DAY 627: THE JOURNEY ENDS
DAY 627: THE JOURNEY ENDS
by Sean Nazawa
The final part in a series following a class of recruits moving through the Navy’s training system.
A business executive has been abducted while in transit from a trade conference in the Xi’an Empire. Advocacy investigators were able to identify and track the kidnappers back to an abandoned comm relay. Intel suggested that they had hollowed out the interior, pressurized sections and transformed it into a small hideout. From a strategic perspective, the hideout was a nightmare: complete visibility against any approach, homemade proximity mines, and multiple bulkheads inside that could quickly be triggered to lock down and trap agents. The Advocacy has turned to the Navy for assistance in rescuing the hostage. A flight of Avengers were deployed to resolve the situation. They were currently keeping a wide berth of the relay, their trajectory insinuating that they were simply passing by.
A harrowing circumstance, for certain, as this type of scenario could easily prove deadly for everyone involved.
Thankfully, it’s not real.
This staged event is the final test that this group of Naval recruits will face before graduation. Although they don’t know this, their performance in this exercise will be reviewed by the Navy and even the Marines to determine where these recruits will be assigned. Intended to be as close to a real world operation as possible, the military have spared no expense in orchestrating the illusion.
The ‘outlaws’ are members of the Navy’s 208th Squadron, recently redeployed from active service on the Vanduul front, and many of them are enjoying this bit of entertainment. Bravo Flight leader Commander Harold Rifke spent the days before the exercise coming up with extensive backstories for the other pilots and capturing fake ransom demand vids that he’s been sending sporadically to Divisional Officer Edward Aino, the conductor of this simulated chaos, to forward on to the recruits.
I’m standing with Aino onboard a C&C ship, overseeing the entire wargame play out. Analysts and comms officers coordinate both sides of the engagement. The outlaw chatter is considerably more colorful; the 208th are really getting into their roles.
I watch the recruits’ ships disappear from the hologlobe. Under acting squadron leader Toulo Chalke’s orders, they’re breaking towards the comm relay. Aino listens intently as they relay their positions to each other. He shakes his head and takes a sip of sujin tea.
“Tell Rifke to hack their comms,” he yells over to the comms officer coordinating the outlaw channel, then glances at me. “They shouldn’t give away their positions.”
Over the course of the exercise Aino will continue to throw what he calls ‘surgical handicaps’ against the recruits. He wants them off-balance, to be the underdog.
I pick out the specific recruits among their brief clipped exchanges:
Callum Weaver is confidently adjusting the approach vectors of his flightmates. This scrawny kid from Aremis has really come into his own since beginning flight training and now acts as the number two for Chalke.
The acting squadron leader is a bit of a celebrity around the Forges. Even though his father is Beo Chalke, legendary sataball player for Jata SC, and his mother is Valina Razari, award-winning star of Tears of Time and Last Stand of Lidenvald (to name a few), to the recruits he’s just ‘Paladin.’ The nickname born from an incident that occurred three months ago where Chalke jumped in to help several recruits who were being bullied in the commissary.
“Sir, Rifke’s moved two flights to their position. He says they aren’t there.”
Suddenly the outlaw comm channel explodes. The five ships that stayed back to guard the relay start calling out targets. The recruits drop the pretense and transition into combat updates. I hear Lyssa Vale, the brawler of the recruits, immediately mixing it up with the outlaw pilots.
Talkative on the comms, Vale is one of the most dedicated recruits I’ve seen. She is constantly pushing herself to a ridiculously high standard, putting hour after hour into sims, perpetually drilling herself and whoever she can loop into her training regimen. It seems to be paying off though; she’s ferocious in a fight.
The outlaws at the relay hold their ground as long as they can until virtual laser fire from the recruits finally take them down. With Vale providing cover, Weaver exits his ship and leads a pair of pilots into the relay to secure the hostage. They hope to finish their risky EVA before Rifke and two flights of outlaws race back.
The rest of the exercise is a single protracted brawl. The recruits do their best, but eventually the seasoned combat pilots of the 208th turn the tide. Weaver’s the last holdout, but he gets taken out just after he gets the hostage back to his ship.
Seven outlaws remain, the hostage is dead and the entire recruit squadron has been eliminated.
Two hours later, the recruits have gathered in Aino’s classroom for their debriefing. The room’s drenched in silence. Lyssa Vale is still wired from the op. Her leg bounces up and down as she glares ahead into space. Weaver aimlessly flips through his mobi. Even Chalke looks disappointed until he finally settles back in his seat and breaks the silence.
“Well, we almost had them.”
“Almost isn’t good enough,” Vale mutters.
“C’mon, Vale, you took out what, six? Seven?” Chalke seems intent on raising the spirits in the room.
The door suddenly opens and Aino strides into the room. He cuts a path to the front, powers up the system and loads all the captures of the exercise. He’s got everything: individual pilot cams, hologlobe recordings, comm chatter. For the next four hours, he walks them through the wargame, step by step. He grills them on each decision, why they made the choices they made, and what they would change in retrospect. There was no chastisements. No judgment on the actions of his recruits. It was purely objective analysis.
The recruits, however, seem locked in the loss.
Aino suddenly stops. He looks over the glum faces of the recruits in the room and shakes his head.
“You all need to grow the [redacted] up,” he mutters, tossing his pointer onto the desk.
That gets everyone’s attention. Aino draws out the pause and sits on the corner of his desk.
“Let me tell you all something. This job? The missions that you’ll fly? Any one of them can be a one-way ticket. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most routine patrol in the world, there’s always a chance that something could go wrong and one of you won’t come home. Now, I know you’re all sitting there, pissed off that you didn’t succeed. Let me let you in on a little secret: you weren’t supposed to. We did everything we could to stack the odds against you. Wilkes, remember your missile pod jam? I did that. Teague, your weapon overheating wasn’t an accident.”
The recruits exchange confused glances.
“You all saw failure, but I’ll tell you what I saw. I saw a squadron, working together, executing orders with precision and excellence. Chalke, you broke an engagement with an easy kill to drop flares and protect Kelso. Vale, you’d pick fights with pilots to get them away from teammates that were in trouble. Hell, feeding us the wrong position over your comms was genius. I thought we were gonna lose the op because of that.”
The recruits chuckle. Weaver gets some pats on the back. Aino smiles at them before he continues. It’s the first time I’ve seen him smile at his recruits.
“You all did good. Yeah, you didn’t succeed. You lost people. But that’s the real lesson here. As a Navy pilot, you’re gonna be in these circumstances a lot. What we’re trying to do is condition you to act rationally in impossible situations. That doesn’t mean you’re always gonna make the right call. The real trick though, you gotta learn how to keep going. I know a lot of pilots, some of the finest pilots I ever flew with, who would rather be the one who gets punched out then have to go on without one of their squadron. You gotta be smarter than that. You gotta do your best. You got to look out not only the people beside you, but also for the civilians you’re protecting. Sometimes it’ll work out. Sometimes it won’t. Either way, you gotta pull yourself together and hit the next mission with a clear head. Now, I wish I could tell you how to do that, but you gotta figure that out for yourself.”
Aino studies the faces of the recruits.
“I’ve trained a lot of pilots, but I’ll tell you, I’ve never seen a class help each other as much as you do. I hope some of you get assigned together, but if you don’t, I hope you take that attitude to wherever you land because you all have something special.”
The room is silent for several moments. Someone gently knocks on the door.
Rifke pokes his head in.
“Sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s all right, commander,” Aino says as he stands and grabs his pointer. “What can we do for you?”
“Well, sir,” Rifke opens the door and steps inside. Some of the other pilots from the 208th are outside. “We were wondering when you were done debriefing these Rorys, if we could treat them to some drinks. Vanduul don’t fight as hard as they did.”
Aino looks at his class. He gives a quick motion with his head for them to go. All the recruits slowly file out of the class to the cheers of the combat pilots outside.
Weaver lingers by the door, then turns back to Aino.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Get the hell out of here.”
Weaver smiles and leaves.
I wait as the door slowly clicks shut. Aino starts to quietly collect his things. I feel I have to say something.
“That was a nice speech, sir.”
“Was it?” Aino finishes packing up, then looks at me. “What I said should have terrified them. The other DOs like to say the Rubicon is the first moment they land on Kilian, but if you ask me, it never stops. Doing this job every day will challenge you to your core. The Navy has been my single greatest pride and has broken me in ways that even I can’t see.” Aino pauses. “But they’ll see. Everybody does.”
* * * * * * * * *
The class of 2947 graduation ceremony is held in the late summer on Macarthur and features over two thousand graduates in a variety of capacities. The flight academy alone is responsible for over two hundred. Aino surprised me and arranged for me to sit with the rest of the Divisional Officers for the ceremony.
I can see Arley Finn and Yen Hardigan, the two DOs from that first day on the tarmac that introduced me to the intense journey that Naval recruits faced. As I watch the proceedings commence, I can’t help but reflect on the variety of people I’d met on this incredible journey. All committed to the core tenets of the Navy and protect people like me.
The entire graduating class stands and repeats the same Oath that has been uttered by every Navy member for centuries:
Hear and witness that I do solemnly pledge, mind and body, that I will serve and protect the United Empire of Earth against all who would seek to harm it and its people.
That I will faithfully discharge the duties asked of me, and when called upon, I will defend the Empire with my life.
That I will be the sword and the shield. That I will not falter nor fail, but fight and win.
That I swear to do all in my power to act as a guardian of freedom and justice, as a champion of honor and valor, and as a true and proud member of the UEE Navy.
I finally spot Weaver, Chalke, Vale and the rest of my friends all clustered in the crowd, relishing each word of the Oath. And when they finish, their journey (and mine, I suppose) is over.
They are official members of the UEE Navy.
I talk briefly with Callum Weaver after graduation, just a brief conversation while he waits to receive his first posting, but I ask him about that first day on the freezing tarmac of Kilian. When confronted by DO Hardigan, Callum said that he was joining to “not feel helpless.”
“So,” I ask. “Do you still feel that way?”
This scrawny kid from Plantock River, only a couple hours from my house here on Aremis, who survived the horrors of the Vanduul attack, thinks about it for a few moments.
“I don’t think that feeling ever goes away … but now I know I’m not alone.”