“Sir, we’re beginning our descent,” Afu’s hand gently prodded Gus’ shoulder, “and happy birthday.”
Gus groaned as he brought his seat to its upright and locked position. It felt like only a second had passed since he closed his eyes, but his watch told him it was closer to six hours. He still felt like crap as he stared out the small oval window into the black. They were still several thousand meters up, but clusters of lights glittered below as they broke through the clouds and the Kingdom of Atlantis came into view.
The Kingdom was actually a grouping of six islands. The center island, Creta, was the largest of the six. It was about twenty-five percent larger than the main British Isle that contained England, Scotland, Wales; and housed the bulk of the Atlantean population. At the center of the Creta, along a mountain range that spanned the center of the island, was the dormant volcano, the Creator’s Hand. Legend had it that was where the first Atlanteans were brought into existence. More personal to Gus, his family claimed to be descended from that first Atlantean, and had ruled over Creta since before Plato came to their shores.
To the east of Creta, in the direction of the USA, were three smaller islands: Tynti, Imi, and Cetho. Between Creta and these islands was a small sea known as the Shallows, which collectively lent its name to the three islands: the Shallow Sisters. The shallows stretched the short distance between Creta and the Shallow Sisters. It was known as the shallows because it was twenty and a half meters at its deepest points. In most points, it was only a few meters deep, which made it one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Its crystal blue waters, and abundant sea life, made it ideal for snorkelers. There were also a number of ancient Atlantean and enemy ship wrecks for scuba divers to explore.
The Shallows was also home to the remains of the Atlantean and USA’s first encounter. On the way back from opening Japan to the West in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry and his four-ship East Indian Squadron enter the Shallows in order to open negotiations with Gus’s great-great grandfather Atlas the Second. Unlike the rest of the world, where Atlantis had been largely forgotten or resigned to legend, Atlas kept track of what the other nations were up to. He had Atlantean intelligence services gathering information on every major nation on the planet, so he knew about the USA’s ongoing wars against its indigenous peoples, and their acceptance of slavery. That, coupled with Atlas being a staunch isolationist and traditionalist, meant he immediately rejected Perry’s offers. Perry decided to use the same playbook from Japan: gunboat diplomacy. That ended with his ships failing to getting off a shot before they were sunk. It didn’t help that Perry had cannons while Atlas had missiles.
To this day, the skeletons of the USS Mississippi, Saratoga, Plymouth, and Susquehanna rested about two hundred meters off the coast of Creta. Ironically, hundreds of thousands of American tourists came every year to tour the wrecks and give their hard-earned dollars to the Atlantean economy. That was essential what the majority of Creta’s east coast was dedicated to: tourism. Along with the western coasts of the Shallow Sisters, it made up one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
While the eastern islands of the kingdom held enough foreign influence to make Atlas the Second role over in his grave, the western half was much more traditional. Historians and geologists believed the Shallow Sisters and Creta had once been one large island. Over time, a large lake, or inland sea, combined with the Pacific Ocean to create the Shallows. The was not the case with the two western islands. The distinction also reached into Atlantean society and politics.
Separating Creta from the two western islands was fifty kilometers and a section of ocean known simply as the Deep. Where the Shallows came up to people’s chest in most places, the Deep saw a precipitous drop less than twenty meters from Creta’s shoreline. The Deep topped out at five hundred meters. You could not casually walk or swim from Creta to the western islands. One, Yinglong, was nearly a third the size of Creta, while the other was the smallest of them all.
The capitol of Atlantis, Atland, sat on Creta’s western coast to keep watch over Yinglong. It was the home island of House Drake’s chief political rivals, and longtime foes, House Yinglong. There was a saying in Atlantis that someone could have an “ego the size of a Yinglong”. Gus had used it many times, sometimes to a member of House Yinglong’s face. After all, what did they expect would happen when they named an island the size of Iceland after themselves?
Gus watched the lights on Creta glow brighter as the plane descended toward the capitol. As the first towers of the city’s center came into view, Gus’s gut seemed to drop into his feet. It was really happening. His father hadn’t called it off. He was going off to report to boot in a few hours, and his life would change forever. His official duties as crown prince began when the clock struck midnight, and he’d slept right through his transition from boy to man.
“Hey, Afu, I never thanked you for having my back in there. Things could have been a lot worse without you around.” A real man took accountability for his actions and gave credit to others when it was due. It was also a good quality to have in a king.
Afu just nodded. His expressions said “I was just doing my job”, which was true, but Afu had always been more than that. Afu had been present at Gus’s birth, watched him as a baby, and made sure he didn’t hit his head on any sharp corners as a toddler. Afu was sworn to his mother and Gus, but it went deeper than that. Afu was distantly related to his mother’s family, which made him some sort of uncle to Gus. It was a relation Afu never mentioned, and one Gus had pretty much ignored, but at a moment when everything was changing and unknown, it was comforting to have family standing by his side.
“For at least another ten minutes.” The runway of Creta’s international airport rushed up to meet him. His father’s threat meant Gus would stop being the crown prince very shortly; in exchange for being simple Recruit Drake.
That’s how it was at boot. Everyone was the same no matter their lofty titles, family wealth, or connections. Even future kings were just another body and mind to be molded to defend the kingdom. Sure enough, as the plane touched down, and taxied toward the royal hangar, a convoy of open-air vehicles was waiting for him. The four-seater at the front, which looked similar to the American-made Jeep, had a driver and two men in the khaki tactical outfit of the Atlantean royal marines.
Gus’s practiced eyes scanned them. He’d memorized the marine ranks, duties, responsibilities, and unit structure before his third birthday. One of the men waiting for him wore a golden crown on his shoulder epaulets. “Major. Normally a rank that holds a staff position at brigade level, or operates as the executive officer at the battalion level.” He recalled the information as he moved to the next man.
This man had a lot more going on. He had three chevrons, that looked like inverted V’s, followed by three rockers, that looked like U’s, below them. Between them was a golden crown with a laurel wreath. “Command Sergeant Major. The highest non-commissioned officer rank, and could be the non-commissioned officer in charge of anything from a battalion to the entire Atlantean military.” Gus knew it wasn’t the latter, because he’d had dinner with Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Stonewall before he left on his now-failed diplomatic tour. Still, whoever the man was, he was important to Gus’s immediate future.
Gus waited for the plane to come to a complete stop in the hangar before opening the door himself. They didn’t have any baggage, so Afu followed him down the steps and over toward the waiting men.
“Gentleman,” Gus stated politely as he stopped in front of them.
“You will stand at the position of attention and salute an officer, recruit!” the CSM snapped.
“CSM Ridgeway,” Gus committed the NCO’s name to memory, not necessarily to enact revenge at a later date, but to remember to tell his father if the man was any good at his job. “Ridgeway…?” he tried to remember if that was a name of a particular House of importance. Unfortunately, Gus had been more interested at playing soldier than politician when growing up. While his grasp of the military was ironclad, his education of the politician intricacies of the Clans and their Houses was lacking. Now, he only had himself to blame.
He thought it might be a minor house from one of the Shallow Sister, and tried to remember more, as he snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute to the Major (MAJ). An Atlantean salute was the right-hand perfect straight – in what the militarily referred to as a knife hand – then inverted and flipped so the palm was out, with the index finger gingerly touching the corner of the right eyebrow. Like all salutes around the world, it was meant to show respect, and was grown out of the custom of showing someone you were unarmed.
The MAJ returned the salute. “I am Major Yfila, S3 of the ATB, and you, Recruit Drake, are a pain in my ass.”
Gus kept his face composed as he decoded the sentence. The military had a certain way of talking that civilians didn’t understand, and a lot of it had to do with acronyms and abbreviations. S3 was the staff position in charge of operations. ATB was the acronym for the Atlantean Training Brigade, which was the unit assigned to conduct boot for the universal service obligation of all Atlantean citizens.
“Yfila.” Gus did know that name. It was the ruling house of Epevi Island, which was the smallest western island of Atlantis. Being the ruling house of a little island didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but House Yfila had always been loyal to the Drake’s, despite their proximity to the Yinglong’s, and being from the west in general. Gus owed this man respect aside from his rank.
“My apologies, sir.” Gus replied.
“Don’t apologize, just get in the damn truck, recruit!” the frequent emphasis on recruit by the CSM made it clear that boot had already started, so Gus hurried into the front passenger seat of the vehicle. “That’s the major’s seat, dumbass! Drop!”
Anyone who’d seen a movie about any military’s boot camp knew what drop meant. Gus assumed the push-up position and waited for orders to begin. He was never given the order, so he held the position. He could do hundreds of these things without breaking a sweat, so just sitting there wasn’t taxing.
The MAJ ignored him and went to talk to Afu about something. While the CSM bent down and got in Gus’s face. “I’m really going to enjoy this,” the man smiled. “Not every day you get to mold a king.”
Gus didn’t reply, he just looked straight ahead.
“Recover,” the CSM ordered as the MAJ returned. Gus hopped to his feet and got in the back seat.
When he looked around, Afu was gone. The MAJ hopped in the front while the CSM joined Gus. They didn’t say a word to him as the driver gunned it and the convoy departed the airport.
Twenty white government buses rounded the corner just as the first rays of sunlight crept over the tree line. It was already thirty-three degrees Celsius, ninety-two Fahrenheit, with ninety percent humidity, and was predicted to get hotter. That was one of the many reasons Gus didn’t want to be part of Class 01-84: the first round of boot to take place after high school graduation. Aside from having to wait another eight weeks to enjoy any semblance of freedom, it was also hotter than hell this time of year. Two things no sane teenager would want to deal with.
The ATB was one of several components of the Atlantean military stationed at Royal Joint Base Central. The name lacked creativity, but it was spot on. It was the most centrally located of the Atlantean military bases, far from the cool ocean breezes, and in the eastern shadow of the Creator’s Hand and the mountain range that split the island in half. To everyone who’d been through boot, they just called it Camp Sweat because that’s all you did there.
As the buses pulled closer, Gus fought the urge to wipe away the beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Soon, the salty liquid would run down his face and into his eyes, causing an irritating situation. He’d be expected to suck it up because he was standing at the position of attention, and when at the position of attention, you didn’t move.
The buses pulled past him, only a meter away, until they were all in position. One stopped directly in front of Gus. He didn’t look up, but he knew other eighteen-year-olds were look out the window and thinking: “what the hell is up with this guy”?
The buses shocks hissed as air was released, and the squeaking of unoiled doors swinging open was quickly replaced by angry roars. “Get off my bus! … Find a pair of footprints and stand on them! … Are you waiting for an engraved invitation! … Holy shit my mother moves faster than you lot, God rest her soul! … Can you not count? … Are you retarded? … I’m serious! Answer the damn question! …”
The buses were in-between Gus and the recruits being dressed down for the first time in their lives. Despite the plethora of well-rehearsed insults being slung, Gus kept his face neutral. He was confident someone was watching him.
“Motherfucker, you think you’re so special,” one particularly loud drill sergeant was digging into someone without mercy. “I don’t care what bastard blew his load and disrupted your momma’s menstrual cycle. They allowed you to fester for the last eighteen years into whatever worthless, pathetic thing you are.” The recruit got mouthy in return, and the audible smack of flesh hitting flesh resounded through the morning air. Everything seemed to go silent for a moment, and then, “That’s what I thought,” the drill sergeant’s growl permeated the haze. “Now get your ass in line and shut up. No one gives a shit who you are.”
Gus felt sorry for whoever was the first victim of the military staff’s corporal punishment, but who you were didn’t matter during boot. His father had drilled that into Gus since he was old enough to comprehend what boot was, and it had been reinforced by the CSM and MAJ at the airport.
“Well…” there was one thing that went against that conventional wisdom, and that was him, standing alone, on a single set of neon-yellow footprints at the front and center of the giant recruit formation.
Once the shouting faded away, the buses started up again and rolled away. Gus counted them as they went. When he reached fifteen, he felt a presence next to him, but he didn’t stop staring straight ahead. As the last bus vanished, he was suddenly face-to-face with some very anxious teenagers, who all seemed to be looking directly at him.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen,” a powerful voice announced from the presence beside him. “My name is Colonel Johnson and I am the commander of this training brigade.” Gus felt the colonel’s (COL) eyes pass over him as he surveyed the new recruits. “Today and tomorrow are the only days you will see me during your training iteration unless you have severely fucked up,” the words came out without a hint of humor. “But rest assured, I am watching you and evaluating you as you move through this constitutionally mandated time in your young lives. With that in mind, I will now introduce your classes commanding officer and class leader, Captain Livingston, and Class Leader Drake.” The respectful silence that had endured through the COL’s speech shattered at the mention of Gus’s name.
The drill sergeants sprang into action, getting right up in recruits’ faces, and smacking a few upside the head who weren’t quick enough to shut their yappers. Gus got a front row view of a man with sergeant (SGT) chevrons practically bowling over a young woman who continued to try and stammer responses to clearly rhetorical questions.
“Shut your cockcobbler, Recruit! If I wanted to hear shit I would have farted!” Gus almost laughed at that one. If all eyes hadn’t been on him before, they were now.
“Zip your lips!” A new, much more pleasant voice announced, and the drill sergeants’ screams ended abruptly.
The click of heels sounded ominously against the asphalt as a tall, dark woman walked through the ranks toward Gus. Technically, an officer moving from the rear of the formation was supposed to go around it, but since the recruit formation went way past Gus’s peripherals, it was probably a necessary time saver for the captain (CPT).
She did a smart about-face and looked over the recruits with a steely gaze. “I am Captain Livingston, your commanding officer, and this is Class Leader Drake, the recruit in charge of your class. Together, we will get through the next eight weeks of basic indoctrination to the royal armed forces of our Kingdom. For those of you who have your eyes set on the royal marines, or royal navy in particular, that does not matter at this junction. Everyone will receive the same training curriculum over the duration of training.” Her voices easily carrier to every ear in the class. “Today is an orientation and introduction to basic military customs and courtesies. You will be expected to learn them on the first iteration and execute them moving forward. If you fail in this basic task, you will be recycled to the next training class, which does not begin until next week. You will not be allowed to go home during the interim. I will find things for you to do, and there is never a shortage of tasks to complete on this base,” she said it conversationally, but Gus knew the tasks would be shittiest of the shit jobs.
“We will begin with a seminar on ranks and responsibilities, followed by drill and ceremony, and ending with grooming standards. Tomorrow we’ll begin with the oath of loyalty for half-blood recruits, and continue from there according to the training schedule. Your drill sergeants will march you over and get you seated in the hangar. You will all be issued one water bottle upon entering the building. Make sure to drink it. Hydration is important out here. It gets hot.” That was an understatement.
The term half-blood might have sounded discriminatory, but it was the legal terminology for some of the recruits in the formation. There were more common terms like norm, more derogatory terms like dirt, and much nastier terms that Gus wouldn’t say out loud. But the essence of the issue was that just because you were born on one of the six islands of Atlantis didn’t automatically make you special in the eyes of the Creator. The Creator had molded his people into being already. Atlanteans had begun to interbreed with other non-indigenous groups as the Kingdom slowly opened up to immigration and re-integrating with the rest of the world. As that happened, the Creator’s touch diminished. As generations became further removed from the Creator’s original design, they lost what made them special in his eyes. As such, those who didn’t rise to the level of uniqueness were required to take a loyalty oath when they arrived at boot. They were also forbidden to travel the world until after training in order to protect the technological advancements of the Kingdom, and the truth about what made some of its population truly special. The oath was much more than words, and would bind the people taking it. Gus didn’t know how it was done. He just knew it worked. Despite calls to change the law, Gus’s father, and Gus himself, saw the necessity of such tactics, so the oath remained in place. It was the King’s call to make and no one else’s.
“You will address the drill sergeants as drill sergeant, not drill sergeant sir, or sir drill sergeant sir, simply drill sergeant. Do you understand?” A haphazard chorus of “yes, ma’ams,” resounded from the recruits. Gus expected her to go off on them, but she didn’t. That wasn’t her job.
“If I call your name, fall out and fall in on the class leader,” the CPT proceeded to read off twenty names. Gus recognized about a third of the surnames as other influential Houses from his political classes back at the palace. Most were completely unknown to him.
As the drill sergeants instructed the rest of the recruits on the finer points of the right-face and forward march, the twenty recruits rushed to form up in front of Gus. To his surprise, several bent the knee to him.
“My liege,” they echoed in unison.
“On your feet, recruits!” the CPT’s composure cracked and frustration warred on her face. The kneeling men and women jumped back to their feet and to attention. “You twenty are the platoon leaders for Class 01-84. For those of you that can count,” a tinge of frustration remained in the officer’s tone, “each platoon is composed of fifty recruits.” She turned to Gus. “Congratulations, Class Leader Drake, you are now in command of an over-strength battalion. You’re going to need this.”
Gus accepted a thin, silver piece of metal about twenty centimeters long. He instantly recognized it as a holographic communications device, more commonly referred to as a holocom. Holocom’s were the most common form of communications equipment owned by his people. Nearly everyone had one, and they served multiple purposes. They were communications equipment, so they could send and receive calls and written messages. They also were popular for wirelessly streaming entertainment from a variety of services. They also had a surprising amount of computing power for something their size, so they were frequently used for business purposes, file storage, and virtually anything else that a tech savvy Atlantean could think of.
Generally, people preferred to own more discrete versions of the product. It was common to have them built into earrings, watches, bracelets, or necklaces. To ensure privacy, so a person didn’t have to project a holographic representation of their caller into thin air in the middle of a crowded street, they were often paired with glasses, photoreactive contact lenses, or in the case of the uber rich and famous, the burgeoning nanotech industry. They had developed a surgery to implant the tiny robots in the brain. They were impossible to feel and projected the calls right into your eyes and ears. Gus could attest to their usefulness; he had the procedure done as his sixteenth birthday present.
Afterward, his grades in school had dropped because of the constant distraction of his classmates messaging him. A subtle threat from his mother, and not so subtle one from his father, involving his eyes being plucked out, prompted him to delve into the settings and features so it didn’t disrupt his daily life.
As Gus accepted the metal rod, he realized how much he’d missed the tech. His nanites had been deactivated for his diplomatic tour due to their technological level, and they hadn’t been turned back on when he got home. “I’m sure father saw to that.” At least he had some way to communicate now.
The CPT must have seen him smile, because the smile that crossed her face was particularly predatory. “This model does not receive anything incoming or outgoing that is not connected to our Secure Military Network (SECNET). This is a tool for all of you to use to retain command and control of your units,” she pulled out twenty smaller models and handed them to the platoon leaders. “Captain Gemma Livingston granting level three read-write access to the following recruits.” She stated loud and clear.
Gus felt a slight buzz as the holocom came out of standby mode. He felt a slight burn as the machine took his fingerprints, a red light leapt from the tip and scanned his iris, and then a toneless male voice asked, “Please state your last name, first name, and rank.”
“Drake, Augustus, Recruit,” Gus obeyed. He hoped the startup sequence would reboot his nanites, but there was no such luck. A holographic screen appeared about the size of a standard legal pad. Code passed across it for a few seconds and then a spreadsheet appeared. Gus’ eyes bulged as tab after tab populated on the bottom.
“As Class Leader, you are responsible for all aspects of your class,” the CPT informed as the other platoon leaders accessed their holocoms. “All these devices are linked, so updates can be made by any and seen by all. It encourages delegation.”
Gus knew the last bit was meant for him. No person could handle everything by themselves, that was why company commanders had executive officer to share the load. Battalions and above had six staff positions, usually with a handful of people in each section working to make each of those functions happen.
“Make no mistake,” the CPT continued, her eyes turning hard as they surveyed the class leadership. “You were assigned these positions because of who you are, but if you fuck up, you will not keep them. The King does not tolerate mediocrity in his military, and I am not going to waste His Majesty’s time if someone can do the job better. Am I understood?”
“Yes, ma’am!” they all yelled.
“Good. You all have ten minutes to get acquainted and then you are expected in the hangar for orientation. Class leader on me.” The CPT turned on her heel and Gus followed her a few meters away. “As the Class Leader you are here to set the tone. Neither you or the platoon leaders will be given any leeway or special privileges. You must complete your training tasks to standard along with everyone else in addition to your leadership duties.” As she spoke, the happiness Gus felt at receiving the holocom vanished. “We know all about the extra training you and other clan recruits receive. You’ve learned our organizational structure. You’ve marched and done drill and ceremony since you could walk. You’ve learned basic tactics and strategy, and you’ve been taught leadership principles. We do not expect you to simply skate by and meet the standards for graduation. We expect the future officer corps, and the future King to exceed all expectations,” she’d been talking low to avoid the rest of the platoon leaders hearing the conversation, but she took a step closed, and practically whispered the last bit in his ear. “The drill sergeants and I aren’t going to get in your face, smack you around, and generally make your life a living hell, Prince Drake,” his title was a not used respectfully. “Your fellow recruits are going to do all of that for me.” The smile she gave him was not comforting as she took a step back and looked at her own personal holocam. “Nine minutes seventeen seconds!” she called out and walked away.
Gus just stood there for a second to get his bearings. He knew boot was supposed to be tough, but he was confident he knew everything well enough, and was in good enough shape, to exceed all expectations. Now, not only did he need to do that, but he needed to lead one thousand teenagers on top of it. Suddenly, the next eight weeks got a lot more daunting.
He shook it off before the doubt could creep in. He was down to less than nine minutes, and he needed to get to know his platoon leaders. If things had gone as planned, and he hadn’t been hauled back from LA, the platoon leaders would be people he’d known for most of his life. Those were the positions the important Houses were vying to get their children into. The opportunity to work with the next king at such and early stage, and build the relationships that the struggles of boot forged, was priceless for their children and the future esteem of their Houses.
Instead, Gus only recognized a handful of the people now under his command from his time in high school. Three he knew in passing: one was a close friend he’d known practically since birth, one was his worst enemy, and one was neither friend nor foe, but a constant pain in his ass. The rest he’d be meeting for the very first time.
“Leaders need to be flexible. They need to think outside the box, adapt, and overcome challenges,” he remembered the various leadership lectures he’d been exposed to. The ones the CPT seemed to know all about. “Let’s do this.” He fixed a smile on his face and walked back to make proper introductions.