IMPORTANT
A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.

The Right Stuff

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Turnabout Tunnels story universe
Author: Bryan

As I entered the cavernous hangar I immediately recognized the plane I was looking for sitting toward the back; a shiny new Boeing 737-700. A lone ground crewman was under one wing washing the paint. As I walked over I curiously noted how hard he was scrubbing.

"That's the spot," a voice crackled over his walkie-talkie. "Riiight there. Yes. Ohhh, yes."

The man scrubbed the plane a few more times, then dropped his arms with a heavy sigh. "There, I'm beat. No more, okay?" He declared grumpily. I noticed that the man hadn't touched the walkie-talkie when he had replied.

"No more," agreed the voice over the radio, "that was just what I needed. Thanks." The man picked up his bucket and began walking away. As he passed me, he muttered a greeting and a word of advice.

"He's in a bit of a spoiled mood today," he warned. "Don't let him sweet-talk ya into anything." I grinned and acknowledged his warning, then paused for a moment until he had left. I still felt vaguely uncomfortable with what I was about to do. Then I looked up at the cockpit of the plane.

"Hello, Ben?" I called. "It's Frank, your instructor. Are you ready?"

"Sure," I heard a slightly muffled shout through the plane's open door. "Please, come on up!" Shaking my head slightly, I climbed the stairs and stepped inside. "Welcome aboard, captain," the voice announced over the PA speakers. "I saw you when you came into the hangar. I'm ready. Uh, why don't you wipe your feet and come into the cockpit?"

I nodded and complied, a slightly nervous grin on my face. I knew that there was no one in the cockpit to be making that announcement, in fact there was probably no one else on board the plane at all. Unless you counted a diffuse bundle of exotic radiation as a person too, of course. Ben wasn't human any more, his mind now possessed the plane itself. I was already standing inside him, going to the cockpit was a symbolic gesture at best.

I found it a hard concept to get my head around sometimes, even after having been Ben's instructor for the past three weeks already. It had been harder to accept back in my office when I had first been asked to do this assignment; since when does an airplane need to be taught how to fly? I had just barely decided to believe that the mind-swapping thing being reported in the news was real, the first cases of what the comet debris had done were still just beginning to emerge in public.

For some reason, a shower of meteors from a celestial collision had rained to earth, carrying with it hundreds of thousands of energy fields. They had adhered to machines, plants, animals, and even humans, anything with an energy source. At first they had seemed to be harmless. It was only after several months that the increasing number of claims began to overcome credulity, and it was recognized that they were somehow causing people's minds to be randomly traded. Even with the machinery, in some cases.

"Come in, come in. Please sit down. I'm really looking forward to this, I hope I'm really ready..." The voice came from the speakers on the control console rather than the public address system this time. Now that I was inside the cockpit, Ben didn't need to speak to the rest of the plane for me to hear.

"Of course you're ready," I assured him. "And besides, you don't actually have to do anything today, remember? I'm going to be handling the controls this first time out, you're just supposed to come along and see what it feels like." We had already carefully gone over these plans, but it wouldn't hurt to do it one more time; the last thing I wanted was for Ben to get overconfident and try taking control himself. The plane may have been Ben's 'body', and he may have had better control over it than any human in the cockpit ever could, but even so he didn't necessarily know what to do with it. Ben had been a carpenter before he had run into the energy vortex that stuck him here, he'd never even flown on a plane as a passenger before. And he had been hard to teach, since it was impossible for Ben to use a simulator or a smaller training aircraft before taking a 737 up like human pilots could. On the other hand, we could focus purely on learning to fly this one particular airplane...

"Okay. I'll try to do my best at doing nothing. Can I taxi out there now?"

I nodded, but warned him again to obey the ground crew's directions. Ben sighed. I knew that it annoyed him, since taxiing around the airport had until now been his only opportunity to move under his own power, but after a close call out on the tarmac with a 747 I had managed to impress on him the importance of following their instructions.

Ben's engines started up, and with the guidance of the crew on the ground outside we slowly made our way through the hanger doors. As he got outside onto the tarmac he revved his jets impatiently, or perhaps nervously; today was going to be a big day for him. Today was the first time that he was going to actually fly since he had become an airplane over four months ago. I would be at the controls, of course, but I could imagine how exciting and nerve-wracking it must be. I know I was nervous, and I'd done this literally thousands of times before.

We moved to the end of runway #2 and the tower immediately gave "Flight BEN-001" clearance for takeoff. Although the body Ben now wore was legally owned by Boeing, the company executives had been extremely considerate in treating him like a real person; the individual designation was only one of many such courtesies. I suppose it was probably more out of their eagerness to 'hire' him once he learned to fly, a little respect and a reasonable salary being more than a fair price for the publicity and celebrity they expected Ben to bring them. There were one or two other aircraft now known to be possessed by human 'spirits', but Ben was the only one of them suitable for passenger service.

"Are you ready?" I asked one final time.

"As I'll ever be" Ben replied, taking a deep, shaky breath. Or at least making the sound of taking a deep, shaky breath; since he wasn't using lungs to speak, it was purely a psychological quirk. At least it helped make him seem more human. Releasing the brakes, I guided the plane down the runway and began slowly picking up speed.

"You're sounding fine," I muttered reassuringly. "Engines running good, not a hint of crosswind." Ben's only reply was the sound of tense breathing. I continued to ease the throttle up. The plane was responding very smoothly, and the nose wheel began to lift...

Suddenly the throttle jerked out of my hand, surprising the hell out of me. I was slammed forward against the seat straps as Ben's thrust reversers kicked in. "Hey! What..." I wheezed, momentarily breathless.

"Ah! Oh shitshitshitshit..." I heard Ben's slightly panicked voice muttering over the scream of the engines and squeal of tires; he had taken control, and was throwing everything he had into stopping the plane quickly. I felt the nose wheel slam jarringly back onto the runway.

"Ease up! Ease up!" I shouted. We were still well away from the end of the runway, there was plenty of room to stop without excessive measures that might damage the plane. But Ben obviously wasn't listening. At last the plane skidded to a stop, Ben cut his engines back, and I straightened up to suck air back into my lungs. The deceleration had caught me by surprise both in its suddenness and magnitude.

"Ow ow ow, oh shit! My tires, my brakes!" Ben's voice crackled. "Oh, shit that's hot! I can't hop. Damn!"

"BEN-001, you have aborted takeoff, what's wrong?" the control tower's urgent voice cut him off. I grabbed the radio.

"Control, this is BEN-001, I copy. Give me a moment to check. Ben, calm down, speak to me. Why did you do that? What happened?"

"Ow! Oh, damn I'm sorry. I thought I could do it, but I choked. I just couldn't. I'm sorry." Ben sounded a little incoherent.

"Listen, Ben, tell me exactly what happened. I need to know if there's any danger!"

"No! No, I'm not hurt. Except my wheels, damn they're hot! Oh, I think I sprained my nose gear, too." Ben took a moment to calm down and catch his psychological breath. Then he continued, sounding a lot more subdued. "It was just... I have a bit of a fear of flying. I'm sorry I didn't say anything, I figured it was too silly to worry about... and, I mean, I'm an airplane now after all..."

I suppose, in hindsight, that it was rather insensitive to laugh at that point.

Separator f.png

After we had returned to the hangar, Ben lapsed into an embarrassed silence. His nose wheel was okay, it turned out, and so were his tires; the only serious damage had been to his pride. He had popped the passenger compartment's emergency oxygen masks and jettisoned a little fuel when he'd slammed on the brakes, which I suspected was the 737's version of wetting itself. Fortunately the ground crew was a little more compassionate than I had been, and the most I heard were a few muffled snickers. I resolved to profusely apologise to him later.

Before that, however, I knew I had to report to Boeing's man local manager about this. Gary Sieben had been placed in charge of Ben's needs, and it now seemed that Ben had some that we hadn't previously suspected. To his credit, Gary took me completely seriously when I informed him that our airplane had been harboring a secret fear of flying. "You've gotten to know him much better than I have," he said, "and know more about ordinary pilots-in-training too. What's your opinion of this? Just first-flight jitters, or something more serious?"

"I think it's more serious," I told him. "Ben was really panicked. If I'd been able to give him a ride in training craft..." I trailed off with a sigh. Gradually getting Ben comfortable with flying just didn't seem to be an option.

"We don't really have a choice in this case" Gary mused, echoing my thoughts. "Interesting. He's not very useful to us if he's grounded... do you know how likely he is to get over this?"

I shrugged. "Hard to say, of course. In a normal human, sure, I bet we could help him. I don't know how one could give an airplane therapy, though."

"Don't worry, that'll be the therapists' problem." I nodded; I had forgotten all about Ben's therapist. He had always sounded so normal when I talked to him, it was hard to remember that his human body was lying comatose in a mental hospital half a continent away and his wife had refused to accept that his mind was alive in the machine. Stress like that was sure to get to a person, and Gary had provided for that too.

"I think I should talk to him," I said. "The therapist, I mean. And Ben. I want to help out."

Gary spread his hands. "Hey, whatever you think is best. There's no deadlines on this thing yet." I knew that it was due more to bureaucratic confusion than anything else, of course, but at least that particular source of pressure was nonexistent. Boeing's executives had been just quick enough in understanding the situation to stop Ben's sale to one of their customers, realizing the potentially immense advertising benefits they might get out of him. Anything more would take a while for them to sort out, and in the meantime they had left us alone to deal with Ben on a personal level as we saw fit. It was a good thing, otherwise he might have chosen to look for work elsewhere and added the immense legal problems of his status as a person to his list of stresses...

Separator f.png

I returned to Ben's hangar shortly afterward, to see the mechanics checking over the last of the systems that might have been damaged in Ben's panic. "How are you feeling?" I asked Ben sympathetically as I climbed the stairs to his door. "Wheels still hurting?"

"Nah, once they cooled off they were fine," Ben's tinny voice answered from the PA system within. "Right now I just can't wait for these guys to quit poking around inside me; all these open access panels feel... chilly, I guess. Vulnerable. Hey, leave that alone, okay? I didn't hurt anything in there!" I realized that last comment was directed toward a mechanic who had been preparing to open a hatch on one of Ben's engine nacelles. He shot Ben a hurt and embarrassed look, but resealed the hatch and moved on. "They just don't trust my senses," Ben lamented privately to me. "'Course, since I have no idea how I can feel all these parts of myself, maybe I shouldn't either..."

"Hey, you gotta at least trust yourself, right?" I told him supportively. "Can I come in?"

"Hm? Oh, sure. Of course." I stepped off the stairs and headed for the cockpit. I noted that someone had already stowed the passenger compartment's oxygen masks, since Ben wasn't going to be taking on passengers any time soon there was no need to go through all the safety checks... "Frank?"

"Yes, Ben?"

"That's bullshit."

"How so?"

"Well, just think about it. Nothing like this has ever happened to anyone else before; how can anyone possibly know what's going to happen if I try to fly? What if... well, there's a thousand what-ifs I could come up with. But just because my body is such a marvel of avionic technologies, how can I be sure it will work right with me inside it? Something's bound to go wrong."

I shook my head. "Ben, the 737-700 is one of the most reliable airplanes on the planet. Not only that, but those mechanics out there you were complaining about-"

"I mean me, Frank. I'm the weak link here; this plane wasn't designed to be alive! There are a million components, I'm bound to mess something up somewhere..."

"I'm a little out of my league here, Ben, but don't human bodies have billions of components? They all worked just fine under your guidance then, why should it be different now?"

"Sure, go and remind me of that why don't you..." Ben lapsed into silence for a moment, then resumed quietly. "Yeah, I guess that's a reasonable way of looking at this. I feel like I've got a normal body... But still, that didn't change my gut feeling out there. Or fuel tank feeling, whatever. I don't belong in an airplane. I'm just not cut out to be a pilot."

I sighed. "If you can think of another job you could do, I'd love to hear it. Hangar space and maintenance costs money..."

"Yeah, yeah. I guess I can't go back to building furniture... God, I never chose this. I wanted a boring, stable life. Now everything is changed, and I have to do something I just can't do or I might end up... who knows, wherever it is that unemployed airplanes go. Jesus, I hope that isn't the scrap heap..."

I chuckled quietly and tried to reassure him. "Don't you worry about that, even though the courts are clueless right now there's no way you'd be junked. You're way too valuable. And if flying just isn't your thing... well, I guess there isn't anything anyone can do about that. There're no nests big enough to push you out of."

Ben was silent again for a while. "That's a good analogy," he said at last. "Yeah. I've been shoved out of the nest of my former life, either to fly or to crash and burn. Shit, that's depressing. I wish it hadn't been blind fate that did this to me, it'd be so much easier if I could be angry at someone."

"I know that feeling, all right."

Ben chuckled. We chatted for a while longer, the topic drifting here and there, and eventually I began to get tired. Ben didn't get physically tired himself, but he did need a period of sleep- like rest for his mind every once and a while; we decided to call it a day. The maintenance personnel had already left. But I hesitated at the door before leaving myself. "Ben? I guess I should ask... do you want to continue with your regular lessons tomorrow? There wouldn't be a problem with taking a little break, after what happened today..."

"No, I think I want to continue," Ben answered. "I didn't make it into the air today, but perhaps someday... I want to try. Maybe I can get over this."

I patted the doorframe supportively. "I guess we'll see, then. I'm glad you don't want to give up." Then I descended the stairs, headed for my car, and began the long trip home. I reflected on some of what Ben said, and in a way I wondered if he was right; instead of 'if man were meant to fly he'd have wings,' a more appropriate saying might be 'if airplanes were meant to think they'd have brains.' I wondered if the presence of Ben's mind really would somehow mess up the airplane's function.

I sighed. Ben had been right about another thing, too; whatever the outcome, he was stuck with this. And I would stick by him, and together we'd eventually find out if Ben could really fly. I just hoped I had the right stuff to help him accomplish the task.