Abby and I got to the office an hour before the afternoon shift ended, and we checked in with our counterparts at the sim before they left. The atmosphere in the building changed rapidly as a lot of the upper management left for the day, taking all their distractions with them.
Commander Flt. Lt. Binka Roughenberry, came out the workout room and was cooling off in the "chiller." The technicians by her side offered water and light snacks. She was a tiny lionhead, and what she lacked in physical stature, she made up for with gumption and a jolly good nature.
We were still getting used to her very short new crew cut that made her look even smaller. As soon as you met her, you had the sense that behind her smile and good nature, she was all business and disapproval, especially on the flight deck and especially if you faltered while doing your job. Today was Binka's first day at work after her quick in-patient surgery. We could barely see the tiny shaved patch on the back of her head. She'd been under observation for the past week to see if her body would accept the small, gelatinous, paper-thin sliver of carbon nanofiber implant. There appeared to be no side effects.
Binka volunteered for the implant. The idea was to see if the training of a new crew member could be accelerated by physically implanting a set of synthetic experiences in handling the craft. Imagine acquiring years of finely-tuned muscle memory without spending decades practicing to get it. This was also supposed to aid in the refresher training after extended periods of hibernation during long-duration space flights.
Pancake, the simulator supervisor, had everything ready for Binka. Dante, another lionhead and Binka's pilot, was ready and itching to go. They were the prime crew for a series of test flights of the new trainer craft. Abby and I were their backups, so we always wanted to know how things were going for them.
How that naming anachronism of "Commander" and "Pilot" survived from the days of the hoomins no bun knows exactly. Now, we're stuck with them. Back in the day, hoomins tried to make up with ego for what they lacked in body hair and ear size. None of them wanted to be called "co-pilot," so they made up the title "Commander" for the one doing the flying and "Pilot" for the one doing all the support work.
I must have been really nervous, trying to eat the whole bag of treats by myself. I didn't realize what a death grip I had on the bag until Abby tried to take it away from me. She handed me a wad of fine hay, woven into a stick. I crunched away on that like there was no tomorrow.
Once everyone had their suits, helmets, and gloves on, Pancake started the session.
The first set of scenarios went very smoothly. A simple, manual undocking didn't pose any problems for Binka or Dante. They both handled it well, and their biometrics have shown no abnormalities. Even though this was a new craft for both of them, the procedure was generic in nature and almost identical to all the other machines Binka and Dante were qualified to fly.
Next, Pancake started introducing malfunctions. Simple things, such as bad circuit breakers, or a partial loss of power. Keep in mind that these emergencies were new to Binka and Dante. They have not practiced handling any of them in this craft, and both had only read the appropriate checklists. Dante showed a little uptick in heart rate, a little warmer paws and ears, but not Binka. Dante started to show what we were used to seeing — the effects of stress on performance and physiology. Binka stayed as cool as a cucumber. The difference became stark when they switched roles; Dante acted as the commander, and Binka was the pilot.
The difference became even more pronounced as Pancake increased the complexity of the failures. Binka remained completely calm while Dante was getting visibly worn out and approaching his limits. Whenever we took a break, Dante drank a lot of water and snacked on sweet carrots while Binka hardly licked the water bottle. It made sense since her biometrics hardly flinched under the increased workload. We thought, "Well, that's the whole point of the implant and this exercise." During subsequent sessions, Dante reached his breaking point. We decided to cut the day short and call it a night (or early morning, if you will).
Dante seemed a little put off and despondent as we debriefed the sessions while Binka hardly seemed tired. The next day, Dante got better (as we expected), but Binka remained unchallenged. Toward the end of the day, Pancake decided to throw at them a small kitchen sink of cascading failures to see how the crew would handle it, and that's when things got interesting. Dante struggled and faltered; we expected a breaking point somewhere, and Dante knew it. Binka, on the other paw, stayed ahead of everybun.
As soon as the flight turned into an emergency, she completely took over the craft and kept it under control well past the point of what we thought anybun and even the autopilot could handle. Finally, Pancake introduced a propulsion system meltdown. Dante was wild-eyed and exasperated, while Binka ...
That's when we knew something was wrong. She remained undisturbed, completely undisturbed. She continued to work the unsolvable problem, attempting to control a wreck that was adrift. At no point after declaring an emergency did she issue the command to abandon the ship.
"Binka, well done, you can stop now!" called out Pancake, her voice uncertain. Binka didn't stop and continued trying to regain control of the drifting wreck, calling out flight parameters and repeatedly trying to bring the power plant online. She wouldn't stop. Eventually, she froze in her seat, wouldn't get out of it, and became unresponsive. Her EEG monitor indicated a deep sleep condition.
"Better get the medics, Pancake." said Abby.
The medical stuff had to unstrap Binka from her seat to administer intravenous fluids and took her to the hospital. We stayed by her side until late morning and finally went home to get some sleep. When we came back, Binka was declared "stable." What the doctors meant was that she was no longer dehydrated and that her life was in no danger. However, no bun could communicate with her. After a few days, we noticed that she only responded to cues about flight parameters. She became a living guidance system. The medical consortium decided that our last chance of bringing Binka back was the removal of the bio-implant.
That did nothing to improve her condition. After a few weeks, we were told that we have a newborn Binka on our paws. The "autopilot" she had become was a permanent condition. It became a part of her autonomic nervous system, and at the same time, she was displaying behaviour consistent with a newborn bunlet. She recognized no bun, she wanted to nurse, and she kept her eyes closed all the time. The doctors had hoped she would open them in a few days. They were cautiously optimistic and predicted she might walk again. We were afraid of what she might talk about should she ever speak again.