Crash Course: Chapter 11

Spunkmeyer was filled with excitement the next morning when he woke up and realized this was going to be their last full day in the wilderness. As long as nothing unexpected happened, they were going to make it to Meadow in time.

They had been unable to find anything to kill for food since the fish and their water supply was running low, but neither of them cared much now that the end was so close. They could make it the rest of the way without food and water if they had to. The greatest difficulty now would be making sure that they were headed in exactly the right direction. If they were off even slightly, they could miss Meadow entirely. Feeling less hurried now that they were so close, Spunkmeyer insisted on stopping frequently to check their bearings, and Ferro didn’t protest. He could see the hope growing in her eyes as they hiked farther and farther through the forest.

By the time sunset came, they were both hungry, thirsty, and tired again, but after fifteen minutes of walking and trying to find a good campsite, Spunkmeyer looked over at Ferro. “We’ve got to be within five miles of Meadow by now. How about we say to hell with making camp tonight and just keep walking? We should be able to make it to Meadow in under two hours and then this’ll all be over.”

Ferro grinned at the thought. “We can get showers and food again. Let’s do it.”

Spunkmeyer had taped his flashlight to his M8 like Ferro had done the night they arrived in the jungle, and he turned it on as he took the lead again. Ferro did the same from behind him, and they continued walking as the orange of the setting sun faded away to blackness.

Navigating precisely was more difficult at night, and Spunkmeyer checked his compass frequently, hoping that he was making the calculations correctly. On the other hand, he knew a benefit to traveling at night was that light was visible from far away. They might actually have a better chance of spotting the base at a long distance at night with the lights on than they would during the day.

Exhaustion was nagging uncomfortably at him as they continued through the forest, but he was too excited to give up. He knew they had to be getting close. They were going to pass. And then all that’s left is getting home and passing our final exams. This’ll all be over and I’ll be on to the next part of my life.

They continued walking, and shortly after Spunkmeyer looked at his watch at around 2130, Ferro stopped. “Spunkmeyer, look!”

She pointed ahead and slightly off to their right, and Spunkmeyer saw a faint glint of light through the trees. “Meadow! Let’s go!”

The exhaustion left Spunkmeyer as they broke into a jog, their flashlights illuminating the ground ahead of them and ensuring they could see any obstacles in their way. The light in the distance grew brighter and brighter until they broke out from under the cover of the trees and saw the barbed wire, guard towers, and buildings of Point Meadow directly in front of them. Spunkmeyer was almost trembling with excitement as they approached, and then when they were a few steps out from the tree line, a spotlight in one of the guard towers was swung to point at them and a threatening voice demanded out, “Stop! Identify yourselves!”

“Privates Spunkmeyer and Ferro from the training detachment!” Spunkmeyer yelled up to the guard.

“Go around the north side to the main gate!” The guard called back down to them.

Spunkmeyer and Ferro made their way to the gate as instructed and found several Marines waiting for them.

“I’m Corporal Kerson,” one of the Marines greeted them with a smile. “Congratulations on passing the test. Let’s get you to the medbay so the medics can take a look at you. I’ll notify your instructors that you made it back and then you can get some food, a shower, and sleep.”

“Thank you,” Ferro said, and Spunkmeyer asked, “Did anyone else make it back yet?”

“Your instructors went out three days ago to pick up one of the other teams,” another Marine said as they lead Spunkmeyer and Ferro to the medbay. “One of them had a broken arm, and I guess the other wasn’t going to continue without him. Other than that, you’re the first ones here.”

“Who was it?” Spunkmeyer asked as they reached the medbay and the on-duty medic came out of his office.

“I’m PFC Millam,” the medic introduced himself kindly, cutting off Kerson’s reply. “And you are?”

“Private Spunkmeyer,” Spunkmeyer answered, and Ferro added, “Private Ferro.”

“I’m going to go let your instructors know you’re here,” Kerson said, reaching out to take their equipment packs. “They’ll come get you when Millam is done with your exams.”

“Well done passing your survival training,” Millam congratulated them when Kerson and the other Marines had left.

“Thank you,” Spunkmeyer said.

“Corporal Kerson told us one of the other training pairs got brought in early and one of them had a broken arm. Who was it?”

“Private Snyder,” Millam said as he gestured for them to each sit down on one of the beds in the main room. “He took a twenty-foot fall down an almost-vertical rock face while climbing down the mountains. He had a moderate concussion, a broken arm, and numerous abrasions and lacerations. He’s lucky the place he fell in was just a very steep slope and not actually a vertical surface. From what Private Porter said, he half-fell and half-slid down. I think that slowed him down just enough to keep the fall from killing him. He’ll make a full recovery, but he’s out of training. Now, do either of you have any injuries or concerns I need to know about?”

“Just some scrapes on my legs,” Spunkmeyer told him. “I had a fall too, on the way down the mountain we were on. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to Snyder. The scrapes don’t even hurt anymore unless I bump my legs on something.”

“Good,” Millam said approvingly as he lifted Spunkmeyer’s pant legs to take a look. “No signs of infection or any other complications, and they’re healing well. There’s nothing I need to do for them.”

“It doesn’t seem fair that Snyder’s out just for breaking his arm,” Ferro commented as Millam continued his examination of both of them. “He could still come back and pass the test after his arm heals.”

“Yes,” Millam agreed, “But you have to remember, this is supposed to be a test of how well you would do in a real survival situation. The important thing isn’t simply that Snyder was injured, it was that he was unable to prevent himself from being injured. In a real-life scenario, an injury like that could easily be a death sentence, especially for someone being pursued by hostile forces. As far as testing standards go, Snyder receiving an injury that prevented him from completing the test was as bad as if he had actually died. And there’s no kind way to say this, but,” he shrugged, “if you die, that means you failed. I’m sure you’ve both had that drilled into your heads long before now so I won’t rub it in your faces again.”

“What about Porter?” Spunkmeyer asked curiously. “They let one of our other flight members do the whole exercise on her own. Why couldn’t Porter?”

“Poor woman,” Millam sighed. “She was in… acceptable health considering the situation and there was no reason she wasn’t physically capable of finishing the test alone, but she was pretty badly shaken up. She told me while I was examining her that she thought Snyder was dead when he fell. I guess she just couldn’t take any more after seeing that, so she gave up and had them bring her back.”

“Wow,” Ferro said softly. “I would say I can’t imagine how she must have felt, but I think I have an idea after watching Spunkmeyer fall.”

“The three-week survival training isn’t just a test of what you’re physically capable of,” Millam pointed out as he finished examining them. “It tests your mental limits as well as the physical ones. And being alone in the wilderness for an extended period of time and having to scrounge and forage just to stay alive like you did takes its toll. Porter might have been able to complete the test alone if the accident had happened in the beginning. As it was, I think it was just the breaking point for her and she couldn’t force herself to continue.”

Spunkmeyer and Ferro turned as the door to the medbay opened and Evison and Larkins stepped in.

“How are you two doing?” Evison asked.

Before Spunkmeyer or Ferro could answer, Millam said, “In good health and ready to be released. Although I’d be willing to bet they’re both looking forward to a shower and a proper meal.”

“Then let’s get them out of here,” Evison said, giving them both a smile. “Thank you, Millam.”

As they left the medbay, Larkins turned to Evison. “You do your coddle-thing with these two if you want. I’ve seen for myself they’re alright, and now I’m going back to bed.”

“Fine,” Evison sighed, sounded defeated.

Spunkmeyer clenched his fists at Larkins’ cold behavior, but then she surprised him by looking at him and Ferro. “I expected to have to go out and haul your sorry asses in here within the first week. Instead, you passed. Looks like you might make it after all. Maybe.”

She turned and strode swiftly away as if not wanting to hear a reply.

“Umm,” Ferro muttered softly after Larkins had left, “Thank you? Fuck you? I’m not even sure which.”

Evison sighed again, not even reprimanding Ferro. “I’ve given up trying to understand her. And I don’t think she’s ever going to change. Come on. I’ll take you to the barracks building and show you your rooms. You can shower and I’ll go wake up one of the mess hall synthetics and have them bring food to your rooms for when you’re down showering. Tomorrow you can sleep in as late as you want and you’re free to do whatever you feel like until the others get back or until we have to go pick them up. We ship out of here tomorrow afternoon regardless.”

Once Evison had showed them to their rooms and left, Spunkmeyer took his time in the shower. He had gradually grown used to the smell of his own body odor after three weeks of being unable to wash himself, but it was a relief to be able to clean the dirt off of his skin and wash his hair until it was soft again. He turned the shower on as hot as it would go and let the water relax his muscles as he leaned tiredly against the wall.

When he was finished, he returned to his room and saw someone had already come in and left a tray of food on the bedside table. It was only oatmeal, toast, and tea, probably whatever the android down in the mess hall had been able to put together on short notice, but it still looked good.

Before sitting down to eat, Spunkmeyer went out into the hall just as Ferro was coming back from her shower. “Hey,” he whispered softly.

“How do you feel?” she asked, keeping her voice equally low as she opened the door to her room and turned on the light.

“A lot better. Hey, they brought food for you too,” he said, seeing a tray sitting on her bedside table. “Mind if I bring mine over and join you?”

“Sure,” Ferro said with a smile. Spunkmeyer grabbed the tray from his room and they sat at opposite ends of her bed, facing each other with their food between them. Spunkmeyer dumped a packet of brown sugar into his oatmeal and began to stir it while Ferro buttered her toast.

“Well, we really made it,” he said finally.

Ferro fidgeted with excitement. “At this point, I’d say we’re as good as graduated. I highly doubt there’s anything they could throw at us on the final exams that would knock us out.”

“Don’t say that too soon,” Spunkmeyer glared at her jokingly.

They ate their food together and talked for almost two more hours before they both started yawning again. Spunkmeyer said goodnight to Ferro and headed back to his own room, where it didn’t take long for him to fall asleep, feeling worn out but victorious.

Being able to relax the next morning was a strange feeling after spending three weeks hiking through the wilderness. Spunkmeyer slept in until around 0900 and then got up and took his time eating a late breakfast before going to Ferro’s room to talk with her. He was just about to knock on her door when the door to the hall swung open and Sydell came in, looking tired and defeated. She walked past him without acknowledging his presence and entered the room next to his. She slammed the door behind herself and a moment later he faintly heard the sound of her crying.

Spunkmeyer hesitated for a few seconds before deciding it wasn’t his place to intrude. He turned back to knock on Ferro’s door but was interrupted again by someone else coming into the hall, and he stopped and came to attention when he saw it was Larkins. Like Sydell, she walked past him as if he wasn’t there and rapped sharply on Sydell’s door before entering. She closed the door behind herself and Spunkmeyer heard her saying something in an annoyed tone, but he couldn’t clearly hear what.

He once again turned back to Ferro’s door just as it opened, revealing Ferro standing on the other side. She jumped slightly when she saw him. “Oh. I didn’t realize you were standing there.”

“I was trying to knock,” Spunkmeyer explained. “But Sydell just got back and then Larkins came in after her. I think Sydell was crying. I’m not sure if she made it or if she gave up and Evison and the bitch went out to pick her up.”

“I guess we’ll find out later,” Ferro said, motioning for him to come in. “It’s almost 1000. Gravis and Connington have two hours to make it back.”

They spent the next two hours talking about the survival scenario and what they thought of it. Spunkmeyer was glad when their arguments on the mountain didn’t come up. He was ready to put them behind. At 1200, Evison came down the hall and stopped in Ferro’s doorway. “Gravis and Connington are still a few miles away so Larkins and I are going to go out and pick them up. Once we get back, the medics will check them out and then we’re heading up to the Stickland and going home.”

“I saw Sydell come in earlier,” Spunkmeyer told him. “Did she make it?”

“Yeah, she did,” Evison confirmed. “Apart from you two, she’s the only one who passed.”

“Wow,” Ferro commented. “I never saw that coming.”

“I’m impressed with her,” said Evison. “Not many trainees do so well on such a difficult course single-handedly. It’s just a shame that none of the others made it. They all had potential to be effective RIFT members. Now, you two should probably start getting ready to leave. Larkins and I won’t be gone long and we want to get going as soon as we get Gravis and Connington back here and the medics clear them.”

There really wasn’t much that either Spunkmeyer or Ferro had to do to get ready. They had only been issued the equipment they would need for the test, and that had already been turned in. They decided to go out and walk the base perimeter while they waited for Evison and Larkins to return. Neither of them said much as they walked. Spunkmeyer had said everything he wanted to about the test, and now he was focused on thinking about what was ahead for them.

It was about fifteen minutes before the dropship returned and set down on the landing pad again. Spunkmeyer and Ferro were close by and saw Larkins marching Gravis and Connington down the ramp and towards the medbay. The two trainees were arguing angrily and glaring at each other until the corporal turned and snapped at them to shut up.

Evison waved to them from the dropship ramp. “Come on, you two! Let’s get you in!”

They were just strapping themselves into their seats when Sydell, Porter, and Snyder came up the ramp. It was the first time Spunkmeyer had seen Porter and Snyder since the drop, and he winced when he saw the cast on Snyder’s arm. All three looked worn out and exhausted and said nothing as they got into their own seats. A few minutes later, Larkins entered with Gravis and Connington behind her. The moment she entered the cockpit and shut the door, the two men started arguing again and blaming each other for not making it to the end by the deadline as they strapped themselves in until Sydell yelled, “Shut the fuck up! It’s over! Just leave it!”

The rest of the ride up to the Stickland was quiet, as was the prep for going into cryosleep. Spunkmeyer was much less nervous this time, and he gave Ferro a small smile as the tube hatches closed over them. The gas began to fill Spunkmeyer’s tube and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply until he felt himself falling asleep.

The final weeks of training were relatively peaceful. Spunkmeyer felt strange only having Ferro and Sydell with him during their last classes and exams. All three of them made it through the final classroom exams, and then the day came for their final flight tests. For this test, they would be flying separately with Evison and Larkins each acting as one of their copilots to observe their performance directly.

Ferro was adjusting her flight suit in the Stickland’s hangar near the dropship she’d be flying as Spunkmeyer walked up to her.

“Excited?” he asked.

“Nervous,” Ferro replied. “You?”

“Nah-well, a little, but not too much.” Spunkmeyer grinned.

Ferro smiled back. “Thanks for helping me, Spunkmeyer. I can’t express how much I appreciate all you’ve done.”

“No problem. Thanks for making me feel like I matter to somebody.”

Ferro gave him a quick hug and then turned to jog to the dropship, where Larkins was waiting for her.

Spunkmeyer turned to head to the other dropship, but then paused and turned back. “Hey, Ferro!”


Spunkmeyer gave her a thumbs up. “I believe in you. Remember that, okay?”

Evison was already in the cockpit when Spunkmeyer arrived. “Ready to go, Spunkmeyer?” he asked as Spunkmeyer took his seat.

Spunkmeyer took a moment to look out through the canopy before turning back to Evison with a grin. “Yes, sir!”

Like boot camp, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare when it came to graduation. Spunkmeyer knew he wasn’t going to experience something like high school or college graduation, but here he was, moving on to the next phase of his life. He wondered if his father was watching him, and if he had been there all along. He wondered if his father was proud.

He missed the requirements for the D-4 Pilot MOS by two percent on his final flight exams, but luckily Ferro passed with a score of ninety-six percent. She would graduate as a RIFT Lance Corporal and he would be right below her as a RIFT Private First Class with the D-4 Crew Chief MOS. After the brief ceremony, Evison called them into his office. “I’ve got good news for both of you. I sent your information out last night and got a response this morning. You’re both being assigned to RIFT 1, 9th Regiment. They’re operating out of Fort Patton in Tampa, Florida. You’ll report to either Lieutenant Commander Viano or Staff Sergeant Apone.”

“Thanks, sir,” Ferro said.

“You’ll be heading out on a regular flight to Fort Patton at 0700 tomorrow, so you two will have to be up and at ‘em long before then. I’ll start printing up all your necessary documents. Make sure all your personal belongings, medical documents, and identification are with you. I will be checking everything to make sure you don’t leave anything behind. Go get packing, but don’t forget to leave a clean uniform out for tomorrow morning.”

As they were leaving Evison’s office, Larkins came out of her own room. Spunkmeyer was fighting back the urge to make a smart remark now that there was nothing Larkins could do about it when the corporal said, “I’ve never heard of or seen two RIFT trainees who started out as poorly as you did and still managed to pass. I guess there’s more to both of you than I would have guessed.”

She turned and walked away, leaving Spunkmeyer and Ferro staring at each other. “Did she just… almost compliment us?” Ferro asked in disbelief.

Spunkmeyer sighed heavily and shrugged. “I don’t know. I think Evison was right; no one’s ever going to understand her.”

“No,” Ferro agreed. “Well, I guess we’d better start packing up.”

“Yeah,” Spunkmeyer said. “I’ll see you later.”

Spunkmeyer didn’t hesitate to pull his folded duffel bag out from one of the drawers in the bed. At least there was less to pack compared to boot camp and he could fold everything without someone yelling in his ear. Most of his more personal belongings consisted of the information Captain Jesse left about his father, a few books he picked up from stores in Jacksonville, and some gifts from Ferro, including one of his uniform caps, which she had scrawled “Grunt Runt” on. It was a little joke about how he had been the youngest in their entire training division, and he just hoped other people would assume it meant he was small.

“How’s it coming?” Evison peered in Spunkmeyer’s room. “All set?”

“Yeah. I put all my documents in this big manila folder here.” Spunkmeyer gestured to his bed. “I don’t have to take the sheets and stuff, do I?”

“No. Not unless you bought them.” Evison opened the drawers. “Clean… clean… looking good. Everything is in that one duffel bag?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. I’m gonna go check on Ferro and then I’ll see you in the morning.”

Spunkmeyer suddenly felt a dull pang in his heart. I might not see Evison ever again. He knew he was going to have to let go emotionally, despite the fact that he had become attached to Evison over the course of the last sixteen months. He really had become the closest thing Spunkmeyer would ever have to a father and it was going to hurt not seeing him for a long time. I’m an adult now. I need to move on. I’ve already told myself over and over that I can’t feel like that toward him. We can be friends, and hopefully next time I see him, that’s how I’ll be able to treat him. He could function even though he had been deprived of so many things a kid his age should already have, familial love being one of them. He looked at Evison, unsure of what to say.

Sighing, Evison said, “Alright. Come here.” He grabbed Spunkmeyer in a hug. “Listen, the vast majority of squad sergeants won’t allow this. Just keep that in mind. I’ll write to you, okay? No tears, buddy. And hey-” Evison leaned in to whisper, “I think you and Ferro are going to have a very long adventure together. Maybe, just a maybe, you might become a bit more than friends.” He winked and let go of Spunkmeyer. “Okay, you’ve got to let go. I can’t stay here all night.”

Spunkmeyer remained standing in the doorway, watching as Evison went in to check on Ferro. When the corporal left, Ferro came out and he moved aside to let her into his room. Giving Evison a last look as he walked away, Spunkmeyer closed the door and sighed.

Ferro squeezed his shoulder. “Everything’ll be okay. You’ll see him again. Think about it; we’re going to Florida. It’s going to be warm and sunny and vibrant.”

“New York is vibrant. It’s not always warm or sunny, but it’s vibrant.”

Ferro grinned. “You’ll have to take me someday.”

“I will. I most certainly will. I’ll take you to all the little spots I used to hang out around. There’s a diner on the East River that serves the best pizza outside of a pizzeria. They’ve got Reuben sandwiches and fried chicken sandwiches and a spectacular ice cream bar. It’s got the best view of the river, and if you go at the right time you can watch all of Brooklyn light up and the sunset is absolutely beautiful. They’ve got live music on Thursday nights, and the staff are real friendly and they just love to brag about how many people have fallen in love at this place. I would’ve taken a job there if the Marines didn’t work out for me.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Listen, I’m a local. I know there’s a lot more than the tourist stuff, but, hey, if you wanna go to the Statue of Liberty or Broadway or something like that, I’ll gladly show you the way. Don’t hesitate to ask. Also, don’t forget to return the favor and take me to Michigan someday.”

“I think I will.”

Spunkmeyer let out a sigh. “We are so close. We actually are close.”

“Yeah.” Ferro sighed as well. “Tomorrow at this time, we’ll be meeting our new unit.”

“I just hope they don’t look at us funny.”

“We’re their pilots now. We’ll get respect.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Spunkmeyer stared out the window, letting his thoughts wander. Then he remembered the gift that he had been keeping for her. “Oh, I got something for you. Been holding onto it for a few months now.” He pulled out the pair of aviator sunglasses from their hiding place under the bed and quickly wiped them off with his shirt.

Ferro’s eyes widened. “You stole Larkins’ sunglasses?!” she hissed in disbelief.

“Yep. Remember that day they went missing during training? I took them when no one was looking. I thought it was kind of payback, and I thought…” Spunkmeyer hesitated before finishing, “I thought they’d look cute on you.”

Ferro blushed. “So Larkins was right all along. Somebody did steal her sunglasses. I can’t believe it was you.”

“It sure was.” Spunkmeyer handed her the aviators. “They’re yours now. I didn’t want to give them to you before because I was afraid she’d find them in your room during inspection or something.”

He watched Ferro put the sunglasses on, and he realized they were every bit as cute on her as he had thought they would be.

“Are you okay?” Ferro gave him a concerned look, taking off the sunglasses and putting them in her pocket.

“Just… I guess it’s all finally hitting me that everything’s about to change for both of us. I’m looking forward to it, but it’s still…”

“Going to be a big adjustment?” She finished.

“Yeah, that.”

Ferro hugged him tightly, and he put his arms around her in return as she promised, “We’ll adjust to it together. I have a feeling things are going to get better for both of us from here on.”

Spunkmeyer wanted to answer but he didn’t know what to say, so he just held onto her tightly, not wanting to let go.

Chapter 10………………………………………………………………………………………..Chapter 12

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