Twenty bunk beds lined the walls of the Zeal Unfettered’s trainee barracks. Valeca walked in with the other thirty-nine trainees carrying the same Fleet-issued duffel bag filled with the same Fleet-issued uniform. Other than the more ordered surroundings and much larger ship, it wasn’t too far removed from the kind of sleeping arrangements she’d seen on longer flights for colony construction. While most contracts her company had taken were well within an hour or two from Destiny, the occasional job took them out to even farther LaGrange Points. These could take anywhere from twelve to seventy-two hours each trip, requiring a much larger transport equipped with sleeping quarters to carry all the pilots and Arks necessary to justify such an expense. However, what these trips had in compensation, they lacked in discipline, and Valeca suspected her new surroundings wouldn’t be so lacking. She was right.
As soon as she’d set her things down on the lower bunk, the door at the fore end of the room slid open. A woman in full dress uniform walked in swiftly, taking in everyone in a single glance.
“Attention!” she called out. Barely missing the bottom of the top bunk in front of her, Valeca snapped to attention just like in the introductory briefing she and the other trainees had been shown upon boarding the ship. Her eyes now fixed on the other woman as she paced around the room. Valeca guessed she was not yet thirty, attractive but built like a coiled spring. She’d have to watch herself around this one. She shouted to the trainees again, drawing a few flinches from some of them.
“I am Captain Jaen, your strike group commander and Military Training Instructor. As of this moment, I own every single one of your asses until the day you leave this ship. Whether you do so whole in a Wasp or in pieces in a little black baggie is up to you.” Jaen had reached the aft end of the room by now and turned back towards the fore end. Fierce eyes darted from one trainee to another, letting her words sink into each individually as she addressed them all as a group.
“I am not your friend. I am not your mother. Until those of you who survive this training finally see combat, I will be your enemy. I am everything; I am your world, and my word is law. You are nothing. I will break you down until you are even less than nothing and then shape what is left into something worthy of the title ‘pilot’. Is that understood?” When her gaze met Valeca’s, it was a beam of light examining her at the molecular level for any excuse to send her packing. Somehow, Valeca found enough air in her lungs to shout back a reply.
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they said in unison.
“What was that, trainees?” replied Jaen even louder. The response matched Jaen’s ferocity; now that they’d gotten a glimpse of the woman, they all knew what she wanted back from them.
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
“Very good! Very-” The last word caught in her throat and was replaced with rising anger; in the row of trainees across from Valeca, someone had snickered. Jaen’s pace quickened as she searched for the culprit, looking to all of them as if she’d kill whoever it was where they stood.
“Now what in the hell was that?” She shouted even more strongly than before, darting from one trainee to another. “Who thinks this is funny? Was it you, you cringing little shit?” The trainee shouted back in the negative. “How about you, dickless? Was it you?” Negative again.
“Ma’am, it was me, ma’am!” A man who looked barely older than Valeca called from across the room. As the captain approached him, it was apparent that he was taller than her and perhaps a little bulkier; it wouldn’t help him now.
“Oh, it was you, was it?” she yelled up into his face as he looked straight ahead. “Who is the trainee to laugh at his Military Training Instructor?!”
“Ma’am, the trainee’s name is Jason Herrick, ma’am!”
“Is the trainee some sort of badass?”
“I asked if the trainee is a badass. Well, are you? Because anything less than that would not feel it appropriate to laugh at their training instructor!”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
“Prove it, trainee! Prove it or I swear I will beat your ass so hard, you’ll need to shit in zero-g so your cheeks don’t bump the seat!”
“Ma’am, the trainee does not know how to prove to the training instructor that he is a badass!”
“Try this, then!” With that, a solid uppercut caught Herrick right in the chest. He found himself on his knees gasping for breath as Jaen continued to stare him down.
“Not so confident now, are you, trainee? Right! Anyone else feel like training in the Colonial Fleet would be improved by a laugh track?” She turned to face the other trainees, who made no movements or attempts to respond with anything but “Ma’am, no ma’am!” “Get on your feet, trainee, and do not laugh until I have permitted you to laugh! Is that understood?”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am,” came Herrick’s winded reply.
“I couldn’t hear you, trainee!”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” he said again, stronger this time.
“Very good. Now if there are no further interruptions, I will now proceed to teach you pukes everything you need to know in order to survive this training and eventually serve in my beloved Ark corps. It will be hard, but you will survive if you do as I say at all times. Is that understood?”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they all shouted back. They had already learned the most important lesson day one had for them here: how to answer their MTI.
“Good!” Jaen said. “Now look to the opposite side of your bunk.” Valeca did; the trainee across from her was a brunette, a little taller than she was. At first glance, she didn’t look like she belonged here but then again, Valeca didn’t suppose she did either.
“The trainee standing there is your wingman,” Jaen continued. “You will eat together, you will train together, you will report to your squad leaders together, and if you’re lucky, you may serve together in combat one day. Between you and your wingman, there shall be neither of the two F’s. Is that understood?”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
“Now I’ll see you all in ten minutes in the ready room for your first briefing. Flight suits or nothing.”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” As soon as the captain had left the room, Valeca rushed to finish pulling on her flight suit. It was another part of their briefing earlier: only flight suits in the ready room. The other three uniforms currently folded and labeled in the trunk at the foot of her bed—Class A/B, Garrison, and Combat—would be explained later. For now, she only had to worry about her Physical Training Uniform and the flight suit. She was wearing the former now: dark blue shorts that reached halfway to her knees and an undershirt in a lighter shade branded FCF. Jaen was right: there was no mistaking who owned her now.
Before Valeca could reach out a hand to pull her flight suit out of a narrow locker behind her, the trainee across from her shot out her own.
“Hi,” she said. “Olivia Young.” The other woman’s grip was surprisingly firm; maybe Valeca was wrong about her wingman not fitting in here.
“Valeca. Nice to meet you.” With that, both of them grabbed their flight suits and started pulling them on. A thick pair of knee socks came first, then a flame-retardant jumper that pretended to be form-fitting but really flattered no one.
“Sheesh, after all that, I’m not sure I can cut it here!” Olivia said chuckling.
“Yeah, the captain’s something, isn’t she?” replied Valeca as she stepped into the flight suit itself and set to work on the zippers and seals that ran across her chest. She pulled the hood of her jumper over her head, then slipped through the rubber gasket in the neck. Once all this was done and her hands had slipped through similar gaskets at the suit’s wrists, she pulled on her boots and slapped the pressure seals down into their fully locked position.
Looking around the barracks, she noticed that only two of other trainees had managed to get their suits on yet. It made her think that maybe she had a chance here after all, of not just passing but excelling. It was a moment later that Olivia locked her own boots and was ready to leave for the ready room.
“Come on,” she said to Valeca. “let’s get down there before she tosses us out an airlock or something.”
“Right,” Valeca replied. A few pairs of eyes turned to face them as their heavy magnetic boots clattered off towards the door and out into the corridor.
Five minutes or so went by silently before the trainees had assembled themselves in the pilot’s ready room for the first time. Looking around and seeing their fellow soldiers in uniform, even in the unadorned grays of Colonial Fleet trainees, combined with the room itself in their minds to give the impression that it was all finally real; that they really were soldiers now. It gave Valeca a sense of comfort and belonging that she couldn’t really understand, yet at the same time it wasn’t unwelcome either.
Jaen stood at a lectern in the center of the little amphitheater, flanked on both sides by FACET and Fleet banners. Valeca noticed that their ship bore the insignia of the Home Defense 2nd Fleet. That also made her feel more comfortable. Though enlisting had been her choice all along, she was just fine with keeping the enemy where they were at over two astronomical units away. The trainees surrounding her were all seated; the captain addressed them.
“I see none of you managed to get lost on the way here. That’s a good sign, but you’ll need to be able to do more than find your way through hallways to succeed in basic training, especially with me. Now how many of you are familiar with piloting Arkitect frames? I want hands up!” Valeca’s hand shot up. She looked around the room and noticed four other hands, though none that she knew.
“Only five of you! Good; that means I’ll only have to reteach a few of you instead of the whole squadron. Last group they brought up to me was half full of trainees who thought they didn’t have anything to learn from me. You all should’ve seen the look on their faces when I sent them packing. I still think about it when I have trouble sleeping and it puts a nice big smile on my face. You know why? What’s your name, trainee?”
Another girl about Valeca’s age called out when Jaen’s hand pointed at her.
“The trainee’s name is Kaminsky, ma’am!”
“Do you know why it pleases me to send home Ark pilots, Cadet Kaminsky?”
“Ma’am, no ma’am!”
“I’ll tell you why. Because without exception, every single one of them gets here and seems to think that they already know how to survive in combat just because they know how to weld or turn around without puking all over the inside of their helmet. And invariably, they do everything absolutely wrong. And guess whose ass is on the line in training when some cocky hotshot comes in here and does everything wrong? You now, Cadet. What’s your name?” Jaen’s fierce gaze had now fallen on Valeca.
“The trainee’s name is Florn, ma’am!” she said with surprising conviction.
“Answer the question, Florn.”
“Ma’am, incorrect procedures in training would endanger the trainee’s chances of passing the course, ma’am!”
“You only get half-points, Florn. Anyone else care to guess?” The room was silent. “No? That’s too bad, because the answer is all of you. That’s right, one half-assed trainee puts all of you in danger. You know why that is? Because training becomes habit, and habit becomes practice, and practice becomes character, and character becomes you. If your training is wrong, then you by extension are wrong as well, and there is no way in hell that I will permit you to leave this training course with a pair of wings on your flight suit if your training is in any way, shape or form ‘wrong’. Are we clear?” The answer was unanimous and hearty.
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
“Good. Now let’s move on to the briefing proper. First off, let me introduce you to your new home for the next six weeks, assuming you make it that long. You are now aboard the FCS Zeal Unfettered, the newest ship in the entire fleet, and might I say the best any of you could ever hope to serve on. Over the next few hours, you’ll be inspected by both the Commanding and Executive Officers, Commander La Ganah and Captain Oleka respectively. You’ll also get a tour of the flight deck and Flight Control facilities, which will be the most important places to you aboard this ship after your barracks and the mess hall. Following that, you will return here for a chance to ask me any questions you might have, no matter how stupid they are, and I guarantee you that they will be stupid. Everything in the Fleet is based on regulations which are very clearly spelled out. The sooner you learn and become these regulations, the fewer questions you have, and the fewer questions you have, the less stupid you will sound. Understood?”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!” they called out once more.
“I’ll never get tired of hearing that. Now that your first briefing is complete, you’re to report to the mess for lunch and be back here in one hour, prepared for our grand tour. Garrisons this time. Cadets, dismissed!”
“Ma’am, yes ma’am!”
Lunch hadn’t been anything special, which was to be expected for an outfit that had so many mouths to feed. Digestion was always something Valeca tried to do in silence; it was only natural that Arina Jaen would have other ideas.
“Attention!” the captain yelled as she rounded the corner and walked into the barracks. None of them were slow this time. “I need five cadets to report to laundry duty!” Valeca fired a look over at Olivia and nodded as her arm shot up.
“Ma’am, Cadets Florn and Young, reporting for duty!” Jaen no more than glanced at them before moving on to find the rest of her victims.
“Three more!” she yelled, pacing down the row of bunks. When no one spoke up, she started in on naming names. “Cadets Kaminsky, Len and Forres, report with Florn and Young. Dismissed!” Valeca knew enough to hustle off down the corridor as quickly as she could manage, but only after grabbing the little cheat sheet she’d been given to help memorize the Fleet’s chain of command. Olivia would have to share.
From what she heard of Jaen’s voice receding as they left the barracks, it wasn’t going to be pretty in there. Olivia approached as the training instructor fell out of hearing.
“What’s the deal?” she asked. “You think I wanna wash someone else’s skidmarked underwear?”
“Something my brother told me once: always volunteer for laundry duty in training, since it gives you time to memorize. I’m gonna need all the time I can get.” Her left hand held up the little laminated sheet of paper agreed grabbed from her trunk.
“You know,” Olivia said, grinning, “I think I’ll keep you around. Just tell me what else brother said.”
“Mostly, he told me not to enlist. Looks like we’re both SOL on that one.”
Sure enough, laundry duty wasn’t so bad as long as you ignored all the suspicious hairs and just got on with it. Everything was already organized by wings and only in readily distinguishable colors, so the only real problem was the monotony. Just the thought that Valeca was a pilot stuck sorting someone else’s sweaty shirts when she could’ve been flying was a bit galling, but she wouldn’t think about that now.
She’d just be lucky to have a chance to fly, and only after she put up with Jaen and her training routine. Whatever the captain had to throw at her would be nothing next to the thrill of strapping herself into a cockpit again, this time at the helm of military hardware. It was enough to make her smile noticeably and for Olivia to remark.
“Find something good in there?” she asked, looking similarly bored.
“Nope,” Valeca replied, “just thinking about what it’ll be like to fly again.”
“Again? I guess you did raise your hand in that briefing. What’d you do before?”
“Colony construction. Just basic Arks for some heavy lifting, nothing fancy like this. A Wasp would make what I flew look like a kid’s toy.”
“I’ll bet.” Olivia was tossing the last bunch of her load into a washing machine when Valeca rose to look at the duty roster. The tablet was built into the wall and gave an hour-by-hour breakdown of which wings had use of the laundry facilities; she noticed that the next batch wouldn’t be due for another ten minutes. While maybe it wasn’t safe to assume that Jaen wouldn’t expect them back until that time, not much about the woman was safe, perhaps beyond the expectation that she could be hostile at any moment and with no conceivable provocation.
Peeking over at the other three cadets, Valeca noticed that they were still working on their laundry and the clock was ticking. It wouldn’t be right to distract them now.
“Let’s get started,” she said. Olivia took a seat across the aisle from her, not looking stressed at all. “You wanna look off mine?”
“No, thanks.” Valeca arched an eyebrow in surprise. “What? You weren’t the only one who got some advice before she reported.” There was that grin she’d seen Olivia flash a couple times now, walking the line between confident and annoying. Valeca really didn’t want to be seeing signs of the latter already, not when they were only to be together for the next eight weeks at least.
She read over the card out loud a couple times before trying again without it, but she could only make it a few pay grades up before having to cheat. Olivia was falling to suppress a snort.
“High school all over again,” Valeca said, irritated as she turned the little paper over in her hands a few times, as if that would be more helpful. “If I have to recite that one more time, I’ll punch right through the bulkhead and float home.”
“It’s not that hard,” Olivia replied. “Just keep doing it until it sticks.” Valeca sighed at that but knew her wingman was right; Jaen wanted her cadets to know their homework backwards and forwards, to be repeated by request at any time. Any of them who couldn’t do it would, in the Captain’s words, do so many push-ups that they’d push their way through the hull and out into space.
“Let’s give it another shot, Valeca. You go first.”
“Cadet Valeca Florn. Cadet Ella Kaminsky, Fourth Training Flight. Captain Arina Jaen, Fourteenth Training Squadron. Lieutenant Colonel Oris Dannet, Commander of Air Group. Colonel… Shit.” Olivia snorted with laughter.
“Colonel Shit? Really?” At that, Valeca laughed too. “Colonel Tylen Fletcher, Second Group. Wanna finish it off?”
“Sure,” she replied. “Brigadier General Alexandra Brand, FCS Arcturus, Second Wing. FCS Bellerophon. General Janis Lewin, FCS Bellerophon, First Space Force. Erana Lennix, Commander of the Navy. Franklin Macalacad, Secretary of the Space Force. Patrick Hearst, Chairman of the Armed Forces.” They said the last one together: “Otha Derak, President of the Free Alliance.”
“Good!” Olivia said.
“It’s one thing saying it now, though. Just wait ‘til Jaen gets you in the mess hall with a spoon in your mouth or in the bathroom.”
“Or makes you do it backwards. Now if you’re fine on that, then let’s do the next one.”
“And I thought the chain of command was hard… Says here we’re supposed to have the whole Space Force rank structure memorized too, all the way from airman up to General of the Space Force.”
“I’d rather memorize all that than be latrine queen,” Olivia said.
“Fair enough. Let’s get started, then. Airman, Airman First Class, Senior Airman…”
Valeca only needed a few minutes for what she’d intended to do since this afternoon’s briefings. Thankfully, it was only a short walk to Captain Jaen’s quarters. She took a deep breath and knocked on the door firmly.
“Yes?” came the captain’s voice from a small holo-screen on the side of the doorway.
“Ma’am, Cadet Florn!” she said. The door slid open and revealed the captain sitting at a desk in her PTUs. Lights out for trainees would be in the next twenty minutes but officers, especially those as busy as Jaen was with all these new recruits, couldn’t afford to limit themselves to the standard ship schedule. She looked up from the various holo-projections on her desk to address Valeca.
“What is it, Cadet Florn?” Valeca still wasn’t certain on saluting protocols yet so she snapped a quick one just to be sure.
“Ma’am, permission to speak to you in private!”
“No need to yell, Cadet; permission granted. Now step inside and take a seat if this is gonna be long.” She dropped her hand and shook her head slightly.
“It won’t be long, ma’am. I just wanted to thank you for earlier.”
“For what?” the captain replied, furrowing her brow in surprise. “I don’t recall treating you any differently than I did the other trainees.”
“Exactly, ma’am. Thank you. For… Not making a big deal out of who my father is.” Valeca’s gaze shifted downward towards nothing in particular. “Or my brother.”
“Understand this about me, Florn,” Jaen said, as Valeca’s eyes returned to make contact with hers. “It’s not my way to give anyone special treatment based on their last names. That goes both ways: I won’t give you undeserved punishments, and I sure as hell won’t give you undue praise. The only thing you can possibly do to get special treatment from me is to give me a glimpse of your potential and then not follow through on it. I’ve heard about your brother; everyone in the colonies has too, but you won’t see that affecting my judgement when it comes to your piloting skills. What I do care about is what Colonel Rice put on your application and what you’ll show me in the simulator. And if I ever catch you slacking on that, rest assured that I will never spend a day off your ass until you leave this ship. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Valeca could feel her cheeks flushing a little from embarrassment. She hoped the captain didn’t notice but assumed she had regardless; she’d learned already that nothing got past Arina Jaen.
“Good. And don’t thank me yet. This is only the first day. If you think I’m a hardass now, just wait until I have to put you in an actual cockpit, much less a combat situation. Let’s hope you make it that far.”
“I hope so too, ma’am.”
“Do more than hope, Florn; make it happen. Now do you have anything else to say?”
“Then you’re dismissed. Goodnight, Cadet Florn.” Valeca gave another stiff salute.
“Goodnight, ma’am.” The door closed behind her as she stepped back into the corridor, making her way back to the barracks.
She’d imagined that conversation going quite differently. Should she feel lucky that Jaen didn’t plan on holding her to Carriuss’ standard? It was a safe bet that that was the last thing she really wanted in this sort of environment, where perfection was the captain’s minimum requirement. Her brother hadn’t talked much about piloting or even the Fleet in general, only telling her over and over that no one who wasn’t in would have the slightest chance of understanding the pressure he was under. Now that she’d had a taste, she could admit to herself that he was right about some preconceptions and wrong about others.
On one hand, her first day had been pretty brutal; so much to memorize, all the different uniforms to get straight, so many people to remember and associate with just to get through training. On the other hand, it wasn’t as different as she’d thought it would be from her past experiences. At least the bunks and the food were just about equally bland for both Fleet trainees and civilian contractors. One less thing to feel homesick about.
By the time she got back to the barracks, everyone else was ready for bed. Olivia had taken the top bunk and was already laying down with the tablet they’d been given earlier in the day. Fleet regulations dictated everything they did, from mess order to how many centimeters wide the piping on an approved Class A coat had to be. It was good to see her wingman was already working on committing them to memory little by little, because Valeca knew she’d need all the help she could get.
“Where’d you go?” Olivia asked without looking up from her studies.
“Just came from the Captain’s quarters,” Valeca said, pulling off her boots and socks; the familiar smell was something else to remind her of eight-hour work days in civilian life.
“Nothing important,” she replied, trying to dissuade Olivia’s audible curiosity. “I just had a question, that’s all. Nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not worried,” Olivia chuckled. “As long as you’re not getting flunked out or anything.”
“No, nothing like that.” Flipping up the single blanket on her bunk, Valeca slid inside and pulled the foam pillow up under her head.
“Well, good. After all, we just barely met. I wouldn’t want to go through the trouble of getting to know another brand new wingman.”
“You still might, depending on what Jaen throws at us tomorrow.”
“We’ll see.” A series of three beeps echoed through the room: countdown to lights out. When the lights overhead flicked off, the tablets still on around the room saved their owners’ places and shut off as well. There were no late nights aboard ship for the trainees, something those who passed training would come to regard with jealousy eventually. For now, it would just be a minor annoyance.
“Looks like it’s goodnight, then,” Olivia said as she slipped the tablet into a little slot in her headboard.
“Goodnight,” Valeca replied. It was hard for her to believe that twelve hours ago, she’d been stuffing socks into a duffel bag back in her family’s apartment in Destiny, and now she was aboard a warship bound for who knows where with a crew supplemented by almost a hundred more former civilians like her. Maybe they’d even had the same routine earlier that day: placing the only possessions important to them anymore into a single bag; saying goodbye to family and friends; throwing themselves head-first into something they didn’t entirely understand but knew enough about to think they wanted it, something that could likely kill them if things heated up in the Belt. It was overwhelming, but perhaps that was the point. By yelling all the bad habits out of them in the beginning, what good habits were left could be reinforced. Or something like that, Valeca thought.
Maybe tomorrow would tell her if she was right.