in a brightly lit room.

Hris was waiting for him, smiling. "Fun?" he asked.

"Not bad, next time I'll try it a little faster," Zeke replied. It felt to him like the apparent gravity was less than half a G. That meant less than halfway down.

"One more tube, then we take the lift to the outer level. This one isn't vertical, but it's much quicker than a lift." This time, the tube was in a wall.

He watched Hris enter the tube. It was wider, but as Zeke entered the adjoining tube he could see that it quickly narrowed. As he dropped, he quickly had the sensation of sliding on his back. Before long the tube opened into another room.

"We'll take the lift from here," Hris told him, and Zeke followed him into one of a couple of elevators. The elevator moved more slowly, but Zeke could still feel the pressure, moving him towards the anti-spinward side of the compartment.

The compartment soon stopped and the door opened onto long, curved corridors. The curve of the station was easy to see, reminding him a little of the movies he'd seen.

He followed Hris down the corridors. He soon saw short corridors to another corridor running parallel to the one he now walked. He did a quick calculation in his head. If the station were a kilometer across, he could walk over three kilometers--nearly two miles--before returning to the current spot.

Hris stopped and opened a door on the right, the outer side of the station, and gestured for Zeke to enter. Zeke entered the room and was surprised to see Sephen and Dev sitting at desks with an NCO standing in front. The first thing that caught Zeke's eye was the large window in the floor that showed the planet below, rotating slowly. Hris closed the door without entering.

"We're glad you finally showed up, we were preparing to send someone to find you," Dev joked. Since Ran was in constant communication with the net, that was absurd, but his humorous intent was clear.

"I must have had a more difficult course," Zeke countered with a grin, "as befits my superior abilities."

The instructor, a Sergeant Naris, spoke with more than a trace of gruffness, "We have an assignment to complete. If you'll be seated, we'll begin."

Zeke dropped quickly into a chair and Naris began.

"You've had spacesuit training before, in a zero-G chamber and real vacuum. Here, however, you'll have quite a bit more room and a bigger challenge."

He stepped to one side and a video popped up on the wall behind him.

"Your task today is to get your suit certification. You'll have to navigate between the hangar at the center of the station and targets at varying distances. You'll shuttle back and forth between the target platform and the hangar, first at a distance of only twenty meters, but that will gradually be increased to fifty meters.

"Normally, if you were working outside the station or a spacecraft, you would also have thrusters, but our tradition is that the first real exposure to space is in a suit without any additional aids. In case you're wondering where this came from, it evolved from a game the workers played during the construction of the station."

Zeke didn't feel the need to mention that he'd already been outside the Redun. Anyway, what he'd had to do was much different from the objective today.

"To qualify, you'll need to thrust yourself from the station and land on the target. Push off again and return to the station surface. The outbound target is only five meters in diameter. If you miss, someone, namely me, will have to go haul you back and your name will be engraved on a plaque on the outer wall of the station."

He looked at them, "You'll get additional training at your first duty assignment, assuming it's on board a station or spacecraft, but after your training at the Academy, you should be able to do everything that you'll need to perform any duties asked of you."

They followed Sergeant Naris out into the hall. A lift took them all the way up to the hangar at the center of the station. They donned suits, difficult in the zero-G, and proceeded into the airlock. The main hangar was now open to space.

Outside of the hangar, Zeke could see a platform at the end of an arm that was starting to extend. It was tilted such that the floor was pointing toward the station.

They used small magnetic pads on their hands to pull themselves along the wall towards the hangar opening.

A sense of vertigo momentarily overwhelmed Zeke as they approached the edge of the hangar floor. Looking down he could see only the side of the station and stars. Their rotation would soon bring the planet beneath them. He didn't know which was worse, infinity, or a few hundred kilometer fall.

They made their way around the edge and out onto the huge disk of the station. The hangar door started to close. They weren't using any kind of tether, and only Naris' suit had any kind of thrusters in case they drifted away from the surface. All they had were the magnetic pads on their hands, but they were careful and that was enough.

They followed Naris towards a spot on the center of the hangar door that had concentric hexagonal markings. The target platform was marked in a similar fashion.

He looked at Zeke and asked, "OK, that platform is twenty meters away, who wants to go first?"

Taking the hint, Zeke volunteered. Twenty meters to a five-meter platform should be easy, but the suit was bulky enough that he wasn't sure how it would throw off his trajectory. He'd spent time in a suit on the Redun, and in the zero-G chamber at the Academy, but nothing had been like this.

"Go slowly. If you miss the target, I'll go out to get you, eventually, and you can try again."

The suits were flexible and the visor extended up enough so that he could, with relative ease, see above and to the sides.

Centering himself on the hexagonal pattern, he pulled his legs beneath him until he was squatting, with his head cocked back so he could see the target, then slowly pushed off with his legs. He found himself moving slowly, probably less than a meter per second. Within a few seconds, he could see that he would not touch directly in the center of the target, but would be off by less than half of the distance to the edge, above the center.

He had no way to change his orientation and his push off had started him spinning slowly backward at a rate that would have him landing feet first, leaning backward. The landing was awkward, but his speed was slow enough that he quickly made contact with his hand after his feet touched, the magnetic pads holding him in place.

Within a moment, he had positioned himself in the center of the target and aligned himself to push off for the return.

He was able to avoid most of the spinning on the return and he made contact with the station within a few feet of the target center.

He waited while Dev and Sephen took their turns. It gave him time to look out and watch the planet rotate below. He'd spent weeks in space, but none near a planet, making this the first time he'd had a chance to take a long look at a planet from space.

Dev and Sephen had a little more trouble than he'd had. Both rotated forward almost a complete revolution, but that just allowed them to touch with the magnetic pads on their gloves.

"Thirty meters," Naris said. "You'll get a couple of tries at this distance."

They each had three chances and were able to improve their accuracy and reduce their rotation by the third attempt.

The distance increased to forty meters and Sephen had a close call, missing the target but passing close enough to reach out and grab the handles that ran along the edge of the platform.

Dev and Zeke had no problems, except it was almost impossible to completely avoid rotating. With the distance and time doubled, the best they could do was only spin a half rotation and land feet first.

Sephen had no problem on his second attempt, but Naris had him do a third.

Finally, the target moved back to fifty meters. It looked very small, that five meters more than a half a football field away.

Zeke knew he was in trouble almost as soon as he pushed off---it just didn't feel right. As he slowly drew closer to the target, he could see that he was going to miss and miss far enough that he didn't think he'd be able to reach out and grab the edge.

He was sure, now, that he was going to miss to the left. Approaching feet first, he went past, barely able to touch the edge of the platform. It was enough to set him spinning, not just head over heels, but slowly twirling, too.

Every few seconds he could see the station, it still filled most of his field of view when he was pointing in that direction. He overcame the urge to call for help, sure he was not the first person to miss, and would not be the last.

"Damn," he said, finally. "I missed."

"You're not spinning very fast," Naris replied. "Unless you're motion sick, I'll wait for Sephen and Dev to make their attempts before coming after you."

"No problem," Zeke replied. "I'm fine."

By the time Sephen and Dev successfully completed their turns, the station had shrunk until it only filled about a quarter of Zeke's view.

Naris said nothing until he was only about twenty meters away. Zeke wondered if he was waiting to see if he'd panic.

"Don't move when I make contact so I can stop your rotation," Naris told him.

Even though Zeke was in front of Naris on the way back, he felt like a kid that had been lost at the mall. Naris occasionally fired his small thrusters to correct their course. It seemed to take a long time to return to the station.

"Take a minute," Naris said with what Zeke thought might be a trace of sympathy. "And try again when you're ready."

Zeke took only an extra breath or two, smiled and whispered under his breath,"Use the force, Luke!"

With that, he pushed off and knew that he'd reach the target this time. He was able to reach out and touch the exact center with his gloved hand and quickly pushed off again to return.

Before they entered the lock, Naris took them over to a large metal sheet on the side of the station. Inscribed were a long list of names, covering several square meters. Naris took out a small device and placed it over the next empty space on the panel. When he removed it, Zeke saw the Anyari spelling of his name.

"Well," he said, "if I wasn't famous before, I am now."

They re-entered the small lock and when it had re-pressurized they removed their suits.

"The hangar is pressurizing now," Naris told them. "When that's complete, you can get in your Sparrows and return to the Academy. Congratulations gentlemen, you didn't do too badly."

It took another ten minutes for the process to complete and they opened the door to the lock.

Dev and Sephen's Sparrows were behind a larger shuttle, which explained why he hadn't seen them when he'd arrived.

"Last one back to the academy is a ripe grisken," Sephen said as he climbed in. Zeke didn't understand the exact meaning but grasped the general idea.

His Sparrow was closer to the hangar door so when the lock and depressurized again, he was out first. He increased thrust quickly to a position parallel with the station's orbit. The Sparrows would not withstand a high-speed re-entry, so he would have to slow down a great deal before entering the atmosphere.

"Can you give me a heading and distance to the Academy?" he asked Ran.

"Ten thousand klicks down-range," she said as the information was displayed. "Twenty-five hundred cross-range."

He waited for Dev and Sephen to follow him, doing nothing. In a moment, they began thrusting to decelerate and quickly shrank from view.

Zeke chose to accelerate, to reduce the cross-range distance, before reducing speed and altitude. He could go faster above the atmosphere. Having dropped into the atmosphere first, they would have to slow down. He increased the thrust so he was momentarily pulling ten G's. He quickly reduced that by half to keep from losing consciousness. When he'd reduced the cross-range distance by half, he quickly spun the craft around to reduce his velocity.

The cross-range distance was still a hundred klicks when he grew impatient and rotated the craft and started thrusting to reduce his orbital velocity. He cranked the thrust up to ten G's and left it for as long as he could stand.

By the time he entered the denser part of the atmosphere, he was going less than a thousand kilometers per hour and was within three hundred klicks of the Academy.

As he landed his Sparrow, he was relieved to see that neither Dev nor Sephen were waiting for him.

He opened the canopy, got out and leaned against the ship.

As he looked up, Dev and Sephen were just coming into view.

When they landed a few minutes later, he stood by his Sparrow, waiting with a smile. "So, just who is from the advanced civilization?"