Memoirs of a Rockjack

Chapter Three

"Outstanding, Private Weaver! I think that's a new record," Sergeant-Major Graham announced over the communication circuit as I pulled the Poisoned Dagger out of the training course and back into formation with the rest of my squadron.

"Thank you, Drill Sergeant!" I replied as I settled into my respective place. I'd taken on the piloting and combat obstacle course with all the fervor I could muster and I don't recall leaving any target unscathed as I made my pass. At any rate, I had pleased the drill instructor, so I must've done well. I finished bringing myself up to a stationary position on the right wing of our group and watched as Private Jacquie Holland from Achernar made her attempt. Watching someone else take on the obstacle course made me realize just how difficult it actually was. I felt pride in the fact that, less than a month ago, I wouldn't have been able to make it through so much as the first half of the course. As a result, I knew I'd been trained very well.

I watched as Jacquie cut a swath through her chosen course and, when she came out on the other side, Sergeant Graham said, "Not bad, Holland! I think you've finally managed to grow yourself a set! Come on back."

"Yes, Drill Sergeant," She barked and immediately took her position.

As soon as Jacquie's Krait had taken up the right hand tip of our delta formation, we followed Graham's lead in a slow turn toward the base. Moments later, we activated our main drives and set our forward velocities up to the standard ten thousand klicks per hour which would get us off the Flight And Combat Training course and back home in the space of half an hour. It was all done with such precision that you would think only one person was piloting all six of our craft. I remembered watching the holos of our first attempts at formation flying and laughing like crazy at some of the wild antics we all pulled as we tried to get our ships to execute maneuvers that we now considered simple and routine.

During the trip back, the intercom crackled again and the voice of Sergeant-Major Graham filled the cockpits of our ships.

"Well, ladies and gentlemen, that concludes your FACT test and I'm pleased to say you've done a fine job. But don't let it go to your heads! There's a big difference between flying through asteroids and shooting unarmed target drones than trying like hell to keep from getting your ass fried while taking on a fully loaded Thargoid battleship! I've managed to give you the tools you'll need to point yourselves at the enemy.

"Unfortunately, with the war going on, we need as many pilots on the battle line as possible, so we've had to forgo the live fire drone test."

Graham's last statement made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Are things really going that badly for us?

The Sergeant continued, "But don't sweat that, you all have done a remarkable job in the short space we've had to work together. The next time you fire your lasers, it'll be in the field against live targets. Whatever happens, remember what you've learned here, and you'll be just fine." He spoke with such confidence that I felt a collective sigh of relief coming from the rest of the group, though nobody actually said anything afterward.

* * * * *

"Congratulations, Corporal Weaver," Sergeant-Major Graham said as he proudly pinned the gold chevrons onto the collar of my red and black dress jumpsuit. I was starting to feel slightly nervous only because I'd been standing on the dias before the Commandant of the Eta Cassiopeia Proving Grounds longer than any of the other thirty five members of INRA Training Wing 727.

My uniform chest was already a bit heavier than anyone else's due to the fact that, aside from the promotion to Corporal, I was also awarded the Superior Marksman's Medal and the Gold Training Course Medal. These two decorations were in addition to the Space Defense Medal, which everyone received due to the war, and the Thargoid Battle Line Medal, which every member of an active combat squadron received to signify our assignment in the war.

If I keep getting medals at this rate, I'll need to pay someone to wear the ones that don't fit on my chest! I thought. I really hadn't counted on being awarded such high honors. I only hoped my teammates weren't resentful. Of course, the other members of my squadron weren't leaving with bare chests either! Everyone received Marksman's Medals, three of which were either Excellent or Superior ratings! We also had a few Silver and Bronze Training Course Medals to our credit. Not only that, but we also boasted the highest number of Corporal promotions (three) than any of the other active duty training squadrons! Jacquie Holland was grinning from ear to ear, not able to get over her good fortune of receiving a promotion and a Silver Training Course Medal. Had military decorum been thrown out the window, I imagine she would've been jumping up and down and clapping her hands.

Maybe she'll be doing that when we're dismissed! I couldn't help but think.

* * * * *

"Not too bad for a graduation ball," I noted as I stepped through the archway and into the ballroom, followed by Corporal Holland and two other members of our squadron. Private Eric Lockheart, and Private Susan Mancini cast wary glances around the decorated room and I wondered if this would be the last formal party we'd all be going to for a while.

Before we could get more than two steps toward the buffet line, we were approached by a portly gentleman attired, as we were, in a set of dress blacks. The silver and two gold bars of a Captain-Lieutenant glittered on his collar and his chest sported a large collection of ribbons, many of them commendations for valor and front-line service. Now there's a man you don't want to mess with! I thought.

"Well, well, well, you folks didn't completely wreck the training course. Kudos to you for that."

I shrugged, "Well, sir, we did what we could." At that moment, a little bug in my ear urged me to make an introduction or two. I extended my hand and said, "By the way, I'm Max Weaver."

"Sam Desmond," the officer replied as he shook my hand. Following this, everyone else introduced themselves and handshakes were exchanged. At that moment another man, considerably thinner than Lieutenant Desmond and not much older than myself, approached our conversation group. His collar bore the single gold bar of an Ensign and he carried himself in a way which seemed very typical of junior officers: Nose in the air, looking as though he felt so superior to enlisted men who'd served ever since he was in diapers.

"Sir, are you going to come back to us?" he asked, after casting a glare at myself and my squadron mates.

?Lieutenant Desmond gave a scornful look at his junior and replied, "In a minute, Ensign. I figured it'd be a good idea to acquaint myself with some of the pilots who'll be joining our wing." The older man looked back and forth between him and us, then finally gestured toward the young officer and said, "This is Ensign Bailey. He leads our support flight and assists in our base's research lab."

?I volunteered myself to be the first to greet the severe looking gentleman, "Corporal Weaver, sir," I said and extended my hand.

Bailey nodded curtly, saying "Hello," and shook my hand. He squeezed it a little bit harder than I felt was necessary and it only proved my belief that this guy had some problems. I let the other members of my party introduce themselves and receive similar treatment... even the women were given no mercy, which was appalling to me. When the attempt at humiliation had finally ended, the ensign said, "Sir, when you're ready, the rest of us will be over there." He gestured toward a cluster of officers talking quietly among themselves.

Desmond gave a nod and answered, "I'll be there in a moment."

"Very good, sir," he replied, then nodded to us once more saying, "Good evening, pilots," spun on his heel and strode back toward his higher ranking compatriots.

I distinctly felt the air become much warmer as soon as he departed. There was something about that guy, more than just the mask of arrogance, that bothered me, but I couldn't figure out what.

Lieutenant Desmond then returned his attention to our group and smiled, "Don't let him get under your skin too much. He's a good officer and he gets results, which is exactly what we need in this war."

"Yes, sir," I answered, agreeing with the last part of his sentence.

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

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