April 6th 2016
FORGE ECHO, KILIAN – A thin layer of frost covers the vast landing strip just before dawn. By the time the sun has risen, it will have burned away, but for now, it gives the desolate stretch of tarmac an ethereal, crystalline feel.
I’m standing beside Divisional Officers Arley Finn and Yen Hardigan, instructors with over seventy years of naval experience, now tasked with molding fresh recruits into starmen. They are currently engaged in an ongoing debate about the latest off-season pick-ups for Jata ZGCC’s sataball team while they brace themselves against the chill.
Both of these behaviors will vanish as soon as the incoming transport lands, but in the meantime, DO Hardigan is unconvinced that another striker is really what the team needs.
A comm interrupts their debate. The transport just entered atmo.
Finn looks over at me.
“Sorry, would you mind standing over by the outbound crates?” Finn spent the bulk of his career aboard small capital ships, running patrols and security details around the Xi’An border before accepting a transfer to train the next generation of Naval recruits. While he’s generally regarded as one of the nicest instructors on the base, I’ve also been told that he will break you in half if he feels you aren’t performing at the level that he thinks you should be.
“Yeah, writer,” Hardigan says as he smooths the creases in his coat, “last thing we want the recruits to see is some civ in their sightline as soon as they step off. We need to project strong. You ain’t it.”
Hardigan came up fighting. Even before his enlistment, he was fighting in the streets of Angeli and even competed in an amateur Iyo Ti league. In the Navy, he served in over two dozen squadrons and has run all kinds of missions in all kinds of environments, but still carries himself with a fighter’s confidence.
The transport breaks through the turbulent clouds and descends towards the tarmac. It makes a sweep around the landing area before settling down. Bleary-eyed recruits flood down the ramp; screams of an officer inside the ship drive them out like a tired, scared herd.
Now, any vestige of the spirited conversation between colleagues about sataball teams and spectrum shows is gone. Finn and Hardigan have adopted the mantle of Divisional Officers of the UEE Navy, entrusted with instilling the training and discipline that will keep these recruits alive.
Finn and Hardigan yell to get the recruits into a semblance of formation, picking out anyone who’s too slow or (even worse) trying to hold onto some sense of entitlement. This group has two examples of the latter. I know from an earlier conversation that Hardigan particularly loves this type.
“It’s always amazing to me,” he told me a few days earlier. “These people know they’re signing up for military service, but seem to think that they’re the special flower who’s smarter than us.” He paused for a moment. “I love those people. That [redacted] makes my day.”
Once the recruits are organized into formation, Hardigan gives them a choice. Known as the Rubicon, he and Finn switch off explaining to the recruits why they should turn around and get back onto the transport. This will be the last opportunity for the recruits to reconsider their enlistment.
They pace methodically among the recruits, pressing them for answers as to why they want to join their beloved Navy. In between responses, Finn and Hardigan recount horror stories they’ve witnessed throughout their career.
“Shot from a Hunter pierced the hull clean and sparked fires on three decks. Four mechanics got caught in Engineering before the bulkheads shut. I watched them burn before another shot vented the room. Pulled the flame out like liquid.” Finn paced among the recruits, studying their faces as he spoke. “Can you imagine that? Going from fire to void, searing pain to freezing like that? These were my friends and I couldn’t do a damn thing but watch.”
“That’s nothing. You ever see a Vanduul up close?” Hardigan hissed at another recruit, who sheepishly shook his head. “You ever see what they do to people?”
I had. Hardigan continued.
“We got jumped on a run through Grinder. Scans said the system was empty, but they were wrong. ’Duul bastards caught us completely off guard and tried to storm the ship. I had a buddy, Lauren Vogt. Hell of a pilot. Easily worth ten, twenty of you. Vanduul cut her to pieces like she was nothing.”
As I’m wondering if any of these stories are embellished to shock the recruits, Finn answers my question.
“You’re probably thinking we’re [redacted] with you.”
“I know Starman Dipshit is,” Hardigan chimes in, looming over one of the two recruits who were showing an anti-authoritarian streak.
“Here’s the thing, people. Everything we’ve said is true. Not only that, everything we’ve said has been witnessed by the person saying it. No second hand ‘I knew a guy who heard this.’” Finn takes his place back at the head of the group. “We don’t need to pump up our stories, because we don’t have to. Things are that dire out there. So please, if you aren’t going to commit to this — if you aren’t going to step up and make yourself matter to you and your fellow Human — do us all a favor — ”
“And not get us killed.”
“Get back on that transport and have a great life.”
Then silence. They wait. The ramp to the transport is open.
None of the recruits move. Hardigan nods to Finn who breaks them down into groups. Half the group is going to Forge Echo, while Hardigan’s group will run the ten kilometers to Forge Quintus, their home for the foreseeable future.
By now, the sun has risen. The frost’s already begun to melt on the tarmac. Now that the recruits have receded into the distance, the transport crew has come out to start loading the cargo that was next to me.
They’ve all loosened up. The petty officer who had been screaming at the recruits to drive them off the ship has stepped out to take in some of the sunlight.
I ask her, “why all the theatrics?”
She laughs one of the warmest, hearty laughs I’ve ever heard.
“We need them to know that what they’re signing up for is serious. It’s dangerous work, but important. Command doesn’t want to sugar-coat it.”
I ask her if anyone’s ever turned back at the Rubicon.
“Oh sure,” she says with a smile. “I almost did.”
Apparently, they have another pick-up of recruits for tomorrow. The Battle of Vega II has led to a consistent increase in recruitment numbers in both the Army and Navy. The rest of the crew finishes their work and calls out to the petty officer. She nods and walks back to the transport.
Before the ramp closes, I hear them discussing the upcoming sataball season.
When the transport’s engines fade, I’m left on the desolate tarmac. The sun’s firmly perched in the sky. The frost is now completely gone. On the horizon, I can see the low-slung silhouettes of the forges, hard at work training the next wave of defenders for the Empire.
I think back on the reasons the various recruits gave to Finn and Hardigan during the Rubicon. There was a young man, probably barely passed his Equivalency, who was from the Plantock River on Vega II. He’d seen his town destroyed during the attack. As Hardigan pushed him for a reason why he wanted to join, he responded, “to not feel helpless.”
I could see Hardigan pause, perhaps the only crack in his hard-edged DO persona, before he recovered and moved on.
Maybe that was something we could all relate to.