December 6th 2016
Part Two of an ongoing series following a class of recruits moving through the Navy’s boot camp (known in the service as Forges).
FORGE QUINTUS, KILIAN – “Aw hell, did Weaver die?” The group of recruits slowed to a halt and looked at DO Hardigan, unsure if this was some kind of test.
We were eight kilometers into a sixteen kilometer run. A standard way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the hottest season on MacArthur, at least it was in Hardigan’s Forge. As a civilian outsider, I had been offered (and declined) a personal HOV. It had been a running joke between Hardigan and me, but after five months living with these recruits, of hearing not only their histories, but also their plans for the future, I’d decided that I wasn’t going to be an outsider. That was three months ago, and I’ll admit, today I was kinda regretting it.
From the look on Hardigan’s face, this wasn’t a test. We all turned back to see Recruit Callum Weaver face down in the dirt. A scrawny kid raised in Plantock River on Aremis, Weaver always struggled with the intensely physical requirements in basic training.
“I keep hoping that there’ll be a point where I push through,” Weaver confided in me one day after three hours of vigorous combat drilling. “And yeah, while it gets a little easier each time, it never feels like my body gets used to it.”
Recruit Teagen was the first to react. She rushed over and pulled off the heavy pack loaded with field supplies so Weaver could roll over. A few other members of the squad came to help while the others took full advantage of the break and slumped to the ground in the shade.
DO Hardigan walked over, barely winded, and blocked the sun while he looked down at Weaver. After a few moments, he started to come around.
“Sorry, sir.” Weaver mumbled as he tried to sit up.
“Whoa, there.” Hardigan dropped to a knee and stopped Weaver from getting up. “Got a medvac coming up. You gotta learn how to hydrate, kid.”
“Sorry, sir. I will, sir.”
Hardigan shook his head and after tossing Weaver a hydro-gel pack, told Teagen and the other recruits who had helped to see that Weaver got back. He then turned to the rest of the squad.
“Well, since you all didn’t feel like helping your squadmate, looks like we got to start the full sixteen again.”
The recruits were considerably more unified after that day. That sense of unity would only strengthen as they entered the phase of their training known as Candidacy: three weeks of testing, designed to not only assess each recruit’s physical, psychological and intellectual aptitude, but how well they’ve incorporated the past eight months of training into action.
After Candidacy ended, it was another week before the recruits would be divided and sent to the next phase of their training. Out of the sixteen recruits, most continued onto enlisted training. Four were transferred to specialized facilities the next week. Recruit Teagen disappeared halfway through and, if Hardigan was to be believed, had been headhunted by the Marines. Recruit Weaver and the three others had been approved to begin Flight Academy training.
On the first morning of flight school, Hardigan jogged the lucky few to a lonely stretch of tarmac where, sitting against the morning sun, was an F7 Hornet and their new DO, Lt. Edward Aino.
“This is what you’ve got, Hardigan?” The stout man in his eighties dropped onto the deck as he looked over the recruits.
“Afraid so,” Hardigan replied.
“These look weaker than the last bunch.”
“Then break ’em,” Hardigan said with a shrug. Aino nodded, then fired a salute to Hardigan who returned it and then started the jog back.
Aino stepped closer to the recruits in silence. He studied each one for an uncomfortably long amount of time, possibly to see if they would react. They did not.
Over the next few minutes, more recruits showed up, dropped off by the DO’s like the first day of school. Aino repeated the procedure with each new addition.
Once the class was filled, he turned to the Hornet.
“Take a good look,” Aino said as he paced alongside the fighter, his eyes fixated on the pristine machine. “For some of you, this will be the closest you ever get to one of these. Until now, we’ve just been playing.”
Some of the recruits exchanged weary glances.
“But this is an instrument of war. Capable of raining destruction the likes of which you have not seen, so if you think I’m going to let any of you [redacted] anywhere near this, you are out of your [redacted] mind. You will need to earn my trust and respect before I hand you a weapon. Hear?”
“Sir, yes, sir!” The recruits shouted in perfect unison.
Aino wasn’t kidding. Ten hours a day, six days a week for the next two months, he had them poring over technical manuals, historical accounts, strategic and tactical analyses of military actions (including rigorous study of Marduke’s Elements of Warfare). The heaviest focus was on flight theory and he would surprise them with tests about everything, even piloting fundamentals, despite the fact that many had been flying spacecraft for years.
After a particularly grueling session that ended with Aino recommending that one of the recruits to be transferred out of academy, I asked him why.
“The type of flying they’re used to won’t prepare them for what’s out there,” he replied. “We ask the impossible day in and day out. When you’ve lost your entire squadron and Vanduul are bearing down, we need you to be able to make competent tactical decisions. If you can’t cut it in a classroom, you won’t last a day on the drift.”
As the summer heat began to break toward autumn, the remaining recruits moved on to Aino’s next level of training. Bolstering their confidence by proclaiming that he was ‘ready to see what they could do in a cockpit,’ he led the recruits to a distant hangar.
When they arrived, there was a palpable excitement in the air. All that intense study would finally be put to use. Aino pulled the massive doors open.
Facsimiles built out of discarded pipes to resemble the frame of a cockpit were spaced evenly throughout the hangar. Plastic chairs doubled as operator seats. The flightstick? A tube taped to a spring. The recruits were less than enthused.
“What the hell you waiting for? Pick a ship,” Aino yelled.
Thus began phase two of their training. Aino ran them through basic cockpit layout. He forced them to meticulously reconstruct the placement of every button and switch for a variety of ships that they might be expected to fly. Once complete, he would exhaustively test each and every one of them on the function and conventional (or unconventional) applications of the ship. He’d put recruits on the spot and call out scenarios, then time their response.
The phrase “too slow, you’re dead” was repeated thousands of times.
Within the month, another two recruits had been reassigned to different Forges, but Weaver it seemed, had found something to excel at. He displayed a photographic memory when it came to the layout of the various cockpits, easily switching between the configurations of Gladius, Hornet and even Starfarer layouts without needing to consult the specs.
Aino certainly noticed. Away from the recruits, Aino was a quiet, considerate man. A veteran of over five hundred missions, he’d seen his fair share of combat, but it was impossible to get him to elaborate more than that. While having sujin tea with him during our weekly talk, I asked him about Weaver’s aptitude. Surprisingly, he went into detail.
“Sometimes, it just clicks. Not for me. My DO would scream herself hoarse yelling at me to get it right.” He settled back and sipped on his coffee. “We’re still a long way away and he’s got a lot more learning to do. I mean, I’ve seen people pick it up quick when there ain’t nothing on the line, only to lose it the second they’re in their first scrap, but we’ll see … maybe he’s earned a treat.”
“Like what?” I asked.
Aino turned and looked out the window for a minute. I almost thought he’d forgotten the question. He then turned back and smiled.
Recruit Weaver was going to be the first to go up in an actual test flight.