They began with twenty-five. Only a quarter of what they started with in Basic.
Eve did a quick count as she stepped onto the loading ramp of the shuttle that would take her to Ranger School. A surly looking deck chief with PO2 markings scowled at her as she scanned her GIC. Even when his machine gave an affirmative beep he didn’t look impressed. Eve spotted an open seat on the far side of the shuttle near the cockpit hatch and went to take it. The other Ranger candidates didn’t give her much of a second glance. They were all occupied with their own thoughts.
Eve sat down, strapped in per regulation, and calmly assessed the situation. <You’re about to enter hell, so be ready for it.>
She’d done as much reading on Ranger School as she could between hump sessions with Coop. In a way, she envied him. He was going off to his own difficult schooling and he didn’t have a care in the world. Coop lived fully in the moment, and at that moment all he’d been concerned about was what was between her legs.
Eve didn’t work like that. Sure, she could appreciate a good fuck, but her mind was constantly going. Ranger School was always at the back of it, and no matter how good Coop made her feel it was always there waiting for her.
Stepping out of the spaceport’s main concourse and into the section devoted to the special operations community was something she’d prepared for. The two guards in Dragonscale armor at the section’s entrance gave her a pat down, then a full body scan, and then checked her GIC. They didn’t want people in here that weren’t allowed.
And she immediately saw why.
Eve had flown between worlds with her parents. She’d been instructed in the warship classes of the Commonwealth Fleet since she could read. She knew everything there was to know about space travel and the navy. But when she stepped into that hanger bay she didn’t recognize the ship that was there.
<It’s smaller than a gunboat.> She didn’t stare too much. The ground crew was already eyeing her suspiciously. <But it isn’t boxy or bulbous like a cargo shuttle. It’s too big to be a Spyder, and a Spyder couldn’t make a jump out of the system.> She was mentally scratching her head as she rounded the corner and met that surly crew chief.
Now that she was sitting and strapped in, she still didn’t have a clue what the hell she was sitting in.
The ship was about fifty meters long, which was half the size of a gunboat, but it still had the dagger-like dimensions that were common in Commonwealth ships. The engines in the back were a little on the large side, but that was understandable for a small ship that had FTL capability. The hull was also interesting. It didn’t have the noticeable nanite coating that was a ship’s first defensive measure. The hull of this vessel was slick, like glass, and it looked incredibly fragile.
“It’s a Sloop.” A man huffed as he half sat, half collapsed into the seat next to her.
“Excuse me…Sergeant.” Eve quickly noticed the three chevrons on the man’s CMUs.
“The ship, it’s a Sloop. The SpecOps community has a few dozen of them roaming around the galaxy. They always show up with one of these to take the fresh meat to Styx.”
Eve had so many questions, but she didn’t blabber like an idiot. Blabbering made you look like a moron, and they didn’t let morons be leaders in the Commonwealth military. So instead she opted for a different approach.
“You seem to know a lot about this ship and our destination.”
“I should, this is my second trip to Ranger School.” The soldier closed his eyes and started taking deep breaths.
“Second. They let you come back?” Eve hadn’t heard of any cases of a person failing and being given a second chance.
“It was medical.” He answered the question for her. “Lost my left leg below the knee to a fucking landmine. I dived instead of dodged.” He cracked open an eye and grinned at her. “So are you here to be all that you can be PFC Berg.” He squinted momentarily at her name, but that was it.
<Last thing I want is for anyone to draw the connection from me to my mother.> She thought.
“I’m here to be the best, Sergeant Diggle.” She read the name tag on his CMUs.
“Well you’re in the right place.” He nodded and closed his eyes again. “You eat this morning?” That question came out of nowhere.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“Huh, too bad.” He half-laughed as the power in the seating area came on.
Eve felt the ship come to life. It was a soft purr compared to the loud rumble of most ships, which confirmed to her that this ship probably had more secrets to hide.
Another quick look around showed that the compartment was full.
<Twenty men and five women.> She quickly calculated.
The sloop looked capable of carrying three squads in full battle-rattle, so there were a few seats unoccupied. One such seat was on the opposite side of Eve from the deeply breathing sergeant.
Eve took special note of the ranks in the compartment to see where she fell in the pecking order. <At the bottom.> She quickly realized.
There were a couple other PFCs in the group, but all of them would have time in grade on their hands, and maybe even combat experience. She’d gotten her rocker for being the best in basic, these guys had earned it the old-fashioned way. The majority of the people had the two chevrons of a corporal, and they all had a grim look on their face.
<I got my briefing from a Gunney who doesn’t like to bullshit. I can’t imagine what these guys heard from their unit’s NCOs, especially if they were assholes?> The rumor mill in the military could be just as lethal as a bullet, and depending on who you heard something from a standard detail could sound like hell on earth. <The only way to know for sure is to just do it.> And that’s exactly what Eve was doing.
There were only two NCOs present, and one was SGT Diggle.
A final passenger stepped on board and walked to the center of the space. The door hissed and sealed shut behind him. Eve gulped at the rank insignia on his shoulder: three chevrons, three rockers, and a star in the center of them. On top of that intimidating fact, he had a Ranger tab just above his rank insignia.
“My name is Sergeant Major Queen.” The man’s gravelly voice sounded like he’d breathed vacuum at some point and they’d messed up the corrective surgery. “If you make it to our destination I will be one of your instructors.”
<If I make it?> Eve wondered, as the Sergeant Major popped a squat in the empty seat next to her and buckled in.
Eve didn’t even look at him. She kept her eyes on the opposite bulkhead, but she didn’t miss the pitty-looks the other candidates were shooting her way.
“PFC Berg,” the senior NCO huffed. “Any relation to a particular woman who goes by the first name Sonya?”
<Shit.> Eve wanted to automatically deny it, but that would be like lying to God.
“Yes, Sergeant Major.” She kept her voice low.
“Hmm.” The man scratched his recently shaven chin. “I knew a Richard Berg once. Good man, good leader, died a good death.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.” Her voice caught a little bit at the memory of her father.
“I’ll make you into a Ranger, PFC Berg. Just don’t crap out on me today.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.” She had a feeling she’d be saying those three words a lot.
With their brief conversation completed, the SGM unstrapped and went through the hatch to the pilot’s compartment, or least that’s what she assumed was through that hatch. She’d never find out.
It was about the time that the SGM left that she realized they were already in the air. The sloop was so smooth she didn’t even feel it take off or blast its way through Earth’s dirty atmosphere. The transition into space was no different, and with no windows or access to the ship’s cameras she’d never have known if not for the pilot.
“Attention all candidates, this is the skipper speaking.”
<I guess a sloop rates high enough to have a ship’s captain instead of a pilot.> She was learning lots of new things today.
“Please pay attention to the safety gear stowed to your left. Conduct an inventory and diagnostic of that equipment now.”
It was a basic task, but Eve made sure she did it to standard even if it did take her twenty seconds longer than the rest of the candidates. <If they’re having us test this equipment then there is a reason.> She’d been around the military long enough to know that things done on an individual or unit level usually had a purpose. It was the bigger stuff that was usually bullshit.
She acknowledged her equipment’s readiness through the subdermal PAD on her forearm that was projecting the imagery through her CMUs.
“Prepare for FTL jump.” The skipper’s voice came back immediately. “Be aware, the compensators in your compartment are only operating at ninety-seven percent efficiency. Normally, we would stop and make repairs, but we’re on a tight schedule today.”
Eve could hear the grin in the skipper’s voice.
“Since you are a bunch of high-speed, low-drag individuals we’re going to press on. If at any time the pain becomes unbearable, please let us know and the Sergeant Major will come and get you.” The last bit sounded innocent enough, which meant it was a trap.
<Oh shit.> Now it all made sense.
SGT Diggle’s question about whether she’d eaten, the SGM’s motivational statement to not crap out on her. Ranger School didn’t start when they landed on Styx. It started now.
“FTL jump in five…four…three…”
Eve tried to take a few deep breaths and settle her already revolting stomach, but she didn’t have enough time.
Eve had always heard that traveling at FTL speeds with a bad Alcubierre Drive, or out of synch compensators was a living hell. But now she knew it for sure. The moment they jumped into FTL travel it felt like the universe was using her bones as a tuning fork. Every millimeter of her vibrated painfully as the sloop launched itself through the valleys of the stars on route to its destination.
She lasted about twenty seconds before she lost her breakfast. Good thing the gravity still worked or blobs of food would have floated through the compartment and all over the other candidates. Puking on someone right off the bat was no way to make new friends.
Her food splattered on the floor around her. She gritted her teeth to try and make it stop, but that only make the pain worse. It felt like someone drove a lightning bolt through her skull until she loosened her jaw.
<How long do we have to do this?> She wanted to ask SGT Diggle, but the man’s face was scrunched up in pain, and he didn’t look like he wanted to talk.
Eve lost all sense of time while she rode out the pain. It didn’t get any worse, but it didn’t have to. It already sucked donkey dick. Twice she saw the SGM venture back into the compartment, looking like nothing in the world bothered him.
<He has to have more enhancements.> Eve told herself, because there was no way someone could walk under this constant pain. Even her recent upgrades didn’t help her at all.
The pain had her second-guessing her chosen life-path. Regular infantry wouldn’t be that bad, or even Heavy Infantry. If she let the SGM know that she’d had enough then they’d probably ship her back to Mars and she could be in the same school with Coop again.
Then it hit her. <That’s what my mother wants to do. Fucking bitch. Best case scenario she gets me out of the infantry all together and back into the navy. One phone call and I’ll be into one of the academies. Her worst case is me being a Ranger, better trained, and better armed than ninety-nine percent of the soldiers in the galaxy.> As much as Eve hated her mother in this moment, she had to concede the woman was brilliant.
Then everything gave a sudden jolt and the pain stopped.
“HULL BREACH!” Red warning lights started to blare as Eve felt the oxygen being stripped from the room.
She remembered where the safety gear was and reacted on instinct. She grabbed the helmet and rammed it onto her head. It sealed and she felt the life-giving oxygen start to flow. Her smartcloth uniform reacted as well, slithering up to form a neck gator, and down to cover her hands and protect her skin. It was still freezing, but she wouldn’t lose any fingers.
One of the candidates wasn’t fast enough. Eve didn’t even see what happened, but one of the other women didn’t meet whatever standard this test set. She did give a scream as an armorplast bubble sealed her off from the rest of the compartment. Air must have pumped back into that section because the woman screamed her frustration and wiped away a few tears before crossing her arms and talking animatedly to herself.
“It seems like we’ve sprung a leak.” The skipper’s voice came back over the intercom. Eve got the mental imagery of the man sitting by a roaring fire and sipping coffee with the SGM and the ship’s crew while they laughed at the poor Ranger candidates in the back. “I’m going to need someone to go outside and patch that hole. Any volunteers?”
Seniority is a pain in the ass, and as such Eve and another PFC ended up suiting up in the safety gear they’d just inventoried and doing a short space walk onto the hull. There wasn’t an actual hull breech. The skipper wasn’t going to put a hole in his ship just for training purposes, but Eve and the other PFC had to close things up, and re-pressurize the compartment before getting back into the ship.
They didn’t get any thanks for their work. Just a “sit your ass back down” from the SGM, and the return of the bone-rattling pain as they jumped back into FTL.
They started with twenty-five and ended the trip with twenty-two.
<And we haven’t even formally started yet.> Only the motivational words from the SGM, and the need to shove her success in her mother’s face got her through the journey to the planet Styx.
Eve resolved to embrace the suck, because there was no question that the next few months of her life were going to be a fuck-fest, and not in a good way.