The Most Hated Creature in Known Space
(c) 2017 Andrija Popovic
On our first day the instructor shot our valedictorian, William Robert “Billy-Bob” Rossmount, in the crotch with a burner bolt. Billy-Bob convulsed, wet himself, and fell onto the faux linoleum floor. The woman beside me murmured, “Holy fuck.” Meanwhile, the best of us shit his pants and quivered on the floor.
“Listen up, all of you!” The instructor holstered the burner under his jacket. “You’ve signed up for the toughest training course in known space. I have a waiver for every one of you which says that all you bastards are mine now! You will refer to me by one name only: Chief Instructor. Or, Sir, if you are out of breath.”
He pulled a kerchief from his back pocket, expanded it to the size of a towel, and draped it across Billy-Bob like a shroud.
“You will be pushed to your physical, emotional and psychological limits. We will trigger the worst in you. We will show you the worst in everyone else. And none of this will be exaggerated.” The Chief paced, back and forth, like a guard dog eying prisoners. “Everything we will send you through is real, tested, and true.”
The Chief pointed to the door. “The exit will always be open. But once you walk out, that’s it. There is no coming back.” He checked the time. “You have fifteen minutes to decide. That should be enough for Billy-Bob to change his shorts.”
Three people left right away, including “Billy-Bob” Rossmount. I stayed. I thought I knew what I was in for. We all did. But we were wrong.
We didn’t expect the physical exertion. Not just the training for high, low and null gravity environments but dodge-ball, of all things. The Chief Instructor, when he was feeling generous, would randomly throw cricket balls at us, cursing the whole time. “My first day, I had a five-star general throw an ExoArmor gauntlet at my head! You’re getting off easy!”
Then there was the abuse. Not physical, but verbal. We would try to work the day’s exercise while he flayed us with words read from a stack of transcripts he kept on his tablet.
“Samantha Tien, are you a complete fucking retard? Do you understand what the fuck I’m saying, you stupid slut!?” The Chief’s face grew darker when he yelled. The veins around his eyes popped up, and his pupils shrank into needle-sharp pin-holes. “If I wanted your so-called expert fucking advice, I’d fucking rip it out of your fucking ass! Give me a plan for bombing the fuck out of these shit-suckers and then I’ll listen to your fucking advice, you miserable cunt!”
Lastly, there was the actual training: PsyOps and PsiOps warfare, social engineering, micro-expression interpretation, psycholinguistic manipulation, marketing – the dirtiest of dirty warfare became our bread and butter.
By the end of the first week, exhaustion claimed two more. The rest of us learned to lose ourselves in the moment – think about the mission, focus on the objective, and cover your team-mates. I stopped seeing rivals around me, and instead saw other survivors. We learned to support each other, cover for each other, and conspire with the best of them. Damitra Williams, who stood beside me and gaped as “Billy-Bob” Rossmount voided his bladder that first day, kept standing by me.
But we were still human inside, and vulnerable. On the second week, I had a breakdown. Damitra knew I needed room, space outside the dorms just to let go. She got me into the gym one night after lights-out. I found a quiet spot by the null-G pool. In the dark, I watched the clear sphere of water hover above the full-G pool like an errant planet. I didn’t swim. I just sat and saw the water bounce and ripple.
“Guess I’m not the only one who finds this relaxing.” I jumped to my feet. The Chief Instructor walked out of the shadows. Light, reflected and refracted through the hovering pool, danced over his dark skin like smoke. “Now, sit yourself down. I’m not here and neither are you.”
“Yes, Sir.” I sat back in one of the poolside chairs, re-shaping it so I could lean back. The Chief just stood and watched the water sphere ripple.
“You know, it’s only going to get worse from here.” He kept his eyes on the pool. “You’ve got two more days of prep, followed by intensive simulations. First person, face to face. You’ll be as close to the front lines as we can make it. And when it’s all over – you’ll have to deal with the exact same nightmare for the rest of your career.” He turned to me, almost sad. “You sure you want to go on?”
“You don’t think I can make it, Sir?”
The Chief shook his head. “It’s not a question of making it. It’s why you’re trying. Stubbornness? Insanity? Bone to pick with someone?”
“Because it means something,” I said.
I looked the Chief dead in the eyes; something I’d never do if we were on the clock. “I know this is not going to be pretty. I’ll be walking straight into Hell wearing jelly gasoline and a smile. But this means I can help one person, save one life, keep one world from turning into living nightmare, it’s worth it.”
“We’re not doing this for the money. Or the education. Or the travel.” I stood up and compacted the chair back into a cube. “We do it because we believe. Goodnight, Chief.”
“Goodnight, Ms. Tien.”
The Chief did not lie. It got worse from there on out. The simulations held nothing back. Staffed by veterans, they started in the middle of the night, with Klaxon calls and cursing and half-dressed students trying to function. We found ourselves bellowed at by a room full of trainers with over a century of combined field experience.
Three people dropped out that night. Over the next two weeks, seven more filtered away. From an original starting class of forty, only fourteen remained. I survived. Damitra survived. We became tighter than sisters through the fight. Everyone in the class did. Before the end, we exchanged personal contact information. No matter where we were deployed, we would stay close.
You don’t forget folks who stood beside you in the Inferno.
Finally, Graduation Day. We dressed in our best – clothes cleaned and pressed until the creases could slice throats. We walked onto the stage, received our diplomas, shook Chief’s hand, and sat as we listened to his final words. I still remember them. I carried those words with me with me in the days that followed, and they helped keep me sane:
“Don’t expect a long speech here. I’ve got to get this placed cleaned up for the next set of inductees. But I will say this: you entered into this course naked as babes. Since then, you have learned to arm and armor yourselves. Now, shields and swords in hand, your truest test awaits you. Out there, all this is meaningless. Out there, you are the most hated creature in all of known space. And you must own this, for it will protect you more than any training we can provide.”
“Welcome, everyone, to the Federated Systems’ Diplomatic Corps. Now, go out there and save humanity from itself. Good luck.”